We here at GLAHW have met so many amazing and talented people out in the big wide world (you know, OFF the internets) and thought it was high-time we introduced them to you. Who knows? You may end up discovering a favorite new artist, photographer, writer, or all-around awesome human. This time around, Ken MacGregor will be talking to the prolific and talented Jonathan Maberry. http://www.jonathanmaberry.com/
GLAHW: How long have you been writing? Has it always been the kind of fiction you write now?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I sold my first professional piece –a magazine feature article—when I was an undergrad at Temple U. Way back in 1978. I went to school on a scholarship with every intention of being either Woodward or Bernstein. Funny thing is that probably the only thing I haven’t done as a writer is work as a reporter. While still a journalism student I got hooked on writing features for magazines. At first it was for martial arts magazines because I knew a lot about that, but then I branched out and wrote about music, travel, skydiving, relationships, and a ton of other things. In 1991 I wrote my first book, which was a textbook for Temple’s judo class. I went on to write a bunch of textbooks for my classes and those of friends who were good teachers but not writers. Then I expanded out and began doing nonfiction books for the mass market, including several martial arts books. I shifted gears and began writing about folklore –a lifelong passion—and while researching legends of vampires, werewolves and other critters I got an itch to try my hand at fiction. In 2003 I began writing my first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES. I landed an agent at the end of 2004, she sold the book and its two sequels in early 2005 and it was published in 2006. The book went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. Until then I was on the fence about continuing in fiction or going back to nonfiction. That changed because the award was powerfully validating.
Now I’ve mostly left nonfiction behind except for the occasional article. I’m writing three to five novels per year, about twenty short stories and some comics every year. The change from nonfiction to fiction also switched me from part-time writer to full-time novelist.
GLAHW: What draws you to write horror?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Horror allows us to explore the complexities of our minds. We are fearful creatures by nature. We come into the world totally helpless, and much of our life is spent trying to understand life’s mysteries, protect against its threats, and build walls of personal security. Even a guy like me –six-four, built like Bigfoot, and an 8th degree black belt—feels fear of one kind or another every day. Anyone who says they are totally fearless is either lying or delusional.
So in fiction we get to take our fears and examine them, deconstruct them, play with them, understand them, and even have some fun with them. We get to pose ‘what if’ questions about threats large and small. And we can write that story all the way to a point of closure –and the real world doesn’t always allow that.
This is not to say that horror should always have a tidy ending or a happy resolution. Not at all, but in the process of writing the story we take ownership of it. We control the fearful elements and direct those forces elsewhere.
And, also, let’s face it, we all like to stretch our hand out to the fire or lean a little too close to the tiger’s cage. Fear is also a great stimulant. I didn’t start skydiving because I liked the geographical perspective. I was in it for the adrenaline rush. The thrill. The fear.
GLAHW: Is anyone in your family ever bothered by the things you write?
JONATHAN MABERRY: They probably are, but I’m kind of the black sheep of my clan. I don’t talk to most of them and can only imagine what they think about their weird brother.
GLAHW: Do you outline or are you more of a “pantser”?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a structure guy. I was trained as a journalist and I spent the first twenty-five years of my career writing nonfiction articles, columns, reviews, how-to manuals, package copy, greeting cards, college textbooks and mass-market nonfiction books. All of that requires a deliberate and structured approach.
So, yeah, I outline. To me a novel is a mathematical formula. It’s cause and effect –this action plus that reaction results in such-and-such an outcome. Having an outline allows me to plan ahead, to foreshadow, to lay clues. It also allows me the freedom to write in a nonlinear fashion. If I know the whole story I’m free to jump around and write the chapters or scenes that most appeal to me and then fit them in.
That said, it’s irrational to believe that you’ve had all your best ideas on the day you sit down to write an outline. That’s why I allow for the organic growth of characters and plotlines. If something changes in the story while I’m writing, then I have to respect it because there is usually a logic to that new growth.
So, I view the plot as a trellis and the actual writing as the rose plant growing on that framework. I know that the story has to reach the end but I cannot possibly predict exactly how I will get there. And imposing too much rigid structure on the new growth is a good way of killing it.
