Monday, 5 November 2012

Interview with Jonathan Maberry

It is my great pleasure to interview NY Times Bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. He is a true inspiration for those of us who write fiction in my native Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Jonathan is a multiple Stoker Awards Winner and his Joe Ledger action/horror series of books has been optioned to be made into a television series. It was very generous of him to take the time out of his busy schedule to talk to Masters Of Horror U.K.

David Kempf


MASTERS OF HORROR: What inspired you to write for the comic book industry?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve been a comic book fan since I was a kid. When I started writing novels in 2005 I kept asking my agent about the best way to pitch some comics. Before we even had a chance to take a swing at that I got a call totally out of the blue from Axel Alonso, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.  He’d read one of my novels, PATIENT ZERO, and liked the style, action and dialogue. He asked if ‘might be interested’ in writing for Marvel. Silly question. Of COURSE I wanted to write for Marvel.  And, yes, I still read comics.  Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW, Image and DC.  My weekly pull-list is pretty hefty.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Was it hard to write your first novel?

JONATHAN MABERRY: When I decided to try writing a novel I had no idea how to go about it. I’d been writing magazine feature pieces for about twenty five years, as well as nonfiction books –textbooks and mass market. And I’d never taken a creative writing program, so I didn’t have any formal education in how to write fiction. So I taught myself. I selected a couple of books in the same genre as the one I planned to write, and re-read them several times to study how they were written. I looked at where the act-breaks were, how the authors built tension, the balance of exposition presented in narrative or dialogue, and so on.  I learned about what to look for from reading articles in writers’ magazines, but the rest was self-taught. It took a year and a half and fifteen revisions to write GHOST ROAD BLUES. I wasn’t sure if it was good enough to suit the market, but it got me an agent, and she landed a book deal for that and two sequels, and then the book won the Bram Stoker Award for BEST FIRST NOVEL. So….that was rather validating.  Tomorrow I start writing my fifteenth novel since 2005.

MASTERS OF HORROR: How did you come up with the name Joe Ledger?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I went through a lot of names while trying to come up with one that suited the character of Joe Ledger, and some of them were quite  silly. One –John Book—turned out to be the name of Harrison Ford’s character from the movie WITNESS.  I wanted a simple one-syllable first name and a last name of one or two syllables.  Partly to make it easy for readers for remember, and partly because I had a feeling that book would lead to sequels and I didn’t want to type anything too complicated. So, over a pasta dinner with my wife, Sara and our son, Sam, we batted at least a hundred names around. The name Joe Ledger emerged and once I said it aloud I knew that it was absolutely right.

MASTERS OF HORROR: The Ledger novels mix horror, comedy, action and thriller into one stew. Is that difficult for you or does it come natural?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a smartass, so the snarky humor is easy for me. I’m also a lifelong practitioner of martial arts (Jujutsu and Kenjutsu) as well as a former bodyguard –so the combat elements draw on plenty of personal experience. The horror comes from my love of the horror genre and the fact that I’ve written six books on the folklore of the supernatural. The science in the series is a side-effect of being a research junkie (in college I studied journalism rather than creative writing). And I read mostly thrillers and mysteries. Put all that into a blender and you have the right mix. Writing the Joe Ledger books is as easy as breathing for me.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Please tell us how your meeting with Ray Bradbury changed your life.

JONATHAN MABERRY: When I went to middle school (grades 7-9 in the Philadelphia school system), the librarian at my school was also the secretary for several clubs of professional writers. Because of my interest in books and writing, she got permission from my parents to bring me along to some of the meetings. As a result I got to meet Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov and many others.  Of those authors, Bradbury and Matheson spent the most time talking to me, sharing insights and information about the writing life, answering my endless questions, and generally being decent and generous to a teenage writer wannabe.  That year, each of them gave me a first-edition signed book for Christmas. Matheson gave me a copy of the original 1954 edition of I AM LEGEND; and Bradbury gave me a copy of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.  And…every Halloween I buy a new hardcover of Bradbury’s book, read it, and then donate it to a local library.

MASTERS OF HORROR: How did you feel when Peter Straub endorsed Patient Zero?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Peter Straub has always been one of my favorite writers. Two of his books in particular were massive influences on me as a developing writer: SHADOWLAND and GHOST STORY. The latter was one of the novels I deconstructed when teaching myself how to write fiction.  When he endorsed PATIENT ZERO I was floored. Not sure I ever had a cover quote that mattered more to me.  What’s even more wonderful is I’ve now become friends with Peter and his wife.  That’s a side-effect of publishing I hadn’t anticipated.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Was it difficult to make the transition from comic books to novels?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I went from novels to comics.  I was tapped to write comics after my fourth novel, PATIENT ZERO, was released. It was a bit of a jolt, though, because I don’t write short novels, and comics are all about brevity. The writer may write the story, but if he overwrites it then the writing gets in the way of the visuals –and comics are driven by visuals. I had to learn how to dial down the dialogue, streamline the subplots, and also trust that the artist would be able to convey many of the story points through the right illustrations.  Unlike novels, comics are a collaborative process. It may start with the script, but everyone –artist, inker, letterer, colorist and editor—has a say.

