The idea for my first novel arrived exactly when you’d think it would, in an office safety meeting.
Just outside of Pittsburgh, PA, we learned what to do in case of floods, tornados, earthquakes, and other geographically incorrect disasters. 24-year-old Lucy struggled to stay awake. That is, until the topic moved to an outbreak of workplace violence. If a member of the team went postal, the correct response was to barricade oneself in a conference room. Push the furniture to the door and block the unreasonably violent colleague from entry.
What do I need this training for? I thought. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead.
Aha! My time at this title company would not be in vain. I had a premise for what I would later realize was a horror-comedy novel: zombies in the office.
The year was 2007, just before the US real estate collapse. When I started at the beginning of the year, I had nary a free moment. By the fall, with the market plunging like defenestrating investors during a previous market crash, my days consisted mostly of sitting at my desk, reading Helter Skelter, and journalistically chronicling my ennui in a weekly newsletter that I emailed to my friends. After my epiphany, I had a mission.
I started taking notes. I wrote down everything in the four-story office building that could be used as a weapon in a Word doc entitled ZOMBIE CHARACTERS, ETC:
- Paper cutter
- Elevator doors
- Morningstars fashioned out of phones
- Coffee mugs
- Fire extinguisher
- Vending machines down the stairs
- Arsenal of staplers and hole punches
- Tape a zombie to a chair and set him on fire and wheel him into the others to clear an exit
- Trench warfare between the lines of cubicles
- Battering ram on a dolly
- Jousting with umbrellas as lances
- They fashion a whole arsenal of medieval weaponry out of office supplies
I emailed this document, along with several other files creatively titled “zombie office ideas” and “office” to myself. Included in these documents were my observations about various office behaviors that had odd parallels to that of zombies.
Did not the buffet line at potluck Fridays look much like the flesh-hungry horde devouring a corpse? Was it not the same uncontrollable gluttony?
How would office politics manifest themselves during a zombie attack? Would the Team Lead actually be the most qualified to lead? And, most importantly, which co-worker archetypes would I love to see become breakfast for the living dead?
I noted ridiculous statements I overheard in my partial cubicle to use as dialogue, the simmering feuds that would boil over at the first sign of danger. Soon I had character profiles, paragraphs of death scenes, and full conversations written.
After quitting the dead-end job in the increasingly unstable industry, I entered grad school and my zombie novel productivity waned. What I needed was another slow office job where I could concentrate on writing. I’d had practice with this strategy. Right out of college, I sold two horror screenplays that were partially written during slow days in another dying industry, print journalism. Finally, in 2010, I had a temporary job in QA in a global company. It was perfect, allowing me to continue observing office politics that I planned to satirize. I was a temp there for two years. While I was not afforded decent health care or paid time off or even access to the ice cream socials that the real employees enjoyed, I did find another horror of corporate life. The treatment of employees as disposable human resources became a central theme of the book.
I had my villain: an ex-meth cook turned pharmaceutical company CEO. And I had my zombies: the homeless people the CEO abducted off the street and injected with a serum that turned them into zombies that he could use as slaves in the factory. It was executive brilliance! What a cost-cutting measure, sure to do something favorable to the bottom line. And it was true to Haitian zombie lore.
By the time the novel was accepted for publication in February 2012, I had been laid off from the temp job and was back on the hunt. And the interview requests for better jobs were rolling in. Was I suddenly a more attractive hire because I was the author of the upcoming zombie-satire novel Working Stiffs?
I took a part-time gig at a content marketing/PR firm. If the owners of the company could inject their writers with a zombie virus, they would have. Aside from learning that female millennials are just as ruthless as the Wall Street-inspired Boomers typically associated with sociopathic executive behavior, I also obtained a thousand-dollar list of media contacts. Perfect! I needed that for my Working Stiffs outreach. I left that gig a month later with some much-needed PR skills for a copywriting position at a much more reputable agency. My boss even brought in a boombox so my colleagues could listen to my appearance on a local morning show. And I was able to sneak into one of the conference rooms to do an interview with Ripley’s Believe It or Not Radio. Turns out, multitasking wasn’t just for the writing stage of indie authorship.
Years later, my sister used the sound studio at the post-production company where she worked to record my brother reading all 246 pages of Working Stiffs. This was sanctioned by the company, unlike my theft of the media list.
Working Stiffs is as much a testament to the triumph of the creative over the working stiff as is a story of zombies in the office. If you are motivated, as well as bored and ethically ambiguous, you will find the time to write your novel.
Check out Lucy’s newly released audiobook edition of Working Stiffs available at godless.com.