Phoenix Author Kevin Wayne Williams on How The Walking Dead Inspired His Zombie Novel
Williams spent months of research and practice to get the voice of his 9-year-old heroine down.
Courtesy of Kevin Wayne Williams
"In 2004, I died in a scuba accident," Kevin Wayne Williams says nonchalantly over the phone.
"My last memory is going unconscious 20 feet from the top, so whether [my heart] clinically stopped or not, it's tough to say," the long-time Phoenix resident goes on to explain. "If I had died that day, it wouldn't have been a problem, and there was a part of me that realized that itself was a problem."
That accident was the catalyst for Williams to leave his career as an executive in Silicon Valley during the early 2000s and becoming an author, after "fleeing the country" and owning a hotel on the Caribbean island of Bonaire for a short time.
Now, Williams' first novel, Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, has been named as a Horror (Adult Fiction) and Multicultural (Adult Fiction) finalist for Foreword Reviews' 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards.
While his accident inspired him to write a book, it was his love of zombies and specifically The Walking Dead that inspired Everything I Know About Zombies.
In 1968, Williams' dad came home from seeing the original Night of the Living Dead, saying "God, what a gross thing that was!" From them on, Williams was fascinated.
He went on to appreciate undead works like Ed and His Dead Mother and Juan of the Dead.
The spark he needed for Everything I Know About Zombies, though, came from AMC's The Walking Dead -- but not because of the edge-of-your-seat writing or the stomach-turning gore. Rather, Williams was inspired by the show's inaccuracies.
Despite the first season of the show being set in Georgia, a large majority of the cast was white -- something Williams knew was wrong based on his experience in the state.
"You couldn't build that white of a group of people as they have on The Walking Dead if you tried," Williams says.
So Williams knew he wanted to write a book about zombies, and he knew he wanted his main character to be black. But he also knew there was another group of people misrepresented in AMC's hit: children.
"Do you remember being 9?" Williams asks. "I do. I did things. I had a personality. You know, I actually interacted with people, and I was a person. And if you look in The Walking Dead, the only thing that the kids ever do is get lost."
Thus, 9-year-old Letitia Johnson from Mott Haven in the Bronx, who helps to save part of her little sister's kindergarten class after the apocalypse, was created as the star of Williams' fully-for-adults, horror story.
Usually, authors write what they know, so being a middle-aged white male who has since returned to engineering at Honeywell, Williams had a lot to learn to write Letitia realistically.
After a failed first attempt, Williams spent a solid four months researching and practicing African-American Vernacular English, also drawing influence from HBO's The Wire and the Caribbean islanders he met while in Bonaire for some of the other characters in the book.
"Now I can write Letitia like it's just a foreign language," Williams says. "You tell me what Letitia's supposed to say, and I'll tell you how Letitia would say it... If I had to write this again, this would not have been my first book. I would have practiced on something easier."
Since publication, Williams has received positive feedback from a variety of sources, including the African-American Literary Book Club, on the believability of his dialogue. He plans to continue to use what he learned while he finishes a parallel story to Everything I Know About Zombies called Apocalypse at Hunts Point, one of three books he is currently writing.
We'll see if the judges of Foreword Reviews' 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards agree when they announce the winners in a few months.
Until April 30, Williams will be donating 50 percent of his revenue from Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten ($13.99) to relief funds benefiting the Oceanian island nation of Vanuatu, which was devastated by Cyclone Pam on March 13.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.