Novelist Max Brooks On Doomsday, Dyslexia And Growing Up With Hollywood Parents

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 8:38 am

In the event of a zombie attack, author Max Brooks will be ready. His books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z are fictional manifestations of his own fears and anxieties — and his impulse to overcome them by preparing for the worst.

"The notion of learning how to survive when the old world rules no longer apply ... pretty much sums up everything I write about," Brooks says.

His research on preparing for widespread catastrophe has led to lectures at the United States Naval War College and a fellowship at the Modern War Institute. His latest novel, Minecraft: The Island, is a an offshoot of that preparedness theme. Its central character is a nameless person who wakes up in the world of the popular video game Minecraft and must learn how to survive there.

The doomsday scenarios Brooks explores in his novels are far removed from his own upbringing in Hollywood. He's the son of comedian Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, and Brooks describes his childhood as stable.

He says, "My father was home every night at 7 o'clock with my mother and having dinner ... which I think set the tone for my life, in that my wife and I have dinner with our child at home at a certain time every day."


Interview Highlights

On Mel Brooks' approach to parenting

My father wasn't always funny. I would have to say that 70, 80 percent of the time, he didn't come home as Mr. Funny Man. He came home as this very stressed, overworked man, self-made man, who had risen himself out of extreme poverty and had built an empire of comedy and was trying to maintain that in an ever-changing world of morphing tastes. So I saw the stress, I saw the panic, I saw the man who was watching studio heads change and friends die off and ... the economics of show business change. And [he was] always trying to stay one step ahead. That's what I saw. And I think I'm glad I had that ... because that taught me that no matter how easy it looks on the screen, it's a job, and it's no easier than any other job. ...

You have to remember that my father came from a generation where if you put a roof over your head and food on the table, you're father of the year. My dad also didn't have a dad. My father's father died of tuberculosis when my father was 2 years old. So this sort of new-agey notion that a dad is also a pal, that was not in my house.

What I did get from my father was stability. And I'm very grateful for that because, as a lot of my Gen Xer colleagues will tell you, their baby-boomer parents were not home, were out partying, were getting divorce after divorce, were coming home with new girlfriends and saying, "Hey, this is your new mom, I think?"

On how his mother helped him navigate his dyslexia

Dyslexia in the late '70s, 1980s was unheard of. Dyslexia — they didn't even call it a disability back then; it was just "laziness," "goofing off," "you're not trying hard enough." "You can do it but you don't want to do it" — that was a big one of my teachers.

And my mother, one of the greatest, most successful actresses of her day, gave up her career, put her career on the shelf, to raise me, to be my educational advocate and to teach herself about dyslexia. ... She took, every year, all of my school books that I had to read to the Institute for the Blind and had them all read onto audio cassette so I could listen to my reading list. And if I hadn't been able to do that, I wouldn't have graduated high school. I can literally say that not only did my mother give me my life, she saved my life.

On seeing his mother play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate for the first time

As far as The Graduate goes, I didn't see it until I was about 22 years old because I was afraid; because my whole life, creepy baby boomers had been coming up to me and said, "Oh, your mother, first time I saw her — oy!" I thought, Oh my God. What if it's this weird psycho-sexual experience that you can't escape from, and what if I see it and I get aroused? I'll be on the therapist couch the rest of my life! I'll never have a normal relationship!

So, finally, as a tradition where I went to college, they watched The Graduate, and I thought, Oh boy, here we go. And I watched it and I thought, Oh, this is it? Wow, you baby boomers must've been repressed!

On what his U.S. Naval War College lectures were about

I spoke on interconnectivity. And I talked about how in the 1940s we understood as a nation that everything was connected. We understood that nutrition, education, infrastructure all trickled down to national defense.

For example, you know how we [built] our highways? We built our national highway system literally because, in case our airbases got nuked, we would have millions of miles of paved runways for our planes to land. We talked about how nutrition meant that our soldiers would be healthy; education [meant] our soldiers would understand their training. And I talked about how we had lost all that and that the military was in its own little bubble, and that everything else was eroding on the other side. ...

