Welcome to the second edition of Cheri's 20 Questions! My interviewee is the hilarious and amazingly talented Matt Coleman. Welcome! Matt is a writer of crime novels and comedy. His debut mystery, Juggling Kittens, was named a Writer’s Bonebook to watch in January of 2017. Matt is a Crime Writers’ Association member, whose short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, ranging from snooty literary journals like apt to much cooler websites like Shotgun Honey. Prior to the release of his first novel, Matt was a staff writer for The City Life Supplement comedy podcast from 2011 to 2014. His second novel, Graffiti Creek, comes out in 2018 from Pandamoon Publishing. Matt currently lives in Arkansas with his two daughters.
Tell us a little something about what you write: I write mysteries and comedies. Sometimes I mix the two together. Sometimes not. I am a product of the American South, and most of my writing ties back to it in some way. Although my latest novel is a straightforward crime novel and my first to NOT be set in Arkansas, it still stemmed from my roots in a weird sort of way. I use mysteries and humor to process things that have happened to me and to those around me. In this case, I was processing some empathy by way of a crime novel.
Cheri: What is the first book that made you cry?
Matt: Wow. First book that made me cry, huh? Going right for it, then, I see. I feel like I am supposed to say Where the Red Fern Grows, but I’m a tough one to make cry. I can’t remember if that one did it or not. The first one I KNOW made me cry was The End, by Charlie Higson. It is the final book in a series of YA zombie novels. They are all really good, but not sad at all. The book made me cry because it was the last book I read to my oldest daughter. I read to her every night for far too long (she was fourteen when we stopped). My younger daughter had already sort of tired of it, but the oldest was holding on. That was the book when she finally called it. And I cried like a baby.
Cheri: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Matt: It exhausts me, to be honest. I feel emotionally drained after a day of writing. Now, to be clear, the ideas energize me. The feeling of completion energizes me. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” I can appreciate that statement. But I am most energized by the potential. The idea is everything to me. It drives me and becomes an obsession until I can get it down on paper.
Cheri: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Matt: Stop trying so hard. Don’t try to be different. Everyone’s already done that. Just allow yourself to lie back into what you love and do it. Write a book. Stop messing around with experimental forms and weird shit. Just write a damn book, for Christ’s sake. (I would yell at my younger writing self a lot.)
Cheri: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Matt: I think it made me more efficient. I understand the process a little better now. And the validation of publishing gave me the confidence to write what I want to write.
Cheri: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Matt: I’m going to say AutoCrit. It’s an online editing software, and I have sort of fallen in love with it. The monthly subscription is thirty bucks, I think. I sort of cheat and cancel anytime I don’t have anything written. But I have picked it back up each time I finish a first draft, and it is wonderful for self edits. It breaks down readability, word usage, active voice, and a ton of other wonderful shit. I have become a better writer because of the bad habits it has pointed out to me. I can’t say enough about it. Great, great product. (Hear that, AutoCrit? How about a free month, huh? Maybe two?)
Cheri: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Matt: I remember writing a song in the eleventh grade based on The Scarlet Letter. We had some sort of assignment, which I cannot remember, and, for some reason, I decided to complete it in song form. I got up and sang it to the class and everything. I’m sure it was idiotic, but everyone howled with laughter. The teacher actually had me come back to sing it to the class during my senior year. I think it changed the way she gave the assignment. Something about the experience showed me I could make an impact with my writing, even if it was nothing more than a folk song about Hester Prynne.
Cheri: What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Matt: The Festival of Earthly Delights, by Matt Dojny. I loved it, and I don’t feel like it ever got much attention at all. And I’ve talked with Matt online some. Couldn’t find a nicer guy. I really wish he got the attention he deserves.
Cheri: As a writer, what would you say is your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Matt: Paul Lynde.
Cheri: How many published, unpublished, and half-finished books do you have?
Matt: I have two published books (Juggling Kittens and Graffiti Creek). I have an unpublished book, which is the beginning of sort of a cozy mystery series starring a foul-mouthed, boozy, reluctant socialite with Sherlockian powers of observation and plans to turn her small town Junior League charity group into a drug ring. It’s a lot. But I sort of love writing it. I’m to the point where I don’t even care if it ever gets to print. I’m having a blast with it. My first book (unpublished, but first finished) was a young adult novel about a kid who tries to kill himself and fails, by falling into a bush … while dressed like a bush. In the process, he somehow manages to save a small child’s life and be seen by a group of towns members, including the press. So instead of dying, he becomes a local legend and a superhero. It was a little darkly comic for a young adult novel. You know. In hindsight.
Cheri: What does literary success look like to you?