MASTERS OF HORROR: What is your philosophy in terms of character development?

JONATHAN MABERRY: All good stories start and end with characters.  And, no matter how fantastic the story, the characters must be real. They need to have authentic emotions, they need to speak the way actual people speak, and everything they do must maintain the integrity of each character. It’s all about the people.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Why the obsession with zombies?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Funny thing is that I’m kind of known as ‘the zombie guy’ these days, but just a couple of years ago I was ‘the vampire guy’.  I have a love of all things weird and strange. Always have. However I think much of my success within the zombie genre comes from flexibility as a writer. I don’t write the same story over and over again; and I don’t try to imitate other writers. With every zombie-themed project, be in a comic, a short story, a novel or script—I want to bring something fresh to the table.

My interest, though, started at age ten. I snuck into a movie theater for the world premiere of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  I was floored by the movie, and stayed to see it again. And I saw it many times since then.  The idea of a mindless and numberless horde of flesh eating creatures who were your friends and family only minutes ago…well, that’s damn scary. And, since the genre is built on a foundation of metaphor and allegory, there’s no real end to the kinds of stories you can tell about zombies.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Do you see your writing as more political or philosophical?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I consider my writing to have a psychological underpinning, though that varies depending on the books. The Joe Ledger thrillers make some political statements, but they’re not intended as American flag-waving. There’s no political proselytizing and those books are not at all of the ‘my country right or wrong’ viewpoint. I abhor that kind of blinkered thinking. Those books are about right and wrong –and all those gray areas between those poles. They’re about real people caught in exceptional circumstances. The politics are far less important to me that the exploration of character motives, and the dynamics of what happens to people during dreadful circumstances.

The ROT & RUIN series is far more overtly philosophical as they’re concerned with the questions of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and ‘what is the value of human life?’

MASTERS OF HORROR: You're considered a literary hero in Bucks County. You've achieved great success by making writing your full time occupation and winning multiple Stoker awards. Why do you think Bucks County is full of so many aspiring writers?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I genuinely think there’s something in the water here in Bucks County. We have a bizarre proportion of creative people here. Everyone I know is either a writer, an artist, a dancer, or something creative. That said, not everybody makes a living at it and I’ve been very fortunate to have become successful. Because I know full well that I owe a great debt to good-hearted folks like Ray Bradbury and others who provided advice and guidance, I feel it’s important to try and help as many other writers as I can. I co-founded a group called The Liars Club, which a networking coalition of local writers. We do workshops, classes, fundraisers and other things to help writers, readers, libraries and schools. And I founded The Writers Coffeehouse –which we’re now expanding to multiple venues.  That’s a free, three-hour networking session held once per month at a local bookstore, and it’s open to anyone, from absolute beginner to working pro.  We average eighty or ninety people per session, and we started a free Yahoo Group that has hundreds of people on it. My belief is that writers should help other writers.

MASTERS OF HORROR: Do you think that it is better to outline an entire novel for the sake of plot? Stephen King suggest that characters should work out their own problems (without outlining) almost on their own in his book "On Writing." What do you think of that approach?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I love outlines and I write one for each new book…and then I veer away from during the actual writing. The outline lets me know the logic of the story, but storytelling is organic and sometimes a story wants to grow in a different direction than you planned.  Besides, you can’t expect to have all of your best ideas on the day you sit down to write the outline.  I teach outlining to my writing students because it helps them coalesce the random story elements into a pattern than makes sense. However I urge them to allow for that randomness that does happen.

MASTERS OF HORROR: What do you find the most rewarding about teaching writing classes on novel and short story writing?

JONATHAN MABERRY: There are a lot of rewards to teaching writing, not the least of which is having a student make a sale. In my classes I teach both the art of writing and the business of publishing, because you have to know both to get anywhere. One of my students, Tiffany Schmidt, had her first novel, SEND ME A SIGN, released by Walker. One of my teen students, Rachel Tafoya, just landed a three-book deal. When I hear about stuff like that…it makes me want to shout with joy.

MASTERS OF HORROR: This is a Masters of Horror U.K. tradition for a final question. Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.

JONATHAN MABERRY: Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winner and Marvel Comics writer. He gets to play inside his imagination all day long…and gets paid for it. If there is a better job in the world, he’s never heard of it.

Jonathan Maberry

NY Times Bestseller and Multiple Bram Stoker Award winner

FLESH & BONE - Simon & Schuster
ASSASSIN'S CODE -  St Martin's Griffin
DEAD OF NIGHT - St Martins Griffin
PROUD Member of The Liars Club