Creating Rot & Ruin: An Interview with Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling writer and the author of this month’s pro story, “Ink”. One of his most popular series is ROT & RUIN, which follows a group of teenagers struggling to survive in a zombie-infested wasteland. The latest book in this series, BITS & PIECES, is out in stores September 22nd.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve written successful series for both adults and teens. Do you feel like there’s some crossover between the two audiences?

JONATHAN MABERRY: There’s always been a crossover between the adults and teens that read fiction. That goes back a long, long way and it’s only now that we’re deliberately marketing to teens and adults as separate demographics that it’s being viewed as a phenomenon. When I was eight or nine I was reading Conan stories, Ed McBain mysteries, and Edgar Rice Burroughs along with the Hardy Boys and that sort of thing. In my teens I devoured John D. MacDonald, Roger Zelazney, Richard Matheson, and countless others, while reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Most of the adults I know read some YA books, and virtually all of the teens I know ‘read up’.

This is one of the reasons I brought characters from my adult-oriented fiction into my teen novels. Joe Ledger, who stars in his own ongoing series of weird science thrillers, appears as a much older man in the final three books of my post-apocalypse zombie teen novels, Rot & Ruin. So does Iron Mike Sweeney. And there is a crossover character, Sam Imura, older brother to the Imura brothers who star in Rot & Ruin. I did this partly for fun (because I always want to have fun while writing), partly for business (because crossover audiences are good for sales), but mostly so that adults and teens will have a common ground and a book they can share.

Urban Fantasy Magazine:: Rot & Ruin has been featured as an ideal book for reluctant readers. What do you think makes a book appeal to a teen who’s struggling to stay engaged? Any suggestions for adults who feel like they have a hard time “getting into” fiction?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I write the books I would read. Rot & Ruin was written for the fifteen-year-old who is still very much alive inside my head. I’ve loved zombies, swords, martial arts, rough-and-tumble action, girls, adventure, and the end of the world ever since I was a kid. I read about it, I made up games for my friends and I to play, I day-dreamed a lot about surviving a zombie apocalypse. Even though I was an avid reader as a kid, many of my friends were not. I used to find books they’d dig. The reprints of the Doc Savage novels, the Conan and King Kull adventures, anything with space ships, exotic princesses from other worlds, swords and ray guns. I did a bit of Tom Sawyer by playing up the adventure elements to draw my friends in, and then we’d hang out and talk about how we’d fare if we wound up in Pellucidar or at the end of time or whatever.

When I sat down to write Rot & Ruin I didn’t plan the book as a campaign for reading, but I knew what kinds of things would have appealed to me –and to my friends– when I was a kid. I wrote that book. The fact that it went on to appeal to reluctant readers is great, it validates the con-man approach I’ve used all my life to get my friends to read the kinds of books I want to talk about with them.

The same goes for adult readers. Write books that you’d want to read, have a hell of a lot of fun with them, make them fun for anyone to read, and you’re doing it right.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Tom Imura is the closest thing Benny has to a parental figure in Rot & Ruin. Yet unlike many parents in the genre, he takes an active role in the story and advances the plot along with Benny. What made you decide on this approach?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Although I had no reliable parental influences (my father was a career criminal and a very, very bad guy), I had solid and very positive role models in some of the older students and instructors at the dojo where I studied jujutsu. Tom Imura is a blend of some of the best qualities in those role models. Kind and strong, and someone who accepts that compassion is a strength rather than a weakness. Humor and patience. Those are qualities I genuinely admire. So, since I had these ‘older brother’ role models in my life, I wanted to explore than dynamic in Rot & Ruin. As a result, Tom became one of my most fully realized characters, and he is a runaway fan favorite.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Zombies are never just shambling monsters in your books. Each series places some emphasis on the idea that “zombies were people, too.” How is this concept important in your work?

JONATHAN MABERRY: First, let me say that I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre since I saw Night of the Living Dead on its world premier in 1968. I was ten. Having grown up with the genre and watched it evolve over the years, I saw an alarming trend toward a dehumanization of the living dead. Granted the zombie is scary and dangerous and lethal, but in virtually all of the books, movies, and comics the zombie is a mindless shell. It has no malice, no evil intent because it’s incapable of emotion. That’s one point. The second is that too many of the genre’s entries tend to make killing a zombie in funny ways a trope. It totally disregards the fact that every zombie was once a person, and each of those people died in fear and pain. Their lives, their world, their futures were stolen from them by the disease that killed them. So, while it is necessary to defend against the zombies, it is a definite step away from our own humanity to forget those facts. It’s typical of a certain kind of war mentality that we demonize and dehumanize our enemies. We see it also in video games and movies where the ‘enemy’ is just another thing to be killed. It becomes about body count rather than a connection to our shared humanity. When I wrote Rot & Ruin that was a core element of the entire story.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Some characters inevitably get more time on the page than others. How do you go about planning a character who isn’t going to get much space?

JONATHAN MABERRY: ‘Stage time’, as I call it, depends on a character’s importance to the story. Even in character-driven novels, in the end every scene and every character has to serve the plot. I always start a story by thinking about the experiences and reactions of an individual character, and I work outward to create a cast of supporting characters. Those characters whose dynamic will either help deepen the overall understanding of the story or drive the narrative forward get bigger roles.

