Interview With an Author: Max Brallier

Sky You, Children's Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Max Braillier and his latest book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress
Author Max Braillier and his latest book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress. Photo of author: Ruby Brallier

Max Brallier is a New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. His books and series include The Last Kids on Earth, Eerie Elementary, Mister Shivers, Galactic Hot Dogs, and Can YOU Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? He is a writer and producer for Netflix's Emmy-award-winning adaptation of The Last Kids on Earth. Max lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress is his latest book and he recently talked about it talked about it with Sky You for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress?

I love big, epic "dudes on a mission" stories—novels like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare. I hadn't written a Last Kids book—or any book— like that, but desperately wanted to give it a shot. So that was my big moment of inspiration: take these kids and send them on a big "dudes on a mission" type mission. With Last Kids, my goal is always to write a book that's fun, funny, character-driven, has lots of action and adventure—but also moves the larger story forward. With each book, now, there are puzzle pieces that need to fall into place as the entire series builds toward a climax. But every book still needs to feel like its own story—a self-contained adventure with a real beginning, middle, and end. I never want any of the books to feel like they exist, only to move characters around on a chessboard, if that makes any sense. So that was the inspiration, the goal—and also the challenge with Forbidden Fortress.

Can you give us a warning/sneak peek of the new villains?

Ooh, happily. This book's villain, Wracksaw, is the series' scariest bad guy. He's a mad scientist monster—sort of a deranged, evil surgeon. The heroes discover a few of his bizarre experiments when they enter his fortress—and it's the most spin-crawling stuff we've seen yet. It was fun to introduce this new villain who's sort of a lieutenant, working underneath the series' two larger villains—and then figure out how to make the new villain different, with different goals, driven by different motivations.

Did any of your characters surprise you while writing the new book? Has anyone changed or grown up?

The kids have changed and grown a ton since the series began. Jack's always the main character—that's sort of bound to happen when he's the one telling the story—but with each book, I try to spotlight one other character, bring them to the forefront, and dig a little deeper into them. And with that, we've seen them all change and grow. That's especially true in Forbidden Fortress, because, at the start of the story, they think (for the first time) they might actually win. They might actually end the end of the world.

That's huge for all of them—but especially for June. Since the beginning of the series, her goal has been to find and reunite with her family. So that sparks a major change in attitude for her—but in a really fun way and ended up playing out differently from how I first imagined it might. But the new villain, Wracksaw, is the one who surprised me the most. I knew early on that there would be this crazed, mad scientist character—but it took a while to figure out how to make that character funny and enjoyable. It's important to me that all the characters— heroes and villains—are entertaining for both the kids reading the books and for parents who might be reading along with them.

While outlining Forbidden Fortress, I started scribbling down jokey ideas and lines of silly dialogue for Wracksaw—stuff that seemed really over-the-top and outlandish. They were mostly just jokes for myself, to make me laugh—but then I began to pause and think, "What if that actually is the way Wracksaw talks and actually is the way Wracksaw acts?" So, I took this very scary, very cruel villain—and made him super insecure. He has a pair of monstrous assistants/henchmen, and he treats them awfully. He's this short-fused, demanding boss—which allows for humor that's different than anything in the series prior. Figuring out how to make Wracksaw work was a surprise—but a very, very happy surprise.

There's also—and I don't want to spoil anything here—a major villain who's been around for a long time now, and he gets, well, I wouldn't say it's a redemption arc. But we do see new sides of that character. And that was totally unexpected—just sort of happened organically while writing. And then the main characters, the kids—when I get in a groove, and I'm really having fun writing them together—they always surprise me with the way they interact, the things they say, the silly ideas they have. That's when I most enjoy the writing—when dialogue and gags and ideas just kind of pop into my head, and it almost feels like someone else is behind the wheel.

You've created so many different kinds of monsters so far. Where do you get the ideas for them?

