Interview with writer and artist Darrin Bell

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I admit; when I was younger I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw a daily comic strip. I drew comics for my school newspapers and doodled all over my schoolbooks. Even though that idea was dropped as I started college, I still have a huge collection of comic strip books.

What people do not always understand about comics are that the best ones are written. The artist thinks about characterization and plotting just like novelists do, but with huge limitations.

Anyway, today I’m pleased to be interviewing Darrin Bell, who writes one of my favorite current strips, Candorville. (Come on, this is my blog, I can interview whoever I want!) There are four books collecting the daily strips, one of which features an afterword by yours truly. Check out his web page for more information!

Darrin, you approach your strip differently than most comic strip authors do. While you still strive for that punch line every day, you also are working on a long-term plot that evolves over the years. What made you decide to go this route?

DARRIN BELL: Two words: Babylon Five.

I grew up on TV, like most kids of the Eighties. I was used to B.A. Barrachus getting shot at the end of the episode, and then being absolutely fine the next one. I was used to Spock shouting one episode, and then saying Vulcans don’t have any need to raise their voice in the next one. I was used to episodic TV, and in my mind, serialized equalled “soap opera.”

It also equalled bullshit. Because the soaps my mom watched completely ignored their own continuities. Most famously, Dallas. The Bobby Ewing-in-the-shower thing defined serialized storytelling for me. Authors would paint themselves into corners and then have to pull ridiculous stunts to get out of them.

But then Babylon 5 came along.

And Straczynski seemed to paint himself into corners, and I’d wonder how he’d get out of them, but he didn’t. He just knocked down the wall and kept going. Change became a constant.

Suddenly episodic TV seemed stale and formulaic to me. When Star Trek: Voyager came around, and the ship was nearly destroyed one episode, and new and shiny the next… and shuttles that were destroyed seemed to spontaneously reappear the next week, it was false to me.

VENTRELLA: Impressive to me was how he would plant a plot and then leave it alone for two years or more to come back to it and suddenly everything that happened earlier makes sense. (I’m thinking of the episodes where they visit Babylon 4)…

BELL: Definitely, that was my favorite aspect of the series. I’d read that he described it as a “novel for television.”

VENTRELLA: So did you decide to be a comic artist first or a storyteller first?

BELL: Storyteller.

I was lucky enough to grow up at the height of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men, and Marv Wolfman’s run on Teen Titans, and these guys were epic storytellers. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that the pictures John Byrne drew were equally responsible for the endless nights I spent huddled under my blanket with a flashlight and the comics I’d stolen from my brother. So to me, graphic storytelling went hand in hand with the written word. I wanted to draw comic books.

VENTRELLA: But you went to school for political science…

BELL: I did.

I actually thought about law school. For a minute or two.

The thing is, I have an older brother who practically raised me. And for the first half of my life I followed in his footsteps. Including his interest in history and politics.

But we’re different creatures. While he paid attention in class, I let my mind wander. I’d draw cartoons about whatever the teachers were talking about, and pass them around the class. I thought I was ignoring them, but oddly enough I did very well because I wasn’t just listening to them, I was letting them inspire mockery.

VENTRELLA: How did that get you into doing comics as a career?

BELL: In a roundabout way…

I was in gifted and talented programs in Jr. High and High School, and I realized my interest in history and civics was outpacing my interest in art (I’d been drawing since the age of three). That’s when the man who sparked my interest in politics (Pat Buchanan) became the same man who sparked my interest in journalism. In 1988, a Pat Buchanan ad where he portrayed a Gay Pride parade as proof we were going to hell, pissed me off. I had barely noticed politics before this, but I sure as hell paid attention to it afterward. It just seemed so monstrously unfair, and the prospect of someone like him leading the country scared the shit out of me.

Anyhow, four years later, I was flipping through channels looking for coverage of the Clinton-Bush campaign, when I saw that same guy on TV. Pat Buchanan. He was so smug and full of his own opinion, but I noticed he looked really, really happy. And it occurred to me, I’d be happy too if millions of people were listening to my bullshit ideas and taking me seriously.

So I asked a guidance counselor, how do I become a talking head on TV? She said I’d have to be a journalist first.

So I joined the school paper, and quickly became the Opinion page editor, then editor in chief.

VENTRELLA: Here’s my headline: “Bell Inspired by Pat Buchanan”

BELL: hahaha

One week, a few of my reporters didn’t turn in their work (must’ve been a party the night before that they didn’t invite me to…) So I had an hour to fill all those holes. I drew a bunch of cartoons and pasted them in (that sounds so prehistoric now). People loved them.

In college, I tried writing for the Daily Californian (at UC Berkeley). Interviewed a senator, a governor, and a congressman. I wrote a couple hard hitting articles that I barely remember now. Nobody paid attention. But at the same time, I started drawing cartoons for the paper, and again… people loved them. That’s when I knew that’s what I should be doing.

VENTRELLA: How did you end up with Matt Richtel?

BELL: While I was still a freshman, I started faxing my editorial cartoons to the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune. The LA Times was the first paper to pick them up. The editor there told me I was the youngest regular contributor to their opinion page in the paper’s history (I was 20). The Times paid well. The Chronicle and the Tribune, not so much. About $20-$30 per cartoon.

One day, I faxed a cartoon to the Tribune, and got a call. I was hoping it was the opinion editor telling me I’d be getting another $20. But it was some guy named “Matt Richtel,” who said he was the paper’s business reporter. He had started developing a comic strip called “Rudy Park,” and had a development deal with Universal Press. But Universal didn’t like the art. Matt had been walking past the Tribune’s fax machine when my cartoon came in, picked it up, and called me to ask if I thought I could adapt my style to a four panel strip.

The Daily Cal had, for a couple years, been running “Lemont Brown,” the precursor to Candorville. And I’d just built a website. So I sent him to the site. A few minutes later we were working together. The development deal fell through. I’m pretty sure we lost out to The Boondocks, which was also in development.

VENTRELLA: I assume you created Candorville because you wanted to do the writing.

BELL: I created Candorville in 1993 as a class project, and kept doing it through college for the college paper (only back then it was called “Lemont Brown”). Not doing the writing was never even a consideration for me. It was more like I was doing Rudy Park because I wanted the experience of collaborating with another living person; since the rest of the time I was holed up in my apartment writing and drawing three “Lemont Browns” and four editorial cartoons per week. I finally decided to get Candorville syndicated because the editorial cartooning market was drying up.

VENTRELLA: Which one has wider circulation?

BELL: Candorville, Ironically.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing, since that’s the theme of my blog … It’s clear that you’ve planned out a long-term plot for your strip; how detailed has that been?

BELL: It’s not very detailed, it’s more of a skeleton. An outline. I know where I want my characters to be by a certain year, but I don’t exactly know how to get them there.

And I know how it’s going to end.

