Sunday, October 7, 2007

An Interview with Matthew Cook

Blood Magic is Matthew Cook’s debut and once I started reading I found myself unable to put the book down as Kirin’s past and present rushed toward each other in a story that simply demands to be read. Mr. Cook recently took the time to answer some of my burning questions about his new novel as well as his writing and publishing experiences.

What started you writing?

MC: I’ve been scribbling stories for almost as long as I can remember, actually. I remember showing some sort of Scooby Doo-esque monster whodunit to my grandfather when I was in grade school one time. He told me that he could see me being a writer one day and encouraged me to keep at it. He’s who I wrote Blood Magic's Dedication for (thanks again, Pops).

For years, I channeled my storytelling creativity into role-playing games instead of formal stories or novels. I’ve been in several regular gaming groups since college, some for years and years, generally always with me as the Game Master. This was very fun, of course, and fulfilled my urge to tell tales, but eventually decided that I wanted to actually say something that more than six or seven people could hear.

Eventually, I decided to take a chance and start writing an actual novel. It was insane: I was 35, a father of two with a full time job and countless creative "hobbies" on the side (photography, illustration, editing the PC games and hardware section for and there I was deciding to begin a writing career on top of everything else, not with short stories like most normal authors, but with a full-blown novel. Thinking back on it, it’s crazy that I ever got off the ground.

The story I decided to tell was one that I’d had rolling around in my head ever since I was an art student in Chicago. It was going to be a tale of a regular guy that ends up in the middle of a faerie war. Part of it was my missing the city: I still love Chicago and there’s a part of me that still wants to go back there one day. The mental imagery I have from that place is still so strange and unique and, well, magical, that I wanted to share it with others. I never finished that piece, but the three years that I worked on it taught me a tremendous amount about consistency and the work ethic that a novelist needs to have if they have any chance of completing a manuscript.

Since you work during the day, how and where do you find the time to work on your novel?

MC: That’s an excellent question, and it’s one that I hear quite often any time would-be writers start talking about the actual writing process. In my case, I tried several different methods of working before I hit on the one that works best for me.

I’m a night owl, so at first I tried working in the late evenings, after my family had gone to bed. It was nice and relaxing, but I found that I was too easily distracted by the web to remain focused. Often, I’d go off on a quest to do some online research and end up at 3:00 AM without a word written. I filled countless Word documents with facts that I planned to use in my writing, but very little in the way of the actual story. After a month or two of this, I’d become discouraged and abandon the story for weeks or months.

Then I read in several different author’s autobiographies or essays on writing that many of them began by getting up early, before their day jobs, to work on their fiction. Now, you have to understand: for an insomniac like me, getting up before I needed to was little different from pouring boiling oil down my pants, so I initially resisted the idea. Eventually, though, the pain of not writing exceeded the pain of getting up early, so I gave it a shot.

I think I wrote fewer than 10 pages that entire first month, all of which I ended up tossing since they were basically unreadable. But, the habit stuck. Now, I get up about 90 minutes early four to five days a week to write before work. I go to coffee places, wherever I can sit quietly and type. The swirl of people around me is actually a great distraction and seems to keep my mind limber. The deadline I have to honor if I’m to get to my job on time keeps me focused, and I can generally complete about five to seven pages every morning – that adds up week after week and month after month.

How can you not work from an outline? I always find myself getting lost without one.

MC: The answer is... I have no idea. I like to have a few pages written sketching out the overall flow of the story... This happens and then this other thing happens and somehow this last thing ends up happening as a result... that sort of thing. But I seldom know all the deeper connections until I start working. Most of the time, even I end up having those "Oh,... so that's why this guy was so hostile to my main character back in Chapter five!" moments. I like to think it's my subconscious playing shell games with my sanity.

Does that mean I never get lost? Hell no. I get lost all the time. Sometimes my little side trips lead to sub-plot swamps that I almost don't escape.... Sometimes that wastes my time while I backtrack, although I'm getting better with that the more I write. But it's so damn fun to see where the paths go that I think it's worth the extra effort. After all, if it stops being fun for me than I can't (or, more properly - won't) do it any more.

What has the publishing experience been like for you so far?

MC: So far it’s been absolutely wonderful. I feel so lucky that I ended up meeting Paula Guran from Juno Books at Context 2006, and that she decided to take a chance on my manuscript. Paula makes the entire process, from editing, to contracts, to PR, very easy for me and enjoyable. I don’t know what other people’s experiences with publishers has been, but I’m finding that so long as you remain professional and respectful of their time, working writers and editors are among the nicest people on the planet (even the curmudgeons, of which spec fiction has more than its share).

That’s not to say that it’s been easy. There’s an amazing amount of stress that a writer has to endure when they finally get to the point where they feel ready to start putting their work out into the world for consideration. If you’re not careful, you can get your ego seriously stomped into the mud. I think the thing that all writers have to remember, though, is that editors are not the enemy! Without a writer’s stories, an editor would have nothing to publish. No publishing means no money for the imprint or magazine. Editors are actively looking for new writers and new manuscripts, believe me, and most (if not all) of them got into genre editing not to strike it rich but because they love to read the kind of stories we write. Just remember to always be polite and respectful, write about things you’re genuinely excited about, and always… always… do everything you can to continuously polish your writing and one day you’ll probably sell.

When it comes to dark fantasy, since you just happening to be writing it, what do you recommend reading?

MC: Well, I’m a huge fan of urban fantasy authors like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint, and I’d recommend anything from either author. I’ve been very impressed with the work of Holly Black recently, as well – there’s definitely some dark themes happening there, if that’s your cup of tea.

