Jonathan Maberry: Keeping us in suspense!
Jonathan Maberry: Keeping us in suspense!
By Angelique Fawns
Jonathan Maberry’s thrilling creations cross genres and entertain us on many platforms. His V-War series on Netflix had me binge-watching episodes late into the night until the final bite was delivered. That was my gateway drug. Now I am a ravenous fan with an insatiable appetite. Good thing Maberry is prolific. He is a New York Times best-seller with countless novels, anthology editor, comic book writer, executive producer, playwright, magazine writer, teacher, and mentor. Not to mention a tireless champion of helping other writers and creatives navigate the genre world.
I attended a workshop with Maberry at the beginning of the year called “Pitch & Sell Novels, Comics, Short Stories, and More!” It was frankly amazing. I wanted to know more about this giant in the industry.
AF: What inspired you to first pick up your pen? Can you talk about how you got your start?
JM: I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller of some kind. Even before I could read and write I was telling stories with toys. All through school I read voraciously and grabbed any opportunity to write something –essays, short stories, stuff for school bulletins and yearbooks. However, my focus early on was nonfiction. I graduated from high school shortly after Watergate and the rise of superstar investigative journalists, and went to college on a journalism scholarship.
But midway through I took a class on magazine feature writing and that changed my focus. For the next thirty-some years I wrote for magazines as a side gig, and did about 1200 features and 3000 columns, focus pieces, and reviews. Along the way –once I began teaching at Temple—I began writing textbooks for my classes and those taught by friends. My first published book was the textbook for my friend’s Judo class (JUDO AND YOU, Kendall-Hunt, 1991). Most of my early nonfiction books focused on martial arts and self-defense, which is what I was teaching.
In the late 1990s I tried something different and wrote A nonfic book on supernatural predators from world cultures throughout history. The publisher of my martial arts books freaked a bit and asked that this new outré work be published under a pen name, fearing that my readers would think I’d somehow lost my mind. However that book, THE VAMPIRE SLAYERS FIELD GUIDE TO THE UNDEAD by Shane MacDougall, sold a lot more copies than my martial arts books. It also kindled my desire to see the folkloric monsters I’d discovered through research be represented in fiction. Not being able to find many such novels at the time, I decided to try and write one of my own. That was tricky, since I’d never taken any creative writing classes. So I worked out a self-education program and taught myself the elements of craft. That book, GHOST ROAD BLUES, was my first ever attempt at professional fiction, and really my first fiction since 10th grade English class.
I expected that book to be something for my sole amusement, but once it was done –and realizing that there was more of the story to tell to make it a trilogy—I decided to scout for an agent. Mind you, with no real expectations of finding one. But I got one pretty quickly and she was able to close a deal with the second publisher who read it. What astounded me was that the book went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.
The book came out in June 2006 –shortly after I turned 48– and now I’m halfway through writing my 50th novel. My takeaway is that I should have started writing fiction sooner.
AF: When and what was the turning point in your career that put you on the path to your success?
JM: Oh, without a doubt it was winning the Bram Stoker Award. Until then I viewed my fiction as a kind of hobby thing. Even getting an agent and selling it didn’t feel like a turning point. Winning that award for my first novel was a ten-thousand-watt jolt of validation.
AF: Can you describe your writing process? Do you use a certain structure or formula to create your stories?
JM: Because of my lifelong involvement with martial arts (it’ll be sixty years this May) and my training in journalism, I am very focused and organized. I impose a useful structure on my own creative process. When I have an idea –and sometimes it’s little more than a concept—I sit down and map it out to see if there’s a real story to be told. I outline the story in a very minimalist way, trying not to impose too much structure on what is essentially an organic process. I like to know where my stories are going, why things happen, who knows what, and how it’ll end, that way I can build in things like clues, motif, metaphor and subtext, explore allegory, and build a chain of logical cause-and-effect. I am not the kind of person who just wings it (what we call a ‘pantser’ –someone who writes by the seat of his/her pants). I am a bit more devious in that I want to build my story with an understanding of how to balance tension and suspense, play with pacing and tone, and so on. And I want things to make sense, even if the sense relies on elements of that fantastical.
Typically, I begin a work (novel or short story) by writing the opening in order to establish the unique voice of that project, then I nip forward and write the ending. Once I’m satisfied with both, I back up and aim at that ending. Along the way, though, I occasionally write chapters out of order (one of the benefits of having an outline), and slot them into the master document where they should go. Or I’ll write several short chapters in a subplot in order to insure coherence and integrity of that arc’s own voice.
I prefer ensemble casts for novels, and I like very complex, twisty plots.
AF: What is your morning routine?