VENTRELLA: End? You plan on ending the strip?

BELL: That’s where I was going with the Babylon 5 reference. The reason Straczynski never painted himself into a corner, the reason he was able to blast through the wall instead, was because he didn’t have to come back. Characters could change and not have to be redeemed, because people wouldn’t have to still like them enough to keep watching for ten or twenty years.

Candorville has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just like B5. Only the time frame is ten times longer. The story’s gonna take fifty years to tell. Stories without ends aren’t really worth reading.

VENTRELLA: Impressive. I admire it when comic strip writers end their strips instead of carrying them on zombie-like.

BELL: Me too. I’ll never forget 1995.

VENTRELLA: When Calvin and Hobbes ended?

BELL: Not just Calvin and Hobbes. Bloom County and The Far Side too. It was a traumatic year for a comics fan like myself.

VENTRELLA: I didn’t realize those all ended the same year, although I recall it all being close.

One of the major plotlines you established early was Lemont’s fling and subsequent child … that started in the first year if I recall.

BELL: I think it was the first year. That’s something that took on a life of its own. It wasn’t in the outline at all.

VENTRELLA: Well, that’s interesting. It’s been going on strong since then… but I’d like to ask about that, especially given something you said earlier in this interview. Although your characters deal with the supernatural from time to time, they never break the 4th wall … we’re supposed to take it pretty literally. And lately, with that plotline, there are all sorts of questions about reality — is this really happening or is Lemont imagining everything?

So here’s my question…

You’re not going to pull a Dallas on us, are you?

BELL: I always ask myself, at nearly every turn, WWJMSD?

VENTRELLA: Don’t disappoint us.

BELL: What would J. Michael Straczynski do?

VENTRELLA: Yes, I know! We nerds get that stuff.

BELL: Haha! I forgot who I was talking to. I know what happened in the story. But I reserve the right to leave it open to interpretation.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Lemont. First of all, did you give him the last name “Brown” as a tribute to Charlie Brown?

BELL: I did. And I gave him the first name “Lemont” in tribute to Sanford and Son.

VENTRELLA: And I assume it is no coincidence that he wants to be a writer.

BELL: No coincidence at all. Part of the outline, from the outset, has been my main character’s grasp – or lack thereof – on reality. And I had two choices if I wanted to sustain that and still explain how he feeds himself: I could make him a perpetual inmate at a psychiatric hospital, or I could make him a writer. So the time travel and all the supernatural stuff can be easily explained (by readers who just aren’t into that stuff) as being part of this writer’s imagination.

Stephen King touched on that in a Candorville storyline last year. Well…

VENTRELLA: Yes, I remember that — King admired Lemont’s imagination. Did you hear from King after that ran?

BELL: No, I doubt he’s heard of Candorville, much less that he’d take the time to write to me about it. I thought of sending the sequence to him, but never did.

VENTRELLA: Given Lemont’s love of science fiction, it’s not hard to assume he has much in common with you. How much of your family life is in his?

BELL: Bits and pieces here and there. It’s inspired by my personal life, but it’s not autobiographical.

Roxanne becoming a vampire was 100% inspired by my breakup with my ex wife. For two reasons. (1) The obvious, and (2) Where I WAS going to go with the story turned out to be way too close to home for me. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore and I wanted to deal with it more metaphorically.

VENTRELLA: Being funny can be a big limitation for storytelling, especially if you have to be funny every single day and with only a few panels in which to do it…. so how do you do it? I mean, you must have to be very economical with your words…

BELL: I don’t worry about it. When Candorville got syndicated, I sat down and tried to figure out exactly what it was I liked about my favorite comics as a kid. And what they all had in common was, ironically, that they often weren’t funny. I often laughed at them because of some truth they delivered to me, not because of a punchline. Calvin and Hobbes, for instance… I’ve almost never laughed at that, but it’s one of my favorites. So I don’t try to be funny, I just try to speak my truth and hope other people relate to it.

I do have to be very economical. Sometimes I wish Candorville were a TV show, where I’d have dozens of pages to set up and explore a humorous or tense situation. But I only have a couple panels in which to do that, and then a couple in which it has to pay off.

It’s actually relaxing, though, whittling my complex ideas down. It’s like trimming a bonzai tree.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of themes, you have not shied away from politics — which is one of the reasons I enjoy the strip so much. Have you found that to be something that has helped the strip’s popularity or hurt it (at least with editors)?

BELL: I used to wonder about that, but I’ve come to think it’s impossible to know. Some editors have dropped it because of the politics, but others have bought it because of the politics. And still others subscribe to it despite the politics.

VENTRELLA: Well, it wouldn’t be Candorville without the politics.

BELL: It wouldn’t.

I wouldn’t do it without the politics.

Candorville has an underlying structure, an outline. But on its surface it’s pretty stream of consciousness. And if I had to censor myself every time I was concerned with politics, it wouldn’t be fun for me.

VENTRELLA: You recently posted a pretty political 9/11 strip when every other cartoonist was doing a traditional tribute. How was that received?

BELL: A lot better than I’d expected. There was some grumbling online, but it was vastly, vastly outnumbered by people expressing relief that someone was in an introspective mood instead of joining in on the 9/11 somberpalooza and jingoism fest.

VENTRELLA: And it’s not like you hadn’t said the same things before in earlier strips.

BELL: I knew pretty much everyone else was going to focus on who we lost on 9/11, and I thought it was more useful, more productive, for me to do what I’m good at, which is speaking my mind even when others think it’s inappropriate. Especially when others think it’s inappropriate. I said a similar thing a month ago, to foreshadow this one.

VENTRELLA: But you did discuss what we lost on 9/11 — other things we lost.

BELL: Let me rephrase: Others were going to focus on who we lost. I focused on what we lost.

We lost our collective mind. We lost our soul. We lost our identity, which led to us losing our credibility.

We lost our way.

VENTRELLA: You’ve tried to remain topical… most cartoonists have to get their strips done months in advance, but you actually drew all new strips when binLaden was killed and had the syndicate put them out before anyone else.

BELL: I did, I have a one week lead time.

I went out of my way early on to establish devices I could use whenever I have a chance. One reason I made Lemont a journalist – and made it clear he’s got a wild imagination (which may or may not be reality) was so I could have him give famous people their exit interviews when they die.

VENTRELLA: Your strip today discusses Obama as Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN – is this something to be admired, in that it’s a way to accomplish your goals behind the scenes?

BELL: I’m hoping people will read INVISIBLE MAN and that might help answer whether it’s something to be admired.

The same person who says that’s how black men have to behave, was ashamed for having done so. It’s up to readers to decide whether it’s something to be admired, or whether it’s even really necessary in 2011.

VENTRELLA: The worry is that if Obama were to be as aggressive as many of us Democrats would like, he’d be attacked as being the “angry black man”?

