- Interview by Thief12 (Carlo Giovannetti)
Jeff Mariotte is an American author and editor that worked on the first 24 graphic novel, One Shot. Released in 2004, the novel was published by IDW Publishing, where he was serving as Editor-in-Chief. Born in Park Forest, Illinois, Mariotte started developing interest in writing at an early age, but it wasn't until much later that he caught his big break. He is currently a prolific writer with more than 70 books under his belt.
Through his career, Mariotte has written numerous original books and novels like Missing White Girl and River Runs Red. However, he has also become a studio favorite to write novels about licensed properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, CSI, and The Shield, among many others. Wiki 24 interviewed Mariotte to know about his life and career, his experience working on 24, as well as his future projects.
The following interview was done via e-mail on September 2020. The interview was posted on October 2, 2020.
Wiki 24: I read that, because of your father's work, you moved to Paris, France at an early age. How long did you live there? How was the experience of living abroad?
Jeff Mariotte: We moved to France the year I turned 6, and came back to the US the year I turned 10, so I attended first through fourth grade there — the first two years in a school run by the US military, and the last two in an international school with kids from all the countries that were allies during World War Two. It was a fascinating, formative experience, creating in me a love of travel, of seeing new places and new faces. I know people who've lived in the same town — sometimes in the same house — all their lives. The longest I've ever lived in one house was 10 years, and usually much shorter than that. Moving's a pain when you own thousands and thousands of books, but I guess it's hard for me to put down roots.
W24: I read you started writing since you were very young. Were you confident this was a career path you wanted to follow?
JM: It took me a long time to come around to that. I knew I wanted to write something, but I didn't know what. I wrote stories when I was very young, but largely drifted away from it for years, and started making movies instead. When I went to college, my first major was advertising, because I figured I could make a decent living as an ad copywriter. But halfway through I switched to Radio/TV/Film and started writing screenplays. In college, I won third place in a literary competition, published some journalism, and wrote some short stories, and then after college, while working at my first job, I wrote a novel. Then I quit that job and started working in a bookstore. Since then — January 1, 1980 — I've always made my living from books and words and stories, in one way or another.
W24: You say that your college degree was on Radio/TV/Film. Was that because you were already leaning towards those mediums in your writing, as opposed to more "traditional" writing?
JM: I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn't sure in what way. As I said, I'd made movies in my teens. During college, I made a trip to Universal Studios and fell in love with the idea of making movies on a professional scale, and changed my major. I never worked in those fields, though I did do a lot of TV tie-in writing, and have spent time on TV sets and hung out with actors.
W24: In a 2019 interview for Meghan's House of Books, you said you "didn't sell any fiction professionally until I was 33. I didn't have a novel published until I was 44". Can you talk to us about your career path? Also, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
JM: Working in a bookstore gave me a lot of exposure to the way the business worked. I met lots of professional authors, and also people in publishing, and that really gave me a leg up. My first short story sale was to an editor I'd met through the bookstore, who was putting together a science fiction anthology for Bantam Books. He told me later that he'd have bought it even if he hadn't known me, which was nice.
After that, I didn't publish anything for a while. But my assistant manager at the bookstore I was running then — Hunter's Books in La Jolla, CA — was married to a superstar comics artist, Jim Lee, who had recently left Marvel to become one of the original partners in Image Comics. After that store closed, Jim, who had read my published story, asked me to write the backs of a set of trading cards. There was a lot of money in comics in those days, and writing those 100 cards paid more than a month of managing the bookstore. Then Jim asked me to write some more stuff, and eventually brought me on full-time. I wound up becoming vice-president of marketing for his company, WildStorm Productions, and also writing comics for it.
One of the company's bestselling series was Gen13, about a team of teenage superheroes. We made an animated feature film and sold it to Disney, and on the strength of that, Ace Books licensed the rights to publish three Gen13 novels. They offered the first one to my friend Christopher Golden, who had written some Gen13 comics (as I had). Chris was too busy to write it solo, so he asked me to collaborate on it with him, and that became my first novel. Then he introduced me to his editor on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer line, and I started getting work from her. Everything pretty much blossomed from there.
