Interview: Author Devan Sagliani

Interview with Devan Sagliani, Author of LA Undead

I Recently had the pleasure of talking with Devan Sagliani, author of the Zombie Attack! series, The Rising Dead, A Thirst For Fire, and the UNDEAD L.A. series and writer of the original screenplay for the movie HVZ: Humans Versus Zombies. Devan's work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award.

Devan graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me in the first of what I hope to be a regular series of interviews talking to some of our favorite authors. Enjoy!

Let’s start off getting to know a little about you!

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview. I am happy to answer any questions you have about my writing or anything else!

What five words best describe you?

Hmmm. How about these 5:  Creative, sensitive, determined, dreamer and writer.

Do you have a most embarrassing moment?

One comes to mind. It was super early in the morning. I was at LAX airport, getting ready to fly out to Amsterdam for my birthday. I was by myself and feeling anxious about all that time in the air. The terminals were pretty empty. I look across the way and to my great surprise sitting by himself is my favorite author Salman Rushdie. I couldn't believe it. It was almost like a strange dream.

I went over and asked if anyone ever told him he bore a striking resemblance to Salman Rushdie. He said yes, raising an eyebrow at me. I then asked him, “Are you Salman Rushdie?” Again he said yes, with just the slightest hint of a question mark at the end of the word. And that is when I totally geeked out on him. I went on and on about loving his work and talked about different characters and what his stories meant to me. He was kind and talked to me briefly  but seemed more than a little weirded out by how excited I was to meet him, which makes sense because there are literally people trying to kill him for writing Satanic Verses to this day. He has to keep his guard up. I’m still kind of embarrassed now that I think about it. I've lived in Los Angeles my whole life and met my fair share of celebrities, but I lost my cool for a writer. I’m just lucky they didn't call security on me I think.

Having read some of your work, I’m sure this never happens…how do you react to a bad review of your work?

When I first started publishing on Amazon I got a couple less than favorable reviews, and one on Goodreads as well. I think some people feel they have to find something to criticize in order to feel like they’ve been unbiased. There is also a fair amount of jealousy between writers. You can’t let that get under your skin or you’ll never get words down on paper.

As time went by, and I got a publishing deal, my reviews seemed to get better and better. I think people have a tendency to be more critical of independent authors, which is sad. All you can do is hold your head up and know that the people who like what you write will stand behind you. You’ve got to believe in yourself and what you are writing or nobody else will either. 

Are there any critiques in particular that you just can’t seem to shake?

Yes but only because they are so good. One of the first reviews I got came out of the blue. The woman was so impressed with my debut novel she couldn't contain her enthusiasm. And she compared it to something popular out there, suggesting I was next in line for fame and fortune. That review really gave me the confidence to go on and keep writing books. To know that someone enjoyed my work so much that they sang my praises is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I am absolutely blown away by the love and support I've received from readers who’ve taken the time to come back and leave positive reviews. Zombie fans are the best fans in the world. Hands down.

It makes me wish I would have started pursuing my dreams of writing genre fiction earlier. It’s also a great reminder of how important reviews to writers. One good review can leave you floating on a cloud for days, blissed out knowing that you really connected with another person and shared your story with them in a meaningful way. I wish more people would leave them.

If you were to create a writing soundtrack, what artists would be on it?

It’s funny that you ask that because I left music notes to my last book, The Rising Dead, in the credits. It was mostly metal. For my book Zombie Attack I listened to nothing but Appetite for Destruction and Metallica when I was writing it. I had a reviewer mention it but never heard a peep from anyone else so I left it off the end of the new book.

For Undead L.A. 1 I would add in some rap and hip hop, some classic rock, and some reggae dub. So I’d say Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Marilyn Manson, Foo Fighters, The Game, Ice Cube, Westside Connection, Rob Zombie, Black Sabbath, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Skrillex, Snoop Lion, and Bob Marley were most of what I listened to while writing it. I’d love to make a soundtrack on Soundcloud for each story if I could figure it out.

How do you come up with the character names in your books?

Some names just stand out for me. When I see them I write them down and keep a list for future use. Other times it’s as simple as the way the name projects certain qualities on the character. I like to use names for my main characters that convey a feeling or attitude that fits them, like Xander in Zombie Attack or Felicity Jane or Tank. I want the name to help the reader get a mental image of the character as much as possible.

How many people have you killed off over your career as a writer? Ever offed someone off then kicked yourself for it?