From that lecture, I was invited to speak again and again and again, until finally I was at a strategic studies group. I gave that lecture, and I gave it a final button and I said, "You better take care of your veterans in this war, because my generation grew up with the streets literally paved with Vietnam veterans. And we don't care how many commercials you throw at us, when you see a legless, drug addict in a cardboard box wearing an old Vietnam army jacket, you know that that's what's waiting for you if you serve your country. And if you don't take care of our vets, you'll never get new soldiers."

In the back of the room was a young Army captain who had just got back from Iraq, hearing me talk. And when he was invited to start the Modern War Institute, one of the founders, he invited me to come along.

On how his newborn son helped his family mourn the death of his mother

We all got lucky — I did, my wife, my father — because we had a little baby. My son was born two months before my mother died, so he gave us a purpose. We had this brand new life that this little micro village of the Brooks family had to sort of come around and keep alive, with very simple needs — feeding, clothing, sleeping, health, burping. And we could all do that.

And I think that saved all of us. It certainly saved my dad. ... He would come over, the baby would be in his lap, and he would fall asleep on the couch with the baby. The two of them would sleep on the couch together, and he would walk the baby around until he burped and he would entertain him. And to this day, my father and my son have this amazing relationship. My father comes over every night and my son can't wait.

Sam Briger and Heidi Saman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If there is ever a zombie attack, the person most likely to survive just might be my guest Max Brooks, who's the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Max Brooks is the author of "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie Wars" (ph). These books are fictional manifestations of his own fears and anxieties and his impulse to overcome them by preparing for the worst.

He's done so much research on preparing for widespread catastrophe that he's been invited to participate in an Army WMD preparedness exercise. And he's now a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He's also very funny in spite of all the doomsday scenarios he's preoccupied with. His new novel, "Minecraft: The Island," is a novelization of the incredibly popular videogame Minecraft.

Max Brooks, welcome to FRESH AIR. Describe the premise of "Minecraft: The Island."

MAX BROOKS: "Minecraft: The Island" is a novel based on the video game "Minecraft." "Minecraft" the game, for anyone who hasn't played it or who has children and has not asked them, what are you doing on the iPad, it is...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: It is not so much a game in the literal form because there's not really a goal except to survive. It is a virtual world of blocks where you literally have to not starve and build a house and not get killed by creatures who come out after dark.

And that is really the premise of this book, where someone from our world wakes up in that world and swims to an island and has to survive on the island. So it's like the movie "Tron" meets "Robinson Crusoe." And as this person is surviving and doing basic life skills, they are learning real life skills of wisdom, patience, planning, preparation, how to deal with failure, how to learn from your mistakes, lessons they can take back to their world.

GROSS: So this book, the "Minecraft" book, and your zombie books are about surviving when the old rules no longer apply. And your zombies were infected by a virus, the Solanum virus, that spread through contact with body fluids. And you've said that that was partly inspired by the AIDS epidemic. How old were you when you first heard about AIDS?

MAX BROOKS: I think I must have been about 12. I was literally coming into puberty just when I was told that puberty could kill me.

GROSS: What effect did that have on you?

MAX BROOKS: Well, I think I would be lying if I said that it made me neurotic. But I think it'd be pretty accurate to...

GROSS: What? You were already (laughter)...

MAX BROOKS: Yes, I...

GROSS: You were already in the zone (laughter).

MAX BROOKS: The fire - yes, the fire was smoldering. But I think this was the supertanker that exploded onto the smoldering flame that was my genetic neurosis.

GROSS: And the fact that you write zombie books and the "Minecraft" book that's all about being in this kind of alien environment and your only goal is to survive - does that describe what your inner-psychological state was like when you were growing up?

