Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Thomas K. Matthews

       I choose my authors-guests for a variety of reasons. Some for their fame, others for what fascinates me. I also have a list of talented authors that don’t receive much attention. Some are debut authors, others are authors finding their way. Everyone in publishing should do all they can to encourage members of this last group. In their ranks are authors that remind all of the dreams and will necessary to succeed. Some of them will prevail, others will fail, but let no one deny their love of the written word. My guest today will succeed through talent and sheer force of will.

      He doesn’t sit back and wait for success, he’s out there every day promoting his work and helping other authors to refine their craft.

       I read a great deal, for my research as well as for pleasure.  

   To my mind, the books that hit… The authors that impress, hold at least one undeniable trait in common: They have stories that are well thought out and developed, with characters that have both substance and dimension.

   My guest today on The Novel Road comes from the wild and wooly world of self-publishing. His newest book comes out February 1, and is his first foray in traditional publishing. Thomas K. Matthews offers his unique insights on not only that alternative dimension of publishing, but his quest to be recognized and accepted in the conventional publishing world. Tom is an author that refused to give up and now his day may very well be at hand with his new book “Rejection”. He will certainly turn a few industry heads with this story, but more on that in a minute.

  First, a bit about my guest:

  "Tom is a published author, award winning designer, celebrated illustrator and professional communication coach. He has written twelve novels and teach writing workshops, speak at high schools and local colleges as well as lecture for the local Learning Annex on self-publishing. The son of a retired American Literature professor.  Tom has been immersed in the written word since birth. He lives in San Diego, California with my wife and son.

  His first novel, ANCIENT ANGER hit #24 on the bestseller list in 2000 and THE WILDS ( a follow-up) was well reviewed. Both were published POD back when nobody knew what the heck it was. ANCIENT ANGER has been re-leased and is now book one of a series.”

I’m pleased to welcome author and renowned illustrator Thomas K. Matthews to The Novel Road…


Me: So you’re killing off literary agents in your newest novel “Rejection”. How did the story line come about?
Tom: I’d like to say it was because I had an empathic connection with all frustrated writers and felt a story of this evocative nature would be a show of solidarity and help raise the collective hopes of all wordsmiths and give them the vicarious revenge they all wanted, even if just on paper. But that’s not true. I had been harboring a smoldering hostility toward the industry for passing me over for years. Even though I had been trying to kick the door down to the big time publishing party since 1999. In 2009 I was asked to speak to a local literary group at their year-end party. Ironically, many of the attendees were conventionally published authors. They sat in the front row of this 260-person crowd and gave me their full attention. My topic was a motivational diatribe regarding the need to write – no matter what – and the pitfalls of the new publishing market. My message was that the competition was so fierce and the mob crowding the door of the industry so big that you had better be pitching an idea that made the publishing gatekeepers stand up and call you forward. In the sea of hopeful and desperate faces a hand went up.

     "Can you give us an example of what you mean?” he asked.
    My hands had been waving like an incensed Italian, but now I dropped them and rubbed my chin. I told this eager hopeful it had to be something original and edgy that would grab the business by the curly short ones.
   “Like what?” another voice rang out of the crowd.
   “I don’t know,” I said in an exasperated tone. “Write a book about a pissed off writer who starts killing ineffective literary agents!”
   That got me a huge laugh. But then I rubbed my chin again. “Wait,” I said and that stopped the levity. “That’s not a bad idea. If it was handled the right way it could be just enough to get you noticed.”
   And it did. “Rejection” was born. I wrote the rough draft in six weeks and my family knew I was in the zone. When I shared what the new book was about, with my writing group everybody smiled. I am pleased with the results.

