Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An interview with Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times best-selling author and multiple Bram Stoker Award winner. He's written for magazines and comics and penned multiple fiction and non-fiction novels and short stories. His work usually involves things that go bump in the night and, last year, staticechoes reviewed one of his latest novels, Patient Zero, that dealt with exactly that.

If you'll recall, I dug the book quite a bit. Patient Zero's hero, Joe Ledger, was tasked with heading up an elite group of soldiers, known as Echo Team, under the umbrella of the Department of Military Sciences. Their first mission was to put a stop to a terrorist plot to release a virus capable of creating an army of bloodthirsty zombies. The book was action-packed and left me eager to find out what happens to Ledger and his cohorts next.

The Dragon Factory hit store shelves March 2, picking up shortly after Patient Zero and pitting Echo Team against bigger threats with even higher stakes riding on the outcome.

To find out more about the man behind the words, visit his Big Scary Blog for an in-depth bio, news and loads of interviews and articles on the publishing industry. For now, though, Jonathan was kind enough to speak with staticechoes about his career, inspirations and, of course, those things that lurk in dark corners.

ECHO: Zombies, monsters and super soldiers are usually found in novels that are strict fiction, yet your world and its hero, Joe Ledger, feels firmly rooted in reality. What made you want to merge the ordinary with the extraordinary like that?

JONATHAN MABERRY: When I was a kid Bantam Books began reprinting the Doc Savage novels, and I grew up reading them. I always loved the thinking hero, so Joe Ledger grew out of that; and I dug the concept of villains who were smart and devious, and who sometimes used the appearance of the supernatural as a smokescreen. In a lot of ways my villains owe more to the pulps than they do to, say, James Bond. The villains also reflect my love of science fiction. And I always viewed zombies as something from speculative fiction rather than “horror.” They are the result of some accident rather than something supernatural.

In The Dragon Factory, my villains are using various aspects of advanced genetic science, and even though some of what they do in the book is not yet possible, it will be possible someday, and probably in my lifetime. That’s scary as hell.

ECHO: For Patient Zero, what made zombies so appealing to you as opposed to, say, a maniacal terrorist with a thick accent?

MABERRY: I’ve always wanted to write a zombie novel, but I wanted to do one that was grounded as much as possible in the real world. While researching my nonfiction book, Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2008), I fell in love with the idea of a prion-based disease that was specially designed to create zombies. A weapon of mass destruction that was tailor-made for its fear factor.

The story also allowed me to pit intelligent humans against the living dead. As much as I love zombie films, I’m too often disappointed that the protagonists act stupidly. I know that this is done in order to up the body count, but there are other ways of dialing up tension than by having the good guys be bungling fools. I wanted to write about a crack team of fighters who go up against zombies using courage, common sense, and good training.

ECHO: What type of research did you do for these books. We're talking about zombies, genetics, Nazis and more. Has your local library notified the authorities yet or do you rely mostly on movies, the Internet, etc?

MABERRY: I am a research junkie. I was trained to be a newspaper reporter, so I’m used to finding experts and getting info directly from them. I dislike quoting other people’s research, so if I need some info on how a SWAT team would react in a given situation, I call a SWAT team commander and ask him. If I need medical info, I’ll send emails to experts at Johns Hopkins, or UCLA Medical, or wherever that kind of research is being done.

For Zombie CSU, I interviewed over 250 experts, ranging from 911 operators to military commanders to world-class epidemiologists to Homeland security. I got the skinny on scores of topics—pre-and-post mortem bite strength, molecular biology, pandemics, the law, and more.

Oddly enough, not one expert ever turned me down for an interview, even though we were talking zombies. And that includes the Centers for Disease Control, Homeland Security, chiefs of police, hospital administrators…and most of them had already thought about this topic. That is somewhere between very cool and very creepy.

ECHO: Other than Joe, who is your favorite character to write and why?

MABERRY: Mr. Church is a lot of fun to write. I know his background, but no one else in the story does, and I’m doling out bits and pieces in small doses. He’s a mysterious, powerful, ruthless son of a bitch who also happens to be the top good guy. You wouldn’t want to screw with him, and you do want him on your side in any kind of conflict.

ECHO: Much of your other work deals with the supernatural as well. What draws you to these subjects? Have you been a monster fan since childhood or did you just sort of fall into the gig?

MABERRY: I grew up with a love of supernatural folklore–what my grandmother called “the larger world,” and was exposed to that before I even got into books, comics or movies. I knew about the vampire, werewolf and ghost legends of Europe before I ever heard the name “Dracula.”

When I first got into fiction, it was through comics–superheroes first—and then science fiction, through the original Star Trek and Outer Limits. From there I jumped to horror when they started playing double features of classic Universal movies on TV on Saturday nights. Double Chiller Theater. And when I was ten years old I was the only person in the Midway Theater in Philadelphia for the first showing of Night of the Living Dead. I was hooked for life.

ECHO: What haven't you written about that you would like to get around to some day?

MABERRY: I want to do some urban fantasy. I have something in development now that my agent will be pitching soon. And I’d like to take a swing at Steampunk, probably for the Young Adult market. That sounds like a lot of fun.

