Q&A With Jonathan Maberry
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Q&A With Jonathan Maberry
Yesterday after I contacted Jonathan Maberry, he responded back to me saying the Q&A sounded like fun and he wanted to give it a try. Jonathan Maberry is the New York Times Bestselling author of suspense which includes many series and standalone novels. Some of his series are Pine Deep Trilogy, Rot and Ruin Series, Joe Ledger Series, Dead of Night Series, Kagen of the Damned. Other than being an author he is an anthology editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, & writing teacher/lecturer.
Q: Where did you get your love of writing from? Was it at that moment you realized that your calling was to become an author?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m one of those people who always wanted to be a writer. Even before I could actually read and write I was telling stories using toys. In school, I wrote for the school papers, and turned in elaborate short stories for each creative writing assignment. By high school, though, I’d shifted my focus to nonfiction and even went to Temple University on a journalism scholarship, with every intention of being an investigative newspaper reporter. Midway through college I shifted focus again; falling in love with magazine feature writing and how-to articles, the latter mainly focuses on martial arts and self-defense. My first published books were college textbooks on judo, women’s self-defense, and martial arts history, published while teaching in Temple University’s Martial Arts Department.
I continued to write articles as a part-time thing from the late seventies all the way into the early 2000s, though it was never my full-time gig. I variously worked as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry, and Expert Witness for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for murder cases involving martial arts; a jujutsu master in my own dojo; and a teacher of specialized self-defense programs for groups ranging from women in crisis, LGBQT groups, the elderly, the physically-challenged, and even Special Forces and SWAT.
In the early 2000s I wrote my first non-martial arts book, THE VAMPIRE SLAYERS’ FIELD GUIDE TO THE UNDEAD, written under the pen-name of Shane MacDougall. That book was so popular that it ignited my interest in folkloric monsters (more so than the Hollywood versions of vampires, werewolves, etc.). And from there I decided to try my hand at writing my first novel. It was an experiment to see if I’d enjoy writing fiction, particularly long fiction. The resulting novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES, became my first published fiction and launched my career. The fact that it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel validated my shift from nonfiction to fiction. It came out in 2006 and since then I’ve written 47 novels (working on #48 now), 143 short stories, and many runs of comic books.
Q: What is it about suspense that you love writing so much? What advice would you give anyone on how to write great suspense novels?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Suspense is less of a genre of fiction than it is a way of writing any kind of story. It’s an approach, in terms of pacing, tone, and style. The key to writing suspense is to focus on the experience of a character in the moment. It’s not really about the payoff but the anticipation. Suspense deals with anticipation, anxiety, and uncertainty. For example, it’s not about the reveal of the Big Bad, but the dread of what it might be; what its existence means to the character’s understanding of the world; and of anticipated consequences once the nature of the threat/crisis/monster/whatever is revealed.
Stephen King does this very well, and it’s one of the reasons he does not define himself as a writer of horror, thriller, science fiction, or fantasy. Instead, he says he is a ‘suspense’ writer, because his stories are all about the complexities and emotionality of his characters along the route. His endings clearly matter less to him than the journey. An excellent example of this is his brilliant short novel, THE MIST. The book leaves so many questions unanswered and it ends without resolution. The movie version by Frank Darabont uses suspense most of the way, but as cinema is different from prose, he concocted an ending. That ending works great for film but would likely have weakened the novel. Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, based on Daphne du Maurer’s excellent short story of the same name, is an example of a horror suspense film.
That said, it’s not required that a suspense story lack a decisive ending. Not at all. What’s critical is not the race to the big finale but the emotional and psychological impact of the events on realistically-drawn characters. Instead of population a book with characters who spout lines in support of the major plot points, the plot bends beneath the weight of each character’s footfalls. That allows the characters to more easily be proxies for the readers. And, often in such stories, the reader learns about what’s going on at the same rate as the characters.
A variation on this is a type of omniscient storytelling where the reader is clued in on some details of the threat before the characters are aware of it, thus allowing us to feel anxiety born of our empathy for those proxy characters.
The best thing a writer can do to hone this skill is to take notable works of suspense fiction (any genre will do) and read them as a reader and then again –perhaps multiple times—as a writer. This allows the writer to study how the author used and manipulated the elements of craft, studying the emotional carpentry of the story.
