Thirty seconds into a meeting with Max Brooks and without any provocation, he's already chatting about survivalists and World War II.
Like a wind-up toy, the 43-year-old Brooks exudes kinetic energy. Bring up any topic, and he's likely to have an opinion.
I mention the adventurer Bear Grylls and without missing a beat, Brooks launches into a tirade: "Bear Grylls is the biggest fraud ever," he says. "People have actually gone to the places he's camped and turned the camera so you see it's next to a freeway. I have a huge problem with survivor reality shows. Other reality shows don't get you killed. If you emulate the Kardashians, then you'll just be stupid."
Brooks shakes his head in disgust. "Bear Grylls does one where he's running across a lava field," he continues. "You never run on lava. You'll crack right through that thing, and cut your leg up."
If you think Brooks is an expert on just about any topic, well, you wouldn't be too far off — at least in his estimation. During our 45-minute conversation, we discussed gun control, Britney Spears, Pearl Harbor, Snapchat, Rwanda and Spike Lee. He also brought up the Confederacy, the "Twilight" series and "Fifty Shades of Grey." He talked about growing up the only child of funnyman Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft. And, of course, he chatted about his favorite topic, zombies.
Yes, zombies are Brooks' bread and butter. It's what pays the bills. His first book was "The Zombie Survival Guide." It may sound like a title you'd find in the humor section, but it actually describes the real-world consequences of such an attack. He followed up that book with the New York Times bestseller "World War Z," a philosophical elegy masked as a zombie apocalypse, a metaphor for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and viruses like Ebola that have the potential to cripple society. The book provided the basis for the 2013 blockbuster film starring Brad Pitt.
But don't get Brooks started on the movie adaptation. "I watched a movie that happened to have the same title as my book," he says. "They didn't ruin my book; they ignored it." Nonetheless, audiences flocked to theaters like zombies to fresh meat. The movie made more than $540 million worldwide. When asked if he would pen a sequel, Brooks says he has no intention of writing "World War Z: The Battle for More Money."
His interest in zombies stems from a childhood fear, but his books are more geopolitical than horror. "Hollywood makes movies that are entertaining and exciting but are not necessarily realistic," he says. "Because the truth is, Rambo could very well mow down half of North Vietnam with an infinitely loadable machine gun, and then go home and die of testicular cancer."
He says it's like packing for a trip. "There's a billion tiny little details. Keeping the zombies out is one of the hundred things you need to check off."
The family legacy continues
Brooks has also become a fan favorite at comic book conventions. His latest book, "Harlem Hellfighters," is a graphic novel about the first African American regiment of World War I.
Brooks is a self-proclaimed "history nerd," but he suffered through school because of dyslexia. "I think being dyslexic, school and I were not good friends," he says. "A lot of my education came from my entertainment. My favorite author is Tom Clancy and so I learned more from his books about technology and geopolitics and about the military than I did from any of the classes I took in college. I think I sort of instinctively infuse education into all my work."
That curious mind has rubbed off on the next generation of the Brooks dynasty. Max's 10-year-old son, Henry, an only child like his dad, has mimicked what he sees in his father. "He's the exact same as me," Brooks admits.
"My son is a lot smarter than his old man. He's writing a musical of 'Casablanca'." Henry started writing it at the age of 9 after weekly viewings of the classic film. "Every time we watched it, he would learn from it," says Brooks. No word yet if granddad Mel, a Broadway legend, is helping pen the musical.
Another favorite of Henry's? Old cartoons from the 1930 and 1940s. "I don't know what it is about them, but boy does he pick up on them," Brooks says. "I showed him 'Casper the Friendly Ghost,' which we all grew up on. He looks at it and says, 'Dad, Casper's a child, right? Ghosts are people that die, right? So I'm watching a show about a dead kid?"
Brooks pauses while he ponders the depth of his son's thought process. "He's going to be an amazing adult someday, but it ain't going to be easy for him."
It appears he's already an overachiever, just like his dad.