Devan talks with the best-selling author about horror, comics and switching deftly between genres.
When it comes to churning out award winning stories in a plethora of genres New York Times best-selling author and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winner Jonathan Maberry is like a machine. With a bio of accomplishments so long and daunting it takes three pages to list those absolutely worth mentioning he’s less like a flesh and blood human being and more like a dream factory cranked into overdrive. If he had a business card it would be the size of a billboard. Some of his credits include novelist, anthology editor, blogger, screenwriter, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, expert witness, teacher, lecturer, and last but not least a sought out authority on all things undead. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers – rightfully so. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries. His wildly popular young adult zombie series Rot and Ruin is being developed as you read this. It’s fair to say that of all the things he’s been called in his life, lazy isn’t one of them.
His Joe Ledger Series centers around a Baltimore detective assigned to a counterterrorism task force, recruited by an ultra-secret rapid response group called the Department of Military Science (DMS) to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a dreadful bioweapon that can turn ordinary people into zombies. The first book Patient Zero was a runaway hit. Since then he’s put out Dragon Factory, King of Plagues, Assassin’s Code, and Extinction Machine – along with a string of short stories that feature the popular character. There is even talk of Joe crossing over into Jonathan’s V-Wars series. His newest book in the series Code Zero just came out In March of this year from St. Martin’s Griffin.
Devan Sagliani: Let’s jump right in. How did you come up with the idea for Joe Ledger?
Jonathan Maberry: Joe began speaking in my head. That happens to writers. If you’re not a writer, mind you, hearing voices is a cry for help. For us it’s how characters sometimes announce themselves. I was sitting in a diner doing edits on a nonfiction book I was writing when two characters started having a conversation. It sounded interesting so I began jotting it down on a notepad.
Over the next few days I began expanding on that scene until I knew who these guys were and what kind of story they were in. Joe Ledger is a former Baltimore cop who gets recruited by a covert government agency -the Department of Military Sciences (DMS)-to help stop a group of terrorists who are planning on launching a doomsday bioweapon.
Joe is a little crazy and in a fight he is utterly ruthless; but at heart he’s a damaged idealist and humanist. He’s also funny as hell, which is weird, because he’s funnier than I am. Not sure how that works.
DS: What new surprises do you have in store for readers in Code Zero?
JM: CODE ZERO is the sixth book of the Ledger series, but it’s intended as a jumping-on point. It deals with a master criminal who is using the anarchist gamer subculture to help her crack the highest level security facilities. Basically she wants to steal all the bioweapons that Joe Ledger and the DMS have taken from the bad guys. Joe will encounter zombies, genetically-enhanced super-soldiers, killer pathogens and a terror campaign that brings America to its knees.
DS: You’ve had a breathtaking career already, enough to leave any aspiring author both awestruck, inspired, and more than a little jealous. Tell us a little about your journey as an author. How did you get started writing?
JM: I’ve always been interested in writing. Since I was a little kid. I sold my first magazine feature articles while I was at Temple University studying journalism. And I went on to sell over a thousand features and thousands of columns and reviews. I switched to mostly nonfiction book writing in the 1990s and wrote textbooks, how-to manuals, and mass-market books on subjects ranging from martial arts to the folklore of the supernatural.
Then in 2004 I decided to try my hand at fiction. I’d never done that before and didn’t know if I was going to like it…or if I’d be any good at it. But you don’t know if you don’t try. I wrote the first book of a proposed trilogy of American Gothic supernatural thrillers -GHOST ROAD BLUES. After fishing for an agent for awhile, I landed Sara Crowe, then of Trident Media. She was able to sell the book and its two sequels to Pinnacle Books. And I was off and running.
I change genres a lot, so she took my next books -the Joe Ledger thrillers-to St. Martin’s Griffin. Around the same time I was contacted by Universal Pictures to see if I wanted to novelize the Benecio Del Toro remake of THE WOLFMAN. I did, and that became my first New York Times bestseller. In 2008 the editor in chief of Marvel Comics called me. He’d read the first Ledger novel, PATIENT ZERO, and wanted to know if I’d like to try my hand at writing comics. I did, and I wrote a bunch of stuff for Marvel.
