Welcome to the twenty-first of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with thriller / western writer David Mathew. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, David. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
David: From as early on as when the choices were realistic, I had wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Prior to that, as a child, I had wanted to be Hutch in Starsky and Hutch.
Morgen: I LOVED Starsky and Hutch and named two guinea pigs after them, one was blond (tan) like David Soul (Hutch), although I was more of a Michael Glaser (Starsky) fan (especially his cardigans). I loved David Soul’s music (Black Bean Soup / Ladybug of Love… ah fond memories) and saw him a few months back when he came to Northampton’s Chicago Rock Café; sadly he played mostly new stuff other than Silver Lady. It was good to see him though.
David: Then I wanted to be a dentist.
Morgen: Ah yes, we’re doing an interview here, aren’t we?
David: About the age of 15 or so I was determined that I would be a writer. At the time I was mostly influenced by fantasy fiction (Piers Anthony, David Eddings) and I was moving onto horror fiction. I got Stephen King’s It for a present on my fifteenth birthday and I was sold.
Morgen: I blame Stephen King for me wearing glasses (reading his books with a torch under the duvet as a teenager).
David: Coincidentally, Clive Barker came along at around the same time, and I was into The Books of Blood, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, convinced that this was the sort of writer I would be. In the summer between finishing my A Levels and going to university in Bangor, Gwynedd, I wrote a full-length fantasy / horror manuscript. It was pantaloons, needless to say; utterly unsellable anywhere, I am sure (although I didn’t really try to submit it any further than the first two or three rejections took me). However, I had finished a novel; and in the meantime, I’d had a short story published (the acceptance had been about a year earlier; see below in this interview). So I was fairly certain that I was on to something if someone wanted a short story. It was heady and exciting and I knew that I wanted more. Throughout my three years at university, reading English Literature, I wrote another full-length manuscript, much, much longer than the first one had been. It was marginally better (but not much) than the first one; but I aware, instinctively if by no other way, that I was writing some of the bad stuff out of my system.
Morgen: Absolutely, it’s practice.
David: You have to start somewhere. Or I did, anyway. After university, I wrote mostly journalism and short stories for quite a while. These days I divide my writing life between novels, the occasional short story, academic papers, occasional journalism, education materials, and correspondence. I don’t write a blog. While I wouldn’t say that I’m against the writing of blogs (I’m not), I have plenty to keep me busy without them, and I would worry that writing one might take me too far away from the core writing business. After all, people tell me that writing a blog is quite addictive. And even if I did eventually write a blog, I would like it to be a blog about something, as opposed to an open-to-all personal diary, which is what a lot of blogs seem to be. Fair enough if you want to write such a blog (although I’ve always wondered why, to be honest), and fair enough if you want to read such a blog; but I’d prefer to write in my more comfortable fields.
Morgen: I started a blog because I was hearing that it a good thing to do but I’m selective with the content; if it doesn’t interest me as a writer, it doesn’t get screen space. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
David: O My Days is published as a supernatural thriller. That’s a description that would cover much of my fiction, though I’ve ventured into horror (briefly), so-called ‘mainstream’ prose (a manuscript that will need another draft next year), and even the Western. Writing the Western was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. Unfortunately, when I moved house it got lost, so it never did see the light of day. I was proud of it. The ironic thing, possibly, is that a lot of O My Days is strictly speaking factual. The novel is from the point of view of a prisoner in a Young Offenders’ Institute. Personally, some years ago, I worked as a manager in the Education department of a Young Offenders’ Institute. I changed the location and a good deal else, but a lot of the dialogue was recorded by me, at the time, in a notebook. And they’re true. As far as non-fiction goes, I’m writing a suite of academic papers about anxiety and cyberbullying. The intention is to publish them, one day – eventually – as a book. Well, I say ‘intention’. Maybe the word ‘dream’ is closer to it.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
David: Approximately 600 articles and short stories. A collection of short stories called Paranoid Landscapes in 2006. O My Days (a novel) in 2011. Some academic work in things like The St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers (about 20 entries, as I recall); a chapter in a book on Jack Vance. Hundreds of educational materials.
Morgen: Wow. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
David: I do not have an agent. In my life I have had two agents and neither of them managed to do anything more than I have subsequently done by myself. I parted from them both on good terms but I remember thinking that it was their names that I was relying on. It was their names (and the reputations connected to those names) that was doing the real work. My general view on this, although I am happy to be challenged on it, is this. In the early years of a writer’s working life, an agent offers little that the writer cannot do for himself. Then one of two things might happen. If the book is published and does well, an agent becomes very useful in respect of the negotiations for the next book, and so on. If the first book bombs and smells like roadkill, no self-respecting agent might want to look at you or your work ever again. If you’re not going to make money, there’s nothing in it for an agent to slug it out against indifferent market-buyers and bulk-buyers for our slowly-dwindling numbers of actual, physical, real-time bookshops: not if that agent is not going to get twenty per cent of something substantial in return for his/her labours. Of course, if you’re a Big Name (if you’re on the A List) you will probably need an agent to keep on top of foreign rights negotiations, reprints, film tie-in deals – all of that stuff. But speaking as someone who is unlikely to be pestered by calls from Hollywood (or even Holyhead!), I can run the show on my own for now. Unless there are any film producers reading these words, of course….
