By Gary Kriss
When the day finally comes that the pen slips forever from his hand, Jeffrey J. Mariotte says he wants only one thing on his tombstone.
Even then it’s not a sure thing that any will gather on Mariotte, a fifty-seven year old Arizona-based writer, who keeps rolling out dynamite thrillers along with other forms of fiction. This month sees the release of his forty-sixth novel SEASON OF THE WOLF (DarkFuse ). Yeap, pilgrim, you read that correctly—forty-six. But wait, it gets better. SEASON OF THE WOLF is also his fiftieth book, provided you don’t count comic books and graphic novels. His short stories and contributions to nonfiction books such as ITW’s THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS? Don’t even go there!
Wait! It gets better. Consider this: besides amassing a canon of Pattersonian proportions, starting in 1999 with the publication of his first novel GEN 13: NETHERWAR, which he wrote in collaboration with Christopher Golden, Mariotte owns two bookstores, blogs more regularly than most people blink and commutes three hours a day to a job where—you guessed it— he writes.
Can you say ohmygawdifeelsoinadequate?
So what’s Mariotte’s secret? “A generally organized outlook, a good work ethic, a very helpful wife and family, and the many, many folders on my MacBook,” he states. But often there’s more to it than that. In SEASON OF THE WOLF, when a pack of unusually powerful, vicious wolves attacks a small mountain town, an outsider to the community finds himself in danger from predators both human and not.
That’s right: old-fashioned wolves (really old-fashioned as readers will discover) which don’t turn into Taylor Lautner at the sight of Kristen Stewart. (Oops, sorry—this is about books: who don’t turn into Jacob Black at the sight of Bella Swan.) “Doing werewolves might have been more commercial,” Mariotte concedes, but he resisted the temptation. “My goal was to write a fast-paced, compulsively readable thrill-ride of a book,” Mariotte says and cautions that readers should “use the bathroom before they start, because once they get going on the book they won’t be able to put it down.”
“Oh, and it’s scary, especially for anybody who’s ever been outside,” he continues. “So in addition to using the bathroom, they might want to make sure all the lights are on and the doors are locked.”
Anyway, SEASON OF THE WOLF took three months to write, “but only after a decade of mulling,” Mariotte quickly adds.
“It was actually a comic book pitch in the beginning,” Mariotte recalls. “The comic never happened, but the gist of the idea—these ferocious wolves forced by environmental circumstances into conflict with man—never left me. About ten years later, when I had the opportunity and inspiration at the same time, I wrote it as a novel, with a few major changes.”
The result was a work that he terms “right at the heart of what I love to do most.”
“The books that are most personally meaningful to me are a set of not-necessarily-related—but not entirely unrelated—supernatural thrillers,” he says, adding that, besides a western and largely rural landscapes, they share “the combination of thriller element, of police procedurals, mysteries, spy stories, etcetera—with supernatural elements.” These include his BORDER TRILOGY—RIVER RUNS RED, MISSING WHITE GIRL, COLD BLACK HEARTS—all of which are set on different but connected parts of the US/Mexico border.
And there’s something else at play in SEASON OF THE WOLF. It takes some very definite stands with respect to the environment and disruptions in the balance of nature. “A couple of reviewers have said that it takes a political point of view, and I guess I understand why they say that,” Mariotte states. “I think that what they mean is that the book acknowledges that the world’s climate is changing and that nature is making certain adaptations to that. That’s not actually political. The science is clear—for whatever reason, it’s happening. The book doesn’t argue that it’s human-caused, although certain characters might, or that there’s anything we can do about it. So it’s not a didactic novel, it’s just a novel that accepts our present reality and asks, ‘What if…?’
But Mariotte goes further. “Personally, I like books with a definite point of view, an argument to make, whether it’s one I agree with or not,” he says. “I believe that even writers who like to claim they’re just writing ‘entertainment’ are representing a point of view.”
“I suspect that when people say they don’t like messages in novels, what they mean is that they like novels in which the message is: The status quo must be preserved,” he continues. “When an author writes such a book, that author should understand that the book is still arguing for a particular point of view, and counter-arguments can easily be made.”
While Mariotte considers his original fiction “the most me,” he also writes tie-ins—STAR TREK: THE FOLDED WORLD will appear in April and he’s working on the outline for another that he can’t talk about yet. “It’s tremendously fun and gratifying to be asked to contribute to beloved fictional universe,” he admits. “How many people get to tell stories about Spider-Man, Conan, the CSI gang, the crew of the starship Enterprise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Zorro, the strike team of THE SHIELD, Superman, and many, many more? That in itself can be a dream come true, and getting paid for it makes it even better.”
But beyond enjoyment, and perhaps a bit of fantasy fulfillment, Mariotte says writing tie-in novels provides “a lot of on-the-job training and constant refresher courses in how to do it all.”
“A tie-in has to have everything any other novel does—characterization, plot, pacing, suspense, solid prose, and so on,” he says. “The only difference is in who created the characters and their world, and in some cases, the condition said characters have to be in when you hand them back to their owner. So you learn a lot about problem-solving by writing them, and about how to find the voices of characters who might be considerably different from you as a person. “By the same token, Mariotte also learns from the comic books he does, which he says “teach valuable lessons in writing concise but powerful prose, and in visual storytelling.”
Mariotte also learns from Mysterious Galaxy, the bookstore he owns with his wife, Maryelizabeth Hart—herself a writer and when he feels a work “safe for human eyes,” his first reader—and a third partner, Terry Gilman. Mysterious Galaxy opened in San Diego, CA twenty years ago, and then later expanded a second store in Redondo Beach, CA. This year the Mystery Writers of America are honoring Mysterious Galaxy with the Raven Award for its contributions to the field.
