"What's the matter?" Zimba asked.
"My muse is not amused today," I said. I sipped my third Dunkaccino in my doldrums, and sharpened a few more pencils. I had been alternately doodling and sipping, trying to get my story down on paper; or, at this stage, anything down on paper.
"There's more to writing than just waiting for inspiration, you know."
"I know. But it's so hard trying to juggle time, things that need to get done, and writing. Like juggling balls, it's easy to get them into the air and not so easy keeping them there. To make matters worse, you have writers like Jonathan Maberry blithely juggling literary rings, non-ficion pins, and graphic novel buzz-saws while taking bites out of an apple, all at the same time. It's demoralizing." I took a long sip of my Dunkaccino.
"He wrote Ghost Road Blues, a first novel that's already received a preliminary Bram Stoker Award nomination. Makes me sick." I took a hopeful sip from my empty Dunkaccino cup. Damn things are never big enough.
"Well, why don't you just ask him how he does it," she said.
"You can't just go and bother a writer because—"
"Why not? It's easy. Just click your pencils together three times and say "There's no writing like my writing, there's no writing like my writing, there's no..."
I looked at her. She was serious. I clicked my pencils together and repeated those words. In a poof of light and smoke Jonathan Maberry appeared.
"Damn, not again! You neophyte writers are a pain in my — what? Oh, sorry." He adjusted the bath towel around his waist.
"Well, I see you two have lots to talk about." She left the room with rosy cheeks.
I was speechless.
"Well?" Maberry said, toweling-off his hair. "I'm waiting. Make it snappy."
With the Ghost Road Blues trilogy, the Joe Ledger series, other fiction and non-fiction books written or in the works, comic books, teaching duties, and an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu, how do you do it? Lots of coffee?
I never sleep. No, actually I multi-task well and I plan things out before I do them. Unlike a lot of novelists, my background is in journalism rather than creative writing. At Temple U I learned the reporter’s trade--get your hook, do your research fast, writing quickly, always nail your deadline, and move on. I don’t believe in writer’s block--I think that’s an excuse for poor planning or a lack of discipline. If it existed, reporters would be telling their editors that “the muse just isn’t with me today”...and the next day they’d be working at McDonalds.
Real pros write, and they write every day. They set goals and meet them. This doesn’t mean, however, that they have less passion or less of an appreciation for the more artistic aspects of writing, it’s just that they can get the job done. I have a lot of friends who are professional writers, and they all pretty much agree.
On the other hand, sometimes time evaporates and I feel like I’m driving three cars at once. Aside from writing a novel a year, I also write one or more nonfiction books a year, I write articles, I’m writing a pilot episode for a TV series; and I own or co-own a few businesses.
I’m a founding partner of the Writers Corner USA (in Doylestown, PA), which is a writers education center, and I teach a bunch of classes there--which I love; I’m co-founder of The Wild River Review, a literary e-zine, and I just wrote a long serial feature on the ‘thriller genre’, which included interviews with Lawrence Blocks, Steve Hamilton, Barry Eisler, and others; I own Career Doctor for Writers, which provides editorial, proofing and career counseling for writers; and I’m president and chief-instructor for COP-Safe, which provides cuff-and-arrest and risk management workshops for law enforcement. I sit on a couple of boards — Philadelphia Writers Conference, etc.; and I’m the president of the New Jersey/Pennsylvania Chapter of the Horror Writers Association.
So...where do I find the time? The real answer is that I have no freaking idea. Stuff gets done and I stay happy doing it. Coffee and meditation help a lot.
What's Ghost Road Blues about, and why is it shaking up the Bram Stoker Awards?
The success of Ghost Road Blues took me a little off guard. After thirty years as a magazine and nonfic book writer I took a shot at a novel--a trilogy of novels, actually--and hoped it would have at least modest success. I’d never written book length fiction before and simply sat down and wrote the kind of book I would read. I love epic stories, I love stories with ensemble casts, I love exploring the psychological cause and effect of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Fiction allows me to explore that.
Ghost Road Blues has racked up something like 107 Amazon reviews, of which nearly 100 are 5-star. Publishers Weekly compared it to Stephen King, and even though I don’t think I write like King, that was a helluva nice thing for them to say.
