Jonathan Maberry Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. Blackstone is thrilled to have published audiobook versions of all three novels in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, all narrated by Ray Porter—Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory, and King of Plagues. And we’ll be releasing a collection of five Joe Ledger short stories called The Missing Files on August 1. And on the same date we’ll be releasing Ghost Road Blues, the first book in Maberry’s award-winning Pine Deep Trilogy, with the second and third books to follow later this fall, narrated by Tom Weiner. Jonathan, thanks for joining us. It was great to see to you at the Book Expo a few weeks ago. Got a nice little video hello on our blog—thank you for that. Let’s start by talking about Joe Ledger. I understand that you’ve just completed book four, The Assassin. Can you tell us about that?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Yeah. The book is actually Assassin’s Code. And it’s gone through about twenty name changes. I even wound up resorting to a contest on Facebook to come up with a name for it, but we’re going with Assassin’s Code, and it’s the fourth novel, and it’s an interesting one because it has a rich historical background, going all the way back to the Crusades. And then also some modern stuff and a little element of the supernatural. The premise is that two groups during the Crusades pretty much decided that churches are filled more when there are times of religious strife. So there should always be religious strife, because it fills the pews. And it’s an agreement made between a representative from Philip II of France, then the Crusaders—and a representative of Saladin. So it’s both sides who make the agreement. Essentially this is the origin of hate crimes—eight hundred years ago. Well, it’s a controlled agreement of it. And Joe gets caught up in the modern version of it today. And there’s a lot of Middle East politics and a lot of social commentary in there.
GG: Tell us about Joe Ledger. What was the genesis of this character in the series?
JM: It’s funny, this is one of those things I’ve talked about with a bunch of other writer friends. And we all have unusual stories for how our favorite characters came to be, and mine showed up unexpectedly at a diner. I was sitting in the diner doing notes on a nonfiction book I was writing and I had a conversation going on in my head. Two characters just simply started talking. Now, if you’re not a writer, and voices start talking in your head, this is a cry for help. I mean, you reach for the Thorazine.
JM: But if you’re a writer, it’s pretty much another day on the job. You pay attention to what’s going on there. So, after a while, when I realized these characters were not going to shut up, that they really wanted to have their conversation, I took out a sheet of paper and just started writing down that conversation. And I didn’t know who the characters were or what they were talking about until I really just let the characters have their voice. And it was a Baltimore cop being interviewed by a very strange and enigmatic character named Mr. Church. And the scene became one of the crucial scenes in the first book of the Joe Ledger series, Patient Zero. But at the time I didn’t know who these characters were. When I got home and transcribed my handwritten notes, I was fascinated. I liked the voice of this character. And I hadn’t written in first person before. I liked the third-person omniscient voice that I used in my earlier horror novels. So this was a different voice, and he was a total smart-ass. Which I like. I appreciate sarcastic, even snarky humor. I always liked the novels where you have a character who is a wise guy. So I like the voice, and I also like the fact that beneath that there was a level of seriousness and sadness. So I just started making notes on who this guy would be—what would have created that character. And in the process of that I found a story. And when I first made notes on it, I felt, “Okay, this—this will be a one shot. This is a character who’s too badly damaged to be an ongoing character. This guy’s a mess…”
JM: So I outlined the book, and in the process realized that, actually, he is somebody, one of those guys who has found a way to accept his damage, and use it as a weapon rather than allow it to be a vulnerability. And from then on, just Joe Ledger stories started popping up in my head, like every day. If I live to be about a thousand years old, I don’t think I would run out of ideas for Joe Ledger at this point. It’s just a character that I can tell so many fun stories with. And in a way, he’s become a friend.
GG: I was going to say, how long is he going to go on, but you’ve answered that question, it sounds like.
JM: We have, so far, agreements for five books. Assassin’s Code will be followed by Extinction Machine. And I have proposals, as soon as that’s turned in, I’ll be turning in the proposals for the next two or three Joe Ledger books. I will see if we’re going to keep going. My publisher knows I have a lot of stories I want to tell. So it’s really up to the fans. If they want to keep reading Joe Ledger stories, I think we’re all gonna be, uh, telling them.
GG: Wow. Neat. Now there’s a series of short stories which you’ve written, and Blackstone is going to put them together in audio called The Missing Files. It’s five short pieces. How do those happen? Are they just little things that float around in your head? Or things that don’t quite make a full length? How do those little spin-off things come up?
