Daniel Waters on Ghosts, Zombies, and Making the Familiar Strange

In Daniel Waters’s new novel, Break My Heart 1,000 Times, the dead have become a regular part of life. Daniel loves a good ghost story, but is equally terrified by zombies. He stopped by Figment to chat about his new book, terrifying teachers, and making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

 

Break My Heart 1,000 Times is set in a time where ghosts are commonplace, though they aren’t exactly ghosts as we traditionally think of them. How did you come up with the idea “attachment images” – these ghosts who repeat the same moment over and over again?

I enjoy trying to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And in some ways the ghost of a guy making a sandwich is as terrifying to me in its implications as the bloody screaming murder victim ghost.

We had a newsletter contest, where we asked readers to write about an everyday moment they would repeat for eternity if they were to come back as ghosts. What moment would you repeat?

There are so many. A moment in Paris with my family would be nice to relive endlessly.

What kind of research did you do to write this book? Did you spend a lot of time reading other ghost stories? Can you share a few of your favorites?

I’ve spent a lifetime researching ghost stories, both “true” ghost stories and fictional ones. I’ve a real passion for ghosts. My favorite fictional ones are probably The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Shining by Stephen King. For nonfictional stories I am partial to ghostly brides, haunted asylums, and haunted hotels.

I also did quite a bit of research on some of the more tragic events of the past hundred years, ones where there was a great loss of human life.

The teenagers in this book are very relatable—and by the end, it’s easy to understand their motivations. As an adult, how do you make sure you write believable teen characters?

My kids, to whom the book is dedicated, are now teens—and they certainly are characters, so that helps. I correspond frequently with my former self and that also helps.

Mr. Bittner is a truly terrifying character. Is he based on a teacher you had in high school?

Ha! No. But what kid hasn’t imagined one or more of their teachers as being capable—culpable, even!—of horrific crimes?

Your first series, Generation Dead, is about zombie teenagers. What appeals to you about writing in the YA horror genre? What are the challenges?

I’m not consciously writing horror stories, I don’t think. Break My Heart 1,000 Times is one, but are the Generation Dead books? They have zombies, and frightening things happen, but I’m not sure that the horror definition completely fits.

But to answer your question, one of the challenges in writing horror is making it believable in a way that scares the reader. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you throw in heaps o’ science to explain all the weird things in your book—I’ve yet to give a definitive answer to why some kids return from the dead in the Gen Dead series, nor do I explain the Event in Break My Heart 1,000 Times—but there needs to be something that the reader can believe if you expect he or she to be frightened.

What works for me emotionally as a reader is the characters. If the characters seem real with realistic motivations, I will go along with them and care about them and worry about them, and so the terror I feel is generally tied into my level of concern for them. I think a number of horror writers fumble when they have incredibly detailed descriptions and back stories for their monsters but then have a victim roster of colorless characters with spurious motivations.

There are exceptions to every writing rule, of course. I find some of Lovecraft’s work very frightening despite having much of it having corny characters powered by implausible motivations.

And a follow-up question: Who do you think is scarier: a zombie or a ghost?

I find them both terrifying.

Break My Heart 1,000 Times is being made into a film! Do you have a dream cast in mind? Who should play Veronica, Kirk, and Mr. Bittner?

I don’t have a dream cast in mind. I was talking to a writer friend the other day and she told me she always imagines her dream cast as she’s writing, which was amazing to me as I’ve never pictured anyone real in any of my books. I’d be happy with just about anyone; I’m just very excited to see one of my stories adapted for film.

What’s next for you? More books in the Generation Dead series? Or perhaps a follow-up to Break My Heart 1,000 Times.

I’ve a couple new novels that I will probably be working on next, but I’d love to do another Gen Dead novel and something else in the Break My Heart world.

 What advice would you give to young writers working on their first novels?

Write because you love what writing does for and to you as a person. Cultivate both love and discipline. Understand that not all writing advice is valid or even well-intentioned.

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