Author in Focus: Matt Spencer
I am back with another author who has won me over with his story-telling skills. Known for The Deschembine Trilogy, Matt has aced writing this genre with his brilliant and engaging story-telling skills. Here is a short conversation that I had with Matt sometime back. I hope you find it not only interesting but also helpful.
If I ask you to draw a character sketch for Matt Spencer, which adjectives would you use and why?
Adventuresome, irreverent, restless, cranky, kind, cruel, tired, scarred, stunted, resilient, frustrated, idealistic, cynical, brazen, strong and brave and honourable and loyal, craven and opportunistic, self-defeating, ambitious, confused, overly generous, selfish, self-contradictory. Why? Because life is a weird fuckin’ roller-coaster that brings out the best and the worst in all of us. We’re all fluid creatures, and we’re all many things on a year-to-year, day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment ever-shifting basis, and whatever doesn’t kill you just makes you weirder and harder to figure out, usually most of all to yourself.
What is the only quality that makes you eccentric?
What qualities don’t make me eccentric might be a shorter list. I’m snarky and quirky, with a flair for the theatrical. I have a deeply twisted sense of humour, wherein a lot of truth is said in jest. How well that goes over varies depending on what company I’m in. You could have generously described younger-me as a lot more, well, unpredictable, though I’ve mellowed out considerably over the last six years or so. That’s both a good thing and kind of depressing because getting older sucks.
Are there any set of rules that you follow when writing a book?
Basically, my number one goal is always to spin a good yarn, which to my mind is a well-paced tale propelled by dynamic characters dealing with palpable, engaging stakes that keep things in motion. Ideally, I want the characters who drive the story to come alive on the page, in a way that the reader will feel a strong, relatable, visceral personal connection with, that gets them emotionally invested and keeps them turning the pages. That doesn’t even necessarily mean make the reader like a given point-of-view character, let alone approve of what the character is doing. The reader just has to get the character, to find them compelling, so they want to see what this crazy bitch or bastard does next, or what’s gonna happen to them next. I know I’m regurgitating some Storytelling 101 shit here, but it all comes down to how a good story is driven by compelling conflict. Someone has a goal they want to accomplish, whether proactive or reactive, and they face difficulty trying to achieve it.
What are you working on currently? Can you share some details with the readers?
I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a book that’s a distant sequel to The Deschembine Trilogy, picking up several thousand years after where the parts set in old Deschemb in The Blazing Chief left off. The world has been shattered and started to rebuild itself anew, and our heroes and villains from that story have lived on in hazy unreliable narratives as this new world’s mythological figures. New Deschemb is in the early stages of a new Age of Discovery/their version of the Renaissance, though this has also unleashed new supernatural threats across the lands. The story revolves around the contentious friendship between this boy and girl who were childhood friends, from two different social classes, where they first bonded as children over their shared love of that world’s mythology. Then he grew up to strike out and see the world and became this swashbuckling pirate adventurer sort of guy, while she grew up to be a High Priest now wielding a lot of political power and influence over the region where they both grew up, and now he’s come home, needing her help with some things, and they come into conflict with each other, over their drastically different world views, all while there are these much larger threats rising around them. So you have these two strong personalities clashing, both heroic in their own ways, but also both deeply damaged with a lot of skeletons in their closets, polar opposites yet more fundamentally alike than either of them is likely to admit anytime soon. For me, that’s the stuff of both great high melodrama, with all the swordplay and sorcery that those of us who are into that sort of thing can’t get enough of, while also, I think, on some level, universally reflective on the human condition. That’s the sort of shit I live to tap into when spinning a ripping good yarn. And no, trust me, I haven’t given away a damn thing about how that story plays out.
Most of your books are set in a parallel realm. Would it be right to say that somewhere, deep within, you wish that you were a part of an alternate world?
Oh, for sure! On some level, the world of Deschemb is just the natural evolution of daydreams I’ve lived in since I was a kid. Of course, when I really stop to think about it unsentimentally, once you flesh out any imaginative realm of fantasy and adventure like that into a believable world, with relatable, three-dimensional characters with their own conflicts and flaws, etc, it becomes depressingly apparent that their world is just as fucked-up, ugly, and depressing a place to live in for them as our world is for us. It’s just that from where we’re sitting as readers, there the colours are brighter, the spices are more flavorful, the magic and mystery feels more palpable and invigorating, all that kind of thing that makes it great escapism. Also, as an avid martial artist and fencer, an avid student of the artistry of blade-play…yeah, I sometimes daydream of living in a world where via some natural phenomenon, the chemical properties in the air changed so gunpowder suddenly no longer worked, so suddenly everyone was back to walking around wearing rapiers in the streets, where swordfights became the norm again like in an old Dumas novel. Yeah, I know, that would all be a lot messier than it sounds, but the idea still appeals to me, and this is coming from a guy who once got stabbed for real in an actual knife-fight (an experience I wouldn’t recommend), yet I’d still be all for it. Hey, what can I say, I’m a sick, bastard with a violent streak like that.
What is your idea of a writing space? Do you have one? What all elements form the essence of that space?
Basically, a desk with a word processor in front of me, with some headphones in listening to some great tunes, after a couple of beers and a hit or two of weed, where the rest of the world will just leave me the fuck alone for a while so I can get in the zone and let the words happen.