JM: Well, it’s some of both. And when I was writing Patient Zero, I realized a lot of the ideas I was having didn’t fit in that book. So I kept putting them to one side. And after I turned in the book, first it was too long. I tend to overwrite a book and then scale it back. There was a really fun scene early on that had to be cut for length. But I thought it was really an interesting way of understanding who the character was. It gave you more insight. In terms of a novel, it gave you the wrong kind of insight too soon. So it actually kind of cut off a reveal from later on. But it was something my editor liked as well. So we decided at the time to take that and turn it into a teaser. It wasn’t a full story in that it didn’t have the three-act structure of a whole story. It was a teaser. It’s a way of getting to know who this character was, and then setting up a mystery about what might happen to him. And we put that online originally as an e-story. And we got a tremendous response from it, and lots of downloads of it, and it built a lot of buzz, so I kept in mind what I could do with the lead scenes. And what I could do with ideas that didn’t quite have the meat to be a novel but would make a really exciting short story. And I spent a couple of days—I’m a list-maker as a writer. I tend to make lists of titles and themes and so on. And I sat down and I wrote out a list of short stories I’d like to tell with Joe Ledger, and that list is up to about seventy at this point.
JM: The guy is a compelling guy. He won’t let me rest. And he gets into all sorts of trouble. So I keep wanting to tell stories about him. And one of the fun things is that they’re not exactly the same type of story each time. Some edge toward straight mystery. Some are very science-oriented. Some are more military. He’s the kind of guy who’s caught in the middle of all that. And there’s also that little bit of “Is it supernatural? Is it real?” that I play with. I can play with a little more in the short stories because you can take a lot more risks in a short story than you can in a novel. And the short stories allow me to take some fun and very definite risks in terms of theme.
GG: There’s a movie thing going on. Is that right?
JM: It’s a TV option. It was optioned by producer Michael De Luca, who had made Blade and Seven and Magnolia—on behalf of Sony, and was being shopped around for quite a while. It hit a speed bump recently in that ABC had gotten to the point where they were deciding between that and a remake of Charlie’s Angels. And they decided to remake Charlie’s Angels instead.
GG: Charlie’s Angels. Oh…great.
JM: It got down to the wire, and apparently bikinis trump science, adventure, and action. What can I tell you?
JM: But there’s still a lot of buzz going on with it in Hollywood. It’s being actively shopped around to other markets, and so it’s by no means resting. There’s a lot of fun stuff going on with it, and my agent’s out there having a lot of fun with the various meetings he’s taking on it. So, I expect something’s going to happen moderately soon.
GG: The Pine Deep Trilogy was released in 2006, and the first book, Ghost Road Blues, won the Bram Stoker Award and was a New York Times bestseller. We’re very excited to be presenting that trilogy as well. Can you tell us a little bit about this series?
JM: The Pine Deep Trilogy was launched in 2006 with Ghost Road Blues, which was my first novel. And that was the thing that turned me from a magazine writer to a novelist, because I loved the format and freedom of telling a longer story. And if you’ve been doing magazine work a lot, you know you have to stick to the facts. And fiction—you can make stuff up. And it’s a lot more fun, because real life doesn’t have a third act. You don’t have closure to a lot of stories. But that series came out of my love of the occult and supernatural. I’ve always had a fascination with it because I grew up with an extremely wonderful but creepy grandmother who taught me all about the folklore of Europe, and other parts of the world. And I wanted to write a novel in which the protagonist encountered the type of monsters that appear in folklore. And the vampires we have in Hollywood are Hollywood vampires. They bear very little resemblance to the folkloric vampires. So I wanted to have characters and the types of vampires that existed in myth and legend. But with the sensibility of someone who grew up watching vampire movies. So, they don’t necessarily know how to handle the monster they’re encountering. And since I complained for years about not being able to find such a book, my wife said, “Will you stop complaining about it and write the damn thing.” And so I did.
GG: Now, Blackstone has the whole Joe Ledger series in audio, and we’re coming out with the Pine Deep Trilogy later this summer. The audio version worked out pretty well. Ray Porter, our narrator for the Ledger series, seems to have hit it off pretty well with the fans.