BELL: Not only that, but he might get assassinated. When black men in Ellison’s day didn’t act invisible, they were often persecuted, shunned, and sometimes lynched. America hasn’t come far enough that it’s willing to tolerate a black leader who isn’t humble and demure. That’s one reason why Americans respect Colin Powell, and dismiss Jesse Jackson. America may have moved past that. But we won’t know until somebody tests the waters.

VENTRELLA: Someone always has to be the first.

BELL: There’s a school of thought that the first black anything has to be humble and submissive, and quietly excel. He has to be Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson, or Nat King Cole. Then the next generation can be brash. The first has to be Nat King Cole. The second can be James Brown.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about publishing. You’ve self published your last few books.

BELL: …and am selling them exclusively online and at conventions.

VENTRELLA: Which conventions do you attend?

BELL: Last year, none. Too much personal drama (which I worked into the strip). The year before, only Wondercon in SF. I sold all the books I brought with me. I want to attend more in 2012, but only in cities where the paper runs my strip.

VENTRELLA: Ever plan on coming here to the East Coast?

BELL: I’m not planning on it, but it’s a possibility. If I ever break into an NYC paper, or if there are any conventions around Virginia or Georgia (where the strip runs in some big papers), sure. Otherwise I’m not sure it makes financial sense.

VENTRELLA: The NY Daily News just stupidly cut an entire page of comics, and I stopped buying it every day.

BELL: Papers everywhere are doing that, and they’re shooting themselves in the foot. Most people cite the comics as the #1 reason they buy the paper.

VENTRELLA: Why isn’t there a convention for comic strip fans? They could have it right before the Reuben Awards when everyone is in town…

BELL: I don’t know. Comic strips are sort of an appendage to comic book conventions.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about character development … what efforts do you make to keep your characters from being one dimensional?

BELL: Motivation and backstory. Every character has a backstory that I’ve never spelled out, but that I can draw on from time to time. For instance, Sasha Mitchell is a Jamaican immigrant. I never mentioned it until recently (when it became germane to the plot) but it’s always informed how she relates to men, and it is a basis for her fears and hopes. And I approach every scene the way a screenwriter would: Each character enters the scene with his/her own goal, a goal that is based on that character’s backstory. And the goals usually conflict, sometimes causing the character to become introspective.

So… motivation, backstory, and goal.

VENTRELLA: Have you taken creative writing courses or otherwise studied writing techniques?

BELL: No, everything I know about writing I learned from reading comic books and watching TV. (Oh, and reading novels)

VENTRELLA: In fact, I have a blog post about that issue, in that the best way to learn is to read others and see how they do it, so I agree with you there. But also it’s making sure your characters do not always act predictably — because people are not always predictable. And that is something I have seen you do in your strip.

BELL: Thanks for noticing.

The problem I have with most comics is, they bore the hell out of me. People never change, they always react the same way, and feel about each other the same way they did last month and last year. In real life, people can change from moment to moment, let alone from year to year.

VENTRELLA: Well, most aren’t interested in telling a story — they are joke-a-day strips.

BELL: True.

VENTRELLA: Which story comics do you like? (Don’t say Funky Winkerbean, Don’t say Funky Winkerbean…)

BELL: I won’t read that strip until I have health insurance and can afford the Prozac.


BELL: But you may not like my answer any better: the last story strip I liked was For Better or For Worse.

VENTRELLA: No, I agree with you — I have quite a few of those collections. Good characters.

BELL: I loved how she would juggle several different storylines, and how characters would grow apart, and come back into each others lives in unpredictable ways. And the characters weren’t predictable. They made mistakes, learned lessons (sometimes the wrong ones), etc.

VENTRELLA: That is what makes us go back again and again — because we like the characters, they are real to us, and we want to know what happens to them. It’s true with TV shows and movies and all storytelling. The jokes and the special effects don’t matter if we don’t care about the characters

BELL: Neither does the artwork.


How about political strips? Any you really like?

BELL: I like Non Sequitur, and I liked Bloom County.

VENTRELLA: Have you been able to meet many of the artists who do strips you like?

BELL: Wiley’s a friend, and I met Berke Breathed. I signed books next to Lynn Johnston, hung out a little with Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott … Lalo Alcaraz and Keith Knight too. It’s all been very surreal.

VENTRELLA: It’s a world I’m not privvy to…

BELL: Oh, and Stephan Pastis almost killed me once.

VENTRELLA: Sounds like him. Care to share that story?

BELL: I’d driven up to Santa Rosa to help judge the comic strip category for the Reubens. Afterward, we all went out to lunch. But Stephan didn’t have any money. So I went with him while he drove to find an ATM. He was in the middle of telling me some sort of story, and talking with both hands (don’t ask me how he was steering) when a big white van pulled out into the street in front of us, to make a left. Stephan seemed to see it, but also seemed not to think anything of it. He didn’t even slow down. I have no idea what would’ve happened if that van hadn’t moved just a second before we got to it. He just continued on with his story while I filed the experience under “things to talk about years from now in interviews.”


BELL: Years later, he and I were on a successful panel discussion in Walnut Creek (the video’s on my site somewhere). I turned that discussion into a Candorville storyline the next year (the Stephen King story)

VENTRELLA: What’s your thoughts on the 2012 election? I came out of the 2008 one so enthusiastic for the future of our country, and now…

BELL: I feel like I’m part of the rebel alliance and this is the Battle of Hoth, and I’m just praying a Tonton will amble by so I can gut it and climb inside for warmth…while the republic crumbles.

VENTRELLA: And you thought the tea party smelled bad on the outside!

BELL: Hahaha!

I think we’re witnessing the death of the republic. Republics end when the citizenry loses respect for both their intellectuals and their government. Mitt Romney doesn’t scare me. Michelle Bachmann doesn’t scare me. Perry doesn’t keep me up at night. What scares me is how pervasive the hatred toward specialists, intellectuals, and teachers has become.

It’s hard for me to imagine anything good could come from that, or that we can pull ourselves out of that death spiral. And it is a death spiral.

VENTRELLA: The anti-science crowd and the pro-death crowd scares me. They cheered someone dying because he didn’t have health insurance at the debate recently! They’ve become the Death Panels.

BELL: They have. But I saw this coming. They’re the Orwellian party that was perfectly ok with “free speech zones” and who supported a man who said “to have peace, you have to have war.” Whatever they accuse others of doing, is pretty much what they’re going to do.

VENTRELLA: Do you think Obama will be any different if he wins re-election? Will he be more aggressive?

BELL: I think he’ll be a lame duck, with no successor for Congress to fear (Biden’s not gonna run, Hillary probably won’t run). I think he may believe he’ll be more aggressive – and he’s regularly hinted to his base that he’ll be more attentive to them later – but if he believes that, he isn’t paying attention to history. Presidents rarely exceed the achievements of their first terms. Even Clinton’s excellent second term was entirely based on what happened at the end of his first.