W24: You have worn many hats in your career. You said you were a bookstore manager, you also owned a bookstore, you have worked as editor, editor-in-chief, and obviously a writer. What role have you found more fulfilling?
JM: Writing is my biggest passion, but I love all of it. Telling stories, being part of the process, putting stories in the hands of people who'll love them. I've also done technical and legal editing, and even that's fulfilling, because I get to work with language and improve my own skills and learn from others. As long as I'm making my living from words and stories, I'm happy.
W24: When did you join IDW Publishing? How would you describe your work there?
JM: When WildStorm became wildly successful, Jim Lee sold the company to DC Comics. I was a DC buff most of my life, so I loved working there. But DC was owned by Time Warner AOL at that time, and going from a scrappy start-up made good to a giant multinational corporation was a big shift. Everything was very corporate, there were lots of rules and meetings, and although I was made a senior editor, it didn't seem likely that I would advance from there very quickly. But IDW Publishing had been formed by some friends who'd left WildStorm when DC acquired us, and was starting to grow to the point that they needed a full-time editor-in-chief. When they asked me, I jumped at the chance, because it was an opportunity to go back to the kind of everybody-does-everything start-up atmosphere that I loved. I got to work with some great licenses, like CSI, and I was embraced by the whole CSI family.
W24: How did you get involved with shows like 24 and The Shield?
JM: Through my connections with Buffy and Angel novels, I'd gotten to know people at Fox TV licensing. We'd done very well with CSI, and we all loved The Shield, so I reached out to them and we acquired those rights. I don't remember exactly how 24 came into the picture, but probably through those same connections.
W24: Were you a fan of any of these shows before working on their novels/comics?
JM: Oh, definitely.
W24: How was the collaboration between the creative departments from those shows and IDW? How much "slack" did they give you with the characters?
JM: Again, I don't remember very much about the process as it pertained to 24. With The Shield, after some initial issues, everything went very smoothly. They gave us tons of images so we'd have plenty of reference for the artist, and images we could use for promotion, etc.
W24: Did you get to meet any members of their cast and/or crew?
JM: I've never met any of them in person. I did get to do phone interviews with Michael Chiklis, CCH Pounder, and Shawn Ryan, which appeared in the comics. They were all super nice and friendly. Chiklis told me to call him "Mikey". CCH is a big fan of animated shows (she did a voice in Gargoyles), so we had fun talking about that.
JM: I knew from the start that Jeff and Mark wanted to write 24, and I never considered any other writers for it. They did a fine job. The hardest part was figuring out how we would mimic the hour-by-hour timeline gimmick of the show, and we worked that out in phone calls and emails, and eventually we got it down. I thought they carried it off brilliantly.
W24: For The Shield: Spotlight, you were a writer. What was your overall approach to the comic?
JM: I wanted to replicate the experience of watching the show as closely as possible. I knew I had five issues to tell my story, so I tried to break it into the different sections of an episode.
W24: In a 2019 interview for The Write Stuff, as well as the previous interview I mentioned for Meghan's House of Books, you say you like to start working from an outline. Was it the same in this project? Did you work your own outline or were you given one by FX or Shawn Ryan?
JM: Yes, as with most licensed fiction of any kind, I had to submit an outline to the owner of the intellectual property — in this case Fox and Shawn's office — for approval before I could start writing. When I did that, a comment came back from whoever in Shawn's office had looked at it, and she had said, "The author has the members of the Strike Team commit a crime. They're the police; they can't do that." My response — though I didn't direct it to her — was, "Have you ever watched the show you work for? In the first episode, they kill a cop!"
But instead of freaking out, I went through the appropriate channels. My message made its way up to Shawn, who read the outline. He said, "Jeff understands The Shield. Leave him alone." So I got to write the story I wanted to write.
