Robert Batten is in the top 25 in the Launch Pad contest, which means his work has a shot at being placed in front of some serious eyes in Hollywood. In this interview we chat about his book, Human Resources, zombies, Tasmania, and what’s next for him in the contest.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself—how long have you been writing?
In some ways, I feel like I’ve been doing it forever, and that it was inevitable. All my life, I’ve been a story person — whether telling my own or losing myself in someone else’s. I first started writing as a child, and have continued — on and off — ever since.
As a child of two outdoor education teachers and mountaineers, my childhood was dominated by exploring the unrivaled wilderness of Tasmania. Rugged mountain ranges, dense temperate rainforests, high alpine plains; a perfect training ground for any budding adventurer.
This was a setting with few people (typically only the ones we brought with us), and no internet or other modern distractions. Through necessity, I learned to entertain myself armed with books and my imagination.
Travel was an important contributor to my formative years. I was fortunate to have parents afflicted with an irresistible urge to explore our amazing planet, an affliction they passed on. I’ve come to view traveling as storytelling in motion — every landscape a new setting, every person a new character in their own narrative, every culture a new tapestry steeped in history. Once you start unravelling that web it’s impossible to stop.
At university, I followed my passion for gadgets and studied Information Systems rather than English. That path has led to an interesting and diverse career in IT, but left my drive to tell tales unfulfilled.
Since then, I’ve picked up my writing a few times. Each time I’d start trying to craft a complex world, get caught in the details of planning (rather than focussing on the story), and intimidate myself into stopping. That changed in early 2010 when I did something different, which was the genesis of Human Resources.
Q: Tell me about Human Resources.
It all started with a vivid and specific dream. Unlike most of my dreams, this one stuck with me, bouncing around my subconscious, clamouring for my attention. After daydreaming my way through the sequence repeatedly, I decided to write it down. This time, I didn’t attempt to craft a world, just to capture that single scene. I think that was crucial for me as it reminded me how much I enjoyed writing. Next thing I knew, I was knee-deep in a novel.
The premise of that dream, and the setting for the novel, was a simple one. When the zombie apocalypse comes (and let’s face it, we all know it’s coming), what if the ones to save us were more dangerous than the horror they saved us from? Creatures who were acting out of cold, calculated self-interest?
Human Resources is set in the near future, years after a zombie-like plague overwhelmed civilisation. In the aftermath, all that remains are heavily fortified city-states, created and ruled by global corporations, which in turn are owned and run by vampires. The novel is a story of survival, of freedom, and of unlikely alliances. Possibly most importantly, it is a story of choices — the tallying of risk, the weighing of sacrifices. Sometimes the “right” path is obscured behind shades of grey. Sometimes the greater good demands sacrifices we can’t bear to make. Those decisions define us, and they define our characters. The players in Human Resources have some tough decisions to make.
Q: Were there any books/movies/video games/interpretive dances inspired you to tell this story?
Many, though few directly. I’ve always loved stories in any medium. Books, TV, movies, games, anime, manga — I’ve probably spent as much time out of reality as in it. My preferred genres are Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and (particularly) Urban Fantasy and Alternate Reality. I devour series such as The Dresden Files, Kate Daniels, Guild Hunter, Harry Potter, and Throne of Glass. It’s inevitable that my style and content will reflect some of this, but none of those books have directly influenced Human Resources.
There are some books and movies with closer parallels to the world of Human Resources, either in thematic elements, style, or setting. The Passage by Justin Cronin is an amazing take on a vampire apocalypse, and blew my mind. Daybreakers with Ethan Hawke shares some common setting elements with its vampire-run corporate dystopia. There are also some similarities with aspects of I am Legend.
Early on, I realised I wanted the novel to stand confidently as a science-fiction, with some supernatural elements. This raises some pointed questions about who and what my vampires are, so I set out to discover exactly that. I’ve since published some of the results of that investigation here.
Q: Have you always imagined it as a screenplay as well?
