Phrases like “modern Renaissance man” or “the real deal” get overused in reference to writers, but both seem perfectly applicable to New York Times-bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. A martial arts expert and former bodyguard, Maberry has written fiction and nonfiction, novels, novellas and short stories, graphic novels, and even greeting cards (he was one of the first writers on the “Maxine” series of cards). He has created three successful horror series: the folklore-based Pine Deep trilogy that begins with Ghost Road Blues, the Joe Ledger books (including Patient Zero, Assassin’s Code, and the forthcoming Code Zero), and the Benny Imura zombie series for younger readers. His first book as editor, V Wars, was recently published, and his novella Strip Search is featured in the forthcoming anthology Limbus, Inc. He also travels tirelessly to promote his works, and this interview was conducted in a meeting room in the Seattle Convention Center during the 2013 Midwinter Conference of the American Library Association.
Most writers build careers steadily, maybe starting with a novel or a string of short stories, but you seemed to burst fully formed onto the horror scene around 2007, with Ghost Road Blues and nonfiction books like The Cryptopedia.
There’s actually a secret history to that. First off, I’ve been writing professionally (not always full-time) since 1978, my second year of college. I started selling magazine feature articles then—I’ve done 1,200 of those and 3,000 columns. When I was teaching at Tempe University, I wrote textbooks for my classes and for other teachers’ classes. Around the year 2000 a friend of mine was starting a small press with some inheritance money, and because he was a lifelong friend I agreed to write four nonfiction books to help him get the company started. There were several results of that: one, I did three nonfiction books on martial arts for him, and then I wanted to do one that was a complete change of pace, because all my books up to that point had either been martial arts, safety awareness, self-defense, or something like that (I’ve been involved in jujitsu since I was a little boy). I decided to write a book on the folklore of vampires. It was called The Vampire Slayer’s Field Guide to the Undead. It was the only book I’ve ever written under a pen name—I wrote it under the name “Shane MacDougall.” The reason I used a pen name was that my publisher was afraid that martial arts readers would think I’d had a cerebral accident of some sort if I suddenly started writing about vampires. It turned out that book was substantially more successful than the other books combined, so it got me really interested in researching more and more about monsters. My grandmother, who was a spooky old broad, taught me when I was a little kid everything about monsters—she believed in a larger world, and she believed in everything. I don’t believe in everything. I believe in a lot of stuff, but not everything. So by the time I was eight she’d taught me how to read tarot cards and tea leaves; I knew about redcaps and hinkypunks before I’d ever seen a horror film, so I knew the folklore first. Knowing that, it’s not really surprising that I’d write a book on folklore . . . but the book was so well received that Shane MacDougall was getting invited to a lot of events that Jonathan Maberry was not. There was an acrimonious relationship developing between the two.
The second thing that happened—unfortunately there was a falling out between myself and that publisher, and I never got paid for those books. As a result I went out and learned everything I could about the publishing industry. I knew a lot about magazines, but I didn’t know a lot about the book world because all my books up to that point had been college textbooks. So I was screwed over in that deal, but I took it as a learning experience rather than getting bitter about it. As a result now I know the business very, very well.
The step from that to writing fiction. . .for the next couple of years, I was struggling to make an income—we’d hit a soft spot in the economy. My wife read an interview with Dean Koontz where he said his wife had worked for five years to earn the income and get health benefits while he stayed home and tried to build his career, and my wife offered me the same deal—she’d go back to work, pay the bills, get us health coverage, but I had to put in full days on my writing career. I was determined that she would not have to do this for very long. During that time, I did more research for another nonfiction book that I wanted to put out under my own name—that became Vampire Universe. I started complaining actually that I couldn’t find any novels with folklore backgrounds—most of them were Hollywood retreads of monsters. She said, “Stop bitching and write one,” so I wrote Ghost Road Blues. I just did it as an experiment to see if I had any talent for fiction, because I had never tried fiction before. And the book did very well—it won awards, it spawned a trilogy, and suddenly I was in the horror world. Part of the explosion of awareness came from winning the First Novel Award. Winning a Stoker is fantastic, but winning First Novel may be one of the most important Stokers you can win, because as much as I want to win for Best Novel one of these days, winning for First Novel indicates something about the potential of your career, and people turn and look at that. And my desire was to live up to those expectations, for them and for myself.
Did you intend Ghost Road Blues to be a trilogy from the start?
