Interview - Jonathan Maberry, author of Rot and Ruin

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): Finding Charlotte by Trevor Rabin [National Treasure soundtrack].

I have to say, this was a fun interview. Jonathan Maberry is so personable that it is hard to believe he writes zombie stories. And even though I conducted this interview through emails, it almost feels as if I sat down and talked with him the whole time. He is one interesting dude. So please welcome Jonathan Maberry, author of Rot and Ruin!

[ME] You have hordes of the undead and other otherworldly elements in Rot
and Ruin, but you also throw in extremely realistic pieces like the carpet coats and
essence-o-undead that they don every time they go out into the Ruin. Why do you need that practicality? What are some of your favorite pieces of realism that you added to your novel?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a very practical person and I prize logic. As much as I love zombie movies and books, many of them present people as uniformly dumb. I’ve found that when push comes to shove, people are mighty darn inventive, and I showed that in ROT & RUIN. Probably my two favorite realistic touches are the carpet coats and the boarded windows. The carpet coats came out of research I did for a nonfiction book, ZOMBIE CSU. I interviewed a forensic odontologist (bite expert) and he said that after death dental ligaments begin to decay. A zombie simply could not bite as hard as a human. So, I began thinking about all of the things in my environment that I couldn’t easily bite through and which could be used for protection. Carpets are a logical choice.

There’s also a scene in ROT & RUIN where Benny and Tom are stuck in a house while zombies are surrounding it. Benny wants to board up the windows, but Tom points out that a lot of loud hammering is a sure way to attract the living dead. Instead he advises that they remain quiet and wait for the zoms to wander away, and then they’d slip out the back.

For a horror novel, you have a lot of heart in this book (which I loved), especially between the relationship of Tom and Benny. Is that typical for the horror genre? Why do you feel that kind of heart is important?

MABERRY: Heart and basic human emotions are often lost in horror and thriller fiction. Often the focus is on the strong negative emotions of rage, fear, terror, and so on. But tension situations often brings out a wide range of emotions. I get tired of stories that are about events rather than people. For me, it’s always about the people: who they are, why they do what they do, what they feel, and how things impact them on a human and emotional level.

What made you decide to make Tom and Benny Japanese (and to make Benny half-Irish)? Why such the difference in their ages?

MABERRY: I wanted to include a Samurai angle in the story, hence the Japanese heritage; but I was also looking to keep things grounded in a cultural diverse world. Mountainside, the hometown of the Imura brothers, is very diverse, with many ethnic and regional backgrounds represented.

As far as the age difference goes… I wanted Tom to have had enough life experience in the pre-First Night world. Also, he represents a parental figure. That relationship between the parental figure and the evolving teenager is crucial to the series.

Why did you give Tom a Samurai's sword as his main weapon of choice against the zombies? Don't get me wrong, I think it is wicked cool and very clever and original, but I still would love to know the genesis of the idea. Do any of your other zombie protagonists have them, or is Tom just special? (I'm totally cool with that, by the way).

MABERRY: The katana (Samurai sword) is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve been involved with jujutsu (Japanese combat) and Kenjutsu (Samurai swordsmanship) for 46 years now, and the katana is an elegant, durable and practical weapon. It’s incredibly fast, it’s great for cutting through bone (handled correctly) and it doesn’t need to be reloaded.

Also, part of the Benny Imura story is learning values. He and his friends will become a kind of new wave of Samurai. In the second book, DUST & DECAY, Benny and his friends are studying with Tom to be Samurai. The Samurai were tough, knowledgeable fighters but the core of their culture was a set of ethics called Bushido. These seven standards of behavior are: courage, benevolence, respect, honor, honesty, loyalty and integrity.

Did you ever get that feeling of the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when writing any of these showdown scenes?

MABERRY: ROT & RUIN definitely owes a debt to westerns. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour novels and watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies. I love that kind of rural drama, and so I built ROT & RUIN around that structure. It also works well with post-apocalyptic and dystopian themes.

You say your characters are drawn, in whole or in part, from people you have actually known. Who was the inspiration for Tom and Benny? And how about Charlie and the Lost Girl?