I think some of its success comes from my public appearances. I have so much fun with the horror genre, and people tell me that they love my enthusiasm and passion. When I do a talk or appear at a signing, I don’t just sit there and blab about my books...I talk about the whole genre, about the marvelous books--both classic and recent--that keep horror vital and alive.
Having the book recommended for two Stokers--Novel and First Novel--floored me. It absolutely floored me. I had no idea that I’d get even a single recommendation, and yet at the end of the initial phase I was in first place for recs for First Novel, and sixth in Novel! If I make it all the way to the official ‘Nomination’ phase, which happens around the middle of February, I think I have my strongest shot in First Novel. But even if I don’t win...just being included in the short list is a real buzz. I’ve read all of the other books, and I don’t see them as ‘competing’ books. These are books by friends and people I really admire. It’s excellent company no matter what happens, and we’ve all been joking that the winner has to buy the others the first round of drinks at the Stoker Banquet.
Why do you use the horror genre as your writing voice?
Horror allows me to take the brakes off. Horror isn’t safe and writing shouldn’t be safe. In horror you can address the darkest, most dangerous parts of the human heart, and that’s where you learn about the true nature of each character. Some of our most profound pieces of literature have used the supernatural as a vehicle for telling stories of great cultural, literary, or psychological worth. Shakespeare loved the supernatural — The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth; Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a pretty damn scary ghost story; Dracula and Frankenstein are enduring classics. Go back further and look at Dante and Milton, at Homer. Monsters, ghosts, demons. Most people want to believe in a larger world; and even for those who don’t, the horror format allows you a structure for telling a tale that otherwise readers might not try.
You see the same thing in SF and fantasy. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek were really morality tales, social or political commentary, even farces about the human condition--and if they had been done as straight dramas on TV would we even have watched them, let alone remember them all these decades later?
There is such a grand tradition of horror writers speaking in a voice that is unafraid of telling the truth about what goes on in the twisting corridors of the human mind. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend tells you just about anything you’ll ever need to know about how we deceive ourselves by accepting the propaganda that supports our biased vision of the world; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a short course on the dynamics of psychological disintegration; Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes speaks eloquently about the devastating effect of the choices we make, and about the ordinary heroism latent in the human soul. The list goes on.
Sadly, in recent years horror’s gotten a bad rap. All of the major publishers, including the one that does my books—Pinnacle--have stopped using ‘horror’ on the spines. They’ve started calling their books ‘fiction’. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub are known as ‘suspense’ writers. Maybe it’s backlash because of torture-based films like Saw and the spate of slasher films we had over the last couple of decades, the whole industry has been labeled as trash. That’s amazingly unfair...especially since most of the slasher flicks were not written by horror writers, or even writers of adequate literary chops. When a real writer takes a shot at writing something like a serial killer story you get a Silence of the Lambs.
I’m going to rant a bit here, so bear with me. When real horror writers--whether they call themselves that or not--take a popular genre and give it their all, you get books that can stand as literature by anyone’s standards. You want a ghost story? Try The Shining, or Matheson’s Stir of Echoes; Wither by John Passarella, or Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.
You want to read about the social and psychological effects of the apocalypse, a genre with a lot of great books, take a look at The Stand, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
You want a good monster tale that actually has story rather than just shock? Pick up Charles Grant’s The Pet, Phantoms by Dean Koontz, Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.
There are marvelous cross-genre works, like the Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson, and the mysteries with a touch of the supernatural that John Connolly and Peter Straub write with such elegance and insight.
Novels about culture clash? Try Dan Simmons’ The Song of Kali or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory.
Or, how about coming of age? That genre doesn’t begin and end with To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Take another look at The Body by Stephen King, A Boy’s Life by McCammon, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, and Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.
We even have slasher stories that strike right to the heart--Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; and Jack Ketchum’s legendary Off Season.
And this is just scratching the surface. For every book and writer I just named there are dozens and dozens of others in the horror genre who have written-- and are still writing--books of literary merit that also display deep insight, subtlety, and the power to both encourage and compel deeper thought on the part of the reader. Horror does this because to a large degree that’s what horror literature is all about.
"Hey, these Dunkaccinos are good," Maberry said, sipping his second cup. Glenor 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 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 unwritten--."
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. He was holding two pencils.
"Incredible! It works," he said to Zimba. I found myself standing in the library.
Damn. Now I’ll never get any free time.