I think Obama’s squandered the biggest opportunity a Democrat has had since FDR’s day to shape the narrative and transform the debate and the country, and it’s too late for him to fix that. The perception of him as a weak leader has taken root among his base, and that is usually the death knell.

VENTRELLA: I’m afraid you’re right.

BELL: I would so love to be proven wrong. But even after his latest big speech, he immediately backtracked and said he’d sign whatever part of it Congress sends him, which we all know is going to be only the tax cuts. That’s not going to create jobs, it’ll just make the problem worse.

VENTRELLA: His low ranking in the polls isn’t from conservatives; they already didn’t like him. It’s from liberals and moderates who are abandoning him. So why he keeps trying to appeal to those who will never support him while ignoring his base is beyond me.

BELL: It’s not beyond me.

I come from a similar background. I’m mixed, so I’ve always felt a little like an outsider. My dad left when I was a kid, and I spent years dealing with abandonment issues. All of that leads me to want approval from people who don’t want to give it to me. It’s a constant battle, and I think creating Candorville and being so forthright with my opinions is my way of conquering that tendency. I see the same trait in Obama that I have in me, the same irrational urge to win the approval of those who will never give it to him. The same urge to reach out an open hand to people who are going to respond with a fist.

VENTRELLA: Wow, that’s a great way to end the interview. Good conclusion, and unexpected.

BELL: That’s what I do!

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Peter David

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’ve been a fan of award-winning author Peter David for quite some time now, beginning with his Star Trek novels and progressing through his Knight Life and Sir Apropros series, so I’m quite pleased to be welcoming him to my blog today!

Besides novels, Peter has written comic books (Incredible Hulk, Aquaman, Supergirl), television shows (Babylon 5, Space Cases, Ben 10), short stories, blogs, and more. Check out his web page and his wikipedia page and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Peter, what was your first big break into the business?

PETER DAVID: Well, I suppose my first really big break was landing a job in the sales department of Playboy Paperbacks, a now defunct but once very literary publishing company that published such authors as Anne Tyler and Morgan Llywelyn. It was through Playboy Paperbacks that I met a woman named Sharon Jarvis—an editor at the time—who eventually became my first lit agent and wound up, in turn, selling my first novel, KNIGHT LIFE. And things just kind of snowballed from there.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written many comic books – do you find the limitations inherent in the graphic novels to be a major problem?

DAVID: Not really, no. I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century; if I was still being frustrated by limitations, then I wouldn’t have learned very much in the intervening years. Plus there are advantages, such as that the artists can convey things visually that normally you’d need a ton of prose to put across. So you can really concentrate on dialogue and character development. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the axioms of fiction, and what better way to show than through the medium of graphic novels?

VENTRELLA: For your media tie-in novels, do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

DAVID: If you mean novelizations of movies and such, the book publishers approach me about working off the screenplays to produce novels of them. On the other hand, when I did the original novels based on the video game “Fable,” the guys at Microsoft asked me to pitch a plot to them for the second one (as opposed to the first one where they gave me a basic outline). And the New Frontier novels I pretty much just go off and do whatever I want. So there’s a variety.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

DAVID: There are inherent limitations, sure. You’re aware that you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox with someone else’s toys, and like any good guest, you have to be sure not to damage them and return them intact when you’re finished. But you learn to work within and sometimes around those limitations.

VENTRELLA: Which Star Trek character do you most enjoy writing? (I recall some hilarious scenes with Worf, especially concerning the size of his medals…)

DAVID: Well, obviously my favorite is Mackenzie Calhoun. He’s my guy, my captain. So I’m going to have the deepest affection for him. Of the Next Gen crew, I’d say Worf, yeah, although I do particularly enjoy writing Riker and Troi as a couple.

VENTRELLA: You were also given the unusual freedom to create your own Star Trek ship and crew with the New Frontier series. How did this come about?

DAVID: That was then-editor John Ordover convincing Paramount that doing a book series that wasn’t directly rooted in a TV series was a good idea. Once he got Paramount to sign off on the basic concept of the New Frontier world, he came to me and asked me to flesh out the mission and develop the characters. Shelby, Selar, and Lefler were always in the mix because he wanted to have a few characters from the TV series in whom readers had a vested interest, but I had total freedom to create the rest of the crew. I suppose the freedom stemmed from Paramount being convinced that the series would tank and so they weren’t feeling particularly controlling about what I came up with.

VENTRELLA: I enjoyed your Babylon 5 trilogy, as it provided much background for Vir and the Centari world. How much freedom were you given to develop these things?

DAVID: Joe had very definite ideas as to how events should unfold. I worked off a relatively detailed outline, and although I had freedom to tell the story and develop the characters in my own way, I had years worth of Joe’s characterization and world building to base it upon.

VENTRELLA: Was there ever a problem with continuity with the established Babylon 5 world, where you were told to make changes or include something specific?

DAVID: Troubles? No. I know when I turned in the manuscripts, there were points where Joe said, “No, change this” or “Fix that.” And it’s his world and he’s the final word on it, so that’s pretty much that. On the other hand, there was stuff in there that I put in that my editor was sure would get flagged. For instance, when I had Garibaldi ambushing one of the Drakh by bursting out of hiding and saying, “What’s up, Drakh?” And I was told there would be no way that Joe would sign off on that. And I pointed out that I didn’t establish that Garibaldi was a fan of Warners cartoons, and I didn’t name the aliens the Drakh. So he had no basis for complaint. And sure enough, I was right; Joe expressed no complaint about that.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done a number of movie adaptations: Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron-Man, and so on. How much freedom are you given to delve into character background and history?

DAVID: I’ve been fairly fortunate in that regard. I’ve put tons of background or references to the characters’ histories into the novelizations and they’ve sailed right through.

VENTRELLA: I imagine these must have to be completed on a short deadline, and that you are relying mostly upon the scripts. Have any been particularly difficult when dealing with the studios? Have any required massive changes?

DAVID: There have been some difficult slogs, yes. Probably the toughest was “Batman Forever,” in which I would find these plot holes in the script and come up with these elaborate and, I like to think, very compelling fixes. Meanwhile while they were filming the movie, they’d discover the same plot holes and they’d write a single line to cover it and then fax that script change over to me. And of course I’d have to incorporate that change and toss out everything I’d written. Which killed me, because they were slapping on bandaids while I was applying tourniquets. So that was a pain.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier to write than ones with established characters?

DAVID: Sure.

VENTRELLA: For the Knight Life series, wherein Arthur returns and becomes President, I have to ask (SPOILER ALERT): Why did you decide to have him resign before he could accomplish much? What point were you trying to make?

