The bestselling horror author discusses Survivor Song
If you’ve read any of those recommendation lists for upcoming genre books you “have to read” over the last several years, say from The New York Times, or Entertainment Weekly, you’re likely to have run across one of the recent novels by Paul Tremblay: A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, or The Cabin at the End of the World.
And if you follow Stephen King’s Twitter feed, you may have come across him praising Tremblay’s works, most recently blasting out to his followers that Tremblay’s story collection, Growing Things, was: “One of the best collections of the 21st century.”
Most of Tremblay’s work has been snatched up by Hollywood, eager to adapt his creepy, empathetic and often incredibly relevant stories. A Head Full of Ghosts, picked up by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, is most likely the first to see screens, with the director and lead actress having already been announced.
Tremblay’s new novel, Survivor Song, is a terrifyingly realistic take on the zombie trope. It’s a fast-paced, gritty, emotionally wrenching thriller that releases on July 7, 2020, from publishing powerhouse William Morrow.
Below, the author gets into his new story and how, among other things, he chose the prescient topic of a nationwide pandemic.
The craziest thing about Survivor Song is how neatly it dovetails into our current global pandemic. It’s eerily prescient. Do you worry readers may think it’s a response to what’s happening in the world right now?
Paul Tremblay: My sister is a nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in Boston and she helped me quite a bit with research, including her brief experience with Ebola response/local preparations in 2014. I extrapolated from there to imagine what the response might be like for a similar outbreak (in the case of my novel, a strain of super rabies). Given the proliferation of politically charged misinformation it was sadly not that difficult to imagine people thinking there would be a conspiracy behind the virus.
I started the book in July 2018 and finished edits October 2019, and they printed advanced reader copies in December 2019. I don’t worry if readers think I wrote the book during the pandemic because, as we continue to see, facts-be-damned with some folks.
Survivor Song essentially takes place in a few hours of story-time. What made you decide on telling the story “real-time,” and did that play into your decision to the story only focusing on a few characters?
I wanted to focus on the story of two women trying to survive/do their best within the wider storm of the epidemic and resulting chaos. We’ve all read the outbreak/zombie books with casts of thousands, so I chose to zoom in, get more personal, and hopefully that results in a more unique and emotional reading experience. Doing it that way made it feel more realistic to me, instead of indulging in the fantasy/dream of any us turning into badass survivalists with a machete in one hand and zombie head in the other. As fun as that can be, I felt I could better ratchet up the tension with two main characters in real-time. Hopefully, readers will be left wondering what they would do if they were in Ramola’s or Natalie’s shoes, or trainers, as it were.
You sometimes reference that your last three novels are a sort of loose trilogy, where ambiguity seems to play a role in how the novels are experienced by readers. Survivor Song seems to take a very different approach, reading more like a straight thriller.
The prior three novels employed ambiguous supernatural elements as a part of the story and theme. I knew I couldn’t do that to the reader for every book, but more importantly, Survivor Song didn’t require or call for any ambiguous element to tell its story.
However I do think Song is connected to or is a thematic extension of my novel The Cabin at the End of the World. If Cabin was ultimately about choosing to go on, then Survivor Song is the aftermath of that choice: the horror and hope of going on.
In Song you enter a rare narrator voice a couple times to let readers know what they’re reading is “not a fairy tale” but “a song.” Would you mind elaborating?
Songs are brief and of the moment. A song is a captured, fleeting moment of time, one that celebrates (or mourns) being alive. My favorite songs tend to be angry shouts that makes me want to run through wall, or quiet, contemplative pieces of melancholy that linger. Or the best songs mix both. I tried to envision the novel as that kind of song. I juxtaposed that with our modern notion of fairy tales (i.e. happy endings) while I slipped in references (obliquely at times) to the much more, well, grim, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. While I named the prelude/interlude/postlude after parts of songs, I wrote them in a storybook manner. And the characters who have fully succumbed to the virus speak a gibberish that are mashed up lines from Grimm’s.
Stephen King tweeted a few years back that your novel, Head Full of Ghosts, “scared the living hell” out of him, and he’s been a steady source of promotion for your new releases. I guess my question is simply this: How cool is that?
The coolest? I became a reader—never mind a writer—because of Stephen King. His words of praise and support mean the world and remain one of the highpoints of my writing career. It’s inspiring that Stephen remains so committed to reading and supporting younger/new writers.
What can readers expect from Paul Tremblay in the upcoming year? I know there’s been some announcements on a movie adaption for Head Full of Ghosts. Anything else readers should know about?
I’ve started my next novel, which I can’t talk about but hope to be able share news later this summer. In early 2021 William Morrow is re-issuing my first two novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. They are weird crime novels (I want to call them ‘weirdboiled’ but maybe I shouldn’t…) featuring my South Boston Lithuanian narcoleptic PI Mark Genevich. On the movie front things are in flux but I remain hopeful that we might see an adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts sooner rather than later.
To discover more about Paul Tremblay, or join his newsletter, visit his website.