Q: You’ve written a ton of series. What advice would you give to anyone on how to write a great series?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I love writing series because they allow for a very deep exploration of characters. In a standalone, character development is sometimes necessarily truncated by space limitations. In a series, there can be developmental arcs for characters –and characters in various kinds of relationships—that can be parsed out to show much larger and more detailed growth arcs. It’s true to say that characters should be somehow different at the end of a book than they were at the beginning; but in a series we can craft more elaborate and more subtle arcs.
In my Joe Ledger thriller series, of which 13 books and fifty short stories have so far been written, there is a marked change in the protagonist. He is much more naïve and ignorant about certain kinds of evil that exist. At the beginning of book 1, PATIENT ZERO, he is a Baltimore police detective; but he is recruited into a shadowy Special Operations group working for the U.S. government. That group tackles kinds of terrorism that Ledger has never imagined, let alone known about. With each book we see him grow in his confidence, skills, and understanding; but at the same time we see the cost to him –in psychological, physical, and emotional terms—of doing that kind of work. He becomes both more ruthless and more empathetic, and even suffers from a kind of defensive hubris because he knows the good he’s done and isn’t sure anyone else can do it if he steps down. This is a skewed worldview, of course, but that’s part of the developmental process of crafting a character in a long-range series. They cannot and should not be unmarked and unscarred by the events of each book.
Series also allow for a larger overall cast of characters without having to cram them all into any single volume. In my Ledger series, there are characters that may be critically important in one book, but not a key player in the next two or three.
Series allow one or more recurring characters to face different kinds of crises, each one coming at them from a different angle and requiring different things of them. This kind of structure allows for characters to grow in their understanding of a larger and expanding world; but expanded knowledge often brings with it greater understanding and insight to the depth of hurt, treachery, malice, evil, PTSD, friendship, loss, love and other aspects of the human psychological dynamic.
When setting out to write a series, I recommend reading some of the better series to see how characters evolve within a single book and in the larger scope. Examples are Travis McGee in John D. MacDonald’s series of mysteries; Harry Potter in that series; Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series; Hap Collins and Leonard Pine in Joe R. Lansdale’s series; Corwin and Random in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series; and so on. Each of these series showcases changes in terms of emotion, insight, strength of purpose, consequences of action, professional involvement, and so on.
Q: What is your advice to new authors on how to deal with negative feedback on whether its negative reviews online trolls, or friends and family members who are not supportive?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Like all writers I used to read reviews and, also like my peers, perversely focused too much on the negative stuff. Bad reviews could crush me for days. I know, it’s shocking that writers are moody and emotional. But then I realized the truth that an opinion is only that –one person’s opinion. This became very clear to me one day when I had two back-to-back reviews for a zombie novel I’d written. One was a 5-star review that said it was the best book ever; the next comment was a 1-star that said it was the worst book ever. I know that the book is neither the best nor worst book ever written. The reviewers had individual emotional reactions to the same work. Why, then, would one review carry more weight –or possess enough hurtful force—than the other?
So, I stopped reading reviews.
The opinion of close friends and family on our writing –positive or negative—has to be viewed through the filter of intent. Those who love us and want us to succeed will praise our writing perhaps beyond its merit. Those who feel it’s necessary to warn us away from (as they see it) a path to obvious literary failure because it’s hard to make a buck as a writer. Neither can claim objectivity, and therefore their reviews are suspect.
As for trolls…and in the age of social media there are a lot of them…giving fair and insightful reviews are seldom their goal. There is a small but very vocal portion of the social media crowd who are emboldened by the ‘safe distance’ afforded by being literally out of reach of whomever they wish to attack. They tacitly invite the attacked writer to respond, and the ensuing fight is what feeds them. We know this. Everyone knows it, and yet trying to reason with them is a common trap. Don’t bother. They want the conflict and nothing you can say will change their hearts or minds.
It’s hard to move past the traps and pitfalls of reading reviews; harder still not to take them personally –as if those reviewers were somehow omniscient. But distance is a goal worth working toward.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to any of your series?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I had a TV series, V-WARS, on Netflix a few years ago; and the rights to it are returning to me soon, so the star –Ian Somerhalder (LOST, VAMPIRE DIARIES) and I will be shopping it around. My teen post-apocalyptic zombie novels, ROT & RUIN, are in advanced development at Alcon Entertainment. In fact just yesterday I gave my notes on the first draft of a script. And I have several other books and short stories under option for film or TV.