I did. The first draft was about a million pages. It was called Dark Harvest at the time. Right around the time I started reaching out to an agent, there was a book published called Dark Harvest, and then there was another book called Dark Harvest, and then there was a movie called Dark Harvest, so I went back to I think the twenty-eighth title choice, which was Ghost Road Blues. I knew it was going to be a trilogy, but what happened was: I wanted to pitch it as horror, but I happened at the time to run into Keith Clayton, who was an excellent editor over at Random House, and he read it, and as much as he liked it he said Random House would not allow him to buy a horror trilogy, because nobody was doing trilogies in horror—this was 2005, there weren’t many trilogies in horror, paranormal thrillers hadn’t blossomed yet. He said, “They won’t allow me to buy it, but here’s a tip: call it a ‘supernatural thriller,’ don’t call it horror.” Now, I’m dedicated to the word “horror,” and it felt like grief to me to change it. I didn’t change a word of the story, but we changed what it was called—it was the difference between not selling it or selling it to a small press, or selling it to a major for a really significant deal. It got me my agent and it got me my deal . . . but it’s horror as far as I’m concerned.
Your Pine Deep trilogy—Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising—are in rural settings and have something of the feel of folktales, whereas your later Joe Ledger series are techno-savvy thrillers. What caused that shift in setting and tone?
I’m a science geek, too. I’ve always liked the scientific background behind something. One of my favorite writers growing up was Richard Matheson, who I met when I was a teenager. His novel I Am Legend was the first novel in which hard science was used to tell a horror story. Granted, it’s not the first horror-science fiction crossover—we have Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde—but it’s the first one in which hard, believable science was used to explain it, and that book was landmark for me. Matheson gave me a copy of that when I was thirteen. My dream project if I ever write a screenplay is to write an accurate and authentic interpretation of that book and it’s never been done. The closest was the Vincent Price version, but even that wasn’t close enough.
I read a lot of science, and to me it’s scarier if the horror is backed up by believable science because then it’s part of our world as opposed to something that’s so outré that it’s not a part of our world, it’s not connected to us. It’s not that I don’t like those other kinds of fictions—I read them. But for me as a writer, I want to tell something that would scare me. I’m not scared of supernatural monsters. I am frightened of a bacterial or bio-weapon that is misused, so I write what scares me.
The Pine Deep books received comparisons to Stephen King, especially in the way they used a small town and a large cast of characters. Was King an influence on you?
Absolutely. First off, Salem’s Lot stands as my favorite vampire novel of all time. I love the book, and I recently re-read it and saw that there are quite a few mistakes in it, which I find charming because it was only his second novel and he was still working it out. Even though it has some flaws, it’s brilliant, and it does what I love, which is old-school monsters. I want my monsters mean, nasty and scary. I don’t like friendly monsters. I mean, I like Spike from Buffy . . . but if I’m writing something, I want the monster to be scary. I want the story to be about people fighting monsters. My favorite sub-genre is the American Gothic. The Haunting of Hill House is my all-time favorite horror novel. Salem’s Lot is American Gothic. Robert McCammon’s Mystery Walk is American Gothic. Ghost Story by Peter Straub is American Gothic. So when I decided I wanted to write a novel, I made a short list of novels in that sub-genre that I thought were not only beautiful novels, but also spoke to me, and I read them first as a reader, then read them four or five times as a writer, deconstructing how they were built. So I deconstructed Salem’s Lot—I storyboarded it out, I wrote the outline for it, I looked at the balance between dialogue and prose, I looked at where exposition came in, at how much exposition came through what went on as opposed to a big block of exposition, I looked for instances of hyperbole and allegory and metaphor, not just how the author used them, but when he used them. And I also looked at when they worked and when they didn’t. So I actually reverse-engineered the basic plan from those novels. By deconstructing them, I had a blueprint for what the American Gothic novel should look like in its base form. I also had a long list of things I absolutely did not want to do, because I don’t want to imitate. I don’t want to be the next Stephen King—I want to be Jonathan Maberry who appeals to the readers of Stephen King.
I did meet Stephen King shortly after the Stokers. We met at the Edgar Awards. I sat down and talked with him, and with Tabby—wonderful folks—and he had been up for an award the same year. We were both up for the Stoker for novel of the year, and he won for Lisey’s Story. Shortly after that, he sent me a sympathy card—“So sorry for your loss. Much love, Stevie.” He was the one who pointed out that winning First Novel was more important to my career than winning Novel. And I see and agree with his point. I told him about how I’d deconstructed his novel, and he told me that if he ever teaches another novel course, he’s going to recommend that same process, because it takes you down to the nuts and bolts. It allows you write a good novel, but at the same time it keeps you from imitating.
