JONATHAN MABERRY TALKS TO GRETCHEN HAERTSCH
JONATHAN MABERRY is a multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He has been a wonderful mentor and friend to our writing group since January 2007 when we signed on for his Advanced Novel Writing Workshop in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Since 2006, with the publication of Ghost Road Blues (winner of the Stoker Award for Best First Novel), his writing career has exploded. His Dead Man’s Song was published in 2007, followed by Bad Moon Rising in 2008, and Patient Zero this spring (St Martins Press, 2009). Upcoming novels include The Dragon Factory (2010) and The King of Plagues (2011) and The Wolfman (2009, Universal Pictures). His nonfiction works include: Vampire Universe (Citadel Press, 2006); and The Cryptopedia (Citadel, 2007 –winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction); and Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead (Winner of the Heinzman and Black Quill Awards and nominated for a Stoker Award, 2008). Upcoming books include They Bite! (2009) and Vampire Hunters and Other Enemies of Evil (2010). His first comic for Marvel – Ghosts was released in April as part of Wolverine: The Anniversary. Jonathan is also the co-creator (with Laura Schrock) of ON THE SLAB, an entertainment news show in development by Stage 9 for ABC Disney / Stage 9.
Please click on “A Conversation with Jonathan Maberry” to learn more about one of the most prolific writers we know.
GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: How did you come up with the idea for “Patient Zero” and the character of Joe Ledger?
JONATHAN MABERRY: So far all of my novel ideas sprang from research I was doing for nonfiction projects. I’m a research junkie. It’s why I started out writing magazine feature articles, textbooks and nonfiction mass market books. I can easily get lost in the endless sea of new information.
As for PATIENT ZERO, I was doing research for a nonfic book called ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead that I was writing for Citadel Press. It was the 40th anniversary of the film Night of the Living Dead and Citadel wanted a book that would attract the zombie crowd. For my book I interviewed over 250 experts in different fields –law enforcement, forensics, the military, national security (including Homeland), the clergy, the press, and lots of folks in medicine and related fields of science. I wanted to establish an explanation for zombies (as they appear in the films of George A. Romero) that was as close to realistic as science would allow. Turns out I was able to get pretty darn close. Which is both fun and scary.
The idea that emerged –supported by several infectious disease experts—was that of a prion disease coupled with one or more aggressive parasites. Nothing that nature could or would kick out, but which is theoretically possible if deliberately designed in the lab. As I was writing the nonfic book I began to wonder who might finance research of that kind, and why. That fast the idea for PATIENT ZERO popped into my head. The villain, Sebastian Gault, is a pharmaceutical mogul who uses the designer pathogen in an attempt to frighten the world with the possibility of a global pandemic in hopes of having world governments throw billions or even trillions into research and treatment. He never plans to release the pathogen –he just wants to get very, very wealthy. The terrorists he uses in his plans have other ideas.
So, now that I had the threat and the bad guys, I needed a hero. I’ve always liked tough, smart and resourceful heroes. I was never much for the muscle-headed barbarian types. I like a thinking hero who can also bring a strong physical aspect to his game. The thought of a guy who had served in the military and then worked as a detective seemed to be the right fit and Joe Ledger was born. And, since I wanted the character to be as realistic as possible, I gave him a whole bagful of psychological quirks and emotional damage. And he inherited my smartass sense of humor.
Once Joe was created, he started talking in his own voice. I hadn’t planned on a first person narrative, but Joe had other ideas. However, the book varies between first and third person narratives so that I could build up the backstory of the villains as well.
HAERTSCH: This is a new genre for you. What made you decide to write a thriller?
MABERRY: I read thrillers. I love the thriller model: the race against time to prevent something bad from happening. Mind you, I love mystery and suspense, too, but the race against the clock has always drawn me, and it’s a storytelling model that can be applied to any genre –from romance to comedy. I used it for my first three novels, which is what allowed my agent to shop them as “supernatural thrillers” rather than “horror.” I love horror, but it’s not a moneymaking genre when labeled as horror. When formatted and pitched as thrillers, it does very well. It’s the model used by Peter Straub, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and many others: the race against time to prevent something big, weird and nasty from happening.
A lot of books and movies are thrillers even though they aren’t always labeled as such. Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are thrillers. So is Titanic, The Andromeda Strain, The War of the Worlds and Dracula. There’s a time element in all of them that quickens the pace and quickens the pulse.
