Charlie Higson interview: The Enemy, zombies, writing horror

Nick chatted to Young Bond and The Enemy novelist Charlie Higson about George A. Romero zombies, scaring kids, and more...

Charlie Higson is a man of many talents. For many people, he’s one of the creators, stars, and writers of the seminal The Fast Show. For others, he’s the writer of some of the best Young Adult fiction around, starting with the high-octane Young Bond series and continuing with the current Enemy series, one of the best horror series in the last 10 years. If you haven’t done so already, I implore you to go and start reading it now. I’m a huge fan, and I’ve detailed my reasons here. With the recent release of The Hunted, the latest and penultimate entry, we sat down with Charlie to discuss writing such an ambitious series, his love of George A. Romero zombie films, killing characters as a way to streamline your plot, and what the future holds for him…

You’ve done quite a number of different things in your professional life – what would you describe your job as?

Well when anyone ever asks me what I do, I always just say I’m a writer. Pretty much everything I’ve ever done has always started with writing. So when I was in a band I was writing songs, I got into TV by being a writer, and over the years if I’ve ever had a clash between a performing job and a writing job I’ve always gone with the writing job. It’s what I enjoy doing most.

For those who have yet to read The Enemy series, what would you say to convince them?

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[Laughs] I’d tell them I’m one of Britain’s greatest writers! They’d be missing out on a lot of fun. It’s a horror series yet also an adventure series, and you could also look at it as a dystopian science-fiction series, or you could look at it as a satire on modern Britain, all rolled into one. The idea of the series if you want it in a nutshell, is that a disease has hit the planet that only affects the older people. It kills most of them outright, and the lucky few who have been left alive are so badly disfigured by the disease, their brains and bodies rotted away, that they behave as classic textbook cannibal zombies. Gangs of kids try to survive on the streets of London whilst trying to rebuild a world without adults, whilst also trying to avoid being eaten by their parents.

Well what more could you ever want from any book, film, or TV show ever really? One of the things I love is that you haven’t pulled any punches with the violence and horror in The Enemy, which could have been controversial – was this a conscious choice?

Well I wanted them to be proper horror books. Modern kids are a lot harder to scare and impress there I was because they’ve had access to so more. They’ve watched all those TV series, DVDs and stuff online, so if you’re writing them a scary, gory horror book, they want it to be as intense as the stuff they’ve seen on-screen. It’s very important not to talk down to kids, and to give them something which they think is quite grown-up and hardcore. Kids themselves are very good at self-censoring. If they don’t like something, if they think it’s too strong for them, they’ll simply stop reading. It’s the thing about a book, you can’t force someone to read it.

A lot of people worry too much about what kids might read. And also, we all remember when we were kids and trying to get hold of books that were banned or shouldn’t be reading – it’s great for kids to get them excited about reading. So it was important to me that the books had the sort of feel of the horror films from the 70s I watched as an 18 year old – going to see X certificate films. I wanted to give younger readers that same sort of kick I was getting going to those films, and as a by-product of that a lot of adults really enjoy reading it too. It can sit alongside many adult horror books. The only thing I’m really doing different is that there is no explicit sexual content, and the language is not explicit. It implies that the kids are swearing, but I can’t put that in the books…

Probably not!

But other than that, I’ve written them exactly as if I was writing an adult book. It’s a bit like a James Herbert book except without the sex with tramps…

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I thought about the young James Bond books in the same way as well. Rather than being ‘children’s books’, they are simply books where the main characters happen to be children. On one level you could say Lord Of The Flies is a kids book. It’s about children although he didn’t write it as a children’s book.

With 70s horror films in mind, what was the main inspiration for the series?

Well obviously my love of George Romero zombie films was my starting point. I’ve always loved horror and after having done Young James Bond and the action-adventure genre I thought what’s another really good genre that kids would buy into? The other great thing about horror is that it’s not gender specific. Girls love horror as much as boys, and I have tried to put a lot of good, strong female characters in the books. A horror cover doesn’t say ‘no girls allowed’. Then I thought if I’m going to do scary books, what scared me? The movie monster that always scared me the most, since I saw Night Of The Living Dead as a teenager, was the zombie. You can do a lot with zombies. George Romero himself freely admits his films had a strong satirical element to them. He was talking about American society and a lot of the stuff that was going on at that time. Because zombies are people you can add a lot of layers in, but you can do it in a way where kids don’t feel they’re being hit over the head or lectured. I think there’s a lot in my books about friendship, leadership, about society and how it works, how we learn to live with each other and what skills do we need to make a viable society. Kids don’t need to know any of that, they just want someone to be eaten again.

