Jonathan Maberry has no reason to fear being typecast by genre. The New York Times bestselling author and five-time Bram Stoker Award–winner has published books and stories in nearly every category imaginable, including sci-fi, horror, fantasy, thriller, mystery, young adult and Western.
In addition to editing anthologies (including the recent X-Files: Trust No One, based on the revamped TV show The X-Files), penning the popular Big Scary Blog and hosting the pop-culture podcast Three Guys With Beards, Maberry is a strong advocate for writing communities and mutual support networks—a sermon he preaches at length to crowds at writing conferences across the country. In these outtakes from our July/August 2016 issue, the bestselling writer reveals the process of putting together a series, compiling anthologies, and why readers love to be scared.
What is the key to sustaining separate series simultaneously, both creatively speaking and from a business standpoint?
Books, standalones or series are about character, and characters are people. There’s no end to any person’s emotional or psychological growth, and if a writer pays attention to the people around them, inspiration is boundless.
For my Joe Ledger series, which began with Patient Zero (Griffin, 2009) I explore the effects of the character’s life on his development. In the first book he’s a Baltimore cop, but then he’s recruited to work with a government agency hunting terrorists who have cutting-edge science weapons. Joe has to change, to rise, to become a tougher, wiser and more politically-astute person. At the same time, he suffers great personal loss, makes new friends, loses love and finds new love, and endures tremendous hardship. Each of these things offers new insight into him, and that allows me as the writer to keep telling fresh stories. The eighth Ledger novel, Kill Switch, is set to debut, and I’m writing the ninth, Dogs of War, right now. Joe evolves in each story. He’s not the same person he was, and he’s aware—often painfully aware—of the changes he’s gone through and the cost to his soul of what he’s had to do in order to do what’s necessary to save the day.
And this is how I approach each of my series. It’s not about the big-ticket high concept plot (robotics, bioweapons, transgenics), it’s always about the human experience. It’s as true in my teen post-apocalyptic zombie series, Rot & Ruin, as it is with everything I write. People are endlessly fascinating and complex, and therefore characters should be, too.
Kill Switch will be released on April 26. With a character who has been in so many dramatic situations, how do you continue to raise the stakes and keep tension high from book to book?
It would be nice to say that I have to make all this stuff up, but the truth is there are a lot of really bad things going on out there: ISIS, oil wars, the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, Internet hacking, GPS hacking, government cover-ups, autonomous machines, corporate shenanigans, wars. … Yikes. I’m a bit of a knowledge and research junkie, so I subscribe to trade journals for various fields of science and politics, and I have a large network of experts in various fields including infectious diseases, special ops, robotics, space travel, particle physics and so on. They absolutely love trying to scare me to death by telling me the latest in their fields. The ordinary citizen part of me is constantly freaked out, but the writer part of me grabs that stuff and builds novels around it. As a result, a lot of what I write about seems torn from the headlines, because the in-the-know experts gave me information long before it hits the mainstream news sources. Which means I’m sweating about this stuff before everyone else starts discussing it around the water cooler.
In your experience as a five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author, why do you think readers like to be scared?
We like to be scared for so many reasons. Partly because we like to think that there’s more to our world than what which can be measured. Partly because we like to put ourselves into the roles of the characters in a scary story and imagine what we would do, what we could do, and how we’d react. Partly, we like to explore the dangers of our own life through the filter of metaphor and allegory, largely because in fiction there is a third act, a resolution, a solution. If we see Van Helsing stake a vampire or plucky teens rise to overthrow a dystopian government or a frightened mother save her children from a poltergeist, then it helps us cultivate and preserve the optimism that allows us to believe we will somehow conquer the threats in our real lives. I know that when people ask me why I write about monsters, I tell them that I don’t. I write about people who confront monsters and find a way to defeat them. That’s a big difference.
How can writers outside the horror genre tap into that primal desire to their advantage?