DAVID: Actually, that was originally what I was going to write. Since I was writing it just after Clinton was out of office, I was going to have Arthur get dragged into a sex scandal that threatened to swallow his presidency, which is not only what Clinton did but—let’s face it—is what happened in the original Camelot. So I loved the notion that no matter how much time goes by, the same stuff happens. All that changes is the names. But then 9/11 happened and suddenly it seemed the wrong time to be making fun of the presidency. So I tossed out the book, which was about a third written, and just started all over again. But the notion of doing an Arthurian story that focused on “the more things change/the more things stay the same” stuck with me, and I put much of that into “The Camelot Papers,” which I recently published through

VENTRELLA: Do you think your political views influenced your desire to write this series?

DAVID: Probably.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written television scripts (you’ve been a very busy man!). Are these easier or do you find their limitations a problem?

DAVID: TV scripts are the most limiting of all because of the specifics of the format. Exactly so many pages, exactly so much time it can take up. It’s pretty challenging to tell a story within those confines, but hey, you manage.

VENTRELLA: Of what are you most proud?

DAVID: My family.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about your new publishing venture. What does this mean for a previously unpublished author?

DAVID: Not much, really. Crazy 8 isn’t a publishing venture in the standard sense. We’re not actively seeking out novice authors. We wouldn’t know what to do with them if we had them. C8 isn’t a corporation; we have no officers. We have no mechanism for dispersing money. C8 is simply a group of us pooling our social networking resources while we put out books ourselves and try to make them available to the fans at a fairly reasonable price. With eBooks making up a greater and greater percentage of book sales, and print on demand as a secondary option for people who prefer paper between their fingers (as do I), there’s no reason we can’t be taking our works and putting them directly into the hands of the readers at prices that won’t break budgets.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

DAVID: Deciding up front that they want to write for franchises. I constantly hear, “I have an idea for a Star Trek novel! How do I sell it?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Pocket Books isn’t actively looking for new authors. And agents aren’t looking to rep novels that they can only sell to one market. I always tell them that if they have an idea that’s really that compelling, come up with original characters and an original universe, and sell that. That way you have any number of markets you can approach, and you own all the underlying rights.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

DAVID: Jesus. Moses. Thomas Jefferson. And Jim Henson. I have some questions for all of them.


Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Tad Williams

I first became aware of Tad Williams upon reading the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series in the early 90s and was engrossed with the characters and the great twist at the end. He’s gone on to write further acclaimed New York Times bestselling novels, comic books, and young adult novels, and I’m pleased and honored to be interviewing him today! His webpage is

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Tad, you have a varied background with which I can identify. There’s nothing wrong with having worked in radio and been in a band, moving from one job to another and finding out what you want to do with life (I did much the same, although fortunately I never had to work in a shoe store). Was writing always in the background for you, just waiting for the will? When did you say to yourself “This is what I want to do in life”?

TAD WILLIAMS: Creative work was always in the background, but writing was only one of the things I pursued. It just happened to be the one that turned into a possible career. If I’d sold a screenplay or got a gig cartooning I might have gone that way instead.

VENTRELLA: Many aspiring writers say to me that they just can’t seem to find the time to write given that they have jobs to do and real life getting in the way. How did you do it?

WILLIAMS: If you can’t find time to write, you’re not a writer. That’s not to be glib, but some people would rather talk about the reasons they can’t do something than just do it. (My son and his homework spring to mind.) You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.

VENTRELLA: Was TAILCHASER’S SONG the first novel you wrote? How did you grab the attention of editors?

WILLIAMS: Yes, TAILCHASER was my first book. I was a bit naive and didn’t have an agent, but I was fortunate that the book itself caught my editors’ attention. If I had to do it again, I’d be more aware that I was very lucky. I’d probably try to get an agent first.

VENTRELLA: Has the publishing industry changed as dramatically as everyone says since that time?

WILLIAMS: It’s always been a small-margins business, but the advent of electronic media and the internet have really confused things. Nobody knows what publishing’s even going to look like in ten years, but I think it’s likely it will be less vertical — that is, one company buying books, editing books, designing books, printing books, binding books, warehousing books — and more of a collaboration between smaller businesses. Also, electronic media are only going to become a bigger part of the industry.

VENTRELLA: What do you know now about the industry that you wish you had known when you first started out?

WILLIAMS: I wish I had understood the career arc better, and the complexity of the process of publishing a book. I might have paid more attention to deadlines and to thinking long-term about what I wanted to write.

VENTRELLA: Why are the third parts of your books so huge that they have to be released in two volumes? Can’t you stop? (OK, that’s a joke question.)

WILLIAMS: I have an illness, and it’s not nice to make fun of it. Jeez.
VENTRELLA: You currently are working on the SHADOWMARCH series. Do you outline the series completely in advance or prepare something more basic?

WILLIAMS: I like the balance between knowing too much and knowing too little, so I certainly outline, but I leave lots of room for things to change, grow, whatever, as I write the story. That way the story stays fresh, but the fact that there’s structure means it doesn’t meander too badly.

VENTRELLA: Please tell us about SHADOWMARCH!

WILLIAMS: The end is finally in sight for this project, which has moved through three or four media and a couple of decades. It started with a possible tv series or film, then became an internet serial, and I’ve given the story its greatest realization as a series of books, of which I am now writing the ending. It’s a return to epic fantasy, but it also has its own particular twists that separates it from my other books. I’m pleased with what it’s turned into, and think it’s much better and deeper now than it would have been in another medium.

VENTRELLA: Do you see yourself working in other genres in the future?

WILLIAMS: Within reason — I probably won’t be writing any westerns, for instance. But my next set of books will be closer to modern fantasy with a touch of extreme romance (mid-level angel and high-level demon fall painfully in love), so, yeah, I’ll be skipping around like I usually do.

VENTRELLA: How is writing Young Adult series different? tadwilliamsdragon

WILLIAMS: Certainly the main difference for me is keeping the complexity down and the action fast-paced. I don’t believe in writing down to an audience, so we haven’t written anything deliberately “young”. The main characters are young, and — as with almost all good YA fiction — they are forced to solve problems the adults should solve but don’t. Other than that, though, it’s a book — all books should be written like something the writer himself or herself would enjoy reading.

VENTRELLA: Since you are using characters created by someone else when writing for comic books, do you feel constrained in any way?

WILLIAMS: I felt very constrained, but most of that was problems in communication with that particular situation. I thought I’d have more leeway than I did, and I thought I’d have more time to try to turn the thing around than I did. That said, when I can afford to do it again I probably will…

VENTRELLA: What are you most proud of? What would you like to be remembered for?

WILLIAMS: I think I’ve always brought something bigger than the genre to my genre fiction — I think of myself as a gateway drug for genre readers, leading them down the slippery slope to real literature. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t think lots of fantasy and science fiction are literature, only that because they’re genres they contain primarily books written for a genre market, ie, tending toward the formulaic.) Of all my books, I think so far the OTHERLAND novels are my signature — the best example of the width of my range.
VENTRELLA: Off topic a bit: What kind of music did you play in your band?

