I'm super excited to have James Ponti here today for an awesome interview! James is the author of the fabulous Dead City, the first book in a new middle-grade zombie series. I recently read Dead City and LOVED it! Be sure to check out my review.
The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins says this paranormal action-adventure “breathes new life into the zombie genre” and has “a terrific twist of an ending.”Most kids have enough to deal with between school, homework, extracurricular activities, and friends, but Molly Bigelow has something else on her list: hunting zombies. By day, Molly attends MIST—the Metropolitan Institute of Science and Technology—but outside the classroom she’s busy dealing with the undead. Because not only do zombies exist, they’re everywhere, and it’s her job to help police them and keep the peace. Sure, she’d like to be a regular kid, but given that her mother was the most revered (or feared, depending on your perspective) zombie hunter in the history of New York City, “regular” just isn’t possible. Molly’s got some legendary footsteps to follow—and some undeadly consequences if she fails.
WS: What three words best describe your book DEAD CITY?
JP- Juicy zombie fun.
WS: Can you give us your best one sentence pitch for DEAD CITY to convince readers that they really must read your book?
JP- (That’s exactly what I was trying to do with the first line of the book which is the title of the prologue.)
“You’re probably wondering why there’s a dead body in the bathroom…”
WS: What made you decide to write a zombie book for kids? Where did the idea or inspiration for DEAD CITY come from?
JP- It came the opposite way as every other thing I’ve written. Normally I start with a character and then try to think of a situation and build from there. But this came in reverse from a discarded idea that was completely different. I’d written some Romantic Comedies for Simon Pulse and was trying to come up with another one. My idea was about a girl at a science magnet school who understood everything about physics, chemistry, etc… but nothing about social things and boys and why kids act they way they do. When I went to write up the pitch I needed to have a name for the school and I came up with the Metropolitan Institute of Science and Technology which everyone calls MIST. For some reason, my favorite part of the pitch became the name of the school. There was something about the sound of it that I liked so I threw the rest of it out and asked myself, what kind of things would happen at a school called MIST. About fifteen minutes later I had a secret group called the Omegas and I was off and running.
WS: Can you tell us a little bit about your heroine in DEAD CITY, Molly Bigelow? What makes her stand out from other middle-grade characters?
JP- I LOVE Molly! A lot. I think you really need to love your protagonist but you also need to make sure that you don’t love her so much that you make her too perfect or unrealistic. Molly makes mistakes – a lot of them – but usually for the right reasons. She’s academically gifted and socially awkward and no one is more surprised than she is that she has this incredible skill set to combat the zombies that live underneath Manhattan. Most of all she is fun to write! My favorite part of Suzanne Collins’ blurb for the book is when she says, “Brainy, funny and socially baffled Molly Bigelow makes for an irresistible narrator.” That’s exactly what I was shooting for.
WS: Grab a copy of DEAD CITY and answer the following:
My background is writing television scripts and I think as a result of that, I tend to have favorite moments more than chapters. I think of the moments as the basic unit of story telling. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but my two favorite moments in the book are probably when Natalie shows Molly that her horseshoe necklace might not be what she thinks it is and when Molly’s sister Beth tries to teach her how to put on makeup. (This is funny to me because as one of three brothers and the father of two boys I know absolutely nothing about makeup, which my editor was more than happy to point out in the margins of the first draft.) If I had to pick a favorite chapter, I’d probably go with Chapter 1 That Weird Bigelow Girl - where we find out Molly’s backstory and she rides on the elevator with a colorful cast of characters.
No question here - The last one. I really did not have the story plotted out very much as I wrote Dead City, but I knew what that last page would be almost word for word while I wrote the rest. I consider the first 276 words little more than preparation for that one. (Please don’t jump ahead and see what it is.)
This is a little unfair because I try to make the characters well-rounded and flawed. I try to keep them as real as possible, but I think I cheat when it comes to writing Molly’s dad. I think it’s because I’m a dad and he’s the father I want to be. I also feel a big responsibility to writing parents well because I feel like it’s easy to turn them into caricatures.
Flip to a random page, choose a random sentence and give us a little teaser:
“But over the next few days the worries that kept me up at night went from severed fingers and robbing graves to fitting in and making friends.” (Page 35) I like this line because it frames Molly’s two conflicting universes.
