The Inside Scoop On Predator One: An Interview with Jonathan Maberry
If you’ve had the privilege of meeting Jonathan, you already know he’s insightful, funny, and a genuinely good guy. If you’ve haven’t met him but have read his Joe Ledger series, you might have guessed that the man who created Ledger embodied him with qualities he values and shares. If you aren’t familiar with the series, you’ll be sure to pick it up after you read what Jonathan has to say about Predator One . . .
Amy: Captain Joe Ledger, the protagonist in Predator One and the previous six novels in the series (along with one short story collection), is a multifaceted individual–sometimes a compassionate friend and sometimes a hard-nosed killer. What went into the creation of this character and how do you think he has changed, if at all, throughout the series?
Jonathan Maberry: I’ve always loved thrillers and action stories, but within those genres, what appeals to me most are protagonists who aren’t simply muscle heads. I’m not into ‘gun porn’ or purely testosterone-driven fiction. Actually, I’ve always gravitated toward the thinking-person’s hero and the hero with a heart. Characters like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee are among my favorites. Along with that, I’ve always loved the old pulp novels featuring inventive and heroic characters like Doc Savage, G8, The Avenger, and The Shadow. They were smart as well as brave, and even though they went to extremes it was always in defense of the helpless or innocent.
My first three novels were straight horror but even while I was writing them I knew that I was going to try a thriller one of these days. I was sitting in a diner drinking coffee and working on notes for one of my nonfiction books when a couple of new characters began having a conversation in my head. That happens if you’re a writer. (If you’re not a writer it’s pretty much a cry for help!) I realized that these characters belonged to a new book; something I hadn’t written yet. I explored who they were, and the character of Joe Ledger emerged. He’s a former Baltimore cop who is working through damage from a terrible childhood trauma. He gets hired into a covert government department tasked with opposing terrorists who use cutting-edge science weapons.
Joe combines elements of several people, including a little of my own childhood – and my snarky sense of humor; as well as skills and philosophies present in a few soldiers and special operators I’ve admired over the years.
Amy: What was the kernel idea that germinated into Predator One?
Jonathan Maberry: I’m a science geek. Always have been. Maybe that started while reading the Doc Savage pulps, with all their weird weapons. Or maybe it was H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Hard to say. One of the things a writer does –particularly a thriller writer—is to look at what’s happening in the world and speculate on ‘what’s the worst that could happen’. Funny thing is I’m not actually a pessimist, but I’m enough of a realist to know that certain technologies can be very easily misused. Drones are a prime example. On one hand they’re cool and useful –you’ll soon be able to get pizzas and purchases delivered via drones; but they are also very dangerous. They’re extremely easy to use for criminal behavior and terrorism. Already we’re seeing drones being used to ferry drugs and weapons across the border from the cartels. Drones have flown right over the walls of the White House. And along with that we have autonomous drive systems, remote-guided GPS systems, artificial intelligence, and related technologies. All terrific if used for the betterment of mankind…but dreadful if used against people. And, sadly, there are always idiots, criminals, and terrorists out there who are looking for easier ways to do more harm.
That’s the foundation on which Predator One is based. A terrorist organization uses these technologies to launch a wave of destruction against the American people. It would be comforting to say that everything in that book is pure science fiction…but pick up the newspaper or look at the headlines on the Net. This stuff is actually happening, which scares the bejeezus out of me.
Amy: Without giving anything away, Predator One has a real, and very controversial person as an essential part of its fabric. How do you know when enough time has passed to include a provocative person or topic into one of your novels?
Jonathan Maberry: I always put real people in my novels. As I see it my stories take place in the real world –sort of—and it would be strange if that world were missing the things all of us know. That includes brand-name products, real locations, and people. Some of those folks are friends of mine who stood too close while I was casting my book –which is always a danger when you’re friends with a writer. Some are folks who’ve won contests to be in my books. Just recently I participated in the Pixel Project, as one of a dozen bestselling authors who donated perks as part of an awareness-building campaign against domestic violence.
But I also include folks I don’t know. I’ve name-checked Stephen King, U2’s Bono met Joe Ledger in King of Plagues, characters refer to popular talk show hosts and political figures. Some living, some dead. So, it’s likely to encounter anyone from Jon Stewart to Osama Bin Laden. Anything’s possible.
Amy: You have a black belt in martial arts and your fight scenes display your intimate knowledge of the myriad ways one human being can damage and/or kill another. Did this background help you feel suited to write thrillers, horrors, graphic novels, and other action-based genres?
Jonathan Maberry: I’ve been a practicing martial artist for over fifty years and currently hold an 8th degree black belt. I’m a former bodyguard and I taught self-defense and martial arts history at Temple University. I served as the Expert Witness for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office for murder cases involving martial arts; and in 2004 I was inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame. So…yeah, I know my combat –armed and unarmed. When I write a fight scene, everything that happens is possible, logical and practical. That varies, character-to-character and scene-to-scene, but I’m a stickler for accuracy in fight scenes. That said, I also work to make each action scene as unique and exciting as I can. And I have a hell of a lot of fun doing it!
