Book Interview | Max Brooks

He’s left zombies behind for a virtual world of survival.
By | Sep 07, 2017
Image © Dan Winters

Max Brooks, the only child of comedian Mel Brooks and the late actor and director Anne Bancroft, is best known as the world’s foremost zombie expert. “He’s a zombie laureate,” The New York Times once described him, “our nation’s lone zombie public intellectual.” In 2003, Brooks published his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, his follow-up novel, World War Z, sold more than a million copies and became the basis for the 2013 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt.

Brooks’s preoccupation with apocalyptic scenarios led him to explore a more practical path: He uses zombie stories to help illustrate ways that institutions can prepare for large-scale disasters, and he is currently a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. But in his latest book, he has (mostly) left his zombie villains behind. Minecraft: The Island takes place within the world of the famed video game, played by more then 40 million people every month worldwide. Although his characters are no longer flesh-eating corpses, the book is, he says, “another survival book, pure and simple.” Moment speaks to Brooks about how to survive everything, from zombie attacks to nuclear war to 21st-century life.

How did your fascination with zombies begin?

It came from accidentally stumbling across a zombie movie when I was 12 or 13 years old. My parents were out, and I snuck in to watch cable TV, and I stumbled across an Italian cannibal zombie movie. I always had an extremely vivid imagination, so trying to tell myself, “Oh, don’t worry about it, that’s just a movie, it’s all fake” didn’t exactly lull me to sleep. So I used to think, “Well, what if there really were zombies? How would I survive?”

As I got older, I took those musings and I wrote them in a book that I thought nobody else would want to read. I stuck it in a drawer. When it did get out into the world, it became The Zombie Survival Guide, and it started my career.

Why does so much of your writing focus on fear and survival?

I am curious about the way the world works, specifically survival mechanisms. That doesn’t just mean disaster, apocalypse, hoarding beans and bullets. When I say survival mechanisms, I mean: How do countries stay countries? How do societies keep together? How do individuals thrive? How do children learn?

What do zombie mythology and zombie stories tell us about modern-day anxieties?

If done right, they’re an amazing tool for explaining, not only what to do when the lights go off, but how the lights stay on in the first place. Unlike most other monster movies, which just attack the individual, zombie stories in their apocalyptic nature destroy the threads that hold society together, like water and power and trade and transportation. What to do when there are no more antibiotics, what to do when the phones don’t work. So I think if you do it right, they’re a great way to teach us about disaster prep and infrastructure and societies—but in a safe way. Because it’s zombies, it’s fake, and it’s not too scary.

What are your thoughts on apocalypses—and why are you so drawn to them?

I think the apocalypse is extremely preventable. I’m not a fatalist at all. I think there really isn’t a problem that we can’t solve. It’s just, are we willing to pay the price to solve the problem? We just need to identify problems and we need to take steps to solve these problems—and that’s it. And that’s a very Israeli thing, that’s a very American thing. It’s a very Jewish thing.

The cover of Brooks’s new novel, Minecraft: The Island

Should we be preparing for an apocalypse?

When I say preparing for the apocalypse, what I mean is things like paying your taxes so roads get built and hospitals get maintained and the cops and the fire department get paid. That’s preventing the apocalypse, especially in a democracy. Understanding what the issues are and voting. If you want to prevent the apocalypse, go to the polls and vote for the world you want to live in.

You’ve lectured about zombie preparedness for military audiences. What’s that like?

What’s great about zombies is that you can explain big-ticket issues through the lens of fiction. That’s how I began. And then eventually I got invited to give more and more lectures and talks for the military. Then I got a fellowship at West Point, where I write about straight military issues seen through a non-military lens. I write about potential problems looming that are not yet related to the military; they’re environmental, economic, social, political. But they could very well become violent in the future, and we need to keep an eye on them.

Do you see any connection between Judaism and the zombie mythology?

There is a connection between Judaism and survival. I think one of the reasons the world doesn’t like us is that we’ve committed the unpardonable sin of not going quietly into history. Unlike so many other ancient civilizations, we have continued to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity. We are the embodiment of “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I think that most of humanity could benefit from that resilience.

Brooks with his parents, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, in East Berlin in 1987.


What is your relationship with Judaism?

I like to say that I’m not Jewish enough for Israel, but I’m Jewish enough for Auschwitz. My mother was an Italian Catholic, and my father, as you know, is the second most famous Jew next to Jesus. I’ve always been a half-breed, and I’m pretty comfortable with that at this point in my life.

The movie World War Z, based on your novel, was once called “the most pro-Israel zombie movie” ever made. What did you think about that?

I have no problem with that. I am rabidly pro-Israel and pro-Zionist, which is why I cannot stand the religious settlers. My love for Israel matches my disdain for the settlers. My mother played Golda Meir on stage. I have a stamp collection given to me when I was born by Golda Meir. I think Israel is a shining example of what could be for most nation states.

What do you think is the biggest threat to the world today?