Ha, of course. This is one of the first times in a long time actually that I’ve been scared of zombies again, sorry sickos I guess I should call them. There’s a scene a the end of The Fallen that I found really scary and found I was having a debate in my head of ‘that’s got to be a dream sequence surely?’ It’s great to be scared of a monster we thought we knew again.

Yeah it’s a tricky thing, especially with zombies. There’s been a lot of zombies films now and it’s become as much of a cliché as any other genre. Everybody loves to make zombie films because they do have such strong recognizable imagery. Film students often love Spaghetti Westerns because they have such strong and stylistic elements and I think it’s the same with zombie films, and obviously the problem with that is how do you do something new and scary? In the end pure zombies are little bit limited – going back to James Bond, the best James Bonds are the one with the best villains, and the best horror stories are the one with the scariest monsters. So if you’re writing about them at length like I am, with seven books in the series, you’ve got to be able to personify the monster. It can’t just be, ‘here we go again, a lot of shuffling mindless zombies trying to catch these kids and eat them’. So it’s thinking on variations on that and also giving zombies, such as they are in my books, more character. Which is the reason I chose not to make them pure zombie. They are not reanimated corpses, they are people who are very badly diseased. So that gave me the option to make some of them stronger characters.

Well that actually leads nicely into my next question. One of the things you seem to be doing is introducing an overarching mythology of the Sickness. Did you always have it pre-planned, or did it evolve as you were writing?

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It’s sort of evolved. I had an idea at the beginning, but I thought okay as I’m writing this series I’ve got time to work out exactly how this disease works and whether they might be able to cure it. I very much set out when I started the first book, well it’s the same with all the books, to make sure we only ever see the story through the eyes of the children. There’s no omnipresent narrator, we’re just witnessing events as they happen through each chapter, and so we don’t ever know any more than them. So as a reader you’re working things out alongside them. So I thought okay that will really give me time to find out a satisfying way to show how this disease is working, and a plausible way that the kids might find out about it and see if there’s a way to stop it. I had some ideas knocking around when I started, but they’ve certainly solidified.

How much planning do you do for all your books? I ask as this series is one of the more intricately plotted series I’ve read, playing about with time frames and perspectives…

Well I originally set out to write three books, but things happened to make me expand that. I had the ideas of what would happen in those three books, but things have expanded in a sort of concertina fashion, with the other books fitting in between the original three. What was going to be the third book is now going to be the seventh book, which is the book I’m writing at the moment, and that is the apocalyptic battle between the army of the kids and they army of the adults. I always knew that’s where I was going to end, and after the first book the second one was going to carry on directly chronologically – it would be the Holloway kids arriving at the Natural History Museum, and Small Sam and The Kid arriving at the Tower of London. The second book was going to be learning what else was going on in London, realizing there’s a growing threat and the kids trying to unite.

But it struck having written the first book that A) I really liked the world I had created, and that the ideas could sustain more books than the three I planned, and B) I realized there was a danger that the first third of the second book might be taken up with just meeting all these other characters and establishing what was going on in all these other places. It would probably have been quite dull and complicated, so I thought I’d write a second book that would run parallel with the first book and set up the other characters that we’re going to meet in what I then thought was going to be the third book… I used to read my books aloud to my kids to get their feedback, although they’ve got a bit old now, and after the first one they said, ‘You know what would be great? If the second book was about a completely different set of characters and see what they’re doing!’ I thought well I’ll try that and if they can go with that then the other readers can accept the second book being a sort of swerve. And people have bought into it. They like the idea of this complex, interweaving story and you can build in a lot of fresh surprises. When you get to the end of The Dead (the second book) you suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, so that ties in with that!’ It just makes it all more interesting. But then I found out I had to write another book after that in order to get us up to where we were for the ‘third’ book… So eventually, seven books later, I’m finally getting round to that big apocalyptic battle

Do you lose track of it all?

Well I have a lot of time to get it straight. It takes a year to write a book. I can hold all the series in my head, the characters and what they’re doing. My feeling is if I forget a character, no-one else is going to remember and say, ‘what ever happened to that character?’ Also I have very good copy-editors and proof-editors at Penguin who make sure I don’t make any major errors. But yeah, it’s mainly all there in my head, so I’m quite looking forward to finishing it and can forget about it all!