MAX BROOKS: Yeah, I think you nailed it. I think the notion of learning how to survive when the old world rules no longer apply - it pretty much sums up everything I write about. It's really the crux of my work. I write a lot about change, and I write about my characters having to adapt to external changes that they did not choose and do not necessarily want.

GROSS: So what are some of the other external changes you had to navigate through during your formative years?

MAX BROOKS: Well, I think there's the standard one of leaving home. And I think it's pretty much happened to most 18- to 20-something-year-olds when they go out into the world and they realize that perhaps everything they learned in their house doesn't apply to the outside world. And they have to write a whole new rulebook.

And I think that that has pretty much gone into hyperdrive now or, as my father would say, ludicrous speed because the world is changing so quickly now that pretty much everything I've learned as a parent is useless to my child. And so the notion of it's not what you learn but it's how you learn I think is the only way you can parent nowadays.

GROSS: Did the fact that your parents, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, were - they were famous; they had money - give you any sense of security?

MAX BROOKS: Oh, God, no, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: No, no, no, no. As a matter of fact, that worked against us because my parents were a generation removed. I'm a Gen Xer, and most Gen Xers had baby boomer parents. So most Gen Xers experienced sex, drugs 'n' rock and roll. And their parents experienced sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It was just a different version of it whereas my parents was Hitler and the Depression.

GROSS: (Laughter) And World War II because your father fought in World War II.

MAX BROOKS: Yes, my father actually fought against Hitler. And so for example, my mother's greatest event of her adolescence was not kissing a boy or going to the prom. It was going to the movies with her sisters. And suddenly the movie stopped, and somebody came out onto the stage and said, we regret to inform you the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. We are now at war.

GROSS: So between the Holocaust and your mother's experience of World War II, not to mention the depression, were you brought up thinking that at any moment the apocalypse could happen?

MAX BROOKS: Well, I think growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s was pretty apocalyptic because, you know, if you remember, the '80s tried to very much emulate the '50s except for things like crack and AIDS and gangs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: We did have the good old 1950s resurgence of nuclear warfare.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: Remember "The Day After?" That was fun. We had that great miniseries "The Day After" that kids were told not to watch. And also, specifically living in Los Angeles is always on the edge of the apocalypse. We've had constant fires, floods, zero infrastructure. I grew up watching my friends' houses slide down the hills into the canyons. I watched the hills just burn up.

GROSS: I think you left out earthquakes.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yes, those, too. And that was pretty formative for my zombie work because really, my zombie work is just disaster preparedness. My mother had an earthquake kit. And we would have to go through it. And we would have to train for it. And we would have to have earthquake drills. And my mother talked about if there was an earthquake, we would eat the dog. So...

GROSS: Seriously?

MAX BROOKS: We always had - yes, oh, yes. I brought my beautiful, young girlfriend over, who's now my wife, to dinner with my parents. And the Northridge quake had happened. And we discussed what we would do. And I was saying, well, maybe we could eat the fish in the koi pond. And so my mother had to of course one-up me and say, well, we could always eat Purdy (ph). And that was our dog.

GROSS: So you did a lot of research for the zombie books and the "Minecraft" book to see what kinds of things you could do to survive. Did you apply any of those from your own life? Or did any of those...

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Come from your own life?

MAX BROOKS: Everything I do is based on research. My hero is not James Joyce. It's Tom Clancy because as a kid growing up with dyslexia, I loved being able to learn from my fiction. So I loved setting down a book I had read and feeling educated as well as entertained. So everything I do has to be based in reality.

And in "The Zombie Survival Guide," half of it is book-learned, and half of it is life-learned. When I talk about the M-16 being a horrible jamming weapon, that's based on my own personal experience in Army ROTC. And I can tell you as a fact, the M-16 was never meant to be a frontline infantry combat weapon. It was meant to be an Air Force base security weapon - so mud, dirt and suddenly click and jam, and it blows up in your face.

