Jonathan Maberry’s Ghost Road Blues:
Mainstream Literature and Genre Meet at the Crossroads
To understand Jonathan Maberry’s fiction, especially Ghost Road Blues (Kensington Books), the first book in his new trilogy about a town called Pine Deep, it helps to know where he grew up. “In the Kensington section of Philadelphia during the sixties and early seventies, a poor, violent, and rough place to live,” he says, “hearing sirens was as commonplace as hearing traffic noise. I hardly ever heard birds, but I did hear the rumble of the El a block away and the occasional gunshot just to liven things up.”
Maberry’s Kensington was “an intensely white racist neighborhood where the KKK met, and where, if a black family moved in, the locals would firebomb their home. I had a lot of friends who were black or Asian. So I was not top of the local popularity list and was beaten up on a regular basis.”
In addition, Maberry grew up in an abusive home. At seven, however, his life changed. “I met my martial arts instructor, Joshua Johnson, who became my primary role model. More so than my father,” says Maberry. “I also took violin lessons at my elementary school from a rabbi. It really drove my family crazy that I was learning values and life lessons from a black man and a Jewish man.”
Maberry left Kensington when he began college at Temple University and never looked back. “In a way I edited out as much of the junk that I was exposed to growing up,” he says. “Keeping some of it for my fiction, of course.”
Since then he’s lived in many places in the greater Philadelphia region: Manayunk, Montgomery County, Bucks, Berks. “There’s so much good around here, so many wonderful people. If I hadn’t fled Kensington I might never have known what else was out there. Crazy thing is, I recently heard that Kensington is undergoing a change. Some money is moving in, the place is getting fixed up. There’s even a racial mix now. Sounds great, but even with that I doubt I’ll ever get nostalgic enough to go back.”
A former martial arts instructor, and former bodyguard with a number of martial arts manuals to his credit, Maberry is also a folklorist, a member of the Horror Writers Association, founder of Career Doctor for Writers, co-founder of Wild River Review, and partner in Writers Corner USA.
Recently, he sat down to talk about his work.
What is your writing process?
I put in long hours and try to write books that require no content editing when I submit them to my publisher. For Ghost Road Blues, except for some grammar odds and ends, nothing needed to be changed according to my agent and editor. I’m trying to do the same with the second in the series, Bad Moon Rising. It helps that I’ve taken the time to learn about the industry, the genre, and specific shelf on which we’re going to place the book. I also think about the demographic of my readers to make sure I have addressed them in my finished draft. In my opinion, it’s incumbent upon the writer to give the publisher a book that needs as few changes as possible. It’s not fair to expect an editor to be a teacher.
Did you have trouble finding a publisher for a trilogy?
When I first submitted Ghost Road Blues, it was written for the genre market as a horror/genre model. The format was different. At Random House, the first editor who saw the book, loved it. But Random House doesn’t publish genre/horror, they publish mainstream thrillers with horror content. Stephen King is an example of that.
You usually don’t see Stephen King in the fantasy/horror/science fiction section. He’s in the fiction/literary section. The editor asked me if I would be willing to change the book to make it a mainstream thriller and gave me a couple of suggestions. He pointed out that mainstream is more character-driven. Genre is more story-driven/concept-driven. From that suggestion I was able to go and rewrite the book to make a mainstream thriller, which was a good idea. Random House chose not to buy Ghost Road Blues because they wanted a single book from a first time novelist, not a trilogy. After Random House, we sent the book to twelve publishers, five of whom made offers. But Kensington made the best offer.
You have a talent for creating plots. What is your system?
Since I teach novel writing, I pay attention to the rules, which say that to create a good cohesive story you must take the reader from point A to B to C, and so on. Each character needs to go through a process of change in the story. With the Ghost Road Blues trilogy, I have to think about three endings. I can’t end the first book with a true cliffhanger because it may be a year before the next book comes out. I need to leave the characters in a relatively safe space, a place where we (as readers) can step away from them for a while, even though the major storyline and the major thread may still be there. I can’t have a bullet speeding toward the head of my main character when the story ends. The Harry Potter books are a good example of where you have a conclusion to each book’s story, but the story itself continues over the length of the series. And that’s what makes a series fun for the reader.
When you first conceived the Ghost Road Blues trilogy, did you think in terms of three books?