I can’t even count. I mean I just killed off most of Los Angeles so that’s millions right there. I remember the first horror movie I wrote, sitting around coming up with new ways to kill people. I told a friend that I’d spent the day burning people alive and eviscerating them. It was the first time I realized how much fun writing for work could really be.  So far I haven’t had author’s remorse for prematurely killing off a character but we will see. I’m working on the sequel to Zombie Attack right now and I already know a few characters that won’t make it to the end. No spoilers.

Have you ever written yourself or people you know as a character in one of your books?

I haven’t tried writing myself in yet but I have used people I know to shape characters. The funny thing is that by the time I go back through rewrites and edits they usually don’t look anything like the original version – so to speak. Characters tend to take on a life of their own you know? The one exception would be Harley Richards from Undead L.A. 1, who is so obviously a thinly veiled caricature of a famous sitcom actor who likes prostitutes and cocaine. Since I couldn't have the star as an actual character I just used the character he plays in every role, and what the tabloids say about him, and adapted it for my own needs. I think he would be a fun character to continue to play with because despite all his flaws he’s honest, unflinching, and a magnet for fucked up adventures. Troublesome people often are. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to party with once so you could tell people about it later, then end up doing something so illegal you could never admit you’d even met him.

I did mention some real people in Undead L.A.  1 like Roy Choi, celebrity chef and creator of the food truck revolution. I really respect and admire him and what he’s created. I’m also a fan of his cuisine! I mentioned Jeff Ho as well, a Venice legend who created the Z Boys and sparked the skateboard trend in America. Before Jeff Ho skating was a dying fad for little kids. Now it’s a recognized sport with household names like Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek. Just look at how popular the X Games are. Jeff is responsible for that in his own way. You still see him Venice too, just hanging out. When I had just finished Undead L.A. 1 I ran into him on the Venice Pier. We were both watching guys surf the break.

Do you laugh at your own jokes as you write them?

No but I hope my readers will. I’d like to think the jokes really help ease the tension in the dark moments. They remind us of the characters humanity too. I want the reader to feel like these are people they can relate to. The jokes take the edge off in between so I can shock you all over again.

Your work spans different media. Which do you have more fun with? Film or books?

I definitely prefer writing books to writing movies. It was my dreadful experiences in Hollywood that lead to me deciding to go full throttle on my writing in fact. In the movie industry your work gets changed, again and again. You have no control. In fact people don’t think much of writers in general once they get the script in their hands. When you’re writing a novel you are in total control of the story. You’re also entirely responsible for it. I guess the best part of writing books is being able to really stretch your imagination to the limit without worrying about going over budget.

Who are you reading right now?

I’m reading Stephen King’s Joyland. I've got a stack of books I hope to get to and no time. Other titles include the quirky detective novel by Thomas Pynchon and a handful of Permuted titles I picked up during the last sale.  I’m also looking forward to the new Michael Connelly book coming out later this month, Gods of Guilt. I better get reading!

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Yes. Take the time you need to develop your craft. Treat your writing like a job and expect to put in the hours to learn to do it with skill. Don’t get upset when people criticize you. See if you can learn from it, use it to make your writing better. Then let it go and just write from the heart. Find a reader you can trust who supports you. That helps. Get on social media and start promoting yourself. Don’t just expect people to come to you and tell you how great you are. Reach out to your target audience and let them know you are here.

I also highly recommend reading ON WRITING by Stephen King. That book changed my life. It was like it unlocked something in me. I've been writing books ever since.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I know that probably sounds bad but it’s true. There is always a story going in my mind that I want to get down on paper. If I don’t know where my story is going I will sit down and make plot notes and draw up a better outline. That way when I set to writing my first draft I know where I am headed and can let my imagination run wild. If you’re blocked go back to the outline. If you are still blocked switch to something you enjoy writing. If that doesn't work you might want to try your hand at something else, like painting or sculpting or some other type of art. There are an unlimited number of ways to express yourself that don’t involve words.

What's a typical working day like for you?

These days it starts out with checking emails and social media, then usually cranking out a fresh block of writing, then back to the social media in the afternoon. Sometimes I will also write later at night. Like I said, I always have a story line going on in my head, trying to get out into the world.

Let's talk Undead L.A. 1!

Kats character is so well written and evokes such a raw emotion from readers, what was your inspiration for this character?

I wish I knew where the characters and stories come from. It’s the one thing I get asked the most. How do you come up with all of this stuff? It starts as a fragment or an idea for a character and just starts to grow. Then I start to ask lots of questions. What is the characters background? How do they cope with everyday problems? How has their past shaped the decisions they are making now? Kat just kept growing and growing as a character. She is strong and brave in the face of not only the zombie apocalypse but also against the certain knowledge of her impending death. It’s like the whole story is really about her coming to terms with her own mortality, and the end of the world just happens to be part of her experience of accepting death.

