Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include ‘Extinction Machine’, ‘Fire & Ash’, ‘Patient Zero’ and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ‘Rot & Ruin’, is now in development for film. He is the editor of ‘V-Wars’, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. He is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan currently lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara Jo, but they’ll be moving to San Diego this fall.
For what age audience do you write?
I write for a variety of different audiences and in different genres. My ‘Rot & Ruin’ series is a post-apocalyptic adventure for teens; my ‘Joe Ledger’ novels are science-based action thrillers for adults; my ‘Dead of Night’ stories are zombie tales for adults; my ‘Pine Deep Trilogy’ is classic horror for adults; and I’ve written nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to folklore. I also write comics, some of which are for all readers, while others are for adults. It’s even crazier with my short stories. I’ve written over forty of them so far and most of them are in different genres, including western, mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction, horror, Gothic, comedy, adult adventure, children’s fantasy, thrillers and more.
Henry: Wow, you are a triple-threat – the Da Vinci of fiction!
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest release is ‘Extinction Machine’ (St. Martin’s Griffin), a weird science thriller. It’s the fifth in my Joe Ledger series and deals with a new arms race that develops based on technologies reverse-engineered from crashed UFOs. Lots of action, lots of snarky humor. Then in August, Simon & Schuster will release ‘Fire & Ash’, the fourth and final book of my ‘Rot & Ruin’ series. Over the course of four books we explored what it would be like to grow up fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse drove humanity to the brink of extinction. These novels aren’t about chomping entrails; they’re about the value of human life and an exploration of who we are as human beings.
Henry: Between ‘Extinction Machine’ and Transformers’, there’s a lot of re-use of alien technology going on. I think I’ll write a sci-fi legal thriller about aliens visiting Earth to file lawsuits for intellectual property infringement – ‘Men In Black’ meets ‘The Firm’.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
With ‘Extinction Machine’, I wanted to start some conversations about whether we’re alone in the universe and what that might mean. But the book also opens other cans of worms, ranging from the cult of secrecy inside the Department of Defense –why it’s bad and why it’s good; as well as some existential questions about what we’re willing to do in the name of freedom. Hard questions, but so far I’ve had some wonderful conversations with people of all political leanings.
‘Fire & Ash’ and its predecessors are different. Those books are for teens and the speak to a need for optimism in troubled times. We’re handing the next generation a world that has economic, political, cultural and environmental problems. Big problems. I was at the tail-end of the Hippie/boomer era and we thought we’d have all that fixed by the time we handed the world off to our kids. That didn’t exactly happen, though some genuine gains were made. So apocalyptic fiction allows us to explore how the next generation –filled with new energy and greater knowledge—can take what we hand them and go farther, do more, accomplish wonders. It’s odd, but unlike adult apocalyptic and dystopian fiction which typically end badly, the stories for teens have a thread of optimism sewn through them.
Henry: Indeed, a thread of optimism in YA literature is necessary to encourage them to MOVE OUT!!
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Time management is always the toughest. I write very fast and I enjoy the fast lane, but it’s impossible to do every project that comes my way, even if I really want. Right now, I’m writing three novels each year, plus comics, short stories, essays, and other material, and I write two blogs. I write ten hours a day and I turn out about a million words a year for publication. If I could I’d clone myself to do more, but the reality is that I’ve had to learn to say ‘no’ to some offers. That’s no fun, but it’s practical.
Henry: Well, then I’m doubly thankful that you took the time for this interview!
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Writing is an art; publishing is a business. Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson both told me that when I was a kid. I met them through my middle school librarian. They said that writing –storytelling—is an intimate conversation between the author and the reader. But to have that conversation, to reach the reader, the book typically has to go through the process of publishing. The publishing industry is not based on a love of art. It’s based on selling copies of art. Those of us who understand that get along pretty well. Those who think that publishing has some kind of obligation to publish anything a writer submits don’t usually succeed. Nor should they. Naïveté is not a useful tool in one’s personal toolbox. Working with the industry doesn’t require sacrificing literary merit (anyone who thinks so should go read Cormac McCarthy, Faulker, Dickens, Bukowski….) nor does it mean ‘selling out’. It means that you’ve found the way to start those conversations with the readers.
Henry: Well said. Would-be indie writers should take heed. Self-publishing your book isn’t the easier route – it’s the harder route, because you have to be both a writer AND a business person.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Had I not written ‘Rot & Ruin’ and it sequels I would never had been invited to visit schools and libraries all over the country, and as a result I would never have met so many smart and interesting kids. I wouldn’t have had the kind of conversations I have all the time, speaking with teens who are so much smarter, so much more insightful and capable than most adults ever give them credit for. Also, I’ve had several teachers across the country tell me that ‘Rot & Ruin’ is the first book read by kids who had been otherwise reluctant readers. The series has won a number of awards in various states for reluctant readers. In some cases, those kids went on to read the rest of the series and, more importantly, many other books. Books of all kinds, books by many different writers. Had I not become a writer I would never have been able to participate in that beautiful process. I feel so incredibly honored to have done my small part.