I came to this series from two completely different directions. Back in 1996 I sat down to write a horror novel with no idea at all how to write a novel. And I just kept writing and writing until I had a ridiculous number of pages and a story that was too big for any reasonable format. In fact I had a party when I finished the first draft. I had it printed out and sitting on a table. The manuscript was about a foot and a half high. My friends got together to celebrate a completely useless, unsellable piece of writing. At one point a publisher approached me with the possibility of retooling it into an action/adventure series where my manuscript would be the first installment. But I never signed a contract and I never went and wrote that book.
When my career changed from writing mostly nonfiction and mostly about martial arts, self-defense, and safety awareness to writing about folklore, I did a nonfiction book on vampire myths and legends around the world. I realized that I had this research and a degree of credibility and name-recognition within the horror community and most people in the horror community read fiction. I thought, let’s see if I can do a good piece of fiction. I had this unwieldy and ugly first draft. I looked at it and realized there was no way on earth I could turn that into a single book. So I decided that I would write it as a trilogy. From there, I completely rebuilt the plot. I re-imagined the characters and essentially wrote a new book. The original book remains an oddity that bears little resemblance to Ghost Road Blues, but at lease it was a start. And it gave me some of the characters as well as some of the plot lines.
How do you create your characters?
Like any writer, most of the characters are amalgams of people I know. The main character, Malcolm Crow, has my sense of humor, and some of my martial arts background. But he’s also an alcoholic, which I am not. He has some degree of an inferiority complex because he’s little guy and I’m a big guy. But he’s a tough guy with a good heart. I like to think of myself as a good-hearted guy and after forty years of martial arts, I can reasonably consider myself to be tough.
But, Crow is also part of two or three other people I know. Each of the characters is drawn from real people. I can’t point to a single character I’ve created who is not based in part on a person I’ve known, because to me that would be untrue to the process of creating a real character. Real characters should be living, breathing people with all the subtleties that make up a real person. It’s difficult, but a writer has to envision that. Writers are observers. We see. We collect what we see, and we put it into our stories.
Horror writing by its very definition means that violence, whether supernatural or not, drives the action. How do you write violent scenes?
A lot of violence comes from my own background. I’ve been through things that were extreme. I experienced severe physical abuse from both parents, and as a result I understand what it’s like to face monsters that are bigger and stronger than you. Monsters that you can’t beat. However, I got involved in martial arts as a kid without my parents knowing about it, and I was finally able to physically take a stand against that violence and stop it. I learned that you can rise to the challenge and defeat monsters. My stories, even though they have violence in them, are about people defeating monsters. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t get about horror. If the horror writing is good, it forces you to confront something that you’re afraid of. You may not know what to do so you have to find some resource within yourself. Or you have to make a bond with other people and pull your resources together to confront and overwhelm the horror.
For many years I was a bodyguard and I experienced hundreds and hundreds of fights. I’ve been badly injured in fights and inflicted serious injury, so I understand what violence is. As much as I would love to live in a world totally free of violence, that’s not realistic. For me to write a book about threat and overcoming that threat, I have to show what I consider to be something very serious. I’m a tough guy so somebody coming up and intimidating me is not much of a threat. But a person who has the ability to make me psychologically afraid is the kind of person I consider to be the stuff of nightmares.
I was touched by your character Mike Sweeney and his survival in a family where his parents physically and emotionally abuse him.
Mike Sweeney is very close to me. Originally in the early planning of Ghost Road Blues, there was no Mike Sweeney and the scenes were flashbacks from Malcolm Crow’s childhood. But I wanted a teenager in the story who could show how resourceful a smart kid can be. When I plotted all three books, I realized that Mike Sweeney was a very important character in the structure and resolution of the book. He becomes key to the evolution of the story.
How do you determine which characters survive, and which don’t?
Readers may be surprised by which characters make it through and which don’t, but the characters who do make it to the end of the book will be forever changed by the events. Most of the characters will get to the final show down. Mike Sweeney will get there and will go through a process of change and part of the process of change is an allegory of the maturing process, growing from being a kid to becoming an adult with all that power and responsibility. When I first conceived Sweeney, I sketched him on paper. He was running and looking over his shoulder. When I finished, I realized that the image was him on a moving bike. Which led me to create another character, Tow-Truck Eddie, who pursues Mike.
Tow-Truck Eddie is a character straight out of a nightmare.