That said, sometimes characters grow in the telling. In the first draft of Rot & Ruin the character of Nix was very minor, originally intended for one or possibly two small scenes. She was there to help Benny, the main character, come to grips with what he wants in life, at least in terms of friends and possible romance. I had every intention of having Benny fall in love with Lilah, the Lost Girl. But in the writing of those early scenes Nix became much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I based her, to a great degree, on a girl I went out with in ninth grade, and in the writing the personality traits of that girl blossomed in Nix. She became much more complex, more opinionated, more dynamic, more nuanced, and therefore she clearly needed a bigger part in the story. Eventually she became the costar of Rot & Ruin. Like my own girlfriend of ninth grade, Nix Riley refused to be only ‘someone’s girlfriend’ and had no intention of being relegated to a minor supporting role. Benny grew in his understanding of girls in pretty much the same way I did. Good lessons for both of us.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: In a genre that’s historically featured a lot of damsels in distress, you’ve written some complex and capable female characters. I believe Dead of Night was your first book to feature a female protagonist. How was that experience, and are there plans for more leading ladies in future books?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Dead of Night was the first of my adult novels to feature a female lead character. There were very strong female co-leads and secondary characters –Val Guthrie in my Pine Deep Trilogy; Grace Courtland, Junie Flynn, Aunt Sallie, and Lydia Ruiz in the Joe Ledger novels; and Nix Riley, Riot, and Lilah in the Rot & Ruin novels. But Dead of Night started with the character of Dez Fox. She IS the book. It was all about her and how her childhood damage made her at once very strong and very vulnerable. She is a hard-assed redneck police officer in a tiny Pennsylvania town. Her damage is the core of her strength, and that’s a delicate balance for a character. So much fun to write. And she was such a huge hit with the fans that I brought her back in Fall of Night, which takes place one minute after the end of Dead of Night. She makes a brief cameo in the 8th Joe Ledger novel, Kill Switch.

I am about to start writing Glimpse, which is one of my rare solo-point of view novels. I generally like a shared POV told via an ensemble cast. However Glimpse is a horror novel about a young woman –a recovering junkie– searching for the child she gave up for adoption six years earlier. It’s also one of only three standalone novels I’ve written. And the lead character is in no way a typical action hero. She isn’t a cop or soldier, she isn’t tough in any action-movie kind of way. She’s a mother who knows that her child is in danger, partly because of the mistakes she made earlier in her life. That will make her fierce and relentless in ways I haven’t previously explored. I’ll start writing that book in a couple of months and I cannot wait.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve also done quite a bit of writing for Marvel. Could you describe your first experience writing a comic book?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I grew up as a Marvel Comics kid. My first comic was Fantastic Four #66. I had been planning how to approach Marvel with a pitch when I got a call out of the blue from Axel Alonso, the editor-in-chief. He’d read my novel, Patient Zero, and thought my skills in action, character and dialog would be a good fit for comics. I jumped at the chance, and my first two projects were a Wolverine short (“Ghosts”) used as a back-up piece for that year’s annual; and a 32-page Punisher Max (“Naked Kills”) for their adult line. I went on from there to do a slew of projects for Marvel, including a short stint on Black Panther, and lots of limited series, DoomWar, Captain America: Hail Hydra, Marvel Zombies Return, Marvel Universe vs The Avengers, and others.

I’ve also explored some creator-owned projects because I love horror comics and Marvel doesn’t do a lot of horror books these days. So I did Bad Blood for Dark Horse, with amazing art by Eisner Award winner Tyler Crook, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for best graphic novel. And I’ve two projects so far with IDW. A limited-series Rot & Ruin adventure and V-Wars, which is my franchise with IDW. It’s a series of prose shared-world anthologies, it’ll be a board game this Christmas, and we have a TV series in development. So far I’ve done two V-Wars graphic novels.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If Marvel suddenly asked you to create an original superhero series (not based on any of your existing work), what do you think that would look like?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’d love to do a story with the daughter of Doctor Doom who becomes a hero. International celebutante by day, armored crime-fighter by night, and working to save her own country from its dictator who happens to be her father.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Okay, last question. You’ve already shared some of the fun parts about writing for Marvel, but what about the challenges? Is it a struggle to write about characters that are already known and loved by the audience?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Well, a lot of the heavy lifting is already done in terms of establishing who and what the character is. However a writer’s job is to find something new, something interesting to say about that character. When I did Black Panther: Power and its spin-off DoomWar, I went old-school. Doctor Doom was the central villain and I’ve always loved Doom when he was written as a nuanced, sophisticated, and introspective head of state who also happens to be a super villain. I don’t like versions of Doom where he’s raving mad or merely there to be the villain du jour as opposed to having a reason to appear. My Doom was very political, as was my take on the two Black Panthers in the story, T’Challa and his sister, Shuri. So my approach to the whole book was to focus on a national crisis, an economic crisis, and the ways those things impact political brinksmanship. When I did Captain America: Hail Hydra, I set each of the five issues in different eras of Cap’s life, starting with the 1940s. There are elements of the character that have remained essentially the same –the personal honor and integrity, his problem solving, and his courage– but at the same time he’s changed with the times. So I did five different personal interpretations of Captain America at five key points of his evolution. Those kinds of challenges are what a writer lives for.

One thought on “Creating Rot & Ruin: An Interview with Jonathan Maberry

Leave a Reply