An Interview with Matthew Quinn Martin, Author of NIGHTLIFE
Ah, the fall season is here! With the days getting shorter and the chill in the air, October is the perfect month to check out some horror novels and other scary fiction. If you happened to catch our review yesterday, you’ll know that we here at the BiblioSanctum had the great honor and pleasure of reading Nightlife, the horror urban fantasy novel from debut author Matthew Quinn Martin.
But that’s not all! Matthew was also kind enough to stop by for an interview, giving us an opportunity to ask him about his book and to pick his brain. “Mmmm…brains!” as Matthew likes to say! As you can see, he has a great sense of humor and we had a blast chatting with him, and we hope you’ll enjoy the interview!
Matthew Quinn Martin: Thanks for having me!
Matthew Quinn Martin: I always have a hard time describing my own writing. That might be an artifact left over from refusing to talk about a project when I’m working on it. Or maybe it’s just a dodge. Honestly, your review of Nightlife does a much better job describing it than I ever could…so I’ll just direct people to that.
As for the genesis of the book…I know the idea came to me when I was walking through Grand Central Terminal on my way to one of the many, many, many terrible survival jobs I’ve held over the years. But I don’t remember exactly what sparked it. When I started writing Nightlife I’d thought it would end up being an irreverent “Joss Whedonian” style take on some familiar horror/fantasy tropes that had been all but ground to powder by that point–then the characters showed up and changed that right quick. You can still see some of that irreverence poking through (I think), but the book ended up being much darker than I had anticipated.
BiblioSanctum: Haha, thanks for your kind words about our review! And while we’re still on the topic of the book’s genesis, I’m a visual reader and can see Nightlife playing out very much like a movie in my head. I know some of your past writing achievements include the screenplay Slingshot that was made into a feature film. Did your screenwriting experience play a role in the creation of this novel?
Matthew Quinn Martin: Nightlife actually was a screenplay in it’s earliest incarnation. The last completely original script I wrote in fact (although I have done a few adaptations and collaborative re-writes since then). When I’d started shopping it as a spec script, Hollywood wasn’t terribly interested in anything that didn’t have a pre-awareness factor (comic book, toy line, remake, etc). So I thought “Hey! I’ll just write it as a book…how hard could that be?” Answer: Much harder than I could have imagined. However, I’m glad that Nightlife comes across visually…maybe it’s just in the book’s DNA.
BiblioSactum: What can you tell us about your writing process? Did you learn anything interesting or come across any challenges while writing Nightlife?
Matthew Quinn Martin: In many ways working on this book was my way of “unlearning” most of my screenwriting techniques. I’ve seen a lot of novelists have a hard time making the transition to writing for film. I’d always figured it would be much easier the other way around…boy was I wrong about that. Writing a screenplay and writing a novel are just very different ways of telling a story. With a novel you can get deep into a character’s thoughts and emotions; you can describe physical sensations that you can only allude to when you are working with film’s limited palate of image/sound/dialogue. You don’t have to worry about how much a scene would cost to film, or how the whole thing might play overseas, or how a director’s ego and lack of ability might turn the whole thing into an unwatchable turd. However, with film you can express so much with just a few well chosen images in sequence. You don’t have to worry about balancing POVs because the camera is the only POV. And you can move the action anywhere you want for as short a period of time as you want. Some writers are skilled enough to perform that last feat in their prose…I’m not one of them…yet.
One technique that’s stayed with me, however, is that I still plot everything out on index cards pinned to a cork board (actually two massive cork boards now…novels require more cards than movies). When I have a solid idea of the “shape” of the project, I transfer and expand it to a “structure draft” which is usually about a quarter the length of the finished novel. A lot of writers I know deride this technique as too mathematical…but I like to think of it as musical. And it feels a much like writing to me as when I’m actually laying down the finished prose.
BiblioSanctum: You know, that’s really interesting; I’ve never thought about that before, but now I can see how writing a novel versus a screenplay can be completely different beasts. Going back to the “darkness” you talked about, I like how the book reads like an urban fantasy in some ways, but it’s also infused with an element of horror. There’s a certain appeal in reading books that scare me or creep me out! What about you, are there things that frighten you or give you the chills?
Matthew Quinn Martin: So much of what frightens me is rooted in totally mundane concurs–will I still have a place to live in six months? If I don’t scare up enough work this year will I fall back into the crushing debt I worked so hard to crawl out from under? Is that pain in my left hand the beginning of rheumatoid arthritis? Will the Red Sox ever win another world series in my lifetime? (fingers crossed for this season) I realize that isn’t a particularly sexy answer, but (with the exception of worrying about The Red Sox) I think these are concerns that affect the majority of people out there. Vampires exist in reality, make no mistake, it’s just that a lot of them work at places like Goldman Sachs.
Reading horror and fantasy literature is one of the ways people cope with some of these crippling existential fears. But there is more than one way to approach that as a writer. A lot of the works currently on the shelves deal with characters who have power–power that is often granted rather than earned–who choose to use this power to fight other powerful beings for the sake of those who have little or no power. This “champion” archetype is as old as storytelling itself. It certainly works well, and in the right hands can make for an unbelievably moving piece of writing. Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably my favorite of this type of story (although Herbert swiftly and cannily avoids many of the pitfalls inherent in that archetype in the subsequent Dune novels). I might write a book in that mold someday, but for Nightlife I wanted to take a different approach. I wanted to tell a story about people who are only extraordinary in the way that they chose to act when faced with almost insurmountable terror. That’s why it was important for me to make sure that Beth and Jack were ordinary people living ordinary “lives of quiet desperation” before entering the world of Nightlife.
