Q & A: Warm Bodies author Isaac Marion writes dead people better than most people write live ones (and smell is part of it)


I can’t stop talking about Warm Bodies. Literally. Can’t. Stop. Talking. It is so good. And yet, so many people I bring it up respond with claims of “Not Being into the Zombie Thing.”

Well, let me tell you that this is no ordinary zombie story. This is a book in which a zombie shows more humanity than characters with beating hearts and the opportunity to transform oneself means more than just a before/after pic.

So for my Halloween post, I thought I could give you a glimpse into just how thoughtful Mr. Marion is with an interview about his use of scent in writing.

More than any other contemporary novel I’ve encountered recently, Warm Bodies: A Novel, and its prequel, The New Hunger: A Warm Bodies Novella (The Warm Bodies Series), present an idea made for the digital age, one that cuts to the core of a truly contemporary problem. Author Isaac Marion’s wandering philosopher zombie with a heart on his sleeve yearns for connection despite his own limitations and the real and imagined barriers he encounters.

Warm Bodies is also one of the smelliest books I’ve ever read, with scent descriptions that made me run to add Marion to my list of great scent writers in the Scent in Literature Project.

Here’s an example of how Marion writes scent.

“As this happens, my sinuses ignite with a new smell, something similar to the life energy of the Living but also vastly different. It’s coming from Julie, it’s her scent, but it’s also mine. It rushes out from us like an explosion of pheromones, so potent I can almost see it.” — “R,” from Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies

Q & A with author Isaac Marion

IsaacMarion Emily: What’s your relationship with your sense of smell? Are you a super-sniffer or just really connected to your olfaction?

Isaac: I don’t know if I have an unusually sharp sense of smell, but I do think I savor it more than some people. I enjoy all my senses on a somewhat heightened level. Not all the time–I don’t walk around shuddering and gasping at every smell and sound–but sometimes I like to zero in on a sensation and really explore all its layers. Our senses provide so much fine detail that we usually ignore and if you examine them closely, you can identify the individual elements and appreciate how they harmonize.

Smell is especially interesting to me since it’s so rarely “used” in daily life. All the other senses are very practical tools for navigating the world, but in humans, smell has retreated into the background as this abstract, subliminal force that just colors our perception of the world in ways we don’t fully understand. It’s kind of a mysterious hidden dimension, and I love that.

 Emily: Why did you decide to use scent as the way the zombies search out their food in your books?

Isaac: Zombies are very animalistic, so it seemed inevitable that they would hunt by scent, but it’s actually not the traditional olfactory sense. Like R says in Warm Bodies, “We don’t smell it with our noses. It hits us deeper inside, near our brains.” They’re not tracking biological odors but the “life scent” which is something more metaphysical. In fact, zombies can’t really smell natural odors at all — except decay and other morbid scents. This is why as R becomes more human, he’s amazed by the beautiful smells that start to creep into his awareness.

Emily: Having a really pronounced sense of smell is often connected to being more animal-like. Dogs smell 1,000 times better than humans, Bears smell 1,000 times better than dogs. And yet, in your books, your characters seem to connect through scent, even after (spoiler alert), they exhume. So does scent make us more like animals or more like humans?

Isaac: Humans have a tricky path to navigate between our animal origins and our loftier aspirations. A lot of our worst qualities come from our primitive nature and we have to fight hard to overcome those, but if we run too far the other way we end up as sterile intellectual beings with no connection to the primal currents that give life color and even “meaning.” So while a lot of this story is about transcending the animal and climbing toward a higher level of existence, it’s also about connecting to the world around us in an immediate and personal way. When “R” marvels over the smell of Julie’s hair, he’s emerging from his lofty contemplation of her qualities and experiencing her as a real, tangible person living in the world, which is a deeper kind of connection beyond just the awareness of her qualities.

Emily: I adore your scent writing. It feels completely organic to your stories. Do you have a philosophy or approach you like to use when incorporating scent into your books?

Isaac: It really varies by the story. Warm Bodies is a visceral story with a lot of sweaty bloody fleshy sensation, so scent has a big role to play, but other stories I’ve written are more about elusive feelings and ideas so I tend to use less sensory detail in those. I think it has to do with how “up close” and intimate I want to be. The more I want to put the reader right there in the mud with the characters, the more sensory detail I include, and if I want a more contemplative aerial view, I scale back the senses.

Emily: Scent seemed to play a larger role in Warm Bodies than in The New Hunger (though I have to say, they are still far smellier than 98% of the fiction out there). Can you give us a hint at what role it will play in the sequels?

Isaac: Its role continues to expand as “R” grows into his humanity, but eventually it starts to go beyond the human spectrum. There are characters with heightened perceptions that look a little like “superpowers.” Senses in general, particularly sight and smell, become part of this mysterious shift that’s happening in the world as humanity is climbing out of the pit toward a new plateau of reality, so I get to write with this godlike POV, swirling around the environments and exploring details that wouldn’t normally be available. It’s really exhilarating.

Emily: Do you have a favorite scent on a person?

THE NEW HUNGER_9781476799650-coverIsaac: I love the smell of a woman’s hair. I don’t know how much of it is just her shampoo and perfume and how much is her natural scent, but it’s unique to each person and since it comes from the head I like to think it’s some kind of personal essence, like the combined scents of all her thoughts and feelings and the places she goes in her life. I also have a weird appreciation for the smell of booze and cigarettes. It was an old flame’s signature scent and will probably always trigger a warm sense of “I should know better but fuck it.”

Emily: Thanks, Isaac! You’ve got a forever fan in me.

The prequel to Warm Bodies, The New Hunger: A Warm Bodies Novella (The Warm Bodies Series), just came out this month, and the word on the street is that there are going to be two sequels. Want more Warm Bodies? Marion did a Q & A with fans over at Goodreads this week.

What’s your take? Does scent make us more human or more animalistic?

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