Matt: Honestly, it looks like me being able to continue to publish books and have some people actually want to read them. I’m not big on awards or fortune and fame. I’m not saying I would turn any of it down, but it isn’t some sort of requirement for me to feel successful. I want to write. Period. As long as the business is giving me a venue to write, I’m happy. I hope to continue to work with my current publisher. I don’t mean this as a knock on self-published authors (I love self-published authors), but for me, I like being with a publisher.
Cheri: What do you feel is the best way to market your books?
Matt: That’s the million dollar question, right? I think the best way to market is to make meaningful connections in the world, which sounds lame, but it’s true, I think. The best pushes I’ve gotten have come from people I can now consider friends. I have connected with them in some sort of non-selfish way (not selfless, necessarily … just not in an effort to sell books … I chatted with them or found common ground or interviewed them or something). The writer community is non-competitive and always willing to help fellow writers. I think the missing link for indie writers is making the one big connection with indie book sellers. I know the connection exists, but I think it could be much, much stronger. I was in two indie bookstores in Chicago last week and while one had shelves full of indie titles, the other had mostly big publisher titles. There’s a missed opportunity for both parties there. The indie bookstore customer is exactly the type to welcome unheralded books. Let’s be honest, if I want a major title, I can get it from anywhere. Walmart probably has it. But if I’m in an indie bookstore, I expect to find something new. Something I haven’t seen or heard about.
Cheri: What kind of research do you do, and how much time do you typically spend researching before beginning a new book?
Matt: I do it sporadically. It usually just pops up as I’m writing. And I am awful at going down rabbit holes. I will lose hours and full days researching something that started as simply trying to get a pop culture reference correct.
Cheri: How do you select the names for your characters?
Matt: I have started to have a lot more fun with this than I used to. Many of them connect to people in my life. My alter ego in Juggling Kittensis named Ellis Mazer. Ellis was my grandmother’s maiden name. And Mazer was the last name of my favorite professor from college. It’s a name that actually means a lot to me on both accounts. Here lately, I’ve been pulling from Southern influences. Southern names are fun to me. My favorites lately have been Waverly St. Laurent and Macon Georgia Lee Jefferson, the Fourth.
Cheri: Do you hide secrets (or Easter Eggs) in your books for people to find?
Matt: I am starting to. So far, all the Easter Eggs have been only for people who know me. There are characters or moments from my life they will recognize. And they have had a lot of fun finding them. But now I am actually starting to work in call backs to other works, which is a lot of fun.
Cheri: What was your hardest scene to write?
Matt: I just wrote a little about this in a blog post, actually. My Ellis Mazer novels are pretty autobiographical. The mystery part is fiction, but his personal life is mine. Back in 2015 and 2016, I went through a separation and divorce. And last summer my ex-wife committed suicide. So it was a pretty tough stretch of time, personally. And for Ellis, he is going from a happy marriage to a point when cracks are beginning to show. When I got to the first scene where those cracks appear in the second Ellis Mazer novel, I couldn’t write it. Just couldn’t do it. I am just now going back to it and working my way through it. But it’s tough. Cathartic. But tough.
Cheri: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Matt: Self doubt. When I finish a book, I move right on to the next idea. And my ideas are pretty different … gritty Southern hillbilly noir and then an urban action-chase-crime novel and then a cozy mystery. They are different enough to always make me feel like the one I am working on is wonderful and the one I just finished is hot garbage. It takes a while for me to work my way back around to loving what I wrote as much as what I’m writing.
Cheri: How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
Matt: Once I get focused, I can usually finish one in about four or five months. I do need mental breaks, though, between projects. So two a year is the most I can do.
Cheri: What is your favourite childhood book?
Matt: Where the Wild Things Arealways and forever.
Cheri: Where/when do you find yourself most inspired?
Matt: I catch the most feelings for an idea in the car. Music really gets me in the right headspace with an idea. Tonight, for example, I had been rolling an idea around for a while (months), but it wasn’t until “Guilty Party,” by The National came on in the car tonight when it all clicked. Something about the mood and feel of the song meshed with where I was trying to take an idea, and it all fell into place. I will probably start on it tomorrow.
Cheri: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Matt: My favorite advice continues to be “write a story only you can tell.” I love that. And I don’t take it to mean we can’t place ourselves in other lives, other lands, other times. I think we simply need to make the story so much our own that no one else could ever tell it the way we can.
Cheri: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Matt; it's been a pleasure having you! Next month the wonderful Benny Sims will be joining us, so stay tuned!
Award winning historical romance author, wife, and stay-at-home mom of four. Chocoholic, nerd, & bath bomb enthusiast.