SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Bestselling Science Fiction Thriller/Horror Author Jonathan Maberry
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, writing teacher and more. His novels include Ghost Road Blues, winner of the 2006 Stoker Award for Best first Novel, the novelization of The Wolfman, Patient Zero, the first in his Joe Ledger series which was optioned for TV, Marvel comics including Wolverine, Punisher. In nonfiction, The Cryptopedia, winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction. And ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics Of The Living Dead, which won the Heinzman and Black Quill Awards and was nominated for a Stoker Award. Jonathan is a Contributing Editor for The Big Thrill (the newsletter of the International Thriller Writers), and a member of SFWA, MWA and HWA. His latest and 5th Joe Ledger book, Extinction Machine is out from St. Martins, a very fun action-thriller read. He can be found on Goodreads, Twitter as @JonathanMaberry and via his website at JonathanMaberry.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
Jonathan Maberry: I met Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson when I was a kid. They gave me a lot of time and advice about writing and reading.
SFFWRTCHT: What an introduction. Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
JM: I read all across genre lines. Favorites include Kevin J. Anderson, James Lee Burke, Graham Masterton… Genre switching and crossing is a great way to keep from ever getting stale.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
JM: I’ve wanted to tell stories since I had my first cogent thought. Used to tell stories with toys when I was little. Didn’t know I wanted to write fiction, though. Spent most of my career writing articles, how-to books and textbooks. Started selling articles while still in college. Then wrote several textbooks while teaching at Temple U. Mostly on jujutsu, women’s self-defense, etc. Then did some books on monster folklore for mainstream. Got interested in fiction around 2004.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
JM: I learned magazine writing in college. Fiction was something I taught myself.
SFFWRTCHT: What carries over from magazine writing to fiction, and what doesn’t?
JM: Magazine training gives you focus, discipline, good research skills and speed. It also removes that whole writer as prima donna thing.
SFFWRTCHT: Joe Ledger is an ex-military officer turn secret government agent working for the Department of Military Sciences. He’s fought zombies, albino twins, morphogenetic monsters and now alien-human hybrids and UFOs. The Ledger books are essentially thrillers with speculative elements. Where’d the idea for the Joe Ledger series and DMS come from?
JM: Joe Ledger was born in a diner. He and Mr. Church started talking in my head while I was drinking coffee. If you’re not a writer, that’s a real cry for help. If you are a writer, that’s a new character needing your attention. I’ve always loved thrillers. And horror. And SF. And science. The Ledger books collide all of that. Some of the short stories step over into supernatural, but generally not the novels. Just weird science.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first: world, plot, character?
JM: It’s always character first with me.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the first novel take to write?
JM: First novel took 18 months and many rewrites. Now it’s 2-3 months.
SFFWRTCHT: What is the DMS and what kinds of tasks is it charged with?
JM: The Department of Military Sciences is geeks and shooters vs. terrorists with cutting-edge science weapons.
SFFWRTCHT: What do you think are the essentials to writing good thrillers?
JM: Solid science and realistic characters are key. Also, thinking it through and trying to get inside the head of your readers. Trusting how smart they are. Also, a sense of fun matters to thrillers. Otherwise they get too grim and ponderous.
SFFWRTCHT: How do the structure of words or sentences build tension in thrillers?
JM: Language is the clay of fiction. If you understand how language works, you get to build great stories. All writers should endeavor to explore the depths, variations and nuances of language.
SFFWRTCHT: What were some of your inspirations for worldbuilding and characters?
JM: For world-building I have to thank Frank Herbert (Dune) and James Lee Burke. But also, James Rollins, who is a friend and colleague, is a great inspiration for world-building. Probably the most important thing, though, is to build the story in this world as much as possible.
SFFWRTCHT: Your output it quite prolific. Do you write on a set daily schedule or do have a different process?
JM: I write about eight to ten hours a day. When traveling or on tour, I make sure I catch up. Writing every day is crucial to the development of skill and storytelling confidence.
SFFWRTCHT: How much research do you do when writing? Before, after, during?
JM: I research for months before each book. I read, talk to experts, go to labs, bases, etc.
SFFWRTCHT: Outline or stream of consciousness when you write?
JM: I’m a structure guy. I outline and storyboard, then allow the story to evolve in the writing.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
JM: I use Word and that’s it. For novels, short stories and comic scripts. Just Word. As for ambience. I usually listen to music, but I can write anywhere. Loud or silent. Movement or still. Very little seems to knock me out of my groove. I can write in the middle of heavy traffic. I don’t buy into the writer as a temperamental artiste. A writer is an artist, sure, but also a craftsman and professional.