Yes and no. As someone who has spent time playing RPG’s — tabletop and PC/online — I always felt Human Resources would make a great game setting. In my mind I’ve also envisioned it as an anime, rather than visualising it as a live-action movie or TV series. The possibility that it could be picked up for that is an exciting prospect, but for now I am trying to focus on getting the novel into shape fit for publication. Baby steps!
Q: You’re from Tasmania! Why is the story set in the Siberian mountains?
I love my native island state of Tasmania. For those who are about to open a new tab and Google it, Tasmania (or ‘Tassie’ as it is affectionately known by locals) is the Southern-most state of Australia. It is an island some 350 kilometres (220 miles) from the main Australian continent. It’s rugged, sparsely populated, but filled with incredible National Parks and World Heritage Areas.
Moving on to the question, the novel isn’t set in Siberia. Only the virus which brought about the destruction of the civilised world, leaving behind a horde of transformed horrors, originated in Siberia. The story picks up decades after this outbreak and the virus has since covered the globe.
I needed a large urban city for the setting to work. The entire population of Tasmania is only about 500k; I needed somewhere larger and more strategic. In the end, I chose to locate the story in Sydney. Chapter One mentions Edison’s office having a view of the bridge and opera house — these landmarks are the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Q: There’s a trope within the Zombie genre, wherein the world is the same as ours but without any idea about what zombies are. Do you have any opinions about that?
I think it is, to an extent, necessary for many of these stories to work. If you want to take a serious approach to the genre, having victims who are unfamiliar with the lore seems to make this more believable. I feel that if the world started with people well-versed with zombie novels and movies, there tends to be a natural shift towards a comedic approach. Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Cabin in the Woods are great examples of this. In a world jaded by zombie cliches, where the CDC has published zombie survival plans, zombies just aren’t scary anymore. However sheepish some might be to admit it, I think we have all spent time planning what we would do, where we would go, and what supplies we would need. The result is a lot less harrowing than a setting full of ignorant, unsuspecting mobile dinners. To me, just seems to fit better.
In Human Resources the question is somewhat moot. Being set so long after the outbreak, it really doesn’t matter what people knew before it occurred. I do want to be careful in what I say when I relate this back to my novel — I’m toeing the line of spoilers — but my zombies are a little different than the classic variety. Indeed, it could be argued the infected in my world share more with those of I am Legend rather than The Walking Dead. I’m afraid you’ll need to read the book to find out more about that.
Q: How long is left in the contest, and how are you what’s your position as of today?
The contest has two concurrent streams; a formal judging stream and the crowdfunding competition.
The formal judging stream concludes at the end of November, with a number of prizes to be announced. This will include at least one manuscript being optioned by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free and at least one author being signed by Energy Entertainment.
The crowdfunding competition runs until 16 December (PST), at which point the three manuscripts with the most pre-orders will be published by Inkshares.
As of right now, Human Resources is performing strongly in the crowdfunding competition, holding the number one position. It has also been named by the Launch Pad judges in their Top 25, so it is also in a position to pick up one of the major prizes from that stream.
In addition to the Launch Pad Manuscript Competition, there have been two exciting new developments in the past week:
- Human Resources was named by Inkshares in their new “2016 List” of top projects not yet published.
- It crossed the magic 250 pre-orders threshold, which means one way or another Inkshares will publish the novel. The question — dependent on the competition outcome — is whether it will be mass produced and marketed, or print-on-demand.
Q: Any final thoughts you want to share?
Up until May this year, I had not shared my writing with anyone outside a close circle of trusted friends. Indeed, the primary audience for my writing has been my wife, who’s unfailing support and encouragement has kept me going; I certainly hadn’t believed I could be published. A lucky chain of events led me to Inkshares and provided the excuse I needed to share my work — a community-run event encouraging authors to exchange critiques.
Psychologically I’m still struggling to accept all that has happened since then. First joining the Inkshares community, making connections and building confidence, then The Launch Pad Manuscript competition. I’m grateful to Inkshares for their platform, as well as the other partners in the competition. But what I really want to do is single out the Inkshares community. From that first day they have been welcoming and encouraging and I have been carried to this point in part by their enthusiasm and generosity.