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Interview with Jonathan Maberry, author of PATIENT ZERO

Jonathan Maberry is a Bram Stoker Award winning author and a martial artist. His latest novel, Patient Zero, combines the threat of bio-terrorism with an anti-hero named Joe Ledger, a high octane quick-reacting fighter with some very human issues. Joe is recruited by the Department of Military Science (DMS) to battle a terrorism threat, a biological weapon that seemingly turns people into zombies; but Patient Zero is not a zombie novel; the science, action and fighting make it had to classify, but quick paced and enjoyable to read.

SF Signal Irregular Larry Ketchersid interviewed Mr. Maberry about Patient Zero, and a wide ranging set of topics including the science of bioterrorism, martial arts, genres and the future of the Joe Ledger series.

LARRY: Your novel Patient Zero revolves around a bioterrorism agent/disease that appears to turn people into a zombie like state (should be dead, but aren’t, and are aggressive). Unlike other novels where the authors merely state “Oh! Look, a zombie”, you have quite a bit of science on how the disease works, delving into prions (which are important in studying human and animal nuerological disorders like mad cow disease, as I understand it) and TSEs. Where did you learn about prions, and what motivated you to include them in an action story?

MABERRY: Most of the initial research was for a nonfiction book I was writing a couple of years ago, ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2008). For that project I interviewed hundreds of experts in different fields, ranging from forensic science to epidemiology and other fields of medicine. I was trying to build a case for how the real world would react, research and respond to a threat as described in the George A. Romero Living Dead films, and in some of the better zombies (or zombie-like) films that followed.

I was surprised to learn that science could explain a lot of what we saw in zombie films. That’s both cool and creepy, depending on where you stand.

I listed the ‘symptoms’ of a zombie –lack of cognition, ability to walk, ability to bite and chew, reduced or absent blood flow, and so on. Taken separately, science can provide answers. It’s only when you put them all together in one organism that we move from scientific possibility into practical improbability. But only just.

I posed this as a question to scientists all over the world and got great hard science to use for the nonfiction book, and while writing that I thought: “Man…this would make a kickass novel.”

Even as a kid I never bought the theory of radiation from a returning space probe as the cause (Night of the Living Dead). A pathogen always seemed more likely. I posed this to a range of scientists and doctors. The radiation theory was shot down pretty quickly; but the docs who work with diseases said that if zombies were suddenly a real fact of life then one of the first places they’d look would be prions.

Prions are misfolded proteins that act like viruses and/or genetic disorders, which is crazy since they have no DNA and technically cannot be passed down generationally. But that’s science for you. For every item you prove there are a few new mysteries popping up.

The creepiest prion disease is Fatal familial insomnia, in which the sufferers cannot fall asleep, even when medicated. They remain perpetually awake until they go crazy and their bodies break down. It’s a horrible disease…but a perfect core pathogen for a zombie tale. I went a few steps along that dark road to have my villains bond it with an aggressive parasite (also based on things found in nature).

LARRY: Hard SciFi authors have to find the right balance between explaining the science and the pacing of the read (i.e., not bogging the reader down in the details). Parts of your novel read like hard SF, you explain quite a bit about the science, how the manufactured disease works. As an author, how do you balance the need to explain the background versus the need to keep the story moving? Do you test this on first readers, or do you have other parameters that you check


MABERRY: I’ve been reading techno-thrillers for years. My vote for the first ‘true’ techno-thriller was Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic, I Am Legend. And, by the way -none of the three movie adaptations actually capture Matheson’s meaning and subtext. The genre got real traction with the release of Michael Crichton’s The Adromeda Strain and then a few years later with Robin Cook’s Coma.

I’ve been reading this stuff since I was old enough to crack a book. Hell, I was in the movie theater on the October 2, 1968 release of Night of the Living Dead. I was eleven when I read Andromeda Strain. My love of science thrillers has always been strong. I also fell in love with the Doc Savage series when Bantam Books re-released them beginning in the 1960s. They were pulp fiction science thrillers. A lot of the gadgets that Doc used -or encountered–are not real science.. And, for my fellow pop culture geeks -if it wasn’t for Doc Savage we probably would not have had Superman, Batman, James Bond, or Buckaroo Banzai.