I used some elements from my own life to flesh out Kat as well. I went to UCLA and have family in Seattle. I had friends in Westwood when I was in college and we used to run through the Village and get into trouble. I still live close by and eat in the neighborhood from time to time. I even stand in line once in a blue moon to get cookies at Diddy Reise, just like she does with Will in the story. 

What's your favorite moment in Undead L.A.1?

My favorite moment in the whole book is when Pilar stops during the Food Truck festival in downtown and watches the sunset. I spent so much time trying to get the imagery just right. That moment is idyllic. Time stops for one brief moment before the chaos. Here’s the passage -

Even though it was late in September, it still felt like summer in Los Angeles. For the last two weeks the dry Santa Ana winds contributed to keeping the temperatures higher than normal, while the smog and chemicals hanging in the air from the refineries and factories transformed the late afternoon sunsets into a mind blowing acid flashback. Somewhere north of four o'clock the air took on a golden quality as the sun blazed a path directly into the choppy water of the Pacific Ocean, like Orpheus courageously plunging into the depths of the underworld to save his beloved Eurydice. It left behind a brilliant wall of fiery clouds that resembled an angry blast furnace set high enough to melt every golden idol the City of Angels had ever erected to itself, or at least all the trophies from the countless award shows Hollywood hosted each year.

So breathtaking was this display that Angelinos would walk outside and stare at it in wonder, some even acknowledging their unfamiliar neighbors with idle chatter, their eyes all glued to the spectacle. Drivers pulled to the side of the road in rush hour traffic to drink in the phenomenon, not wanting to be distracted. Some even ignored their cell phones for the duration of the event, leaving their Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest updates to wait until later in the evening.

We all watched the sky together, knowing in our heart of hearts this was one of the reasons for putting up with all the drama that living in this fucked up city brings with it – the unfairness, the cold distances, and the inconceivable economic inequality so brashly shoved in our faces on a daily basis by the city's well off. It didn't matter if you'd lived here your whole life in a run down apartment in Van Nuys or owned half the real estate on the water in Malibu. These sunsets belonged to all of us and we knew it. Any seat in the house was as good as the next. All you had to do was look up. I made it a point never to miss one.

An hour would pass and then the sky would morph once again, the righteous fury of the sky begrudgingly relinquishing its stranglehold as the light spilled over the rim of the world, leaving in its place fluffy pink tufts of sticky cotton candy like something out of a children’s book. These whirling balls of vibrant spun sugar lazily drifted overhead, idly threatening to flood the city in a deluge of rainbow colored gumballs as they passed, before fading into the darkness of dusk like a merry old drunk swooning through traffic on his way back home from the bar. As the last rays of light vanished like memories from a dream and night finally fell, there came an infusion of deep purple the color of a fresh bruise that uniformly blanketed the endless space over our heads. Wooly silver strings and twinkling diamonds haphazardly gleamed down on us while the deliciously cool air licked refreshingly at our skin and lingered in our nostrils like the long forgotten smell of a favorite perfume from puberty. The night concealed horrors in its velvet folds, yes, but also magic and wonder as well. Anything could happen on a wild summers night. Fortunes could be made or lives lost. Since this was the City of Angels, odds were good that more than a handful of people would experience both such scenarios before the sun rose once more.

Undead L.A. 1 vignettes multiple story lines. Is there a specific message you want your readers to take away?

Not at all. I’m just trying my best to write stories that will capture the reader’s imagination and keep them entertained. If I can do that then I feel like it was all worth it. I thought it would be more fun to show the event in a sprawling city like Los Angeles through the eyes of its many unique cultures and perspectives. That way the city itself becomes the main character by default. I also knew I wanted to go beyond a linear story line. Each version gives the reader a new piece of the puzzle, helping resolve the mystery of why it happened. There is plenty more coming in part 2. Trust me!

So, what's next on the horizon?

Right now I am working on the sequel to Zombie Attack Rise of the Horde. I’m almost halfway done. Xander gets shipped off to run a civilian colony called Freedom Town near Barstow. Soon he’s battling bikers, nomads, and even factions of the military as he learns there is a bounty on his head and people lining up to try to collect it. Highlights so far include a house of ill repute that’s been turned into an outlaw paradise, a historical re-enactment town from the Wild West filled with actors, and a whole circus of zombie clowns. There’s also a hot new female character who might be a villain or a savior…or both?

If all goes well it should be out by or before February of next year from Permuted Press. They've been amazingly supportive and are really pushing for me to get it done so they can start promoting it. 

Where can readers stalk you and your work:
Amazon Author Page