Fiction, fact and crows: How I wrote a zombie pandemic heist novel

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Crime writer Russell Day explains how his new novel, King of the Crows, came to be published now

A few years ago, I decided to write a heist novel set during a zombie pandemic. The idea was a development of a short story I had written called Keeping Score on a Machete. It was a straightforward zombie apocalypse piece but, rather than centring on the undead, the focus of the story was the main character’s rise from loser to hero. The tone of the story, more by chance than design, gave the impression of a magazine interview. The narrator mentions a film that has been made about his life and debunks various myths about, what he refers to as, the ‘outbreak’. I thought it would be interesting to tell the expanded story via a series of slanted, and contradictory, sources: articles, police reports, online chatrooms, and scenes from the film.

Despite the size of the book (165,000 words), actually writing King of the Crows took barely a year. I would not say it was easy, but everything, for the most part, went smoothly. I hate it when authors claim books ‘wrote themselves’ but I have to say, when I was writing Crows things did have a habit of falling into place.

As with the short story, I did not want the focus of the novel to be the zombies, but at the same time I needed to construct a disturbing and believable backdrop for the characters’ stories to be told against. While wondering how to make zombies believable, I found a discarded National Geographic magazine. The cover story was ‘REAL ZOMBIES The strange science of the living dead’. Inside there were details about parasites that control the behaviour of their hosts. One of them really fitted the storyline of Crows. A parasite that can live inside rats but, for breeding, favours cats’ intestines. To make the transition from rodent to feline, it causes brain damage in the host rat, causing it to seek out places where cats are likely to be. You can guess the outcome. The host cat then goes on to spread the parasite through its faeces, which can lead to toxoplasmosis in humans, which can lead to an increase in aggression. In the novel I just ramped up the effects.

Things like this kept happening. I turned on Radio 4 just in time to hear Dr Jonathan D. Quick talking about his new book on the impact and handling of pandemics, and another lump of research landed, ready-made, in my lap.

While I was wondering how to write the script pages that appear in Crows, I chanced on the screenplay for Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in paperback. I had had no idea the book even existed and would not have thought to look for it.

But, to be honest, when the MS was finished, I did wonder what in hell I had done. Aside from being very long and mad as a box of frogs, it was a typesetter’s nightmare. The page layout would change three or four times within each chapter, date formats differed depending on the narrative source, the text frequently switched between US English and UK English, some sections were deliberately misspelt and others included misquotations. And, when all was said and done, who in their right mind writes a zombie heist novel? I did not think any publisher would touch it.

Which is where Chris McVeigh, owner of Fahrenheit Press, comes in. I sent him a copy of the MS along with a covering letter explaining why he would be crazy to go near it. He sent me a contract by return. Fahrenheit Press may well be a small indie publisher, but that does not stop Chris McVeigh having the biggest cojones in the industry.

Chris pulled out the stops: a twitter page @thecrowshq appeared, along with a website KingOfTheCrows.com featuring a teaser trailer and an invite to join The Crows. Word of this weird, genre-busting-novel began to spread. Everything was looking good. Then Covid-19 appeared.

Cities went into lockdown, people started wearing masks, conspiracy freaks started pedalling nonsense, America closed its borders and cracks appeared in the economy. A lot of the fiction I had written was suddenly fact. Chris began joking that I was not a crime writer, I was witch.

King of the Crows was suddenly in limbo. Would publishing it look like up-to-the-minute commentary, or a tasteless cash-in? Release was put on hold while soundings were taken. Finally, it was decided Crows would be released on 1 May 2020. So far, the news has been greeted positively and there has been a lot of interest.

For myself, I am just happy to see Crows in print. It is like nothing I have written before and I cannot imagine writing something like it again. Not unless the crystal ball says otherwise.

Stay tuned for a special King of the Crows giveaway on our Facebook and Twitter pages - coming soon!

 

If you're interested in writing dystopian fiction, check out how to grab readers' attention by starting strong with this advice from Nebula Award winner Jeff Vandermeer.