While Jonathan Maberry writes often about zombies, there is no truth to the rumor that he might be one himself: it only appears he never sleeps. The perpetually busy Maberry – a five-time Bram Stoker Award winner and a frequent NYT bestseller – is the author of, among many, many things, the Joe Ledger thriller series, the Rot & Ruin YA series, the Nightsiders series, the Dead of Night series and the Pine Deep trilogy, as well as comic books, short stories and scores of nonfiction books and magazine articles. He is also the editor of many anthologies including The X-Files-Trust No One, Scary Out There, Out Of Tune, and V-Wars. A staunch advocate of writers supporting each other, he is also the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, a meet-up group for writers of all levels with chapters now sprinkled around the country. Given all that – and trust me there is so much more – I’m really thrilled he recently broke away to share some time with The Open Mic.
THE OPEN MIC: You are without question the James Brown of our world – the hardest working man in publishing. How do you manage to keep so many projects going at once?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I have pretty good work habits. I studied journalism at Temple University, and that taught me a lot of about efficiency, respecting deadlines, doing research, and understanding that being a professional writer is the same as being a small business owner. You need to be responsible and efficient in order to run a successful business and be happy in your job.
Plus, having a lot of projects in the works in various stages absolutely guarantees that I will never be bored. And, believe me, I am never bored.
THE OPEN MIC: You mix so many genres – thriller, horror, YA, comics, even board games. Is there a genre or another form of writing we may see from you at some point?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m always looking for a new challenge, a new creative opportunity. I have my first contemporary teen science fiction novel coming out in 2017 –Mars One—which is a very realistic story about space travel to Mars. I’m working on a suspense novel with some urban fantasy elements that will be my first female protagonist standalone novel. And I have some things in pitch form and planning form in other genres, including a mystery-thriller, a contemporary graphic novel about dying, a children’s picture book, and even a coffee-table book that would combine some flash fiction with photography done by a friend. After that…who knows? I’m even working on my first script for a possible TV pilot.
THE OPEN MIC: I’m fascinated with the process of character development. Of course I’m thinking of Joe Ledger, who I think you describe as “the hero we need for these troubled times.” He has certainly struck a chord with your fans. How was that process for you with that character?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Joe Ledger began speaking in my head one day. No joke. And, mind you, voices in your head are a cry for help if you’re not a writer, but if you are a writer it happens a lot. I was sitting in a diner going over notes for a nonfiction book I was writing when two characters began talking. It was an interesting conversation between characters I didn’t yet know. A cop was being interviewed.
THE OPEN MIC: There is so much great science and technology in your Joe Ledger series. That can be tricky in that too much can feel like reading a textbook, but if there isn’t enough, or if it is poorly done, it can destroy a story’s plausibility. How do you approach your scientific and technological storylines?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I maintain a network of experts in a wide variety of fields. By tapping them for information I not only keep the ‘science’ part of my science fiction rock solid, but I learn about the absolute latest developments in a lot of different fields. I also read a ton of trade journals in medicine, robotics, healthcare, politics, and so on. That helps me get into gear pretty fast and gives me enough information that isn’t yet in the consumer periodicals so that I can ask the right questions. This allows me to include elements of science that aren’t really on the public radar yet, bit which come onto the radar shortly after my novels are published. It doesn’t mean that I’m a visionary…it means I’m tapped into the network of visionaries who can keep me on the inside track.
That said, it’s a delicate balance to know how much of this science to include. The ratio that I’ve found is that 9/10ths of what I learn either never makes it into a book, or is edited out during the revision process. A novel isn’t a textbook. I include what the reader absolutely needs to know and try to avoid hitting them with too much. We novelists should avoid being self-indulgent.
THE OPEN MIC: You are also incredibly active in social media, which is really foreign territory for many writers. What advice do you have for writers in how they participate in social media?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Social media is critical in building a successful writing career in today’s publishing world. However it needs to be managed. I allot ten minutes out of every writing hour to do social media. That’s actually a good chunk of time. I’ve established platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, LinkedIn and some others. I make sure I post content every day, but the content isn’t always about me or my books. I put up movie trailer links, cartoons, links to publication info on other writers’ books, and so on. I engage the audience with contests and ask them to help me build music playlists for whatever book I’m writing. I ask them to share their successes and their works in progress. The brand I’ve established is one of tolerance, enthusiasm, fun, and good humor. I don’t talk politics and I don’t talk religion. I never slam other writers. I don’t focus on the negative. As a result, my friends lists have built organically because my pages offer some fun stuff and aren’t pushing negativity and aren’t serving simply as a catalog for my works.
THE OPEN MIC: You’re very passionate about the need for writers to help and support other writers. How did you come to feel so strongly about this?
