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Interview: August 5, 2014

Most of us have a pretty good working definition of zombies: shuffling beings who have come back from the dead and want some humans for dinner. In Em Garner's Contaminated series, though, the zombies aren't "undead" at all --- they're simply living people who sipped a diet-drink-gone-wrong, and instead of losing some extra pounds, they became shambling creatures unable to stop their violent impulses. In our interview, Em talks about why she took this new twist on zombies, as well as the inspiration for her protagonist, Velvet, and how writing CONTAMINATED 2: Mercy Mode was different from writing the first book.      With books, movies and television already pretty saturated with zombie stories, what inspired you to create such different zombies --- ones who are alive and can actually be killed? 

Em Garner: I love zombies.  I like them fast or slow, undead or virus-fueled…I wanted to write a “zombie” story but the idea of the monsters being something else, something more human, appealed to me. To me, horror based on something that feels like it could really happen is always so much scarier.

TRC:      Despite being set during a zombie outbreak, both CONTAMINATED and CONTAMINATED 2: Mercy Mode seem to focus more on the people dealing with the aftermath of the Contamination, rather than exposing the gore and horror of the outbreak. Why did you choose to focus on the living?

EG: I think any good story is about relationships. No matter what else is going on, really, we want to care about the characters and what they’re doing --- if we don’t, why would we care if something bad happens to them?

CONTAMINATED and CONTAMINATED 2: Mercy Mode aren’t zombie stories. They’re books about people dealing with the loss of life as they knew it.

TRC:      The contamination breaks out mainly in large cities and among the wealthy, as they would be the most likely buyers of a diet drink like ThinPro. Was there the message behind your use of a diet drink as the source of such a widespread outbreak?

EG: I’ve been asked that question more than once, and it’s surprising to me because I didn’t consciously decide to make a commentary on diet drinks or dieting or a class system or anything like that. I’d read some stories about prion disease, Mad Cow, etc. and it was right around the time that protein water was really becoming popular. I’d tried some and it was gross; maybe just the thought of water full of protein associated “meat” to me or something like that. Anyway, I didn’t like it, and I thought…what if protein water could turn you into a zombie? It went on from there. Honestly, it was just a “what if” game. 

TRC:      Was Velvet --- a strong, responsible and resourceful teenager in CONTAMINATED --- inspired by anyone you know? Why did you feel that your story needed this kind of character?

EG: Velvet is the best bits of myself as a teenager, as well as being inspired by my daughter, who’s an exceptional young woman. She became my heroine because I wanted to write about a competent, strong character who wasn’t perfect by any means. Velvet does what she has to do, but she’s not always good at doing it.

TRC: You’re a big fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy stories. Why do you like these genres so much?

EG: I’ve been a fan of horror and SF since I was a kid. I love stories about monsters and aliens and all that stuff! Why? I do not know!

TRC:      In what ways was writing CONTAMINATED 2 easier than writing CONTAMINATED, and in what ways was it harder?

EG: Writing CONTAMINATED 2: Mercy Mode was easier in some ways because I’d already set up the world and knew the characters, but honestly, CONTAMINATED was one of the fastest books I’ve ever written. I started it on New Year’s Day in a car ride home, and it took about three or four weeks to complete. It was pure pleasure.

TRC:  What did you enjoy about the writing this series the most, and was anything frustrating?

EG: I loved the freedom of being able to create a world and situations and just run with them. I didn’t have many frustrations. If anything, writing the two books was a welcome change of pace from some of my other projects. It was work that felt like play.

TRC:      You paid lots of attention to detail throughout CONTAMINATED and CONTAMINATED 2: Mercy Mode, particularly in the parts about movies and celebrities. Did you make notes of these before you began writing or did they fall into place as you wrote?

EG: I tend to write fast and then fill in details later, but I do take notes along the way to remind myself of certain things I want to be sure I include. However, often I have a lot of “AHA!” moments, where I realize oh yes, this needs to be in here.

TRC:      Although they are technically legally married, Velvet and Dillon’s relationship progresses like any other teen romance, with all of the same butterflies and awkwardness. Was it challenging to write them like any other teens, despite their situation?

EG: I liked the idea that the world had changed in a way --- becoming more old fashioned, getting married young because it was necessary. The implications of that, the ramifications. I mean, they’re married, what if it doesn’t work out? Well, in the world where a cheerleader attacks you when you’re trying to get groceries, relationships are the important and life saving parts. Velvet and Dillon are young and have to find their way to each other despite a legal binding.

TRC:      Are you working on a third Contaminated book? If so, what can you tell us about it and when can readers expect to see it? If not, what are you working on?

EG: I would love to write a third Contaminated story! I have some other ideas percolating as well, one a futuristic, twisty mash-up of something like FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON and FRANKENSTEIN. We’ll see where the writing takes me!

Em Garner is the pseudonym for a New York Times best-selling author of romances. The author of 50 books, she made her YA debut with this series. Em started writing as a child, originally about the scary things that hid under her bed. She never lost her taste for scary stories, or for fantasies with a dark twist.