Jonathan Maberry: LibraryThing Author Interview

Jonathan Maberry is the author of the techno-thriller Patient Zero. His new book, The Dragon Factory, is the sequel. This time Joe faces a few more human-created monsters, but none so evil as the bioterrorists who created them.

Jonathan is a multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, writing teacher/lecturer and LibraryThing author. Also, he's in the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

A major plot line of Dragon Factory is of bioterrorism, and out-and-out evil, which Joe Ledger and the DMS (Department of Military Science) fight against. Joe makes the point that lighting a fire doesn't usually just harm those in the wrong. Is this a comment on the contemporary world's fight of terrorism, and the complexity of separating those who are evil, those who are unwitting abettors and the innocent folks who happen to be standing nearby?

Yes...and it's a very complex issue. People generally don't wear I.D. badges that say "Good Guy", "Bad Guy" and "Innocent Bystander". There are innocent hurt in virtually any conflict, and a soldier with a strong moral compass has to bear that burden. At the same time, there is the ethical issue of 'acceptable losses'. If there is a threat so massive that it will overwhelm many, is it acceptable to allow a smaller number of innocents to perish in order to prevent the worst case scenario? We've wrestled with that issue for centuries and there is seldom a 'right' answer.

You had done a lot of scientific research (like on prions) to explain the zombies in Patient Zero. What kind of research did you find yourself doing for Dragon Factory?

First off, I'm a research junkie. When I begin a new novel I spend a lot of time doing research. Not only on the core topic—which in this case was transgenics and related areas of genetic science—but dozens of other topics, ranging from ethnic-specific diseases, cryptozoology, World War II, the death camps, the diseases of poverty, and more. The inspiration for this book was the question: What would happen if modern genetic science was applied to the Nazi Master Race program? That's a scary thought, considering the ethnic cleansing.

Patient Zero had zombies as the main non-human threat. Dragon Factory has zero zombies. Was the intention for the series to stay in the techno-thriller genre, without being exclusively about zombies, or did you tire of the undead?

This was never intended as a zombie series. It's a series of science thrillers. In each book Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences will face a different kind of threat. I have a number of books outlined, and each one presents a different kind of threat, some grounded firmly in real world science and politics, some that stretch the boundaries of science into some creepy 'what if?' areas.

That said, I'll still be writing zombie fiction for a while. I never get tired of my life-challenged fellow Americans. I'm doing a series of Young Adult novels about life after the zombie apocalypse. The first of that series, Rot & Ruin, will debut from Simon & Schuster in September.

In The Dragon Factory, mad scientists are responsible not only for the bioterrorist events Joe Ledger finds himself fighting, but for a large number of the major diseases that have plagued the contemporary world, including HIV, noma and Tay-Sachs. Despite the fact that you were writing fiction, did you find yourself getting into the conspiracy theories of human-constructed diseases?

I'm not a full-blown conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that money is the root of all evil. Do I believe that corporations and (some) governments contribute to the climate of evil? Sure, because there are a lot of ways to profit from it. Do I think all corporations and governments are evil? Nah. But there are a lot of people out there perpetuating or cultivating harm because there's money to be made. I worked in the pharmaceutical field for a number of years, and I've seen some of the misinformation and disinformation that goes on in the name of profit. That probably starts at the top, where the money is bigger.

There are short stories that accompany this series. Were these bits of the book that you just couldn't cram in, or did they come about separately?

Yes and no. The first one, "Countdown", was originally in Patient Zero and I cut it down to focus less on backstory and more on the current events. When I suggested to my publishers that we do a short story as a freebie prequel, I was able to take that cut-down scene and use it as the seed for the story. However it grew in the telling and there's more in the short story than in the original scene.

The second free short story, "Deep, Dark" was created exclusively for the Internet and is a complete standalone adventure that was never part of one of the novels. It does, however, take place in the gap between Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory.

There's a third short story coming up, Zero Tolerance, which will be in an anthology, The Living Dead 2. That one was written on the request of the anthology's editor, John Joseph Adams. He asked me for a Joe Ledger zombie story, and since I hadn't planned to do another Joe Ledger zombie novel, I got to play with that theme one last time in this tale, which takes place shortly after Patient Zero as Joe goes hunting for the living dead in the Afghan hills.

I have several other Joe Ledger short stories planned. Some will be freebies posted online, and others will be in upcoming anthologies.

Link to .pdf of "Countdown"
Link to .pdf of "Deep, Dark"

Echo team was pared down by the time the action heated up in Dragon Factory. Is Joe going to have company for the third book?

Yeah, each time Echo Team gets chopped down it'll get built up again. In King of Plagues we meet new players: ex-SEAL Khalid Shaheed, former M.P. DeeDee Whitman, and former LAPD SWAT shooter John Smith.

So the third installment of the Joe Ledger series is called The King of Plagues. I hear it features another bioterrorist. Will Joe run into more technologically-explained supernatural creatures?

THE King of Plagues deals with the rise of a new secret society, so it deals more with conspiracy theories and terrorism than with unnatural monsters. That story is much bigger and more complex than the first two, and it also deals with fighting a war that might be unwinnable. However there is a subplot that deals with a character who appears to be supernatural. I have plans for other Joe Ledger stories, both short and novel-length; and Joe will continue to face increasingly bizarre threats. The stories will always walk the thin line between what is real and what may be possible.

