Author Interview with Patrick Matthews
Get to know Patrick…
Patrick Matthews is a multiple award-winning game designer, a novelist, a newspaper columnist, and a web developer. His first novel, Dragon Run, is a middle grade fantasy adventure, published by Scholastic in March of 2013. For more information, visit his website.
If you were going to spend a year in complete solitude and you could only bring one book, one CD, and one movie, what would they be?
This sounds suspiciously like a Kobayashi Maru scenario, so I’m going to take the traditional approach and cheat. My book would be a blank spiral notebook with a lot of pages (I’m guessing I’m allowed a pencil). My CD would probably be a CD that my wife made for me a while ago. It’s filled with a wide variety of songs (rock, reggae, jazz, and country) from our relationship.
The movie’s the toughest choice. I could see going with Galaxy Quest (“Never give up. Never surrender.”) or the Princess Bride. How To Train Your Dragon has a serious appeal, as well. Probably, though, it would be Serenity. Yes, I’m a browncoat. I admit it.
If you could have a remote control for anything, what would you choose?
I’m good with life the way it is. More control would mean less adventure, and where would the fun be in that?
What one thing annoys you most at a restaurant?
Televisions. I realize this makes me sound like a fud, but when I go out to eat, it’s to spend time with people, not to watch television. I get that televisions have their place. Sports bars and fast food places are great examples. Where I live, though, more and more regular restaurants have started hanging televisions in the corners. It drives me crazy. I have a 9-year old and an 11-year old, and it’s hard for them to ignore a television and focus on the conversation.
What food do you not eat enough of?
Not eat enough of? Vegetables. I’m not sure that’s going to change any time soon. What food do I want more of? Chocolate lava cake. You can always eat more chocolate lava cake.
If you were any animal, what would you be?
I have to admit that I’ve always been fascinated by wolves. I’m not talking about the scary rip-your-throat-out image in movies and fiction, but the reality of them. I read Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat, when I was a child. I’ve been interested in them ever since. Reading about them in the context of Native American folklore has only intrigued me more. One of these days, I’d love to write a book involving wolves, but I don’t yet feel like I could do them justice.
…and I just realized that your question was what animal I would be. I think I’d go with a falcon of some kind, because the allure of flying is just too appealing to pass up.
What irritates you the most in a social situation?
I’m not sure if this exactly answers the question, but I had a truly awkward moment at a gathering earlier this year. I was at a party when a guy I’d never met before introduced his wife to me. “Hey,” he said. “This is my wife. She’s been trying to write a book for three years now. I bet you could help her.” Then he walked away.
The woman and I looked at each other, kind of stunned. Finally, I said, “Actually, it took me longer than three years.”
What do Martians do for fun on Mars?
Hang socks to dry on the Martian Rover, just out of view of its cameras.
If you opened the freezer right now, what would you love to find?
Ice cream Snickers bars. I love those things.
How do you know when a book is finished?
When I think a book is finished, I send it out to five readers, five fresh pairs of eyes that have never seen it before. When I hear back from those five, I examine their feedback. After examining their feedback, I make edits. Hopefully, those edits are small enough, that I’m able to send it to another five. I repeat this cycle until I end up with the whole team agreeing that it’s done.
What impact (good or bad) do you think the media has had on your work?
I’m not sure about its impact on my work, but I definitely see it elsewhere. I think the most important aspect of the media is how it influences people’s expectations and sensitivities. For example, thirty years ago, the idea of seeing a corpse sliced open on a television show would have horrified a lot of people. Now, it’s pretty common.
Those sorts of changes in expectations can lead an author into the trap of thinking that scenes have to be bigger and splashier in order to reach today’s reader. The better technique, I think, is to focus on the tone and experience of the book, so that the reader feels the impact of the scene regardless of what they’ve seen on television.
Rikki Tikki Tavi is a great example. The scenes of the mongoose fighting the snake are absolutely riveting. The reader is completely engaged. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a mongoose and a snake. As a writer, we don’t have to always have the fate of the world hanging in the balance. We don’t have to pile up the dead bodies or write crazy violence. We can be better than that.
There’s a scene in Dragon Run where a character steals clothes and food from some abandoned houses. By today’s standards, that seems minimal. The guy is poor and starving, and the houses are empty. Why not take what he needs? While speaking at schools, though, I’ve had more than a few kids question me about that specific scene. Some have been angry. Others have been wrestling with it, trying to figure out the “good” and the “bad” and decide where they stand.
How would a dictionary define your writing process?