JONATHAN MABERRY: When I was twelve my middle school librarian introduced me to a couple of clubs of professional writers for which she acted as secretary. I got to meet literary giants like Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Gene Roddenberry, Harlan Ellison, and others. Bradbury and Matheson in particular recognized that I was genuine in my desire to one day become a professional writer, and over the next few years gave me a lot of advice and guidance. That was crucial for me. So, I took that as a kind of manifesto: Writers should always help other writers. Not with an expectation of any payback. And writers should regard each other as colleagues rather than competition. It’s tough enough without us back-stabbing each other. When writers help one another, more good books get written, more books get sold, and the surge in good books encourages more people to read. It’s a win-win situation.
THE OPEN MIC: Along those lines, tell me more about The Writers Coffeehouse. How did it come about, how many chapters are there, etc.?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I used to run a writers center called The Writers Room of Bucks County, in Eastern Pennsylvania. After some of the classes I noticed that the students would linger just to have time talking shop with others of their ‘tribe’. I encouraged this by providing coffee and facilitating the conversations. Eventually this became so popular that I started an official ‘Writers Coffeehouse’ for anyone who wanted to show up. Totally free of charge. No registration, no publishing requirements. Just writers talking to other writers about craft, about business, and about the writing life.
We very quickly outgrew the limited space at the Writers Room, so I moved it to a local coffee shop, and then we outgrew that, and kept growing. Eventually I moved it to a conference room attached to a bookstore (the Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove, PA.) The Coffeehouse became a three-hour monthly free networking event, and it’s still running ten years later, pulling in between fifty and a hundred people. We began satellite Coffeehouses, which are thriving. When I moved to California a few years ago, I started a new one at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, which in turn spun off one at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Now we have them in San Francisco, Asheville, Boston, and elsewhere, and we’re opening up more of them all over the country.
THE OPEN MIC: The industry has certainly changed a lot. I admit I ask this of everyone on The Open Mic, but I think it’s an issue worth discussing: what is your assessment of the industry today? Are writers better off than they were 20 years ago or worse?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Writers are definitely better off these days because there are more opportunities to publish –multiplatform, digital, small and large press, audio, independent, etc. And social media has allowed writers with very little money for promotion to establish a brand and build a dedicated readership on a global scale. There are some downsides, but they are outweighed by the increased opportunities for writers to publish. The arguments against this are generally naïve in that they assess the health of the industry only in terms of publishing via the big houses. But there are so many other ways that exists in this digital age. Just as the industry changes, so we must allow our understanding of the nature of publishing to evolve and change. I’m extremely excited about the current and future world of publishing.
THE OPEN MIC: We have a mutual love of coffee. (My wife calls mine an addiction, which I’m okay with). Do you have a favorite coffeehouse you write in? What other elements are crucial for you to get into the writing groove?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a caffeine nomad. I’ll often write at one coffeehouse in the morning and then migrate to another in the afternoon. For example, some mornings I’ll be at a little French restaurant called Champagne in Del Mar and then move to a Starbucks in Solana Beach or Encinitas. Sometimes I’ll camp out at a Panera and spend an entire morning there. Or, I might stay home and brew pots of coffee and watch the migrating whales from my office window.
What matters to me is that I can have blocks of time without interruption. The staffs at the various coffeehouse know me and except for refilling my coffee cups, they leave me alone.
THE OPEN MIC: Who are a few of the most underappreciated writers out there right now?
JONATHAN MABERRY: There are some writer colleagues of mine who are criminally underappreciated but who are absolutely brilliant. Jon McGoran comes to mind. His Doyle Carrick environmental thrillers are gripping. Fantasy and science fiction writer James A. Moore should have legions of people reading his Seven Forges books. Christopher Golden and Weston Ochse should be perennial bestsellers. Dana Fredsti’s dark fantasy novels are incredible fun. And Rachael Tafoya’s Night House young adult vampire novel flew under the radar and I can’t understand why…it’s brilliant.
And there are some newbie’s who haven’t yet hit the mainstream radar who I believe will be bestsellers. Lucas Mangum, Rachael Lavin, and Jade Shames are all names you don’t know and absolutely should.
THE OPEN MIC: Final thing: what’s the best writing advice you ever received? What would you say to an aspiring writer now?
JONATHAN MABERRY: The best writing advice I ever got was from Matheson and Bradbury, who tag-team lectured me on this. They explained to me that writing and publishing are not the same thing, even though far too many writers don’t appreciate the difference. Writing is an art; it is the intimate conversation between writer and reader. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business entirely devoted to selling copies of art. While individual persons within publishing may have entered that field because of their love of books, the purpose of the industry to buy and sell those books most likely to be commercially successful. No one in publishing has an obligation to buy a book –even if it is beautifully-written—if they don’t believe that book will be a commercial success. Writing is art, publishing is sales. The trick is understand this and to become very familiar with both. To be superb at your craft while being savvy about the business.