Interview: Jonathan Maberry

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

My middle school librarian introduced me to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This was 1970, the beginning of seventh grade and I had recently discovered the Robert E. Howard Conan stories; I went into the library looking for more. She suggested Burroughs. The first books I read were the Pellucidar novels and I fell in love with Burroughs’ style. The rich descriptions, the dashing heroics, and the relentless pace grabbed me from the beginning.

Then I went prowling through my local bookstore and saw all of the Ace Books editions that they were releasing with covers by Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel. Every week I spent my allowance gobbling up those paperbacks. I eventually bought them all, and I still have them.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

The Burroughs stories always had a balance of gritty action and honorable action. The characters were good guys who stepped up to fight for what they believed was right. Sure, we can look back from the perspective of the twenty-first century and say that it’s old fashioned, blah blah blah. But sometimes you need to chuck the pretentions out the window and focus on what we’d all really like to be: good, decent people. That’s what Burroughs gave us.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

Burroughs was more of a visionary than people give him credit for. He took the standard adventure story and proved that it would work in all sorts of new settings. He took us off-world, he played with spiritual travel, he gave us bilocation, he gave us alien races that weren’t always the bad guys, and he spun the concept of ‘destiny’ some fun new twists. The whole pulp movement in science fiction and fantasy owes its momentum to Burroughs.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

I’m a Tars Tarkas fanboy. He was a revolutionary character –a fierce warrior who went against the inflexibly rules of his people to do what he believed was right. That really mattered to me when I was young because I grew up in a severely racist neighborhood and had a father who was a violent bigot. I knew that I didn’t want to be like him, or like most of the people in my neighborhood. I had to learn to be tough and to take a stand for what I believed. Sounds crazy, but I drew a lot of inspiration from characters in books. And, yeah, that list of role models ranged from Marvel Comics’ Black Panther to Atticus Finch to Tars Tarkas.

I even made a Tars Tarkas costume for the eighth grade costume party. As it turns out…that doesn’t help you pick up girls.

Tell us a bit about your story in the anthology. What’s it about? 

The Death Song of Dwar Guntha takes a look at the other end of the ‘hero’s story’. We meet a professional soldier who has been with John Carter since the early days, but not the kind of person who ever got into the limelight. He’s like a sergeant, one of the hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-fighting non-coms who form the backbone of every army but seldom become the stars of the tale.

In my story, we come in at the very end of his career. He’s been there with Carter at every major battle and has seen the world of Barsoom transform from one of constant and pervasive turmoil to one that is nearly settled and at peace. Only one major enemy remains, and Dwar Guntha and his small band of rangers are surrounded by a vast army in an absolutely no-win situation. It’s the kind of situation that normally would result in a grand heroic death song. But it looks like he’s going to die, unsung and unremembered.

Or, is he?

What was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

I’ve known a lot of people who served in the military, and I’ve read books of Samurai death poems. There is a grandeur in the last story of a life lived in the service of (so to speak) king and country. Those stories are sad, bittersweet, and filled with irony and enlightened self-reflection.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

I had a great time writing The Death Song of Dwar Guntha. It gave me the opportunity to re-read the entire John Carter series (always a pleasure!) and how wonderful is it to be able to actually write a story in that world. Very much a dream come true.

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story?

I spoke to some friends who were career military to try and get a sense of what it means to dedicate your entire life to being a soldier. I never served in the military, but most members of my family have and my great grandfather, John B. Maberry, won the Congressional Medal of Honor at the Battle of Gettysburg. I don’t always share the political views of those who start wars, but I have a lot of respect for those who serve. But to do justice to that mindset, I felt it was important to speak to professional soldiers.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add? 

2012 is going to be a crazy year. My fourth Joe Ledger thriller, ASSASSIN’S CODE, debuts in April from St. Martin’s Griffin; and in August my third young adult zombie novel, FLESH & BONE, will be out from Simon & Schuster. Also in April, IDW will release V-WARS, a shared world vampire anthology I’m editing. I’ve also got stories in a slew of anthologies in a bunch of different genres. I have a new installment of my MARVEL UNIVERSE VS. franchise coming out; and the graphic novel collection of the previous series, MARVEL UNIVERSE VS WOLVERINE will be out soon. And in time for Christmas, the History Channel will release the DVD of ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY, a documentary I had the pleasure of being a part of as a zombie expert. I’ll be touring pretty heavily in the U.S. and Canada in support of my books, and as keynote speaker or guest of honor at genre conventions. Updates on all of this and more can be found on my website, and on my Twitter and Facebook pages.