New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry has been a working writer since 1978. Before switching to fiction in 2004, he sold over 12 articles, two plays, greeting cards, and 28 nonfiction books. His first novel, Ghost Road Blues, was published in 2006 and he is currently writing his 22nd novel. He’s also sold fifty short stories and writes comics for Marvel, Dark Horse and IDW. Two of his books, Dead of Night and Rot & Ruin, are in development for film.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Did you always have an active imagination as a child? What were you like back then?
I’m pretty sure I was telling stories within a half an hour of being born. I’ve always wanted to write. It’s what defines me. Although I worked several oddball jobs on the way to becoming a full-time writer. I was a bodyguard in the entertainment industry, a bouncer at a sleazy strip club, a martial arts instructor, and a graphic artist and actor in regional theater.
As a kid I was shy and very much in my own head. I grew up hard, though. Bad neighborhood, bad home life. Poor as dirt. But books were my escape route. I read, I learned, and I got the hell out.
Do you happen to remember what you very first favorite story was?
My first story was something I saw rather than read, but it hit me pretty hard. It was a two-part episode of the original The Outer Limits, called The Inheritors. A brilliant, subtle, and surprisingly moving story. I saw it when I was about nine or ten, and from that point on I connected good storytelling with real human emotion.
My first favorite book was also the first book I ever read outside of school. Conan the Wanderer. I bought it brand new on my tenth birthday in 1968.
Did you enjoy comics early on? Why do you think they have had such a mass appeal? How did it feel to get to write for Marvel?
I fell in love with comics even before I fell in love with novels. My first comic was Fantastic Four #68, which was published in November 1967. I’d never really paid much attention to comics before. I was obsessed from about page three. From then on I was a Marvel Comics kid. Some D.C., a lot of Warren and old E.C., but mostly Marvel.
How does writing comics differ from writing stories and novels etc.?
Novels and short stories are a solitary process. It’s you and the story. With comics it’s far more of a collaborative process. You pitch a story to an editor, you write an outline and review notes on it, then you do the script, and after that you interact with the artist as he goes from rough sketches to inks. Then there’s the colorist and letter. Plus, you have to script comics so that the visuals tell much more of the story than do the word balloons. You have to allow the artist to participate in that storytelling process, and you have to trust that he can do just that.
What led you to first try your hand at writing?
I began writing for school papers in the fourth grade. By junior high I was writing for the yearbook. I wrote short stories for English class assignments, and I even put together some stories in photocopied/stapled form to give to friends. Writing was always something I wanted to do. However in high school my focus was on nonfiction. I wanted to be an investigative political journalist. I went to college to study journalism, but while there I shifted focus again, this time to magazine feature writing, which I did for twenty-five years. While I was a teacher at Temple University I began writing textbooks, for my class and others. I didn’t get the bug for fiction again until 2004.
How has the publishing industry changed most since you first started your career?
When I started, editors and writers were faceless people. There were no computers and the Internet wasn’t even a dream. I wrote hundreds of articles on typewriters. My first nonfiction books were written on a Commodore-64. The publishing industry, as I knew it then, was magazines and textbooks. The fiction aspect of it wasn’t even on my radar, and I knew very little about it.
In 2005, when I sold my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, digital publishing was in its infancy and the economic crash hadn’t happened. Everything changes after 2009. Now digital is a fact of publishing life, social media has become as important as writing talent, the economy necessitated that writers become far more involved in the process of self-branding and in marketing their works. It’s all changed and it keeps changing.
I’m totally cool with that evolution. I keep in touch, I stay up to date, and I play those changes like hands of cards. It’s a fun game if you look at it the right way.
What exactly is Shinowara-ryu Jujutsu? Can you tell us a little more about that?
Shinowara is a lesser-known old Samurai family fighting system. About a thousand years old, but dying out here in the 21st Century. It’s very old-school in that it focuses on deep understanding of physics, physiology, anatomy, the law, psychology, and a technical philosophy particular to its practitioners. It isn’t pretty. It works, but it’s not for the casual practitioner. It’s not easy to get promotion. As a result, it’s fading like most of the other good fighting arts.
Did your own martial arts training come in handy when writing your books on the subject?
I draw on my nearly fifty years of martial arts training quite heavily, and on the years I worked as a bodyguard and bouncer. Sadly, I’ve been in a lot of violent confrontations. I know how fights work. I don’t like fancy-schmancy nonsense. When I write a fight scene, everything that happens is actually possible. And nobody does any silly jump-spinning ninja death kicks.
Had I not been involved in the martial arts as deeply or for as long, I doubt I would be writing the same kind of action stories.
How did it feel to be inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame?
It was a wonderful honor, and totally unexpected. My extensive writings on martial arts, including several textbooks for university classes, was a significant factor in that honor.
