Interview with author Matthew Thyer
Posted February 18, 2014on:
It was just about a month ago that I met author Matthew Thyer at Confusion. We hit it off, he sent me home with a copy of his new novella The Big Red Buckle (review will be posted later this week), and we’ve been emailing and tweeting back and forth a bit since them. After some initial confusion on my part, we ended up trading interviews. You can learn more about Matt by following him on twitter, or checking out his blog, Feet For Brains, where he talks about writing, publishing, technology, traveling the world, parenting, and more. He’s a pretty cool guy, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again at ConText later this year.
In our extensive interview, we talk publishing, sports, influential authors, NaNoWriMo, getting into science fiction, and more!
LRR: The Big Red Buckle is a novella in the scifi subgenre of “sports in space”. How did you come to the decision to make sports a large part of the story?
MT: It was not so much a decision as a happy circumstance. The Big Red Buckle was a short story I took to a critique group for fun. I am a huge fan of endurance sports, and I had written this piece because I could not shake the idea. The critique group liked it, way more than I had expected anyone would, they gave me some feedback and I went home and let it mature. Soon it had doubled, then tripled in size and the concept, “sports in space”, seemed like more and more like a series.
In the days before NaNoWriMo I was doing a great deal of preparation work for a novel idea and in tandem with that I finished the first one and outlined three more stories in the “sports in space” series. All the stories are based on sports I enjoy, but they were also world building exercises.
Why sports? Well, think about all the hubbub that we just lived through. Another Super Bowl is done and gone. High enough anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere it’s hockey and the Stanley Cup that are celebrated with equal vigor. Europe and South America have soccer. Sport is a huge part of any contemporary human society.
If fiction is supposed to be a mirror for self observation than this particular sub-genre seems underrepresented. With the series, I hoped to address a couple of issues. With The Big Red Buckle, in particular, what happens to sports that have a money problem (see Professional Bicycle Racing). I wanted to juxtapose athletes with elite levels of funding next to the people who compete because they love the activity. Book two, Up Slope, is more about a sport that is used as a utility, how it affects us mentally and physically, and becomes a part of our lives which can bridge functional gaps. How a sport, especially in a non-professional setting, makes better people.
Books three and four, will have similar thought experiments going within them.
LRR: What’s the quick elevator pitch for The Big Red Buckle? The novella feels like it’s part of something much larger. Do you have plans to write further with these characters?
MT: The Big Red Buckle is a fast paced, high energy, story of the 2111 Grand Martian Traverse – an endurance race where competitors cross 1,500 kilometers of terraformed Mars on foot and soaring foot launched gliders.
Anyone who enjoys a good competition or sportsmanship should love this book.
The Big Red Buckle is the first in a series. Each story is designed to be a “single serving” built on the common theme “sports in space”. Right now I have no plans to develop these characters any further, but there are some I particularly enjoyed writing (see Toma Crysta for one) so look for cameos in other stories I write. Who knows?
LRR: We’ve sent some e-mails back and forth, and in one you mentioned that an author acquaintance of yours suggested that you get out of writing science fiction. How did you respond? In a more general sense, what do you think is the best way for us to respond to literary critics who don’t see speculative fiction as “real” literature?
MT: I am grinding gears in my brain right now. Big, important questions. My author acquaintance suggested that I start writing fantasy essentially because he feels it’s trending better. Sells easier. That sort of thing.
I’ve written non-fiction, journaled, reviewed, and even done technical writing in the past. I even dabble in some of this today. But, the stuff I look forward to writing is the story telling. And that sentiment plays a significant role in my response to any of these sorts of criticisms.
Edward Abbey once answered a similar interview question “What is your role?” in the following way:
I see myself as an entertainer. I’m trying to write good books – make people laugh, make them cry, provoke them, make them angry, make them think if possible. Get a reaction.
