NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING
AUTHOR, V WARS BOOKS--HIT NETFLIX SERIES &
CLASS OF 1976
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: I taught a memoir writing class last year, where students began this journey writing a six-word memoir. The set-up encompassed the first three words—the last described something unexpected—the hook. What would your six-word memoir be?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Born a daydreamer. Lived my dreams.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: I love that you write various genres for adults/young adults/middle-grade. Describe your writing/research process. What are the challenges of writing in multiple genres and the rewards?
JONATHAN MABERRY: It’s funny, but I just wrote an article about this for an upcoming issue of WRITERS DIGEST MAGAZINE. There are two aspects to writing in multiple genres. One is to craft individual works in different genres –such as science fiction, mystery, horror, and so on—while staying within the structure of those genres. I do a lot of that. But the other side is to write works that embrace more than one genre at a time.
For the first part, I started off writing horror novels set in Bucks County, in a fictional town called Pine Deep, which is heavily based on both New Hope and Upper Black Eddy. Those books, collectively known as the Pine Deep Trilogy, including my debut novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES, and two follow-ups, DEAD MAN’S SONG and BAD MOON RISING.
They are straight horror, filled with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. From there I moved to weird science thrillers with PATIENT ZERO and its (so far) eleven sequels); then to young adult post-apocalyptic science fiction with the ROT & RUIN series of novels. And I’ve written straight science fiction (MARS ONE), Gothic horror (THE WOLFMAN), zombie apocalypse (DEAD OF NIGHT), and so on.
And I’m writing a mystery-thriller for teens, WATCH OVER ME, which will kick off a series. One advantage of writing in multiple genres is that the books don’t compete with one another. I’ve even gone deeper into genre fiction with my short stories, which include the genres of mystery, thriller, historical, steampunk, dystopian, noir, fantasy, and more.
But I love exploring works that are not as easily classified. My novel GHOSTWALKERS, for example is best described as a steampunk, alt-history, supernatural, science fiction, western.
It gave me a taste for cross-genre fiction, and I’ve done other works, including GLIMPSE (my favorite novel) which includes elements of horror, dark fantasy, and suspense. And the book I’m writing right now, INK, is even harder to describe as it includes elements of noir mystery, urban fantasy, horror, and thriller.
As far as downsides…they aren’t very disturbing. In order to work in multiple genres you have to be ready to do some social media legwork to make sure you connect with those different audiences. The trick is to invite readers of one genre to come and take a taste of another, and I’ve found they’re often curious enough to do so. Especially if it looks like the write is having some fun.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: What writers have inspired you? Why?
JONATHAN MABERRY: As a kid I got to meet some powerhouse writers, thanks to my librarian at Conwell Middle School, who was the secretary of two different clubs of professional authors –one that met in Philly and the other that met in New York. Between the two groups I got to meet, be mentored by, and be influenced by legendary writers like Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Leigh Brackett, L. Sprague de Camp, and others. And outside of those groups, I found great inspiration in the mystery novels of Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald, as well as the psychological horror of Shirley Jackson.
Those writers each had a unique voice. They weren’t trying to write like anyone else. And each was fearless in that they often bent or broke the established ‘rules’ of storytelling. McBain and Ellison were both known for fractured sentences, unusual paragraph structures. MacDonald created introspective and intellectual protagonists, notably Travis McGee. Bradbury always had a sense of wonder, even when his stories edged toward cynical (as in FAHRENHEIT 451), and Matheson continually crossed genre lines to write the story that most appealed to him rather than what was expected of him.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: Where do you get your inspiration?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Life is inspiration, which is not as glib as it sounds. Writers are observers –we look at people, we listen to the way they talk, we read, we research…and then we take all that and look for ways to spin any given topic into a story.
Typically we think ‘well, what’s the worst that could happen?’ on a topic…and we explore that to find a crisis, and characters whose lives would be most significantly impacted by said crisis. After all, without crisis there’s no drama, no story worth telling. We writers are not in the business of giving a bunch of happy people a nice day. Even love stories have heartbreak.
