AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN MABERRY
JANICE GABLE BASHMAN
“When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world.
And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.” Joe Ledger from Patient Zero
Armed with the strength to survive a brutal childhood, an overwhelming desire to write, and the advice of two great authors (Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury), Jonathan Maberry found success as a writer. PATIENT ZERO, Maberry’s newest book, grabs the reader by the throat and never lets go.
Wild River Review chats with Jonathan about his writing and what makes a good thriller so thrilling.
WRR: You stated Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury changed your life when you were a teenager. They gave you signed copies of their books and talked to you about the nature of storytelling. Why was this so significant, and how did it affect you?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Matheson and Bradbury were iconic figures even when I was a kid in the early 1970s. To have them offer advice on how to approach a career in writing was invaluable.
Matheson told me to think beyond the surface plot, to delve into the motivations of the characters, and to spend time postulating on the paths that led the characters to the moment of this story.
That advice took hold, though for the next thirty years I applied it to my process of critical analysis when reading other writers work, watching film or TV, or attending plays. In 2004 I restarted a novel (GHOST ROAD BLUES) I’d taken a weak swing at in 1996, but which I’d not finished. That happened largely because I’d been re-reading one of Matheson’s best books, The Shrinking Man, which has layer upon layer of psychological subtext. As I read, I began to think about the characters I’d created for my novel and realized that I’d done it the wrong way: I’d created characters but not actual ‘people.’ I applied Matheson’s advice and went into the manuscript to discover who these people were. And as a result, I wrote a much better story.
Ghost Road Blues went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in 2006. It was followed by two sequels: Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising.
Bradbury had a different approach. He talked to me about finding the magic in the moment. In any moment. He encouraged me to ‘look inside the world’ to see what makes it tick. Not just the gears and motors that run society and people’s lives, but what he called the ‘purified oil of belief.’
He also said that there were stories happening all around, every second of every day. To see the stories, and to capture them in a tale, required that a writer learn to pay attention and to think beyond simple action. He advised that paying attention meant more than watching and recording, but instead involved the cultivation of genuine interest in what people said and did. Interest, he cautioned, without judgment.
He also made a comment – said offhand at the time, but which I believe is a fundamental truth for writers: ‘Writing is 99% thinking about it…and the rest is typing.’
Bradbury gave me a signed copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I’ve read that book (though, admittedly not that copy) every Halloween since. Matheson had given me a copy of I AM LEGEND the previous spring, and I still regard it as the book that changed me as a writer. It was not only a collision of genre (science fiction and horror), but an intellectual novel with many layers of social commentary built into its lean prose.
WRR: Your novels deal with human darkness, and your characters confront and overcome, despite great odds, those who seek to destroy good people. Why is this such a universal theme, and why are you drawn to it?
MABERRY: I had a pretty dark childhood. Understanding that darkness was not something that only affected me, but was crucial to my personal survival. Later it gave me insight that I used when teaching self-defense and safety awareness programs. I was also one of those rare children who was able to become tough enough to defeat my own monsters. That’s a remarkably empowering process. It influenced how I taught self-defense because it came from a sure knowledge that the darkness can be pushed back.
It also influenced my writing. Unlike a lot of colleagues of mine who write about scary things like monsters, I never identified with the monster. I was always rooting for the vampire hunter. It’s not a surprise that my writing often deals with a seemingly unstoppable threat that ordinary people are able to rise up against and overthrow.
WRR: In Patient Zero, a weaponized plague turns humans into zombies, threatening the world. What is the real science behind Patient Zero, and how did you use it to make the plot plausible?
MABERRY: I was doing research for a nonfiction pop-culture book on zombies (they’re the hot monster right now). I asked scientists and doctors to speculate on how science might explain zombies (as they appear in the movies). I expected to get very few scientifically useful answers on that, but they came back to me with tons of hard science. Much of it ‘possible’ though luckily not ‘probable.’
The core of the science is a prion disease called ‘fatal familial insomnia.’ Mad Cow is a prion disease. The insomnia prion disease causes its victims to stay perpetually awake until they become exhausted, deranged, and mindless; and then they die. A weaponized version of that disease became the core of Patient Zero.
WRR: Who is Joe Ledger?
MABERRY: Joe Ledger is a Baltimore cop with enough emotional baggage to open a luggage store. We meet Joe shortly after his girlfriend has committed suicide. Joe is a bit of a mess from that and earlier childhood trauma. He’s learned to use his damage in ways that make him very formidable. These qualities bring him to the attention of an elite Rapid Response group formed to confront radical bioweapons. The Department of Military Science (DMS) has already come up against the terrorists with the prion plague, and that first encounter was a disaster. Joe is brought in to lead a counter-attack.
WRR: You said a good “thriller asks big questions: What is disintegration? What is moral choice? What forces are at work to change the natural order of things?” What do you hope people will talk about after reading Patient Zero?
MABERRY: Mysteries are about solving a crime; thrillers are all about preventing something very bad from happening. The bad guys are planning something big, and because this is something ‘planned’ (as opposed to a murder committed in the heat of the moment) the motivations for the bad guys tend to run a little deeper than in mysteries, which allows the author to get inside those minds and really crawl around. Heroes in thrillers are usually smart and resourceful.
People who have already read the book generally talk about the characters and how real they are. People talk about ‘people’ in the book. And that’s deeply satisfying to me.