WILLIAMS: The original band was very influenced by folks like Beatles, The Who, the Bonzo Dog Band, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and maybe even the Tubes. (We would have been influenced by They Might Be Giants, but we predated them.)

VENTRELLA: What do you listen to today?

WILLIAMS: I still listen to all that sort of stuff, but also lots of modern stuff, Beck, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and pretty much anything Damon Albarn does, just to name a few. Robyn Hitchcock. Fountains of Wayne. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Also some hiphop, some folk, jazz occasionally, lots of classical — you name it, really.

VENTRELLA: You have very good taste in music (because it’s very similar to mine). Add in XTC, Elvis Costello and Sparks and we’d be just fine.

WILLIAMS: I like all those bands very much, Michael. I was caught between “who influenced your band” and “who do you listen to now”, and they all sort of fit into both — well, XTC not so much the former, because we were already writing music when they came out. But Elvis may be my all time favorite artist other than my top three — Beatles, Who, Bowie. (Yes, I love the Stones and the Kinks and Hendrix and a ton of other first-generation guys, but I’d probably have to put Elvis C into the top four.)

Interview with Mark Waid

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m very pleased to be interviewing Mark Waid, one of the biggest names in comics today. He’s been an editor with DC and as a freelance writer has become one of the most well-known and prolific writers of quality comics. In 1996, with artist Alex Ross, he released his best-known work, the graphic novel KINGDOM COME, which depicted the fate of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other heroes as the world around them changed. Its popularity led to him receiving the Comics Buyer’s Guide Award for Favorite Writer in 1997. He has since gone on to fame with the FANTASTIC FOUR and with the re-imagining of Superman’s origins in BIRTHRIGHT. Currently he is an editor-in-chief with Boom! Studios and has been writing for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, including one of my favorite books in which Spider-Man saves Stephen Colbert. (You can see it on the shelves behind Stephen if you watch the show). Waid headshot His web page is here.

Mark is also the only big name in comics who I’ve known since High School, who was in my Dungeons and Dragons group in college, and who went to my wedding. It’s always great to see a good friend make it big in a job he loves! Mark is a true Superman purist, and I still recall leaving the theater with him after watching “Superman 2”, hearing him curse because “Zod shouldn’t have had that stupid power to point his finger at someone and make them float into the air!”

MARK WAID: It’s true. I’m still traumatized, by the way. At least the recently released Richard Donner cut finally set my mind at ease. But don’t get me started on Superman IV.

VENTRELLA: Mark, writing for graphic novels involves a different type of writing skill than would be needed for a short story or novel, but still requires a mastery of words. What is your creative process?

WAID: As an incredibly general rule, for me, every story springs from images. As I tell young writers who are breaking into comics, you don’t have to tell super-hero stories–comics is a wide medium that covers all genres–but for the love of God, it’s a visual medium, so it’s not the best fit for your J.D. Salinger riff or the extended inner-monologue. The short rule of thumb is that, in comics, you should take advantage of your unlimited visual budget and shouldn’t waste a lot of space on talky plainclothes scenes unless they’re visually interesting in and of themselves. Use the medium to its fullest. Tell a story that couldn’t be told just in dialogue or in prose or in iambic pentameter.

And be aware that comics is a collaborative medium, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about dialogue. It ain’t a Mamet play. It’s words and pictures together, in concert.

For me, I’ll start thinking about the characters I’m writing about–whether of my own invention or established characters like Superman or Spider-Man–and, with a very general idea of the sort of story I want to tell or the sorts of character beats I want to hit, I’ll let my mind wander until I hit an idea for a scene that has impact. (“Hmmm…I want to write a story about Spider-Man’s enemy, Electro, having lost all his stolen-but-invested money in the same economic crash that’s recently ruined so many honest lives–and how a very powerful villain who feels he’s been robbed would react to the idea of government bailouts. Huh. I should have him stage a scene at the New York Stock Exchange. He can rant and rave like Rick Santelli, but with electrical bolts coming off of him, stronger and more chaotic as he gets more and more worked up, NYSE monitors exploding around him.”)

Once I come up with three or four of those scenes, I start to knit them together in my head to form a narrative, tossing out (or, more likely, saving in the S.O.S. file [Some Other Story]) the scenes that don’t support the tale.

Then it’s creating a rough outline or beat-sheet for a story, with a 1000-stories-under-my-belt sort of instinctive feel for how many pages to allot each scene (knowing that, in the actual writing, they ALWAYS take up more room than allotted). Then the hard part: typing “Page One, Panel One” and going from there.

But, as I say, it’s about conveying your ideas visually as well as verbally. The entire working process hinges on being able to do that.Bk 1 (2)

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself limited in that you primarily are writing for established characters?

WAID: Not really. Honestly, there are trade-offs. No, I can’t have Superman or Batman do anything I want them to do given that I don’t own them, but at the same time, having grown up reading the adventures of these established characters as a fan, what they do and don’t do is burned into my DNA. In that sense, I don’t find writing for them any more limiting than I do being behind the wheel of a car that I can’t make fly. It’s not like I drive around feeling “limited.” I just feel like I’m working with a familiar tool and automatically know what it can and can’t do.

On the other hand, when I write my own characters in series that I own, all limitations are off–but that’s as daunting as it is freeing, because there are more decisions to make as a writer, and the freedom that brings is counterbalanced by the sometimes paralyzing number of choices literally at my fingertips.

VENTRELLA: Do space considerations stand in your way?

WAID: Always. Constantly. Always. Always. Oh, God, how I envy screenwriters. You need an extra page, Mr. Movie Writer? Take an extra page. American mainstream comics, on the other hand, are generally about 22 pages long, give or take, and if you’re doing a story that’s in one installment, you have to fit it to that space. If you’re doing a longer story that spans several issues, you still have to construct each individual issue with some sense of climax/resolution or obstacle/victory or what have you in order for the reader to enjoy each issue as it comes. Honestly, most of the storytelling choices I make on a daily basis have less to do with plot and character than then do with trying to figure out how to fit those things into this rigid structure. It’s like writing haiku.

And even if you’re setting out to do a longer-form graphic novel, space is still a consideration. Only so much art will fit on a page. Only so many words will fit comfortably within each panel without crowding out the art. AND your job as a writer is to try to convey information as economically as possible without sacrificing plot or character, so there’s that plate to juggle, too; again, even when you’re working longer-form, real estate is precious. Each panel of a comic story is a “frozen moment,” a snapshot from your story, and only so many can fit.

I go into excruciating detail on these points on my blog,, which is full of craft essays. And because I’m not always sober when I write them, they’re probably more entertaining than this answer has been.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever plan on writing a novel?