What do you think is the best way to improve your writing skills?
By keeping myself writing consistently, and also reading consistently – and when reading for pleasure, whether or not its in any way akin to the kind of stuff I write, keeping the analytical part of my brain turned on in the background, studying the craft…Like how what I’m reading does or doesn’t work for me, always looking on some level at why and how this or that does or doesn’t work, and how can I keep that in mind when I sit back town with my own craft, to apply it there.
Out of all the books that you have written, which one is your favorite and why?
Changing of the Guards, which is both a standalone adventure novel and a distant prequel to The Deschembine Trilogy. While the trilogy introduced the world of Deschemb through its refugees in our world, this was my first successful go at writing a whole novel set entirely in a world of my own invention. I’d also always kinda wanted to write my own version of a Sergio-Leone-style Spaghetti Western kinda book, and that’s what I think I more or less accomplished with CotG. Except instead of Leone’s Italian-mythologized anachronistic fever-dream of the American frontier Wild West, I just let myself go crazy with my vision of Deschembine frontier “Three-hundred years before the Crimbone”…neither of which, let’s face it, are any more ahistorical/fantastical than the other, when you get right down to it. Anyway, what I ended up falling in love with about that book was the friendship between International Policeman Severen Gris and Bandit Chief Rorkaster – two guys who start off on two opposing sides of a political conflict, come to realize that they both have the same enemy, which is the imperialistic power structure Severen’s been serving, so they come to share a rather beautiful Butch and Sundance kinda buddy-duo love story. It was a book on which I didn’t hold back, let it all get raw, true, and unapologetic. It’s gotten me some impassioned, polarized reviews, but hey, fuck ’em if they can’t take that raw shit, right?
Do you believe in the adage- Love conquers all?
I like to, though I’m far less certain of that than I used to be. Having a marriage fail, then having to basically restart your life, while spending all the painful introspective time taking a good long look at yourself and the relationship, how it all went wrong, how you fucked up so bad and how you let yourself get to the point where that even happened, then going through the long, painful struggle of “How do I learn and grow and go on after this?”, after putting all your emotional eggs in that basket, then taking into account all the ways you were done dirty too, how you lied to yourself while it was happening, so once that’s shattered, you don’t even quite know who you are anymore…All that will sort of put a dent in that kind of hopeless-romantic idealism, y’know? Anyway, I think compassion and empathy can still conquer all if we, as humans in general let ’em, though those things are easier said than done, and a lot of people ain’t as willing to put in the work as they claim to be. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with this myself, but I keep trying. Balancing compassion and empathy with holding your own – setting and holding healthy boundaries, and just plain cutting loose and kicking some ass when you’re backed into a corner (literally and/or figuratively) – is a tough balancing act, but one that’s still worth striving for, in my opinion.
What is the one force that keeps you going?
At this point? Pure spiteful defiance, honestly. Anyone can just go through life as an automaton wage-slave, living life according to reading from whatever script pleases their crowd of choice, and if that works for them, good for them. Dance through life to your own beat, try to do something with it that not just anyone thinks to try – like building a writing career and applying yourself to that discipline, for example – you’ll get all sorts of motherfuckers from every direction wagging fingers at you, trying to mentally beat you into submission for the convenience of their own little by-the-numbers agenda. If you’re passionate about doing something with your life, with what you’re drawn to and good at, you’ve gotta have that piss and vinegar in you that says, “No, fuck you, you ain’t gonna beat me, and I ain’t gonna do what you tell me to do. I’m here for my reasons, not yours.” Anytime I feel like quitting and falling flat on my face, admitting to myself that it’s all pointless and all that shit…I guess I’m just too morbidly curious about what happens next.
Do you have something like a ‘totem’ to tell you time and again which world is real and which is a make-belief one? (Totem- the one that was used in ‘Inception’)
Hahaha, wow, good one! I love that movie, by the way. As to that kind of “reality check” you’re referring to, it’d have to be waking up in the morning, aching from all my accumulated old injuries, especially when it gets cold, particularly my bad knee, reminding me that I’m not in my damn twenties anymore, let alone one of my sword-and-sorcery heroes/antiheroes.
If you could be mentored by a famous author, who would it be?
If I ever get out to East Texas, I’d love to train in martial arts under Joe R Lansdale, in the Dojo he runs out there.
Music or silence: what do you prefer and why?
Depends on my mood. Sometimes I like to throw on either the right film score or a comfortable old favorite album by the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, or Patti Smith, or put together a custom writing mix of my own. Other times, silence just feels right.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
The more the characters come alive in my head, the more they’re likely to hijack the story, which inevitably leads to a better story. Like, Sheldon hijacked The Night and the Land at least twice…first by introducing himself with the rest of Sally’s predatory family, then by not getting killed halfway through, as I’d anticipated he would. The whole story would have turned out drastically different without either of those unexpected occurrences, to where we may well not have been having this interview today.
Where can the readers discover more about you and your books?
You can follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BooksByMattSpencer, or on Twitter at @MattSpencerFSFH, or at my website https://mattspencerauthor.wordpress.com/, which I’m criminally behind on updating. You can find links at all those places by which to subscribe to my mailing list, too.