Interview with Jeffrey J. Mariotte
I recently was honored to interview the amazing dark thriller/true crime author and comic creator guru, Jeffrey J. Mariotte.
AM: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you! Please tell the readers a bit about Empty Rooms.
JM: Empty Rooms is a dark thriller that introduces two new characters, Frank Robey and Richie (Maynard) Krebbs. Robey is a former FBI agent who joined the Detroit Police Department when the Bureau wanted to transfer him out of the city. He’s a lover of comic books and soul music, and he’s obsessed with the 13-year-old case of a missing girl. Krebbs is an ex-cop, a walking encyclopedia of crime and criminals who didn’t last long in the job because he couldn’t take the bureaucracy of police work. The two meet in the abandoned former home of the missing girl, and when Richie finds something that might be a clue, they team up to try to figure out what really happened to her. Their quest takes them around the country on the trail of a serial predator.
I’m thrilled at the reception the book has gotten. It’s been praised by thriller masters Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker, and won rave reviews from major publications, websites, and readers alike. I put a lot into it, and am delighted that it’s finding a receptive audience.
AM: That’s fantastic to hear and congratulations! What influenced you to start writing?
JM: I’ve written pretty much since I could read. As a young boy, I read Hardy Boys mystery novels and wrote my own (very derivative) detective stories. I really can’t remember a time I wasn’t writing. I finally started to make some money at it in the late 80s, then became a published novelist in the late 90s.
AM: Did you have a particular influence for Empty Rooms?
JM: I had been writing a nonfiction, true crime book that described the real stories of every criminal mentioned in the first five seasons of the TV series Criminal Minds, and some who weren’t mentioned by name but whose crimes inspired episodes. It required a lot of research into truly heinous people doing wretched things, and after several months of that, I felt like I was living in a pretty dark place. I started trying to pull myself out of that by watching comedies, reading comics, and generally trying to touch base with good people doing good things. That led me to wonder how people who had to deal with such horrible acts in the real world maintain some link to humanity, which led to creating Frank Robey and Richie Krebbs.
AM: That is incredibly interesting! I’m a huge fan of Criminal Minds, so I will definitely have to check those out! Empty Rooms is the start of a series. Do you yet know how many books will be in the series?
JM: No idea. This first book has to sell enough copies to make a publisher interested in putting out more books, so that’s my first focus. I’m working on a plot for the second book, though, and have some vague ideas about where the characters go from there.
AM: Which character do you most relate to in the book and why?
JM: It has to be a combination of traits of Frank and Richie. Most of the knowledge about crime and criminals that Richie carries around in his head is also stuck in mine. But I’m not quite as singularly focused as he is. Frank’s comic book knowledge comes from my years of working in that business.
AM: You’ve written quite an astonishing number of books. Which one is your favorite to date?
JM: Empty Rooms definitely is. I feel like with that one, I tried to do something different, something harder, and pulled it off pretty well. It’s my best book, I think (not that the others were bad—I happen to think I’m a good writer), and the critical response seems to indicate that other people think so, too.
AM: As an author of a paranormal psychic book, I think readers of mine are often shocked to discover I do not believe in psychics, which made it easier for me to rewrite the concept. Since supernatural is a genre you regularly visit, do you believe in the supernatural?
JM: That’s a complicated question. I’ve had a few experiences that have caused me to be open-minded about that issue. That said, I don’t think the answers lie in the realm of the supernatural, but in physics that we just haven’t figured out how to understand yet.
AM: That’s a twist on the supernatural that is something that lots of people will want to explore! With your experiences in the supernatural, what draws you to writing crime thrillers?
JM: Most of the books I end up reading are crime thrillers. I still pick up horror novels and the occasional fantasy (and a lot of nonfiction) but the authors I’m drawn to again and again are folks like James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, John Connolly, Richard Price. Connolly blurs the lines between thriller and horror, as I’ve tried to do in several of my supernatural thrillers, like Season of the Wolf, but the others are pretty much straight-ahead crime fiction. So I guess it’s natural that I’m interested in writing what I read the most.
I think crime novels can be fast-paced entertainment—and I definitely try to make mine be that—but they can also go a few steps beyond, and talk about any aspect of society a writer wants to address. Crime doesn’t always adhere to the lines society draws—in fact, it’s usually defined by breaking those lines. So in the pages of a crime novel, I can touch on any subject that matters to me. And I can do it in the context of a story that keeps the reader flipping pages, wondering what happens next.
AM: Do you often find any blurred lines with writing criminals versus the good guys?
