FLR: Can you tell us how the contributors to this anthology were decided upon?
HB: Justine and I had a massive brainstorming session—and we talked a lot about who we thought secretly loved unicorns and who secretly loved zombies. And then we asked people if they would consider submitting to our side. That worked out extremely well, especially for me, who swiped Garth Nix for Team Unicorn!
JL: HAH! Putting together Team Zombie was no problem at all, but Team Unicorn was tricky. For instance, Meg Cabot is pro-Zombie; we had to beg her to switch sides for the sake of the anthology.
FLR: Did you invite particular authors, or simply open it up to those who wanted to submit stories? Did either of you have any stories of your own that you considered including?
HB: We invited the authors we most hoped would write for us and were thrilled when they accepted.
JL: What Holly said. As far as having our own stories, editing and writing are very different jobs, and we didn't want to muddy the waters.
FLR: When and how did your love of unicorns/zombies start?
HB: My love of unicorns probably started when I read Peter Beagle's fantastic The Last Unicorn. My hatred of zombies started several years later, when I watched Night of the Living Dead, Part II. I was freaked out by the shambling. And moaning. And rotting. And smelling. Ugh.
JL: I had a very different reaction to Night of the Living Dead and then the rest of the George Romero ouvre. I was struck with how powerfully he dealt with issues of race and class in the contemporary U.S.
FLR: How do you feel about the rules and legends that permeate the backgrounds of these mystical beings?
HB: The unicorn is a symbol of mythic beauty, majesty and fierceness. Their ability to be at once gentle and dangerous is one of my favorite things about them.
JL: The great thing about zombies is that they're not only metaphorically rich, but also fun to strategize about. All those movies ask: How would you survive? They turn every shopping mall, every country house, every tenement building into a video game!
FLR: Is there any particular characteristic that other authors assign to zombies or unicorns that you don’t like/agree with?
HB: I hate when people think of unicorns as sickly sweet and pink-hued, with rainbows and clouds in the background.
JL: I actually agree with Holly on this. To use an old-fashioned word, I was basically a "tomboy" growing up, rejecting everything that had to do with being feminine. So I hated unicorns out of hand. These days my feelings about gender are more complicated, of course, so I also hate the image of the rainbow-farting unicorn. That's one of the things we wanted to subvert by putting unicorns next to awesome zombies.
FLR to JL: You feel that zombies are a better metaphor for the human condition than unicorns. Is that because they are originally human in nature, or because their unfortunate condition is more in line with the current state of our world?
JL: The one thing that all humans have in common is that we are going to die. Every version of the zombie myth is about that, whether it be Romero's shambling hordes or the walking dead from the Haitian tradition of Vodun. It's not just our current overcrowded, consumerist and epidemic-prone world that zombies resonate with, but one of the eternal questions of what it is to be human.
FLR to JL: Do you think that the current popularity of zombies is related to the popularity of dystopian stories?
JL: Dystopias strip the modern world away, allowing you to focus on the basics of survival. As I've said, that's part of the pleasure of a zombie story, too: asking yourself if you have what it takes to survive. Since the first atomic bomb was created, the apocalypse has gone from a religious idea to a scientific one, and a very real possibility. One of the ways that teens (and the rest of us) come to terms with these harsh realities is in the play-spaces of games, movies and fiction.
FLR to HB: As you have pointed out, despite the fact that unicorns are often portrayed as gentle beasts, they do carry a weapon right on their foreheads. Why do you think they continue to be thought of mainly as a figure for children’s books, and have not been featured in more fantasies for older teens and adults?
HB: Just like the Victorians turned capricious and dangerous faeries into the cutesy babies with wings often found on greeting cards, psychedelic posters and My Little Pony contributed to making unicorns seem, well, a little twee. But there are nuanced and lovely representations of unicorns too. Look at Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Diana Peterfruend's Rampant, Tanith Lee's Black Unicorn, and Kathleen Duey's Unicorn’s Secret series, to name just a few.
FLR: Have you ever done any editing work before? Was that a challenge or something you really enjoyed?
HB: I've co-edited the anthology Geektastic with Cecil Castellucci and am currently working on co-editing another anthology, tentatively titled Welcome to Bordertown, with Ellen Kushner. I love the process of putting together anthologies and I particularly enjoyed working with Justine Larbalestier, who is not just a good friend, but also a fantastic and incisive editor.