Morgen: Of course, although it does sound like you’re coping pretty well on your own. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
David: Yes, both Paranoid Landscapes and O My Days are available as modestly-priced eBooks. Roll up, roll up… O My Days, is available from Triskaideka Books. Click here for information. (Hardcover, paperback or e-book versions are available.) Paranoid Landscapes can be purchased here or here or the e-book is here. (Sales pitch over. It’s got to be worth a try!) Electronic publishing is the future, whether we like it or not. And I speak as someone with (I must admit) somewhat ambivalent feelings. Friends of mine think it ironic that I do so much work online, often in the field of online learning, and yet I ‘still prefer’ a book made out of paper. But I don’t think there’s anything ironic about it. For me, a book is made out of paper… but this does not mean that don’t read fiction online. I just don’t do it often. Non-fiction, on the other hand, I read online often: not so much books in their entirety, but certainly psychoanalytic papers, journalism, book news, the news news, that kind of thing. To be clear about it, I certainly don’t dislike eBooks. They perform an excellent and important function, especially for people on the go (commuting to work, going on holiday); but if I had the choice, I’d take a paperback or a hardback. And maybe this choice is partly down to the fact that I look at the screen a lot when I’m working. Incidentally, someone told me the other day that he’d read O My Days on his commute to work (as an eBook), and that made my week!
Morgen: I met thriller / crime novelist Graham Hurley a few months ago and was reading his first novel ‘Nocturne’ when I was writing my big (as in content 117,540 words) chick lit novel – great contrast – so I had my character, Izzy, reading it too and wanted to include references to it, so I emailed Graham and he was delighted, saying that it was like watching someone on a train read your book… only better, which I loved. I’m presenting it (and a shorter book) at a couple of agent pitch meetings next month so I hope to be able to send Graham a copy.
David: The other good thing about electronic publishing is that when you buy a mobile phone these days, you often get something that’s out of copyright already loaded onto it. This means, in theory at least, that for those who might not ordinarily read fiction, there might be a temptation to do so, and one of the classics to boot! I like this idea.
Morgen: I knew that was the case with eReaders, I hadn’t realised with mobiles – mine’s only 6 months old, maybe I should check it. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
David: My first acceptance happened when I was seventeen. If memory serves, the magazine was called New Visions, and the acceptance was for a short story called ‘New Arrivals, Old Escapes’ – I remember it fondly. I even remember writing most of it, if not all of it, in a cafeteria in Luton. The cafeteria’s long gone, but would you like to know about nostalgia and coincidence? Despite having worked all over the place – in England and abroad – in the intervening years, as I type these words right now I am sitting at a desk in Luton, in the Centre for Learning Excellence at the University of Bedfordshire, where I work. My desk is no more than a minute’s walk from where that old cafeteria used to be.
Morgen: Ah, that’s nice, but sad. I guess it could have been worse and been a bookshop.
David: It is always a thrill to be published. It is always a thrill to be accepted for publication as well. The two things don’t necessarily connect, of course. What with publishing houses closing down, and recessions, I have been accepted for publication a good few more times than I have actually been published.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
David: Have I had any rejections? Forgive my winsome smile… Oh yes. Ohhh yes. Oh yes indeed… One or two. Hundred. While I can honestly say that a rejection has never particularly bothered me (you hear stories of those who spend half the week following a rejection in a state of apoplexy or despondency, wondering where it all went wrong, but that sort of introspection has never been me), I obviously do not enjoy them any more than anyone else does. I basically say ‘Sod it’ and try again somewhere else. If you happen to be someone with a thin skin, you’re probably going to get hurt in this industry, somewhere along the line. But what do you do? You can’t help having thin skin, of course.
Morgen: But hopefully it grows thicker (now there’s a horror story – feel free to pinch it!). What are you working on at the moment / next?
David: I’ve just finished Residua, a 10,000 word novella that will appear in The HA of HA, an anthology that will be edited by D.F. Lewis, later in 2011. Slightly earlier than that I completed a 280,000 word novel called The Parry and the Lunge, which is with a publisher for consideration as I write. So I’m doing a few tweaks on those. While juggling a couple of projects as I usually do, the next novel that I’ll complete is currently called Ventriloquists. It’s a somewhat surreal tale of kidnapping, urban anxiety… and adventure on the high seas. It’s hard to say how much I’ve done because I write first drafts in longhand (fountain pen, hardback A4 notebook), but it feels like about 30,000 words that I’ve done. So about a third of the way done. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this interview, I’m also working on some papers about bullying on the Internet, and anxiety and things like that.
