January 26, 2024

Night of the Living Zed: Q & A with authors Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester

Recently, I reviewed Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester's newest middle grade novel, Night of the Living Zed, a sequel to their wildly successful The Fabulous Zed Watson!

Night of the Living Dead
Written by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester
HarperCollins Canada
256 pp.
Ages 8-12
Released January 16, 2024
Today, it gives me great pleasure to post a Q & A I did with authors Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester about their new book. 

Authors Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester
• • • • • • •
HK:   Congratulations on Night of the Living Zed. It’s another great mystery embedded with the supernatural and notable characters. Did you experience any challenges in writing a sequel to The Fabulous Zed Watson!?
Kevin Sylvester:  We knew the characters well, so writing scenes with Zed and Gabe and the crew was fun. The toughest part, I think, was making it a different mystery with a different feel. I love escape rooms, so used those as inspiration for the types of codes our intrepid duo would have to crack. Then when Basil started writing the letters that lie at the (literal) heart of the story, the emotional side of the mystery began to just fall in place. After that, it felt like the challenge was paying due respect to the type of hidden relationship many people had to have (and still do) to be accepted.
Basil Sylvester:  Echoing what my co-author said. We wanted to have a story that doesn’t feel like we wrote it just to bring back characters we liked. There had to be something new. I really like the way the two books compliment (complement? Oh dear) each other. Fabulous Zed Watson had a lot of travel, so it was fun to write a sequel where they are mostly in one place. We also worked hard to make sure you could read it without having read the first one, sort of like a classic mystery series like Sherlock Holmes stories or similar. 

HK:   How does your collaboration work? Do you each write one chapter or section of the story, or do you write together?
Kevin Sylvester:  In the first book we split up a lot of the work by theme – so related chapters on a specific part of the mystery, or location for that clue, might fall to me. Basil would write the scenes, such as the border scene, where Zed has to face some real fear and discomfort.  But we’d always read the whole thing out loud to make sure there was a consistency of tone and voice. So by the end the whole book was truly a co-written work. We even collaborate on the illustrations.
     This time, I think, was more “both of us at the same time” writing with essentially the same result. But Basil wrote and researched the letters the kids discover… and those are beautiful.

Basil Sylvester:  the first book was much more methodical—we made the best outline I’ve ever made in my life, by far, haha. Then we split up and came back together to write everything out. Night of the Living Zed was a stranger creature. We did a lot more writing side by side but also writing alone—I wrote the letters completely without input, for instance, but as Kevin said, the best part is reading out loud. You instantly get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, especially in the jokes and banter.
HK:   Plotting any story can be challenging but I wonder if plotting a mystery is especially so. Did you plot out the whole mystery from the outset or did you develop it one step at a time, perhaps with each new room that Zed and Gabe encounter in Glyndebourne Manor?
Kevin Sylvester:  We had a general idea a good year before we started writing… so the idea was always cooking in our heads.  Then we tried to decide how the reveal would happen from the presumed mystery (spending three days in a spooky house) to the true mystery (who was Charlotte and why did she build this bizarre house?). So there are two layers happening all the time. I would say that was more fun than tough to figure out. 
     The frustrating part is always when you think you have a good bit and then look at it later, or have someone else look at it, and say the code didn’t make sense, or wasn’t revealed to the reader in a way that they could also solve the mystery. So we tried to make sure that all the clues are there, so that the reader can either go “I saw that coming” or “oh! Now I see what the code was!”. Both offer a fun payoff.

Basil Sylvester:  Oh my gosh I found this really hard to do! I’m not a big mystery reader—I love middle grade mysteries, but I don’t read like Janet Evanovich kind of things—so I really struggled with making stuff plausible and consistent. Kevin is old hat at mysteries so he really helped but making escape room puzzles that made sense and that I hoped the readers would be able to pick up clues on was the hardest part of this book. Also plotting with a co-writer can be hard, especially getting on the same page about the hard and fast rules of the contest. We were working in Scrivener, which allows for research and planning docs, so we made sure to write out the rules early on and referred to them often!

HK:   Though many might not see it, Night of the Living Zed
is a celebration of romantic love. Although the two romances had very different outcomes being from different times, they were both triumphant in their own ways. Why did you choose to include these romances in the story?

Kevin Sylvester:  Basil is the best one to answer this, but I will say that I am always intrigued by stories where someone builds something as a living memory of someone, or to honour them.  
     Think Citizen Kane, the Taj Mahal… my Apartment 713.

Basil Sylvester:  Honestly, Sam and Jo were some of my favourite characters in the first book, so I wanted to bring them back. And their wedding sort of works as a plot device for Zed and Gabe to specifically need money, encouraging them to go for the Gylndebourne contest. In terms of the other romance, I loved the idea of a multi-layered mystery. We sort of have that with the first book, where Zed is looking for the manuscript, and along the way they discover a whole supportive community in some unexpected places, showing us that the world is ready emotionally for Taylor’s book.
     In Night of the Living Zed, I wanted to pay homage to historical romantic relationships that weren’t read as such for a long time. I also love the idea that a spooky scary haunted house is actually not scary at all, but beautiful. That it’s just misunderstood, like the romance itself. So I wanted to have layers of meaning, as any good ghost story should.