GROSS: Yes. So you were in ROTC, which is, you know, a military leadership training program on college campuses. And it kind of amazes me that you did ROTC training when you're so afraid of disaster. You're basically signing yourself up to go fight in a war should there be one.

MAX BROOKS: Well, I think - that fits with my philosophy that you can't wall yourself off from danger. Danger is coming for you. So you can either be proactive and prepare for it and face it, or you can hide in a hole until the threat digs down into the hole after you.

GROSS: So you signed up for ROTC in order to get more preparedness.

MAX BROOKS: No, no. I signed up for ROTC because like a good, young liberal, I thought that America was very good to me. And America had given, and it was my turn to give back.

GROSS: How were you in the training? Are you...

MAX BROOKS: Probably the worst soldier...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: ...In the history of the United States Army.

GROSS: OK. I'm going to quote two things from your zombie book. These are, like, take away lessons. One is "fear can be conquered. Anxiety must be endured." That's actually very funny.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yeah because when I am passionate about something, I am extremely passionate about something. I will study it to the nth degree. Unfortunately, by the same token, when I am not passionate about something - oh, good Lord. My wife and I have to have an agreement. When she says to me, listen; if you're coming out to a social engagement, you better agree because I will not have you sitting there surly in a corner, rolling your eyes at some other husband talking about sports. You are not allowed to do that because the truth is if I'm not interested, I will get up and leave the room. I will say, I'm sorry. I know that you're very passionate about whatever - your car or the shoes you're wearing - but I'm not going to be on this planet for another 70 years, and I can't waste the extra 90 seconds hearing about your shoes or your car.

GROSS: How did the military get onto you? What made them think that you were going to be a valuable player in preparedness training?

MAX BROOKS: It all started on a risk where the president of the United States Naval War College asked me to come in and give a talk. I came in, and I spoke on interconnectivity. And I talked about how in the 1940s, we understood as a nation that everything was connected. We understood that nutrition, education, infrastructure all trickle down to national defense - for example, you know, how we built our highways.

We built our national highway system literally because in case our air bases got nuked, we would have millions of miles of paved runways for our planes to land. We talked about how nutrition meant that our soldiers would be healthy. Education - our soldiers would understand their training. And I talked about how we had lost all that and that the military was in its own little bubble and that everything else was eroding on the other side. And from that lecture, I was invited to speak again and again and again until finally I was at a strategic studies group.

And I gave that lecture, and I gave it a final button. And I said, you better take care of your veterans in this war because my generation grew up with the streets literally paved with Vietnam veterans. And we don't care how many commercials you throw at us. When you see a legless drug addict in a cardboard box wearing an old Vietnam army jacket, you know that that's what is waiting for you if you serve your country. And if you don't take care of our vets, you'll never get new soldiers.

In the back of the room was a young Army captain who had just got back from Iraq, hearing me talk. And when he was invited to start the Modern War Institute, be one of the founders, he invited me to come along.

GROSS: That's such an interesting story and such an interesting perception about how people won't sign up. What they see of veterans is people who are homeless and legless and kind of begging for money and food.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean that's - that is exactly the difference between me and most of my generation because I grew up with greatest generation parents. And so my father, you know, the great Mel Brooks - it doesn't matter how successful he is. If you get him and Carl Reiner and some of his friends from that generation together, eventually the talk will turn to how they served their country. That was their formative years. When I was 20 years old, I was a young production assistant for Don Rickles on his TV show "Daddy Dearest."

GROSS: Oh.

MAX BROOKS: And what he'd like to talk about was serving on a PT boat in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. So to them - I saw all these successful, accomplished grown-ups who looked at national service as something to be proud of.

GROSS: Have you found that very validating to have the military or at least part of the military turning to you to think of scenarios that we should be planning for? You know, it's one thing to use your fears and your panic and neuroses to write, like, zombie books, which is, you know, a pretty wonderful thing to do. But it's a whole different level to be working with the military on actual preparedness.