Your books are steeped in pop culture, be it references to scream queens Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon in Bad Moon Rising or the extensive knowledge of the Marvel universe on display in your graphic novels. Do you consciously try to expose yourself to a lot of pop culture?
I’m a total pop culture geek. I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly magazine from issue one. I love the in-jokes. I like the layers of what you know and how fun it can be to have those in-jokes built in. At the same time I have to make sure that they don’t interfere with the process of telling the story, because not everyone knows those references. But I happen to know Brinke Stevens, and Debbie Rochon I’d met at a couple of events. . .all of the people who appear in that book—Ken Foree, Tom Savini, Joe Bob Briggs, Stephen Susco and James Gunn—they’re all in the horror world. I’d met them at one event or another, and asked them if I could write them into the story as themselves, and they were all delighted with it. It was fun writing that story, because it’s based around an attack of vampires during a Halloween festival. Of course there are going to be celebrities at a Halloween festival.
Did any of them beg you to kill them?
Actually, most of them were pretty adamant that I did not. But I did give each of them action scenes—they all get to kick a little ass. It was fun to have Tom Savini kill a vampire, because he’s just a badass little guy. He’s one of those guys that if the apocalypse happens, I’m pretty sure he’s going to get through it on general crankiness alone. He’s great.
You have a background in martial arts, and the Joe Ledger books feature some of the best descriptions around of fights (and have raised the bar on action in horror novels). Was being able to pack a horror novel with your own fighting skills one of the reasons for writing Patient Zero (the first Joe Ledger novel)?
It isn’t the reason I write them—it’s the reason martial arts is in them. I’m a fight scene snob. You can kill my interest in something really quickly with a bad fight scene. For example, the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson—the first two-thirds of it, the fight choreography is brilliant. It’s exactly the way a tall, middle-aged man would fight, because a tall, middle-aged man would fight differently than a tall young man. Then he starts dodging machine-gun bullets and it all falls apart. I’ve had forty-eight years in jujitsu and kenjutsu, I was a bodyguard, I was a bouncer, I was a martial arts instructor, I created self-defense programs for women, for the visually impaired, for the physically challenged, for kids, I was the Philadelphia D.A.’s office expert witness for murder cases involving martial arts, and also I ran a company called CopSafe, which taught arrest and control workshops to all levels of law enforcement, including SWAT. Jujitsu is all about physics. Physics will overcome brawn every time. So I draw all that in there. Everything that Joe Ledger does is possible, and a lot of that I have done, although I have not killed anyone. I have dented a few people. I also have quite a few friends in SWAT and in Special Forces, and after I write an action scene they usually vet it for me. Any technical errors that show up in gunplay are mine because I’m just not an experienced handgun expert. When I was a bodyguard, I carried a revolver and never pulled it. So there may be a few little technical errors there, but the hand-to-hand stuff—that’s all real.
When you’re asked to write something like The Wolfman movie novelization, do you feel like your own style is sometimes in conflict with the pre-existing material?
It was a funny thing that happened with that. First of all, the way that I got that project was that I’m sitting at home on a Saturday night, and I get a call from someone claiming to be the Vice President of Licensing for Universal Pictures. I thought I was being punked by one of my friends—I have friends who will do that sort of thing. It turned out that her assistant was one of my fans on Facebook, having read the Pine Deep novels, which have a werewolf in them. She asked me if I’d ever heard of The Wolf Man, and I said, “Really?” Then she asked me if I knew they were remaking it (which I actually didn’t know at the time) with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. I said, “That’s really cool,” and she said, “Would you be interested in possibly novelizing the script?” I had never done a novelization. Now, the weird thing is, I didn’t know that you don’t get to see even a rough cut of the movie. In fact, I didn’t see the movie until a week after the book was in stores. I saw five production stills—no, actually production sketches. You can’t just wrap a paragraph around a line from the script and call it a novel, so I asked them, “What do you expect me to do to get a story here?” And she said, “Well, you’re a novelist—write a novel.” I had never written a novel in the classic gothic style before, so I did. I did research into the era, everything from the economy to the styles to the foods and everything else. Did my research, and then wrote a gothic novel. Built a couple of motifs in there about the masks we wear, because he’s a Shakespearean actor, about the beast within, about the goddess of the hunt (because the moon is the symbol of the goddess of the hunt), and I wrote a gothic novel. I had fun with it. It was my first New York Times bestseller. It sold a gazillion copies, and it went on to win the Scribe Award for Best Movie Adaptation, which thoroughly floored me. I knew I was on the nomination list, but I thought it was kind of a token thing. . .and I won. It was stunning. I was so surprised.
