By A.J. Colucci
Just try to take a breath while reading CODE ZERO, Jonathan Maberry’s latest novel in the Joe Ledger series, a high-octane suspense thriller that pulls you in from start to finish and never lets up on the action. Maberry is a master at weaving complex, yet tightly woven stories that are full of larger-than-life characters, fascinating science, and the vilest villains.
In CODE ZERO, the Department of Military Sciences has been fighting for years to stop terrorists from using radical bioweapons—designer plagues, weaponized pathogens, genetically modified viruses, and even the zombie plague that first brought Ledger into the DMS. These terrible weapons have been locked away in the world’s most secure facility. Until now. Joe Ledger and Echo Team are scrambled when a highly elite team of killers breaks the unbreakable security and steals the world’s most dangerous weapons. Within days there are outbreaks of mass slaughter and murderous insanity across the American heartland. Can Joe Ledger stop a brilliant and devious master criminal from turning the Land of the Free into a land of the dead?
Switching gears has worked very well for Jonathan Maberry, who has written everything from plays to comic books to greeting cards. He’s a New York Times bestselling author of eighteen novels and a four-time Bram Stoker Award winner. Besides the Joe Ledger thrillers, he also writes the Rot & Ruin series, the Nightsiders series, the Dead of Night series, and the Watch Over Me series; as well as the monthly comics V-WARS and ROT & RUIN. Two of his novels are in development for film, and another for TV. He teaches Experimental Writing for Teens, is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club.
Jonathan took some time to talk about his latest book, CODE ZERO, and his prolific writing career.
It’s easy to see why your fans clamor for more Joe Ledger books. The guy’s got some serious fighting skills, a strict moral code, and a biting sense of humor.
Joe Ledger is a fun character to write. He has some of my personal background (though I don’t share his psychosis), and he has my morals and smartass sense of humor. But he also has a lot of other qualities, some of which surprise me because they show up during the writing. Even though I plot my books out, Joe tends to go off on tangents. And I love painting him into a corner just to see how he gets out. CODE ZERO is the sixth Ledger novel to be published. I’m writing the seventh, PREDATOR ONE, and we just sold an eighth, KILL SWITCH. And there’s a collection of Ledger short stories coming up in April—JOE LEDGER: SPECIAL OPS. He’ll even get a three-issue guest spot in my V-WARS comic book (which launches from IDW in May).
While Joe struggles with the paradox of having to kill people in order to save people, we genuinely feel his pain. How did you come up with the character?
My answer to that might sound like it contradicts my earlier statement about not sharing his psychosis. Joe started talking to me. Here’s how that works. I was in a diner near where I used to live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I was going over notes for a nonfiction book I was writing for Citadel Press (ZOMBIE CSU: THE FORENSICS OF THE LIVING DEAD). Suddenly two characters started having a conversation in my head. Understand, if you’re not a writer this is a serious cry for help. If you are a writer, however, it’s how the process sometimes works. The conversation was interesting and the characters seemed to be into it. I didn’t know what they were talking about, so I started jotting it down, building on it, fleshing it out. It became clear that a cop from Baltimore was being interviewed for a job with a covert special ops team. Six or seven cups of diner coffee later I had the scene drafted out longhand.
When I got home, I typed it up and then used a trick suggested by my friend David Morrell. I interviewed the character. I asked him a lot of probing questions and in the process of that discovered that he’s an ex-Army Ranger, a Baltimore detective, a fractured personality, an idealist and a realist, and he’s funny as balls.
I spent some time coming up with the first story I wanted to tell about him and pitched a few pages to my agent, Sara Crowe (of Harvey Klinger, Inc.). She liked it and immediately shopped it. We got some solid offers pretty quickly and we decided to go with St. Martin’s Griffin. That book became PATIENT ZERO.
The personality of Joe Ledger is based, as I said, partly on me, but mostly on various cops and SpecOps guys I’ve known over the years. The character has evolved nicely over the course of six novels and a dozen short stories.
It’s almost exhausting reading CODE ZERO. How do you keep up that high level of action, suspense and surprising twists that keep readers flipping those pages?