In 2009 my agent, now with Harvey Klinger, Inc., pitched my first young adult novel to Simon & Schuster. They bought ROT & RUIN and three sequels. Since then it’s gotten crazy. I write in a lot of genres and for a lot of publishers.
DS: Many authors dream of being able to write full time for a living but never quite get where they hoped to be. Did you always know that you would reach this level as a writer? When did you realize that you had made it as a professional writer?
JM: I had no idea I’d ever be this successful, and I am deeply grateful for everything that’s happened to get me here. The switch from part-time writer to full time happened when I switched from nonfiction books to novels. That was a risky choice that paid off.
DS: Your biography is extraordinary by any standard, not just as a writer. If you had to choose a single accomplishment that you are most proud of in your life so far, what would it be?
JM: The thing that really hit me hardest -in a good way-was when ROT & RUIN won a bunch of statewide awards around the country. Those awards were for books that encourage reluctant readers to read. ROT & RUIN and its sequels have been called ‘gateway’ books for that reason, and that stuns me. To know that kids -particularly boys- fell in love with reading because of my novels…that’s amazing.
DS: Between your books on zombies, both fictional as well as nonfiction, and your appearance on The History Channel’s documentary, ZOMBIES: A Living History it’s safe to say that you’ve become a bonafide authority on the world of the undead. Can you share with us what first interested you in the living dead?
JM: I became interested in flesh-eating living dead at age ten when a buddy of mine and I snuck into the old Midway Theater in Philadelphia to see the world premier of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. My friend was traumatized. I was enthralled. Since then I’ve seen every zombie movie and read every zombie book I could. Mind you, zombies aren’t my only favorite monsters -I’m very partial to vampires and werewolves, too-but I do love my life-impaired fellow citizens. I’ve even written a nonfiction book about them: ZOMBIE CSU: THE FORENSICS OF THE LIVING DEAD.
DS: There’s been an explosion in the zombie apocalypse fiction since you first published ZOMBIE CSU back in 2008. Despite being dismissed as a fad it doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing. Why do you think there is such a hunger for these types of stories?
JM: Since zombies have no personality they can’t actually get stale, in terms of their use in stories. Zombies represent a massive shared threat. The stories are then all about how people deal with that threat. So, really, zombie stories are stories about people in crisis. That’s pretty much the basis for ALL fiction. So, that isn’t a well that’s likely to go dry anytime soon.
DS: There is no doubt between your vast body of work and the teaching you do to help writers become authors that you’ve managed to influence a new generation of up and coming voices in fiction. Who are some of your influences?
JM: I had the great good fortune as a teenager to meet and get to know Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, both of whom took time to give me advice on the art of writing and the business of publishing. That was so crucial and so unexpected. Since then, I’ve taken inspiration from a number of authors whose works really speak to me. Shirley Jackson, James Lee Burke, and Elmore Leonard in particular.
DS: Can you take us through your process of how you move a story from idea to full creation? Do you rely on outlines? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
JM: I’m a process man. I usually outline my stories, though I seldom adhere completely to the outlines. I allow for organic growth during the writing process. I often start with the first chapter and then jump forward and write the ending. I do that with novels and short stories. I like knowing where things are going so I can build subtlety and clues into the narrative.
As for ideas…they’re everywhere. Writers are seldom short of ideas. However I prime that pump by reading extensively about science, politics and psychology.
DS: You seem to have mastered the art of successfully writing for several different genres, including horror, science fiction, thrillers, and young adult dystopian. Most authors would be delighted to see the success you’ve had in one of these categories. With so many fans clamoring for more how do you choose which project comes next?