MAX BROOKS: Well, what's validating about it is, for the first time in my life - really be surrounded by a group of genuinely patriotic intellectuals. You know, we have this myth in our country that the warrior class is somehow either made up of people too poor to do anything but serve, or they're crazed rednecks who like to blow stuff up.

And yet I'm surrounded on a constant basis by people who are highly educated, highly motivated, come from good families, did not have to serve, chose out of a love of country and go to work every day and talk about issues like gender equality and education for little girls in certain countries, getting the sewer systems working in megacities and climate change, how to purify human waste so it doesn't make cholera and what's going to happen when the polar ice caps melt and that means a naval buildup in the Arctic. So all the issues that you would think liberal NGOs would be talking about are talked about every day by people in uniform.

GROSS: My guest is Max Brooks. His new novel is "Minecraft: The Island." After a break, we'll talk more about growing up with his parents, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who starred together in the film "To Be Or Not To Be," in which they sang this duet. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO BE OR NOT TO BE")

MEL BROOKS AND ANNE BANCROFT: (Singing in Polish). Sweet Georgie Brown. (Singing in Polish). Sweet Georgie Brown. (Singing in Polish). Sweet Georgie Brown. (Singing in Polish).

MEL BROOKS: (Singing in Polish).

BROOKS AND BANCROFT: (Singing in Polish).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Max Brooks, the author of the bestsellers "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie Wars" (ph). His new book, "Minecraft: The Island" is a novelization of the popular video game "Minecraft." His novels are manifestations of the fears he grew up with about AIDS, gangs, earthquakes, nuclear war.

In order to write his fictional stories, he's done a lot of research on how to survive a disaster - so much research that he was invited to participate in an Army WMD preparedness exercise. And he's now a fellow at West Point's Modern War Institute.

So you grew up with Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks as your parents, two very, famous very acclaimed people in the movie business. Did your father test out jokes or story ideas on you when you were young?

MAX BROOKS: Absolutely not. You know, you have to remember that my father came from a generation where, if you put a roof over your head and food on the table, you're father of the year.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MAX BROOKS: My father also, you know, my dad didn't also have a dad. My father's father died of tuberculosis when my father was 2 years old. So this sort of New Age-y (ph) notion that a dad is also a pal - that was not in my house. What I did get from my father was stability. And I'm very grateful for that because as a lot of my Gen Xer colleagues will tell you their baby boomer parents were not home, were out partying, were getting divorce after divorce, were coming home with new girlfriends and just saying, hey, this is your new mom, I think whereas my father was home every night at 7 o'clock with my mother and having dinner. And we had a stable life, which I think sort of set the tone for my life, in that my wife and I have dinner with our child at home at a certain time every day. And then my dad shows up.

GROSS: Did you think your father's films were funny?

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Oh, my God, no, my dad's films were - look, I, you know, I always get asked, you know, did you think your father was funny? Was he always that funny? And the truth is, I always say to people when they say, what was it like growing up with Mel Brooks? I say, I - you have to give me a frame of reference. Tell me about your father and then I'll tell you if it was anything thing like my father.

I think one of my lightbulb moments was when I was dating my girlfriend - now my wife - and we went to the retirement party of a family friend where they did a little skit. And I looked at the skit, and I looked at my girlfriend, and I said, wow. Normal people aren't that funny.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: ...Because, you know, my father wasn't always funny, you know? I would have to say that 70, 80 percent of the time, he didn't come home as Mr. Funnyman. He came home as this very stressed, overworked man - a self-made man who'd risen himself out of extreme poverty, and had built an empire of comedy and was trying to maintain that in an ever-changing world of morphing tastes.

And so I saw the stress. I saw the panic. I saw the man who's - who was watching studio heads change, and friends die off and economics - the economics of show business change and him always trying to stay one step ahead. That's what I saw. And I think that was - I'm glad I had that. I would much rather have that because that taught me that no matter how easy it looks on the screen, it's a job. And it is no easier than any other job.

