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updated: 7/11/2013 1:19 PM

Max Brooks took Terkel approach to 'World War Z'

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  • "World War Z" novelist Max Brooks speaks at Harper College Friday.

    "World War Z" novelist Max Brooks speaks at Harper College Friday.

  • Video: "World War Z" trailer


Somewhere on a Wisconsin lake, "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" novelist Max Brooks baited a hook while fishing for bass aboard his brother-in-law's canoe.

That's where the writer -- son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft -- took my phone call to talk about his book, the new movie Brad Pitt made from it and Brooks' speaking engagement at 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, at Harper College's Performing Arts Center.

Our conversation went like this:

Q. I liked your book more than I liked Brad Pitt's movie. The book reminded me of Studs Terkel's oral histories.

A. One of my favorite books growing up was Studs Terkel's "The Good War." I wanted to write another zombie book after "The Zombie Survival Guide" (2003), but I did not want to write another zombie adventure story, you know? Zombies are big; they're global. How would I tell a giant zombie story? How could I encompass the whole world? Studs Terkel's "The Good War" was the perfect template.

Q. You took a very bold and unconventional approach to writing zombie fiction.

A. My book doesn't have a hero. Nobody's saving the world. The fact that it's a bunch of interviews with survivors already tells you who died and who didn't. That takes away a whole level of tension right there!

I think a lot of people liked the movie better because it has a hero and action scenes. It moves. My book's all talky and thinky!

Q. God forbid movies should be that. What was the toughest challenge in writing "World War Z"?

A. The research. I wanted everything to be real. One of my heroes is Tom Clancy. He didn't have to invent some Ian Fleming fantasy tale. He made the real world interesting, but he had to do a ton of homework. Could I do enough homework to make it interesting enough? That was my greatest challenge.

Q. In the book, your zombie virus Patient Zero comes out of China. In the movie, it's been changed to South Korea. Why?

A. I don't know why they did that. For me, Patient Zero came out of China. That's why my book isn't published in China. They asked me to censor it, and I refused. The first time I was offered a deal the publisher said, "We have to change China to a fictional country." I said no.

Q. Seriously? Why?

A. I didn't make the movie, so it doesn't bother me that much that they made changes to their movie. But I'll be (darned) if I let anybody change my book. That's why Brad Pitt is not on the cover of the movie tie-in book edition.

I respect Brad Pitt as an actor. But his character Gerry Lane isn't even in the book. How could I put a character on the cover who ain't in the pages?

Q. I see your point. But didn't this create problems with you and the publishers?

A. I really gave those poor guys at Random House heartburn. Have you seen the movie poster of the helicopter trying to take off with all the zombies jumping on it? It looks like the fall of Saigon!

Paramount sent that to me as a proposed book cover. I thought it was brilliant, but look: The zombies in my book wouldn't to that, couldn't do that. Once again, I can't false advertise. I can't put something on the cover that isn't in the pages.

How could I do that? I don't want someone buying my book and becoming angry because they were expecting the further adventures of Gerry Lane.

Q. What's the best part about writing novels?

A. I don't have to answer to anybody. I never take an advance on any books I write. I never want to owe anything to anybody, except my readers and my conscience.

Q. Thanks, Mr. Brooks. I must now head into the Loop to see "Pacific Rim."

A. I am so jealous! Giant robots fighting monsters from outer space under the ocean? How did I miss the boat on that?

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