JM: If I had a dime for every time I heard someone tell me that Ray Porter is the voice of Joe Ledger, I could buy North America. He hit that right on the head. Not only Joe but the other characters in the story. He nailed them from the get go—he has Joe’s balance of a sense of humor used by someone who’s a damaged person. And it’s really tough to nail that, and I tried reading some of the stuff myself, just for the heck of it, aloud—when I do book readings and so on. And even though I wrote it, I could never quite hit the right notes. And when I first heard Ray read Patient Zero, I was blown away, it’s like, “Yes! That’s exactly how it should sound!”And the readers respond exactly. They agree 100 percent across the board. Never had anything but praise for Ray’s performance. So I’m delighted that he was the pick for this series. Just perfect casting.
GG: Well, so are we. He’s really done a fantastic job. The audio—did you have that in mind when you were writing these? I mean, how aware were you of the audiobook part of this when you started out?
JM: Well, it’s funny. I am a big audiobook listener. I do a lot of traveling. And I listen to audio all the time. In fact, one of the reasons I bought an e-book reader is that I found out it had an audio component—I can download books and listen to audio. It’s probably where I do 80 percent of my leisure reading.
JM: Most of the books I read in print, I’m reading for cover quotes, or they’re writings by some of my writing students. So I don’t get to read print for recreation as much. But I’ve been an audio fan for years and years and years. And when I wrote the series, I had no idea whether this series was going to be as popular as it’s become. I mean, I was still fairly new as a writer. I was starting to write Patient Zero, when my third horror novel was coming out, and we hadn’t yet reached a type of audience that we’ve now reached. So I had no idea that it was going to be audio, and I was so delighted when it happened because I have a kind of theatrical style when I write. You know, I’m a movie and TV buff. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and talking about theater. In fact, I’ve written and had plays produced. So I have kind of a visual/theatrical background. And I write in a style that plays to the dramatic, rather than simply cognitive. And I think that really comes across in audio. But a lot of it really has to do with the reader. You can have five different people read the same book and you might have four misfires and one that’s dead on the mark. So as much as I would like to take credit for the success of the audiobooks, a lot of it has to go to Ray.
GG: Have you thought about writing a two- or three-hour audio drama, based on Ledger and the other characters?
JM: I have an outline for just that thing—something I was talking recently about in one of my writing classes. People were asking if I would ever do a direct audio drama, and it’s a format I haven’t done before. And anytime there’s something I haven’t done before, I have a tendency to want to go and do it. So, yeah—I’m actually working on that.
GG: Well, we should talk some more about that, because—
JM: I’m sure you’ll hear—
GG: Because at Blackstone we really love radio dramas, so…
GG: Cool. Terrific. Well, listen. Thank you very much for your time this morning. It’s been great talking to you, and we’re so happy to have been able to bring your books to audio, and it’s been a great thing for all of us involved. And we look forward to more and more Joe Ledger.
JM: Works for me. And I’m having such a blast with this. I have to admit that, as vain as it sounds to say it, the audiobooks of my Joe Ledger series get heavy rotation on my iPod.
GG: (laughs) That’s good!
JM: I’ve listened to each of them a couple of times now, and to tell you the truth, one last thing. The way Ray is performing it tends to now be the way I’m hearing the characters when I’m writing them. And I found that to be very true when I was writing Assassin’s Code, and as I’m making notes for Extinction Machine, I’m hearing Ray’s voice as the character’s while I’m writing it—which is kind of fun. So I think Ray should enjoy that and I’m sure the fans will as well.
GG: You gonna start throwing him curve balls?
JM: I’d love to. I’ve actually come up with some unpronounceable names in the fourth book…
JM: And a lot of words in Persian…
JM: Ball’s in your court, Ray!
GG: (laughs) Oh, great—well, I’m sure I’ll hear about that!
JM: And Grover, thank you so much.
GG: Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in July 2011.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Bad Moon Rising
A new master of terror reigns supreme, and in his most horrifying novel yet, the clash between good and evil explodes in an apocalyptic showdown few will survive.
From a funfest to a bloodfest…
Each year, the residents of Pine Deep host the Halloween Festival, drawing tourists and celebrities from across the country to enjoy the deliciously creepy fun. Those who visit the small Pennsylvania town are out for a good time, but those who live there are desperately trying to survive.
For a monstrous evil lives among them, a savage presence whose malicious power has grown too powerful even for death to hold it back. Only a handful of brave souls stand against the King of the Dead and a red wave of destruction. Daylight is fading, and a bad moon is rising over Pine Deep. Keep watching the shadows.