At long last, Isaac Marion’s The Burning World, the sequel to his best-selling novel Warm Bodies is finally here. So, obviously we had a few questions we couldn’t wait to ask Marion about his newest installment.
About ‘The Burning World’
Being alive is hard. Being human is harder. But since his recent recovery from death, R is making progress. He’s learning how to read, how to speak, maybe even how to love, and the city’s undead population is showing signs of life. R can almost imagine a future with Julie, this girl who restarted his heart—building a new world from the ashes of the old one.
And then helicopters appear on the horizon. Someone is coming to restore order. To silence all this noise. To return things to the way they were, the good old days of stability and control and the strong eating the weak. The plague is ancient and ambitious, and the Dead were never its only weapon.
How do you fight an enemy that’s in everyone? Can the world ever really change? With their home overrun by madmen, R, Julie, and their ragged group of refugees plunge into the otherworldly wastelands of America in search of answers. But there are some answers R doesn’t want to find. A past life, an old shadow, crawling up from the basement.
Isaac Marion talks ‘The Burning World’
1. You’ve said before that Warm Bodies was written as a standalone but with the implication that the characters’ lives and troubles continue on past the novel. Once you decided to take on the rest of the story and write The Burning World (and The Living), how did you get back into this world that you had created after spending time away from it?
I actually never really left that world. Shortly after I finished the first book, the movie fired up, so I was reading scripts, discussing visuals, hanging out on set—I was literally living inside the story, watching my characters walk around in real space. When that was over, I started writing the prequel, The New Hunger, and by the time that was finished, I’d started developing my plans for the rest of the series. So it’s been an almost continuous experience since I started it in 2008. I’ve spent almost 9 years in this world, and it’s imprinted pretty deeply.
2. Though The Burning World takes place in a zombie-fied world, the villains this time around are humans. Can you talk about your thought process behind making the second book more human-centric?
Everyone in these books is human! There are no aliens or talking animals, right? Zombies are humans in a different state of being, and one of the themes in Warm Bodies was that the line between Living and Dead is blurry and easily crossed. We see people crossing it from both sides. So I would say the whole series is human-centric, the line just gets blurrier in The Burning World. The villains aren’t zombies per se, but there’s definitely something unnatural about them, and zombies are central to their agenda. If the plague is the sum of humanity’s darkest instincts, then how much scarier is it when it manifests through smiling men who think they should run the world?
3. Were there any characters in particular that you were really looking forward to writing again and developing further in The Burning World?
Everyone wants to know about R’s past. It’s probably my #2 reader question, right behind “What’s his real name?” I really enjoyed getting into that unexplored “underside” of a character I thought I knew so well. So much of any character’s depth comes from their past, and since R didn’t have one in Warm Bodies, I could only go so deep with him there. Digging into it now felt like tapping an emotional oil well, both for R and for myself, since we have a lot in common.
It was also really exciting to get into Julie’s knotted psyche and show her from some less flattering angles now that the glow of R’s infatuation has faded a bit. She’s not some pixie angel sent to inspire R. She’s a traumatized person whose resilience depends on an almost fanatical faith in her ideals, so when anyone tries to shake that faith, she can become truly dangerous. There are moments in this book when Julie kind of becomes the villain. Warm Bodies required a certain economy of character complexity, but with this bigger canvas I get to take them all into more interesting territory.
4. You’ve been working on this book for a while now, but aspects of it are eerily timely with what’s going on in the country right now. How much of an influence did current events have on you while you were writing?
It’s been so bizarre to watch that unfold, because some of the parallels are uncanny, but The Burning World and The Living were both finished a year before the election was even warming up. So it wasn’t current “events” that influenced the story so much as just the zeitgeist in general. When I was conceiving the setting back in 2008, it felt important that the apocalypse not be caused by any single catastrophe like a pandemic or nuclear attack. It had to be the result of many different issues and trends allowed to fatten to world-ending size. It had to be everyone’s fault. So I looked at the political and cultural climate in 2008 and just tried to imagine how “all of that” might end up. The result is kind of a jumbled nightmare of bad decisions that were bubbling back then and have now boiled over. Some of the parallels are so specific that people may think I wrote the whole thing as anti-Trump satire, but the problems it tackles are older and bigger than Trump.
5. Though the novel opens up the world more than its predecessor, the characters’ intertwined pasts gives the larger scope a more personal and intimate feel. Was that your original intention, or did these two aspects of the novel start meshing as you were writing?
I like an epic story, but it has to be told through an intimate lens. I don’t want to hover high overhead and watch a bunch of specks move around on an imaginary battlefield. For a story to mean anything to me, it has to be about people and the ways they feel and act and connect to each other. And there has to be a reason for them to be in the same story! I hate those sprawling soap operas that just dump in dozens of unrelated characters whose sub-plots never intersect.
It was important to me to maintain an emotional focus as I expanded the world, so despite the global or even cosmic stakes, this is still a story about a small handful of characters and how they fit together into this bigger picture, how their experiences matter within the greater archive of consciousness.
6. There were a few new characters featured in The Burning World that weren’t in Warm Bodies. Who were you most excited to introduce and what about them interested you most?
I really enjoyed writing H. Tomsen because she’s weird and funny and hard to categorize. I like the way she brings out Julie’s nurturing side. I have to tap into a strange part of my brain to write her dialogue, and it’s fun to see what comes out of that trance state. But probably the most significant newcomer is Abram. He was a challenge to write because he’s a grim and joyless asshole, but he makes good points. He’s the older, more experienced rain on Julie’s youthful parade, and I hear him voicing a lot of my own doubts. Sometimes I feel like an idealist and a cynic at the same time—I have a beautiful thought and then immediately tell myself why it’s wrong. So as Abram became a more and more central character, he forced me to wrestle with these questions in my head and on the page.
The biggest challenge for me in writing is that if I want a character to have a breakthrough, I have to have one myself. If I want them to figure out the meaning of life, I have to figure it out too! So when I’m sending a character into murky territory like this, I don’t always know how I’ll bring them out. Abram’s journey was probably the second-hardest to conclude, after R’s.
7. Do you think you could (or would you want to) ever see yourself returning to this world again (not necessarily with the same characters) at some point down the line?
The Living is absolutely the end of this story. I wouldn’t rule out a peripheral short here and there, but not a novel, and not anything that continues forward in time. That’s for two reasons. One is that The Living ends with a fundamental change that can really only be imagined, not described or defined. So any story taking place after that would have to address that change in some concrete way, which would be…dumb. And impossible. Some visions are best left to the imagination.
The second reason is that I’m just tired of being boxed in by the preconceptions of “zombie fiction.” I’m sure I could find more ideas to explore in the Warm Bodies universe if I dug around a bit, but they’d all be weighed down and diminished by their proximity to zombies. I disagree with this, but for many (most?) people, zombies = silly/trashy/stupid, no matter how they’re used in the story. I think I’ve already stretched that box to the breaking point with these last two books, and we’ll see if the public will allow it. But I’m eager for open spaces!
About the author
Isaac Marion grew up in the mossy depths of the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a heating installer, a security guard, and a visitation supervisor for foster children before publishing his debut novel in 2010. Warm Bodies became a New York Times bestseller and inspired a major film adaptation. It has been translated into twenty-five languages. Isaac lives in Seattle with his cat, Watson, writing fiction and music and taking pictures of everything.