Most novels also have a nonfiction underpinning, particularly in thrillers. In my Joe Ledger thriller novels, there’s usually some aspect of science that I explore to build my central crisis. As these novels are about a SpecOps team that goes up against terrorists with cutting-edge science weapons, I tend to read a lot about science. I’ve built a useful network of scientists whom I can tap for information. In the first Ledger novel, PATIENT ZERO, I dealt with prion disease (spongiform encephalopathy) to create a bioweapon. In DRAGON FACTORY I used transgenic science and molecular biology for a eugenics scenario. PREDATOR ONE dealt with drones (military and commercial), autonomous drive systems, and GPS hacking. And so on. I do tons of research so that it’s tough to tell where the real world science ends and the science fiction begins.
My V-WARS books, which are the basis for the hit Netflix series, deals with climate change, genetic disorders, racism, intolerance, and other torn-from-the-headlines issues.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: What were some of your challenges adapting television shows and movies into books?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve worked in both directions on that. My first entry into the genre of ‘media tie-in’ writing was to novelize the Benecio Del Toro/Anthony Hopkins remake of THE WOLFMAN. I’d never done a novelization before and (mistakenly) thought that I’d get a chance to see the actual movie first, but that’s not how it works.
All I had was the script. No stills, no input. A movie script by itself cannot translate directly into a novel of 70 or 80 thousand words. So, I did a lot of research about the era in which its set, the geography, the various cultures involved (England of the late 19th century, Romany culture, Scotland Yard, Shakespearean theater, rural estate living, etc.) and then wrote a Gothic novel. It wound up becoming my first New York Times bestseller.
I’ve also done a lot of short stories and some novels set in TV and movie worlds, but which were original stories. These include the X-FILES anthologies I edited and the young adult X-Files novel, DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, I wrote. I’ve also written in the worlds of Aliens, Predator, True Blood, John Carter of Mars, Wizard of Oz, Sherlock Holmes, Hellboy, Planet of the Apes, and many other licenses.
The other end of the spectrum is having my work adapted for the big or small screen. When V-WARS was purchased by Netflix and developed into a ten-episode first season, I was a consultant but not (yet) involved in the actual adaptation. They had head-writers, known as ‘showrunners’, and a writing team knowns as a ‘writers room’. By the end of the first season’s production I was elevated to Executive Producer, so if we get a second season pickup, then I’ll be substantially more deeply involved in plotting, and possibly writing.
When you sell something to a production how you have to yield a great deal of control, and you have to keep your ego in check. They are making their version of it and it is unlikely to be exactly like your version. That’s okay with me. Books and TV are substantially different in the way they tell stories. And sometimes the changes they make work best on a screen and might not work as well in print, and vice versa.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: How did Frankford prepare you for the road ahead?
THE ROAD FROM FRANKFORD
JONATHAN MABERRY: Frankford was a tougher school than people give it credit for. There were good teachers and a lot of interesting programs. I was in AP English, and the teachers really challenged us to read, think, imagine, and write. I was also briefly on the detate team, and through them got involved in the Optimist Club, which required me to construct and deliver speeches. That was very important, since I went on to teach at the college level.
Frankford was also racially-mixed, and having grown up in a neighborhood (Harrowgate, in Kensington) which was very, very white and very racist, I had a chance to get to know people of color, students and teachers, and open my eyes to the world as it really was.
I look back on my three years at Frankford as absolutely crucial in my overall development. I went from a brooding, abused kid to a young man who took ownership of my power and my life. And many of the friends I made back then are still part of my life.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: A shape shifter of a writer… a relentless and seductive book with real bite… my go-to author for awesome… a waking dream, at once powerful and subtly sinister—these are snapshots of your Glimpse reviews. What is that secret sauce that keeps readers hungry for your special brand of storytelling?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Every writer has a way they like to tell stories. I’m an idealist and a humanist, so my characters tend to reflect that. I like writing stories about realistic people who find themselves in bizarre situations. The stories aren’t ‘kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out’ tales. I’m not cynical.
They’re about various kinds of survival, and the cost of that survival. Good guys can actually win in the end, though often in painful ways. I don’t get exploitive. So, my tales are about ‘people’ rather than merely events, and readers seem to relate to that. And…there’s a lot of humor in my books, even in my darkest fiction. I was a smartass in high school and that hasn’t gone away.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: You have quite a few books being produced for movies and television—will you be writing any of the scripts?
JONATHAN MABERRY: As of right now most of my stuff in development has been, or will be, written by others more experienced in writing for the screen. That may change as I get deeper into that process.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: What are some turning points in your Marvel writing career? When did you begin writing for Marvel?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I was scouted by Marvel. Which is funny because my agent and I had been strategizing on how to get on Marvel’s radar when Axel Alonso (then the editor-in-chief) called me out of the blue.
