Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Interview with Jonathan Maberry about his new novel, Patient Zero

It doesn't surprise anyone who knows Jonathan Maberry that his new bio-terror thriller, PATIENT ZERO, has already garnered high praise from writers like Peter Straub, David Morrell and Joe R. Lansdale. Jonathan Maberry has already found success as a horror writer, winning multiple Stoker awards for both fiction and non-fiction and securing a reputation as a writer whose work Stuart Kaminsky describes as "vivid, threatening and beautiful."

In PATIENT ZERO, Maberry introduces Joe Ledger, who combines the martial skills of an action hero with the troubled past and vulnerabilities of the classic noir protagonist. Joe is a Baltimore cop recruited by a secret government agency to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a plague that can turn people into murderous zombies, a harrowing device Joseph Finder calls "Night of the Living Dead meets Michael Crichton."

Since 1979, Jonathan Maberry has written thousands of articles, seventeen nonfiction books and seven novels, as well as plays, poetry, comics and forays into new media and webcasts. He's currently writing DRAGON FACTORY, the next installment of the Joe Ledger series, and editing Thrill Ride, a serial graphic novel for ITW showcasing the work of some of the biggest names in thriller writing. He's also the only writer I know who's a member of the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame, which means he knows how to make those scenes of hand-to-hand combat harrowing and frighteningly accurate.

I caught up with Jonathan at the local Starbucks that is his writing home; so much so that he credits the place in the acknowledgements of his latest book.

PATIENT ZERO is being described as a bio-terror thriller, but it actually pays homage to a number of different genres. How do you categorize the novel?

I call PATIENT ZERO a bioterrorism thriller for convenience sake, but you're right in that it crosses a lot of genre lines. In fact, Ken Bruen labeled it a 'neo-noir thriller', the first of its kind. That's probably right on the money. The backbone of the story is the classic thriller: a race against the clock to stop bad guys from doing something really, really bad, and in this case they want to release an unstoppable pathogen. But the hero is a cop and he breaks the case down using a police procedural approach. That isn't often done in thrillers. Plus, the plague turns people into zombies, so you have a bit of the horror genre and the medical thriller genre as well.

PATIENT ZERO does have other elements in it as well. When the hero, Joe Ledger, leads Echo Team on the missions in the novel the books moves a bit into the arena of the military thriller. If PATIENT ZERO needs a simpler label, I'm going to just call it a 'thriller'. That'll do.

You're an incredibly busy writer, but you still conduct classes for new and young writers. Why is that important to you?

For a couple of reasons. First, I love teaching. I've been a teacher for my entire adult life, and I've taught a lot of different things. I teach traditional Japanese jujutsu and kenjutsu (the sword art of the Samurai), and have taught self-defense for women, children and the physically challenged for decades. I taught martial arts history at Temple University for fourteen years. But teaching writing allows me to try and influence other writers to improve their craft and sharpen their business sense.

That part -the business--is crucial, because I've seen what happens to writers who don't understand that publishing is a business. I was there once and got smashed, but I learned from it, and learned the business, and if I can keep another writer from getting smashed, then I feel like I just did something for the common good.

The other reason I love to teach is that in order to teach you have to understand the subject. To teach writing you have to deconstruct it, to peer inside to see all the cogs and pinwheels that make a story tick. I've learned as much from teaching the craft as I have from the process of writing. And that's improved my own skill set.

There's another reason, too. I get totally jazzed when one of my students makes that step and sells something. Not because I want to take credit (which is silly, 'cause I didn't write it) but because that means someone else gets to have the kind of fun I'm having. There's another kid on the playground, which means we're going to have that much more fun.

You're famous for prodigious amounts of research for both your fiction and non-fiction. What was the coolest thing you discovered in researching PATIENT ZERO?

That zombies aren't as far-fetched as we thought. That's cool, though in a very scary way. I need to backtrack a bit to the book I did before PATIENT ZERO. Last August Citadel Press released a nonfiction book called ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead in which I interviewed hundreds of experts in law enforcement, forensics, and various specialties within medicine. During that research I talked to epidemiologists, molecular biologists and other experts to find out if any of what zombies did in the movies was medically possible. Turns out each individual quality or symptom is possible. Luckily for us it's improbable for those qualities to co-exist in the human body. Improbable, but not actually impossible.