Amy: The crises Ledger faces are primarily based in the ‘real world.’ But each novel in the Ledger series, Predator One included, contains a character or element connected to the world of horror or the supernatural. Sometimes you tiptoe the line between pure thriller and noir or horror fiction and other times you plow over it. What intrigues you about the dance between the real and unreal?
Jonathan Maberry: I’ll never stray too far from my horror roots. I’m a very active member of the horror community and I’ve been reading horror –and reading deeply into the genre—my whole life. Horror has something of a bad rap with the general public because they often think that it’s raw gore, oceans of blood, misogyny and cheap shots. Granted there is a small niche market in horror fiction that focuses on those things, but the genre is much broader, deeper, and more interesting than that. Horror stories are, by definition, character-driven because they are about emotions. All sorts of emotions, by the way, not just fear. Horror allows us to explore layer upon layer of emotional substrata. They allow us to confront the things that trouble us, and by writing (or reading) draw some useful conclusions while still being entertained.
In my fiction, I often include horrific elements, and even some supernatural elements…even when I’m writing a techno thriller. As practical and skeptical as I am by nature, I’m also very open-minded. I like to believe that the world is much larger, stranger and more interesting than my fellow skeptics are willing to accept. Like Fox Mulder in the X-Files, I want to believe. And so I let the supernatural overlap the real-world story elements.
Amy: Predator One and the other books in the Ledger series have a complex timeline that is set in different locations. How do you make sure you keep track of the passage of time accurately?
Jonathan Maberry: I like complex stories. With the Joe Ledger series, I write each book in a first-person narrative, but I intersperse that with third-person scenes that don’t involve Joe. This allows me to shape the world and inform the reader about the other characters, their motivations, and to flesh out the backstory that has brought us to the point of calamity that drives the central narrative. In real world special ops, the field operators seldom if ever meet the bad guy, and they never have a James Bond moment where the villain sits down with the spy and explains his evil master plan. So I use flashbacks to explain that plan, and to delve into the emotional, psychological and ideological motivations that have brought the villain to this point.
How do I keep track of it? I was trained as a journalist and I have a very orderly mind. I plot out the book, do tons of research, and I build a deliberate structure into each book. I write the way I think.
Want to know more about author Jonathan Maberry?
Amy: In a related question, do you write all the scenes that take place in one venue in sequence then take them apart later?
Jonathan Maberry: Occasionally I’ll write a subplot from end to end and then break it up so I can seed the individual scenes into the larger manuscript. That helps with continuity, particularly when developing secondary characters and relationships. Often, though, I’ll have ideas for micro scenes that need to be placed in the book even if I’m not working on that thread at the moment. I don’t force myself to write in a purely linear fashion.
Amy: You incorporate a lot of technology into Predator One, most of it based on extant software and hardware (even if it is only in its infancy stages). As you were writing, did you begin to see some manifestations of your imagination leak into reality? If so, can you cite an example?
Jonathan Maberry: Predator One began as a far out bit of paranoid thinking. When I plotted it and wrote it, the FAA had not yet given approval for private use drones, and autonomous drive systems were only being introduced. I speculated on ways that could go wrong, or be misused. Since the book came out –almost immediately—I began seeing news stories about hackers manipulating the GPS on a vehicle, or using GPS and autonomous drive systems to steal vehicles. We saw remote hacking of planes and drones. And drones have interfered with firefighters in California and Oregon, they’ve crashed on the White House lawn, they’ve caused injuries, and there’s even a video of one being reconfigured to fire a handgun. Sometimes it’s scary to see your ‘science fiction’ in the headlines.
Amy: Can you give us a tease about what Captain Joe Ledger will be doing next?
Jonathan Maberry: Joe Ledger will return in 2016 in KILL SWITCH, which is one of the strangest novels I’ve written. It includes elements of quantum physics –particularly multi-dimensionality and superstring theory; the threat of ISIS; illegal trafficking in antiquities; forbidden knowledge; elements of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu story cycle; and the failed CIA ‘Stargate’ psychic espionage project. I had a ton of fun with that.
Then in 2017, we’ll have DOGS OF WAR, the 9th Ledger novel –and that will deal with all of the dangers inherent in robotics and AI; but there will also be an anthology of Joe Ledger stories, with new tales written by a slew of my bestseller friends, including Christopher Golden & Tim Lebbon, Dana Fredsti, Weston Ochse, Steve Alten, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Ray Garton, Larry Correia, Jon McGoran, Joe McKinney, Jeremy Robinson, Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, James A. Moore, David Farland, and Claire Ashgrove.
And we’re in serious discussions about a Joe Ledger feature film.