In my mind, that’s the story-teller’s role and that’s what I endeavor to do. I know that there are readers out there who will both love and hate the things I have to write, but ultimately, I’m not concerned with the ones who feel it’s necessary to tear my stories down to elevate their own self image.
Did William Shakespeare write because he wanted his work to be “important” or “real” literature? Hell no! He wrote because he wanted to tell some stories, make a little dough, and have some fun. He was a professional bull-shitter who only later became recognized as an example of literary excellence.
LRR: Who are some of your favorite writers? How did you get started reading science fiction?
MT: Well I could write a book on this one, but I’ll try and keep it blog length. I read broadly, across genres, but within SciFi I love the people who play hardball.
Pretty much anything by Kim Stanley Robinson, but in particular, his Science in the Capital trilogy. I enjoy his narrative style and the fact that he builds stories that are optimistic. That’s refreshing and I think ultimately it is much more difficult to do.
And then there Lois McMaster Bujold, specifically her Vorkosigan series. She spins a compelling, human tale. Makes me laugh, cry and on occasion think. Her universe is vast, and her stories are human.
Not a science fiction author, but someone who I admire a great deal is Edward Abbey. I read his Monkey Wrench duet when I was much younger and followed those up with Fire on the Mountain and a bunch of his autobiographical work. I can see myself in a lot of that writing too. I can see the land scape of his stories, can visualize them intimately in my mind’s eye. I have carried those descriptions with me and they have informed my appreciation of the world and its inhabitants.
I found scifi when I was a kid. Like most kids who get hooked, I got my first taste when my Dad left some scifi paraphernalia out in plain sight.
I got hooked on Frank Herbert’s Dune and then read all the way through to Dune: Chapter House. From there I hit the hard stuff — Le Guin, Asimov, Heinlein, Harry Harrison and so on — there have been few books I’ve picked up and felt like putting down. It’s true, I’ve taken the first step and will acknowledge, I’m an addict.
LRR: You’ve gone the indie route for publishing. What advantages have you found with indie publishing? What disadvantages?
MT: First and best advantage, I get to do everything. When I write something it is completely mine, start to finish, top to bottom. If and editor tells me to change something I like, I can say “To hell with him” and find a new editor. If I want to mix my genres, I can toss them in the cocktail shaker and start to jiggle. Cover art, imprint, promotion, yeah it’s all up to me and so regularly I get to experiment and figure out what works best for me. I am not at all concerned with what is trending, the latest SFWA melodrama, or selling what I know are good ideas to a print house.
The primary and worst disadvantage? I have to do everything. I am not infallible, and because I make mistakes I am constantly attempting compensate. Risk mitigation is difficult to say the least, because I don’t have piles and piles of cash tucked away, there is no advance.
In a previous life I spent a lot of time planning and designing for system resiliency. I’ve found, while self publishing, that those skills are useful, but they are no guarantee of success. Margins are really tight at the moment, and sometimes so is my hope. But I like this work, it feels like my earthworm.
LRR: We met at Confusion, a scifi-fantasy convention in Michigan, It was wonderful meeting you there and I hope you had a good time. What was your favorite part of Confusion, and to steal one of your interview questions, why do you think attending conventions is important?
MT: Likewise, I really enjoy that moment of kismet when two people meet and are fast friends. Walking into ConFusion I quickly realized I was surrounded by potential friends and many, many people with similar interests and tastes. That is my favorite part of ConFusion. Meeting amazingly talented, intelligent, motivated people and realizing that “Hey, we’re friends.”
I went to ConFusion because I wanted to learn more about conventions. The last time I went to a convention I was about twenty and played Axis and Allies and Magic the Gathering the entire time. Magic was a brand new game, and I was playing an all Alpha deck (which dates me a little I know). But I also payed very little attention to anyone other than my opponents (who were almost universally clueless, post-adolescent males my mirror image).
