Boston math teacher Paul Tremblay, like many of us, is currently sheltering in place with his family, peering uncertainly into the future as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our everyday life. Unlike the rest of us, he has a book about a deadly virus of mysterious origins dropping on July 7th via HarperCollins.
“I almost feel apologetic when people tell me they’ve read the book just because, I don’t know… I feel like I would have a hard time reading something that’s pretty close to what we’re going through right now,” Tremblay tells Rolling Stone. “But I know a lot of other readers take comfort in being able to read something that’s topical.”
Survivor Song — the Bram Stoker Award-winning author’s newest novel — centers on two friends fighting their way through a “super rabies” outbreak in Massachusetts: Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman and her friend Natalie, who is eight months pregnant and infected. The book follows the two as they attempt to save Natalie and her baby’s lives, taking the reader on a terrifying journey through overrun hospitals, roadkill-choked highways and abandoned houses — all while being pursued by zombie-esque creatures.
Tremblay broke out with 2015’s A Head Full of Ghosts, a spin on The Exorcist that’s currently being made into a movie by director Scott Cooper, starring Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). His most recent book, 2018’s The Cabin at the End of the World, is also being eyed for the big screen. The novel, which Stephen King has called “thought-provoking and terrifying,” centers on a home invasion and a possible apocalypse.
So… How are you handling all this — the pandemic in the midst of your book release?
I don’t know. I go from dread and panic to OK. I allow myself some of those moments and try to move past it. Just try to distract myself. I’m actually in the middle of re-reading a favorite novel of mine, Peter Straub’s The Throat. It’s a nice long novel, too. Yeah. So, I’ve been reading, trying to plan out my next book. My creative energy, I will say, has been somewhat lacking.
Why don’t we just start at the beginning? Why did you decide to write a zombie-adjacent book? I know the infected are not technically zombies, but they behave in a similar way.
I happened to be in England for my first time ever doing some book events. I was sitting on a train and I started writing in my notebook. I thought about some of my previous novels, most of which sort of take the horror trope and try to look at it in a different way, or if not a different way — I try to maybe ground that story in reality. I wrote down ‘zombie.’ I was like, ‘Oh, how would I do that?’
When I first asked myself, ‘How would I read this in reality?’ the rabies virus instantly occurred to me. So, I had some of the science there that I wanted to have the characters deal with. I tried to take real rabies and just move up the speed of infection rate.
Obviously, things are falling apart, but I wanted that almost to be, not the background, but the storm that’s moving around these two characters — because the book really focuses in on Ramola and Natalie and their story.
You mentioned doing research on rabies, did you do research on different pandemics and outbreaks as well?
When I got into the book, I didn’t really want to focus on what the national response would be because I feel like we’ve seen all those movies and they’ve done much better than I could do. I had no contacts in the CDC or anything like that. I really wanted to focus on what it would be like at a small suburban hospital — a local outbreak. My sister is a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in downtown Boston, so most of my research on what the response would be was through her. I got to see what some hospitals’ response plans would be.
What is it like looking back on the book with everything that’s happening now?
Yeah, it’s hard. I mean, honestly, I’ve tried not to think about the book too much. It sounds kind of weird even though it’s coming out soon. Just because that’s my own way of dealing with what we’re going through. I know there are some eerie coincidences, we’ll call them, with what happens in the book and what’s happening now. I certainly don’t have any answers about what’s going to happen next and would never pretend that I did.
I noticed that a lot of your books play with fear of uncertainty. Can you expand a little bit on that?
I guess I try to take these horror stories that are usually supernatural and try ground them in reality. There’s always that doubt aspect that I like playing with like, ‘How would this really happen?’ And, hopefully, for the reader, it doesn’t come off as just being a cheap Twilight Zone kind of twist, because that’s not what I’m going for.
That’s really every moment, if you think about it: You don’t know what’s going to happen next week or the next day. And if you do, I mean, that’s really sort of an illusion. So, in a horror story, that’s the perfect sort of thing to play with.
So how did you settle on Ramola and Natalie as the focal points of the story?
So, Natalie… I mean I sort of had her right away. The opening of the book, she’s eight and a half months pregnant while there’s a super rabies virus happening. It opens with her in her house alone waiting for her husband to come back from the grocery store and something terrible happens that makes her have to go off on her own to search for medical help. And that’s were her best friend, Ramola, comes in. I mentioned that I was in England when I came up with the idea for the novel, so I thought it’d be fun to have a little nod to me being in England by having Ramola come from England originally.
Other than that, I mean, you reach a point where the characters just sort of take on their own lives. With Natalie, I did not want her to be the horror science-fiction stereotype of the pregnant woman who has to be saved to repopulate the earth. And there’s a part of the book where she’s certainly very aware of that and even discusses the movie Children of Men and how she doesn’t like that movie and how she made her husband promise, ‘No, save me first. Forget the kid.’
Obviously, I’m not a mom, I’ve never been pregnant, but I tried to infuse Natalie with some really honest thoughts that most parents don’t admit to having or that you don’t see very often. I think of a movie like The Babadook; I thought how the mother was presented in that movie was just a really brave choice. You typically don’t see a movie or read a book where a parent is really honest about some of the dark thoughts that you have as a parent.
As a writer, I find it unnerving when the real world starts to feel like a book or a movie. Do you feel that right now? Like we’re playing out a horror novel?
A lot of my short stories were post-apocalyptic, or I would maybe say pre-apocalyptic or in the process of being apocalyptic. I’ve written a ton of short stories and obviously the end of the world is clearly a big fear of mine.
It’s funny, I had a hard time watching a horror movie the other night that normally [wouldn’t bother me]. So, I don’t know if this is going to affect what I’m going to do afterward. If that happens, if that’s the biggest problem I have, that would be awesome. So yeah, it is weird.
Everyone’s trying to compare [the pandemic] to something that we’ve seen, that’s already had some sort of resolution and that’s… I don’t know. I mean, there’s comfort in going to that media, but also it’s like, ‘Ah, this isn’t a movie.’ We don’t know the resolution.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.