Now one of the things that happened—it’s kind of unfortunate for Universal but great for me—when they gave the press kits out, they included the novel in the press kit, and the critics hated the movie and loved the book. They kept saying in all of the reviews, “Don’t watch the movie—read the book.” That is a little unfair, because the movie’s not terrible. But in the edit, they simply went in the direction of the gore, and left behind some of the beautiful subtleties that were in David Self’s original script. They also did something else that appalls me as a geek: the makeup effects were Rick Baker—American Werewolf in London—and they CGI’ed over Rick Baker! It’s like putting a drop ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Rick Baker?! It was the reason I would’ve gone to see that film.
Is it ever hard to switch gears between something like one of the Benny Imura young adult zombie novels and the more adult Joe Ledger books?
I have a trick for switching gears: I go to a different Starbuck’s. I call myself a “caffeine nomad.” I’ll go to one Starbuck’s, and they know which table I like, so if they know I’m coming in they’ll make sure my table is set aside—that’s nice. I usually work on one project in the morning, and then I’ll go to the gym or whatever, then I’ll go to another Starbuck’s in the afternoon and I’ll work a different project. But sometimes you don’t have that luxury—you finish one project, and bang, you’ve got to go right onto something else. The thing that’s the buffer zone—that allows me to change—is ten minutes out of each hour I do social media. I’ll do fifty minutes of writing and ten minutes of social media. You have to do the social media, and doing it in that orderly fashion allows me to get things done, but it’s also a great way to change direction.
Is part of the appeal of zombies that they allow authors to create heroes who can act out our secret fantasies?
Except in very rare cases, zombie stories are not about zombies. Warm Bodies is, yes, but it’s a zombie becoming human. And Scott Browne’s excellent Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, but it’s deliberately a satire. But in the scary zombie stories, the zombies do not have a personality—unlike vampire stories, where the vampire has become the story (so much so that it’s no longer about the humans in the story—Bella’s family dynamic is far less interesting than Edward’s). As a result vampire fiction has stopped being scary, because the more you go into the monster, the less scary the monster is. It’s kind of like in monster movies—by the time you see the monster, it’s shifted from horror to thriller. Jaws is a horror movie up until you see the shark, then it’s a thriller. With zombies, we have a totally different thing: You never get inside the zombie’s head, except in very rare cases. The zombie is established as a massive, immediate shared threat. Every character is propelled into that, and as a result every character’s personal life is shattered, their personal affect is torn away, and they have to deal with this threat. Which means that the focus of our story is about people dealing with a problem . . . and that’s drama right there. We don’t tell stories about people having a good day; we tell stories about people having a terrible day, a day that will challenge them so they can rise above it. Even if you have a love story, it’s all about boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl crisis. It’s all about crisis, calamity, catastrophe, conundrum . . . a lot of “c” words.
So the zombie stories allow us to tell stories of people in real crisis, and it’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to use zombie stories as metaphors for anything else—I can’t imagine any fear not being able to be told as a zombie story. It’s also why the genre will never die. We’re not rehashing George Romero; George Romero told his story. Max Brooks told his story. Joe McKinney told his story. I tell my stories . . . and they’re all different.
You’ve written more short stories than many of your fans might realize . . .