As a reader I love knowing the science behind the story, but as an author I realize that the reader only wants or needs the Cliff Notes version of the science. I have a huge amount of research info on prions, disease vectors, pandemics, etc that never made it to the book because that would make the book top-heavy with exposition. I also didn’t want to burden the story with straight exposition even when sharing the science I knew had to be included, so much of the information is given through dialogue. Sure, this tends to blur some of the science because people rarely talk like textbooks, but it also allows the reader to fill in some of the blanks with what they know or can infer from reading the story. I trust the smarts of my readers quite a lot…they usually bring so much to the table and I don’t do them the disservice of overloading them with details they don’t need. And if a reader doesn’t have a strong science background, then the amount of science in the book should be just about enough.

LARRY: Doc Savage hits a cord with me, I still have about 30 ruffled paperback Doc Savage books…they’ll have to pry my cold dead hands to take them away from me.

Agreed on the science. A lot of times in novels there is this “info-dump” section, where the author tries to educate the reader by puking out a bunch of information, that may or may not be relevant in the story. In Patient Zero, Ledger is trying to kill the unkillable, so he needs all the info he can get.

Let’s focus on Ledger. One of the first characteristics we find out about him is that he reacts instantly, sometimes without thinking, mostly on instinct. And this sets him apart for the Department of Military Science (DMS) which has “recruited” him. I find parallels here between martial arts training and reacting on instinct.

Did you pattern Ledger after a particular experience, or type of martial artist that you have observed (or been)?

MABERRY: Joe’s reactions are based partly on my own views and teachings in martial arts, and on the kinds of reactions and reflexes I’ve seen in men I’ve met who work in SWAT and Special Ops. Immediate reaction without hesitation is a prized skill, and very often it’s the dividing line between those who can hack it in Special Ops and those who can’t. It doesn’t make someone more or less of a good person, but it does qualify them for a certain kind of work.

I’ve been practicing and teaching martial arts for 45 years and currently hold an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu and a 5th degree in kenjutsu (the art of Japanese swordplay). Both arts grew out of the fighting sciences of the Samurai, and immediately reaction and appropriate response are core skills. It’s what the samurai trained for and what I learned.

I was able to get a lot of practical experience with this while working as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry. I’ve taught martial arts and self-defense to a number of special needs groups, such as abused women, school kids, college women, the physically challenged, the elderly, and so on.. Until recently I was also CEO and chief instructor for COPSafe, a firm that provided arrest and control workshops for all levels of law enforcement including SWAT.

What Joe Ledger does is not superhuman. It’s the end result of good training coupled with the sharpness of mind that someone in Special Ops would necessarily have.

LARRY: You give a course in writing fight scenes. How do you determine the level of detail to provide the reader? Obviously you can’t describe where every body part is or the book would be War and Peace times three.

MABERRY: A good fight scene is built on cause and effect rather than on cool techniques. I try to include just enough of the combat science so the reader has an understanding of how and why things work, and then I let the action roll forward. Writing isn’t teaching. A good fight scene isn’t a how-to program. On the other hand, if the character is doing something the average guy might not know, you have to clue him in. That way he enjoys the action without feeling like he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.

When I give workshops on how to write a good fight scene I start with an understanding of the variables. Everything plays a part in determining who is most likely to win, and the concept of an ‘advantage’ can change for a variety of reasons. Good example, in the ring Mike Tyson was a monster, but when he was in a bar fight he broke his hand throwing a punch to someone’s face. The reality of hitting without the protection of a tightly taped wrist and sixteen ounces of boxing glove must have come as a dreadful shock to him.

Because so many factors play into a fight, I tell my students to assess the following for each character: gender, general level of fitness, general degree of toughness (usually based on fight experience, pain tolerance, etc.), previous training, mental condition, age, height, weight, and desire. Other factors include clothing (a naked man is much more mentally and physically vulnerable than someone wearing Kevlar), environment (a fight on a flight of stairs is radically different than one on a muddy field or sitting side-by-side in a car), availability of weapons, and availability of tools (everything from a toothpick to a paperback book to a sock can be used for attack or defense), and so on. Every single fight is different. There’s no such thing as a truly fair and even match between two humans. And these variables are where story tension and drama are born.