Morgen: You did; second question. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
David: I write every day except Christmas Day. Not necessarily a great deal (it depends on how easy or difficult things are at that point), but something gets done: usually using a fountain pen and a hardback A4 notebook. I type things up later on, generally. The most I’ve ever done in a day is about 6,000 words a day for two weeks when I was on the concluding part of O My Days. When I was finishing The Parry and the Lunge it was about 4,000 words most days (handwritten). Generally speaking, I’m much faster as I approach the final straight.
Morgen: Wow. That’s good going. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
David: I’m happy and relieved to say that I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. This might be because I tend to have four or five projects in development at any one time. Sometimes more. The moment I get a bit stuck on something, I can move to something else, painlessly, and harmlessly to either of the projects. It keeps the work fresh; it forces you to climb up or down a gear – I’m all for challenges that one sets oneself as a writer – and although it means that each particular thing takes slightly longer to finish than you had planned, it also means that you tend to finish four or five things at approximately the same time. That said, of course there are slow times: there are weeks when it’s not flowing as well as you’d hoped it would; afternoons when you hit the final full stop of what you’d intended to complete before lunch. There are snags. There are problems. There is life stuff, which insists from time to time in getting in the way of all your best laid plans… Recently, when I finished The Parry and the Lunge, I felt as though I wouldn’t write any fiction for a while. The Parry… is a long novel (280,000 words), and it had taken two years to write. At the end of it I felt ‘dry’ of fiction. I wouldn’t have called it then, and I do not call it now, writer’s block; but there seemed to be something unconscious telling something conscious to have a break from it for a while. So I did. Not because I was blocked exactly (I had plenty of energy for other non-fiction matters to deal with) but because it seemed like the right thing to do. Then I read that D.F. Lewis was editing an anthology and I wanted to be in it. So I wrote Residua over the next two months, and it’s been accepted, I’m delighted to say… I suppose what I’m saying is that little spurs along the way are a good thing.
Morgen: You’re not the first to suggest diluting with other projects. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
David: The most enjoyable experiences are the ones where you get an idea… and you’re still chasing that idea six or eight or twelve months down the line. The Parry and the Lunge was like that. It wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through that I realised what it was really ‘about’ – or rather, how I was going to end it – and so I had to go back and perform some minor surgery; but I wouldn’t have changed that spirit of exploration for the world. I have never stuck to a plan rigidly in my life.
Morgen: I try not to. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
David: I suppose so. In the early 90s I wrote a couple of novels, the very first of which I recently unearthed in order to cannibalise a portion of it for something else. Needless to say, I found it execrable! That said, I do like parts of the story of that old thing, which I finished in 1990, when I was a mere slip of a lad… Ha ha. So who knows? If your question is asking if it will ever see the light of day as it currently reads, the answer is no. Not unless a publisher decides to take the wrong medication for a month and comes up with the loopy idea of only publishing execrable drivel (over 600 printed pages). However, I will be using part of that very first manuscript to fuel…
Morgen: I thought you were going to say your ‘lounge fire’ for a second…
David: …another long novel in the near future, so technically, I suppose, the answer to your question is also yes. I wrote three novels in the early 90s – or rather three novel-length manuscripts. These are very much juvenilia. But as I say, perhaps I will open the boxes one day and see if there is anything worth kissing back to life inside them. Even if there is, I suspect it will be some of the plot ideas only; I doubt there’ll be much in terms of character development. Maybe I’ll get lucky with some of the earthiness of the dialogue; we’ll see. I keep meaning to find them and take a peek. What is about my fear of what I’ll find that prevents me from doing so, I wonder. Maybe I should write a psychoanalytic paper about it. Something about the fear of being seen… No, wait a minute: John Steiner’s beaten me to it. But I digress.
Morgen: I’m good at that.
David: That very early stuff was heavily influenced by whoever I was reading at that moment, most regularly Stephen King and early Clive Barker. I was producing the sort of material, my memory insists, that would have featured heavily on the late-lamented, much-missed CrapAuthors website. (I wish that was still around. Did you ever see it?
Morgen: Unfortunately not, no.