I have, but they’re not all in horror. I think the second short story I was asked to write was military science fiction, and this was even before the Joe Ledger novels. The invitation was just based on Ghost Road Blues, and I was like, “Really? Military science fiction?” So I did it. I did a historical zombie story—my first short story was for Kim Paffenroth’s History is Dead, which was a historical zombie anthology, and I did a comedy zombie story, “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World.” Since then, I’ve done steampunk short stories, I’ve done a weird western for John Joseph Adams—a weird west ghost story—I did an Auguste Dupin story for an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired stories using that character, I did an Oz story—it’s the first story I’ve ever written where nobody dies. It’s a charming little tale about a little girl winged monkey whose wings are too small, so she goes to a town to buy some traveling shoes, and they happen to be the silver slippers, but a damaged version of the silver slippers. I’ve done a Cthulhu story recently—it was a long-term dream of mine to write a Cthulhu story!—and just all sorts of things. So the reason most people don’t know about my short stories is they’re all over the place—detective stories, Sherlock Holmes stories . . . and I love it, because as a writer it’s an opportunity to stretch. I have a great dislike of writers who pigeonhole themselves; I think the writers are short shrifting themselves. When I was a kid, one of the things Richard Matheson said to me was, “A writer writes.” That’s the only definition that you should give yourself—you’re a writer. To tell the truth, it’s also one of the reasons I’m making money at this. Because people know they can come to me, and offer a project, and if I think the deal is right for me I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s outside my wheelhouse; a lot of other writers will say, “It’s not my kind of thing.” If somebody asked me to write a romance story, I’d write a romance story if I thought I could bring game to it. I just don’t like to accept the fact that a writer—any writer—will willingly accept a limitation. I just think that’s bad.
You also created and edited the anthology V Wars. Was it interesting editing other writers?
It was. And to be clear, I edit content—I do not edit grammar or spelling or anything else, because I’m a product of the Philadelphia school system and not their best example. But I edited content, and I loved it. That was a shared world thing; I created the concept, which was polar ice is melting and it releases a bacteria that triggers dormant genes, and those genes happen to be what originally caused vampirism. The first people who had that gene were hunted to extinction, in witch hunts and so forth, and now people are becoming vampires again, so it creates a race war and so on. I love the concept—it’s hard science, we got some good science in there, and I reached out to some of my favorite writers. Writers who I thought not that they’d all be able to write in this style, but writers whose styles were different. Nancy Holder, James A. Moore, John Everson, Scott Nicholson, Yvonne Navarro, Keith R.A. DeCandido and Gregory Frost—even though they’re all in horror and fantasy, they’re in no way alike. I love that vibe. I told them the set-up and then I just let them go. When they gave me their stories, we made some development changes or edits that kept it in line with what other people were writing. A couple of them kind of crossed the line into supernatural and we had to bring them back, because it’s not a supernatural kind of story. It’s really a nod to Richard Matheson—it’s science fiction about vampires. Some of these writers I was reading long before I considered writing my first horror stories. It’s a very humbling thing when you’re editing someone who inspired you to write in the first place. Scott Nicholson, for example—I love Scott’s writing, and he and Gary Braunbeck are probably the two modern writers whose work drew me into writing horror. I absolutely love both of their writing, and I wanted to be them—more so than I wanted to be Stephen King or Peter Straub. It was a real pleasure and an honor to do it, and the book came out beautifully. It’s being pitched to television right now, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
Is there a dream project for you?
Yeah, and it’s probably not what you would expect. I would love to write a literary novel about a writers’ colony—I’ve got one cooking in my head. I’ve got several dream projects: I want to write a good old-fashioned action-western, a Louis L’Amour-style western. I love westerns, and I would love to write one. My grandfather-in-law was a pulp fiction writer and he wrote westerns, as well as other things. I’d love to re-start the Doc Savage series, but as Doc Savage’s son or something. . .but I’ll never get the rights to do it. And probably one of the things that I most want to do is write a straight-up noir-mystery. I’m playing with it a little bit with an urban-fantasy character Sam Hunter, who I introduced originally in a short story and I liked the character. I wanted to do a novel—I didn’t quite have a novel in my head, but I had a lot of stories in my head. Then when Christopher Payne and Anne Petty asked me to do something for the first Limbus, Inc. book, I took one of my ideas and did a novella from that. It’s very noir, and it’s also smartass—I’ve been accused of being a smartass, and I have no counter-argument on that one—but also I’m going to be writing novellas on that character for the next two Limbus books. I’ve got eight short stories and novellas for that character in one- or two-sentence pitches in my head, so I want to write more of that character. It’s noir, and I love noir. Except for what I read for cover quotes, I probably read more detective fiction and police procedurals than anything else, including some that cross the line over into horror, like John Connolly. I love the scientific, methodical, but also dark and moody approach to solving crimes, so I want to do that.
But I don’t think there isn’t a genre that I wouldn’t want to take a swing at just for fun. If I had the time, I’d do a thousand novels a year, not for the money but because I just want to play in all these different playgrounds.
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