Henry: I agree that getting reluctant readers to enjoy books is incredibly fulfilling.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Learn your craft. Natural storytelling ability is great, but good writing requires more. Reading will give you some of it, but exploring the skills of writing: voice, pace, point of view, variety in style, figurative and descriptive language, subtext and metaphor, and so on. For someone who cares about his art and respects his readers, this is key.
Henry: Who needs voice, pace, or metaphor when you’ve got entrail-chomping zombies?
Would you tell us a bit more about you?
l’ve had an interesting life. I grew up in a rough and very troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. None of my friends read. Few of them finished school. There was a lot of racism, sexism, abuse and violence all around me. Books, reading and keeping an open mind got me out of there. I got involved in martial arts when I was a little boy and have now been a practitioner for nearly fifty years. I taught Martial Arts History, Jujutsu and Women’s Self-defense at Temple University for fourteen years; and I was briefly the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Expert Witness for murder cases involving martial arts. I’ve variously worked as a very bad actor in regional musical theater, a bodyguard, a bouncer in a dive bar, a graphic artist and a massage therapist. I started selling magazine articles while I was studying journalism at Temple University, and sold about twelve-hundred of those, and along the way I sold greeting cards, two plays, how-to books, song lyrics and appallingly pretentious poetry. I started selling textbooks while teaching at Temple –my first was ‘Judo and You’—and switched to novels in 2005. I was scouted by Marvel Comics in 2008 and have written mini-series for them ever since.
Henry: Wow, bouncer and massage therapist – let’s hope you never got those mixed up. You’re the third or fourth fiction writer I’ve encountered who’s really into martial arts. I wonder if there is some subtle connection.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Ray Bradbury once told me: “Writing is 99% thinking about it, and the rest is typing.”
Henry: You get bonus points for a) a quote directed at you, and b) Ray Bradbury.
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
l’m superstitious, so I buy a good luck item at the beginning of every major project. I bought a robot clock when I was going to write my first science fiction story. I bought a bunch of Marvel Comics action figures when I began writing for them. I have bottles of holy water, a cat’s skull, a Steampunk pistol, rubber ducks in various absurd costumes, and about a million zombie pop culture items, including a remote controlled zombie that walks and moans.
Henry: I have a bunch of painted Warhammer fantasy miniatures that stare at me from nearby shelves, encouraging me to write.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
l would love to fly. I used to skydive (before my knee replacement and middle age). It felt like flying. I’d love to be able to leap into the air and soar.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
That’s easy. Charles Dickens, John D. MacDonald (author of the brilliant ‘Travis McGee’ novels) and James Lee Burke (my favorite living author).
Henry: Wikipedia helpfully expounds: “John Dann MacDonald was an American writer of novels and short stories, known for his thrillers. MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed ‘Travis McGee’ series, and his novel ‘The Executioners’, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America.
James Lee Burke is an American author of mysteries, best known for his ‘Dave Robicheaux’ series. He has won an Edgar Award for ‘Black Cherry Blues’ (1990) and ‘Cimarron Rose’ (1998). The Robicheaux character has been portrayed twice on screen, first by Alec Baldwin (Heaven’s Prisoners) and then Tommy Lee Jones (In the Electric Mist). Burke has also written seven miscellaneous crime novels, two short story anthologies, four books starring protagonist Texas attorney Billy Bob Holland, and three books starring Billy Bob’s cousin Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland.”
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
My all-time favorite monster is the benendanti, which is a werewolf legend from Livonia and elsewhere in Europe. The benendanti legend goes back to Etruscan times but lingered well into the modern era. These people believe that each night they would become werewolves and go out to fight monsters in order to protect the world from evil. The name means ‘goodwalkers’ but they’re more commonly known as the ‘hounds of god’. They are rarely mentioned in fiction. I used this as an element in my ‘Pine Deep Trilogy’ (‘Ghost Road Blues’, ‘Dead Man’s Song’ and ‘Bad Moon Rising’), and I have a recurring character in a series of short stories called Sam Hunter who is a private investigator descended from a benendanti family.
Henry: Once again bonus points, this time for specifying a creature I’ve never heard of. Well played, sir.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
My wife an I travel quite a lot. We play with our fierce little thirteen pound dog, Rosie. And I enjoy floating in tropical waters.
Henry: I’m amazed you have any time at all given you write a million words a year! Excellent time management skills indeed.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
‘This was fun. What’s next?’
Where can readers find your work?
This article is also posted to the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.