There’s something quite discomfiting about reading a post apocalyptic zombie thriller set in your hometown. It’s one level of scary to read about the globetrotting zombie infections in World War Z or the frolicking English zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a little more frightening when you drive past the Monroeville Mall, where Dawn of the Dead was filmed. However, it’s a completely freaky, completely unsettling, completely scary thing when the horror novel takes place right in your neighborhood.
Em Garner’s Young Adult Novels are set mostly in Lebanon County, with references to Mount Gretna, Annville, and Manheim. They deal with a world that’s been plagued by contamination—a side effect from a new diet drink that was all the rage. The places Velvet, the young heroine, explores and sees are based on real places in Central Pennsylvania. The Sheetz gas station that sits on 72? It’s in there. The Lebanon Valley Mall? Still there. These places are now backdrop to the ravages of a world gone crazy from the proteins in the water. And instead of the Sheetz being a place to buy the best Schmuffins around, it’s now a place where connies (those affected by the contamination) flip and start attacking unaffected citizens.
Though Garner’s book is geared toward a teenage audience, everyone, regardless of their age, can find something just for them in it. From a look at the way a government might operate after a crisis to the treatment of citizens who are deemed less than others, Contaminated 1 & 2 is a cautionary tale about what could happen to our world. And since it’s set in the world we know intimately, it’s pretty darn unsettling.
Using quick pacing and pulse-quickening situations, Garner keeps the pages turning as we watch Velvet, her sister, and their connie mom try to make it in a new world that’s not friendly to those affected by the disease. And, even though you might shudder every time you drive on Route 72, Contaminated is one book you don’t want to miss.
CONVERSATION WITH EM GARNER
Having met Em Garner years ago when she was just beginning her writing, I’ve been very familiar with her work as she found success and became a big hit in the industry, winning awards and appearing on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Therefore, you can imagine how happy I was to be given a copy of her new young adult book along with the chance to interview her. Over the course of several days, I tossed questions at Em, and she responded with answers that will amaze and inspire you.
FINE LIVING LANCASTER (FLL): You set Contaminated in Lebanon County, which you’re very familiar with. Why did you decide to use real places, instead of fabricating the names and places?
EM GARNER (EG): I do often make up names for things, but inevitably, when writing contemporary stories, using real places just makes sense. It gives a sense of place.
FLL: This is your first foray into young adult literature. What do you prefer about it over adult literature? What do you like better about adult literature?
EG: I love, love, loved writing this story. It was just so freeing and exciting to write something I’d like to read. I wrote it without a contract or sale, so I had no deadline, and telling the story was simply so much fun that I enjoyed that part the best. In YA [Young Adult] lit, there seems to be a far more accepting world for offbeat genre stories. In writing for adults, I get to delve into a lot more emotion and grownup themes, so there’s the best of both worlds.
FLL: Have you spoken with any of your teen readers?
EG: The best feedback I can get from any reader is “I loved your book.” I’ve had some amazing feedback from teen readers, and since I’m so brand new to the YA world, each comment means so much to me.
FLL: Will you continue writing YA novels?
EG: I hope to. I have ideas for a few more YA stories.
FLL: Contaminated’s premise is that a diet drink created zombie-like people. How did you come up for the idea of a contamination instead of a something more traditionally zombie-esque?
EG: I’d been researching prion diseases and neurological disorders for some other projects, and this concept of something being able to change your behavior because of something you eat (Mad Cow Disease, for example) really stuck with me. And at the time, protein water was just becoming really popular. I thought, “What if…?” And the story grew from there.
FLL: Obviously the world’s never seen mass destruction caused by a protein drink, so how did you do your research?
EG: For research into the prion disease, I read a bunch of books and researched on the Internet about how prion diseases affect the brain as well as how other neurological disorders affect the brain.
FLL: Your protagonist, Velvet, is a strong young girl. She’s barely 17, works and takes care of her sister in lieu of their parents. Did you have any inspiration for her character?
EG: My daughter, and to a certain extent, my self-image of myself as a young girl. I spent a lot of time caring for my younger sister when I was about Velvet’s age. (Fortunately, not because of a world-wide contamination!) I drew a lot from my memories of what it was like to be in charge and not really wanting to be. And my daughter, now, has such a great head on her shoulders and is such a great kid, so she really inspired me to make Velvet a truly capable character.
FLL: You’ve been in the business for a while. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
EG: You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. That’s how it works. You can talk all day about writing, but you’re not a writer unless you write.
FLL: How do you accomplish that? Do you have a writing schedule?
EG: Since I’m lucky enough to write full time as my job, my process is the same as it would be for anyone with a job. I get up, I get ready, I sit down, I do my job. The truth is, I write Monday through Friday from approximately nine in the morning until about three, when my kids get home. Then a little bit after that. Sometimes, I’ll go back to work around eight or nine at night, if I haven’t finished everything I need to do. I work on weekends and vacations when I have to, but I try not to. I write as much as I can or have to, and fill in the cracks with everything else I have to do, too. I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters and playing dialogue in my head. I’m basically thinking about writing whenever I’m not writing.
FLL: What is something most people would be surprised to learn about the life of a writer?
EG: The life of a writer is not really that glamorous. Except when it is. I mean, traveling and going to book signings and conferences and fan mail, that’s all pretty cool. But never really finishing anything in a day… knowing that no matter how much you want to, you really can’t put a cap on your working day, that’s not so great. There’s no nine-to-five with writing. You can take time off, but it’s going to bite you someplace tender if you’re not disciplined enough to get your work done on time. I think people might be surprised that it is a job, that it’s work, and that it’s really hard work sometimes. The hardest part, for example, isn’t the ideas. For me, anyway. I have tons of ideas. The hardest part is balancing work with non-work. Writing sort of flows into just about everything else and it’s really easy to let it take over free time. And without time off to refill the creative well, you can burn out. On the other hand, taking too much time off makes it so much harder to get back into it!
FLL: Would you advise others to follow in your footsteps?
FLL: I know there are oodles of people dying to talk to you now. Do they need to drink the water to find you?
EG: I love to hear from readers, so don’t be shy! Check out my website and Facebook and Twitter to figure out if I’m going to be at a bookstore or event near you, and come out and say hello. I don’t bite, I promise.
This might be one time in your life that it’s actually a good thing to get Contaminated. And after you read about connies shambling through some familiar locales, be sure to visit Em on her website, on Facebook or on Twitter.