Interview: Once upon a Zombie Author Billy Phillips

I’m not the biggest YA Lit aficionado, but when I read the synopsis for Once upon a Zombie Book One: The Color of Fear, I was hooked.  I’ve been weary of the “Disney Princess” sub-culture for a long time.  It’s a real tough pill to swallow for some little girls when they realize none of that stuff is real, but I’m all here for zombie princesses.  That’s a welcome change.  In our exclusive interview with Billy Phillips, the man behind the brand–and believe me it is a full-fledged brand featuring costumes and dolls, and now books–we discuss his fight to bring his vision to reality, how the novels are a metaphor for something deeper, and his love of horror, among other things.

via Facebook/Once upon a Zombie

GM: First of all, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out to talk to us, Billy!  I was really interested in learning more after I learned that Once upon a Zombie wasn’t just about princesses and all of that other stuff.  It’s actually deeper than that.  How did you come up with the concept for Once upon a Zombie?  What inspired you?  Were you inspired at all by the original fairytales which were darker than the Disney versions most of us are familiar with?

Billy: I have always been inspired to write about fears and anxieties, metaphysics and physics in a way that entertains and inspires both the intellect and soul of a person. My oldest son David asked me to write a novel about Zombies. Our company happens to own a lot of intellectual property relating to the classic fairy tales such as Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. Immediately the idea popped into my mind to fuse zombies with fairy tales and use this concept to explore ideas that interest me. The challenge was to make metaphysical and scientific truths simple for middle-grade readers and still appeal to young adult readers.

GM: Were you concerned at all about how children and their parents would receive and react to the Once upon a Zombie books, dolls, and costumes?

Billy: From the get-go our goal was to make our zombies beautiful and inspiring. It’s so easy to throw a lot of blood and guts at a zombie character. Everyone was already doing that. The far more difficult task was taking a hideous generic character like a zombie and making that character stunningly beautiful and appealing. That was the fun part and challenging part. And then to use that character to impart a bit of wisdom to tweens and teens about life.

GM: You’ve said that Once upon a Zombie is “a metaphor for the incessant impulses associated with ego, selfishness, and fear, as well as how we can resist these urges.”  Can you tell us a little more about that?  How do the princesses, like say Zombie Alice or Zombie Snow White, embody and promote this idea?

Billy: There are two kinds of zombies in the novel. The royal-blooded zombies and the blood-eyed zombies. Royal-blooded are the famous Zombie Princesses, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, [and] Sleeping [Beauty’s] strength of will in the heart.  So the royal-blooded zombies can resist their raging impulses. The rest of the fairy tale characters have succumbed to their incessant selfish impulses to the point that they’ll consume flesh and blood. They’ve lost all control. The common denominator is the zombification. This is the human ego and those relentless urges that the ego incites within us. If we react too blindly to the ego, always taking, receiving, grabbing, consuming, indulging at the expense of others, we are slaves, we are mindless, like zombies. When we resist extreme egotism and think about another person, we become human. Only humanity has the power to resist self-survival at the expense of another. Only humanity has the will to resist the addiction associated with the Me, and evolve to think about the We.

How many times in our lives do we know something is bad for us, yet we do it anyway – even when we do not want to? Like dieting. Or smoking. Or losing our temper with a loved one. How many times do we know something is good for us, positive and beneficial, and yet we procrastinate, or we just don’t do it? Why are we tuned and balanced this way? The ego is constantly trying to sabotage our lives. And ego does not just mean “I can do no wrong!” Ego also means “I can do nothing right!” Ego lives at both ends of the spectrums. It includes self-inflated high esteem for one’s self and self-deflated low self-esteem.

We become human when we rise above the ego.

Feeding the ego is the source of all fear and anxiety. Ego delivers a momentary rush of gratification, but there are side effects, repercussions of darkness, which manifest as fear and anxiety. The problem is time delays the consequences of selfish egocentric behavior so we never connect the dots between the chaos that strikes in our lives and previous negative actions towards others. On a simpler level, there are good fears and bad fears. A good fear is a fear of burning down your house because you leave the oven on. A bad fear is a fear of a fire-breathing dragon under your bed. Fear or ego is the common denominator. Like the zombie. When we resist and transcend bad fears and selfish ego, we exercise free will and become beautiful human beings. Likewise, when we use our ego, our drive and ambition for the betterment of our neighbor or humankind, we become beautiful like our royal-blooded zombies. When our ego is used to serve our own indulgent desires, coveting, taking and stealing everything our eyes see, we are a blood-eyed zombie.

GM: You had to fight the US Patent and Trademark Office to be able to get the trademarks for the zombie princesses featured in Once upon a Zombie.  I can imagine that must have been not only a stressful time.  Can you tell us why it took a year, and what some of the challenges were?  What motivated you to keep fighting for so long?

