Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling author, writing teacher, lecturer, and Marvel Comics writer. He is the author of many novels and nonfiction books. Jonathan is a frequent keynote speaker and guest of honor at writers’ conferences and genre conventions around the country.
Time to chat with Jonathan!
What is your latest book?
My latest novel is FIRE & ASH, a series of post-apocalyptic adventure for teens.
Is your recent book part of a series?
FIRE & ASH is the fourth and (possibly) final book of the ROT & RUIN series, which has won quite a few awards, including two Bram Stoker Awards and many reading awards for teens.
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
The ROT & RUIN series has been optioned for film, and the producers plan to do all four books. I also have one of my adult novels, DEAD OF NIGHT, in development for film.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
The biggest challenges in a series is providing for growth for each character. That’s crucial because a character’s growth is far more important than any high-concept plot point. The Rot & Ruin series has a moderately large cast, with six teenagers as central characters. Each of them has to grow in each book, and at the end they need to have completed a kind of emotional or psychological journey.
If you were to advertise your book on a bumper sticker, what would it say?
ZOMBIES WERE PEOPLE, TOO.
What else have you written?
I write fast and I write in different genres. My first three novels were the Pine Deep Trilogy set in the fictional Bucks County town of Pine Deep (GHOST ROAD BLUES, DEAD MAN’S SONG and BAD MOON RISING). Then I moved to weird-science thrillers featuring psychologically damaged hero Joe Ledger (PATIENT ZERO, THE DRAGON FACTORY, THE KING OF PLAGUES, ASSASSIN’S CODE, EXTINCTION MACHINE, and the forthcoming CODE ZERO and PREDATOR ONE). I wrote two books (so far) in an adult zombie apocalypse series (DEAD OF NIGHT and FALL OF NIGHT). I did a movie adaptation (THE WOLFMAN). And I have two new series debuting next year: a mystery-thriller series for older teens (WATCH OVER ME) and a middle-grade action-science fiction about aliens and monsters (THE NIGHTSIDERS).
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
Even though I plot my books and often writing the endings first, along the way characters transform from ideas to real people. They become three-dimensional, and subtle aspects of their personalities emerge. That’s always surprising and always welcome. When a character does not do this it’s a danger sign.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
I love the whole process from chewing on a raw idea all the way through the draft and revision phases.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I typically write the first chapter, then the last scenes, then I back up and aim at that ending. But, since I have an outline, I’m not restricted to linear writing. If I wanted to spice things up I’ll write whatever kind of scene appeals to me and then plug it into the manuscript. And, sometimes I’ll write out an entire subplot, end to end, then break it up and puzzle it into the larger manuscript.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
Always. Without that how can you plan for nuance, subtlety, and foreshadowing? How could you lay clues?
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I do not edit until I’ve finished a first draft. Then I edit in waves, picking different elements to focus on—voice, pace, chronology, dialogue, character relationships, etc.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
I soldier through those phases. If I have to I’ll write something bland and crappy just to get something down, then when I’m in a different headspace I go back and fix it.
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
I pick my character names carefully. Though…there are times I’ve had contests to name characters. I also include some real-world people in my books.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?
I tend not to like my villains. They’re reprehensible.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I began pitching magazine articles while studying journalism at Temple University and was sold pretty regularly all the way into the late 1990s. Features, how-to stuff, columns, the works. In the early 90s I was approached to write some textbooks for the courses I was teaching at Temple, and for courses taught by a few colleagues. I did that and got a taste for writing books. In 2000 I went the small press route for some mass-market nonfiction books—three on martial arts, one on the folklore of vampires. Then in 2004 I started writing my first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES, set in Bucks County. As soon as it was finished I went hunting for a literary agent, landed a good one, and that sent me sailing into the waters of mainstream publishing with major houses. I hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in 2010. Like all writers I racked up my share of rejections. I believe I could paper the entire state of North Dakota with rejection letters, but I don’t give up very easily. Or at all. I kept at it and now I’m in the wonderful position of being able to pick and choose projects. Fiction isn’t what I thought I’ve ever be writing, but it’s where I live now, and I couldn’t be happier.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I’m all over social media. It drives the publishing world and any writer not invested in it is nuts. It not only allows the writer a measure of actual, useful control over the buzz and marketing of their projects, but allows for meaningful contact with peers and with readers. I write for fifty minutes out of each hour and then do ten minutes of social media. All day long. My favorite go-to places are Facebook (personal and group pages), Twitter, Goodreads, LinkedIn and Pinterest. But I’m on a bunch of others as well. If you budget your time it enhances your writing life rather than consumes it.
How much research is involved in writing your books? How do you go about it?
I was trained as a newspaper writer and spend decades writing features. That pretty much turned me into a research junkie. My thrillers, teen fiction and even my horror all have an enormous amount of research behind them. And all of my thrillers have a science theme—genetics, pandemics, etc. I do a lot of email interviews with experts all over the world, I read scads of scientific journals, and I cruise online sources. Usually I do a block of research before I start a project and then do ‘spot’ research along the way.
Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?
After my first teen novel—ROT & RUIN—debuted, I had a parent contact me to say that it was the first book his son read. Until then, his kid had been a reluctant reader. Now he wants to read and has become a “reader.” Since then I’ve heard similar stories from parents, educators, and librarians. The books in the series have won a number of awards, including several statewide awards where they were cited as “gateway” books. Books that open the door to reading for kids who might otherwise not crack a book. It’s staggering. It makes me want to cry. I don’t think anything in my writing career has had so profound an impact on me.
