Sex, Zombies, and Psychotropic Parasites: An Indie Success Story
A mysterious author discusses Wattpad, zombies with insatiable libidos, and his foray into meta genre fiction.Readers of the metafictional series Dead in Bed may know the author as Bailey Simms, but, though Simms is the name on the books, she herself is a creation of author Adrian Birch—which, incidentally, is a pen name. The premise behind the books is that Simms, a teenager, is stuck in bed with a medical condition; to pass the time, she begins writing a series of books about a small town where residents become ravaged by a sexually transmitted psychotropic parasite. The parasite turns victims into zombies with insatiable libidos. Like Birch, Simms publishes the books on Wattpad. In between the chapters of the serial novel, readers learn that Simms is being stalked by one of her overzealous online fans.
Birch describes his work as “an experimental genre fiction mashup that draws from sci-fi, thriller, mystery, western, romance, postapocalypse, and horror.” Birch, who now lives in Brooklyn, says his upbringing was a huge influence: “I grew up in a tiny ranching town that’s identical to the small community in Dead in Bed—just, you know, minus the zombie sex plague part. A lot of the plotlines I write tend to be about the secrets kept hidden behind a veneer of middle-American conservative values.”
By nature, fiction writing employs some degree of artifice; Birch, however, seems to have taken artifice to the next level. He first conceived of Ashley Young’s character—the protagonist within the novels Simms is writing—in an assignment that required him to write from the point of view of a character who was fundamentally dissimilar from himself. “I wrote about a brash, outgoing 20-something woman who stayed in the town I left,” Birch says. Simms, he adds, is based on someone he dated in high school; her boyfriend, Kyle, is loosely based on Birch’s high school self.
Birch isn’t the type to seek out literary fame—and, in fact, Simms is often credited as the author by many readers in chat forums. Which is almost fitting: “I usually find women’s stories far more interesting than men’s stories.” For the third book, however, he is inserting the character of Adrian Birch into the narrative. He describes him as “a semiautobiographical adjunct professor who, unbeknownst to his Ivy League students, is secretly publishing a pulpy, salacious novel on Wattpad called Dead in Bed and posing as teen author Bailey Simms.”Birch acknowledges that some readers may find his multilayered meta aspects off-putting, but his approach is anything but disingenuous. “My interior self and my outward selves have always felt like totally different people,” he says. “[Working in meta layers] is more honest, maybe ironically, than putting my given name on a book.”
Birch’s path to self-publishing was a bit of an experiment itself. Following his M.F.A. program, he was working on writing literary fiction, but realized that he wasn’t engaging readers: “I had a really poor intuitive grasp of storytelling basics.... I decided to spend a few weeks writing a very light, fast-paced book that used genre conventions to create a gripping, page-turning story.”
He hoped to receive feedback and return to his literary fiction with new insight. “I didn’t expect the book to become popular on the platform at all,” Birch says. Ultimately, the books were so popular that the series was picked up and published as e-books by Full Fathom Five.
Birch’s fan base has steadily grown since he published the first installment of Dead in Bed in 2013. “As an author [on Wattpad], you can see a global heat map showing that this dialogue is happening between people reading your book in almost every country,” he says.
Birch has drawn hordes of readers eager to see how a small town combats a parasitic infection with a highly particular set of symptoms. A visit to online forums shows that readers are equally invested in the narrative arcs of the protagonist and the “author,” whose own story plays out alongside the one she writes. As one fan commented online: “I enjoyed reading about the author Bailey’s personal journey almost as much as Ashley’s! I’m rooting for you to find happiness with Kyle!”