With his debut novel, writer and editor Thomas Roche explores the world of viral warfare, zombies, and life in the trenches – among other things. The Panama Laugh takes an interesting twist on the idea of the zombie apocalypse. Not only do the undead hordes want to eat the flesh and brains of the living, but they laugh while doing it. Roche took some time to answer questions about his new book and his plans for the future (if the world lasts that long).
FEARnet: The Panama Laugh is your debut novel, and it's about laughing zombies and covert ops. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Thomas Roche: The Panama Laugh resulted from a suggestion by Night Shade Books editor Jeremy Lassen that the Armory building in San Francisco would be the ideal place for survivors to hole up in case of zombie apocalypse. The building currently hosts a porn company, at which I was working at the time, so I seemed like the guy to write it.
Me being me, though, I took the most circuitous route possible to get there while sticking to only the one hemisphere. I spent a little time in Panama, and was captivated by the place's natural beauty, the people, and the rootin-tootin' attitude of the American expats there.
Obviously a lot of research went into this. There are a number of technical terms blended in nicely with the story. How did you find all of this, and how did you decide what to leave in the story and what to exclude?
A tactile sense of what Panama was like when I was there was key to the book's inspiration, but The Panama Laugh has no connection to anything I experienced firsthand in Panama … even before you
get to the zombie part. It's more based on my reading of several other books on private military companies.
Bellona Industries, the fictional private security firm in the book, bears no real resemblance to Blackwater, but then, I found out in my reading that Blackwater is only one of hundreds – if not thousands – of private security companies. Similarly, while the group in the Armory of The Panama Laugh do run a porn company, they're much more influenced by Wikileaks and Anonymous, viewed from a very jaundiced perspective. Everyone behaves badly in The Panama Laugh, so it's not a comment on whether I approve of Wikileaks or any one part of the Anonymous movement. There's also a little bit of influence from other books about contemporary piracy.
The technical stuff came mostly from Wikipedia. I particularly had fun with the maritime stuff, which was fact-checked by a friend of mine who attended Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo, California, and has spent time on ships. He also added several vivid factual elements about what life on a ship is like, though I didn't get to use as much of it as I would have liked, simply for space considerations. Some of the weapons stuff was fact-checked by my good friend Alan Beatts at Borderlands Books, but much of it originated with my reading of forensics texts.
I was a medical writer for a time, but the medical stuff is all made up. I have no particular knowledge of virology. I do think it helped having a vague sense of how doctor's talk, but I’m not sure how closely I nailed it … in the end, I think a fast-moving narrative becomes its own justification for every factual shortcut.
Dante seems to be a pretty complex character. How did he evolve during the course of your writing and the various drafts?
Bizarrely, I started out with the intention of creating a "cipher" character like Parker from the brilliant crime series that Donald E. Westlake wrote as Richard Stark. Parker is a professional thief whose main defining characteristic is that he's a colossal asshole. He's not ever cruel, though, really, because he just doesn't give a damn. Parker is the quintessentially noir son-of-a-bitch, like Sam Spade, which Westlake pushed into overdrive for the '60s as opposed to the '20s.
I wrote a huge half-draft that had Dante being much more of an everyman character. As I introduced other characters, like Van and Trixie (American hippies living in Panama, both conspiracy nuts) I found Dante taking on much more personality. But then, I think Parker probably would have gotten more personality if he hung out with crazy people, as evidenced by Westlake's much funnier Dortmunder series, which grew from the Parker books.
The descriptions of the laughing zombies are pretty terrifying. Why did you choose that scenario?
It grew very organically from the putting of words on the page. Describing zombies, I found that the sounds I described them making were scarier to me than the visuals. I have never spent much time around corpses, so the smell, while often described in zombie literature, just doesn't carry a visceral punch to me. But a crowd of laughing assholes, I'm fairly familiar with. I was just writing along one day, writing one sequence set in the jungles of Panama's Darien province, which adjoins the Darien Gap – a very rough patch of country between Panama and Colombia and the only place where the Pan-American Highway doesn't run. The description of the laughing zombies just burst out of me.
Immediately after, a tagline occurred to me: "What if you woke up and the whole world was laughing at you?"
If this is adapted to film, who do you see in the starring roles?
Well, I think Andy Caploe did a great job with Dante in the audiobook. He and I really worked together to get the characters clear in his head, and in the end I think he nailed the voice of the book.
You know, I have a very hard time thinking of that kind of casting, because the characters are so vividly real to me as themselves. I think the danger of having a "zombie trend" in film is that the greats of the genre, like Night of the Living Dead and the recent spate of underground zombie movies – some of which are damned good – were produced on a shoestring budget, by rabid fans. That's where I think the genre really shines.
The huge exception in recent years is The Walking Dead, which I think is fantastic. I was a fan of the comic book and while the TV show is something different, it has remained essentially true to the tone of the comic.
But the tone of The Walking Dead is so different than The Panama Laugh. I think the kind of film adaptation that would work for The Panama Laugh would be a sort of Tarantino-esque take on it. It's not intended to be an ironic book, but to be genuinely scary. But I think irony is central to why the book is scary.
What else are you working on?
My next horror/science fiction project is huge. I'm building a giant secret society mythology that's intended to be a sort of gonzo thrill-ride influenced a little by The X-Files, Fringe, and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminati trilogy, but with a tone more akin to Doctor Who … without the optimism.
Unfortunately, it's a multi-book series, and I have no idea when it's going to coalesce into any one narrative. I have about a dozen novellas that fit together to form the start of this mythology, but I've got a long way to go before it's marketable.
In the meantime, I love writing, so I'm having fun with the project. If you can call inventing a vicious conspiracy against the human race to be "fun," then yeah, I guess I'm having fun.
I also write a lot of blog posts about my interests at www.Thomasroche.com. Recently, it's been mostly history, insomnia, rock 'n' roll, good Scotch, and crime, science fiction and horror. I also post a lot to Facebook and Twitter – because what writer doesn't find that his or her productivity is improved by spending time on Facebook?
Nancy O. Greene started writing at the age of nine. Her short story collection, Portraits in the Dark, received a brief mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007. Other works have appeared or will appear in ChiZine; Lovecraft eZine; Cemetery Dance; Tales of Blood and Roses; Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror; Shroud Publishing's The Terror at Miskatonic Falls; Dark Recesses; Flames Rising; Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!; and others. She has a BA in Cinema (Critical Studies) and a minor in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Southern California, and is a Film Independent: Project Involve Fellow.