January 16, 2012

Brain Picking: Interview with Jonathan Maberry

(author Dead of Night)

There are three names you should immediately think of when you think of zombies. George A. Romero, Max Brooks, and Jonathan Maberry. Maberry is the NY Times Best Selling author of such zombie titles as Zombie CSU, Patient Zero, and Rot & Ruin. His newest zombie novel, DEAD OF NIGHT, presents a terrifying apocalyptic scenario in which a condemned serial killer becomes a hungry, contagious undead monster after being injected by an experimental form of lethal injection. Maberry swung by The Zed Word to talk about DEAD OF NIGHT and discuss the longevity of the zombie genre.

ZED WORD: You've written several excellent zombie novels in recent years. When writing Dead of Night, what potential did you see in the zombie genre that you hadn't already tapped in your other novels?

JONATHAN MABERRY: DEAD OF NIGHT was written as a standalone novel, as opposed to my other books which are parts of series. This allowed me a bit more freedom in messing with the lives of the characters. No one is really safe in a standalone book. Okay, granted, I tend to kill off main characters in my series novels…but in those books you often get a sense of who is likely to make it out.

I also had a chance to build an entirely new cast of characters and get inside their heads. For me, all stories start with characters. I need to understand them, know them, and make them real…then I can tell their story. With DEAD OF NIGHT I had the chance to introduce a new cast of characters, every one of whom are emotionally damaged in some way. It’s always fun to write about complex and conflicted characters, especially when telling the story of a major crisis.

ZW: With the proliferation of zombie media in recent years, how do you make zombies scary when audiences have seen zombie apocalypse scenarios time after time?

JM: Zombies are an incredibly flexible monster. They can be truly terrifying, as Romero ably proved; and they can be funny as hell, as we saw in flicks like SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ZOMBIELAND and FIDO. They can be pathetic, laughable, heart-breakingly tragic, and ominous all within the space of a single scene. They have no personalities, so we can infuse them with anything we want. That comes down to the talent of the storyteller. Look at The Walking Dead. The zombie in the well was disgusting but comical. The little girl coming out of the barn was tragic and terrifying because her very nature proved that nothing and no one is safe. The white fingers clawing at the door in the first episode are frightening.

In DEAD OF NIGHT, I added a couple of my own spins, one of which not only resonates with a large number of readers but also creeped me out. In my novel, the personality and consciousness of each victim of the zombie still exists, but it’s trapped inside the body of the zombie they’ve become. They have absolutely no control over what their own body is doing, so they have to be a helpless witness to slaughter –often of their own family and friends. That concept scared the hell out of me, and apparently it’s scaring my readers.

ZW: Many of your novels, including Dead of Night, feature law enforcement and military protagonists. Are these types of characters simply fitting for tales of zombie horror or is there another reason you are drawn to creating characters in this line of work?

JM: In any crisis story the people on the front lines are going to be cops, EMTs and others from the emergency response infrastructure. An outbreak story such as DEAD OF NIGHT is also a mystery, and cops investigate mysteries. Zombie stories are violent, and cops respond to calls about violent attacks. They would be among the first people to confront zombies, and because they’re trained to respond to violent attacks, they’re likely to be among the first group of survivors.  But apart from that, there is an avenue of storytelling I wanted to explore, which is our perception of how powerful we are, and how under the right circumstances ‘power’ is a relative concept.

ZW: The horror begins in Dead of Night with an example of science and capital punishment gone wrong. Does Dead of Night use the zombie genre to advance any social commentary about the misuse of science or the ethics of capital punishment?

JM: A lot of what I write –in horror and in my thrillers—deals with the potential misuse of science and technology.  Understand, I’m a certified science geek, but I’m enough of a realist and, perhaps, an ethicist, to realize that the military always has its eyes on new developments in science because war is based on science. The creation of the crossbow was a scientific achievement. As was the catapult, gunpowder, rockets, bombs and nuclear weapons.  Scientific advancements in many areas can be traced back to military or Department of Defense funding. And that ranges from Velcro to Krazy-Glue. That said, we know that technology grows at an exponential rate –which is far faster than we as a culture or a species can keep up. Accidents happen.  When you’re playing with bows and arrows, one accident isn’t world-shaking.  When you’re developing bioweapons, portable nukes, and other scientific horrors, one accident can be the last note in the human symphony.  This is what scares me, and that’s why I put science in most of my horror stories.

ZW: What advice would you give writers working on their own zombie fiction? How does one get their zombie tales recognized in a market already full of published and self-published zombie fiction?

JM:  Zombie fiction has really only been a separate genre for a few years now, and despite what some brain-dead critics try to suggest, this genre is far from played out. That leaves the door open for lots of fresh blood.  However, there is the issue of changing the public’s perception of what makes good zombie fiction. Folks who don’t read the genre (and there are still a lot of them) think that zombie fiction is all graphic gore and mindless slaughter.  And, sure, that describes some entries in the genre, and even some good entries.  But that’s not what’s driving zombie fiction onto the bestseller lists.  Here’s the thing…if you write zombie fiction and concentrate too much on the zombie, you lose the audience. There’s a glut of dreck that does just that, some conventionally published and a lot of it self-published.  What sells is when writers realize that the monster is not, and never should be, the central focus of a horror novel.  The characters –the humans—who are caught up in these apocalyptic events are the story.

Even in the standard Romero-esque model there’s a lot of room for original storytelling, and that comes predominately from the fact that zombies don’t have much personality. They, as characters, don’t intrude too deeply into the story.  They’re the threat, the crisis.  Once introduced, their very presence is a catalyst for the disruption of everything normal in the human characters’ lives: personal and public perception, roles we play, relationships, group dynamics. In crisis situations our affected personalities crack and fall away to reveal our true nature. A guy who’s a minimum-wage schlubs working at Taco Bell might well have the untapped quality of leadership that might save the day; just as the corporate lion might be the worst person to serve as leader.  This is the basis for all drama, and zombie stories allow writers to tell unlimited numbers of stories about real people in dreadful situations.

So…concentrate on the characters and you jump to the front of the pack when pitching to today’s publishing market.

ZW: What do you see for the future of zombies? Will the monster's popularity fizzle out and drop from public consciousness or continue to evolve?

JM: Zombie fiction –the whole zombie genre—is here to stay. But because it’s now a recognized trope, its popularity will wax and wane. Just like the vampire, giant monster, werewolf, and ghost tropes wax and wane. Every time the genre cools off the small-minded reviewers and market analysts try to tell us that we’ve seen the last of (fill in the name of your favorite monster). But as soon as a new really good book comes along, the genre gets new legs. We’ve seen it before. Vampires were a go-nowhere genre after Dark Shadows was canceled; then Stephen King and Anne Rice came along. Then it was in decline again until Whitley Strieber wrote The Hunger. Then it was dead and gone forever until Buffy the Vampire Slayer…and Blade…and True Blood…and Twilight…and so on and on. As long as there are good writers willing to bring their A-game to a genre, the monsters we love will never die. Bank on it.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer.  He’s the author of many novels including Assassin’s Code, Dead of Night, Patient Zero and Rot & Ruin.  His nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop-culture. Since 1978 he has sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, and textbooks. Jonathan continues to teach the celebrated Experimental Writing for Teens class, which he created. He founded the Writers Coffeehouse and co-founded The Liars Club; and is a frequent speaker at schools and libraries, as well as a keynote speaker and guest of honor at major writers and genre conferences.  Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara and their son, Sam. Visit him online at www.jonathanmaberry.com and on Twitter (@jonathanmaberry) and Facebook.