WS: Have you ever come face to face with a zombie?! You can tell us, we'll believe you! Any tips on how to be prepared for a zombie encounter?
JP- First of all, it’s important to remember that they hate to be called the Z-word, they much prefer “undead.” And while I’ve never come face-to-face with an official one, I’ve spent more twenty years working in television so I’ve known more than my share of heartless, soulless and mindless people. I’ve found the best way to distract them is with excessive compliments and gluten-free desserts.
WS: You've worked on several tv shows for children, shows that I'm sure many readers have watched...can you tell us about your experience working on those shows? Do you have a favorite show that you've worked on?
JP- I loved writing kid/tween/teen television and have worked on many. I wrote on the last two seasons of Mickey Mouse Club back when Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell and the others were all really young and nice and talented. That was a great show to write because it was fun to work in a room of comedy writers who were basically trying to make each other laugh all day.
My all time favorite TV writing gig was a Nickelodeon show called the Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. It was about a teenage girl detective who lived with her grandfather in a bed and breakfast. There were three of us on the writing staff – Alan Goodman who created and produced the show and Suzanne Collins who I ended working with over and over again. (After TV she started dabbling in Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction that some of your readers may be familiar with.) Shelby was great fun because it was often Suzanne and I just sitting in the room trying to come up with mysteries that were challenging but still fit the Nickelodeon mold – no violence, drugs, etc… Let me just say that there were a lot of jewel thieves who stayed over at that Bed and Breakfast.
After Shelby, Suzanne and I ended up working together on Jojo’s Circus for Disney and Clifford’s Puppy Days for PBS. She was the one who encouraged me to get into writing books. (I’m a bit of a fan of hers, so excuse me if I gush.)
WS: If you could jump inside ANY book for a short visit, what book would it be and what would you do in that world?
JP- The book that did it for me was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was not a strong reader growing up and I struggled getting into fiction because I read so much slower than everybody else in my class. But when I read that book I just got lost in it and fell in love. I see so much of that love carried into Dead City including the realistic New York setting, the precociously brilliant but awkward girl protagonist, the character voice, the solving of mysteries, the list goes on. As far as to what I’d do in that world, my lifelong dream ever since reading it has been to spend the night in a museum so that I could poke around behind the velvet ropes and really get a good look at things.
WS: Fill in the blanks:
I'm really awesome at Frisbee Golf. At least the version we developed when I was in college. We’d “tee off” around 11:00 PM and play on a course we designed that criss-crossed the University of Southern California and wouldn’t make it back to our dorm until about 2:00 AM.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I really love the Carly Rae Jepsen song “Call me Maybe.” It is the perfect pop song and I want to hate it but I just turn it up every time it comes on the radio.
My favorite Halloween costume would be the ghost outfit that Charlie Brown wears in “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.”
My favorite zombie movie is – I don’t have one. True confession time here, I’ve never seen a zombie movie, TV show or read a zombie book. I had never been interested before and now that I’m writing my own zombie book series I avoid them so they don’t affect my plotting. However, I’m a huge fan of An American Werewolf in London and the mix of horror and humor in that probably influenced the version I was trying to create in Dead City.
WS: If you were to create/bake a DEAD CITY inspired cupcake, what would it look and taste like and what would you call it?
JP- Probably shaped like a head and something in the red velvet family with an oozy vanilla pudding in the middle. I’m embarrassed that I can’t come up with a clever name. I’d probably go with “Undead Heads.”
Thank you SO much James for taking the time to answer my questions! And readers, trust me, Dead City is a must read for all ages and the perfect Halloween read.
I grew up in Atlantic Beach, Florida and am a graduate of the University of Southern California. I've written numerous books and have worked as a television writer/producer. I'm currently writing the Dead City Middle Grade book series about a secret society of New York City zombie fighters. According to a non-disclosure agreement I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not I've ever actually fought a zombie face to face. Although I am certain that a few of my middle school teachers were undead.
Be sure to visit the Dead City Facebook page, to learn more and to watch teaser videos, like these:
Teaser Video #1
Teaser Video #2