LARRY: As a martial artist, I see a difference between how most people view conflict and how martial artists do; martial artists are taught to avoid conflict, but when an attack is needed, to make it a devastating attack. How do you balance out the perspective of the martial artist into something Joe Reader can identify?

MABERRY: There are a lot of different kinds of martial artists. Martial arts can be broken down into three loose groups: sports, esoteric and practical. Sport arts are usually based on, or adapted from, fighting arts, but they’ve been heavily modified for safer practice. Judo is the sport form of Jujutsu; boxing is the sport form of brawling, etc. Most martial arts are largely sportive, and that includes Taekwondo, most forms of Karate, all competitive mixed martial arts, wrestling, fencing, Brazilian jujitsu, etc. A sport fighter can usually adapt his skills for street use, but it isn’t what he’s trained for, and his immediate reactions don’t support life or death combat.

Esoteric martial arts such as Aikido, Tai Chi and a number of forms of kung-fu and karate, are practiced largely for the improvement of physical fitness and for cultivation of a calm, focused and expanded mental and spiritual consciousness. These arts need the greatest degree of adjustment to make them combat practical. Again, the seeds of combat techniques are there in the techniques they learn, but there is little or no training for random, unplanned attack and defense.

Practical arts are those whose techniques are meant to be immediately applicable to self-defense without modification. They include a number of forms of traditional Japanese Jujutsu and Aikijutsu, some kung-fu styles -notably Wing Chun and a few others, Bando, Binot, Ninjutsu, Varmannie, and a handful of others. These arts attract far fewer students, and as a result they often struggle to stay in existence. Many are taught privately, or passed down within families. Some even have a sportive counterpart that is more well-known, such as Krav Maga. The common variety is family friendly and easier to learn; the version taught to Israeli soldiers is less pretty and far more effective.

LARRY: I may have missed it, but I do not believe you mention what type of martial arts training Ledger has had. First, if I did miss it, could you describe? And second, if it is not in there, did you purposefully do this and why?

MABERRY: I mention early on in Patient Zero that Joe practices Jujutsu. Mr. Church tricks him into mentioning it during their first meeting.

Jujutsu is a very practical martial art. It is neither better nor worse than any other. It simply accomplishes its goal of teaching its practitioners how to fight with the minimum effort and maximum effect.

There are a lot of popular misconceptions about jujutsu. Most people have seen only the demo versions of it, and therefore think the art is entirely composed of wrist and joint locks. Hardly. Jujutsu has a full range of kicks (all of them low), many hand strikes, blocks and parries, throws, holds, pins, escapes, disarms, and a large number of weapon skills. It’s a well-rounded art. Some modern forms have been softened into esoteric versions -but those are not the true traditional styles. And by traditional I refer to versions that were combat effective during the heyday of the Samurai, and which have been continually improved and adapted to stay current with the combative needs of the modern age. For example, less time is given over to defenses against sword attacks from men on horseback and more is given to dealing with jabs, short knives, gang attacks, etc.

Joe is a very practical fighter. He is not a master of jujutsu. He’s a very competent middle-rank black belt who has that extra characteristic of zero hesitation that makes him ideal for the kind of encounters he faces in Patient Zero and the subsequent books. I’ve met men like him. There aren’t many, but they exist, and they often gravitate toward Special Ops or similar work. I think we can all be thankful for that.

LARRY: You say we can all be thankful that people like Ledger exist. Obviously, from this book and the series it starts, the threat of terrorism in multiple forms is on your mind (and on many others). Yet, since 9/11, we’ve had a relatively (knock wood) non-existent (at least in the public media) incidents of terrorism. Is this novel simply enjoyable fiction, or do you truly believe from your experience notes in your responses above that scenarios such as those you depict in your novel are indeed possible?

MABERRY: My contacts at Homeland and other agencies have occasionally suggested that America has indeed been targeted by terrorists with alarming regularity, but that these threats were headed off at the pass. A few were mentioned in passing, usually in stories that provide zero specific details. My sources are unable to give details, of course, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume that Special Ops teams continue to do their jobs. It isn’t in the nature of that kind of work to have names and details on the front page of the daily paper. Do I think that threats are coming our way? Yes. Do I believe that covert ops rapid response units are being thrown at them? Damn straight.

