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Ling Ma has written an immigrant novel with a difference: hers has zombies. Photo: Shutterstock

How author Ling Ma went from Playboy to a zombie novel set in the publishing world

  • When Ling Ma’s fact-checking job at Playboy dried up, she decided to write a novel
  • Not wanting to write just another immigrant story, she put her own horror spin on the story
About seven years ago, when writer Ling Ma was a fact checker in the Chicago office of Playboy, as work at the magazine began drying up and lay-offs loomed, she started writing a novel.

“There were always rumours of moving the magazine to Los Angeles, but gradually. Chicago fell apart in slow motion. They encouraged people to retire early, then they cut the maximum number of holiday days you could roll over to the next year – stuff like that. Of course I knew I would be laid off. There was this definite sense of foreboding.”

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So she wrote, imagined her firing, her end – and the end of the world. The novel that resulted was titled Severance, and although it arrived last summer, it’s had a steady word-of-mouth burn, turning up last month on many best-books-of-2018 lists and landing a generous piece in The New Yorker.

It’s also not the thinly veiled tell-all you expect. It’s an apocalypse novel. Set in the publishing world. With zombies.

Severance by Ling Ma.

“If you told me years ago my first book would be this sort of apocalypse thing with zombies, I would have said ‘Are you kidding? That’s so over’. Yet in retrospect, when I look at some of the [earlier fiction] I wrote, I often start from a place of fantasy, and with this? It is a fantasy. It’s just that the fantasy is, ‘What if I didn’t have to work any more? How could I make that come about? And so, how can I collapse the capitalist system?’”

She said the book has already attracted the attention of a major cable network, though you likely guessed that. Less obvious is how fresh Severance reads, how thoroughly Ma, without anticipating it, remade the inevitable zombie apocalypse into a recognisable picture of late capitalism and loneliness.

I always figured I would write a novel,” she said. “I just figured I would write it when I was 50 and had stuff to write about. Turned out, I did have stuff to write about
Ling Ma

Ma – who moved to the United States from China as a child – said that at Cornell University she felt pressured to write a traditional immigration novel, but she pushed back. “I resented that expectation. I had been told, even by a faculty member, to write about ‘where you come from’ and I was like [expletive]. I felt there was this cultural expectation to write about your otherness – to explain yourself. I had grown up mostly in white America and often got asked where I came from. Writing an immigration novel was answering and I wasn’t interested. I mean, the apocalypse novel is full of tropes, and so is the immigration novel.”

Severance tells the story of Candace Chen, who works for a book production company in New York, where she is in charge of Bibles. Candace is capable, unsentimental, quiet but, as Ma writes, “unsavvy in some fundamental, uncomfortable way” that has kept her from seeming vital. Candace is alone, lacks an anchor, a feeling of belonging to a home or friends.

She came to the US as a child, emigrating from China; her mother, an accountant, followed her economist husband to Utah. When the end comes, it arrives from China, in the form of “Shen Fever”, a fungal infection that, before it kills, sends its victims into a zombie-like trance of familiar routines, ad infinitum.

Ling Ma says Franz Kafka was a major influence on her work.

Candace returns to work, colleagues drop away and stop coming in, cubicles stay empty. But Fashion Week goes on. Tourists still clog Times Square. The apocalypse is not a hard stop, rather it’s a slow creep. Indeed, even as there are fewer people to sell anything to, Candace is offered more money to stay at the company, to keep up corporate appearances.

Ma said that Franz Kafka and his grim diaries – “how he is interested in power, how you can’t see power even when it’s prevalent everywhere, and how he worked at an insurance firm by day but was writing at night” – became a major influence on Severance.

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Though as predictable as it may be to read the details of an author’s life into their fiction, the book is remarkably autobiographical: Ma grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas, her father taught economics, her mother is an accountant. After attending the University of Chicago, she worked for a book-production firm in Chicago, but was transferred to the New York office, where she oversaw the Bible. She returned eventually to Chicago, and now teaches writing at the University of Chicago.

“I always figured I would write a novel,” she said. “I just figured I would write it when I was 50 and had stuff to write about. Turned out, I did have stuff to write about.”