WAID: Dear Jesus God, no. Never. I don’t have the attention span for it, I don’t have the linguistic chops, and I don’t have time to teach myself without starving to death. I am endlessly appreciative of writers who have that level of vision or that work ethic, but the few times I’ve tried my hand at prose (a Superman short story and The Flash: The Life of Barry Allen), it nearly killed me.

VENTRELLA: How has being an editor helped your writing?1

WAID: Being an editor before I was a full-time writer was the greatest career boon you can envision. At DC, I edited several scripts a month from, eventually, every major and minor writer in the medium at that time, including Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and others. Reading their scripts and constantly observing how they solved storytelling problems was like boot camp. I learned more in those two years as an editor than I could have in ten years as a writer.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see young writers making? And what was your biggest career mistake?

WAID: Without fail, young writers give me scripts that are far too dense. I’m sorry, but you cannot fit a shot of a baseball stadium interior, a supermarket parking lot crowd of 200, and an establishing shot of downtown Tokyo all on one page and still have room for fourteen captions, six balloons, and three close-ups. They don’t picture in their own heads what they’re describing, or else their heads would explode. Even someone with no art training should be able to realize that you can’t show an Olympic swimming event AND the gold crown on a swimmer’s tooth all in the same image.

My biggest career mistake? How long to you expect me to keep typing here? This could go on a while, but to pick one at random: I should have written less so I could have written it better. Early on, I did the whole panicked-freelancer thing and took on as much work as I could handle only on my very best, most productive weeks–and, in doing so, churned out more than a few clunkers. Looking back, I wish I’d always taken one less assignment than common sense would tell me I could handle. My wallet might not have been as full, but my batting average would be higher because I wouldn’t have been swinging at every pitch.

VENTRELLA: To balance that last question, what was your best career decision?

WAID: Never, ever, ever, ever taking a job for the money. Well, okay, once . Okay, twice. But only twice. And both times, the money was never as much as promised, and both times, I turned out esthetically indefensible work despite how hard I tried to convince myself at the time that it was good. So, lesson learned. Never hack.

VENTRELLA: Since you’ve established quite a name for yourself, do you pitch ideas now or do they come to you?

WAID: The advantage of being Editor-In-Chief at my own comics company is that I have a launch pad for all my new ideas and don’t have to “sell” them to anyone other than the readers. That’s huge for me. And for non-BOOM! Studios projects, I’m lucky enough now that, after all these years, I’m approached on things far more often than I have to do the approaching. But I’ll never take that for granted; the Comics Old Folks’ Home is still full of writers who were kings in their day and now can’t get phone calls returned.

VENTRELLA: How important is finding an agent in your field?

WAID: Almost negligible. Publishers deal with some agents who rep handfuls of artists, mostly overseas guys who need a point man who can speak English, but domestically, it’s not important. It’s good to have a lawyer who can look over contracts for you, but frankly, there’s still not enough money to be made in comics to make an agent career worthwhile.

VENTRELLA: In some ways, you’ve achieved geek power most of us only dream about: to make a very good living doing what you love. (I tried that with LARPing; didn’t work.) What do you think separates the Successful from the Wannabes?

WAID: Like I want to tell all the Wannabes. I don’t need the competition. But seriously…I’ve talked about this a lot in lectures, and I think much of it has to do with fearlessness. The reason so many aspiring creators have so many three-quarters-finished fantasy novels or film scripts perpetually on their hard drives is because they’re stuck on their stories. And the reason they’re stuck, frozen, isn’t because of anything as esoteric as “fear of success”…it’s because they’re afraid of the truth: that they screwed up somewhere earlier in the work, made some choice that didn’t work, and now in order to go forward, they’re gonna have to screw up the courage to tear up the floorboards and “unwrite” days’ or weeks’ worth of work in order to backtrack to the problem. That sucks. That’s the worst part of writing. Anyone who’s ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture and gotten to stage 47 only to realize with a sickening wave of horror that they screwed up stage 3 and have to go back…they know that feeling. It SUCKS. But the successful get out their crowbars and attack the problem. The wannabes are afraid of throwing stuff away.

VENTRELLA: As someone who is going through a vigorous editing process on my second novel, I know exactly what you’re talking about! Huge sections of my first novel were tossed aside before I even submitted it as well. It’s not fun, but necessary.

Of your work, what are you most proud of? What would you like to be remembered for? Bk 1

WAID: At the moment, I’m proudest of two things. I’m proud of SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, the graphic-novel that was commissioned by DC as the “definitive” origin of Superman for the 21st century, because it’s just flat-out the best thing I’ve ever written and said everything about Superman I’ve wanted to say for thirty years.

But I’m equally proud of my first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, because on a pure-craft level, it’s a pretty good capsule of what One Good Stand-Alone Issue Of A Comic Should Read Like.

VENTRELLA: And what would you most like to see buried far away?

WAID: There’s not a landfill big enough. One of the two aforementioned jobs I took for money–1996’s SPIDER-MAN TEAM-UP #1 Co-Starring The X-Men–is still an unreadable mess.

VENTRELLA: Have to ask: Knowing how much you love the original, what do you think of “Superman Returns”? What’s your opinion on the current crop of movies based on comics and graphic novels?

WAID: Being a minority of one, I liked “Superman Returns.” I can see its flaws, but it truly was like Bryan Singer was making a movie specifically for me.

And c’mon…tell me “Iron Man” and “Dark Knight” didn’t raise the bar on comics-based movies! Like any film in any genre, there’ll be good ones and bad ones…but I’m thrilled that, in my lifetime, I get to see comics-sourced movies that are taken “seriously.”

VENTRELLA: Couldn’t agree more on those two; “Dark Knight” being my favorite film last year!

And finally: Did you meet Colbert?

WAID: NO! I was robbed. But it still warms my heart to see that something I wrote is hanging on his wall of fame as it’s in almost every show!

Interview with Award Winning Author Jonathan Maberry

JONATHAN MABERRY is the multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of novels (PATIENT ZERO, GHOST ROAD BLUES, etc.), nonfiction books (ZOMBIE CSU, THE CRYPTOPEDIA, etc.), comics (BLACK PANTHER, PUNISHER: NAKED KILL and WOLVERINE: GHOSTS), and over 1100 magazine articles.  Jonathan is the co-creator (with Laura Schrock) of ON THE SLAB, an entertainment news show for ABC Disney / Stage 9, to be released on the Internet in 2009. Jonathan is a Contributing Editor for The Big Thrill (the newsletter of the International Thriller Writers), and is a member of SFWA, MWA and HWA.

Visit his website at or on Facebook and MySpace

Jonathan Maberry author photo 2009

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Jonathan, thank you for being the first to submit to the interrogation, which I promise will be free from “enhanced techniques.”   To begin, can you discuss how and why you made the transition from non-fiction to fiction?