David: It was a work of genius. I never did find out who was behind it, lampooning the truly dreadful of the publishing world, with copious examples!) I’m happy to say that I’ve improved a bit since then. Well, I hope so, anyway…
Morgen: With practice. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
David: My favourite aspect is the sense of flight that I get when everything is going well. It is bliss – it’s the best feeling. I can’t really answer the second half of your question. I wouldn’t complain about anything negative at the moment. It’s all going well. If anything, it would be nice to have a bit more energy in the evenings, after dinner, so that I might be able to squeeze out a few more paragraphs, but then again, I’m not twenty-one anymore! In the evening I’ll often watch a drama or read some psychoanalysis for research. Or have a pint of beer in the garden.
Morgen: My weekly trips to the cinema are ‘research’ (actually the only time I sit and do nothing). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
David: Can I borrow Billy Joel’s, please? “Don’t take any shit from anybody.”
Morgen: You certainly can. I feel like a presenter on ‘Desert Island Discs’. What do you like to read? (Which book would you like to take with you on your island – the Bible and Complete Works of Shakespeare are included)
David: I tend to have about ten books on the go at any one time. First I have a set of books by the side of the bed for a read before I sleep, and they vary wildly. At the moment I’m about halfway through Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, having recently finished The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (edited by Jeffrey Masson). But the bed books are usually novels. In recent months there have been William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, J.G. Ballard… any male author with a surname beginning with B, it would seem. I also read Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Who else? Thomas Pynchon, Stephen King, Stephen Gallagher, Martin Amis… Then there are the books that I carry in my case to work, to read on the bus/train (depending on where I’m going). For the journey there I usually read psychoanalysis; for the journey home I usually read fiction. And then there are the books that I have on the go in my study, which are either directly related to some work that I’m doing, or they’re supposed to be! As I say, it’s about ten things at any one time; but I’ll also let something slip past in the fast lane, just for a fun read that I hadn’t expected. Recently I read Air Mail by Terry Ravenscroft in that spirit. Hilarious! A guy I was working with recommended it and it was something light-hearted to break up the difficult and sometimes troubling subject matter that is often covered in psychoanalysis.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
David: Stephen King’s On Writing springs to mind. If you haven’t read it, it’s part-lesson, part-autobiography, part-miscellanea: a wonderful read, as I would have expected from a master storyteller, of course. The problem with a lot of writing-related books, I have gathered, is that they are not (ironically enough) particularly well written. Now it’s fair to say that I am not referring to any recent examples of the genre, but I used to read a few, now and then, about a decade ago. Or start to read them, anyway. To me it seems common sense that if you would like to teach someone how to write, or to help them with the craft of writing in some way, you should yourself, as a teacher, have an excellent command of your subject matter. And that was something that I didn’t often use to see. Perhaps it’s all changed for the better now. I would hope it has. As for writing-related websites… sorry, I can’t really help you there. I don’t look at them. I hope they’re useful to someone, or somebody is wasting a hell of a lot of time and cyber-resources to maintain what is basically a folly.
Morgen: One that springs to mind for me is http://www.jbwb.co.uk (lots of guidelines and market information, although sometimes a bit out of date). In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
David: I live in the south of England, just outside a town called Leighton Buzzard (Bedfordshire). It’s an interesting question you’ve asked because I’ve never considered how the place where I lived might be influential in letting people know about what I’m doing. Influential for other reasons, certainly; but not for the reason in your question… The simple answer is that my location doesn’t really affect much, one way or the other; but it’s got me thinking. If I lived in complete isolation (in a desert, say) would I be disadvantaged in any way (in the context of your question)? These days, everything is connected via the miracle of the world wide web. Even if I lived next door to a volcano, it might be dangerous, but as long as there was an internet connection… Actually, living in an exotic location might make readers more interested in your work. Then again, I’m not aware of many Greenland authors, so possibly I haven’t thought this through properly…
Morgen: I know Leighton Buzzard. I drive past it (as many people do with Northampton) to visit family in Tring. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
David: I’m on a few LinkedIn sites for those who work in writing, editing and/or psychoanalysis. It’s nice to be in the company of like-minded individuals, even those who (unfortunately) seem to be present with the sole agenda of making trouble and arguing that black is white, that two plus two is three. If this kind of cheese-eater wanted to be in your company in a physical sense, you could tell him where to go. For some reason, in an electronic format, we tend to tolerate bad behaviour. When people are playing nice, however, it’s good fun. I wouldn’t say they are ‘invaluable’, but it’s nice to chat things over.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
David: The new novel, O My Days, is out now from Triskaideka Books. Click here for information. Hardcover, paperback or e-book versions available. Paranoid Landscapes orders are here or here or the e-book is here. A happy, informative review is here. Interview with me is here. Selected interviews I’ve done are at Infinity Plus (scroll down a bit). Selected bibliography here. And so on… There’s other stuff, but if anyone gets through that lot and is still interested in learning a bit more, feel free to say hello, either via Linked-In, Facebook, or direct to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
David: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for the platform.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, you’ve been very informative (and entertaining). Thank you.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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