People respond to Eddie because of the complexity of what’s happening with him. He’s not just a two dimensional killer. He goes on total faith and believes he hears God talking to him. And that’s scary. I’ve known people who have been believers of one kind or another and that can be wonderful, or that could be dangerous. Nothing is more dangerous than a believer who is willing to use violence because he believes that is what God wants. Sometimes people do evil things when they believe they are doing good things. The nature of good and evil is played out in different ways with each of the characters, and Tow-Truck Eddie represents an evil that most of us recognize.
How did you create the character of the ghost, the Bone Man, from whom the book derives its title?
I had always wanted to do a book about the blues. I’ve traveled all over the country and spent time in Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta area, and Chicago. I love blues and I always wanted to do a story about a blues man during the Vietnam War era. I graduated a couple years after the Vietnam War was over, but my brother was in Vietnam and that time seemed defined by the blues. All the rock bands had picked up on it. The Rolling Stones even get their name from a blues song. The character of the Bone Man was one of the earliest I created and not originally part of this story. Originally, I was going to write a ghost story about a blues man who was so caught up in being on the road that he kept traveling after he died.
The Bone Man is a black man, a draft dodger, and a migrant worker who died in the mid-seventies trying to save the fictional town of Pine Deep from great harm. He was blamed for a number of killings and was lynched. He has no reason to love the town and he’s back trying to save it because there are people there who loved him and are still alive. Malcolm Crow and his fiancée Val gave the Bone Man his nickname back when they were kids. The Bone Man feels protective of them although he’s not sure how he came back. There’s a lot of folklore from different cultures worked into the book.
Speaking of Val. She’s a strong character. What is your process in creating female characters?
For a man to create female characters there’s a bit of a danger in going toward stereotype. I’ve known a couple of people like Val, the heroine of Ghost Road Blues. She has some of my wife’s qualities in which she is very loyal, protective, and sure of what she knows. Val is a very practical person and she is one of the most enjoyable characters to write. She isn’t tormented like Crow and she’s the more dominant of the two. She’s wealthy, educated, very tough, smart, and no nonsense. I take all of that and shake up her world so that we have to find out if she’s still capable without a safety net. She is really the icon of strength for the book. If Crow is the heart than she’s almost the fist. There’s a little bit of Mina Harker (the heroine of Dracula) in her. Except that unlike Dracula, the men aren’t rallying around Val. She’s rallying the troops. She is not a superwoman, but she stands up to evil.
You write very convincingly about physical violence.
I’ve fought with knives stuck in me and still had to defend myself. It’s harder to kill somebody than you think. When I was a kid in Philly, there was a guy who was shot six times and the cops still took him away in cuffs. And yet another person gets one bullet and they’re gone. It’s odd, but some people just have a stronger life force or luck or drive or whatever. With me, because of my childhood and because of the intensity with which I was taught martial arts by a very wise, strong person, there was no part of my reality that involved losing. It didn’t matter whether I was in a ring fight or a street fight, I wanted to win more than the other guy did, and whoever wants it more wins. Martial arts gave me a set of values, a role model, and strength.
The haunted hayride you created as the framework for the book is highly entertaining and so well planned. How did you conceive of that?
I have always wanted to design a haunted hayride. In 1997, I went with a bunch of friends from work to a hayride in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. It was really scary and everyone had a great time. But as we were going through it, I was thinking about ways to improve it. I thought maybe I’d get famous enough and we’d have the “Jonathan Maberry Haunted Hayride” somewhere.
Everybody has some need for thrill. Our culture is so diverse we can do it in many different ways. Nowadays I love roller coasters. My idea of a perfect roller coaster would be one in which you take out life insurance before and have CPR after. That’s how my character Crow created his haunted hayride. People will come back for that sort of thing if it’s their particular brand of fun.
Can you talk about what makes a good thriller?
A thriller asks big questions: What is disintegration? What is moral choice? What forces are at work to change the natural order of things?
I’m writing the book that I like to pull off the shelf. I don’t read that much horror, but I read mostly mystery and I think it’s because I don’t want to copy any horror writer’s style right now. The second book in the trilogy is more of a mystery and I’m studying how events and clues unfold with characters. James Lee Burke and Lawrence Block, in his Matthew Scudder series, are very good for layered investigation. A new writer, Jonathan King, and some of the early Spenser novels, are what I consider to be premier writing that challenges you as a reader of mystery. Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs and The Red Dragon have an ensemble cast and you’re switching point of view throughout the book, something I did in Ghost Road Blues. I like that for keeping readers on their toes.