JONATHAN MABERRY:  I was doing research for a vampire folklore book –VAMPIRE UNIVERSE (Citadel Press, 2006) and realized that popular fiction rarely mines the richness of folklore for source material.  Most takes on vampires are variations of Dracula, and Bram Stoker was by no means a folklorist.  His vampires different considerably from most European vampires, and even from Transylvanian vampires.  There are hundreds of different kinds of vampires in world myth and few of them every appear in fiction.

I thought how interesting it would be to read a novel in which the characters realize they’re up against vampires but everything they try fails because all they know about vampires comes from novels and movies.  The more I thought about how much fun a book like that would be, the more I wanted to see if I could write it myself.  My only previous attempts at fiction had been a couple of shorts stories way back when that sold to magazines that pay only in contributor copies.  But…I decided to give it a shot anyway.

When I set about it, I was consciously writing the kind of book I wanted to read.  I had no expectations of it actually selling.  After I had the book roughed out I realized that it was a much larger story than I thought and it would have to be a trilogy.  That really stacked things against me because until then there had been no horror trilogies.

I went through the process of scouting for an agent, got the book into her hands, and she was able to place it –and the two other as-yet-unwritten books—with a major house.  That book, GHOST ROAD BLUES, was published as a paperback original by Pinnacle Books in 2006 and went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and was in the running against Stephen King and Tom Piccirilli for Novel of the Year.  As you can imagine that was a pretty strong dose of validation.

And, just writing the book gave me the bug.  Now I’m totally hooked on writing fiction and am work (simultaneously) on my 8th and 9th novels, one for St. Martins Griffin and one for Simon & Schuster.

Ghost Road Blues

VENTRELLA: You have also not limited yourself in your writing, having produced novels, short stories, plays, and comic book scripts.  Do you advise a starting writer to concentrate in one area first?

MABERRY:  Always start with your strength.  I started with magazine feature writing about martial arts.  I’ve been practicing jujutsu since I was a kid, so when I pitched my first article at age twenty I was able to speak with some authority.  From there I went to how-to pieces, and later I wrote martial arts textbooks while teaching Martial Arts History, Jujutsu and Women’s Self-Defense at Temple University.  Once I had myself established as a writer I went outside my comfort zone and started pitching on what I liked.

This doesn’t always apply to fiction, though.  If I was just starting out now, with no writing credentials, I’d probably tackle a novel in the genre that I read most.  Knowledge of your favorite genre –its history, its greatest works, its best writers—creates a comfort zone that lends authority, confidence and passion to your own work.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you made when starting out?  What’s the best piece of advice you got?

MABERRY:  I made two whoppers.  The first was believing that I was skilled enough to represent my own books.  That came back to bite me on the ass when I published with a small press owned by a lawyer.  Looking back, that had red flags all over it, and I got bent over a barrel.  Then I wised up and got an agent.  She looks after the legal end of things, and she does a hell of a lot better job of it than I ever did.

The other mistake was believing that old propaganda that creative people are bad at business.  Once I got burned by the small press shark, I made sure that I learned everything I could about the writing business.  I found that learning the business side of things was just a matter of research, and writers are good at research.  It also helped me identify the kinds of people I needed to work with —agents, accountants, etc— and learning how the business works.  One of the first things you learn is that publishing IS a business, and everything that occurs within it is part of business.  Art is the product, not the method.

VENTRELLA: Your latest series involves Joe Ledger, who works for a top-secret government agency and who has all sorts of advanced training.  While it is true that you have a martial arts background yourself, what sort of research did you do to get into the mind of your character?

MABERRY:  I talk to pros in the field.  Like most writers I love research.  I’m a knowledge junkie.  I want to know how things work, how people do their jobs, and so on.  To get into the head of Joe Ledger I spoke with SWAT operatives and people currently or formerly in Special Ops.  Always ask the pros.  Find out what makes them tick, what drives them…and find out what they know about their job that Joe Average doesn’t know.

Because of that research I have a strong fanbase among present and former soldiers, cops and agents.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is better for starting writers to, as they say, “write what you know” and create a main character with the writer’s experience and background?

MABERRY:  At first, sure.  If you build on your strengths you imbue the character with passion, confidence, and reality.  But don’t discount the value of paying attention to people around you.  I draw on a lot of people I know, or have known, when creating characters.  Rarely is a character made completely from whole-cloth…most have elements of real people.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best way to grab the attention of an agent?  What’s the biggest mistake you can make?

MABERRY:  Start with things in motion.  Don’t lead up to it (that’s a page waster and an interest-killer).  I like to jump in and make the characters scramble to catch up to something big and nasty already rolling.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a favorite of your own work?  Which, and why?

MABERRY:  So far it’s a tie between PATIENT ZERO and the second in the series, THE DRAGON FACTORY.  I delivered that a couple of months ago and my editors tell me that it’s better than the first…and they loved the first.Patient Zero SMP

In truth, though, I’m always in love with whatever I’m currently writing.

VENTRELLA: PATIENT ZERO also has the unusual (to me) technique of being written both in the first person and third person, depending on the chapter and the main character’s point of view.  How did you decide to adopt this technique and is it being used in the sequels?

MABERRY:  It’s a thriller, which means it’s a race against the clock.  In most thrillers that have a political or military angle the hero seldom gets to meet the bad guy behind everything.  I wanted Joe Ledger to tell his own story, but I wanted the reader to get to know the villains in the piece and learn who they are and why they do what they do.  So I switch from first to third.  A few other writers do this effectively.  John Connolly, Robert Crais, and others.  It works well if you stay on top of it and make sure the voice of the first person sections is different than the voice of the third person sections.

VENTRELLA: Just because I want to know:  The “zombies” in “Patient Zero” were not supernatural in the traditional sense of the word; will the Ledger novels continue in this vein?

MABERRY:  First off…zombies in most fiction aren’t supernatural.  In Night of the Living Dead it’s suggested that radiation from a returning space probe caused them to rise.  In many other stories they rise as a result of toxic spills, a mishandled bioweapon, or a mutation of some naturally occurring pathogen.  My take is that the pathogen is deliberately re-engineered to make a doomsday weapon for reasons that will benefit the villain, a pharmaceutical mogul named Sebastian Gault, who intends to profit from the panic and the resulting rush to create and distribute treatments or cures.

The other books in the series focus on different bio-threats.  In THE DRAGON FACTORY, a cabal of scientists are using cutting-edge genetic science to create pathogens for ethnic cleansing and to further the Nazi master race program.  In the third book, THE KING OF PLAGUES, a scientist discovers that the Tenth Plague of Egypt –the death of the firstborn from the story of Moses—was actually a pathogen; he recovers it and attempts to weaponize it so he can sell it to terrorists.

I have little faith in the sensible use of extreme science.  I like science, but research, profit and morality seldom occur all at once in the same people.  To me, that’s far more frightening than zombies!


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