Meet Harpur’s horror master
Alexi Zentner turned nightmares about spiders into a book trilogy
Alexi Zentner isn’t afraid to say it: He’s scared of spiders. Terrified, even.
“It’s some sort of deep thing inside us where that movement startles us,” he says. “The truth is most spiders are not dangerous. . . . But I had an image of a spider burrowing in and bursting out of people. And it was shockingly hard to shake.” Zentner’s nightmares soon gave way to a plan.
The Harpur College author would turn the spiders into the vehicle for a fictional apocalypse. The Hatching had begun.
“I didn’t want to write a book about being startled,” he says. “At some point, if it’s you vs. a spider, well: Do you have a shoe? You win. You vs. a couple of thousand spiders is different. A spider is scary. A million spiders is scarier.”
What Zentner did instead was craft a creepy crawly trilogy — The Hatching (2016), Skitter (2017) and Zero Day (coming in 2018) — that focuses on a plague of spiders. The infestation begins in Peru and swiftly spreads to China, India, the United States and beyond.
“I wanted a fast pace,” he says. “Having a large cast allows you to skip through things. It gives you a global sense of what’s going on.”
The Hatching series is so different from Zentner’s other projects — literary novels Touch and The Lobster Kings — that he and his agent and editors decided it made sense to publish these books under a pen name. “It’s like going to a movie at the art house vs. going to a movie at the mall,” Zentner says. “They’re both great for different reasons.”
When his agent suggested the pseudonym “Ezekiel Boone,” Zentner readily agreed. You’ll even find him on Twitter under his nom de plume.
And although the tone of these novels is quite different, Zentner notes that all of his books share a theme of sorts: We take too much for granted about how easy modern life is.
“It doesn’t matter if you love nature,” says Zentner, who enjoys rock climbing and hiking. “Nature doesn’t love you back. My real-life, bigger fear would be weather. I’m not particularly worried about the apocalypse.”
Perhaps that’s why Zentner’s apocalyptic novels are such good fun. While spiders are munching away around the globe, the reader gets to know a large cast of characters. It’s also pretty clear that no one is safe. “One of the cool things about a novel is you can kill a billion people without worrying about it,” Zentner says.
He says the characters are a reflection of the world around him, though they’re not the old standbys you might expect to find in a horror book. There’s a female U.S. president, a gay couple who are doomsday preppers and a young black woman serving in the military, just for starters.
“I have a lot of friends who are smart, strong women, and friends who are gay and friends who are people of color,” Zentner says. “It’s important to have characters who aren’t white or straight who serve a function as a character that’s not related to their cultural identity. That doesn’t seem like a very radical thing to me.”
This approach does not mean that every woman or gay man in his books is a paragon of virtue. Take President Stephanie Pilgrim, for example. She’s having an affair with her chief of staff when the spiders arrive on U.S. soil.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing to pretend people are better or worse than they are,” Zentner says. “I would imagine that the presi- dent, male or female, is used to having what they want pretty much all the time in pretty much all aspects of their life.”
Zentner says he doesn’t begin a project like this with a detailed outline. In his view, a writer should be in control, but also open to happy accidents. He compares his planning to a trip where you know you’re going from New York
to California with stops in Chicago and Denver: “Sometimes you get to Denver and realize you want to go to Seattle instead.”
As for the locations in the trilogy, some are made up (Desperation, Calif.), some are places he has been (Hawaii) and others are places he’d like to go (Peru). “The goal is to have the reader immersed enough that they don’t question the reality,” says Zentner, who notes that some of the spider science in the books is real, too.
With the third book in the Hatching series finished, Zentner moved on to revisions for a new Boone book unrelated to spiders. Titled The Mansion, it’s set in the fictional upstate New York town of Cortaca. That book and the spider trilogy have been optioned for film, and Zentner recently wrapped up his next literary novel, to be titled Copperhead.
What’s the secret to his productivity? He says there isn’t one.
“I worked for a while as a journalist,” he says. “I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t like asking difficult questions. But the thing I learned was the work. When you’re a reporter for a small newspaper, you do everything. What I learned was to treat writing as a job.”
That doesn’t mean it’s only a job, of course. “Liking what you do is not a bad thing,” Zentner says. “I love teaching and I love writing, and they feed off of each other.”
After nearly 10 years in the classroom, Zentner says one of his primary goals is to teach his students to read well. In high school, students don’t really see or understand how writing works, he says. He wants his students to understand why a book or movie makes them feel a certain way.
“One of the things we need to do with our students is remind them that we’re preparing them not just for jobs but for life,” he says. “It’s important to be open to the idea of joy.”
With creative writing, he says, students learn that they can create that joy for someone else. Zentner’s experimentation with The Hatching and other genre fiction enables him to talk about more than one style of writing, too.
“Literary fiction is what we should be teaching, but there are so many ways to be a writer and a reader,” he says. “Literary fiction is important, but I’d rather have people reading than not reading. And it’s OK to enjoy what you read.”
Zentner knows that many of his students will go on to careers that don’t involve writing fiction, but he sees a larger mission for their Harpur College days.
“We study science to help us understand how to live longer,” he says. “The humanities teach us why we want to live longer.”