Me: Your life as an author has taken you to self-publishing. As your fan base grows, is conventional publishing going to get a chance at your work?
Tom: It has. My current publisher, Otherworld Publications, is a conventional, very small and up and coming future powerhouse in the book world. (We hope.) I self-published Ancient Anger in 1999 and used my advertising background to self promote. Soon I found myself on the Diego bestseller list. I followed that with The Wilds in 2000 and had similar success. So, with local recognition and grand plans for the big time, I had my Scarlett O’Hara moment, stood on my mountain and declared that with God as my witness I would ever go POD again! I wrote and submitted, wrote some more and submitted some more and the industry just kept saying no. The more they said no the more I was driven to make them eventually say yes. I came so close many times, always to have acceptance pulled back at the last minute. Now I am grateful to have Otherworld in my corner and they seem to be as excited as I am.
   I must admit it is odd to have “Rejection” be the book that made the conventional publishing world finally take notice. And given what the book is about, it also seems ironic that despite some conventional publishing success, I currently don’t have an agent. A few agents have shown serious interest, and a couple are waiting in the wings to see what will happen with “Rejection.” The mere fact they are unwilling to take a chance makes me wonder what the characters in my book would think of them. Maybe finding the right agent is a bit like falling in love. Perhaps I should stop trying so hard and just let it happen.

Me: “Rejection” has a host of characters that arc outside common tracks. Drake is thoroughly flawed, yet scratches back to credibility with his fellow characters in the end. Did you ever worry you dug Drake too deep a character hole to dig himself out?
Tom: As I wrote “Rejection” I knew Drake would take a journey that would bring him full circle. It was always my intention to make him an anti-hero and then eventually give him redemption, although initially I wasn’t sure how that would happen. Before I start a book I have a rough outline in mind and I spend hours thinking about the plot. Then while I am writing I let the course of the characters take care of itself, or maybe I’m lucky the way the story wraps itself up. It seems to be a pattern in all the novels I have written. In “Ancient Anger” I wove a story that some readers told me they were afraid I could never bring together without selling out the story. But it always works out in the end.
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   I’ve been a storyteller all my life, so perhaps I’ve developed a knack for weaving highly involved tales, and then making sense of them in a way that others find convincing. I know it worked in high school and into my adult life. Face it, a mystery or thriller writer is a pathological liar who puts deceptions on paper and calls it fiction.
   As for Drake’s redemption, I did not want him to walk off with an American flag waving behind him. “Rejection” is a commentary about deep desires to succeed, as well as the state of the industry as agents and publishers search for the “sure thing.” The book ends with blatant moral and ethical ambiguity that becomes an almost disgraceful display of happiness. Yes, we are happy for Drake but at what cost? When the curtain drops there is no reflection or moment of silence for the victims, even though the other characters would not have benefited without their deaths. Don’t misunderstand, I love Lou Drake. I am him in many ways. My own desire to succeed is reflected in this book as it became the one that got “them” to say yes.
Me: A graphic artist of considerable reputation, when did the writing bug bit you?
Tom: I was always a writer. When I was a kid I was known for writing and telling fantastic yarns. But I was also an artist at the same time. They say there is only one thing more worthless than a writer, and that’s an artist. But when the day came for me to throw my high school grad hat in the air I had a talk with both my mentors. Mrs. Larson said I should write while Mr. Savage said I should draw. I looked at both and knew how hard it was to make it as a writer, so I went to The Art Center College of Design. I was an art director for years and then opened my own shop. I had great success, created some iconic images and earned the respect of the business. But the writer in me was always waiting for that moment in my life when I would look at the track I was on and want to run screaming.
   In 1996 I had a life altering experience and I had to make some serious changes. With those changes I allowed the writer out of the cage and he wanted my attention. I fought the urge for about eighteen months and then finally gave in. Alone in my office I began pounding the keys with lunatic abandon and wrote total and unadulterated trash. It felt damn good. I told my wife I was going to write a novel and she said, “As long as you don’t become one of those unshaven, beret wearing idiots who sits in Starbucks and taps away on a laptop. And as long as it doesn’t interfere with your ability to earn a living.” So I drew for money and wrote for passion. My first novel was worthless but great practice. Then came “Ancient Anger” and I received some feedback that added fuel to my desire to never stop writing. John Austin of the Book Club Radio Show said it was the best adventure novel he had read in twenty-five years, and the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Maine said it was best book on the Mayan culture he had ever read, even though it was fiction. “The Wilds” became my first mystery and I haven’t looked back.