And I was very, very lucky when we did the audiobook of "Minecraft: The Island." We had two different readers, a man and a woman. Samira Wiley from "Orange Is The New Black" and "Handmaid's Tale" - she read an amazing version of "Minecraft: The Island." And the male was a guy I went to high school with - Jack Black, who my son loves.

GROSS: You went to high school with him. Oh, wow.

MAX BROOKS: I went to high school with Jack. We were in a school play together. And so he agreed to read the male version of "Minecraft: The Island," so we went to the studio - me and my son, who loves him, loves "Kung Fu Panda." Now, Jack was struggling because, in his words, he's a little bit dyslexic, and his tongue is too big for his mouth.

So it was a priceless teaching moment for my son to watch my hero, his hero, have to keep going, have to do take after take until he got it right, and then once he's pleased the audio engineer, has to please himself and say, no, no, no. I can do that better. And to say to my son - you see? This is a job. This isn't just all happy, fun talent time. Talent is 10 percent. And so watching Jack Black, for my son, was a little bit like me watching my father have to grind it out over the course of my childhood.

GROSS: Mmm hmm. And so what about your mother, Anne Bancroft? She was a great actress. And, like, "The Miracle Worker" and "The Graduate" were such formative films for so many people in such different ways. You know, she's this incredibly patient, wise teacher teaching Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." And in "The Graduate," of course, she's having an affair with somebody who just graduated college, and it's actually the boyfriend of her daughter - so, you know, the classic Mrs. Robinson.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, yes.

GROSS: What impact did those films have on you, seeing your mother in both of those roles?

MAX BROOKS: Well, I would tell you that, as far as "The Graduate" goes, I didn't see it until I was about 22 years old because I was afraid. I thought, oh, my God, what if I - because my whole life, creepy baby boomers had been coming up to me and saying, you know, oh, your mother, first time I saw her, eh, oy, eh.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: And so I thought oh, my God, what if it's this weird psychosexual experience that you can't escape from? And what if I see, and I get aroused? I'll be in the therapist couch the rest of my life. I'll never have a normal relationship. And so finally, as a tradition where I went to college, they watched "The Graduate." And I thought oh, boy. Here we go. And I watched it. And I thought, oh, this is it? Wow, you baby boomers must've been repressed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: But then, as far as you said, "The Miracle Worker" - well, she was my miracle worker because...

GROSS: In what respect?

MAX BROOKS: Well, because I had dyslexia. And dyslexia, in the late 70s, 1980s, was unheard of. Dyslexia was - they didn't even call it a disability back then. It was just laziness, goofing off. You're not trying hard enough. You can do it, but you don't want to do it. That was a big one of one of my teachers. And my mother, one of the greatest, most successful actresses of her day, gave up her career, put her career on the shelf to raise me, and to be my educational advocate, and to teach herself about dyslexia, and to come up with coping mechanisms, and to meet with my teachers every year and make sure that they understood what I was going through, and find ways I could learn in a nontraditional format.

She took, every year, all of my schoolbooks that I had to read to the institute for the blind and had them all read onto audiocassette so I could listen to my reading list. And if I hadn't been able to do that, I wouldn't have graduated high school. I can literally say that not only did my mother give me my life, she saved my life.

GROSS: Did you know that she was giving up acting for years in order to take care of you and to help you through the dyslexia?

MAX BROOKS: You know, I did. But I really don't think you appreciate a parent's effort until you become one yourself. I really do think there is a true psychological line between understanding something and getting it. You know, for example, I study war. I literally work at a think tank at West Point studying war. But I ain't never been in it, so I don't get it. I understand it on an intellectual level. But on a deep, visceral level, I don't get it.

And I understood, on an intellectual level, all my mother was doing and all she was giving up to make sure that I could fly. But it wasn't until I had a kid that I really felt, deep in my bone marrow, what she had done. That was when I got it.

GROSS: So the dyslexia made it hard for you to read. How do you write with the dyslexia? Does it affect it?

