Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning suspense author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. Jonathan Maberry was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers, and his books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries. Jonathan is known for his writing that spans several different genres; including horror, mystery and young adult fiction. It was a real honour to be able to talk books with such a well respected and prolific author like Jonathan Maberry. Please enjoy my interview with Jonathan Maberry…
How do you describe your occupation?
I usually tell people that I’m a ‘professional daydreamer’, which isn’t far from the truth. I dream up strange stories and get paid for them. In truth, I’m a professional writer. I write four novels per year (most years), as well as fifteen to twenty short stories, and comics. It shakes out to about a million-plus words for publication per year. And I write in multiple genres, including thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and others. I write for adults, teens and middle grade. I also edit anthologies in various genres.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
I generally write four hours in the morning, then go to lunch and take a long walk on the beach, and then write another four hours in the afternoon. I write less on weekends, but I seldom take a full day off. I set aside ten minutes out of every writing hour for social media, and I am very active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. Part of each day involves handling the business side of things, including discussions with my literary agent, my film agent, my assistant, various editors and publishers, contributors, Hollywood producers, booksellers, convention planners, bloggers, reviewers and quite a few others. I also record a weekly podcast (Three Guys with Beards) with my colleagues Christopher Golden and James A. Moore. I typically work on one project at a time, except when, say, a deadline for a short story overlaps with a novel in progress.
I am currently reading the graphic novels for The Nocturnals by Dan Brereton because I have been asked to write a short story for a prose anthology based on his comic book series.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
Aside from reading in school, the first book I ever read that I chose to read, was Conan the Wanderer. I was eight and I bought it for ten cents at a library book fair.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Page folders are heathens who should be burned at the stake. I use bookmarks.
When did you fall in love with reading?
I was born with a love of storytelling. Before I could even read or write I was telling stories with toys. The love of the craft of writing evolved throughout my childhood, encouraged by my grandmother, who often gave me books to read and would discuss them with me. When I was twelve, my middle school librarian (who was secretary for two clubs of professional writers), introduced me to some of her friends, including Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Those great writers gave me tremendous advice, encouragement, and support and often showed up to meetings with shopping bags full of book for me.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The very first story I ever wrote was a comic book with just about every Marvel character that was around at the time (this was 1965, maybe). I wrote and (badly) illustrated a sprawling, incoherent story that made no sense at all but which was great fun to do. I still have some of the pages.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
If I could travel back in time to age 16, I’d give my younger self a copy of Donald Maass’ excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. It’s the best writing book I’ve ever seen. For my 25-year-old self, I’d give him a joke book and tell him to lighten up. (I was pretty broody and serious when I was in my twenties –a side-effect of working as a bodyguard and fighting all the time.)
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
When I get an idea I let it cook in my head for a bit –a few hours or a day. Sometimes it gathers bits and pieces of structure while it rattles around in my skull. When it starts to take some kind of actual shape as a potential short story, novel or comic book idea, I write down the bones of it. If it seems like something substantial, I’ll do a little research (if the idea needs that) and maybe sketch out an outline or write a pitch for it. That usually coalesces the idea into something workable. If it’s a novel idea, I usually run it past my literary agent. If it’s a short story but not for anything I’m already contracted to write, I put it in a file. I look through those notes frequently and pick ripe fruit. Once a project is ready to develop, I revise and expand the outline, do more research, work out character motivations, and then I usually write the first chapter and the last chapter so I know what’s happening and how it ends. Then I write. I do not EVER revise while writing my first draft. Once the draft is done, I do a quick pass and send it to my assistant for spellchecks, etc. Then I give it a final pass and off it goes.
This process has evolved over time. My first novel took three and a half years and eighteen revisions. My most recent novel two nine weeks and two passes.
(1) Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass –the exercises in the book help you crack open your own understanding of the book you are trying to write. There is no writing book anywhere near as immediately and constantly useful.
(2) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg –it’s a very practical way of understanding the three-act structure of the story you want to tell.
(3) And a good book of poetry. Poets know how to tell a complex thought or capture visceral images in as few words as possible. Studying poetry substantially helps prose writing.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
That’s easy: Ray Bradbury (the kindest man I ever met, who was also one of the savviest in his understanding of the craft of writing and the business of publishing); Richard Matheson (his multi-genre writing career and approach to writing science-based thrillers such as I Am Legend has had the greatest overall impact on how I write); Harlan Ellison (another friend and mentor; his approach to fracturing the old paragraph structure into a series of jazz-like dramatic beats continues to influence me…and he’s hilarious); John D. MacDonald (his Travis McGee novels are my favorite mysteries of all time, and he introduced me to the concept of the intellectual idealist as hero); and James Lee Burke (because he is my favorite living author).
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The last book I bought was The Bat by Jo Nesbo. I haven’t read any of his novels and have read some excellent reviews and commentary, so I thought I’d give it a go. I’m halfway in and loving it, so I expect I’ll read more of the ‘Harry Hole’ mysteries set in Oslo.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
I’m a knowledge junkie, so even though I read for pleasure, I’m always learning from novels as much as from nonfiction.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
My favourite recent novel was a collection of novellas entitled Goblins by Josh Malerman, a young writer who I believe is going to be massive. I read an ARC (advance reading copy) and gave the book an enthusiastic cover quote.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I’d love to step into the Ft. Lauderdale of John D. MacDonald’s 1970s Travis McGee novels. I lived there briefly, but I’d like to hang out with Travis and his friend, Meyer, talk philosophy and politics, play chess, drink gin, and discuss books.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
First, be relentless –don’t let anyone or anything stop you, dissuade you, or make you afraid about your chances of breaking into publishing. Second, learn the business side of publishing AND the craft side of writing. Be very good at both.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson definitely influenced me most, and still does. It was the first horror novel to use real science to amp up the fear and tell a more believable story. Earlier books like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and so on, allude to the science but don’t explain it in any rational way. Matheson took us inside the head of a scientist trying to understand the nature of a vampire apocalypse. That book, published in 1954, is the model for virtually all pathogen outbreak stories, all disaster thrillers, all apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels, and a lot of dystopian tales. Its influence can’t be understated. Sadly, all three movie adaptations of it (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and I Am Legend) totally missed the point of the ending.
Without I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, I would never have written Patient Zero, Dead of Night, Rot and Ruin or so many other of my career-making novels. Richard Matheson gave me a signed copy of that book for Christmas when I was thirteen. I read it every Halloween.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I read across genre lines and I read older novels as well as recently published works. Some of my all-time favorite books include:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson;
Lady, Lady I Did It by Ed McBain;
Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Edward Wagner;
Pale Gray for Guilt by John D. MacDonald;
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King;
Ghost Story by Peter Straub;
Swan Song by Robert McCammon;
Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke;
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosely;
and The Spirit collections by Will Eisner.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I resisted for a long time reading The Goon graphic novels by Eric Powell because I’d read a bad review by someone whose opinion I usually trust. When someone gave me a couple of the trades I let them sit, planning to re-gift them without reading. Then, just for the hell of it I took one down and leafed through it. Now I own the complete collection and have had Eric on my Three Guys With Beards podcast. I have also made a vow never to take anyone else’s word on something without at least giving the actual writing a fair chance. Live and learn.