GLAHW: Tell us something interesting about you not related to your books.
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a lifelong martial arts practitioner. I started when I was six, taking lessons on the sly from a friend’s dad. My home life and neighborhood were very violent, and martial arts was probably what kept me alive. In my teens and early twenties I competed in full-contact martial arts, boxing, wrestling and fencing. I worked as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry, taught college classes on martial arts history and self-defense, and was the Expert Witness for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for murder cases involving martial arts. In 2004 I was inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
GLAHW: You write a lot of tense, politically charged stuff. Has any of it been a cause for concern by our country’s security forces?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I am probably on watch lists just based on my Google search history. For example, ASSASSIN’S CODE –the fourth in the Joe Ledger series—was set in Iran. I did searches on Iran, its politics and culture, its nuclear program, street maps of Tehran, its police system and location of police stations, and so on. I also did research on nuclear weapons, smuggling, the placement of oil refineries, and so on. Tell me that doesn’t look suspicious from a distance.
But when I was doing research for PREDATOR ONE, my drone novel, I had to complete a background check by the FBI because I wanted to speak to some folks working on government drone projects. I spent some very uncomfortable hours in a room talking to unsmiling men wearing wires behind their ears. For a while it seemed that I was not going to able to convince them that I wanted this information for a novel. They are a very suspicious breed, those Feds. I guess they have to be, and I suppose we want them to be…but damn if I didn’t sweat gallons!
GLAHW: Are you superstitious at all?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve always been superstitious, despite all of the valid arguments against it. Sue me. I have to turn over a heads-down penny, I knock wood, I toss salt over my shoulder, and I own lucky charms. Actually, I always wear a pendant of the Hindu god Ganesha because he’s the patron god of writers and the remover of obstacles. Am I Hindu? No, but I play the odds.
GLAHW: If you had to give up writing, what’s your second career choice?
JONATHAN MABERRY: There is no plan B. I did all of that already. Though, if pressed on the point, I suppose I’d teach. I’ve always loved to do that, and I still teach writing workshops around the country.
GLAHW: How often do you write? Do you have a daily word-count goal?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a working writer, which means I write every day. Not counting interviews, social media posts, and business-related writing, I wrote between three and four thousand words most days. When I’m at a convention or traveling that might drop down to two thousand per day. I seldom take a full day off.
GLAHW: Do you keep a journal?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I used to journal all the time, and kept a dream diary from age six through age thirty. Now I’m too busy writing to keep a diary. However I have tapped my old dream journals for ideas. In fact my new middle-grade series, THE NIGHTSIDERS, of which THE ORPHAN ARMY is the first book, is a direct collaboration with my eleven-year-old self. I took notes from dreams I had in fifth grade and expanded them into a series of adventure fantasies.
GLAHW: What’s your favorite thing to write – short stories, poetry, novels, scripts, etc.?
JONATHAN MABERRY: That answer will be different depending on what I’m writing at the moment. I’m fickle in my affections –I love whatever I’m currently working on.
Novels are my bread and butter and I love them because of how far down I can swim. With novels I have the chance to peel back the layers of characters and situations, and to delve into the story behind the story.
Short stories are different in that I like the faster pace. You have to get right to the heart of the tale and then it’s a race to the end. I usually write the last scene first, then back up and aim everything at that.
Comics are a dream job because I grew up as a comic book kid. I bought Fantastic Four #66 hot off the stands. It came out in 1967, when I was nine. Getting approached by Marvel to write for them was surreal, and I got to work with so many of my favorite characters, like Captain America, the Black Panther, the X-Men, Wolverine, Deadpool, Spider-Man, and more. And the horror comics I’ve done for Dark Horse (BAD BLOOD) and IDW (ROT & RUIN and V-WARS) have allowed me to bring my own characters to that genre. I’ve got some new stuff in the works, including a science fiction limited series and an urban fantasy project.
As for screenplays, I’m actually just starting to write my first one, so I’m still at the beginning of the learning curve. I’m writing a pilot for a potential series based on my first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES.
