By Dan Levy
For nearly forty years, Jonathan Maberry has created fiction as a catharsis for himself (at least at first), a mirror for his readers, a microscope for the human condition, and, at times, to offer a laugh that uncorks the pressures of everyday life. He has built a career that includes titles such as author, anthology editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, and teacher/lecturer. Among his many accolades are New York Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Awards, and being named one of Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. With literally thousands of works to his credit, we wanted to learn more about him and his latest novel FALL OF NIGHT.
Why do characters like vampires, zombies, and other supernatural beings continue to find themselves at the center of your writing?
Zombies represent a massive shared threat—something so comprehensive that it destroys the infrastructure. Everything we rely upon is gone, no help is coming, and we have had our affectations stripped away. What remains, then, for the story is an exploration of people in a crisis. That’s pretty much the core of drama. Because the zombies have no discernible personality—certainly none that impact the story—they serve as the threat that propels the action without drawing attention away from the human experiences of the characters. On a canvas like that you can paint any kind of story, and because the monster is easy to understand, it allows the reader to “get” the level of threat without becoming otherwise distracted.
For those who read and write about the living, what unique opportunities does writing about the supernatural give you? What challenges does it present?
The supernatural speaks to our core beliefs, the primitive within the shell of the civilized person. Whether we’re talking about the darker aspects of world religion (and remember, demons and Satan come straight out of the Bible), or beliefs in ghosts, vampires, witches, and so on, these are things our ancestors believed. In many cases they’re things people believe today. Even the most skeptical of us wonder if there is a larger and much more complex world than what is concrete and measurable. So telling tales about this larger world is an actual connection point.
The challenge in writing about the supernatural and unnatural is to make it interesting to modern, sophisticated—and yes, even jaded—readers. That’s why most of my fiction is built on a scaffolding of 90% realism. That allows the reader and me to get in agreement on many things, so when I open a door to let something fantastical in, the reader is already in the room with me.
For many authors, it seems that the “what if” questions of their books are a unique combination of their life experiences, a current event (murder, socio/political action, geological threat, etc.), and a genuine “I-wonder-what-would-happen-if…” curiosity. Do you come up with story ideas in the same manner, or does the supernatural require you to get your story ideas differently?
I grew up hard in a very violent neighborhood and with a pretty bad guy as a father. Fiction allowed me not only to explore the cathartic process of “writing it out,” but to also speculate on how my life might have turned out had I made other choices. The character of Malcolm Crow from the PINE DEEP novels is my speculation of what I might have been like had I experimented with drugs and alcohol as a way of dealing with childhood trauma—as opposed to the way I did handle things, through martial arts and creative outlets.
The supernatural and science fiction elements of those novels allowed me to construct monsters for my characters to confront in interesting and revelatory ways. More recently I’ve moved away from any autobiographical elements and instead look for character elements in the people around me. Real life, when observed, is a great resource for writers.
It seems that the juxtaposition of humor and horror requires a deft touch. Why is the use of humor important in your writing? How do you know if it’s being done well?
Life is funny. Even the scary bits. Humor was probably invented as a response to too much stress. And it’s a terrific safety valve. In fiction, it allows us to humanize the characters while also keeping the story from being one-note. That’s as crucial in thrillers as it is in horror. The laughter also serves as a jab to distract from that overhand right that’s coming.
We all like the chance to get an adrenaline rush by reading a good thriller. But good books have to work the other parts of our brain as well. As you wrote, FALL OF NIGHT, the sequel to the kickoff of your fourth series DEAD OF NIGHT, what were some of the larger themes that you wanted to explore?
I was mapping out DEAD OF NIGHT around the same time that my father-in-law, Alvy West, was going through dementia. He eventually died from complications associated with it. To see his mind fragmenting and to know that on some level he was aware of his gradual disconnection with his memories and higher reasoning was truly terrifying. In DEAD OF NIGHT and FALL OF NIGHT, I use one aspect of the zombie plague to explore that horror. In those books the consciousness of each person turned into a zombie is still present inside the body. It’s a helpless passenger and witness to all of the awful things the zombified body does. That element truly frightened me while writing it, and based on reviews and feedback from readers, it’s one of the most compelling elements of the novel.