FLR: Did either of you find yourselves (secretly) shifting allegiances as the stories unfolded?
HB: I admit that I loved some of the Team Zombie stories—especially the ones where the zombies weren't actually decomposing. I don't mind the brains-eating or the undead, generally. But there is no contest. I love the unicorn stories passionately. And I think you will love them too!
JL: Nope. Still hate unicorns.
FLR: We have heard about people who protest fantasy works on the basis that they tell young people about evil, witchcraft or other dark arts. What would you tell them about reading stories of unicorns and zombies?
HB: I guess I would have to say that this book is probably not going to be their cup of tea. Not every book is going to be right for every reader, nor should it be. But for every reader there should be that right book -- the one that speaks to their own experiences, their dreams and their fears. I think fantasy is an extremely useful way to talk about the real world and by actualizing the metaphorical, we can tell old stories in new ways. I hope Zombies vs. Unicorns will be a book that makes readers laugh and creeps them out and makes them feel for people (and unicorns...and, okay, even zombies).
FLR to HB: We read a lot of great teen fantasies, but the extra element of people with magical powers becoming either con artists or mobsters in order to use their powers lends a spark of originality to White Cat. What do you think are the most intriguing aspects of the main character, Cassel Sharpe?
HB: I started getting interested in writing about a character like Cassel Sharpe after reading a true crime book called Son of a Grifter. It detailed how one of the authors, Kent Walker, grew up. I was fascinated with his experience of having a mother who raised him with these morals that were totally at odds with society. I wanted to write about a character raised like that, who then has to decide how much of his past to reject.
One of the things I love about Cassel is that he's good at this thing—being a con artist—that he knows he shouldn't do, but he also finds it thrilling. He really struggles with what it means to be a good person and what to do when you're pretty sure you're not one. White Cat is part love story and part mystery, where Cassel has to investigate his past to figure out who he is and what he's done.
FLR to JL: Speaking of originality, Micah Wilkins of Liar really took the concept of an unreliable narrator to the next level. Why do you think she resonated so well with teen readers?
JL: I always hope to connect with my readers on an emotional level, but the letters I've gotten about Liar have been extraordinarily moving, and many have reduced me to tears. Micah isn't just dealing with untruths, but also with grief. Her lies seem like they're just for fun at first, but really are a way of dealing with her sadness. Losing someone you love is what Liar is about at its core, and most of the people writing to me have connected to that.
FLR: Can you share with readers why the wizard in Naomi Novik’s story is named after Otto Penzler, the mystery bookstore owner and editor of so many great mystery and horror anthologies?
JL: We'll let Naomi answer that question: "I don't remember exactly when, but at some dinner (I know Otto through Charles), Otto mentioned he loves being put into stories, as a villain or otherwise, & since he got a kick out of being a Nazi commandant in Elmore Leonard's Up In Honey's Room, I figured he would be up for being an evil wizard too."
FLR: Has the creation of the book fueled this debate, or exhausted it for you?
HB: One of the things that has made me very happy is how many stealthy Team Unicorn members I have discovered. Due to the popularity of zombies in games and films, I thought Team Unicorn was made up of the discerning few, but as it turns out, we are legion!
JL: Yes, Holly, that was a disturbing realization. What's up with that?
FLR: If educators were asked to share one story to get teen readers interested in the debate, which one(s) would you recommend to lead off the discussion?
HB: Well, on the unicorn side, I would love to see people talk about Diana Peterfreund's story with the baby killer unicorn, who is at once horrific and adorable; I would love to see people discuss Margo Lanagan's reframing some of the traditional unicorn story elements; but mostly I'd like readers to pick the story they think they would like the best and read that. Whether readers choose Meg Cabot's fantastic send-up of unicorn stereotypes, Naomi Novick's heroic quest, Garth Nix's blend of zombie and unicorn tales, or Kathleen Duey's parasitic unicorn to read first, the great thing about anthologies is that they contain many voices.
JL: If students aren't drawn in by Alaya Johnson's cannibalistic love story, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," you should feed them to the zombie hordes. But certainly, ALL the zombie stories are brilliant.
Browse our list of titles written by Holly Black.
Browse our list of titles written by Justine Larbalestier.