The seed for the Seif al Din pathogen in PATIENT ZERO is a prion disease. Prions are misfolded proteins that act like viruses and can be passed down through family lines even though they don't have DNA. Mad Cow is a prion disease, but the one that really scared the heck out of me is one called 'fatal familial insomnia', a disease that causes its victims to stay awake until the become completely exhausted, deranged and mindless -and then it kills them. My villains take that disease and amp it up with genetic manipulation and combine it with some aggressive parasites of the kind found in nature. Each separate component of the Seif al Din pathogen exists and is possible. I'm just happy that no one has actually done this. I hope.

Your books are both critically acclaimed and popular with readers. Which matters more to you - the regard of your peers or your fans?

No offense to my fellow authors, but I write for the readers. I want to make the books fun for them, I want to challenge them, and I want to give them the give of story they can become involved with. That's one of the reasons I love doing signings, readings and author appearances. I love talking about books with the readers. Not just my own books, but any books. I've had so many great conversations with readers about books...they're often very deeply informed and so well-read that I always get good leads for books I then go and buy.

The support from my fellow authors hits me in a different way. I'm fortunate enough now in my career to know most of the authors whose books I read. I'm one of those readers who likes to know the person behind the book -just as I like knowing the songwriter behind the song. It deepens the experience for me. Having received support for PATIENT ZERO from authors I greatly respect is greatly empowering and validating.

Your Joe Ledger books are entertaining reads, but they're also about the war on terror. Do you use the platform of the novels to weigh in on America's efforts to eradicate terrorism?

In a way. I'm an idealist and a realist at the same time. A point is made in the book that terrorism is an ideology, not a nationality. That's my personal view. I'm against terrorism, whether state sanctioned or as the practice of small groups.

However there are a lot of viewpoints presented in the book, and I don't personally share all of them. PATIENT ZERO is not a 'my country right or wrong' book. Far from it. I believe in responsibility, accountability and an adherence to human rights laws. Not all of my characters share that view.

Funny thing is, a couple of blog reviewers suggested that I was pro-right wing and even a supporter of the Bush viewpoint on the 'war on terror'. I read those reviews and wondered if they'd actually read the book. The viewpoints closest to my own belong to Joe Ledger -the protagonist--and Rudy Sanchez, his best friend (and the moral compass of the book). Other reviewers more clearly got that I was a liberal who would still pull a trigger if the moment demanded it.

I do agree with the philosophy that negotiating with terrorists is a losing proposition. At the same time I agree that the only way to defeat terrorists is to use the kind of guerilla warfare they use. Hence Joe Ledger's take-it-to-them way of doing things.

If you had to choose, would you rather your readers come away from your books wowed by your plots, or in love with your characters?

In love with the characters. Plots are nice, but if the book isn't filled with real people, then it's just bubble gum. As both reader and writer I'm drawn to the characters.

When creating the characters for PATIENT ZERO, I wanted all of them to be three-dimensional, and that includes the villains. My primary villain, Sebastian Gault, is very real to me. He has good and bad qualities; he has a past and a viewpoint that makes sense to him. The same goes with El Mujahid and Amirah -the fundamentalists who head the terror cell and Gault's science division--they aren't cookie cutter terrorists. They have complex personalities and relationships.

The people who have read the book already reached out to me about characters. People seem to care about them. I love that readers are bonding with the 'people' in my book.

How much does the realism or plausibility of your plot devices matter to you?

In this kind of story there's always a point at which the science of the plot crosses over into a bit of science fiction. As the dinosaur cloning did in JURASSIC PARK. The key is to make every other aspect of the story as realistic as possible so it's not much of a stretch for the reader to suspend their disbelief.

I also dig research. I include a lot of gizmos that seem very James Bond, but just about everything in the book is either in use by covert ops, or is in R&D at companies that provide materials for covert ops.

When it comes to the action scenes, I have a special interest in making them as real as possible. I've been a martial arts practitioner for 45 years and worked for years as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry. I've been in a lot of serious conflicts, including dealing with armed attackers and multiple attackers. I was also Chief Instructor for COP-Safe, a company that provided arrest and control workshops for law enforcement officers ranging from rookie street cops to SWAT. I don't believe in flashy fighting, and when Joe Ledger takes it to them PATIENT ZERO you can trust that everything he does is completely plausible. This is something I give talks and lectures on at writers' conferences, including last year at ThrillerFest and at BackSpace.

If the components of the book are real, then the thrills will be real, and that's what it's all about.

This interview originally appeared at The Big Thrill, the web newsletter of the International Thriller Writers.


  1. Wow. I only wish I lived close enough to take one of his classes.

  2. Yeah, and he wears the hell out of that beret, too.