Me: You get to have lunch with any author, throughout literary history to present.  Who would it be, and why?
Tom: That’s easy. I would love to sit and dine with Ray Bradbury. At the age of ten I read “The Martian Chronicles” and followed it with “The Best of Bradbury,” his collection of short stories. I was mesmerized by his voice, his descriptions and the way he could take something ordinary and make it extraordinary. After I read “Dandelion Wine” I wrote my first short story and showed it to my fifth grade teacher. He didn’t believe I wrote it. That hooked me. So yes, Ray Bradbury.
Product Details   I would love to spend a long lunch and just pick his brain, have him read some of my short stories and poetry. I would hope that he recognized his influence on me. I write poetry just for me – and my wife, of course. I try to inject a wondrous sense of the flowery but without being trite. I learned that from Ray. I would hope in our time together he would be as humble and deep as I have always suspected, and his sheer presence would somehow infect me with his genius.
Fahrenheit 451   I did meet Ray Bradbury once at a Learning Annex class he gave and I was star struck. Afterward I said hello, shook his hand and found myself dumbstruck like a twelve-year-old meeting Justin Bieber. He smiled, waved goodbye and when he was gone my mind was flooded with the questions I wanted to ask him. Ray once said, "Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't "try" to do things. You simply "must" do things." He taught me a great deal about how to write.

Me: This question courtesy of Jeff Hall: "I'm a short story-ist.  Writing a novel is a like a crazy long marathon, only harder.  How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a lengthy word journey?"
Tom: Oh man, what a question. Before I answer I want to share that I’ve taught a writing class once a month at our local big bookstore. The gathering is from seven to eight, free of charge, and I’ve had a pretty good showing each month. The biggest problem most of these people have is when the novelty and excitement of their latest epic wears off and they lose interest. One of my guys said he started thirty novels, but did not finish a single one.
     So how do I survive a lengthy writing journey? In a sense, I do it by writing short stories. I love them. They are fast, furious and fun. There is instant resolution and I can write one in an afternoon. I have dozens of them. To me a novel is a series of short stories I call chapters that string themselves together. I have been accused of being a “cliff hanger” chapter writer, and it’s true. I make sure each chapter has a beginning, a middle and an end. Each one tells a small story within the collection that is the novel. My passion and my drive comes from creating these characters, taking them on a journey and then doing whatever I’m going to do to them - even if it’s killing them off. They are all important and each of their stories helps complete the novel. So I guess I am really a serial short story writer who marries them together in a twisted and interconnected action line so the reader sees them as a single experience. That way I never lose my focus or my passion. Besides, the way I write I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Me: The publishing industry in going through an evolution. How are these changes affecting you? Share your thoughts on what you think the future holds for authors.
Tom: The publishing industry is having an evolutionary upheaval the likes of the special effects in John Carpenter’s “The Thing!” These changes have been a blessing and a curse. It started for me with my first books coming out through Print On Demand. That same technology made it possible for my current publisher to start their company and offer more writers a conventional platform. The Internet gives me a platform for marketing that never existed before and the same community allows me to sell without being in the bookstores.
   Ironically that change has also made it easier for many authors to get their work in front of the masses. E-books have removed the blocks that used to keep many authors from ever publishing, and that is not always a good thing. Sites that offer a “we print anything” option have flooded the market with poorly written, badly edited and absolutely atrocious novels that would normally have been rejected forever. On the other hand, technology has alleviated the pressure on conventional publishing to make all the decisions about what should and should not be seen in print. It is mind-boggling. Lisa Genova’s novel “Still Alice” first came out through POD after she could not find a publisher willing to take a chance, even though she was the story and an expert in the field of Alzheimer’s. Eventually she sold enough copies that a conventional publisher stepped up. The book went on to win the 2008 Bronte Prize and to debut at number five on the New York Times bestseller list.
The industry’s future is hazy, as it always is when new frontiers are bridged by uncontrolled expansion. We may kill all the literary bison and decimate the global reading market, but in the meantime it is exciting and new.
 REJECTION is a gem.  Smart, snappy, hard-edged and fast-paced, it had me guessing to the end.  A truly enjoyable ride! - Christopher Reich, New York Time best selling author of Rules Of Vengeance.
Me: Talk about life experience. How important is it to an author?
Tom: Life experience is all about good writing. The way I grew up, I had enough fodder for three novels by the time I was ten. Family dynamics, near death experiences and ordinary trauma feed the psyche and the imagination of those of us with a propensity for the written word. Just as “Rejection” was fueled by my own frustration from constant “NO,” my newest book is inspired by my own experiences with the ordinary act of arranging more life insurance. But that is another story. I have taken some strange and dangerous treks down life’s dark corridors. When people read my books they sometimes give me a sideways glance and ask why I understand madness so well, or why I have this understanding of violence and other interesting topics. The answer is easy - I have had a taste of violence and craziness in my life. That doesn’t mean I am dark and scary today, but I have personal knowledge of what drives people to do desperate things.
    Some genres don’t require true life experience to ring true on the printed page. However, I feel to write convincing mystery and fear, the author has to have experienced some of that for their work to ring true - even if just enough to help the writer truly understand it. My characters have life because they are all a reflection of myself, even if just a little bit.