Also, Juno Books (my publisher) put out a "Sneak Peek" booklet a few months back containing the first four chapters of my book, along with the first part of Silvia Kelso’s new novel Amberlight, and I have to say I was very, very impressed. Juno’s had some challenges getting Amberlight to market, but they seem to have worked through them, and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy when it’s released in November.

I think that in many ways the crime fiction genre goes well with fantasy, dark or otherwise – after all, the world portrayed in, say, a Dashiel Hammet novel is in many ways as "fantastic" as a modern fantasy. I’ve been reading a lot from James Swain recently as well, and find his Tony Valentine novels very entertaining. In this same vein, I just finished Warren Hammond’s first novel, KOP, which is a Sci-Fi, hard-boiled cop story. Not really "dark fantasy" but good stuff, nonetheless.

I also think that if you like it dark (so to speak) you really should look outside of the genre publishers - at authors like Joyce Carol Oates. Some of the stuff she writes about, both in her short fiction as well as in her novels is more chilling than practically anything I’ve read that’s been published specifically as "dark fantasy" or even "horror". Plus, she has a way of building images with words that is, quite literally, breathtaking. Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club (among other great novels) really has a way with imagery that’s at once startlingly lovely and equally disturbing as well, and I can’t recommend him enough.

As a male author did you find it hard to find your female protagonists' voice?

MC: You know, maybe it’s because I’m constantly living in my head and imagining what other people would say or do in a certain situation, but I don’t think it was terribly hard, no. I have to admit, though, that I was really terrified that my "voice" for Kirin (the main character in Blood Magic) would come off as sounding like a man trying to write like a woman, and would somehow sound false to a female reader. Add in the fact that I decided to write the whole thing in first person point-of-view, and that many of the issues that the character has to deal with are very specific to women (motherhood, enduring an abusive marriage, etc.), and basically I ended up petrified that what I was saying and writing would be a flop.

Luckily, I have a tremendous "alpha reader", Jen, that convinced me that I wasn’t totally off in left field with what I wanted to say (or how I wanted to say it), and any time that I was out of my depth, she was able to steer me back onto the right path. My wife, Kara, also has a really unique outlook on the world and possesses a tremendously strong personality, so it’s no wonder that I see a lot of her in Kirin as well. I guess I’m just lucky that I like strong women because I seem to surround myself with them. They inform so much of what I do.

Do you think that the non-traditional romance of the book will scare prospective readers away?

MC: God, I hope not. I mean, love is love, right? Who cares if that love is that of a man for a women or a women for a man, or something different like that of a women for another woman, etc.? What matters is the emotion, not the physical act (at least, to me).

In Blood Magic, though, the nature of Kirin and Lia’s relationship is more about friendship and loyalty than a more traditional "romance". Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to write a "romance novel" if I tried – I know that genre is just chock-full of talented writers and very specific themes and tropes. In Blood Magic, I just tried to show two people that get thrown into a stressful, life-threatening situation and turn to each other for support.

I should probably explain here that I generally "make it up as I go" when I sit down to write, and very seldom work from a formal outline, so often I find my characters doing or saying things that I hadn’t anticipated. It can be a lot of fun, but it can be a huge time waster, especially when one of their little side-plots doesn’t pan out, but that’s how I’m most comfortable working.

That being the case, when Kirin and Lia began to deepen their relationship, it sort of came as a shock to me. Initially, I thought of Lia as more of a youthful sidekick-type than the powerful, full partner she ended up becoming, so it was startling to me when she began to outgrow my own preconceived notions. I love it when that happens. It’s that friendship (in my opinion) that makes everything that happens to the two of them bearable.

The second book of your trilogy, Nights of Sin, has a release date for 2008. Can you share any hints of what Kirin and Lia might be up to next?

MC: Sure! In Book Two, Kirin and Lia travel to the Imperial City to continue their struggle against the Mor. My goal for the story was to answer some crucial questions that were only hinted at in the first book, specifically: why exactly are the Mor attacking humans and how does Kirin fit in?

Also, I really wanted to put a strain on their relationship. One of my favorite authors, Connie Willis, said in a discussion panel once that "in a story, things must always get worse" and that when a writer is stuck as to where to go in a plot, to torment the characters. I was never stuck on where to go in Book Two’s plot (a benefit of my "making it up as I go" process), but I took that advice to heart, and I think you’ll definitely see things getting tougher for Kirin and Lia as Book Two progresses.

I also really wanted to talk about deeper themes than I usually see in fantasy books, specifically the way that even good relationships are affected by mistrust, dishonesty and lies, and setting these all-too-human themes against the backdrop of a "fantasy zombie/ monster-invasion with a touch of courtly intrigue" story was oddly appealing to me. With a little luck, hopefully the readers will find it intriguing and entertaining, and maybe even a little chilling, as well.


Sevenine said...

I don't know how you get these interviews, but they're great! :D

Katie said...

Thank you Sevenine :)

SQT said...

Very nice. Juno's going to send me some books, and this one is at the top of my wish list.

Katie said...

SQT, this one was really good. I'm looking forward to reading his next one, the character is just so great.

Robert said...

Good job with the interview! Never read any of his books, but it sounds like I should :)

Sevenine said...

Off-subject, but let me know how that Erec Rex book is. Telling from Amazon's description of it, it sounds like it would be interesting.

Kahnee said...

Great interview as always

Katie said...

Robert, thanks. This is his first and it was really good. :)

Sevenine, I will. It sounds great and I'm really looking forward to getting into it. :)

Kahnee, thank you! :)