People are often confused about genre. What exactly is it?
If you walk into Barnes & Noble, look for the Fantasy and Science Fiction shelf or the Horror shelf. They’ve been almost merged into one. You have the SF and Fantasy blended in with a type of horror novel called Dark Fantasy: Laurell K. Hamilton, Neill Gaiman, writers like that. That’s the genre shelf. Genre is written for an audience that is receptive to and waiting for new books in these categories. Genre readers know the territory so well you don’t have to explain certain things. It’s like a trade journal. If you write for the food service trade journal, you don’t need to explain the Blue Plate Special. Your readers will understand.
Most of the rest of the horror is peppered through the Fiction & Literature section, and scattered so widely they’re often hard to find, and seldom get the attention they deserve. Within mainstream fiction and literature there are a lot of different categories, one of which is the thriller, which does get a lot of attention. Though Ghost Road Blues has a lot of horror elements, I’ve written a mainstream thriller. Things happen at a fast pace, impacting the human psyche. Hence the thrill. Thrills can be good or bad. It’s a thrill to jump out of an airplane and it’s a thrill of sorts to fall off a cliff. They’re both about falling.
Although I love horror fiction, I didn’t create a horror novel because I wanted a general audience in addition to horror fans. People who read Stephen King don’t necessarily read James Herbert or Owl Goingback, and guys like that — all of them very fine horror writers who are disregarded by the reading public because they aren’t mainstream. Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Peter Straub are mainstream writers who include horror elements in thriller novels.
But people who don’t read genre have a hard time understanding what is going on.
I grew up reading James Herbert and Graham Masterton and quite a few others who write genre horror. Because the genre crowd already knows what a vampire is, guys like Masterton will tweak their subject further and further going into the variations of it, which is very challenging writing. Or they’ll find things that are completely different, something so off the radar that a mainstream reader might not be able to find it accessible. But a genre reader will feast on it. Some of these writers can go both ways. Stephen King has written Lovecraftian horror stuff. He’s written your giant monster stories. He’s written UFO stories. But he’s also written mainstream stuff. Neil Gamon started out writing fantasy with the Sandman series, and with each book he’s getting further into the mainstream. His latest book, Anansi Boys is a mainstream novel. His last book American Gods, which dealt with the war of gods within the United States, was considered a mainstream novel even though it was clearly fantasy. Some writers deliberately jump from genre to mainstream to try and reach a broader audience.
I feel that genre is often unfairly disparaged. A lot of genre writing uses either science fiction/fantasy or horror to tell a story about real life. If you look at the classic Star Trek stories, they used the fantasy as a medium to tell the story, but the story itself was an essential story about the human condition. A lot of it is satire and political commentary wrapped up with aliens and ray guns.
Is part of this because the mainstream audience doesn’t understand the language of it?
Originally horror and sci-fi were mainstream. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut were mainstream. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach was mainstream even though you could classify it as science fiction. After the bookstores started pigeonholing books, they forced a separation, which I think is unfair to the reader because it doesn’t easily encourage the opportunity to encounter books that might be great pieces of writing.
What are you doing to bring your book to a wider audience?
I’m enthusiastic about the promotion of my book, which is important because with first time novels you don’t get a budget. I love meeting the public. I’m an extrovert so that helps. I’ve set up a lot of book signings and will do talks.
I use the Internet a lot. I belong to message boards and chat with people, getting to know them, and suddenly I’m reaching tens of thousands of people and the world becomes a small community. I don’t have the budget to go to Akron or Seattle, but I can set up a chat through my message group.
A lot of the promotion must be done by the writer. It’s time consuming, but not costly.
Any final comments?
I want Ghost Road Blues to be a book that anybody can read even if they’ve never tried genre. It’s about people overcoming darkness and that’s the upside. I’m not going to throw my readers into the Badlands and leave them there. Someone will lead them home. To me, that’s moral story telling. I’m not looking to write a Hollywood ending with sunshine in the distance and cartoon animals trotting out to take a bow. I write about confronting the darkness and the possibilities open to us when we do.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul