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Jonathan Maberry: ‘Get your butt in a chair & write.’

Have you ever written a scary story? In honor of the Halloween season, we are interviewing horror writers to learn about the craft of scaring readers. Recently, we spoke with author Jonathan Maberry.

Throughout Maberry’s career, he has won multiple Stoker Awards for his horror work. Last month, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers released the third installment of the Rot & Ruin series, Flesh & Bone.

He has written for Marvel Comics and published multiple novels for both adults and young-adults. As a nonfiction writer, Maberry has examined topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop culture. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: My first book deal was actually for a textbook –JUDO AND YOU—that I wrote while teaching at Temple University. A scout for Kendall-Hunt came looking for someone to write the book and, even though it wasn’t a course I was teaching there, I agreed to write it. I wound up writing course books for several other instructors at Temple, and of course wrote the books for my own classes (Martial Arts History, Personal Defense for Women and Jujutsu). That was back in the early 1990s. Until then I’d been mostly writing magazine feature articles, greeting cards and plays.

However my career changed in 2005 when I decided to try fiction. I wrote a novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES, and as soon as it was done and polished I began reaching out to agents. I ignored the frequent advice to ‘shoot low and try for a low-level agent because they’re the only ones that will take a flyer on a new author’. That sounded like bad advice to me. Instead I went hunting and landed a good one –Sara Crowe, who at the time was with Trident Media. Sara is young, very smart and very savvy about the business. Around the time we made that deal, she was headhunted by Harvey Klinger for his agency, and given the latitude to build her list to suit her vision. I went with her.

My novel was written as ‘horror’, but Sara advised me to call it ‘supernatural thriller’ because horror is not a marketable word in adult fiction. So, she shopped it her way and very quickly found a home at Pinnacle Books. Pinnacle bought the novel and its two sequels.

She moved me to St. Martin’s Griffin when I start writing the Joe Ledger thrillers; and when I got the urge to write Young Adult, she took me to Simon & Schuster. We talk a lot about the pitch process and about the right house. Because I tend to genre hop, we look for the right editor to suit the work.

Q: What’s your advice for aspiring horror writers?
A: There are a few things I tell my writing students and those I meet at conferences and in library talks.

First, write every day. No exceptions. Even if it’s only half a page, write every single day. Once you start making excuses not to write, then you’re going to back-slide. But if you write every day, you get better every day.

Second, don’t focus too much on genre. Horror is a tricky genre because it unfairly earned a bad rap because of public perception that it was tied to things like slasher movies and torture porn. Horror is so much more than that, but public perception is hard to change. Fighting that perception isn’t a good example of picking the right fight. It’s better to write a superb novel and then allow it to be sold under the genre label that will get it into the hands of the largest number of readers.

To that end, it’s important to understand that writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Be an excellent craftsman (a never-ending process), but at the same time be smart about how the business works.

Also, don’t believe the hype that commercial success is only possible at the expense of artistic integrity. You think Charles Bukowski, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving or Kurt Vonnegut didn’t have agents? You think they didn’t work within the system of publishing? Of course they did. But they were smart enough and adult enough to understand that working within the publishing model is the best way to reach the most readers. And that isn’t just a financial decision. If you write something that truly matters to you, then why not share that with as many people as possible?

And … stop mythologizing the writing process. We don’t sit moodily in quiet corners waiting for the muse to whisper secrets to us. We don’t need to wear lucky socks or write in the dead of night or anything else that places affectation before productivity. Get your butt in a chair and write. If it comes out weak or bad or clunky or ordinary, then accept that this happens to everyone. Everyone. Get it down, get it done, and fix it in the rewrite. Just like everyone from Stephen King to J.K. Rowling to Chuck Palahniuk does.

Last thing … don’t try to jump on a trend. Write the best book you can, the one that demands to be written, no matter what genre it is. Even a trend the trades tell you has gone stale can be revitalized by a superb piece of writing. It’ll never be revitalized by someone jumping on a trend bandwagon. Bring your A-game, your passion, your craft, and your sense of fun to the story you love best. Start there, and see what happens.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m fortunate enough that I’m busier than a three-headed cat in a dairy. I just wrapped FIRE & ASH, the fourth book in my Rot & Ruin series (and, yes, I’m experiencing post-partum depression after four books with those characters). I’m writing a bunch of short stories and novellas I have due to anthologies, and I’m doing research for the sixth book in my Joe Ledger series.

As for release, I’m on tour with FLESH & BONE, visiting libraries and schools all over the country. My first anthology as editor, V-WARS, just came out, so I’m touring with that as well. And in a week or so Marvel Comics will launch my latest miniseries, MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE AVENGERS. And we just pitched some new Young Adult novels, so we’ll see what happens there.

Q: What are your favorite scary books?
A: I’m such a book geek that I have my favorite books categorized and sub-divided. However, the short answer is this:

  • Favorite all time novel: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury (he gave me a signed copy for Christmas when I was thirteen!).
  • Favorite cross-genre horror novel: I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson (written in 1954, it was the first true horror-science fiction crossover). Runner up is PHANTOMS by Dean R. Koontz.
  • Favorite ghost story: THE HAUNTING by Shirley Jackson. Best opening of any novel, ever. Close runner up is GHOST STORY by Peter Straub.
  • Favorite vampire novel: ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King. Vampires should be scary.
  • Favorite werewolf novel: THE HOWLING by Gary Brandner.
  • Favorite monster novel: WOLFEN by Whitley Strieber. Kind of werewolves, kind of not.
  • Favorite non-supernatural horror novel: RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris.
  • Favorite zombie novel: DEAD CITY by Joe McKinney. Read this a bunch of times.
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