However, I recently sold two novels that may not be exactly thrillers. My first sales to the YA market, ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY sold the other day to Simon & Schuster, and though there are adventure themes, zombies and violence, the stories are actually coming of age tales about a fifteen year old and his older brother surviving after the end of civilization.
HAERTSCH: How did you get started as a writer?
MABERRY: I’ve always written. Before I could write I drew stories. I wrote stories all the time and wrote articles, poems and essays for the school papers. I went to Temple University for journalism and caught the bug for magazine feature writing. Midway through my junior year I riffed off of the “sell what you know” advice and pitched an article on martial arts to Black Belt Magazine. My query was lousy, and the editor initially thought it was a joke from another editor friend; but then I called him and we spoke and when he realized that I was a college student and totally green in terms of the professional “‘way,” he gave me some good advice. I used his advice to re-pitch the article and he bought it. I went on to sell well over a thousand articles and columns, first on martial arts and then on scores of other subjects.
Along the way I tried my hand at all sorts of writing. Advertising, instructions, package inserts, poetry, song lyrics, call-floor scripts, plays, even greeting cards. I tried just about everything. I was always interested in finding what else I could write –or, in some cases, couldn’t write.
In 1991, while teaching at Temple University, the opportunity came along for me to write a couple of textbooks for my courses and a few taught by other instructors. That was a turning point. I fell in love with book-length writing projects. Ten years later a small press approached me and asked me to write some martial arts books for the mass market. I did those and also pitched a book on folklore. They were less enthusiastic about that, since I don’t have credentials in folklore, and bought the book on the condition that I wrote it under a pen name. I did, and I regret ever using the pen name because that book opened up a lot of doors for me and when I published my next book in the genre –this time with a big house, Kensington’s Citadel imprint, I had to re-brand myself.
From there I’ve been moving in directions that suit my interests and that are also healthy markets.
HAERTSCH: Which part of writing do you most enjoy and what do you find most difficult?
MABERRY: I love each and every part of it. Even those dreaded deadlines. I love writing, revising, pitching, editing, researching, marketing and promoting. All of it.
As far as difficulty…that’s not how I see things. I have a different take on challenges than most. If something isn’t in my comfort zone or skill set I don’t allow myself to view it as “difficult.” Instead I approach it as if it’s a puzzle to be solved. Like a game. If it’s a new genre, I study the format and the market, I read extensively to get to know the flavor and variety of the genre, and I do research to understand the demographic that comprise the main readership. That’s time-consuming, sure, and it isn’t always easy, but I allow myself to enjoy it.
HAERTSCH: What refreshes you creatively?
MABERRY: This will sound like a smartass answer but it’s not: being alive refreshes me. I love life and its endless variety and possibilities. I observe people all the time. I love the diversity of culture, race, forms of expression, speech patterns, mannerisms, reactions. I draw most of my ideas from observing life as it flows around me and as I swim through it.
At the same time I always play the “what if?” game. If I hear a news story or read an article on a new bit of science, if I see an unusual person or encounter a novel experience, I automatically drop into the mode where I wonder what the hook would be to turn it into a story. Sometimes it does become a story, sometimes it becomes an element of a story, and sometimes it goes nowhere, but for a writer the exercise keeps the creative muscles toned.
HAERTSCH: With all of your success and the busy-ness of your schedule, you continue to be amazingly supportive of emerging writers. Why do you place so much emphasis on giving back to the writing community?
MABERRY: A couple of reasons. Partly it’s a pay-it-forward thing because good people have given me advice in the past. As a teenager I was fortunate enough to meet great writers like Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Sprague De Camp, Harlan Ellison and Richard Matheson. They each gave me some useful advice, and each of them encouraged me to continue writing.
Another reason is that there really isn’t any competition in the writing biz, however too many writers are reluctant or even afraid to give advice to newbies for fear that they’re helping the upstart who might displace them. That’s nonsense. In truth, if we encourage new writers to enter the business, but to enter it with their A-game, bringing quality writing to market, then that will attract more readers. If a reader is drawn to a piece of writing it’s like getting hooked on crack. Once they have a taste they’re hooked, and they’ll keep coming back for more. So, the more good writers in the business, the more readers we’ll hook.
And, on a more personal level, I absolutely LOVE what I do. I can’t imagine a better job. Why wouldn’t I want everyone I know to have as much fun as I’m having? A pool party is more fun when a lot of kids are in there splashing around with you.
