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Interview With Jonathan Maberry: Part Two

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In Part One of our interview, Jonathan Maberry provided a book list of must-reads for horror readers that would choke Cerberus, showed us what hard work is all about, and made us realize just how important horror fiction really is. In Part Two, he discusses the mechanics of writing, and provides nuggets of gold for those aspiring writers that will turn his recommendations into actions. He also includes a must-read list of authors any horror fan would appreciate.

"Hey, these Dunkaccinos are good," Maberry said, sipping his second cup. Glenor Glenda, the maid, was kind enough to make a sustenance run for us. "You could raise the heat, too, you know. I'm freezing my ass off." He pulled the towel tight around his waist as I turned up the thermostat. "Now where were we?"

 
What's your formula for writing? Tana leaves tea sipped by moonlight, devil's pact? How do you put pen to paper?

I do this for a living, so I don’t have to worry about the grind of the commute (been there, done that). I usually roll out of bed around 7-ish in the morning and by 7:30 I’m at the computer.

I always work with a minimum daily word count — typically 2,000 words. Once I nail that I generally shift to other work — administrative, editing clients’ work, research for my next book, or I go and meet with writers for whom I do career counseling.

I don’t take days off from writing. Ever. I may have days where by necessity I write a little less, but I always catch up by the end of the week. As a result I can usually do a book, from first word to final draft, in about four months. That’s the journalist in me: set a schedule and a deadline, and git ‘er done.

In my writing process I don’t go through any rituals. I could write anywhere, anytime. I’m not temperamental and I don’t let myself get distracted. Mind you, I prefer a moderately quiet workspace — my office at home with some blues on the CD player, or at my office at the Writers Corner, listening to classic rock, jazz, or classical.  Music is great for my process, but I can write without it. All I really need is a keyboard and I’m good to go.

As a writing teacher, what can you tell future writers to help them find their inner voice, or, at least, use fairly good grammar?

Yep, there are some basic things all emerging writers should consider:

First, write every day.

Every single calendar day. No excuses, no procrastination. If you write every day you get better everyday.

Second, pick one project and work on it to completion.

If another project bugs you, then in your spare time take notes on it, but finish what you start.

When you start a draft, don’t stop to rewrite or revise until the first draft is done.

There should be no exceptions to this. When you stop to revise you interrupt the flow and you change the voice. If new ideas come to you, then start a file called “revision notes” and write your ideas down; that way you preserve them and can find them when you rewrite.

Understand what a ‘first draft” is.

All that a first draft has to be — is done. The first draft is the bare bones of the story, and concentrating on telling the story is all that you need to do. It’s not about pretty language, etc. It’s just about the story. Since a first draft will NEVER read like a final draft, don’t drive yourself nuts by trying to make every line perfect. Polishing a work is not the point of this draft and is counterproductive.

The revision phase is all about prettying up the work.

That’s when you concentrate on the mechanics of language — metaphor, allegory, parallel construction, and so on; and that’s when you tighten plot, tweak dialogue, etc.

If you look at it like this, it might help:

  • FIRST DRAFT is about gut and heart; it’s intuitive, organic, and it requires freedom and randomness and a fast pace. Storytelling is something we’re born with, so there’s more instinct here and less deliberate control.
  • REVISION is about brain and experience and knowledge. This is the part we writers learn, and has little to do with our natural storytelling abilities. This is the craft, not the art. If you try to use the conscious part of the brain at the same time as the instinctive/intuitive part of the brain, it’ll be like trying to wax your car while driving it.

What publications and projects are next on your agenda?

Well, my publishing and writing schedule is pretty interesting. On July 3 Pinnacle will release Dead Man’s Song, the middle book in the Ghost Road trilogy. It’s a different kind of story than the first one, which was primarily a chase structure. This is more of a mystery, and it’s far more overtly supernatural than the first. I also get to explore the characters more deeply, and show how the events in the first book impact their lives.

I just wrapped up a signing tour for Ghost Road Blues that overlapped with the release of my most recent nonfiction, Vampire Universe (Citadel Press), which looks at the myths and legends of vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural predators around the world and throughout history.

In August, Citadel Press will release The Cryptopedia: A Dictionary of the Weird, Strange and Downright Bizarre, which I did with David F. Kramer. That was a fun book. We did essays and dictionary chapters on UFOs, New Age, Cryptozoology, Hauntings, and so on. Great artwork, too, from artists around the world, guys like Jason Beam, Ken Meyer Jr, Morbideus Goodell, Sandro Castill, Leo Plaw… a whole bunch of super-talented folks.

Those books have already been delivered to my editor. As far as my writing schedule, I just finished Bad Moon Rising, the concluding book in my Ghost Road trilogy. That one was far more action-oriented, and it was also the most fun because I actually got to use real-life guest stars.

Since the story deals with a town gearing up for a major Halloween Festival, I reached out to some folks I know in the horror industry and asked if I could write them into the story as celebs making appearances in the town just as things go very, very bad.  Everyone said “hell yes!”, so I have Ken Foree (star of the original Dawn of the Dead), Tom Savini, Stephen Susco (screenwriter of the Grudge films), James Gunn (screenwriter for the remake of Dawn of the Dead and writer/director for Slither), scream queens Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon, horror stuntman/actor Jim O’Rear, and everyone’s favorite Drive-In movie critic, Joe Bob Briggs.  Plus I had a raffle for Katrina Relief and the winning ticket holders got to appear in the book.

