As part of the blog tour for his new novel, Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies published by Toronto’s ChiZine Publications, Canadian author James Marshall took some time to chat with me about his book, his artistic vision, and what he perceives as art’s relationship with the larger world.
Hi James. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. For the benefit of anybody who isn’t familiar with this novel, how do you think Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies compares with your work in Let’s Not Let a Little Thing Like the End of the World Come Between Us?
JM: They’re in the same family. Let’s Not Let A Little Thing Like The End Of The World Come Between Us was a “literary” short story collection. Technically, Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies is a genre novel. I guess I’m supposed to say, they’re really different. But I consider NVPFZ more a “geek literary” novel than a traditional “horror” novel. I mean, for a genre book, NVPFZ is pretty “arty.”
Geek Literary, I like the sound of that. Care to expand on the idea a little?
JM: Literary is synonymous with quality. Unfortunately, it’s also synonymous with boring. “Geek literary” combines everything you expect from high quality writing with everything you expect from pop culture entertainment. For example, a lot of times, especially in Canadian lit, you get a bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul. In “geek lit,” you’d have the same bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul, but then a ninja would drop down from the ceiling and cut off her head. Everybody is happy.
Dreary Canadian landscapes in winter could do with more ninjas now that I hink about it. So let’s explore this Geek Literary idea a little. The satire within NVPFZ taps into some very serious issues within our world: global warming, resource scarcity, and economic turmoil to name a few. Yet all of your central characters are teenagers and the story is set in and about a high school. Was this an intentional contrast?
JM: I dealt with teenagers and high school for a few reasons. Firstly, I never grew up and I’m very juvenile. Secondly, teenagers have to cope with the monumental problems facing us and high school is the place where they’re supposed to receive the tools and training to address those problems. Since the school in my novel is completely crumbling and filled with zombies, you can guess what I think the chances of success are. Thirdly, it’s when you’re in your teenage years that you start thinking about sex. I think we need to have a serious discussion about whether or not population planning is a way to address many of the problems facing us. Obviously, I think it is.
Now I want to take issue with something you said in your review: NVPFZ might be “the most flippant and offensive thing [you've] ever read.” Please, ask me if I think NVPFZ is offensive!
*Clears his throat and puts on his most professional voice* Mr. Marshall, do you think there’s anything offensive in NVPFZ? And as an immediate follow up to that question, do you think there’s anything in your novel that some readers might find particularly objectionable?
JM: Some people might not like the scene in which Guy Boy Man and a few of his hot young female followers throw lifeless babies at each other, for fun, but people are so sensitive these days. (In ”reality”, the babies might have actually been heads of lettuce.)
For the most part, no, I don’t think NVPFZ is offensive. But I do think the things to which I draw attention are offensive. For example, when Guy Boy Man uses overweight kids, special ed kids, and a disabled girl in a fight with the zombies, you could say that’s horrible, and it is. But is it horrible of me? Or is it something that’s horrible with the world. I mean, that’s the way high school is. It’s social Darwinism. The strong thrive at the expense of the weak. I think it’s horrible too. Nobody really seems to be doing anything about it, so I thought I’d draw attention to it using metaphor and (what I hope passes as) entertainment.
When Guy Boy Man proposes a solution, tasteless as it is, to the problem of kids starving in Africa, is that really offensive, or is what’s really offensive the fact that so many kids really do starve to death every day in Africa, and no one talks about it?
When Guy Boy Man takes Baby Doll15 on a date to a prison wherein the prisoners are amusements, is that offensive, or is the fact that our prisons are filled with the poor, the mentally ill, and our ethnic minorities? And how many TV shows would go off the air if we didn’t use ”crime” as entertainment?
Some people might find NVPFZ offensive, but “art” is supposed to serve a purpose, and I try to use satire and metaphor to raise issues that are important to me. For examples of my satire, I hope your readers will check out my website: www.howtoendhumansuffering.com
While we’re on the subject of howtoendhumansuffering.com, can we expect more sermons from Guy Boy Man in the future?
JM: Yes, that’s definitely on the agenda for the not-so-distant future.
Excellent. For the record, I found the one on pregnancy camps to be particularly apropos given current “debates” on reproductive rights. I hope the danger quotes appropriately denote the low regard in which I hold said “debates”.
On another note, you mentioned BabyDoll15, Guy Boy Man’s paramour, in one of your previous answers. Her name as well as Centaur111’s struck me something that resonated with online culture. Was that an attempt on your part to skew these characters toward a certain audience?
JM: The prologue to NVPFZ is the key to unlocking the whole thing; it’s intended to be a modern-day retelling of Plato’s Parable of the Cave. The basic idea is that there are different layers of reality. The characters of NVPFZ are meant to inhabit one of these layers where everything is sort of a mash-up of the real world and the online world. Guy Boy Man has insight into an even higher level of reality than the other characters because he can see zombies everywhere, controlling everything, and they can’t. So I guess it wasn’t so much that I was targeting a specific demographic as I wanted to explore a mash-up of the real and online worlds.
So if the narrative mirrors Plato’s Cave, does that make Guy Boy Man a philosopher king as well as a pirate?
JM: Yes, but it gets complicated, because the utopia in Guy’s vision doesn’t include people. Obviously, his desire for everyone to stop reproducing is ludicrous; it’s designed to bring population control into the debate regarding all the problems facing us. But if you took it at face value, Guy would return the planet to the animals, and I suppose there’s a certain appeal to that. There wouldn’t be any need for philosopher kings though. And Guy is meant to represent mankind. Sure, he’s funny and charming, but he’s violent, selfish, and probably completely irredeemable, so he’s far from an ideal leader.
He wants to destroy himself. I.e./ Mankind wants to destroy itself.
If that’s the case, what’s the third way between Zombies, who are a slow burn destruction of the Earth (corporate personhood, outsourcing, consumerism) and Guy’s all-in inferno of self-destruction? Or is that a question better examined in subsequent novels within the series?
JM: To be honest, I wrote NVPFZ because I’d given up on the world. I mean, population planning is a “possible” solution to “some” of the problems facing us, but it’s fraught with peril. All in all, I’m pretty pessimistic. I think we’re past the tipping point on a lot of things. I try to be indifferent, but it’s not easy. I wish I was like Guy Boy Man. It’d be nice to sit back, relax, and watch everything go up in flames with a smile on my face. Unfortunately, I find it all rather stressful and depressing.
Let me ask you one more thing then. If we’ve crossed the Rubicon on issues like population control, doesn’t that change our relationship with art? Doesn’t that make the entirety of the artistic community akin to Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burns around us?
JM: In NVPFZ, I suggest that artists should stop creating beautiful works of art and force zombies to face the mess they’ve made. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work, because just about anybody can entertain a mindless idiot, but it’s an interesting thought: even in railing against the status quo, the artist supports it, whenever he or she produces a work of art that makes the status quo a little more tolerable. I guess I consider the artist complicit in the destruction of everything. I’m complicit in the destruction of everything. I thought I’d found a job that let me be removed from it, but when I really thought about it, I realized I hadn’t, and I was involved in it too.
A complex answer to a complicated situation. James, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with the novel; it truly is a fantastic read.
JM: My pleasure and thank you. If any of your readers would like to keep up to date with me, please invite them to follow me on Twitter: @james_marshall