JM: Sure, there’s always a little of that. In Empty Rooms, the story would never have gotten off the ground if Richie hadn’t broken the law and gone inside that abandoned house. Later on in the book, he breaks other laws in other ways. He was a cop, for a little while, so he knows a little about the law, and he tries to stay on the right side of it. But the case, to him, is more important than the legality, so he’ll break any laws that get in the way. Frank’s a little more careful about it—but he knows what Richie’s doing, and he doesn’t stop it.
AM: Let’s get onto the fun stuff: comics and graphic novels. We have a very common love of these things. You have one heck of a resume! What is your favorite job in that industry?
JM: I have done a lot of different jobs in comics (in addition to writing somewhere around 150 comic books and graphic novels). I started out writing the text on the backs of trading cards, and that somehow developed into a full-time job. I was the VP of marketing for WildStorm Productions/Image Comics, and when we sold the company to DC Comics, I became a senior editor. Then I moved over to become the first editor-in-chief at IDW Publishing. After that, I left the publishing side of the business to write full-time, but kept finding myself pulled into editing comics and other projects on a freelance basis. Now I’m a publishing consultant for Visionary Comics, an up-and-coming comic industry powerhouse born in the digital age, and that role might be changing very soon, too. My favorite job would have to be writer, but after that, it’s an amalgam—every company I’ve worked for has been essentially a start-up, or close to it, when I signed on. My favorite thing to do is to work with a new company and do whatever is necessary to help it grow into a much bigger and more prosperous one.
AM: Who is your biggest influence in comics? Is there someone you’d love to work with someday?
JM: My biggest influence would have to be Denny O’Neil, the legendary writer/editor who reshaped Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow for generations to come. I’ve never worked with him directly, but when we were both at DC we interacted once in a while. One of my most lasting memories from my years in publishing was a meeting I had once with Denny, equally legendary writer/editor Archie Goodwin, and my friend, DC sales guru Bob Wayne. After the meeting, still buzzing from sitting in a room with those brilliant and creative men, I went to lunch with Denny. It was a great day in my life.
As a writer and an editor, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the comics masters who I’ve long admired. I had a Gil Kane cover on something I wrote. John Severin drew an entire Desperadoes miniseries for me. As an editor, I’ve worked with Barry Windsor-Smith and Alan Moore and so many others, including contemporary greats like Tommy Lee Edwards and Bryan Hitch.
I’ve also collaborated on prose fiction, novels and short stories, with terrific writers like Christopher Golden, Amber Benson, and my current partner, the really talented Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell. We’ve sold a bunch of short stories together, have a novel pitch out there right now, and have written our first comics script together. Writing is generally a very solitary activity, and I’m anti-social enough to enjoy that. But I like collaborating, too.
I guess of the people I haven’t worked with, I’d love to write something for Walter Simonson one day.
AM: Are your comics at all similar to your novels?
JM: Well, they all come from my twisted brain, so I’d have to say yes. They deal with some of the same settings—mostly the west, contemporary and historical—and themes. One idea I keep coming back to is that there’s magic in the world, if we can only open our eyes and hearts to it (though, as mentioned above, that “magic” might simply be the result of interaction between the 9th and 16th dimensions, or something else we can’t quite wrap our heads around).
AM: How are developing comics different than writing novels?
JM: There’s a fundamental difference in that I don’t draw the comics, so even if I write it myself, it’s always a collaboration with at least one other person. Whatever I’m developing, I have to keep in mind that it’ll be drawn, so I’m focused on the visual elements. How can the story best be told in pictures? What should the characters and their world look like? Obviously, those are also concerns with a novel, but in a different way—I’ll be describing those things over the course of many, many pages, a little bit here and a little bit there. If I don’t know at the beginning of the book what color hair some character has, that’s okay. But with a comic I have to be working that information in right from the start, so the artist can do character designs.
Beyond that point, the key to writing comics is to let the art tell the story and keep the words to a minimum. It can be a challenge for a novelist, who’s used to using words to tell the story, to back off and let the artist handle that part. I’ve done enough of both that it’s a pretty easy transition for me (and it might be easier because I wrote comics before I wrote novels, so I didn’t have to unlearn the novelist’s craft to move to comics).
On the page, the main difference is that the novelist has to use words that will make the reader see pictures in her head, while in comics the pictures are right there. The writer doesn’t control what the pictures will look like, in either case—all he can be sure of is that they won’t look like whatever was in his head while he was writing it. In the case of comics, though, the writer gets to look at the pictures, eventually, and it’s very fun when they turn out much cooler than he could have imagined. With a novel, the writer just has to hope his words were precise enough that the reader’s mental image is basically similar to what was intended, but that’s never more than a hope or a guess.
AM: Thank you so much for answering my questions! This has been one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve done, and you’ve given me a ton of reading material!
JM: And thank you for interviewing me! Great questions, and I hope I wasn’t too verbose. I guess I answered them as a novelist and not as a comics writer…