Do you enjoy writing fiction more than nonfiction? How to the two of those differ most?
I feel like I’ve ‘done’ nonfiction. I did it exclusively from 1978 through 2004, and I continued to write nonfic books and articles up to 2012. I loved the process –the research, the interviews, the construction of feature pieces, the planning of booklength works. It was a great mindscape to wander around in, and I still do extensive research and even some interviews, but now it’s in support of my novels. It’s time to put the nonfic away for a bit. Besides, I’m totally in love with fiction. I’m writing three to four novels per year, as well as two monthly comics and scads of short stories. Right now, it’s more fun to make everything up.
What led you to depart from nonfiction to write works dealing with folklore and the paranormal?
Nonfiction was my bridge. After doing a bunch of books on the martial arts, sports and related themes, I decided to do one in honor of my grandmother. She was an amateur folklorist and amateur anthropologist. She loved studying the beliefs of cultures all over the world, and she had a bias toward legends of the occult and supernatural. I’m pretty sure she believed in everything. Absolutely everything. Kind of like a Luna Lovegood as an old lady. So, to honor that, I wrote a nonfiction book about the folklore of vampires –The Vampire Slayer’s Field Quide to the Undead, published under the one-time-only pen name of Shane MacDougall.
Writing that book renewed my interest in horror movies and novels. And diving into the genre fiction gave me the idea to try my hand at it. After all, I’ve tried a lot of other kinds of writing. I’d already published articles, how-to books, greeting cards, plays, reviews, textbooks, song lyrics, poetry. So, in 2004 I wrote my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, which draws heavily on the research I did for the Slayer’s Guide. I fell in love with fiction during the writing of that book, and I am even more deeply in love with it now.
Why do you think society has always been so fascinated with things they can’t explain?
Although many people take pride in being ‘realists’ and ‘skeptics’, most of us want to believe that there’s more to the universe than this weary old world. And not just other planets or galaxies –but other kinds of worlds. Other dimensions. Other beings. Other aspects of the world and of ourselves. We like to believe that magic, in some form or another, exists. Even skeptics will pick up a heads-up penny and hesitate before taking one that’s heads-down. I have total nonbeliever friends who read their horoscope in the paper –just on the off chance that one day it will be right.
We are an inquisitive species. We are always cracking open the rock to see the crystal, peeking through the brush to see the unknown species, chasing the flitting thing through the forest in the hopes that it’s something rarer than a butterfly.
Do you have any one body of work that you consider to be your favorite? If so why is that?
I’m fickle about my own work. I love the Rot & Ruin series for different reasons than I love the Joe Ledger novels or the Pine Deep Trilogy. I love all my children.
How does it feel to be labeled a New York Times Bestselling Author? Did you even dream you’d have that added to your resume?
I never really thought it was in the cards for me. I still get a jolt out of it. It’s moderately surreal. Ditto for having won a Scribe Award and four Bram Stoker Awards. That sort of thing happens to other people. So…I’m still in the ‘wow’ phase.
Are there any little known things about you that your readers might be surprised to learn?
I used to be a singer/actor in regional theater. I loved performing in musicals, and I did that all through high school and well into my early thirties. I played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Arthur in Camelot, Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and a whole slew of other roles. I loved it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m in the middle of what I call ‘hell year’. It’s fun, but it is crazy. I have four and a half novels to write this year. I just finished The Nightsiders, the first in a new series of SF/horror/fantasy mash-up novels for Middle Grade readers, which will be released at the end of this year by Simon & Schuster. I’m currently writing Predator One, the seventh Joe Ledger weird-science thriller. Then I write Deadlands: Ghostwalkers, a novel inspired by the classic RPG; then Watch Over Me, a mystery-thriller for older teens. I’m also writing two new monthly comics for IDW: V-WARS, based on my shared-world anthology series, and Rot & Ruin, based on my teen post-apocalyptic zombie books. I’m editing two anthologies, V-WARS: Blood and Fire and Out of Tune.
And I have a new novel in stores, Code Zero, the 6th Joe Ledger thriller (from St. Martin’s Griffin), and a collection of stories due out next month, Joe Ledger: Special Ops. My limited-series horror comic, Bad Blood, wraps in two months from Dark Horse. JournalStone will release a hardcover special edition of Ghost Road Blues. Griffin will release my new zombie novel, Fall of Night, in September. And I have a few other projects on the fire about which I can’t yet spill details…but they’re extremely cool.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Yeah…if you haven’t read my stuff before, come and take a bite. You might have some fun. If you have, then thanks for sharing the ride. Hope you dig the scenery.
Editors Note: Readers of Van Gogh’s Ear can also find his story Doctor Nine on site at: https://theoriginalvangoghsearanthology.com/2013/08/28/doctor-nine-by-jonathan-maberry/