JM: Deadlines steer my life. My agent and I make sure that we fit each new project into a calendar, and then it’s my job to produce works on time. I love the pace and I love the variety. And I often put elements of one story in another so that my various readers can cruise across genre lines. For example, Joe Ledger shows up (as an older man) in the last two books of the ROT & RUIN series; and Crow from GHOST ROAD BLUES, runs into Ledger and other characters in short stories. Like that.
DS: There are some amazing supernatural elements at play in your award-winning novel Ghost Road Blues. What’s your take on the supernatural? Do you believe in spirits? More specifically, do you believe that evil never dies but lies dormant waiting to be stirred back to life as you suggest in the book?
JM: I keep an open mind. My grandmother believed in pretty much everything, and she was a big influence on me as a kid. I believe in a lot, but not everything. And I’m open to possibilities. As for evil -I actually don’t believe in supernatural evil. We humans are quite capable of being evil without help from the spirit world.
DS: So many of your stories have either been turned into comics or are in the process of being turned into them. Have you always been a fan of comics? What were some of your favorite comic book series and characters growing up?
JM: I grew up reading comics. I fell in love with them in the middle 1960s and have been a fan ever since. My first comic was Fantastic Four #68 and I was a Marvel Comics kid growing up. Of course I read all sorts of stuff. Loved the Jack Kirby era at DC, and the Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff. And I’ll read anything Mike Mignola does. My tastes have become quite broad. Loving Joe Harris’ new X-Files comic, and the new takes on Hawkeye and Moon Knight. Probably my favorite comic growing up, though, was TOMB OF DRACULA. Absolutely loved that book.
DS: Your background writing Marvel comics includes some impressive titles, including CAPTAIN AMERICA: HAIL HYDRA, BLACK PANTHER: POWER, DOOMWAR, WOLVERINE: FLIES TO A SPIDER, PUNISHER: NAKED KILLS, and the MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN. You’ve also had your very own franchise within Marvel –MARVEL UNIVERSE vs THE PUNISHER, MARVEL UNIVERSE vs WOLVERINE and MARVEL UNIVERSE vs THE AVENGERS. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you got into writing for Marvel?
JM: As I said, Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor-in-chief called me out of the blue and asked me to write for them. I started off doing an eight-page Wolverine short (“Ghosts”, in the FLIES TO A SPIDER collection) and a Punisher MAX one-shot (“Naked Kill”). I did a bunch of stuff for them, and then at a New York Comic Con a couple of years ago I had coffee with Scott Allie, editor-in-chief of Dark Horse. I pitched him a five-issue limited series horror comic BAD BLOOD. He bought it and that ran early this year. Then I started a relationship with IDW Publishing. I’d edited an anthology for them -V-WARS-and Ted Adams, the CEO called me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a V-Wars comic. I jumped at that, and then we agreed on my doing a ROT & RUIN comic. V-WARS sold out its first two issues and is rocketing along. ROT & RUIN debuts in September.
DS: What’s next for you?
JM: Jeez…this is the most insanely busy year of my life, which means I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had. I just finished the seventh Joe Ledger novel, PREDATOR ONE, which will be published in March. My next zombie novel, FALL OF NIGHT, debuts September 2, the same week as the ROT & RUIN comic. Next summer I have a new series of middle-grade science fiction/horror novels coming out -THE ORPHAN ARMY, book 1 of the Nightsiders. And I have two anthologies launching this year: V-WARS: BLOOD AND FIRE in late July, and then OUT OF TUNE -which are all stories inspired by classic ballads. That features stories by Jack Ketchum, David Liss, Kelley Armstrong, Simon R. Green and a laundry list of top horror and fantasy writers. It debuts in September.
DS: Anything else you want to promote that we didn’t cover or anything else you’d like to share with us?
JM: I was just tapped to edit a series of anthologies of all-original X-FILES stories. And a small press, JournalStone is re-releasing my PINE DEEP TRILOGY in special edition hardcover revised editions.
DS: Thank you so much for your time!
Jonathan and his wife, Sara Jo, to whom he dedicates all of his published works, and their dog, Rosie, live in Del Mar, California. Visit his website and sign up for his free newsletter, or see his Facebook page.