I already write in several genres. I do comics for Marvel (Doomwar, Black Panther, Marvel Zombies Return); I have a new series of post-apocalyptic young adult novels launching in September from Simon & Schuster (Rot & Run in 2010; Dust & Decay, 2011). I recently did the novelization for The Wolfman (Tor), and that became a New York Times bestseller. And I may even return to Pine Deep for a sequel to my Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man's Song and Bad Moon Rising).

But I’m open to anything. I doubt there’s a kind of fiction I wouldn’t try at this point. It’s all fun, and it’s all a delightful challenge. Over the last couple of years I’ve been asked to do some writing that’s clearly outside of my comfort zone, and I’ve always enjoyed it. I did a comedy zombie story, “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” (History is Dead, Permuted Press 2007); a surreal serial killer story, “Doctor Nine” (Killers, Swimming Kangaroo Press, 2008; and reprinted in The Stories (in) Between, Edited by Greg Schauer, Jeanne B. Benzel, and W.H. Horner. Fantasist Enterprises, 2009); a Sherlock Holmes ghost story, “The Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost” (Legends of the Mountain State 2, Bloodletting Books, 2008); a military science fiction tale, “Clean Sweeps” (And So it Begins, Dark Quest Books, 2008); and a coming-of-age dystopian story, “Family Business” (The New Dead, St. Martins Press, 2010). And I’m working on stories in other genres as well.

ECHO: Joe Ledger's next adventure is called The Dragon Factory. What can you tell us about his next case?

MABERRY: That’s the second Joe Ledger novel, and it came out on March 2 in the States and will be released in the UK on April 1. It’s not a zombie story. It deals with geneticists using transgenic science for ethnic cleansing and to complete the Nazi Master Race program. Lots of monsters and mutations in that tale. Each of the novels in this series pits Joe Ledger against a different kind of science threat. I’m just about finished with the third novel, The King of Plagues, which deals with secret societies and weaponized versions of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

ECHO: What brought you to these antagonists? Again, I hear there are quite a few maniacal terrorists out there, so what about these bad guys makes them so interesting to you, the writer?

MABERRY: I am both an idealist and a cynic. Maybe that makes me a “realist.” I believe that there are people dedicated to the common good, just as I know that there are people who are completely corrupt. I also believe in the existence of “evil,” but I don’t view it was a spiritual thing. It isn’t the Devil making people do harm to one another—evil is a choice. I’ve seen it and I resist the attempts by some to let the bad guys off the hook for their actions because “they couldn’t help themselves” or because “they were victims of abuse.” Unless a person has a chemical imbalance or a brain tumor, then no matter how much negative nurturing they’ve experienced, doing deliberate harm comes down to choice.

I spent most of my adult life teaching self-defense to women, children, the elderly, the physically challenged, and many of these people had suffered abuse. Rarely was the abuser suffering from some medical condition that made his actions totally beyond his control. Usually it’s the desire to feel power that leads people to abuse those weaker than themselves.

That said, in my novels I like to explore the different ways in which people allow themselves to become corrupt, or in some cases truly evil, and how they adjust their own perception of self to accept this as the proper way of being. At the same time I like to explore the various ways in which people take a stand against evil.

A few years ago someone asked me why I write about monsters. I told them: “I don’t. I write about the people who fight monsters.” That’s still true. Joe Ledger and Echo Team are out there fighting monsters.

ECHO: How does The Dragon Factory compare to Patient Zero? Is there a different atmosphere or mood this time around. Is Joe (mentally and emotionally) in the same place or does something new drive him?

MABERRY: Well, in the second book we join Joe after he’s already finished several missions, so there’s more of a lived in feel with the DMS (Department of Military Sciences) and Joe’s Echo Team. He’s also more experienced with this kind of thing. He’s a veteran of some extreme battles, and so he’s able to bring an even more aggressive game when things go bad.

Also, there’s a higher paranoia quotient because a group within the U.S. government is trying to dismantle the DMS, so Joe is on the run early on. We also get to learn a bit more about Mr. Church’s shadowy background.

The Dragon Factory also has about twice the action –and Patient Zero had a lot—but I dial things way up in the second book. The book is also bigger in scope, with battles on several fronts and some pretty serious stakes.

ECHO: Without giving too much away, is there something in The Dragon Factory you are particularly proud of? What do we, the readers, absolutely not want to miss?

MABERRY: The Jakoby Twins are among my favorite characters. Particularly Hecate, who was a delight to write. There’s one conversation they have where they are discussing whether they have become “corrupt” or “evil.” That’s a key scene.

There’s also a scene in which Joe, Top and Bunny (the remaining members of Echo Team) have a fight in an underground complex with mutant dogs. That was creepy as hell to write and readers from all over have been emailing to say how much they enjoyed that.


Gabe said...

This was a cool read. You should do more of these. Def. checking out these books.

Anonymous said...

Discovered the Pine Deep trilogy a while back. You should read those if you haven't.
Did you interview in person?

-Ryan Winslett said...

I plan on adding Pine Deep to the collection as soon as I get through some more of the ole backlog, for sure. My first exposure was Patient Zero, so I've got some catching up to do.
As for the interview, no, we did not speak in person. Everything was done via e-mail. If one of his book tours comes my way, though, maybe he'd be interested in round two of the chat. When he's not signing stuff, of course.
That could be cool.