Between the Lines Interview with Jonathan Maberry by Paula Tutman

By Paula Tutman

Have you seen the cover of Jonathan Maberry’s new novel, EXTINCTION MACHINE?  If you didn’t know that Joe Ledger was a bad-ass before, the cover leaves absolutely no doubt.  The fifth installment of the series of books published by St. Martin’s Press, the new release takes the Baltimore detective to new highs and lows.

I’m from the Baltimore area.  I remember when it was a dusty, dingy little industrial town.  With the Inner Harbor, the baseball stadium and the explosion of downtown, it has become a charming, dingy little industrial town.  Its proximity to Washington D.C. means the smog of politics wafts along the breeze and settles in the nooks and crannies of ‘Bal’more’, sealing the cracks with espionage, intrigue and duplicity.  Joe Ledger seems to be right at home in all of it, with a few demons of his own working interchangeably as sidekicks and advisors.  In the new novel, Maberry sums the adventure up like this, “In this one, Joe and the Department of Military Sciences  rush headlong into the heat of the world’s strangest and deadliest arms race, because the global race to recover and retro-engineer alien technologies has just hit a snag. Someone—or something–wants that technology back.”

Maberry goes on to say, “This book is my first exploration of the phenomenon of UFOs and alien tech. Is it real? Is it all a hoax? What’s the rationale for keeping the truth hidden from the public? That’s what we explore during the process of telling a wild adventure.“The President of the United States vanishes from the White House. A top-secret prototype stealth fighter is destroyed during a test flight.  Witnesses on the ground say that it was shot down by a craft that immediately vanished at impossible speeds. All over the world reports of UFOs are increasing at an alarming rate.  And in a remote fossil dig in China dinosaur hunters have found something that is definitely not of this earth. There are rumors of alien-human hybrids living among us.”

How does he do it?  How does Jonathan Maberry come up with this stuff, make it plausible, believable and downright thrilling?  Jonathan was kind enough in the midst of rolling out the new novel to play 20 questions with me.  Okay, it was really only fifteen but they give interesting insight into the mind of Jonathan Maberry and man and myth who is Joe Ledger.

Who are your characters?  What motivates them in this book?

The main character, of course, is Joe Ledger, a former Baltimore cop who now works for a black ops group formed to oppose terrorists who are using cutting-edge technology. In psychological terms, Joe is a bag of rabid hamsters. However he’s found a careful balance between his damage and his drive, which allows him to be the kind of outside-the-box thinker needed to cope with bizarre threats. He’s also very funny. And that’s strange, because he’s far funnier than I am. Not sure where that comes from. Bottom line, though, Joe has seen first-hand the damage that can be done to the innocent by the corrupt and he is absolutely vicious when it comes to standing between the innocent and those who would hurt them.

What is the one thing in the book in which readers would be surprised to know the real back-story. You know, the story behind the story.

Joe and I share similar histories in that we both went through some intense childhood trauma. We survived it similarly in that a dedication to realistic martial arts gave us balance, sharpened our focus, and made us strong. Joe is, however, crazier than I am. I think.

How did you come up with the plot?

I’ve always had a fascination with UFOs and the possibilities of alien contact. However I’m a very practical guy –a balance, I believe, between idealist and cynic—so I applied some common sense thinking to the topic. I call it writing from the ground up. I did tremendous research into all aspects of the topic, from the wackiest conspiracy theories to rational theories on everything from the design philosophies of alien tech and how such tech would play into political brinksmanship. I also interviewed top experts in the field such as George Noory, host of the popular Coast to Coast AM radio show, and UFO Magazine publisher Bill Birnes –both of who become characters in the story.

Talk a little about your writing process.

I’m a disciplined writer. I write eight to ten hours a day, every day. Well, a bit less on weekends. I plot and outline my books, though I also allow for quite a bit of organic change during the writing process. I tend to write the beginning and then the end, then I back up and aim at that ending. I write fast (a benefit of my training as a journalist), and I enjoyed the rewrite process.

My writing starts with the experience of a character, in this case with Joe Ledger. Then I populate the story with other characters, often writing the scenes that introduce key players out of sequence. I do that because I want to know who those characters are, and I discover a lot about them by writing their intro scenes. Knowing who they are helps steer the story toward them in a way that is logical and interesting.

I also write very fast. I seem to do my best work at high speed. Probably another side-effect of being trained to write newspaper articles and magazine features.

How much research do you do and how do you get it done?