Do you write anything besides novels? Care to share?
I’ve been an active writer since my college days. I’ve sold 22 novels, 28 nonfiction books (on subjects ranging from women’s self-defense to the folklore of vampire legends), two plays, 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, as well as greeting cards, TV shows, dozens of short stories, and twelve collections of comic books. I also co-created a show for ABC Disney (ON THE SLAB), which, sadly, remains in development limbo. Currently I’m writing four novels per year in difference genre.
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I was born for it. Even before I could read or write I was telling stories using toys or drawings. I wrote for school papers, I wrote for fun, and now I write for a living. Writing is a defining characteristic. Everything else I’ve ever done, every job I worked at while building my career (bouncer, bodyguard, martial arts instructor, graphic artist, etc.) were side-effects; they were a means to—what is for me—the only acceptable end.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
I’m a nine-to-fiver. I get up and get to work. It’s my day job. I usually spend my mornings at a Starbucks and I write until about noon. Then I wander home and write through the afternoon in my home office. I take nights off to spend time with my family. I write part-time on weekends. I don’t ever take a full day off.
How would you define your style of writing?
I’m a humanist writer. Even in the midst of high-concept and big action, my writing is all about the personal experience. Although my subject matter is often very serious I include a lot of humor. And I don’t go in for emotional cheap shots.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
I don’t believe writers block exists. Writers who say that they encounter it most often are those who are trying too hard to make their first draft read like a polished final draft. They are imposing unrealistic expectations on themselves. First drafts should be done quick and dirty—get the story out of your head and onto the page. That process taps into the part of us that is instinctive—we’re either storytellers or we’re not. Once the essential story is down, no matter how flawed and clunky, we then shift mental gears and approach the revision with an entirely different process. Craft. That’s something we learn. The skills of craft include figurative and descriptive language, point of view, person, pace, timing, dialogue, metaphor, and so on. These are things we learn in order to refine our stories. Writers who understand that these are separate stages of the writing process never get writers block.
What genre have you never written in that you’d like to try?
I don’t know. Maybe romance from a guys’ perspective. Maybe a straight military story. Or a classic western. However I genre jump all the time. Not just in novels but in short stories. I’ve become a go-to guy for anthology editors because they know that I’ll try damn near anything. Over the last eight years I’ve written in a crazy number of genres. I did a Sherlock Holmes story (“The Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost”); a children’s tale set in the land of Oz (“The Cobbler of Oz”); military science fiction (“Clean Sweeps”), historical horror (“The Death Poem of Sensei Otoro”), ghost stories (“Property Condemned”), apocalyptic science fiction (“Chokepoint”), dystopian existentialism (“The Wind Through the Fence”), psychological thriller (“Doctor Nine”), a serial killer story (“Saint John”), a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s character Auguste DuPin (“The Vanishing Assassin”), an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale (“The Death Song of Dwar Guntha”), a GI Joe techno-thriller (“Flint and Steel”), a western (“Red Dreams”), a noir urban fantasy (“Strip Search”), and others.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
I wish I knew how much I’d enjoy writing for teens. I would have jumped into that swimming pool sooner.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
My wife, Sara Jo, and I live in Warrington, but we’re packing up to move across country to La Jolla in San Diego. It’s where I’ve wanted to live for a long time. The move is partly motivated by the weather out there (it’s always perfect), partly because our son, Sam, lives there; and partly because I have two films in development and it’s only a two-hour drive to L.A.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
Coffee revs me up, chocolate soothes my soul. Spinach is my kryptonite.
Care to brag about your family?
I’m the black sheep of the family, so I’m not much a cheerleader for our clan. However my great grandfather—who I’m named after—was a great guy. John B. Maberry fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, captured the Southern flag, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Now, here’s the kicker. At that battle he captured a southern soldier named Dooley…who is my wife’s great grandfather. We learned this recently and it’s a weirdly stunning coincidence.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
Rhythm. On the dance floor I am Whitey McWhitelson. I am, quite possibly, the worst dancer in the history of carbon-based life forms.
What was your favorite year of school? Why?
My favorite year was 1974 at Frankford High. Tenth grade. I made a slew of new friends, I fell in love for the first time, I joined a band, I did musical theater, I won several martial arts championships, I got my black belt, I grew my hair and beard long, I ran with a cool crowd of artists and singers, and I finally began to understand politics and art. It was the first of a lot of good years, and I remember every single day of it.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
That I used to do musical theater. I was in productions of Camelot, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, How to Succeed in Business, 1776, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and others. And I was in the traveling company for Godspell. That all ended when I got hit across the throat with a pool cue while working as a bouncer. I survived the hit, but my vocal chords were never quite the same. There are some who believe this was a good thing for the world of musical comedy.
What makes you angry?
Rude behavior. Pushes every last one of my buttons.
If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?
I vary between classics (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, I Spy, Star Trek), modern comedies (Friends, Mad About You, Modern Family), and dramas (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Orphan Black, Justified, Dexter, etc.).
What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?
Favorite movies are THE WIZARD OF OZ, SINGING IN THE RAIN, and THE HAUNTING. Favorite books are SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury, I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson, PALE GRAY FOR GUILT by John D. MacDonald, FLETCH by Gregory McDonald, BLACK CHERRY BLUES by James Lee Burke and THE DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME by Michael Moorcock.
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