SFFWRTCHT: How many books do you write in a year? You obviously keep busy.
JM: I write three novels per year, and also comics and short stories. Since 2005, I’ve written sixteen novels, fifty short stories, six nonfiction books and eleven graphic novel collections.
SFFWRTCHT: Speaking of readers, how long did it take you to get a good sense of who your core audience is?
JM: Pretty quick. I talk to my readers all the time via social media and live events. We geek out together. I’m a reader as much as I’m a writer. Of course, I want to talk to other readers!
SFFWRTCHT: You adapted a film script for the new movie WOLFMAN into a novelization for Tor Books. Tell us about that process please?
JM: They gave me the script and nothing else. I didn’t even see the movie until after the book was out. So…left to my own devices, I did some research and then wrote a gothic novel. And had fun. I loved the subject matter, and that helped.
SFFWRTCHT: It’s good that you had a script. I’ve heard some tie-in writers aren’t even allowed that.
JM: Yeah, and I can thank my agent for insisting on that.
SFFWRTCHT: Will we see a full Sam Hunter novel and/or series?
JM: Sam Hunter returns in a novella in LIMBUS, INC, due out from JournalStone later this month. And a Joe Ledger/Sam Hunter story is not out of the question. Joe is in a Cthulhu story later this year in an anthology edited by S.T. Joshi.
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s talk a bit about your young adult series Benny Imura Zombie Hunter. Where’d that idea come from?
JM: I’ve wanted to write a post-apocalyptic zombie story since seeing Night of the Living Dead at age ten, when it first opened! Rot & Ruin was born when an editor, Christopher Golden, asked me to write a novella for The New Dead anthology. After writing the novella, I realized that there was a larger story to tell. It’s now a quadrology. It takes place fourteen years after the Zombie Apocalypse. We’re now in development for a Rot & Ruin movie. The fourth book in the series, Fire & Ash, debuts in August, debuts in August.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the challenges to writing YA vs. adult?
JM: The biggest challenge is to be smart enough to write for today’s teens. They’re scary smart. The most important thing, though, is tell an honest story, straight from the heart and mind. And have fun doing it.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you change vocabulary at all other than vernacular in dialogue?
JM: I’m less potty-mouthed in my YA. Everything else is the same as in my adult fiction.
SFFWRTCHT: Real quick tell us about Pine Deep your postapocalyptic series.
JM: Pine Deep is the most haunted town in America. Very bad things happen there. Worse things live there… The story deals with an ancient evil that’s gathering together an army of the dead. The series kicks off with Ghost Road Blues, then Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising. They were my first three novels. And I love those damn books. Apart from the trilogy, there are a bunch of Pine Deep short stories. One is out now. Let me grab a free link to Property Condemned, a Pine Deep prequel story from Nightmare Magazine (“Property Condemned“)
SFFWRTCHT: Did you per chance get that idea while driving through a cemetery late one night?
JM: I got the Pine Deep idea when I was a teenager, drinking in cornfields in New Hope, PA.
SFFWRTCHT: In letting the characters have free rein –have you ever had to intervene and save someone you didn’t want to die?
JM: Never. If a character is in harm’s way, then he’s in harm’s way. As long as it serves the story and isn’t a cheap shot.
SFFWRTCHT: You also hold monthly Writer’s Coffeehouses at your local Barnes & Noble where writers can network. What inspired that?
JM: Writers thrive around other writers, and become moody and strange when left alone too long. I started the Writers Coffeehouse to get writers to communicate, share ideas, network, and meet like minds. We’ve been running it for years now. We get about 80-100 people each month. It currently meets at the Willow Grove B&N in Pennsylvania, the last Sunday of each month, noon to 3. Totally free. We have a free Yahoo Group, too. WritersCoffeehouseOnline. I love to see writers helping each other and working together. A lot gets accomplished that way.
SFFWRTCHT: I wish I lived closer. It sounds awesome. Writers helping each other is what SFFWRTCHT is all about. What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JM: Worst writing advice was ‘shoot for a low-level agent ’cause they’re the only ones who’ll take a new writer’. Ha! Shoot high! Best advice: From Ray Bradbury: “A writer writes. Try anything. Try everything.” Best advice I got from Richard Matheson: “Writing is an art, publishing is a business. Learn both, be good at both.”
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best way for a writer to get feedback on their work?
JM: One to one peer critiques are good. I dislike group critiques. Or, ask several people: a reader, a writer, a teacher to each read your work.
SFFWRTCHT: Last question: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
JM: A new Sam Hunter story in Limbus, Inc. late this month… A slew of Joe Ledger short stories this year. Links on my Facebook pages. And Extinction Machine is out, the latest Joe Ledger book.
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