JM: Since this is my business, and that business involves writing 3-4 novels per year, at least a dozen short stories, as well as forewords & instructions, and occasional articles, as well as classes (online or in person), public appearances at conventions and conferences, producing work on various film & TV projects, comic books, editing anthologies, and editing Weird Tales Magazine –at any given time I am juggling at least 15-30 projects. These range from small stuff to really big things. All that said, my mornings are always focused on the business matters. There are tons of emails to respond to, pitches to draft, edits to handle, etc. When that’s in hand, then I switch to fiction. I get up at 5, spend two hours on the beach here in San Diego –walking, thinking, planning, meditating. When I get home, I read poetry aloud for 15-30 minutes, having found that it puts me in the right creative gear for prose.
I’m usually at my desk by 8.
I write, on average, 3-4 thousand words per day. Less so when at a convention.
I knock off at dinnertime and am in bed by 9. It’s a schedule that allows for family time, rest, exercise, leisure, and peace of mind.
I have an assistant, Dana Fredsti –a fantasy novelist in her own right—and she edits/proofreads my first drafts, handles my newsletter, and other projects. I budget about five minutes out of every writing hour for social media, and I enjoy staying active on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Threads, Twitter (I refuse to call it X), and a few other platforms.
AF: If you could go back in time to when you first started writing/selling fiction, what piece of advice would you give your newbie self?
JM: I have few regrets about the decisions I’ve made since becoming a fiction-centric writer. However, I think I’d tell my younger self to try epic fantasy and deep-space SF sooner. Turns out both are incredibly fun!
AF: When you are relaxing, what do you choose to read and watch?
JM: I read a lot and across genre lines. Mysteries, thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and so on. And I read a TON of nonfiction, with a bias toward history, politics, and science, since many of my novels, short stories, and comics are inspired by what I read. Especially the science, and it’s one of the reasons I read scientific trade journals in order to grasp what’s happening in the lab before it becomes part of the national or global conversation.
As for watching…again I’m all over the place. Horror and science fiction, of course; but lots of mysteries, comedy, musicals, dramas, westerns, thrillers, and so on. If it’s a good story well told and well-acted, I’ll give it a try. Lately I’ve been watching Fall of the House of Usher, Reacher, From, the Equilizer films (produced by a friend of mine), Penny Dreadful, and other dramas, but my wife and I are hooked on Project Runway (which, weirdly, George Romero turned me on to!), Queer Eye, The Amazing Race, So You think You Can Dance, and The Property Brothers.
AF: What scares you?
JM: Not much in terms of physical things. I’m 6’4”, built like Bigfoot, and have an 8th degree black belt. I’m a former bodyguard, too. So, the slasher with a knife thing is a ‘been there, done that’. That’s not bragging. I did what I was trained to do, and although there is the sensible amount of fear/caution involved, I don’t have nightmares about it. And, yes, I’ve been stabbed, slashed, and chopped with a meat cleaver on the job way back when.
No, what actually scares me is the current American political crisis, with both sides demonizing each other and few cool heads actually wanting to serve the people instead of their own parties. That is frightening because it threatens the structure of democracy, and I love my country. I fear for its future.
Apart from politics, I am also frequently rattled by the misuse and mishandling of emerging technologies that are potentially catastrophic. I’ve read and written enough cautionary tales to be nervous about AI, drones, bioweapons, DNA manipulation, and so on. That’s why those things tend to be the ‘big bad’ of my novels more often than, say, vampires or ghosts.
AF: What genre do you enjoy creating in the most? Which of your many jobs/roles is your favorite?
JM: My favorite genre is thriller, but it’s also a structural model that can be applied to virtually every other genre. My novels are almost all built on the thriller model –that race against time to either accomplish something or prevent something.
Drilling down further, my favorite sub-genre is ‘science fiction horror’. Stories like Alien, Event Horizon, Underwater, At the Mountains of Madness, Island of Doctor Moreau, The X-Files, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein, and so on. And that’s in keeping with my unease about misused tech.
And I’m a sucker for werewolf movies.
AF: When choosing stories for Weird Tales, or your anthologies, what are the top things you look for?
JM: They have to be different. If the story would comfortably fit into standard horror, fantasy, or science fiction magazines then it may not be right for us. I like that extra dollop of weirdness. And I appreciate creative risk-taking by writers. Timidity is not the pathway to literary success. Audacity, on the other hand, is greatly appealing.
AF: What upcoming project you are particularly excited about?
JM: I think the project I’m most jazzed about is my first foray into deep-space cosmic horror. My upcoming novel, NECROTEK, will debut in May and it’s the first of a new series pitting humans against cosmic monsters in the far reaches of space. It’s also the first novel of a new imprint with Blackstone Publishing called Weird Tales Presents. I can’t wait to dive into writing the next one.
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Angelique Fawns writes horror, fantasy, kids short stories, and freelance journalism. Her day job is producing promos and after hours she takes care of her farm full of goats, horses, chickens, and her family. She has no idea how she finds time to write. She currently has stories in Ellery Queen, DreamForge Anvil, and Third Flatiron’s Gotta Wear Eclipse Glasses. You can follow her work and get writing tips and submission hints at http://fawns.ca/.