Organic, probably. I start every writing block by editing the previous day’s work. I edit my way through it, and by the time I get to the new stuff, I’m in full-on writing mode and ready to roll. All that editing, though, means that I do a lot of “well, that didn’t work, let me try this.”
When did you know for certain that you wanted to pursue a career in writing? Have you ever questioned that decision?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was twelve, when I realized that a novel is not a one-sided conversation. Sure, the writer puts the words on the paper, but every reader experiences the story differently. It’s an unspoken conversation between two people who have never met, and that has always seemed to me to be the craziest kind of magic.
As far as pursuing a career in writing, though, that didn’t happen until five or six years ago, when I decided to get serious about my writing.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have compared to people who are not creative?
It has been my experience that everyone is creative. Even people who say “I’m not very creative” or “I could never do that” invariably are doing something creative. They just don’t think of it that way. They don’t realize that they’re being creative with the jokes they tell, or the way they raise their kids, or how they make an otherwise dull day interesting. It’s all in perception.
With that in mind, I think that “creative” people are the people who recognize their creativity and focus it on tangible results, like writing a book or designing a game.
It’s easy to look at a book or a painting or a sculpture and say “wow, that’s creative.” It’s not so easy for a person to look at his or her own life and recognize the same level of creativity. It’s worth doing, though.
Do you ever feel that you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?
Nah. I write for kids. There’s no need for me to censor anything, because I’m writing for the audience I want to be writing for. I was at a conference once where a writer told the panel that he wanted to use some inappropriate words in his middle grade book, and he challenged them to tell him why that wasn’t okay. The answer was obvious: if he was using those words, he wasn’t writing for middle grade. The fix was simply to target the book to an older demographic.
I think, generally speaking, that the need to censor arises from a disconnect between the writer and the audience. If you feel like you’re being too constricted, change your audience. There’s an audience for everything. Just find the one that matches your writing.
I did have one person email me a complaint about Dragon Run’s content. The main character in the book believes he was created by dragons. It’s a belief that is challenged on more than one occasion, and the e-mailer said I was encouraging kids to question their creator, and that I shouldn’t do that. Honestly, I was okay with upsetting her. I like the idea that Dragon Run might inspire people to ask more questions about their life.
Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?
Adventure! I adventure wherever and whenever possible. I do new things, go to new places, try to keep my eyes wide open. My creative juices get the most charge out of a mix of excitement and observation. There’s nothing like the rush of a new experience to generate ideas.
What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?
I have four bits of advice. First, write without excuse or pause. Do it every day and don’t apologize for it. Second, share what you write. Find people who appreciate your writing and can give you skilled feedback. Writing in a vacuum is very much like singing in the shower: it always sounds good. Third, honor your work. When you show it to someone, don’t tell them that you didn’t have much time or that it’s not that good. Stand behind what you do. Finally, never throw anything out. Keep it all. You never know when something will be of value.
Who do you consider a literary genius?
Hmm… There are so many answers to this one. Anyone could rattle off the names of famous authors. My list would include names like Mark Twain, Tolkien, Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isaac Asimov, and Andre Norton. Of these, Andre Norton has probably been the biggest influence on me.
Honestly, though, the biggest and most influential literary geniuses in my life have been the folks in my writing groups. Becky Stanborough comes to mind, and not just because she’s an amazing writer. She’s also the one who taught me how to critique. Linda Dunlap, Julie Compton, Geri Throne, Terri Chastain, and Dawn Rosner are all other writers that I work with. Every time I walk away from a meeting, I feel like I’ve just been to a Masters class in craft and technique. I realize that some of these names (maybe even most) won’t mean anything to your readers. Hopefully, though, my point is relevant. We don’t have to look to the heavens for geniuses. Most of the time, they’re working just as hard as we are, and are happy to work with us.
What are the biggest challenges you have had in the realm of your art?
When it comes to writing novels, the biggest challenge is to stay confident in what I’m producing. It’s easy to get consumed with worrying about whether or not something will be published. And if it won’t, the inner dialog goes, then why am I writing it? That’s my biggest inner demon. I don’t do things for the love of process. I have to believe in what I’m creating to stick with it, and when that belief wavers, the craft becomes difficult.
How did you pick your writing genre?
I’m not sure I picked it, so much as it picked me. I think I write for kids because my brain is still very much in kid-mode. I sit on the floor when I watch television. I love root beer floats. When I’m walking up stairs, I can’t help but stomp my feet and try to make a beat with the echo. I love discovering the quirky, funny bits of life, and am completely mystified by the “been there, done that” attitude so many adults get.
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