HAERTSCH: Could you discuss the current state of the publishing industry? How does the tough economy impact the novelist looking for her first publisher? Do you see a silver lining?
MABERRY: Publishing has been hit hard, no doubt. And the current economic crisis will change publishing forever. Just as with transportation and power, publishing will gradually go green. Electronic book readers make more sense –there’s no good argument against them. As e-publishing technology improves, it will be less expensive to publish a book and less expensive to buy them; which means the publishing industry will be able to significantly cut costs while still offering top quality books; and readers will be able to buy more books and will probably read more. Yeah, I like my print and paper, but I’m not enough of a Luddite to insist that publishing stay in that form. Will that replace paper? No, but a significant portion of publishing will, over the next ten to twenty years, go electronic. That’s how publishing will survive.
The other thing necessary for publishing to thrive is the presence of more good books. Self-publishing has its supporters, but overall there are fewer and fewer good books showing up in self-publishing. The challenge for today’s writers is to write the very best book possible and then get it to a major house.
With the rise of e-publishing, by the way, the doors will begin opening for first time novelists. There’s very little cost in e-publishing and therefore much less risk. When the risks are lower, publishers are more likely to gamble on new authors. So…for everyone there is a silver lining. But, we’re not there yet.
HAERTSCH: I know you believe in the benefits of diversification in genres for writers? Why do you believe this is so essential? How has diversification aided your own career?
MABERRY: I shudder when I think of a writer pigeon-holing himself by insisting he only does one kind of writing. I see this with friends and students way too often. Sometimes it’s a snobbery thing –which I’ve seen in some writers of literary fiction who would rather be eaten by rats that even think of trying a mystery or other genre piece. Even if that means never making a buck. I see it in folks who have the absurd notion that commercial success is only possible at the expense of artistic integrity (which is a laughably silly argument that holds no water at all). And I see it most often with folks who are afraid to try because it means moving outside of their comfort zone.
Well…writing isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s raw and vital. It’s full of challenges and it takes you into unexplored countries. It requires courage and optimism, even in the face of rejection. It also requires a relentlessness of spirit that some have and some do not. Those who do not have it, and who know they never will have it, have no place in the professional world. Harsh, but true. That said, there’s still a hell of lot they can do in the nonprofessional realm, and in the semi-pro markets.
To be successful in today’s market and today’s economy, a writer has to be able to steer with the flow of the river. You can’t force the market to accept something that there’s no ready market for. Publishing is a business and as such it needs to bring marketable products to customers. If a writer can shift with the market, then he has a better chance of making enough money to continue to write, and to have the leisure time to write what he wants. We all have dream projects for which there is no current market. I can spend time on mine because my more commercial work is paying the bills.
Also, diversity broadens the writer’s mind and deepens his experience. It puts more tools in the toolbox, and it also opens more doors. In 2008, when Universal Pictures called me to ask if I was willing to adapt a screenplay into a novel, I could have said “No, I don’t do that sort of thing.” I didn’t because I’m not an idiot. I said yes, and between the time that my agent worked out the details and I got the script in the mail, I went out and learned the format. I read scripts, I read novelizations. I watched movies that had been adapted into novels. I sought out writers who did that sort of thing and asked them about their experience. By the time I needed to start writing I was able to do it. I wrote a hell of a book, too. I didn’t mail it in, and I didn’t gloss through it because it wasn’t my plot or my characters. I respected the project and I approached it with my artistic integrity fully in place. Instead of just bulking up narrative around the bones of a script, I wrote an actual novel. I brought my best game to it. And that’s what it should always be.
Same thing when Marvel Comics called me late last year and asked if I’d be interested in writing for them. Had I written comics before? No. Did I know how? No. Did I accept the job? Hell yes.
I’ll try anything. And I’ll give each new project my very best shot. I’ll also have fun with it. I value the experience that I gain from each new thing I’m offered. That’s gotten around now, and more and more projects are sent my way.
Now, at the same time I sometimes go after a new genre. Even though I’ve sold nine novels I’m still relatively new to fiction. I wrote my first novel in 2005 and it was published in 2006. Since then I’ve written five others and am contracted for three more. The first three novels were supernatural thrillers –GHOST ROAD BLUES, DEAD MAN’S SONG and BAD MOON RISING, all for Pinnacle Books. Lots of vampires, werewolves and ghosts. Then I shifted gears and jumped to the thriller genre, and sold three novels in the Joe Ledger series. PATIENT ZERO was the first, released in March by St Martins Griffin, to be followed in 2010 by THE DRAGON FACTORY and THE KING OF PLAGUES. Then I shifted gears again into Young Adult with ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY for Simon & Schuster.
