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Jonathan Maberry On Writing, Zombies And His New Book ‘Fire & Ash’

Jonathan MaberryVenerable horror author and martial arts enthusiast Jonathan Maberry was kind enough to grant Zombie Pop some of his free time, and I discovered that he and I had more in common than just being novelists and horror/sci-fi aficionados, though he is most assuredly better at both than I am. Here’s eight questions from me and eight outstanding answers from Jonathan Maberry.

Bryan Way: We’re both Philadelphia-area natives and Temple University alums. Does growing up and being educated in Philly come out in your writing?

Jonathan Maberry: Growing up in Philly in the 60s and 70s was both an adventure and a challenge. I grew up in the Kensington section, which at the time was an intensely racist and extremely violent neighborhood. Gang fights, gunshots, and intolerance were commonplace. Reading and education were not encouraged. I had a lot of first-hand experience with the kinds of people I didn’t want to become, and that gave me a sense of direction. I wanted out and I discovered that reading and education were reliable escape routes. So I read everything I could and I made sure that I acquired the skills necessary to escape that environment. Martial arts was also important, as both a survival skill and another rung on the escape ladder.

However that’s not to say I dismiss everything about my childhood. My grandmother’s house, also in Kensington, was an oasis for me. Lots and lots of books, and not just fiction. She had a deep interest in folklore and mythology, and she engendered within me a love of myths and legends. As a result, years later I wrote six nonfiction books on supernatural folklore, and that more or less kicked me into writing fiction, since my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, was based on obscure vampire and werewolf legends from Europe.

Also, I studied journalism at Temple University and learned terrific work habits and discipline, as well as research techniques, that have helped me build a successful career.

I also taught at Temple for fourteen years. Great school.

BW:  Your first book, Judo and You, was published in 1991, and you yourself are an experienced student of martial arts. How much of this do you incorporate into your work? Even if there aren’t any martial artists in your writing, do you explore any philosophical themes you’ve gleaned from your experience?

JM: Martial arts influence all aspects of my life. I’ve been an active practitioner of traditional jujutsu for 49 years now. I’ve also studied kenjutsu (for 45 years), Korean Hapkido and Indian Varrmanie. And a little of this and that, as any career martial artist will. My heart belongs to jujutsu, though.

Realistic combat features in virtually all of my novels, particularly in my Joe Ledger thrillers and the Rot & Ruin books.They’ll be a big part of my forthcoming series of teen mystery thrillers, Watch Over Me. I am a snob about fight scenes in books. They have to be right, they have to be accurate and they should be exciting. Since I write a lot of books, it becomes a fun challenge to construct and choreograph new fights for my protagonists to engage in.

As for the philosophy, again the two series that draw on that are the Joe Ledger novels and the Rot & Ruin series. In the Ledger books, he’s a deeply damaged individual who uses the personal discipline of the martial arts to control his rage and keep his mind clear and focused. There’s a bit of my own experience in that character. In Rot & Ruin and its sequels, the older brother of the protagonist is a zombie hunter, but not a vicious one. He has respect for all life, and he teaches Benny, his teenage brother, and his friends the ways of the Samurai in order to give them ethics and purpose.

In Watch Over Me and its sequels, the Code of Bushido and its associated philosophies will get a lot of play. That series launches in August 2014 from Simon & Schuster.

BW:  Was there a single moment in a movie, book, comic, or television show that got you interested in Zombies? If so, do you ever find yourself developing elements of your writing around the effect that moment had on you?

JM: When I was ten a buddy of mine and I snuck into the old Midway Theater in Kensington to see the world premier of Night of the Living Dead. The movie traumatized my friend and he had night terrors and bedwetting issues for years. I stayed to see it again, and came back again every day to see it. I fell in love with flesh-eating ghouls not knowing they were going to be labeled as zombies yet.

Coincidentally, the novel that had the biggest impact on me was I Am Legend, which George Romero admitted was the inspiration for NOTLD. Richard Matheson, whom I met through my middle school librarian, gave me a signed first edition when I was thirteen. That was the very first novel that combined hard science with monsters. Sure, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde and The Invisible Man all reference science, but they don’t actually give you the science. Matheson did. And that book may be the single most important horror and science fiction novel of the 20th century. It influenced everything from the zombie genre to Michael Crichton, to Stephen King and Dean Koontz to scribblers like me.

BW:  Your first zombie related book was Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. What inspired you to take a scientific approach to the undead? Did the experience of writing that inspire anything in your fiction writing career?