GLAHW: Is there anything that scares you?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Horror writers write about what scares them. As much as I’m a science geek I’m also deeply concerned about the many easy ways there are to misuse technology. Not just accidents but deliberate misuse by bad guys –foreign and domestic. The era when security is defined by a powerful military you can put in the field is coming to an end, and it will be replaced by armies fighting cyber-warfare, social media wars, and with the use of drones, artificial intelligence, autonomous drive systems, directed-energy weapons, and robotics. These are great technologies that have many humanitarian benefits, but they’re also absurdly easy to use for the wrong reasons. I wrote PREDATOR ONE to explore some of that, and by the time the book hit the stores this past April the headlines were shouting about the exact kinds of problems I put in the book. So…sure, there are real threats out there. I’m not paranoid and certainly not a conspiracy theorist, but I do a lot of research with world-class scientists, military, law enforcement, and medical experts. They stuff they tell me scares the absolute crap out of me. I, in turn, use it to scare the crap out of my readers. And, maybe in the process I open a few eyes and open a few minds.
GLAHW: What do you read for pleasure? Favorite authors? Recommendations?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I read absolutely anything. I read fast and I read across genre lines. Some authors are on my absolute must-have list, including John Sandford, Michael Connelly, John Conolly, Robert McCammon, James Lee Burke, Christopher Golden, James A. Moore, Scott Sigler and Peter Clines. I also devour the Hellboy comics by Mike Mignola, Eric Powell’s Goon, and a few others.
GLAHW: What do you think makes a good story?
JONATHAN MABERRY: All good stories start with characters and their motivation. What do they want and why do they want it? For me, I think about what my bad guys want, why they want it and what they’re willing to do to get it. Then I put the good guys in their path. But I also have to understand why the good guys are, in fact, heroes or merely opponents. Everyone has an agenda, and no one is purely black or white. If a writer had clearly done his/her psychological homework, then I’m on board.
GLAHW: As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve always wanted to write. Even before I could read and write I was telling stories with toys. It’s been my most enduring defining characteristic. However, I’ve only been a full-time author for ten years. Like most writers I had to do other jobs along the way to pay the bills –and I’ve worked as a bodyguard, bouncer, martial arts instructor, salesman, graphic artist, telemarketer and college teacher.
GLAHW: What are you reading right now?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m in a retro mood and have been reading some old pulps, including my all-time favorite, DOC SAVAGE, plus some SHADOW, G8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES, THE SPIDER and THE AVENGER. And I’ve been reading the pulp thrillers, westerns and science fiction written by my wife’s late grandfather, Oscar J. Friend. I’m toying with the idea of taking some his stories and updating them for modern audiences. A kind of posthumous collaboration.
GLAHW: What’s your favorite way to unwind?
JONATHAN MABERRY: My wife, Sara Jo, and I moved to southern California two years ago and we have a condo on the ocean. All I need to do to relax is go out on the balcony, open a cold bottle of beer, and watch the whales and dolphins. Maybe put some Joe Pass jazz guitar on the iPod, or a mix of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Steely Dan. I can be in a nice zone very quickly these days.
GLAHW: What’s the best piece of non-writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JONATHAN MABERRY: When I was a kid, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury mentored me for nearly three years. Bradbury drummed into my head that a writer needs to be one of the good guys –not a selfish jerk but someone willing to help his fellow writers. That really resonated with me, then and now. But it was Matheson who told me that in order to become successful a writer needed to understand the difference between writing and publishing. Writing, he told me, was an art –it was an intimate conversation between author and reader. Publishing, on the other hand, was a business whose sole concern was to sell copies of art. They are not the same thing and it is important for a writer to understand what each is, what it requires, how it works….and then to become very good at both.
Ken MacGregor’s work has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines. His story collection, “An Aberrant Mind” is available online and in select bookstores. Ken is a member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers and an Affiliate member of HWA. He edits an annual horror-themed anthology for the former. He has also dabbled in TV, radio, movies and sketch comedy. Recently, he co-wrote a novel and is working on the sequel. Ken lives in Michigan with his family and two “domesticated” predators.