An ‘option’ is when a producer, network, studio, actor, director or someone else leases the rights to a work in hopes of setting up a production deal. There’s a paycheck attached to an option, which can be renewed if needed. The goal is to have the option result in a purchase for actual production. Options are common, production deals are not. And there are specific agents whose job it is to sell IP (intellectual properties such as comics, short stories, or novels) to Hollywood.
I’ve also had story elements make their way onto the screen. In 2009-10 I was the writer of Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER comic book. Characters I created for that run were used in the recent movie BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER; as were story elements (pitting Shuri against Namor, etc.). That got me a nice screen credit and is a personal highlight of my career.
Q: If you’re writing a new novel right now, are you allowed to reveal any details?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I am experimenting with something I once swore I would never do –writing two novels at the same time. These are novels #48 and #49 for me. One is NECROTEK, a deep space horror thriller dealing with trans galactic travel and elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The other is THE DRAGON IN WINTER, the concluding volume in my KAGEN THE DAMNED trilogy of epic fantasy adventures.
I’m doing this experiment to try and broaden my skills as a writer. I’ve been writing 2000 words per day on each book, with some pauses to write short stories for various anthologies, and to edit three anthologies and WEIRD TALES Magazine.
I discovered early-on that I’m a ‘high output writer’. I enjoy the fast lane, which is how I’ve managed to write 47 novels, 143 short stories, and written 22 graphic novels’ worth of comics, edit 22 anthologies, write articles, and edit the magazine all since 2006. I have friends who are even faster (Kevin J. Anderson comes to mind); and friends who do one novel every few years. There’s no right or wrong way…but it’s useful to experiment now and then to get an understanding of what works and what you enjoy.
Q: Is it fair to say that the characters and places you created in your novels are based on people you know in real life, and places you’ve been? I love it when authors create people and places based off of people they know or places they’ve been.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Nearly every character I’ve created is based on one or more actual people. I started doing that as a kind of developmental shorthand –using people I know well enough to draw on body language, opinion, worldview, vocal patterns, etc. Some characters are amalgams of several real people. In this way I know the characters I write about.
I also include characters based on actual people who have either asked to be added or who have won contests or charity auctions. In fact, the villain of my upcoming thriller CAVE 13, is named after (and physically looks like) a friend who won a scholarship charity auction. And there’s a character in the same book named after a friend’s baby who died. They asked me to name check the poor kid, but I took it a step further and built an adult character with his name who will now be an ongoing hero in the Joe Ledger series.
Q: I find it impressive when authors can juggle more than one thing. How do you juggle being an author, anthology editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, & writing teacher/lecturer?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I approach writing as my job, which it very much is. Yes, it’s a creative field, but that changes nothing. If I was a Broadway performer, I’d have to learn lines, songs, choreography, etc., and –as with several actor friends—learn more than one play at a time. I have friends who act, direct, choreograph, and even design sets. If you are dedicated to your craft, it’s possible to learn a lot about many areas of that craft.
Of course, one does not emerge fully developed in all these areas. I learned the skill of editing by paying close attention of how I have been edited. By working with my editors instead of with some vaguely adversarial approach as some writers do. By seeing their notes on my stories, I gained insight into the difference between the story I wanted to tell, and the version of the story the editor feels will sell the most copies.
With each new form of work within the overall world of publishing, I approached it as a willing student. And, since writers are knowledge junkies, I was and am enthusiastic to deepen my knowledge. That includes learning from mistakes, too; just as it includes changing my views and habits based on the way publishing itself changes.
Now, in terms of time management…that’s always a work in progress. My first novel took me three and a half years and eighteen revision passes to write. Now I write and deliver a novel about every three months. What changed is that I’ve paid attention to my own process, looking for the things that waste time and those that maximize output. I constantly improve my work habits and try to refine my work ethic. The more efficient I get, and the less resistance I have toward change (in the market, with edits, in my lifestyle) the more time opens up to do other things. This allows me to experiment with things like editing an anthology or a magazine; learning new forms –such as comics, writing for different age groups, poetry, and so on.
Some things I try either demonstrate that I need more time to learn or that that particular thing isn’t for me. But I would rather try and find out, than assume I can’t or won’t like it.
Some of my biggest career successes have come about because I took a risk on a new form, a new genre, or something else that should have been outside of my comfort zone.