JM: Zombie CSU was technically my second zombie book. There are zombies (called ‘dead heads’) in Bad Moon Rising, presented there as a variation of vampires. Which, by the way, is absolutely in keeping with some ancient vampire myths from Germany and elsewhere.

However Zombie CSU is what put me on the zombie map. I was writing some nonfiction folklore books for Citadel Press at the time and my editor asked if I wanted to do a nonfic zombie book. At the time the only other nonfic zombie book, apart from reviews of movies, was The Zombie Survival Guide. Max Brooks nailed the subject matter as well as it would ever be handled, so I went in a different direction. I interview more than 250 experts in fields ranging from forensic evidence collection to molecular biology to Homeland security to ask how the real world would have dealt with events like those in the Romero films. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone, from clergy to soldiers, wanted to share them. 

BWRot & Ruin starts 14 years after a zombie outbreak. Did you develop a timeline or chain of events that you could refer to? Was this something that came out of writing moment-to-moment, or did you create a sort of primer for the history of the apocalypse before the start of the book? How much detail do you put into something like this?

JM: The reason I took that particular approach is that I’m something of a science geek. Always have been, and that may have started with I Am Legend. Or, maybe science fiction in general. I’m also very practical and logical in my thinking. I can be fanciful, but I always want my fantasy grounded in logic. So, I wanted to crawl inside the zombie genre and find out what was really possible and what was simply not.

The ‘radiation from a space probe’ thing? Not possible.

Zombies? Not entirely impossible. Read the book.

Doing that research gave me ideas for several different zombie fiction ideas, the first of which was Patient Zero, the first Joe Ledger novel. It’s special ops and hard science vs terrorists with a zombie plague. It’s been described as Michael Crichton meets Night of the Living Dead. With a dash of 24.

BW:  The series that began with Rot & Ruin is referred to as the Benny Imura series, named for the protagonist who, at 15-years-old in the start of the first novel, has never known a world without the undead. How do you get into the mind of a young adult who has lived a life without the benefits, pitfalls, and vices of modern society?

JM: Getting inside the head of 15-year old is really no different than getting inside the head of an action hero (which I’m not), a vampire (which I’m not), the female love interest in one of my novels (which I’m not), or any other character. Writers observe, they remember and they imagine.

I absolutely remember being fifteen. That was tenth grade. That was serious dating. It was the bridge between being a weak kid and becoming a powerful adult. It was going from what I’d learned into what I thought. It’s such a powerful and transformative time that it etches memories onto your brain. I really didn’t have to dig too hard to get inside Benny Imura’s head. Harder, actually, to climb back out.

Fire & AshBW:  On your Wikipedia page, Fire & Ash, due out in August of 2013, is listed as the ‘final’ entry of the Benny Imura series. Is there any truth to this? If so, did you plan Fire & Ash as the last entry from the beginning? Did you know how the story was going to end when it began? If not, how much longer do you intend to continue the series?

JM: The release date for Fire & Ash has been moved up to August 27. It’s the last book in the quadrology that I pitched, but not the last possible story. My publisher recently asked me if I ‘had’ to end the series there, or if there were more stories to tell. Sure, I could tell stories in that world and with those characters for a long, long time without ever getting stale.

I knew how the series would end because I plotted it all out. Sure, there were some changes along the way –and some things that happened during the writing that surprised me, but not the end. I wrote the end of the last book shortly after I wrote the opening of the first book. I needed to know where it was going to go so I could build a lot of small, subtle things into the story.

There are some side stories to Rot & Ruin that are currently available as eBook exclusives. One came out last year called Dead & Gone, which is a standalone that is a semi-prequel to Flesh & Bone. And last month Tooth & Nail was released, which takes place between the third and fourth books. Next year I’ll do Fun & Games, which is a flashback story focusing on the older brother and his adventures.

As for the future…? If they definitely want me to continue, I’d all set up and ready to go. And, I suspect that will happen. Especially with a movie in development.

BW:  Your oeuvre seems to touch on a variety of different types of monsters and mythic beings. Is there any classic creature you’d like to tackle in your writing in the future?

JM: I haven’t done a lot with demons beyond a couple of short stories, notably Cooked, Spellcaster, and Strip Search. If I were to do another straight monster book, I might do that. The other would be a novel about the legend of the Jersey Devil. I did a ton of research for that with an eye toward writing that novel, but other projects have gotten in the way.

If you have any questions for Jonathan Maberry, please post them below and we’ll do our best to get them answered!