MAX BROOKS: You can thank my mom because I had the worst handwriting ever. And I remember one teacher tried to shame me in class and say, hey, everyone, look at the weird way Max holds his pencil. Gee, thanks, expensive private school. And so my mother, while she was busy fighting with my teachers to tell them that I wasn't just goofing off because I was some celebrity kid, she was also trying to find how technology could help me.

And so in eighth grade, she forced me to take a typing class. And I hated it. It was an elective. I said, Mom, I want to go home. I want to watch cartoons. I want to read comic books. I don't want to take a typing class. And she said, absolutely not. Technology, computers - computers are the way of the future. You're going to be a writer. This is a writer's tool. You are going to learn how to type so you can be a writer, so you will never have to dictate, so you will never have to be dependent on anyone else. This tool called the computer will make you independent. And that's exactly what happened.

GROSS: How did she know you were going to be a writer?

MAX BROOKS: I was 12 years old, and we were on vacation in Venice, Italy. And I snuck away into the back of our changing cabana on the beach for three days, and I wrote a short story. And for a kid who, you know, who was ADD, ADHD, dyslexic, living with the head in the clouds, it was the first time in my whole life that I was 100 percent focused for three consistent days. And that's when my mom knew, OK, he's on to something.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks. He's the author of the new book "Minecraft: The Island," which is a novelization of the videogame "Minecraft." He's also the author of the bestselling zombie books "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL WELTLINGER'S "GHOSTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks. He's the author of the new novelization of the "Minecraft" video game. It's called "Minecraft: The Island." He's also famous for his books "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z." And I should mention he's the son of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks.

You know, your father's comedy has always been so entwined with being Jewish. And your mother is, like - your mother was what?

MAX BROOKS: Very Italian.

GROSS: Italian, yeah.

MAX BROOKS: My - oh, boy, was she Italian.

GROSS: (Laughter) So what was your sense of, like, your ethnic heritage from your two parents?

MAX BROOKS: Well, you know, I always felt a little bit of both. I always felt like I'm definitely intellectually Jewish. You know, Jews, we are neurotic, we are questioners. And when fellow Jews would say, well, you're not really Jewish because your mother isn't Jewish, I would say to them, well, I may not be Jewish enough for Israel, but I'm Jewish enough for Dachau.

And that pretty much shut them up. And in fact, I learned from my rabbi when I was getting married that apparently the whole being Jewish on your mother's side, that's not Jewish. That's Roman.

GROSS: What, really?

MAX BROOKS: Yes. The Romans, who were excellent lawyers, understood that there was no way to prove who your father was. But for legal, for wills, for documents, for estates, you could always prove who your mother was. And so that is how they organized their whole legal standing, according to my rabbi. And so the Jews said, hey, for the first time, we can actually learn from somebody else. And so they adopted it. So I've always felt intellectually Jewish.

And you better not say anything anti-Semitic around me because then I go full Jew.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: But - although I go full Jew as an Italian. My heart, my emotionality, my passion is so Italian. And certainly my wife would agree that the yelling is definitely the Italian side.

GROSS: It must've been really hard to watch your father survive the loss of your mother.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, it was...

GROSS: I'm talking about, like, resilience.

MAX BROOKS: Oh, my God, you want to talk about resilience? Well, you know, we all got lucky - I did, my wife, my father - because we had a little baby. My son was born two months before my mother died. So he gave us a purpose. You know, we had this brand new life that this little micro-village of the Brooks family had to sort of come around and keep alive with very simple needs - feeding, clothing, sleeping, health, burping. And we could all do that.