All over the place! Some are inspired by favorite monsters from graphic novels like Amulet and Zita the Spacegirl and Lightfall. In the early books, a lot of the monsters were inspired by my favorite movie monsters: the Rancor from Return of the Jedi, the Graboids from Tremors. I spend a lot of time at the library looking at art books. The published sketches of comic book artists I love, collected pulp / sword-and-sorcery magazine covers, video game art books, and things like that. I'll sit and flip pages and sort of soak that stuff up. I also own a ton of kids' non-fiction books about insects, bizarre animals, and things like that. I've come up with some fun monsters by imagining what if, you know, you combined a spider with a hornet and then made it 30 feet tall and also gave it fire breath. It's fun to mix and match real creatures and create something new and monstrous.

There are two ways that I approach a new monster or creature. Sometimes, I'll have an idea for a monster that I really like—and then I figure out how to work it into the story. Other times it's the opposite—and I know there's one specific trait or ability that I need a monster to have because that's what the story requires—and then I work backward to create that monster in a hopefully interesting way, unexpected and fun. All that said—many of my favorite Last Kids monsters were birthed entirely by the series' illustrator, Doug Holgate. I'll just write something like, "a big monster holds a giant sword," and then Doug comes up with some incredible creature. A lot of my job is teeing up Doug and allowing him to create something amazing.

Halloween is coming up! What was your favorite monster/costume when you were young? Do you still dress up for Halloween? If so, what monster costume would you wear this year?

Ooh, tough one. I think my favorite childhood costume was Link from the video game series The Legend of Zelda. That was back when I was probably 10 years old. I was, and still am, a huge fan of those games—but I chose Link because the costume simply would not be complete without a bow and arrow. And that forced my parents to buy me a bow-and-arrow! It was a dinky little costume shop thing—but it was made of real wood, and if you tried hard enough, it'd actually fire arrows! I'm still proud of myself for managing to finagle a bow-and-arrow out of a Halloween costume.

Right now, I'm at a time in my life when my five-year-old daughter chooses my Halloween get-up. She'll pick what she wants to dress up as—and then my wife and I are just the supporting cast. On rare occasions, I do get to pick my own costume. I actually find myself doing the same thing I did with my Legend of Zelda costume back in the day—choosing a costume that will allow and justify my spending way too much money on a movie-realistic Lightsaber or something. But what monster costume would I wear? That's tough. The monsters I love tend to be massive beast-type things. And those are hard to do costumes for, especially since I'm really not good at stuff like that. Maybe I'll make that a goal, though—do a really bang-up job constructing a giant monster costume for somebody soon. Until then… hmmm… I’m gonna go with The Invisible Man, with all the bandages and the big gloves and the fedora. Such a rad design.

Whenever the story gets a little too scary or thrilling, there is always some humor to release the tension. How important is humor for you when you write?

Humor is the most important thing when I'm writing. And balancing the humor and goofy fun with the serious stuff is what I always find hardest. Striking a balance between big, jokey set pieces and scary or intense action scenes is always tough—and this book was the hardest yet. The kids are inside this horrible fortress—which is really strange and spooky and otherworldly—for a huge chunk of the book. And once they were in there, it was a real challenge—especially when I was in the outlining phase—to find moments of humor and ways to relieve that tension.

In the first draft, I tried to address that by front-loading the book with silly training sequences and things like that. But it was clear all that stuff was taking up way too much real estate and wasn't actually moving the story forward. So, I cut back on that and did my best to find and create funny, lighthearted moments throughout the story—not just at the start. I'd find a few more ways to do that with each draft. But yes—the humor is really, really important. It's fun to write. It makes me happy. And I think it's a big part of what keeps readers coming back to the series.

The "end-of-the-world monster-zombie apocalypse" sounds like every kid's dream world (before encountering monsters). What would your 'dream world' look like?

The world of the Last Kids on Earth is the dream world I had as a kid. That was one of the big ideas that got me going at the start—an end-of-the-world playground. A FUNpocalypse. My dream world now? One with way less technology. I wish I could snap my fingers and vanish the world's cell phones—or at the very least, smartphones. Same for social media—I'd like that all to simply go away. I don't mind email, but there's way too much of it. I love physical media: I like collecting things, I like holding a book in my hand, I like sliding a DVD into the DVD tray.

So, I guess my dream world is…the mid-90s, maybe? Eek. That’s embarrassing.

There are no 'cell phones' for your characters. Is there a special reason for this particular setting?