So, since those days, I’ve grown up just enough to realize that I don’t know everything and am not the center of the universe. My goal was to set up an objective rally point from which to gather intelligence. The writing is not
the hard part of being an author, at least for me it’s not, it is the business side of the affair. Being able to ask questions of people I admire and respect, or for that matter, just being able to hear them speak on topics that are also important to me, I knew, would make a huge difference in a very short period of time.
So I spent a lot of time trying to blend in and listen from the shadows. But I was also surprised and delighted to feel included. Hanging out with an amazing crowd of authors, friends, and fans felt really wonderful.
LRR: To steal another one of your questions, what other conventions do you plan to attend this year?
MT: I am going back to ConFusion in 2015. But this year I may go to DetCon1 and NorWesCon. I am booked for ConText in Ohio, Emerald City ComiCon in Seattle, GeekFan Expo back in Detroit, and World Fantasy Convention in Washington, DC.
Of course, I’d love to fly off to London for WorldCon — I’ve heard it is a real experience — but unless someone drops a pile of money in my lap I fear it’s not in the budget this year. Maybe Spokane in ’15?
LRR: I’m very in awe of writers because they find time to write, and they can do it in a focused way! Tell me a little about the how’s and when’s of your writing. Do you listen to music while writing? Do you find you prefer to write at a certain time of day?
MT: I am also a stay at home Dad to a three year old, so having a regular, predictable schedule is a critical component of my day-to-day affairs. Up until recently, I would get about two hours on weekday mornings by going to the North Boulder Recreation Center. I could drop my son off at the day care and then write my fingers off in the lobby. During that time I would often plug into music, or, more likely, I would use a white noise application called Coffitivity (http://coffitivity.com/) because there were often lots of outside noises and distractions I’d need to overcome. Sometimes in the afternoons I can grab an hour, and any time after bed time is fair game, as long as I have the energy.
My wife just accepted a new job and we’re moving to the east coast so things are a little chaotic at the moment. I’m still averaging about 1,000 words a day, but I really need to work at making it happen right now. Our schedule has become wackadoodle. So, much like my youngest, I’m really looking forward to settling back down and recovering a pattern. Word counts will soar and the world will once again be flowers and spring time.
LRR: You recently mentioned on your blog that you’re toying with a fantasy story. Care to share?
MT: I started outlining just the other night. The story will follow a “medicine man”, living in a war torn land (think World War I). He will be based loosely on the life of Gerhard Domagk (the inventor of Prontosil, and a hero of mine). War is war, people get hurt, people die. And people will always work to stop that from happening if at all possible. But, in this place, instead of using science to get things done, magic is the agent of social change. And my Domagk-like character will seek a cure to what ails humanity by pulling those sorts of strings. In this story I want to build a rational system of magic which seeks to understand cause and agency.
And which is leveraged, much like science and echnology, to better control human destiny. It should be fun to write, I hope it is enjoyable to read.
LRR: do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Is it something you suggest for writers? What other activities would you suggest for writers who are honing their craft?
MT: I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013 for the first time. Several other writers in the Denver based critique group I frequented made the suggestion and encouraged me to do it.
It was a good thing for me. I earned all the badges. And I learned that I’m capable of writing a whole lot more than I had previously thought possible. November 2013 taught me to write fast, barf it all out, and get draft one done. And if you’re not already there, as a writer, a November pounding out 50k words will drill this into you.
Honestly, I was hoping for a more social experience than I found. I went to a couple of write-ins, but I was too busy writing to socialize. The Twitter word sprints were nice too, but they’re not very social either. I was always too busy writing to have a conversation with any one. Which, in hind sight, is a stinker (but, that’s what conventions are for).
For more information Matt Thyer, check out his blog and his twitter feed. And keep your eye out for my review of The Big Red Buckle, coming later this week. Already interested? Here’s the Amazon link for the book. Something that Matt didn’t mention about indie publishing? He has control over Amazon pricing! The Big Red Buckle is on sale for 99 cents this week.