LARRY: Unfortunately, books tend to be stereotyped. Patient Zero could be classified as a zombie novel, or horror, or science fiction, or as a thriller, or a futuristic tome. In some sense it could be martial arts fiction. Audiences tend not to care, but booksellers and publicists do. When asked, how to you describe this book’s genre?

MABERRY: Patient Zero is a techno-thriller. The inclusion of zombies is a by-product of radical science. Techno-thrillers including the works of Michael Crichton, James Rollins, Tom Clancy, Joe Buff, Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston, Larry Bong, Patrick Robinson, Dale Brown, Dan Brown, Stephen Coonts, Stel Pavlou, Phillip Kerr, Clive Cussler, and a generous handful of others.

These are definitely thrillers in that they have a race against the clock in order to prevent something terrible from happening, and sometimes they cross the line into science fiction, fantasy, and even horror. But the genre is ‘techno-thriller’, no doubt about it.

Mind you, I don’t limit myself to that genre. My first three novels were supernatural (which Patient Zero is definitely not). I’m one of those writers who moves around into whatever genre suits a story I have in mind. I’m doing super hero, horror and crime comics for Marvel; I’m writing two Young Adult novels (one horror, one steampunk), my nonfiction ranges from martial arts (Ultimate Jujutsu) to pop culture (ZOMBIE CSU) to folklore (They Bite!). My short stories drift from horror to fantasy to military SF. God only knows what I’ll dream up next…or where it’ll take me. But I’m really enjoying the ride.

LARRY: This appears to be the first in a series. What’s next for Ledger? More bioterrorism? Different types of threats?

MABERRY: In each Joe Ledger novel there will be a radically different kind of threat.

The second book, The Dragon Factory, deals with Eugenics, transgenics, ethnic cleansing and the rise of a cabal of modern day Nazis. That one’s written and delivered and my editors are very enthusiastic about it.

The third, The King of Plagues (which I’m currently writing) deals with a warped scientist who makes designer weaponized pathogens that he sells to terrorist groups. He’s also discovered the nature of the Tenth Plague of Egypt and plans to unleash it on the modern world.

Beyond that…who knows? I have ideas for at least a dozen other Joe Ledger novels, each built on a different aspect of science. Although some characters (particularly Joe’s crew in the Department of Military Sciences) may appear in other series entries, each threat and each villain is likely to be unique. I don’t plan on returning to ground I’ve already covered.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

9 Comments on Interview with Jonathan Maberry, author of PATIENT ZERO

  1. John Joseph Adams // April 13, 2009 at 8:15 am //

    Um, that photo is not Jonathan Maberry.

  2. I find that funny, and yes it is a picture of Barry Eisler.  Somebody (John D) failed to actually go to the BIO link on Mr. Maberry’s site…


  3. Apologies.  My bad.  Image fixed.  Egg on face again.


  4. Liane Merciel // April 13, 2009 at 12:12 pm //

    Great interview. Really interesting questions and answers. Knowing that Maberry has the expertise to back up much of what’s in his book makes me a lot more curious about it; zombies aren’t my thing, but I’m a sucker for a good story about prions(!), so I’ll probably pick this up next time I go to the bookstore.

  5. Liane, thanks for the good words about the interview, had fun doing it and I think Jonathan did as well. Nice pic of him, though that Barry Eisler is one good looking man….egg, shmegg.

  6. Weyland Yutani // April 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm //

    Highly entertaining (and informative interview).   Maberry gives some great, detailed answers to questions that reflect the book, but go beyond.  He’s sold me on Patient Zero.  I’d also sign up for the fight-writing course if I could 🙂

  7. Larry…those were some tough questions (which are the best kind!). 

    Maybe for Halloween I’ll dress up as Barry Eisler (though I’m a lot taller, so I’ll have to be Barry on steroids).

  8. Well, between this, my inbox, and facebook, I can see I’m never going to live the Barry Eisler thing down.  I’ll put this in the same mental lockbox as the time I killed Darth Vader. 🙂

  9. Patient Zero hooked me from the beginning. It was an excellent novel. I look forward to the next Joe Ledger novel!

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