The worst kind of monster story is one where the focus is too much on the monster. Readers like someone to be their proxy within a tale, and generally they won’t or can’t relate to a mindless zombie, a dragon or a man-eating shark. Sure, some monster-centric tales have been done, and even done well, but it takes a remarkable degree of skill to pull it off, and it’s a literary trick that wears very thin very fast. The best horror begins with a relatable person. That’s our doorway into the story. That person doesn’t have to be too much like us, but a lot less like the monster. Silence of the Lambs would not have worked as well had the book been more about Hannibal Lecter than about Clarice Starling, as we found out with the less powerful and less successful sequels. Stephen King’s Cujo was about the mother, not about the dog. So, writers from outside the genre are welcome aboard because we’re all writing about people in some kind of crisis. From a certain perspective it’s no different than writing a story about someone dealing with great personal loss, or going into combat, or being crushed beneath the weight of peer pressure, or having a love affair begin to crack apart. Those things have elements of dread, horror, suspense, shock, doubt, misery and so on. All that’s really needed for anyone to write horror is to remember that it’s about people, not monsters.
Horror filmmakers have advantages that horror writers do not—music, graphic images, etc. What’s the key to penning visceral horror that really jumps off of the page?
Suspense trumps shock every time. Good horror is mostly about the build up to the moment, the anticipation of what’s going to happen. Shock merely causes the reader to react but suspense invites them to participate because they are filling in the blanks by drawing on their own fears and doubts. However, once you get to the reveal, the trick to sustaining it is to constantly check in with what the characters are feeling, hearing, sensing, thinking. Every time you bring it back to the human experience you deepen the horror.
The second book in your The Nightsiders middle-grade horror series, Vault of Shadows, comes out in August. What’s the key to writing horror for young readers? Do you have to write with more restraint, or are there certain lines you feel as if you can’t cross?
Funny thing about The Nightsiders books is that they’re based on my own scary dreams from when I was a kid. I began keeping a dream diary in third grade and kept it faithfully for years. I found that by writing down my bad dreams I was able to take control of them and keep them from doing me harm. I had one particularly vivid series of dreams in which the Earth had been invaded by a swarm of intelligent alien insects and I was on the run. In the dreams I became friends with creatures who had been persecuted and attacked by humans, just as the aliens were persecuting and attacking us. So the dreams, which I had in serial fashion, were about me teaming up with werewolves, sprites, faeries, elemental spirits and so on to fight back. Some of the “monsters” of the story were good guys.
My childhood was an unhappy one because of poverty, abuse by adults, and violence in the neighborhood. My friends were a bunch of misfits trying to survive until we were old enough to get out. Which some of us did. That was a horror story, and The Nightsiders series draws on those experiences. I’ve talked with a lot of kids across the country who read the first book, The Orphan Army, and they really get where I’m coming from.
You edited an anthology of stories based on the recently revitalized hit TV show “The X-Files.” What was that experience like? How do you determine material?
I’ve been editing a slew of anthologies lately, including the series of The X-Files books (IDW Publishing); the dark fantasy series Out of Tune (JournalStone); my shared-world V-Wars series (IDW); Joe Ledger: Unstoppable (Griffin), which will be stories by A-list writers using my characters; Nights of the Living Dead (Griffin), which are stories set in the world of the classic zombie movie, and co-edited by that film’s writer and director, George A. Romero; and a young adult horror anthology, Scary Out There (due soon from Simon & Schuster). In each case I hand-pick the writers I think best suit the material. However, I also make selections on writing quality, work ethic and attitude. I tend to operate in a zero prima-donna environment.
The X-Files books are a delight to edit. I’ve been a fan of the show since it first launched and jumped at the chance to edit the anthologies. The stories I’ve been getting are amazing, and the line-up is incredible, with original stories by Heather Graham, John Gilstrap, Gayle Lynds, Kevin J. Anderson, Peter Clines, May Allen Collins, David Liss, Hank Phillippi Ran, Kami Garcia, Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine, Lois Gresh, and so many others.
My involvement with X-Files is about go a step deeper, too. #1 New York Times bestselling author Kami Garcia and I are writing two young adult novels about teenaged Mulder and Scully. The series is called The X-Files Origins and the books will publish in Winter 2017 from Macmillan. This was an idea I cooked up and thought would be great fun to do with Kami, who I’d invited to write a young Fox Mulder story for The Truth is Out There, the second volume of my X-Files anthology.
To read our full interview with Jonathan Maberry, check out the July/August 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest now.