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I’m reminded of that story where George RR Martin was pulled up by a fan for getting someone’s eye colour wrong…

Yeah, that can happen. If kids get obsessed with a series they will read it and re-read it, and pour over every detail. It’s useful to have that feedback, you can go back and do a new edition and change things! In some ways there’s probably a lot of similarities between this series and Game Of Thrones, I’m sure he didn’t set out to write such a long series.

Yeah, I think his was meant to be a trilogy as well.

Yeah, that has grown and now he has all this complex interweaving story. I read a great interview with Stephen King where he was talking about The Stand, which is a similar sort of idea to my series – a flu virus starts to wipe out mankind. And Stephen King, much like George RR Martin, loves creating new characters, making new stuff up, and adding stuff. He realized he was about halfway into The Stand and he realized he had way too many characters and he didn’t know what to do with them all. So he had a brainwave. He checked them all into a hotel and had one of them plant a bomb there. Which solved his problem in one fell swoop! Which is what George RR Martin occasionally does when he thinks, ‘Christ I’ve got too many characters!’ I’ve done that along the way. I think okay we need to thin the characters out again so let’s kill a few more of them off…

Did you ever kill off a character you weren’t originally planning to in order to serve the story better?

Yes I’ve done that, in the first book after I finished it and me and my kids were talking about it, I said, ‘You know I think we need to kill of one more character here’ and we picked him out, and that was him gone. But along the same lines there’s been a couple of characters I’ve killed off but in retrospect I wished I hadn’t.

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Such as?

Some very useful characters with strong emotional ties. [START OF SPOILER FOR THE DEAD] There’s a character in The Dead called Bam. The big emotional moment was meant to the death of Jack, but more people seemed to be upset by the death of Bam.

Yeah I was really shocked, he just gets a sudden meat cleaver in his head!

Yeah [laughs].

I really liked him! He was that lovable buffoon everyone knows.

He was very cheerful, and I think it gave the readers a sense of hope. [laughs] Now I look a bit cruel! [END OF SPOILER FOR THE DEAD]

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Who’s your favourite character to write for in the series?

Well I really like writing for The Kid because he’s sort of half-nuts. I can have fun with language and references. Quite a lot of the characters in the books have syndromes but they’re not spelled out, so I have this idea that The Kid has this condition that he remembers every little thing people have said to him. He stores up all these phrases and lines of information in his head and then it all comes spewing out, even if he doesn’t necessarily understand it all. His brain is wired differently. He’s a lot of fun to write, and I can put in references to things I like such as Captain Beefheart songs.

Who’s the hardest to write for?

Well I try to avoid writing characters that are hard to do, and I find that they are, I just kill ‘em!

The good, nice characters are always a challenge to make interesting but it’s not something one should shirk away from.

You were in a punk band in the 80s (The Higsons) –  have you always tried to keep that punk sensibility alive in your work? In everything you’ve done there always seems to be a sense of anarchy just about to erupt – is The Enemy series the natural succession of that?

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Yeah it’s funny because I think my public persona is these days a reasonably genial, reasonably posh bloke with glasses, but actually that’s probably not particularly what I’m like. I’ve always had a strong questioning streak, and a streak of not wanting to go along with the herd. I want to shake things up a bit. So I suppose those aspects of punk carry though, although punk became as much a herd as anything else. (laughs) This is a very big question! I think a lot of people are quite surprised I write such nasty books. I wrote four adult books in the 90s which shocked a few people as they thought of me as, ‘that nice Charlie Higson who makes nice comedy shows’ and it wasn’t necessarily what they were expecting.

Beyond the finale of this series, what next is on the horizon for you?

Well I’ve got a couple of big TV projects on the go. The main one is a big 10-hour fantasy drama series for ITV. If all goes well, it should be on our screens next September. But because it’s early days I can’t actually tell you that much about it sadly.

Finally, and my editor will insist I ask this, do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

A favourite Jason Statham movie?!


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[Laughs] I don’t know how many I’ve ever watched! I’m actually quite a fan of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. When it came out there was nothing quite like it around. It was a breath of fresh air, and it was quite nice to see and English crime caper drama that wasn’t really glum. It had a sense of humour and fun to it which I liked. It’s quite hard to like now as it sort of created a genre of that type of film which is a little bit tiresome. But at the time it was nice to see new bunch of kids on the block. It’s very interesting to see how he’s had this career as this B-list action man, and hats off to him! Well done, keep doing that! Although I haven’t particularly made sure I’ve watched every one of his films.

The Hunted is out now, published by Penguin, priced £7.99.

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