Honestly? Apathy. We’ve gone so far from the hyperactivism of the 1960s that we’re now living in our own little private bubbles. Especially in this country, people are confusing action and involvement with personal feelings. I don’t want to be too crude, but there’s a word for doing something that makes you feel good but doesn’t actually produce anything, and it’s what I used to do a lot as a teenage boy. Look what’s happening now in politics: There are a lot of protests, a lot of marches, a lot of Facebook posts—and that’s all great. But if that doesn’t translate into the ballot box, then it’s all for naught.

Your newest book takes place within the world of Minecraft. What is Minecraft, and how does it work?

Minecraft, to the untrained eye, looks like a computer game version of Legos. You’re living in a world of blocks where everything is square. And, unlike all other video games, there is no fixed goal. If you play on what’s called “survival mode,” the goal is literally survival. You have to find food, you have to put a roof over your head. You have to be safe before the sun goes down and the monsters come out. And that’s why 100 million people—not just kids—around the world play this game. That’s Minecraft.

Seen through the right lens, Minecraft is nothing short of a guide for life. My son started playing it, and I started playing it with him, and I realized: Oh my God, this game can teach my son all of the lessons that I’m trying to lecture him about, and it can do it in a fun way. Trying to survive in the Minecraft world teaches you patience, it teaches you planning, it teaches you preparation. It teaches you all of the life skills you’re going to need out there.

There is a connection between Judaism and survival. I think one of the reasons the world doesn’t like us is that we’ve committed the unpardonable sin of not going quietly into history.

What’s the plot of the book?

Our character wakes up underwater and is drowning, swims to the surface, breaks through, takes a breath of air—“Oh, I’m not going to die. Thank God”—and realizes the sun is square, the clouds are square. Swims to an island. The island is square, and the character is square. What is this world? This castaway knows that they’re from another world, but they don’t know how they fit into it. They don’t remember their own life. All they know is they have to survive on the island, and that means food, shelter, safety. And only when those basic needs are conquered can they start to answer the big question, which is, “Who am I? Where did I come from?” And as this person is conquering the basic challenges of survival, they don’t realize until later that they are compiling a list of life lessons to take back into their world.

Does this character come from our world?

Yes. They just don’t understand who they were. A child? A grown-up? They remember electricity and steaks and all the good stuff, which gives them an appreciation for the old world. The character realizes that, “Wow, back in my world, I didn’t really have to take care of myself. The world kind of took care of me.” That’s the big question our character has to answer in the opening chapters: Can I take care of myself?

What’s an example of a life lesson that can be learned through Minecraft?

One time, playing Minecraft, my son and I built a big, beautiful house—and it took a long time. In Minecraft you have to chop those trees down and you’ve got to turn them into planks of wood, and then you’ve got to take sand and melt the sand into glass for windows. So it took a long time to build this house. Then we didn’t practice proper fire safety, and the house burned down. Literally hours of work to build this big, beautiful house, burned to the ground.

The lesson to my son is: That’s going to happen in life. Bad things are going to happen. You’re going to lose a job, a relationship is going to go sour, or you’re going to try to get a job and you won’t. But it’s not about avoiding failure. It’s about recovering from failure. What lessons did we learn? Why did the house burn down? Well, we didn’t practice good fire safety. Next time, let’s build it out of bricks instead of out of wood. We’re living in an age where kids get trophies just for participating. Well, Minecraft doesn’t give you a trophy for participating.

Why are these lessons important?

They used to call the baby boomers the “Me Generation.” I think we’re now “Me 2.0.” I think the greatest sin of my generation is that we are raising children to believe that they’re special and awesome without having earned it. We are not raising them with resilience. I think that too many Gen Xers were so abandoned by baby boomers that they feel that they need to over-parent, and in over-parenting, they’re not teaching their kids coping mechanisms for an ever-changing world.

Does this book tie into your others?

This is another survival book, pure and simple. Zombie Survival Guide really taught you how an individual can weather a disaster. World War Z teaches you how a civilization, or a country, can weather a crisis. Minecraft, the book, just explains how Minecraft the game can teach all of us the skills for surviving everyday life.

Why is Minecraft well suited to these kinds of lessons?

There’s so much freedom for individual creativity. We were taught in the 20th century that there was a right way and wrong way to solve a problem and that was it. You solved the problem and then you moved up to the next level. And that’s exactly what most video games still are. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do whatever it is you have to do in a game, and then you get bumped up to another level. And that’s it.

And when it comes to Donald Trump—I think that that’s a perfect example, because the people who voted for Trump are the people who are left behind by change. Trump is saying, “You don’t have to change. You don’t have to adapt. I’ll take you back to a time when the skills that you have were the skills that you needed to get through the day, to thrive.” And that’s exactly the wrong message for our kids right now. Kids need to learn to be creative, resilient, adaptable—and that’s what Minecraft will teach you.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from Minecraft?

Keep going; I think that’s the most important lesson. The generation that’s coming up now needs to learn how to recover from change and crisis and failure. I see 20-somethings who just crumble when things don’t go their way, and that is not their fault. That is my generation’s fault. We never sat them down and said, “Listen, it doesn’t matter how wonderful you are. At some point, bad things are going to happen. That’s called being alive. It’s about how to recover.” Your house burns down, and you have to build yourself back up. There’s that great old expression, “Adversity introduces us to ourselves.” Well, so does Minecraft. Minecraft introduces you to yourself.

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