I begin research for a book months in advance, often seeding the Net with dozens o, in some cases, hundreds of email requests. I interview experts in a variety of fields and gather tons of information. Often the info I get from an expert makes me see the nonfiction elements of my story in ways I hadn’t expected, and as a result the plot occasionally changes. The research continues throughout the writing process, with what I call ‘incidental research’ to add bits of interesting nuance to the story.

How did you start writing?

I’ve always told stories. Before I could read I told stories with toys. I sold my first magazine article (to BLACK BELT Magazine) in 1978 while a junior in college. I sold my first nonfiction book (JUDO AND YOU) in 1990 while teaching at Temple University; and my first mainstream nonfiction book (THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE UNDEAD, written as Shane MacDougall) was published in 2000. My first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES, debuted in 2006, my first short story, “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” was published in 2008, and mu first comic book, PUNISHER: NAKED KILLS came out the same year. Along the way I’ve sold 1200 feature articles, 3000 columns, greeting cards, poetry, two plays, tele-center call-floor scripts, package text, how-to books, training manuals, sixteen novels, twenty-eight nonfiction books, and eleven graphic novels. I’m working on my first screenplay now.

 Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?

I pay attention to the world. I observe people. And I read everything I can on science.

Who is your favorite character in the book and why?  What did you enjoy about writing him/her?

Joe Ledger is always my favorite character. He’s flawed, funny, violent, honorable, idealist, cynical, savvy and a bit weird. How could I not love writing about him. Even though I plot the books and tell his story, he frequently surprises me. When a character is that real and immediate in your head it’s a hell of a lot of fun to tell his story.

Tell me about your past life…current life, family life and how those aspects impact your writing.

I grew up in a very rough part of Philadelphia and in a horror-story of a home life. I realized early on that I needed to find a way out of that cesspool, and I knew that power would do it. Books and their knowledge were one kind of power. Martial arts was another. I read everything I could, and I trained every single day. As a result I got tough enough to survive and smart enough to figure a way out.

Since then I’ve had an odd path. I’ve been, variously, a bouncer in a strip club, a bodyguard in the entertainment industry, a graphic artist, an actor in regional musical theater, a college teacher, a telemarketer, a martial arts instructor, and the CEO of a company that provided arrest-and-control workshops for all levels of law enforcement including SWAT.

Currently, I’m semi-retired from teaching martial arts and work as a full-time writer. I write three novels a year, as well as comics for Marvel (and others), short stories, articles, and more. I also write the ‘Scary Out There’ blog on teen fiction for the Horror Writers Association. My wife, Sara Jo, and I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but we plan on moving to San Diego later this year.

How do you want your readers to feel or see the world when they finish it?

EXTINCTION MACHINE, like all of my books, does not proselytize any specific point of view. It doesn’t take political sides at all. I hope, however, after reading it that they take a moment to consider how much more interesting it would be if we are not, in fact, alone in this big ol’ universe of ours.

Is there a subliminal message you’re trying to get across in this book?

There’s subtext in everything I write, though I suppose if there was a running theme then it would be: Don’t hurt the innocent.

Where do you go from here?  Are you already working on a new book?

I just finished CODE ZERO, the 6th Joe Ledger novel; and the very next day I started FALL OF NIGHT, an apocalyptic thriller (also for St. Martin’s Griffin). I’m in the middle of writing a new horror comic, and plotting WATCH OVER ME, the first in my new series of young adult mystery thrillers for Simon &Schusters.

 

As for the anything else, Maberry has somewhat of an open invitation to anyone who wants to get to know him and his characters better, saying, “Come join me online. There’s a kind of ongoing party rolling back and forth between my Facebook page and Twitter or @jonathanmaberry. And check out my teen horror blog, Scary Out There.

*****

Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FLESH & BONE, GHOST ROAD BLUES, DUST & DECAY, PATIENT ZZERO, THE WOLFMAN, and many others include a new mystery-thriller YA series, WATCH OVER ME, scheduled to debut in 2014. His nonfiction books include ULTIMATE JUJUTSU, THE CRYPTOPEDIA, ZOMBIE CSU, WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, and others. Jonathan’s award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He’s the editor/co-author of V-WARS, a vampire-themed anthology, and he’ll be editing an anthology of YA horror for the Horror Writers Association. He was a featured expert on The History Channel special ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. His comics include CAPTAIN AMERICA: HAIL HYDRA, DOOMWAR, MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN and MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE AVENGERS. He teaches the Experimental Writing for Teens class, 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 and a fierce little dog named Rosie.

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