What Is Possible: Jonathan Maberry on Martial Arts & Writing, Part 1

This is the first in a series exploring the relationship between the martial arts and writing.

Jonathan Maberry is a Bram Stoker Award-winning writer who, over the last thirty plus years, has written about martial arts, folklore, and the supernatural.  In addition to magazine work, he’s authored horror novels, thrillers, and comics.  His novels include the Pine Deep Trilogy, The Wolf Man novelization, and the forthcoming Rot & Ruin, a YA zombie novel.

Maberry’s most recent novels are Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory.

“[Both are] in my series of action thrillers featuring former Baltimore cop Joe Ledger who has been recruited by a secret government agency tasked with stopping terrorists who have the most advanced bio-weapons,” said Maberry.  “Ledger is a skilled martial artist and there are lots of fight scenes in the books.”

Maberry writes strikingly realistic (and exciting) action sequences that are clearly the result of his years of training as both a writer and as a martial artist.  Below, Maberry talks about how his training in the martial arts has influenced his writing.


What form(s) of martial arts do you and/or have you studied?


Jonathan Maberry: My primary art is Shinowara-ryu jujutsu, a small but very traditional family style.  I’ve been involved with that for over 46 years and currently hold an 8th degree black belt.  I also hold a 5th dan in kenjutsu.  However over the years I’ve had the good fortune to know instructors in a variety of arts and styles and have often compared and swapped information.  As a result I have a fairly good working knowledge (but not necessarily rank) in judo, aikido, a few styles of kung-fu, and Varrmannie (an Indian martial art).  I also boxed, fenced and wrestled in high school and college.


What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?


Jonathan Maberry: Martial arts is a pretty good training ground for writing because it teaches skills that all writers need.  No one stands over you to tell you to write.  It requires discipline.  Self-discipline.  You have to be very focused, your thinking has to be precise.  Each of these qualities is cultivated by serious martial arts study.

Also, writers have to deal with all kinds of emotional hits.  Rejections from agents and editors, negative reviews, years of struggle to break in.  In order to survive that without giving up or giving in, and without crumbling under the weight of negativity.  That requires emotional and psychological toughness.

I’ve written extensively about the martial arts.  Since 1978 I’ve sold over 500 martial arts articles to magazine such as Black Belt, Karate Illustrated, Inside Kung-Fu, Official Karate and others.  I’ve also written over a dozen martial arts books, most of which were written as textbooks for college-level classes, including the book for a course I taught on the History of Martial Arts at Temple University.


And what has writing taught you about the martial arts?


Jonathan Maberry: Martial arts helps an author to create the most believable and powerful fight scenes.  Everybody loves a good fight scene.  Whether it’s a road-weary Indiana Jones pulling a pistol and shooting that big guy with the sword; or Ellen Ripley strapping on a power loader and going toe-to-toe with the alien queen; or Buffy kicking some vampire ass.  We love fight scenes, especially in fantastic fiction.

But I’m a purist.  Both as a reader and a writer I like my fantasy to be as believable as possible.  I’ll accept that there are werewolves if I’m reading a werewolf story, but if a puny Casper Milquetoast decks a werewolf with a single punch then I’m bailing on the story.  Conversely, if a vampire backhands Van Helsing and sends him flying twenty feet into a brick wall…and Van Helsing gets up again, I’m out of there.  The first is unlikely, the latter is improbable.  And fight scenes, no matter what the genre, are all about what is possible.

This is particularly true in horror because we’re already asking so much of the reader.  Horror stories are about creating a scenario in which something horrific is presented in such a way that readers are willing to suspend their disbelief.  We want them to accept the possibility of a werewolf or a demon or vampire.  We want readers to buy into the reality of humans pitted against something supernatural–or unnatural.  It’s asking a lot of the reader to accept the fantastic, so if they grant us that license we can’t abuse them for it.  It’s a matter of artistic integrity.  It’s a matter of fairness.  And it’s also a matter of basic honest storytelling.

An action scene in horror can take many forms.  It can be a fight between a human and a mad killer.  It can be a struggle between a human and a monster.  It can be a struggle between two monsters.  The core element is the struggle itself–the fight scene, and a good fight scene has to be based on what is—and is not—possible.

Fighting is about attack and defense.  Even in the real world there are very few ‘fair fights’.  Everything comes down to variables.  For example, you can have a boxing match between two heavyweight contenders and it will never be precisely even.  One will be heavier, and those extra pounds could be in the form of muscle or fat or even denser bones.  The extra weight lends mass to a punch but it also requires more effort to move.  On the other hand one of the boxers will likely have slightly longer reach, and though this allows him to strike from a greater distance, longer arms don’t block or parry as efficiently as shorter arms.  Larger feet provide more square inches of stability but they are inherently clumsier.

In all fights the variables provide advantages and disadvantages.


What matters most?


Jonathan Maberry: Everything matters in a fight.  You have physical specifics to consider: height, general fitness, weight, muscle-to-fat ratios, limb length, bone and muscle density, pain threshold, pre-existing injuries, natural and acquired reflexes, the presence of medical conditions, allergies, eyesight, and so on.  Any one of these factors could give someone an edge or become a liability.

Then you have the physical environment.  The type of surface (a fight on a sandy beach is far different than a fight on a flight of stone stairs), available space, temperature, available light, and access to objects useful as defensive or offensive weapons.  The personal experience of the combatants matters.  Previous fight experience, experience with sports and sports injuries, previous training in any aspect of fighting, courage, emotions, and psychology are all factors.

Even if a person has been trained as a fighter there are variables.  Ten years practicing Tai Chi is less likely to help someone win a fight than one year of goju karate.  Someone who is a judo champion may not be able to win against someone who has spent a year in Special Forces.

And intention matters.  Most people have never fought for their lives.  Even someone who has been in a dozen barroom brawls may not have what it takes to fight to the death.  Some fighters are so thoroughly committed to the conflict that they will do anything to win; others are governed by factors like timidity, honor, restraint, or compassion.  A person fending off a violent attack by a mugger may be able to summon enough outrage to do great bodily harm; but that same person fending off a violent attack by an hysterical or psychologically unbalanced loved one may not be able to bring themselves to harm the other person at all.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “What Is Possible: Jonathan Maberry on Martial Arts & Writing, Part 1

  1. Pingback: No One Is Safe: Jonathan Maberry on Martial Arts & Writing, Part 2 « Booklife

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