I also touch on the mishandling of technologies, particularly bioweapons research; the way in which political agendas get in the way of actual progress; the power of Mother Nature and the resulting perspective check when it comes to our sense of control; and a few other topics. On the more positive side, I explore some issues of courage on various scales, from the professional responsibilities of Special Ops to the sense of duty of small town cops to personal discoveries of courage in minor characters.
In FALL OF NIGHT, readers are reunited with Officer Desdemona Fox. What do you like about that character that made you want to bring her back for a second book? What surprised you about her as you further explored her life in FALL OF NIGHT?
Dez reminds me of a lot of folks I knew growing up in Philadelphia and in other parts of Pennsylvania. Very often I’ve taken serious swings at her kind of attitude: redneck gun lovers. So I decided to play fair and crack open that personality type and showcase the elements of what makes someone like Dez tick. The good and the bad; and some of the better qualities she demonstrates are not ones I would previously have admired. Writing is good for the writer, too. It allows us to confront our own entrenched viewpoints and reappraise them from a broader perspective.
Is there a scene or chapter in FALL OF NIGHT that is a favorite or that is especially poignant for you? Why?
There’s a scene where the actions of a panicking adult results in the deaths of several children. I’ve seen how this sort of thing occurs in real-world situations—children are so often the victims. That scene was tough to write and, I’ve been told, tough to read.
While I don’t want to overlook FALL OF NIGHT, what do your fans have to look forward to once they’ve devoured your latest work? Is there a third book of the DEAD OF NIGHT series in the works?
I haven’t decided yet if FALL OF NIGHT will have a sequel. My current feeling is that it won’t. I did, however, use that and it’s prequel, DEAD OF NIGHT, to tell the backstory for my ROT & RUIN series. The RUIN series takes place fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse. DEAD and FALL tell the story of how that apocalypse happened. Right now DEAD OF NIGHT and ROT & RUIN are both in development for film.
What are you reading right now? Which authors/books inspire you?
Right now I’m reading a slew of short stories that have been submitted for a series of anthologies I’m editing. And I’m editing SCARY OUT THERE, an anthology of young adult horror that will have original stories by Joyce Carol Oates, R. L. Stine, Ellen Hopkins and a slew of other A-listers.
As far as which authors inspire me—among living authors, I am a devoted follower of James Lee Burke, John Sandford, and Michael Connelly. My all-time favorite authors include two men who were mentors of mine when I as a teenager, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson; and my all-time favorite writer, John D. McDonald.
Considering the importance of good character development in any story, what’s one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
Most folks don’t know that I used to be active in musical theater for years. I toured with GODSPELL, CAMELOT, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, 1776 and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. This was on the regional theater level. I wasn’t quite good enough to turn pro.
Please think back to 1978 for a moment. As a fledging writer, was there one piece of advice that has served you well over the years? Is it the same advice you’d give to aspiring authors today?
The best advice I ever got was from (Ray) Bradbury and (Richard) Matheson. One evening they explained to me that writing and publishing were NOT the same thing. Writing, they said, was a creative process, a conversation between author and reader. Publishing, on the other hand, was a business that was built on selling copies of art. Being good at writing does not entitle one to publishing success. The trick is to learn both, to be good at both, and to be an active player in the business management of your creative skills.
You’ve created literally thousands of stories over your thirty-plus years as a writer. What have time and experience taught you are the top two or three universal truths of great storytelling?
The main message from my own view of the writing life is something I speak about at writers’ conferences. The essential message there is: don’t be a jackass. Good guys can actually do quite well in this business. So, be a good guy. You can write the darkest of stuff and do great harm to your characters, but don’t be a monster to the people around you.
And one other thing…have fun with this. If writing isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong. Find the way to have fun even when it’s hard. It makes for a much happier and more successful person.
Learn more about FALL OF NIGHT and Jonathan Maberry’s many and varied works that have spanned over three decades on his website.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include CODE ZERO, ROT & RUIN, GHOST ROAD BLUES, PATIENT ZERO, THE WOLFMAN, and many others. Several of Jonathan’s novels are in development for movies or TV including V-WARS, EXTINCTION MACHINE, ROT & RUIN and DEAD OF NIGHT He’s the editor/co?author of V?WARS, a vampire?themed anthology; and is editing a series of all original X-FILES anthologies. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, and two plays. He lives in Del Mar, California.