He’d picked up a copy of my novel, PATIENT ZERO, enjoyed it and thought that my brand of action, character development, and humor would be a good fit. So he invited me to write for him. I started with an eight-page Wolverine story as a back-up to that year’s anniversary issue; then got a gig to write a very adult, very edgy Punisher comic.
From there I worked on a number of specialty projects including MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: HAIL HYDRA, BLACK PANTHER: DOOMWAR, and my own little sub-universe, MARVEL UNIVERSE VERSUS.. which was a post-apocalyptic series for which I did three runs involving Punisher, Wolverine, and the Avengers.
After working freelance for Marvel I decided to explore some original characters and went to Dark Horse Comics to do a horror miniseries called BAD BLOOD, which won the Bram Stoker Award for best graphic novel.
From there I went to IDW where I wrote a V-WARS comic, a ROT & RUIN miniseries, a prequel to what would have been the last George Romero’s Living Dead movies (ROAD OF THE DEAD), and more recently an ethnic genocide political comic called PANDEMICA.
TEACH A CHILD THE PATH TO GO ON...
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: We grew up with Marvel, what was your comic book world like at Frankford?
JONATHAN MABERRY: While I was going to Frankford there was a little news stand halfway between the school and the Margaret-Frankford El stop. I’d go there every Wednesday with some friends and pick up the latest comics. Unfortunately I came from a very rough home life, with a father who was in no way a good man or a role model, so I was learning most of my ethics and values from characters like Captain America, T’Challa, and others.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: Did the writing stick hit you at Frankford, or earlier? What college/school did you attend?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but by the time I got to high school it was a driving passion. I helped write the 1974 and ’75 school plays with Roz Harrison, who was my art teacher and the director of the school shows. It was at Frankford where I began focusing on news reporting, and eventually went to Temple University’s school of journalism.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: Who inspired you at Frankford, and during your career?
JONATHAN MABERRY: My writing blossomed in Cathy Grove’s 10th grade English class and Frank Donohoe’s 11th grade AP English. They’ve always been two of my favorite teachers, and both encouraged me to a great degree.
Cathy didn’t like the spooky stuff I wrote, but she liked how I wrote it, and told me to keep at it. Frank really pushed me to think beyond what I’d learned, and to constantly try new things. They did a lot of good for me, and I greatly admired them as teachers, free thinkers, and people.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: How did you start your writing career? (When?)
JONATHAN MABERRY: My first professional sale was while I was at Temple. I’d taken a class on magazine writing and decided to just up and submit an article idea. There’s a saying in writing that you should ‘write what you know’. Well, I’d been studying martial arts since I was a kid, so I pitched an article idea to BLACK BELT, and surprised myself (and my professor) by selling it.
From then on I focused on magazine writing, and made decent money at it part time, though my day jobs were bodyguard, bouncer, college teacher, and jujutsu instructor.
Then, while teaching at Temple University (1982-96) I wrote several textbooks, including some for other classes than my own. Those were my first published books. I also –just for the heck of it—wrote sarcastic greeting cards for the Shoebox division of Hallmark, unarmed combat how-to manuals for police and special forces, product copy, very bad song lyrics, and even a couple of plays.
I continued to publish nonfiction books –mostly about martial arts and self-defense—even after leaving Temple; and then, mostly on a lark, did a nonfiction book on the folklore, myths, and legends of monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc).
Researching that renewed my interest in horror, and brought me back to old conversations I’d had with Matheson and Bradbury. So in the early 2000s I tried my hand at fiction and wrote GHOST ROAD BLUES, mostly to see if I would even enjoy the process of writing fiction.
As it turns out…it was where I was not only happiest, but most successful. Now I write full time and, as of this moment, am writing my 37th novel since 2006. I also write short stories and comics. Every once in a while I’ll do another magazine feature…which makes me feel a bit nostalgic.
GAYLE HERBERT ROBINSON: When you're not writing, what is your favorite thing to do?
Jonathan Maberry: When I'm not writing, I love music, art, theater, film, TV and dance. I love to travel, though it's mostly my job that sends me all over the world. I also like to settle back, pet my dog, and watch the Eagles or the Phillies.