HK:   Music, particularly opera, is a significant element of the story, directing Zed and Gabe’s solving of the mystery of Glyndebourne Manor, but the broad knowledge of opera needed is certainly not derived from Wikipedia. Moreover, your acknowledgements suggest that you both have some appreciation for opera. Are you both opera buffs or did one inspire the other or did someone else boost your awareness of this theatre form?

Kevin Sylvester:  We both love opera, but don’t expect us on the Saturday Afternoon at the Opera quiz anytime soon. I’m partial to Italian operas. Rigoletto and the Barber of Seville get a lot of play in my house. But I also love the Magic Flute… and one of my fave experiences was seeing Maurice Sendak’s sets for the Hansel and Gretel a few years back.

Basil Sylvester:  I mean, growing up with the parents I had, it was inevitable. My dad loved opera and played it ever since I was a kid. So that made me … tolerate it. Then I went to university and took a class on Russian opera and fell in love with Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, The Nose…I even let Kevin put some Wagner in this one.

HK:   I’m a big fan of humour and Night of the Living Zed is filled with it, from puns and wordplay to silliness and blunders. Do you each have your own specialty when it comes to embedding humour in the story, whether through voice or actions?

Kevin Sylvester:  We are a family of joke-tellers and punsters. This includes our immediate family and friends. So the scenes with back-and-forth dialogue and jokes is a glimpse into the dining room of our houses on any gathering. Noisy. Boisterous. Snarky. Then Basil and I test-drive the jokes on eachother to make sure they work.

Basil Sylvester: I’m not as good at jokes, but growing up, especially at my grandparents’ houses, it was jokes zinging across the dinner table at breakneck speed, so I was always trying to keep up. I’m better at comebacks, so Kevin will often start riffing and then I join in. We are also tough critics, so we would cut jokes if only one of us was laughing. I would say I lean more towards silly gestures, and Zed is fun to write because they are very boisterous and always moving.

HK:   I know the book was released in January but it’s going to be a popular story come October with its Halloween theme. Zed obviously goes big for Halloween, ensuring the best neighbourhood Halloween with a pre-Halloween inspection at all homes. Is Halloween as big a deal in the Sylvester house as it is for Zed?

Kevin Sylvester:  All I can say is that you can go back and look on my Facebook page where we do a themed Halloween porch each year. This year was a haunted construction site. Last year was Scar-bucks coffee shop. The year before that was a haunted greenhouse… you get the idea. Christmas is great, and man do I need bright lights by late December, but dressing up and playing make-believe? Halloween can’t be beat.

Basil Sylvester: We never did Halloween-O-Ween, but it is 100% inspired by our love of Halloween and our dedication to creative and fun porch displays every year. It’s also a holiday that really resonates with me, since you can dress up and be someone else and get creative, which was a great outlet for me figuring out my identity in a low-stakes and fun way.

HK:   The illustrations add much to the story, just as they did in Kevin’s Neil FlambĂ© series. I recognize Kevin’s style but wonder if Basil is also an artist and contributed to the art in Night of the Living Zed.

Kevin Sylvester:  Yes. Certainly in the sense that we work on the illustrations together. I’m often drawing as we write and read passages out loud. Basil is my immediate art director and continuity officer (need to make sure Zed is wearing the same sweater in connected timelines). Also, Basil is in charge of the lettering on the spine and covers.
Basil Sylvester:  I’m not an illustrator but I do consider myself a creative person. I like crafts and DIY. As Kevin says, I’m the first art editor and can be pretty critical. He shows me all his illustrations before submitting them and I often have notes. I also came up with the ideas for both covers, and did the silly hand lettering on the covers and spine.

From Night of the Living Zed, written by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester, illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
HK:   My favourite illustration of Zed is the one on page 68 when they are in their pumpkin onesie. Do you each have a favourite illustration of Zed from Night of the Living Zed?

Kevin Sylvester:  SPOILERS…. My fave is the one of Hyacinth as she’s about to turn the faucet on the final challenge. She looks both anticipatory and a little fearful. After all they’ve been through, and learned, will this prove to be the right decision? Or will everything come crashing down?
     It’s quiet and active at the same time.

Basil Sylvester:  I love this question! I really like the one where they’re excited to say hi to the ghost. But the pumpkin onesie is great too. Also any illustration where they have their coffin backpack. I have a friend who has one and I messaged them the second they posted a picture of it, asking if I could include it for Zed in the book because it was just so perfect!

HK:   Now that we know that The Fabulous Zed Watson! will not be a stand-alone and that Zed and Gabe are becoming known for solving mysteries, are there plans for additional books beyond Night of the Living Zed?

Kevin Sylvester:  Hmmmmm. We are always ready to cook up new missions for Zed and the gang. But that is, of course, a team decision involving a lot of people. If enough kids read the books and want more… I’m willing and able!

Basil Sylvester:  Who can say? It’s not off the table. We have a lot of fun writing these, so I hope you have as much fun reading as we do writing!

I've so enjoyed reviewing Night of the Living Zed and learning more of Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester's experiences with writing this sequel to The Fabulous Zed Watson!

Many thanks to Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester for answering my questions about Night of the Living Zed. And thanks also to Rebecca Silver, Senior Publicist at HarperCollins Canada, for facilitating this interview and sharing a review copy of Night of the Living Zed.

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