Billy: We applied for the trademarks Zombie Snow White, Zombie Cinderella, etc. and were initially refused. Trademark law and copyright law are nuanced and complicated so being refused a trademark didn’t necessarily mean could not put out these dolls with their names to identify the character. But acquiring a trademark would give us that much more protection to protect the original concept of a zombie snow white doll etc. So it was a bit stressful but not overly stressful. And the one thing I learned in business is to never give up and never allow my ego to fill me with negativity or pessimism. If I would’ve allowed the negative thoughts to control me, I would have packed it in after the first rejection. And so we appealed the decision. We lost. We appealed again and then it went to a big hearing and we were fortunate to win that final hearing thanks to a lot of hard work and research on the part of our copyright and trademark attorney Erik Pelton. We received the trademarks. We were very pleased and grateful to the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office] for their ruling.

GM: The first book in the Once upon a Zombie book series will be released next month.  What are your plans for the series?  Do you already have an ending in mind, or have future plans for the series or certain zombie princesses specifically?

Billy: The book series is a trilogy. I have a good idea of how it’s all going to end. Both book two and three.

GM: Is it safe to say you consider yourself a horror fan?  And if so, who are some of your favorite horror authors or favorite horror novels?

Billy: I read the novel The Exorcist when it first came out. Scared the living daylights out of me. I was up all night. I wouldn’t see the movie right away. And I loved horror movies but that book freaked me out. I was a big horror movie fan. When Texas Chainsaw Massacre first came out, I saw it in an old rundown movie theater at a special midnight showing. At the end of the movie, a guy in a mask comes out wielding a roaring chainsaw. I started laughing thinking this was a brilliant and crazy prank to pull. But everyone in the theater panicked and fled and they were climbing over me as I sat there. The crush of a mob is a scary thing. Anyway, now the theater is half empty and this chainsaw dude is coming for me. Then I realized. Maybe it isn’t a prank. So I bolted. The guy was arrested and sure enough, it was a prank.

To be honest, I was more into horror movies than novels. I loved suspense and thriller novels. But horror movies like the original Carrie, The Shining, Psycho, [and] The Exorcist (I finally saw it about 10 times) blew me away. The Exorcist was my all-time favorite.

GM: If you could work with any author living or deceased, who would it be and why?

Billy: Dickens. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorites. I would love to chat with JD Salinger about life. I loved Catcher in the Rye and many of his short stories. Would love to write a novel with George RR Martin on real history, particularly some of the secrets that I have about the Knights Templar and ancient spiritual doctrines that profoundly reconcile with modern day physics while revealing extraordinary secrets concerning the three primary faiths of humankind and the birth of religion. I cannot go into that subject right now, but I am saving it for a future adult book –- material that is absolutely new, original and never explored in depth by the multitude of books that have already appeared in this genre. I presented some of this material to various religious scholars and physicists, some of them Nobel Laureates, and many were blown away.

GM: If you were approached to turn Once upon a Zombie into a comic book series, which comic book publisher would you give first dibs to?

Billy: I am not qualified to answer that question as comics are not a genre that I know well. But I would want a graphic novel because our art is very beautiful. And I would want a publisher who can deliver a cinematic reading experience. Who would you recommend? [Editor’s note: Image Comics hands down…]

GM: Obviously Once upon a Zombie is considered YA lit.  What are your thoughts on the state of YA lit’s popularity and ubiquity as a top seller?  What do you think has made YA lit so popular not just with the intended audience but with older adults?

Billy: Story. YA has made “story” available to a wide audience. Some books consider themselves literary fiction and the audience for that genre is not as wide as YA where you can get a good old-fashioned story in a simple, fun, fast read allowing you to experience universal themes and characters that stir your emotions. Some people like to read for intellectual pleasure, taking delight in the prose and intellectual ideas and the mechanics and art of writing. Other people like to read because they want the technique of writing to disappear and they want to merge into the storyline and transport body and soul into the world of the book. When I read Game of Thrones, I was more intrigued by the mechanics and techniques of the writing than I was with the worlds. The worlds and character were terrific, but how he conveyed both were masterful. I would study many of Mr. Martin’s sentences to see how pulled off stirring certain emotions inside of me and conjuring up imagery in mind with his words. With other books you just get pulled into the story you don’t even see or analyze or admire the prose. A few people, critics, and writers found fault with The Da Vinci Code because they felt it failed from a literary standpoint. Who cares! The book had you turning the page and you became lost in the story and you said “Wow” out loud as you discovered certain codes and ideas. The freaking book entertained and got millions of people reading. People are flocking to YA for the same reason. They want an experience. Who cares if the book is not a literary masterpiece?  A good YA book will make someone laugh. It will make them cry. And most important, it will make them read!  Reading at its very best is better than a movie.

GM: Thank you, Billy.  Look for Once upon a Zombie Book One: The Color of Fear on October 1st at fine booksellers near you.  And stay tuned for our review of the book coming soon.