H.E. Roulo’s short stories have appeared in several dozen publications, including Nature and Fantasy’s special Women Destroy Fantasy issue. She is the author of the Plague Master series. Fractured Horizon, her science-fiction podcast novel, was a Parsec Award Finalist.
NTK: Welcome to Chilling Chat, Heather. Thank you for joining me today.
HER: Happy to be here, Naching.
NTK: Could you tell us a little about Plague Master? What is this series about?
HER: Sure! I’ll throw a few buzz-words at you then dig into it a bit more. It’s a dystopian, sci-fi/horror, zombie YA trilogy. The series takes place in a solar system colonized by humans, but there’s a new infection raging on the planets.
There are a couple storylines, but the biggest one is Trevor, who grows up on a downtrodden planet that really didn’t need a zombie infection to make it even worse. There’s also a dome for infected who haven’t become zombies to go to, but of course, nothing is as it seemed.
In the new book, Plague Master: Rebel Infection, Trevor returns to his homeworld with a cure for the infection, except it stops working and he has to find out why. It’s not just politics and secrets, of course. There’s space travel, avalanches, and diving through zombie-filled tunnels.
NTK: Sounds exciting! What inspired you to write about zombies in a space setting?
HER: I’d released a sci-fi book, Fractured Horizon, and was looking to write something that would catch people’s attention. I saw a call for an audio drama and wrote a short, 40-minute script. They loved it (it’s out there in the Omega Road Chronicles.) I wrote a related short story, and that sold. It was obvious that zombies were good sellers and I felt like I had a different enough approach to stand out. I took what I’d learned and wrote the full novel. Plus, writing zombies is fun!
There are a lot of zombie stories out there. Fewer space zombies.
NTK: I have to ask…do you prefer fast zombies or slow ones?
HER: Oh, good question.
I promise I’ll answer that. First, let me say that I didn’t have to choose. In my world, the infected becomes violent and crazed as they first change—so you have the terror of the fast zombie. However, after a while, they slow down and become almost docile unless riled up, so you get your slow zombies.
This allowed people to think zombies could be kept in herds, like sheep.
Anyway, in general, I like the fast ones.
I loved 28 Days Later.
NTK: Are you a fan of George Romero?
HER: I think you have to give him credit when you talk about zombies. I wouldn’t risk calling myself a fan, though. I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough.
NTK: How much control do you exert over your characters? Do they have free will?
HER: Characters always act in ways logical to them, so sometimes they can’t take the path I had planned. Still, I always know the end of a story before I begin and it’s just a matter of steering them where they need to go.
NTK: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline?
HER: Oh, you may be sorry you asked that.
HER: I am a true believer in outlining. I have an entire process, and my most successful blog post ever was on how to outline a book—it gets tons of hits every fall as people gear up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s called, “A Simple Novel Outline – 9 Questions for 25 Chapters.”
I have to know my beginning and end. I need at least two or three scenes I’m really excited about.
After I have those, I plug them in to a chapter framework and start filling in around them. I used to do it in Word, but I’ve found the Scrivener is especially good for that. However, I usually end up pulling it back out as I get the story more filled in. Then I work in Word again.
Once I have the outlined chapters, I start at the beginning and work from front to back, never going back! I used to rework and rework. Now I just leave myself notes to go back if something changes along the way.
When I’m deep in a novel, I try for 2000 words a day.
I did warn you.
NTK: (Laughs.) You did. What is your favorite horror novel?
HER: Favorite questions are hard for me. I rarely have that kind of loyalty to anything. I like novelty. My favorite things are the stories, songs, and televisions shows I haven’t seen yet and that surprise me. I rarely consume anything twice. Today, I’ll fondly recall the horror of certain stories in the anthology Unaccompanied Sonata by Orson Scott Card.
NTK: Favorite horror movie?
HER: I’m a big fan of anything post-apocalyptic and dystopian. I had to read Cormac McCarthy’s grim and hopeless The Road after seeing the movie. I also love time travel and alternate realities. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind impressed me when it came out. Coherence and the movie Primer kept things interesting.
NTK: What attracts you to Dystopia?
HER: I’ve always loved dystopian stories. The Girl Who Owned a City was one of my first favorites. So was Z for Zacharia. I also loved Island of the Blue Dolphins and My Side of the Mountain. I think it’s about starting over, relying on your abilities to survive, and simplifying things
—not that most people think of dystopia as simple, but it does remove superficial troubles for real and basic needs.
So for me, it isn’t about the breakdown of society. I know that Island of the Blue Dolphin isn’t traditionally considered a dystopian story—but it’s about surviving with whatever you find yourself with. Starting over, and being able to build something new. Things get messed up—I’m sure we all look at the world and wish it was simple and basic, and about our own skills and ability—so a reset sounds great.
I wouldn’t actually want that, though. I have a family and comfortable things. (Laughs.)
Structure keeps us safe. These stories are about what happens when that safety net isn’t there.
NTK: Have you read The Stand by Stephen King?
HER: I haven’t. He wasn’t in the boxes of garage sale books my dad brought home each weekend—I’m not sure why. Eventually, I deliberately went back and read a few things by him, like The Long Walk, and was so impressed that I read his book On Writing.
Excellent advice in there, for any writers looking for a book.
NTK: What’s your favorite horror television show?
HER: The Black Mirror series has me hooked.
NTK: You’re a fan of the original Star Trek, do you have a favorite frightening episode from that series?
HER: Oh, that’s a new question!
I am a big fan of Star Trek, TOS, and of Next Generation, too. A lot of the series, actually.
What comes to mind is “The Devil in the Dark”, which is the one with the Horta, who seems like a monster but in the end we realize isn’t. There’s so much that’s fantastic in that episode.
I love creatures that are more than they seem.
I love subverting expectations, actually. I dislike predictable stories—give me something new!
NTK: What does the future hold for you? What do Horror Addicts have to look forward to?
HER: Well, we’re talking about the second book in the Plague Master trilogy, so you know I have to write the third and final one. I’ve had the series finale in mind for a long time, so I’m thrilled to finally write it.
I have a few other short stories that will no doubt come out. I tend to submit a lot except when I’ve got a book coming out.
And I’d like to sell a novella about a villain superhero called Heart of Marble. It’s dark and funny.
I also have an urban fantasy story that I’ve been trying to finish for about a year. It’s got four or five point of view characters, and bringing them all together for a satisfying ending has been tricky.
I think it’s a novel, but I need about ten more chapters to be sure. (Laughs.)
NTK: Thank you for chatting with me, Heather.
HER: I had a great time. Thanks!
Her new book, Plague Master: Rebel Infection, is available now!