MABERRY: Charlie is based on some abusive people I knew as a kid. Very bad people who often tried to justify their actions. Charlie is probably one of the most realistic characters in the book. As far as Lilah, the Lost Girl…I’ve known a lot of loners over the years. Damage people who used their hurt as a pathway to personal power. Lilah is very, very strong because she was very, very broken. She is not, however, indestructible. In DUST & DECAY we get to explore more of her complex psychological makeup. Oh, and she’s on the cover of the second book, too.

You have said that writing Rot and Ruin was "liberating." How so? Why is the YA genre so open to experimentation and crossing genres?

MABERRY: There are no real limits to what you can put into a middle grade adventure. I combined westerns, zombies, post-apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy, horror and rescue adventures into one book.

You've said you immersed yourself in YA in prep for writing Rot and Ruin. What do you like most about the books published for YA and think of YA as a whole?

MABERRY: So far I’ve found the YA genre to be more consistently well-written and inventive than most adult genres. I continue to read middle-grade and YA books with great enthusiasm and satisfaction.

And on that note, were there any YA books you were particularly impressed with in your voyage of discovery? What are some of your recent finds?

MABERRY: Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie novels are killer: BONESHAKER and DREADNOUGHT. I love Scott Westerfeld's books, particularly BEHEMOTH and LEVIATHAN; and Cassandra Clare's CLOCKWORK ANGEL is brilliant. But I also dig creepy stuff like THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff and Rick Yancey's CURSE OF THE WENDIGO.

Where did the idea of Zombie Cards come in?

MABERRY: When I was a kid I collected Marvel Comics trading cards. Kids love collecting cards. Why would a zombie apocalypse stop that?

Okay, tell us more about your extracurricular/former activities (fencing? jujustsu? You were a bodyguard?!) What were those like?

MABERRY: I’ve been involved in martial arts and combative sports my whole life. At first it was for survival. Later it was to manage rage issues. Then it became something I enjoyed teaching and writing about. I boxed, wrestled, fenced, competed in open-style mixed martial arts tournaments (with a record of 102 wins, 2 ties, 2 losses; with 68 knockouts). I also created and taught specialized self-defense courses for women, abuse victims, children, the elderly, the blind and physically challenged. That was very rewarding.

As I mellowed over the years, I concentrated less on self-defense and more on pure martial arts, delving into the science of it (it’s all physics, psychology, anatomy, etc.) and the history of it. I taught a Martial Arts History course at Temple University, where I also taught women’s self-defense. As a young man I spent four years as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry. Sounds fun, but it resulted in a lot of incidents of violent confrontation (which are no fun for anyone). Even though I won those encounters, I have dozens of knife scars and looking back on moments of violence is in no way satisfying. Nowadays, I prefer the more meditative pursuit of solo training with the katana.

You has said you like to write about truth (which seems completely contradictory in any book with fantastical elements, but I agree with you wholly). What truth lies in Rot and Ruin?

MABERRY: I believe people are innately good, but that they are easily misled. Those who are misled often find ways to justify their mistakes, and that leads to a pervasive culture of corruption. Tom is the model for proper behavior as it exists in my mind. He’s a good guy who uses strength to protect the innocent rather than to exploit them. Charlie is his polar opposite. He does some good for people, but he uses that as leverage to do even greater harm. This is showcased in ROT & RUIN and in DUST & DECAY. I also believe in the power of friendship. Benny’s love for his friends gives him enormous strength and courage. It’s often true that we don’t know how courageous we are until we face great fear.

And, call me an idealist, but I think the good guys stand a chance of winning in the end. But only if the good guys are tough enough to protect the things that matter to them.

I know the sequel, Dust and Decay, is due out and I understand it was a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster and you are in talks for more. If so, what would this series shape out to be like? And if not, does Dust and Decay wrap things up pretty nicely?

MABERRY: DUST & DECAY will be out in Summer 2012, and we just sold two more books in the series – FLESH & BONE and FIRE & ASH, which should complete the major story arc begun in ROT. Each book is a standalone, but there is a theme that ties them all together, and if you read ROT you’ll probably know what that is likely to be. How it ends, though, is something only my editor, my agent and I know.

In the next books, Benny, Nix, Tom and some others begin a journey into the Ruin. This is a very, very dangerous thing to do, and not all of the endings in the series are going to be happy ones. Not everyone gets out alive… but that’s just like life.

