Despite my hesitance when it comes to zombie novels – they seriously give me nightmares most of the time – when I was sent David Towsey’s debut novel Your Brother’s Blood for review, I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a go, even if his Walkin’ were very much zombie stand-ins. I actually loved the book, as Towsey managed to make me forget the Walkin’ were zombies and I got sucked into the story. And I wanted to know what happened next badly. Fast forward about twelve months and the sequel Your Servants and Your People is published today. I’ve already read it and I’ll be reviewing it tomorrow, but spoiler: it’s great. But I also got to grill David for an Author Query to mark publication day and he sent back some pretty fantastic answers, which you’ll find below.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is David Towsey?
I’m a twenty-nine year old who still wears skate shoes to work and is itching to answer this question with some vague gumbo about existentialism and really knowing who we are. I’ve been a student of creative writing so long I’ve made the jump from the lecture rows to standing at the front and gesturing at powerpoint slides. I’ve read SF/F for as long as I can remember. I eat too much ice cream. I have too many cats.
How would you introduce people to Thomas’ and Mary’s world and the Leyist beliefs that drive their hometown?
I would say that theirs is a post-apocalyptic, or post-oil, world without technology, electricity, or medicine which resembles frontier America. The Walkin’ – a kind of conscious undead – are the legacy of this fall from scientific grace. Thomas and his daughter Mary grew up in the town of Barkley, which is rather remote and surrounded by prairies and desert. Barkley is governed by a form of oppressive but community-minded Christianity that has banned any writing other than the Good Book – a warped and incomplete version of the Bible. For all its faults, Leyism is just one community’s reaction to difficult and unique times when the dead come back to life.
The Walkin’ are essentially zombies, yet they don’t feel like zombies at all. What made you decide to play with this archetype?
The initial idea wasn’t to mess around with the zombie genre. I was, and still am, most interested in exploring how people might handle immortality. It is a trope found in many great SF/F novels and short stories. Much of Your Brother’s Blood is concerned with how Thomas views his family once he becomes a Walkin’, and visa-versa. To know you might outlive your children by decades, if not centuries, seemed dark enough, strange enough, to write about. Even worse to know you might – but only might – pass this dubious gift onto those children. Other elements of the zombie archetype, such as the brain-eating and the shuffling horde, didn’t really fit with what I wanted to do.
One of the questions I was left with in the wake of reading Your Brother’s Blood was the nature of the war that is going on in the background of the novel, the one in which Thomas was originally killed. It seemed somewhat based on the Civil War. Is that an accurate assessment and will we find out more about its origins in Your Servants and Your People?
I don’t think you were alone – this is a question I’m asked quite regularly. It’s funny, in writing Your Brother’s Blood it never occurred to me that readers would want to know more about the war. I assumed that they, like me, would be more caught up in the McDermott family’s story. Perhaps hinted links to the American Civil War were just too tantalizing. After all, the novel opens with a speech by a Walkin’ about the patterns of human behavior and human history. Will Your Servants and Your People explain the origins of the war? I’m afraid not. But as the novel follows a group of soldiers sent to a distant outpost, I hope readers will get a better understanding of what it is like to be a solider in this particular conflict.
I’ve had a while to think on why I wrote, and continue to write, the war in this manner. Without getting too pop-psychology about it, I think this is how I understand war – as something distant that has knock-on effects for the people around me. This is a fortunate position, clearly.
The Leyist beliefs that rule Barkley carry a very strong fundamentalist Christian flavour. Was there any one particular sect that inspired them and how hard was it to get the balance between fundamentalism and practicality right, so that not everyone is rebelling against this harsh faith?
Wow, that’s a great question. Firstly, no particular sect inspired Leyism. It’s not a treatment of any specific area of Christianity. I could have chosen any religion to form the basis for Barkley’s society, or perhaps created my own (though that’s quite the task). But I am constantly inspired by what can be found in the Bible. Just using online gateways to search key words brings up some fantastic lines and ideas. And I’ve spoken before about my awe of faith and respect for anyone who has strong beliefs.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by raising the issue of practicality. That’s how I view Leyism, as I said earlier. Cornerstones of the faith, such as burning the bodies of the dead, are a practical response to the unsettling proposition of the undead. Once that becomes the accepted practice, it’s not a huge leap to take some pretty extreme measures when the accepted goes wrong. Simon Peekman pays the price for this in Your Brother’s Blood, and Mary is therefore in constant danger. From social practices come social stigmas, which can be just as powerful as scripture.
Your Servants and Your People is set seven years after the events of the previous book. What made you take such a jump forward in time?
Lots of reasons, really. I wanted to show a variety of different progressions in my characters – part of what makes the Walkin’ so interesting to write. Seven years is a long time for Mary, as she goes from a precocious little girl to a disillusioned young woman. Whereas Thomas has barely noticed the passage of time, seems confused by it. The jump meant I could write a different kind of Mary and give a completely different feel to the McDermott family dynamic, but one I hope will be informed by a reader’s knowledge of how the used to be.
What’s next for you? Are you hard at work on book 3?
In a sense. Book 3, Your Resting Place, is with my editor now. Which means the really hard work is yet to come. But my writing time is currently focused on a science fiction novel, something in the vein of Solaris, that is set on an asteroid mining facility. I’ve done a bit of research and what companies in America are starting to do in this area is really fascinating.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
For my sins, I play a card game called Magic: the Gathering. It’s a game that has garnered the nickname ‘cardboard crack’ due to its addictive nature. I’m hooked and have been since I was a teenager. I spend too much time playing it, watching the pros on YouTube (there’s a professional circuit), and even thinking about playing it. It has none of the romance of your usual writer’s addictions, but also none of the health risks. Well, almost none.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Well, I’m always excited to see what James Smythe is doing next. His first YA novel, Way Down Dark is the start of a series which I believe is set on a generation starship – a setting which is a personal favourite. I’m also keenly following some other JFB author’s work, such as Stephanie Saulter’s Revolution series and Naomi Foyle’s Astra books.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
At home it’s alphabetically. But in my office, which is where most of my books live, I have them alphabetically within genre. These are a bit loose; I have some historical novels on my fantasy sections and my zombie books are with my SF. My TBR shelves are chaos. It’s a system that makes sense to me, and me alone I’d imagine.
Bio: David Towsey is a graduate of the Bath Spa Creative Writing Masters programme. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, where he lives with his girlfriend and their four cats.
His first novel, Your Brother’s Blood, was published in September 2013 UK (October 2014 US) by Quercus’ imprint Jo Fletcher Books. The rest of the The Walkin’ Trilogy will follow in 2014 and 2015. His short fiction has appeared in numerous markets, links to some of which are available on this site. He has reviewed for critical journals, including New Welsh Review and the BSFA’s Vector.