You hold black belts in jujutsu and kenjutsu, which explains how you can describe the hand-to-hand action scenes with such precision. If you were being attacked by a zombie, what would your first defensive move be? How would you handle similar situations with a chimera, a Jersey devil, or a unicorn?

I've actually discussed the self-defense against zombies issue a lot, and did a whole chapter on it in my nonfiction book, Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. A proper and effective response would be based on the kind of zombie. For the slow shufflers, the easiest moves would be evasion with parries along with attacks to the knee (not even a zombie can walk on a shattered leg—it's a gravity thing); and/or attacks to the neck or spine. Evading a bite is actually pretty easy.

If I had time to get a sword—Japanese or other—I'd take my time and do some clean up on my environment. I wouldn't let my place of refuge fall under siege—as zombies wandered in, I'd go out and clear 'em out.

For fast zoms—or for human infected like those in The Crazies or 28 Days Later—the problem is numbers. One on one, you have to remember you're fighting creatures who may not have enough cognitive function to evade or block an attack. So, one on one they're not a massive problem. They can be defeated by physical trauma, and we're pretty good at that sort of thing. On the other hand, if you have a swarm of fast zombies—then, well...anyone can be overwhelmed. All the more reason to have that sword.

As for other monsters. There's enough material for a whole book on defense against mythological creatures and cryptids (animals that may exist but for which there is no hard physical evidence). I doubt a unicorn would get cranky enough to be a threat. With other monsters, if they're supernatural there may not be anything that a human can do; but of it turns out that such creatures exist, then that means that they possess the same vulnerabilities as any animal.

Your Macmillan bio says "1100 articles, seventeen nonfiction books, six novels, as well as short stories, poetry, song lyrics, video scripts, and two plays." If you added a Jonathan Maberry greeting card, what occasion would it be?

Actually, I've done greeting cards, and they were all sarcastic. If I created my own occasion cards? I'd love to do a 'You Died and Woke Up as a Zombie' card.

You recently wrote the novelization of The Wolfman. What was your writing process, to adapt a screenplay into a novel?

I did a couple of read-throughs of the script to get my head in the game. The first read-through was as a 'reader'; but on the second I took notes as a 'writer'. Then I picked a scene which I felt would allow me to find the right voice for telling the story in prose. The scene I picked, by the way, was longer in the script (and in the novel) that it ultimately was in the final cut of the film. It was Lawrence Talbot, who is a Shakespearean actor in the new story, giving the Yorick soliloquy from Hamlet. Having done some theater in my time, and having done Shakespeare, I was able to crawl inside the head of an actor, and that allowed me to better understand Lawrence. He's damaged goods—reeling from childhood tragedy and trauma compounded by rejection—and theater has been his way of being anyone other than himself. He hides inside of other characters. I was able to use that as the basis for a motif of 'actors in roles' throughout the book, exploring that with Lawrence and his reactions, and with his relationships with his father, the police and Gwen.

I also did some research to fill in the blanks about the era, the location (everything from trains to plantlife of the region), and the London of the late nineteenth century. Once I had that done, I launched in and wrote a gothic novel.

One thing I had decided right from the beginning was that I was not going to simply wrap words around a script and call it a novel. I've read film adaptations like that and they're a cheat. Instead I approached this as if I was writing a full-fleshed novel. I put my heart and soul into it, and I'm very pleased with the result. The fact that the novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller speaks to the reception the book received.

You mentioned a YA zombie novel coming out this year, called Rot & Ruin. Can you talk about the story?

The story takes place fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse. Fifteen year old Benny Imura lives in a small, isolated and fenced-in town in Central California, and everything else is the great Rot & Ruin, populated by hundreds of millions of zombies. Benny's brother, Tom, is a bounty hunter who specializes in 'closure': finding people who have become zombies and putting them to rest so their families can be at peace. There are also bounty hunters who kidnap kids to make them fight in zombie pits so gamblers can bet on it.

The story is about growing up in a ugly and broken world and trying to find a pathway through into a future worth living. Rot & Ruin is the first of a new series that will be out in hardback from Simon & Schuster and on audio from Recorded Books.

What are some great techno-thrillers you've read recently?

I gobble up everything by James Rollins, Vince Flynn and David Morrell. Rollin's Altar of Eden was a blast; and I've been trolling some of the thrillers that form the cornerstone of the genre, including The Blue Nowhere by Jeffery Deaver, Deep Sound Channel by Joe Buff, The Moon Pool by P T Deuterman, Hunter Killer by Patrick Robinson, A Signal Shattered by Eric Nylund, anything by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and on and on.

What's on your bookshelf?

I devour books, with a three-way split between novels (thrillers, mysteries, crime novels, dystopian science fiction, horror, and urban fantasy), comics (most of the Marvel Comics line—for enjoyment and for homework, since I'm writing for them); and tons of nonfiction. For the nonfic stuff, I read a lot of science books, books on global politics, and general information books on hundreds of subjects from great works of art to causes of death.

—interview by Sonya Green