I wanted to write a big action-adventure story starring kids—but it's hard to do that with parents hanging around, texting, Facetiming, and asking when you'll be home for dinner. So, I decided to not only get rid of cell phones—but to get rid of the parents, too. And pretty much all adults, for that matter. We're all addicted to our cell phones—but I think we secretly (or maybe not so secretly) absolutely hate them. I'm convinced that's one of the reasons Stranger Things was such a big hit—it's an adventure that simply wouldn't be possible these days. And I think we all kind of know that and miss that but feel like, hey, what am I supposed to do? I can't even look at a restaurant menu without scanning a QR code, let alone board a flight, hail a taxi, or find a train schedule.

I know, I sound like a grumpy old man shaking my fist at the clouds…But I'm not! I'm a grumpy old man shaking my fist at the satellites above the clouds.

How would you be able to survive without a cell phone in a monster/zombie apocalypse?

I don't know how long I'd survive—but I'd enjoy every cellphone and email-free moment. (Are you sensing a theme?) Except for GPS—that I would miss. I've always had a terrible sense of direction, and I'm super reliant on GPS to get anywhere. If I'm traveling more than 3 blocks from my house, I need GPS—even if I'm going someplace, I've been to 100 times before.

Can you name the top three books that inspired you the most when you were Jack's age?

Jack is 13 (although in my head he's 12, 'cause he's supposed to be in 6th grade—but I messed up the way that kids' grades/ages match up when I wrote the first book, so now I'm stuck with 13).

When I was that age, I read a ton of Calvin & Hobbes. That’s also when I discovered Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which was a big Last Kids inspiration and just inspiring all-around. I started reading it in middle school, and the series finished when I was in college—so I grew up along with it.

I’ll finish out my top three with…hmm…a big ol’ tie between Spider-Man comics, Matilda, Tintin, and the Hardy Boys books.

Have you tried the The Last Kids on Earth and the Staff of Doom video game? How did you like the game version of your stories? I've played it many, many times.

I was lucky enough to be pretty involved in the game. I was given a decent amount of input (probably too much!), starting with the game's genre (action RPG). And then, I worked on the concept and the story and was able to contribute specific ideas for mechanics, gadgets, tools, etc. I was like a kid in a candy store! I played many, many, many different versions of the game, from early versions with placeholder art and no sound to half-completed versions full of bugs to the final, finished game, which I absolutely adore.

What's up next for you? Are you working on any new books or projects?

Always working on a new book or project! At least—right now, the answer is always. I hope I'm lucky enough that that continues!

We just made a big announcement: we’re doing a Last Kids on Earth spin-off—a full color graphic novel series, The Last Comics on Earth. We revealed the cover art at the same time we announced it, which was fun—and the reaction has been really positive. It's very different from the main Last Kids on Earth series—but that's what makes it fun and exciting. The book opens with Jack, Quint, June, and Dirk at their local comic book store, reading their favorite comic: Z-Man: Defender of Apocalyptia. Then they discover—to their horror!—that they've read every issue of the series and there are no more issues coming, ever, because the world ended! Worst of all: the last issue of Z-Man ended with a seriously nail-biting cliffhanger. So, the kids grab pens and markers and throw on their thinking caps and decide to continue the Z-Man series—writing and drawing it themselves. But they immediately make a major change: they kill off their beloved hero and make themselves goofy superheroes, sworn to the city of Apocalyptia.

This new setting, Apocalyptia, is one of my favorite parts of the series: it's the nexus of all apocalypses—a city full of survivors from every possible end of every world ever. It gets really silly and bizarre, with lots of little in-joke nods to other fictional apocalypses. There are dinosaurs, dragons, aliens, zombies—and they all have to live together in this city. It’s got a little bit of a Zootopia vibe.

Best of all, I co-write Last Comics with a good friend of mine, Josh Pruett—who wrote for the Last Kids on Earth Netflix series. We had a ton of fun brainstorming all the weird stuff we could cram into the book. And illustrator Jay Cooper does his own take on Doug Holgate's art, imagining what the characters and world would look like if drawn by Jack, June, Quint, and Dirk.

I know, I’m going on and on—but I’m really excited about this one!

Book cover for The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress
The Last Kids on Earth and the Forbidden Fortress
Brallier, Max