What were Tom's thoughts as he was carrying Benny away on First Night?

MABERRY: There are thirteen pages of free prequel scenes for ROT & RUIN available on the Simon & Schuster webpage for the book. Here’s a link to the main page; access the scenes by clicking on the banner that reads: READ BONUS MATERIAL BY JONATHAN MABERRY:

Tom's escape during First Night is part of that story. And in my new newsletter, which launches Feb 1, I’ll be including other brief scenes from First Night and from Mountainside. We’ll get to see a lot more of Tom Imura, and of his relationship with Jessie Riley. You can subscribe to the newsletter for free by going to my website:

Thanks so much, Jonathan!


BIO: JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. His books have been sold to more than a dozen countries. His novels include the Pine Deep Trilogy: GHOST ROAD BLUES (winner of the Bram Stoker

Award for Best First Novel), DEAD MAN’S SONG, and BAD MOON RISING; the Joe Ledger series of action thrillers from St. Martin’s Griffin: PATIENT ZERO (winner of the Black Glove Award for Best Zombie Novel of the Year, and in development for TV), THE DRAGON FACTORY, THE KING OF PLAGUES; THE WOLFMAN; the Benny Imura series of Young Adult dystopian zombie thrillers from Simon & Schuster: ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY; and the forthcoming standalone zombie thriller DEAD OF NIGHT. His nonfiction works include: VAMPIRE UNIVERSE, THE CRYPTOPEDIA (winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction; co-authored by David F. Kramer), ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead (Winner of the Hinzman and Black Quill Awards and nominated for a Stoker Award), THEY BITE! (with David F. Kramer), and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (with Janice Gable Bashman). His work for Marvel includes BLACK PANTHER: POWER, KLAWS OF THE PANTHER, CAPTAIN AMERICA: HAIL HYDRA, DOOMWAR and MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN. Jonathan has been a popular writing teacher and career counselor for writers for the last two decades. He teaches a highly regard series of classes and workshops including Write Your Novel in Nine Months, Revise & Sell, Experimental Writing for Teens, and others. Many of his students have gone on to publish in short and novel-length fiction, magazine feature writing, nonfiction books, TV, film, and comics. In 2004 Jonathan was inducted into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame largely because of his extensive writings in that field. Visit his website at or find him on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, Library Thing, Shefari and Plaxo.

In 2011, Jonathan will be a Guest of Honor, Keynote speaker, workshop leader or panelist at a number of major literary events including BackSpace, PennWriters, KillerCon, Central Coast Writers Conference, Liberty States Writers Conference, The Write Stuff, Texas Library Association Conference, PhilCon, Necon, Shroud, and others.

Jonathan Maberry website/blog:


Unknown said...

Great interview! My husband loved this book; I'm going to point him here. And yay for the sequel cover--I'd not seen that before!

Steph Su said...

You asked some fantastic questions. Thanks, both of you!

Anonymous said...

Great interview!

Heather Zundel said...

Beth - Oh, I'm glad he liked it! That makes me happy. And I think the cover is really new. I had never seen it before either (Thank you, Jonathan!)

Steph Su - Trust me, all kudos and honors belong to him. :)

Kayla - Thank you! But he's the one that made it. :)

Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Heather--Terrific interview! Thanks so much for posting this. I'm always looking for another good book to recommend to my teen son. It's hard to stay ahead of him and his book spy network (his words), but I don't think he's read this one....

Anonymous said...

Wow, you asked great questions (and got some great answers.) I'm glad I got a chance to read this.

Also, I was hoping Dust & Decay was out way sooner than Summer 2012. Bit of a wait left on that one...

Juile Long said...

Great interview, Heather! I'm the co-coordinator of the Pennwriters Conference (May 13-15 in Pittsburgh) where Jonathan is our Saturday keynote as well as a workshop presenter (including a half-day intensive on Promotion for Writers). I'm going to link to your interview today via fb, twitter and Pennwriters yahoogroup. Thanks!

Heather Zundel said...

Cheryl - I am very happy to have been a help (don't worry, with the blogosphere on your side, you'll stay ahead of him yet) ;)

Aeliareads - Trust me. Me too. When I saw 2012 instead of 2011, my heart sank just the tiniest amount.

Julie Long - Thank you so much! I'm honored.