Why change genre? If I have a really good story that I want to tell, and it’s not in the genre where I’m currently writing, I don’t want to let the story die. So I go where the story can come alive and where it has an audience.
HAERTSCH: You have recently begun writing the Black Panther comic. What has this experience been like for you?
MABERRY: Writing comics is a wonderful experience. It’s more like making a movie than writing a novel. I work closely with the editor, and I share a lot of ideas with the artist. We work as a team to create the best possible book.
Also, comics have grown up a lot since I first read them as a kid. Stories are layered and complex, the plot arcs are bigger, the scope grander. Comics –real comics—haven’t really been for kids for a long time. They present complex social issues, they have layered stories, there is deep character development, and they pull no punches. There’s a whole generation of people who learned about the Holocaust from Maus. I learned about Apartheid from one of the Fantastic Four stories (issue #119) back in the early 1970s.
Some of our most successful movies have grown out of comics: 300, Road to Perdition, Ghostworld, A History of Violence, Sin City, Blade, V for Vendetta –not to mention intelligent films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Modern comic book storytelling is sophisticated and the art is superb.
Being asked to write the Black Panther is kind of a weird twist of fate. The Black Panther was first introduced in the pages of the Fantastic Four comic back in the middle 1960s. He was the very first black super hero. The character (until recently) was named T’Challa, who was the king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation. The ruler of the country earns that right by undergoing a series of grueling physical challenges culminating in a confrontation with the Panther God. If he’s found worthy he’s granted some superhuman powers (slightly enhanced strength and speed, etc.) But for the most part the Panther is human. A very smart, very wise, very physically capable human. Over the years he’s been a member of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and recently married Storm (the character Halle Berry played in the X-Men movies).
Recently Marvel’s decided to go in a new direction with the character. The original Panther has been seriously injured and another person has stepped up to take his place. In this case the new Panther is a woman. Can’t say who just yet…it’s a Marvel secret.
The Panther has always been a favorite of mine. I grew up in a very white racist neighborhood in Philadelphia and it was initially through reading, particularly comic books that I learned about racial equality. I remember the landmark story from Fantastic Four #119, in which the Panther is imprisoned in what is essentially South Africa. The Torch and Thing help his break out, and break down the walls –literally and figuratively—that stand for segregation. That blew my mind and made me want to learn as much as I could about the clash between races. I can say with complete honesty that the Black Panther was responsible for setting me on the path to understanding the nature and dangers of bigotry.
With my run on the book, I’ll be broadening the scope of the story to include more of what goes on in today’s headlines: economic strife, party politics, and ideological conflict.
HAERTSCH: What’s next for Jonathan Maberry?
MABERRY: Lots of things. I have a number of other projects in various stages of development with Marvel, including stories of Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Punisher and others.
I’m writing another nonfiction book for Citadel Press –VAMPIRE HUNTERS and other Enemies of Evil, which deals with good vs evil in folklore, literature and pop culture. My deadline is August 15 and it’ll be published next fall. I’m also writing ROT & RUIN, the first of the YA books for Simon & Schuster, which is due at the end of August; and still have to write THE KING OF PLAGUES and deliver it by December 1. No, I don’t sleep.
I still teach a weekly writing class for teens, and a couple of the Novel in 9 Months groups. And I’m active with the Liars Club, the group of professional writers I co-founded. The group includes fantasy author Gregory Frost, forensic thriller author Jon McGoran (who publishes as D H Dublin); New York Times best-selling paranormal romance writer L. A. Banks, women’s contemporary author Kelly Simmons, YA author Marie Lamba, historian and actor Keith Strunk, social media consultant and magazine writer Don Lafferty, Emmy Award-winning TV producer and scriptwriter Laura Schrock, Edgar Allen Poe scholar Ed Pettit, crime writer Dennis Tafoya, mystery writer Merry Jones and NY Times bestselling legal thriller author William Lashner. Every month we throw a party for a different independent bookstore.
I’m also writing my Big Scary Blog (www.jonathanmaberry.com) in which I interview bestsellers like Sandra Brown, Laurell K. Hamilton, Gayle Lynds, David Hewson, John Connolly and others.
And who knows what else will come down the pike. I can’t wait to find out.
Jonathan’s Big Scary Blog (www.jonathanmaberry.com) focuses on the publishing industry.