The bad news is that the zombie invasion has already begun. The good news? Margaret Atwood is safely holed up in Toronto’s CN Tower.
“The zombies can’t get up the stairs,” the author tells me. They also dislike Celine Dion, whose hits are being blasted defensively from the Canadian landmark.
“Unfortunately, the government has been infected by the prime minister and the entire British royal family has been devoured,” Atwood says.
The zombie invasion is fiction -- we are really in London. This is no novel but part of a fitness app called “Zombies, Run!” It blends an immersive jogging game with an audio drama in which Atwood, 73, is soon to be heard in a cameo role.
The app casts users as survivors of a global zombie apocalypse. Download it onto your mobile phone, insert earbuds and prepare to be surrounded by a soundscape that transforms your favorite running route into a battle-scarred obstacle course dense with flesh-guzzling ghouls.
The goal is to complete a series of “missions,” each one prefaced with a few minutes of audio drama, filling in the backstory. Once you start running, the app measures your pace and progress, logging calories burnt as well as “zoms” dodged.
Along the way, you receive updates from a radio operator back at base camp, letting you know what supplies you’ve picked up, describing the terrain and issuing commands and warnings.
“Zombies 12 meters away” had me glancing nervously over my shoulder in the gym. Sound effects like zombie moans are especially motivating.
“My agents look at me askance,” says Atwood, smiling beadily from a haze of silver curls. “They think it’s beneath my dignity.” We’re sitting in the London offices of games company Six to Start, where a portable recording booth awaits.
In new scenes that form part of an update to the year-old app, Atwood plays a survivor.
Making the most of an unreliable long-distance phone connection, she tries to discover how bad the situation is in England. Unfortunately, her contact turns out to be a star-struck fan, eager to discuss Atwood’s oeuvre. It’s a handy way to introduce the Nobel hopeful to any unlettered gamers or fitness freaks.
“Young people can’t get away with things being beneath their dignity but after a certain point you can do anything,” she says. To date, that has included inventing a remote book-signing device called the LongPen, weighing in on the financial crisis (“Payback”) and composing the libretto for a chamber opera (“Pauline”).
Fans have watchmaker Rolex Group to thank for her involvement in “Zombies, Run!” As part of the Swiss company’s biennial Arts Initiative, Atwood is mentoring award-winning U.K. novelist Naomi Alderman, who also happens to be the app’s co-creator and lead writer.
“A person who’s invented something called ‘Zombies, Run!’ is my kind of person,” says Atwood of 38-year-old Alderman, who released her first video game a year before her first novel.
Atwood, a keen canoeist, says her knees couldn’t take jogging. She’s waiting for a modified version of the app, “Zombies, Totter!”
A beginner’s running course failed to get Alderman pounding the sidewalks, though it did inspire the app when a woman told the group she hoped to learn how to flee the walking dead.
Soon after, Alderman teamed up with Six to Start, putting together a Kickstarter funding pitch that netted $75,000 -- five times the amount they sought. There have been more than 300,000 downloads since it became available at the end of February 2012, sales figures that would make a book publisher’s eyes pop.
“And we’re not even talking about the merch,” adds Atwood, who’s just bought a T-shirt. While she envisages her cameo as a one-time event, she’s eager to pimp out celebrity compatriots. “I can probably get you Justin Bieber,” she tells Alderman.
Initially reluctant to sign for the Rolex initiative, she seems a natural teacher. Here are some of the things I learn in our 90 minutes together: if you tickle mice they laugh, it’s just too high-pitched for humans to hear; to birds, we look slow-moving as zombies; a polar bear is as tenacious as a zombie once it has you in its sights, and Rolex’s scouts are more tenacious still.
“They got me in a bar,” she recalls, adding that it’s so far been a lot of fun. Over the course of a year, the pair will spend about a month together. Already, they’ve co-authored a serial novel, “The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home,” posted on the story-sharing website, Wattpad.
This isn’t Atwood’s first time in front of a microphone. In 1960, she held poetry readings in a coffeehouse whose espresso machine competed with the washroom flush to drown out speakers.
“If you can survive that, you can survive anything ever after,” she says. Still in mentor mode, she has one more piece of advice: “No matter what you do on stage, don’t worry because people will just think you did it on purpose. Apart from throwing up, you can do anything.”
“Zombies, Run! 2” for iOS and Android will be released April 16. Information: https://www.zombiesrungame.com/ or http://www.sixtostart.com/.
(Hephzibah Anderson writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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