Now that it’s done, I’m launching into a pop-culture nonfiction book called ZOMBIE CSI: The Forensic Science of the Living Dead, which is built around interviews with real world experts on forensics and law enforcement, asking them how they would respond to a zombie uprising. It’s true weird science, because some of these guys — especially the neurologists I’ve been talking with — have worked out some credible theories for how the living dead might actually rise. Creepy, but fun. I’m even going to spend a whole day with a SWAT team.

For that book I’m also including lots of sidebar interviews with filmmakers, TV folks, authors, artists, gamers, and others involved in the Zombie pop-culture. Everyone’s really into this, and I’ve been getting 100% cooperation from everyone, from local forensics labs to Homeland Security, and all the great folks in the entertainment industry. I have to deliver the book in August and it’ll be released in August of 2008.

In June or July I’ll be heading out to L.A. to pitch a TV series, but that’s all kind of hush-hush.

When I’m done with Zombie CSI, I have a whole bunch of other books lined up.  My agent has sold eight books for me in the last two years, only one of which was actually written at the time, so I have a lot to do. I’m going to write an international thriller with a horror sub-plot; plus I have more nonfics in the works, including They Bite: Vampires, Demons, Monsters and other Creatures of Darkness (due from Citadel in 2009); and Vampire Hunters and other Enemies of Evil (due in 2010).

Along the way other projects will almost certainly come up. I’m working on a few short stories, too, and may be editing an anthology, but we’ll see how the market goes for that. My agent’s shopping the proposal around.

Who are your favorite authors, horror and otherwise? Why?

That’s a long, long list. I read a lot of horror, but I also read a lot of mystery and thrillers. In the latter category my favorites are James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Steve Hamilton, Lee Child, Barry Eisler, Robert B. Parker, David Housewright, William Kent Krueger, Harlan Coben, Jeremiah Healy, Tess Gerritsen, Stuart Kaminsky, Ken Bruen… probably a dozen others.

My horror readings are really broad and often overlap SF and fantasy. I devour books, maybe two to four a week, plus the ones I listen on CD while I’m driving. I’ve been a King fan since Carrie and thought his Dark Tower series was brilliant; but I read Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, James Herbert, Richard Matheson, F. Paul Wilson, Doug Clegg, Ray Bradbury, John Lutz, Yvonne Navarro, Tim Lebbon, Simon Clark, Brian Keene, Scott Nicholson, L.A. Banks, Michael Laimo… God, the list goes on and on, including newcomers to fiction like me: Sarah Langan, Gary Frank, Nate Kenyon, Joe McKinney and others. And that doesn’t even touch the short stories writers I dig: Kaelan Patrick Burke, Jason Brannon, John Everson, Fran Friel, Mike McCarty, Mort Castle… too many to mention.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the genre.

What question would you love to be asked, and what's your answer?

The question I’ve always found the most interesting is “why do you write about monsters”… which is not actually what I do. I don’t write about the monster, I write about people overcoming the monster. When I was a kid, my favorite horror hero was Van Helsing, not Dracula  — and to be specific, it was the more dashing and spry Peter Cushing version of Van Helsing.

In my writing I like to see how people confront darkness, whether it’s an external thing like a monster, a killer, a physical threat, or whether it’s internal, like temptation, corruption, lust, fear. I believe that evil, like goodness, is the result of choice. I don’t believe that the argument should begin and end with “nature versus nurture”. Both of those are contributing factors, but it the choice a person makes that really matters; and how a person justifies that choice to themselves.

My characters in Ghost Road Blues and its sequels are all conflicted in one way or another, and they’re all damaged, they all have baggage. When each of them has to, at one point or another in the three books, confront who they are and what the world is asking of them, the choices they make are like shock waves, impacting the lives around them.

I’ve had some real experience with the darker aspects of life. My childhood was something of a nightmare and by all rights the things I experienced should have turned me into a sick and twisted person. But that’s not who I am. I made choices along the way to confront the darkness I was facing, and I took a stand against the monsters in my life. That was a choice, and it wound up saving my life. It’s what made me become a self-defense teacher and abuse counselor because I wanted other people to know that the choice is really theirs, even if it’s frightening and difficult.

I was lucky enough to be able to defeat my monsters, and in my stories my characters have to face theirs. Some make the right choices, some make bad choices, but the whole story is about the process of choosing and its implications. That’s dangerous storytelling, and that’s what the horror genre does best.  With horror – even with all the shadows around me – I’m home and damn happy to be here.

 

"Now click those stupid pencils together again and get me the hell out of here. I have work to do!"

"Right." I clicked the pencils and sent the amazing Jonathan Maberry back to his busy schedule.

As I sat there pondering what he said, it occurred to me that I should contact his incredible agent. Selling so many books in advance is quite a feat. I clicked the pencils together, while reciting, "sell my unwritten books, sell my unwritten books, sell my unwrit—."

I was interrupted by a flash of light and a puff of smoke. When it cleared I found myself looking at Zombos, who had a big grin on his face.

"Incredible! It works," Zombos said to Zimba, who was standing next to him.

Damn.

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