I’m easily bored, so I don’t want to bore myself while writing. And I’m a recovering adrenaline junkie. I used to skydive, I used to travel all over looking for insane roller coasters. It’s, ahem, possible I used to drive muscle cars at unsafe speeds. So I plot my books to feed my need for speed. Often I’ll write the beginning, then jump forward and write the ending. Then I back up and aim at that ending, a process that helps me write only those scenes that move the story along at a breakneck pace.
Mother Night, The villain in CODE ZERO is not only ruthless in nature and ambition, but very adept at exploiting those who see themselves as victims in society. How important is it that villains have a higher calling?
No one wakes up and suddenly decides that they’re evil. It’s a process. Either of corruption, temptation, psychosis, chemical imbalance. Whatever it is, there is a process. The best villains are born out of a series of unfortunate incidents, shaped by real-world forces. In all of my books I do a lot of work to make sure that my villains are real people who have a genuine belief in themselves and a need to do what they do.
Mother Night is one of the most deeply explored villains in any of my books. CODE ZERO is as much her story as it is Joe’s. She gets nearly as much screen time, so to speak. I enjoyed writing her story, and I think she’s the most interesting and dangerous villain I’ve created.
Your fight scenes are visual, exciting, but most of all authentic. Where did you get your combat and weapons expertise, and how can other authors make sure they get these important details right?
I’ve been actively involved in martial arts for nearly fifty years. I started in Japanese jujutsu and Korean Hapkido as a little kid. I was a bodyguard, I worked as a bouncer in a very dangerous club, I taught women’s self-defense at Temple University, and I co-created COP-Safe, an arrest and control program for all levels of law enforcement, including SWAT. I was also the Expert Witness for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office for murder cases involving martial arts. I’ve been in or around violent confrontations most of my life, so I draw on experience to shape believable action scenes.
For those aspects of combat I don’t know firsthand—such as military firefights—I interview experts and experienced combat vets. Authors should always check with experts.
One word comes to mind when reading your bio: Time. Where do you find enough of it? I was thinking somehow, while doing all your scientific research, you figured out a way to clone yourself.
I was trained as a journalist, and reporters don’t waste time. They don’t have time to waste. You get the information, ask the questions, write the draft, fix it in the rewrite and move on. Reporters don’t fall into the trap of believing in myths like ‘writers block’—which I think is a bad label for others things—and they don’t sit around moping until the muse graces them with inspiration. They are professionals. They put their butts in their chairs and they write. I use that approach.
Also, one of the paths to becoming a successful working writer is to realize that writing is an art form but publishing is a business. You have to know both and be good at both.
That said, it’s also important to pay attention to your process. I’m self-employed, which means I’m my own boss. I have to do constant efficiency evaluations to make sure I’m using my time and resources with the most efficiency. At the same time I have to manage an output that pays the bills while not burning me out. Luckily, as I mentioned before, I like the fast lane. I like to write fast. I like to work on multiple projects.
When I first switched to fiction in 2003, it took me nearly two years to write my first book. I’m closing in on finishing my twenty-second book, and these days it takes me about three months to write a 140,000-word novel from first word to polished draft. I write three to four novels a year, plus two monthly comics and short stories. That’s the pace I love. I know friends whose pace is faster and those whose pace is slower. What matters is finding the pace that suits you. This suits me very well. I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.
Some authors think plotting is sacrilegious. They think it takes away the spontaneity, and if you know what’s going to happen, so will your readers. As a structure guy, you prove them completely wrong because your books are full of twists and surprises. What is your take on plotting?
Plotting and pantsing are not mutually exclusive concepts. Not sure why people think they are. I start with a bullet-pointed plot because I have a logical mind and novels are like equations. This scene plus that scene equals this natural outcome. However, as I write I allow for spontaneous and organic growth. Of course I do. You can’t expect to have all of your best ideas the day you drafted out your plot. However having that plot helps me stay focused on the story. My thrillers are also mysteries. I need to foreshadow, lay clues and build suspense. To do that I need to know where the story is going.