“As a writer, being a bookseller offers numerous advantages,” Mariotte says. “Being in book retail gives you incredible exposure to the range of books out there, in your field and out of it. I have been able to meet people at publishers large and small, and sometimes those associations and friendships lead to books. I have been lucky enough to meet most of the authors in the fields we specialize in—mystery and thriller, science fiction and fantasy, and horror—and not only is that inspirational in itself, but sometimes when you need a big name to blurb a book, that friendship can pay off. Plus, there’s an advantage to knowing there’s a bookstore that’ll always carry your books, even if nobody else will.”
So, with all this knowledge, what are some of the specifics that Mariotte puts into practice in his writing?
“Setting is tremendously important to me,” he says. “As a reader, I love a book with a profoundly felt sense of place, whether it’s James Lee Burke’s Louisiana or Pat Conroy’s Low Country or Ross Macdonald’s Santa Barbara or John Connolly’s New England or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles. I like to feel grounded in the location, to feel—even if it’s wrong—that the writer knows what’s around that corner over there, what’s behind the fence in the background. Much of what we read, especially in mysteries and thrillers, requires huge suspension of disbelief, even more so when you introduce a supernatural element, as I like to do. For me, that’s easiest if I feel like the things that are ‘real’ are very real, which usually means making the setting feel concrete and the characters psychologically realistic and consistent. Given that solid foundation, I can be convinced of a lot of nonsense about what people can and cannot or will and will not do.”
In his own works, Mariotte says “my process tends to be one of concept first—what’s the overarching idea for the book and refers to SEASON OF THE WOLF as an example: “Okay, there are these wolves attacking a little town high up in the Rocky Mountains? Why? Who is affected by it? How do they react? How do their reactions vary depending on who they are, and how do their personalities affect the other characters and their reactions? And so on. That initial impulse—which I guess counts as an aspect of plot—has to come first, and it has to prove itself compelling enough to me to make me sit down and figure out what the sequence of events will be and who will play out those events. In that sense, the development of the plot and the characters is a parallel process, both aspects playing out at the same time.”
Lately, because of his commute, Mariotte spends an inordinate amount of time sitting down in his car where he snippets that he’ll later incorporate into his writing. When he works at home—usually on weekends, it’s at The Flying M Ranch, which he describes as “just shy of 40 acres of dirt and mesquite,” which he shares with Maryelizabeth, “a couple of dogs and a cat.” The couple has two grown children, Holly and David, whom he proudly proclaims are “very smart, literate, and talented people.”
“The Flying M is strictly a word ranch, where we raise books,” Mariotte says. “We have a barn that’s so full of books, comics, and toys it’s hard to get a lizard into, much less full-grown horses. We let our extra pasturage grow wild, though we leave some of it open so visiting livestock can browse it down once or twice a year.”
And what about wolves?
“We have some Mexican gray wolves in the neighborhood, if you define neighborhood in the exceedingly broad terms that we do out in the country,” he says. “Close to home, we see coyotes regularly, domestic dogs, our own dogs. The very rare mountain lion or bobcat. Javelinas and rattlesnakes. But so far, I haven’t been startled anywhere on the spread by a wolf. I imagine that would be cool and terrifying at the same time.”
Ranch writing takes place in a long room with rows of bookcases jutting out from the wall at intervals, including a set blocking off his work area, a refuge where Roy Rogers memorabilia, toys and various other things reside on and around his desk. “The walls have some signed photos and cards from folks like Adam West, Berke Breathed, Dr. Seuss/Ted Geisel, Shawn Ryan and Michael Chiklis of The Shield, and others,” he says. “Kind of a pop culture dream, I guess. Or nightmare, depending.”
Despite his emphasis on starting with concept, Mariotte says “plotting is hard work and I’m never entirely convinced that I have it down, but I seem to be able to develop stories that keep people turning the pages.” In contrast, he says “I think I’m good at creating characters, which is really the part of the process that’s most fun for me.”
If and when he does get stuck, or feels he’s straying off course, Mariotte relies on a trick he attributes to David Morrell: “If you’re stuck on a book and don’t know what comes next, interview your character. Ask him or her about his or her life, wants, needs, fears, and so on. Do it on the keyboard or on a piece of paper, and answer in the character’s voice. That really pushes you deep down in the character’s mind, and will often help you figure out why the story has gone awry and how to move forward.”
And he has a piece of advice of his own, which he obviously follows: write all the time. “Writing is like any other muscle,” he says. “If you work it out constantly, it’ll be there when you need it. If you let it atrophy, it’s harder to call on and it might let you down.”
And Mariotte isn’t about to become a weak-muscled writing, not when he has so much more to accomplish.
“I have an original teen horror quartet called DARK VENGEANCE out from Simon Pulse and a straight, non-supernatural thriller called THE DEVIL’S BAIT,” he says. “And sometime in the next year we’ll see another straight thriller called EMPTY ROOMS that just might be the first in a series about Detroit police detective Frank Robey and his friend, ex-cop and walking crime encyclopedia Richie ‘Maynard’ Krebbs.”
Indeed, by the time you read this Mariotte’s publication tallies may have already changed.
Now let’s have a show of hands: how many really feel comfortable betting on the moss?
Jeffrey J. Mariotte is the award-winning author of more than 50 books, including the thriller THE DEVIL’S BAIT, supernatural thrillers RIVER RUNS RED, MISSING WHITE GIRL and COLD BLACK HEARTS, the horror epic, THE SLAB, and many more. He has also written over 130 comic books and graphic novels. A long-time publishing professional and bookseller, he’s a co-owner of the specialty bookstore Mysterious Galaxy, with locations in San Diego and Redondo Beach, CA.
To learn more about Jeffrey, please visit his website.