And I think that saved all of us. You know, it certainly saved my dad. The baby - he would come over and the baby would be in his lap. And he would fall asleep on the couch with the baby. The two of them would sleep on the couch together. And he would walk the baby around until he burped. And he would entertain him. And to this day, my father and my son have this amazing relationship. My father comes over every night. And my son can't wait. You know, my wife and I - not every night.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: Once in a while it would be nice to get a break. But my son, he's like, oh, Grandpa, Grandpa, come on. And they love each other. And my son is irreverent just like my father. And now my father has this protege. And so when my son was pretending to be FDR in his notable Americans class, he goes, hey, Dad, can I do FDR, a polio comedy? And I said, no, no, you can't do that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAX BROOKS: And my father said, what? That's hilarious. No one's ever done that. FDR, a polio comedy, you'll love it.

GROSS: (Laughter) So I want to mention another book that you did. And it's a graphic novel that's set during World War I. And it's about the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I. And one of the people in that regiment - this is, like, the Harlem Hellfighters. They were from Harlem. And one of the people in that regiment was James Reese Europe, who was a bandleader. He was the musical director for the dance team Vernon and Irene Castle.

And it's really interesting. And I was wondering why you did a World War I book? It's fiction, I should say. But it's based on real things.

MAX BROOKS: Well, it's a dramatized version of a true story.

GROSS: Yeah.

MAX BROOKS: And I had been in love with that story since I was 11 years old.

GROSS: The story of the Harlem Hellfighters?

MAX BROOKS: The story of the Harlem Hellfighters, the story that there was an actual unit of African-American soldiers that had literally been set up to fail by the United States government and had been put in combat hoping that they would come home in disgrace. And they had actually been sabotaged by the U.S. government - didn't give them proper weapons, didn't give them proper training, sent them to train in Spartanburg, S.C. two weeks after a horrible race riot in Houston with black soldiers.

So they were hoping there would be a race riot, then wouldn't let them march off to war with the other National Guard units in what was called the Rainbow Division because they were told, direct quote, "black is not a color of the rainbow." Then they were sent over and made to dig ditches. And when they protested and asked to be put in combat, they were given to the French army.

And if that wasn't an insult enough - because the American army at the time was very clear - American soldiers will not be fed piecemeal as replacements into a European command structure. They will fight as an American unit under an American flag - dot, dot, dot, except for the black guys. You can have them. And if that wasn't bad enough, the U.S. Army actually gave the French army a memorandum line by line on how to import Jim Crow, how to treat them like second-class citizens.

And it literally was don't shake hands with them, don't visit with them socially, don't praise them in the company of white soldiers, don't eat with them, you know, please, God, don't let them near white women. And so in spite of all this horrific humiliation and outright sabotage, they ended up coming home as one of the most decorated units in the entire United States Army.

Who is not going to fall in love with that story?

GROSS: Well, why don't we end with a track by James Reese Europe, the bandleader who was in the Harlem Hellfighters? And I was thinking...

MAX BROOKS: Let's...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

MAX BROOKS: Let's talk a little bit about Jim Europe because I think the character of Jim Europe is incomprehensible to America's modern culture of celebrity. You know, nowadays, you're a celebrity for celebrity's sake. That wasn't Jim Europe. He was a mega celebrity of the day. For a black guy to be honored and applauded wherever he went in white society was unheard of. And he gave all that up to form the regimental band of the Harlem Hellfighters on the condition that when the shooting started, he would put down his baton and pick up a machine gun.

And he was the captain of a machine gun company in the trenches. And so he introduced - not only did he single-handedly introduce something called Le Jazz Hot to France, he then literally fought in the trenches to protect the French people with his life.

GROSS: It's such a great story. So this is called "Castle House Rag." And I think it's kind of almost avant-garde. The rhythms are so great on this. This recording is from 1914. So why don't we hear that? And Max Brooks, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been amazing to hear what you have to say.

MAX BROOKS: My pleasure, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES REESE EUROPE'S "CASTLE HOUSE RAG")

GROSS: That's James Reese Europe's band. Max Brooks' new novel "Minecraft: The Island" is inspired by the videogame "Minecraft." After a break, Rock critic Ken Tucker will review 1 of 6 Nick Lowe albums being reissued. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.