Me: Social Media. Talk about its importance to the modern author’s success.
Tom: Social media, for me, can be summed up in a nutshell. Because of those corridors I made contact with authors like Christopher Reich and Norb Vonnegut, which led to you. Those are contacts that would have been next to impossible if Facebook did not exist. Facebook and twitter have done more for reaching readers than anything else. Social media is just that, very social and very gabby. And that is gold for authors. In the old days you relied on word of mouth and conventional advertising to get the word out.
   You hoped somebody famous mentioned you like President Reagan mentioned Tom Clancy in a fireside chat. A million copies of The Hunt For Red October flew out the door overnight. Then it was the Oprah hope and writers wrote at her, hoping to get that thumbs up. Again, a million copies. Today I can reach all thousand of my Facebook friends with a single comment. Then they talk and the whole thing can spread like a virus. That’s exactly what we want, to go “viral!” A social media comment from a best selling author can spread your title like the bird flu and a tweet can reach millions. Social media is the marketing of the present and the future. But that is not the end of it. Real world contact is still necessary. A well-placed copy in the real world can reach many, many people. I have sold many advance copies of “Rejection” because I handed out advertorial bookmarks and business cards, talked with people in grocery store lines, and was willing to talk to schools about writing. Yes, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo connect, MySpace, and countless other online connections are essential for getting the word out. Having your own, well-linked and interconnected website is critical. Even YouTube! My son is a film major in college and he just finished a professional-grade book trailer for Rejection that will be online within a week. And whenever any of us tosses something like that into the online windstorm, there is always a chance it will go viral and blow itself around the world. That would have been impossible even ten years ago.

Me: How much of a gamble is it to create a new character? Do you get “first novel” release nerves when you unveil a new character?
Tom: It is always a gamble when you release a new protagonist. We writers believe our manifestations are great characters and the public will love them, but some people might find a hulking, brooding ex-sociopath with a propensity for brutality a little intimidating. The trick is to not go so far away from what the readers have come to expect, but also to not re-write the same character with a different name and a better haircut. That’s why we have mentors and editors. I like to write in series so once I have a loveable brute I stick with him for a while. To throw a new brute at your readers asks them to step outside of their comfort zone. I try to earn my readers’ trust by injecting a bit of me into each new hero, so hopefully something about him will turn out to be likeable. Now if I were to go far off path and present readers with a short, fat intellectual with asthma wearing glasses? Yeah, that might flop like a landed fish, but that kind of protagonist is not in my nature so my readers can trust they won’t have him forced upon them. But, yes, there are always jitters. It would be awfully conceited of us to believe the world will love our work simply based on who we think we are. I believe only Stephen King has that level of popularity.

Me: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for your novel “Rejection,” which will be released in February?

Tom: Would you be willing to do anything to get published? What if murder made the writer?
I'd like to thank Thomas K. Matthews for doing this interview and reminding all that perseverance pays off, though Tom's talent may have a bit to do with it...

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