To say EXTINCTION MACHINE is a pulse-pounding page-turner would be to call World War Two a minor dust up. Jonathan Maberry proves himself the master storyteller in a tale that expertly weaves a hard-boiled body-slam narrative with deft artful prose. For those who love high-concept drama the story holds little back: honor; romance; vengeance; UFOs; alien technology; weird science; weapons that can wreck tectonic plates and swamp continents; spectral government assassins; black-hearted genius villains; and an ensemble of the most valiant and macho good guys since Achilles and his Myrmidons. Maberry confidentially demonstrates the writer chops that hook you in, hold you in place, and make you howl for more.
EXTINCTION MACHINE is a sprawling, complicated story with a plethora of big characters, yet you keep the plot tight and focused. How do you organize the plot? What’s your writing strategy than can encompass and streamline such an expansive story with so many moving parts?
I’m a structure guy when it comes to writing. I write an outline and then use Post-its on presentation boards to storyboard the novel. That story often changes as I’m writing, of course, because you can’t expect to have all of your best ideas on the day you cook up your plot. But the outline allows me to stay focused on the story and its component parts. I build it on three acts and then look for the best balance of action, exposition, character development and so on to tell the story.
I also love complex and layered stories, and I tend to favor ensemble casts even in a tale largely driven by a first-person narrative. With thrillers you don’t want to have the story cover too long a time-period, so I intercut the hero’s storyline with brief flashbacks and third-person side-scenes that allow readers to have insight into how these events play out across a broad canvas. Also, this allows me to dig into the motivations and machinations of the villains. We want the bad guys to be as three-dimensional as the heroes.
EXTINCTION MACHINE is a geek fest of techno gadgets, gee-whiz weapons, and conspiracy theories. How do you research all this? What’s the source for your spot-on military and cop jargon?
I also do a ton of research. Maybe it’s a side-effect of having been trained as a journalist, and having spent twenty-five years writing magazine feature articles and textbooks, but I’m a research junkie.
As soon as I begin preparing to write a novel I start identifying experts in different fields and start sending out waves of requests for information and interviews. For EXTINCTION MACHINE, I spoke with experts in aviation research, military R&D, cloning, drone technology, stealth technology, weapons technology, and computers. My stories are rarely pure science fiction. They’re more like ‘tomorrow’s science’.
I also reached out to the leading experts in UFOs and the conspiracy theory community. Everyone I contacted was very generous with their time and information, and very willing to help. Some of them even made it into the book, doing ‘walk-ons’. Guys like George Noory of COAST TO COAST AM, Peter Robbins, MUFON tech guy Geoff Strauss, and others. It’s fun having real-world people in the book, and it reinforces the reality of the overall story.
As for the police and military stuff, I have a solid network of people in active service or retired who provide me with technical info. Any errors in the books are entirely my fault. These guys are the real pros.
The story points a finger at the infamous 1947 Roswell UFO crash. Why does that incident remain such a touchstone in America pop culture?
That was really the beginning of modern conspiracy theories. Before that there were tons of UFO sightings, including many during World War II (the ‘Foo fighters’, etc.), but Roswell irrevocably tied doubt and paranoia to the subject. Because the military so firmly stated they’d recovered a UFO and then so strangely and clumsily denied it, the seeds of doubt were planted. Even if this is all, as the military claim, just wreckage from a weather balloon, the way in which they handled it begs people to doubt their story. Even if they’re innocent of anything except misunderstanding what really happened, they handled everything since so badly.
The same goes with almost every aspect of the UFO issue. The way in which they consistently react and respond to public inquiries does nothing to defuse the avid public interest. I mean, sure, a lot of the things people see are probably prototype test craft of a secret nature. Sure. But it would cause less interest in scrutiny to simply say that it’s a matter of national security and we can’t talk about it. People get that. Governments have to have secrets. Denying it in clumsy ways only increases speculation. It’s either very dumb or clever in an obscure way. I can build a case either way…and that’s something I explore in EXTINCTION MACHINE.
There’s a lot to admire in EXTINCTION MACHINE, and what really impressed me was your expert prose. I just read a highly regarded literary novel and while the words were pretty, the book could’ve used a healthy dose of plot. Since the heart of any good novel is a compelling story, what’s your take on the literary vs. genre grudge?
I’ve had an ongoing debate with friends and colleagues who favor literary fiction and dislike-out-of-hand anything genre related. That kind of thinking is both snobbish and naïve. I believe it was Mark Twain who spoke of a ‘good story well-told’. Genre is clearly about story and, sure, not always about beautiful language. Literary fiction is often about the beauty of language and the underlying metaphor. But both can–and do—coexist. Look at Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, James Lee Biurke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. These are books that combine the best of storytelling with superb craftsmanship. Elmore Leonard is another, and suspense authors like Peter Straub and Stephen King.
Writing that is ornate and constructed using only literary devices and pretty words are too common in literary fiction, and they do a disservice to that genre. Within their own genre there are plenty examples of literary writers who know how to tell a story.
We writers should all aspire to telling the best story we can using the sharpest tools in our toolbox.
When I was a kid I chanced to become friendly with Ray Bradbury and benefited from his advice and encouragement. One of the many things he told me was that a writer was born with the ability to tell a story. You couldn’t learn that. You had it or you didn’t. But since that was an unearned gift, a writer only deserved it if he then made sure to study the craft of writing and to constantly work to improve his acquired skills. I take that lesson very seriously.
Who’s in your TBR pile? Here’s your chance to pimp some favorite authors you feel should get more attention.
My TBR pile is a mile high, and I read across genre lines. Lately I’ve been re-reading the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. They’re my favorite series of books. Among the more recent works I have the latest novels by Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Vince Flynn, James Rollins and John Sandford waiting to be devoured. I’m also reading books for possible cover quotes, including stunning works by Jon McGoran, Kendare Blake, John Everson and others.
What’s next for Jonathan Maberry?
I have a big year, both in terms of what I have to write and what’s coming out. My writing schedule is wall-to-wall. I’m writing CODE ZERO, the sixth Joe Ledger thriller; then I’ll write FALL OF NIGHT, a zombie thriller (sequel to 2011’s bestselling DEAD OF NIGHT). Then I write WATCH OVER ME, the first in a new teen mystery-thriller series for Simon & Schuster. I’m also writing comics for Marvel and Dark Horse, and I have a slew of short stories on tap.
As for what’s next to debut, Marvel will release MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE AVENGERS in a few weeks; then JournalStone will debut LIMBUS, INC, a spec-fiction shared world antho in which I have a noir novella featuring a werewolf P.I. I have short stories in anthologies ranging in theme from Auguste DuPin (Poe’s acerbic amateur detective) to weird west to contemporary ghost stories. Then in August Simon & Schuster will release FIRE & ASH, the final volume of my post-apocalyptic quadrology. The first book in that series, ROT & RUIN, is in development for film. I also have a story in LIAR LIAR, an audio anthology of tales from The Liars Club.
I’m also on a more or less continuous book tour.
And, no, I don’t sleep.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FIRE & ASH, PATIENT ZERO and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He is the editor of V-WARS, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. He is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara Jo.
To learn more about Jonathan, please visit his website.