W24: Did you find it hard to translate the different character traits into words?
JM: To me, when I'm writing fiction based on a TV show or movie, the most important thing is getting the voice right. If I hear the actor's voice in my head as I'm reading the dialogue, then I feel like I've captured it. The characters on The Shield are so wonderfully vivid and distinctive, that was easy. And we provided Jean Diaz, the artist with enough photo reference, thanks to the show's help, that he was able to get their characters down visually and really get the likenesses down. Jean did a wonderful job.
W24: Characters from these shows are notable for making some morally dubious decisions (like torture, murder, or corruption). Do you find it interesting or compelling to write about that kind of character, or do you find it hard to get in that frame of mind?
JM: I'm very interested in both law enforcement and criminals, and have studied and written about both for years. So yes, it's easy to get into the frame of mind of a cop or a killer, or a cop who is also a killer, because I've spent so much time inside their heads. I like writing good guys, but I also love exploring the darkness inside people.
W24: Did you get any feedback from the cast of any of these shows? Were they satisfied with the way you "wrote" their characters?
JM: No. David Caruso of CSI: Miami once thanked me for the "great story" I wrote in the first CSI: Miami graphic novel, but I don't think he had read it at the time. Maybe he did later, I don't know, but he did go through and look at all the art, because he asked us for specific panels to be blown up and printed for him to give as Christmas presents to his fellow cast members. But I never heard from any of the cast members of The Shield or 24. Mikey and Shawn did send me a signed poster, which I suppose was their way of expressing approval.
W24: Aside from those two, you have been involved with other TV shows like Buffy, Angel, CSI, Supernatural, etc. What draws you to these stories?
JM: I've always been drawn to stories of crime and the supernatural — and have frequently mixed them in my own original novels, like Missing White Girl, River Runs Red, and Cold Black Hearts. Those all have thriller elements, like police procedure or espionage, blended with horror and supernatural elements.
W24: Why do you think studios and networks trust you with their properties?
JM: Those properties are very important to them, and they're very protective. They trust me because they know I'll respect the properties and the characters, will treat them with care, and return them undamaged when I'm finished with them. Sometimes it's a matter of knowing me, as with Fox and CBS. The licensing folks at CBS have recommended me for jobs many times, because they trust me, and if a publisher comes to them and says, "We want Jeff on this book," they always approve me. We've known each other since early days at IDW, when I was editing CSI comics but hadn't written any yet.
W24: How long did you work for IDW?
JM: I only stayed there for two years, then had the opportunity to buy a little ranch property in Arizona and go strictly freelance for a few years. My son David is an editor there now, though, so the tradition continues.
W24: What are you currently working on?
JM: I recently finished a historical epic set in the Gold Rush era, and it's looking for the right home. Now I'm in the planning/researching phase of the next book.
W24: You have 24 hours to write any story. What do you write about? Clock is ticking.
JM: Time pressure.
W24: You are convicted for murder and corruption and sent to jail for a long time. What 5 books will you take with you?
JM: Black’s Law Dictionary, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, Shogun by James Clavell, The Stand by Stephen King, The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. All long books, in case the prison has a lousy library.
W24: What is the next step in your career? What projects do you have in the near future?
JM: Next step unknown. I just keep writing books and putting them out there.
W24: Is there any character or property (past or present) you wish you could write about?
JM: Oh, tons. I'd love to write a novel about Batman or Daredevil. I'd love to write some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs characters. I'd love to do a Wonder Woman novel with my wife Marsheila Rockwell, who I've collaborated with on other projects. She's not only a brilliant writer and poet, but a huge WW fan. I'd love to write an It Takes a Thief novel, based on the 60's TV show, and maybe update it to the present.
W24: Thank you so much for the time. We wish you the best in your career.
JM: Thanks for the interesting questions! Made me think. Best!
- Meghan (December 1, 2019). Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Jeffrey J. Mariotte.
- Bolton, Raymond (May 27, 2019). Jeffrey J. Mariotte Interview.