You’ve spent a lot of time teaching aspiring authors. I’m reminded of a passage in Stephen King’s book ON WRITING. He believes—and I’m paraphrasing here—while it’s impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, or a great writer out of a good one, it is possible with a lot of hard work to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. Would you agree with that?
Yes and no. I get what Steve is saying, but there’s more to it. I actually believe that there is a gene that codes for storytelling. Storytellers are born with a gift or they’re not. You can’t instill that ability in someone who doesn’t have it. Much like natural musical talent or art talent. That said, what you can do is teach a storyteller the skills of craft. Learning those skills, becoming familiar with the subtleties and nuances of those tools is absolutely something you can teach. You can teach the techniques of voice, of point of view, of figurative and descriptive language, of wrapping expressive thoughts around inexpressive ideas, of crafting specific kinds of scene, of listening to people to become better at dialogue. And so on. At the same time, you can help teach how to freshen a story so that it turns clichés into reimagined gems. All of that is teachable. I learned a lot of that from Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, two marvelous writers I got to know when I was a kid. I learned rhythmic pacing from Harlan Ellison, and research for fiction from Sprague de Camp.
You’ve become something of a living-dead expert, as well as a research junkie who meticulously studies your science. So come on, I have to ask. Are zombies possible?
Not in the George Romero way. And I think we can all be damned thankful for that. But there are a lot of diseases that can affect personality and cause aberrant and dangerous behavior. There are designer drugs and chemical weapons that can be employed to great harm. And there are parasites in nature who have already been shown to negatively—and dangerously—alter the behavior of insects and animals. Give a scientist enough money and a reason to want to create a bioweapon that approximates zombies and in time he’ll come up with something.
The zombie plague used in CODE ZERO is based on pretty reliable science. It’s science taken as far as it will go. I use a different basis for zombies in FALL OF NIGHT, a horror novel I have coming out in September (also from Griffin).
No doubt you’ve got a lot more going on. What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m like one of those jugglers who has a lot of plates spinning atop a bunch of flexible sticks. I have a lot of crockery in the air right now. After CODE ZERO’s debut, I have the collection JOE LEDGER: SPECIAL OPS coming out in April from JournalStone. Then FALL OF NIGHT in September. And later this year THE NIGHTSIDERS will debut, which is the first in a new series of science fiction novels for middle grade readers. I have two anthologies coming out that I’ve edited: V-WARS: BLOOD AND FIRE, from IDW and OUT OF TUNE from JournalStone. My five-issue limited series vampire comic, BAD BLOOD, is nearing the end of its run from DARK HORSE. In May, a new comic based on V-WARS debuts from IDW; and then another comic, ROT & RUIN debuts in September. That one’s adapted from my series of post-apocalyptic teen novels.
And I’m writing a bunch of new things. I’m finishing Joe Ledger number six, PREDATOR ONE; then I write DEADLANDS, a novel inspired by the million-copy selling role-playing game; then WATCH OVER ME, a mystery-thriller for older teens; then the second NIGHTSIDERS book, and a brand new as-yet unnamed mainstream chiller for adults, which we sold last week.
No, I don’t sleep. Sleep is for the weak.
Jonathan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Any parting advice for aspiring authors?
The advice I give to writers and writing students everywhere is to not get in your own way. Don’t buy into the writer as artiste. Don’t be a prima-donna. Get involved, help other writers and share in the fun when they hit any milestone, no matter how small. We’ll all do better if we realize that everyone in this game—writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers—are pulling at oars on the same boat. If we work together we can steer that boat into safer waters.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, four-time Bram Stoker Award winner, and comic book writer. He writes the Joe Ledger thrillers, the Rot & Ruin series, the Nightsiders series, the Dead of Night series, and the Watch Over Me series; as well as the monthly comics V-WARS and ROT & RUIN. Two of his novels are in development for film, and another for TV. He teaches Experimental Writing for Teens, is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan lives in Del Mar, California with his wife, Sara Jo.
To learn more about Jonathan, please visit his website.