BiblioSanctum: Horror literature as an escape from the real worries of life–I think that’s actually a great answer. You made mention of vampires though, which is a great opening for our next question. Without giving too much away, tell us a little about the creatures in your book. Why did you choose to write about them, and how did the idea of them evolve?
Matthew Quinn Martin: Simply put, I wanted to make vampires scary again. Not mysterious. Not dangerous but sexy. I wanted to situate them squarely back in the nightmare-scape from which they’d originally spawned–long before there were “rules” about how the vampire was suppose to function in fiction. But at the same time I wanted to keep a lot of the mythos that surrounds them, just find a new way to explain it.
BiblioSanctum: I think you achieved that quite well. Speaking of scary, the book’s characters Jack and Beth go through some pretty traumatic experiences before and during the events of the novel. How do you think those experiences have shaped them? How much have they changed and grown since you first created them?
Matthew Quinn Martin: Most stories are, at their core, a portrayal of how a character is transformed through the crucible of plot. Nightlife is really Beth’s story. She’s the protagonist. She undergoes the most growth and has the biggest arc. And the reader gets to experience all that with her as it happens. It’s all compressed into a rather short period of time and we’ll have to wait and see what the ripple effect of it all is, however. On the other hand, most of Jack’s transformation from when we first meet him in the prologue to what he has become when he reappears in the book’s first act takes place offstage. There are some revelations along the way and some moderate growth on his part toward the end (thanks to Beth), but his arc is a small one.
BiblioSanctum: Tell us a little more about your interest in the horror genre. Who are your favorite horror authors, and are there any books that have influenced you?
Matthew Quinn Martin: Harlan Ellison is a huge influence (maybe my biggest). So is Dean Koontz. The character of Blood (the dog in Nightlife) is a pretty obvious homage to the work of both Ellison and Koontz. The name, Blood, is a nod to Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (which is something that Jack alludes to directly in the text)…but his behavior is probably closer to that of Orson in Koontz’s Fear Nothing. Although it might be hard to see in Nightlife, Flannery O’Connor is also a big influence. Other writers who’ve influenced me (horror and not) include Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Jim Thompson, Donald Fagen, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Day Keene, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac, Walter M. Miller Jr. and many more that I know I’m going to remember just as soon as this interview is over. Stephen King is a writer everyone working in the genre owes a debt to—some more than others, but I pretty comfortably fall into the “more than” category. In fact, Nightlife‘s epigraph is taken directly from King’s Danse Macabre.
BiblioSanctum: So Nightlife is coming out real soon, just in time for Halloween! It was a pretty significant night in the novel. Tell us what your favorite thing is about this most wonderful and awesome of days!
Matthew Quinn Martin: I’m old enough to remember when children still went out trick-or-treating at night and without adult supervision. My neighborhood wasn’t exactly the safest or the most brightly lit. We didn’t have much money and the concept of a bag full of free candy just waiting for me if I went out in the dark to get it–and that I got to play dress up while I was doing it–was almost perverse in its attraction. It was spooky (not to mention dangerous) enough as it was, but that was right around the time the “Satanist’s are putting poison in the Halloween candy and razorblades in the apples” urban legends started circulating. It turned out to be all bullshit, of course, but it was terrifying to a child (and to parents, I’d imagine), so that mixture of wonder and dread will always frame the holiday for me.
These days, though, its all about cider and donuts as far as I’m concerned. I do have many fond memories of dressing up and going out on the town when I was in my 20s. It does seem that a certain DIY quality to the costumes has been lost along the way, swapped in favor of Spirit stores and pre-packaged “Sexy Freddie Kruger” outfits. I realize that I’m sounding cranky now, and will just shut up and wish everyone a happy Halloween…and remind them to beware of the Night Angels.
BiblioSanctum: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! When you’re not writing, what are some of your interests or hobbies you like to do for fun or for relaxing?
Matthew Quinn Martin: I don’t have nearly as much free time as I’d like…you know the old saying “writing is hard way to make an easy living”…it’s very true. But I enjoy music, both listening to it (live or on vinyl…yes, I’m one of those types…a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl snob), and playing it on the various musical instruments littering most rooms in my house.
BiblioSanctum: I noticed that at the end of Nightlife there’s a short line teasing the sequel! At this point, what can you tell us about it? Are there any other future plans or projects on your plate?
Matthew Quinn Martin: I’m superstitious when it comes to talking too much about a work-in-progress. I’m afraid that I’ll promise something that ends up getting dropped along the way. All I can safely tell you is that the title is Nightlife: As the Worm Turns (and I only feel safe about that because that’s already printed on the final page of Nightlife). The title itself comes from Shakespeare, the quote being “The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on” (Henry IV, Pt III). This has a few levels of meaning in the book itself. So far, it’s shaping up to be a darker and more expansive book than Nightlife. As for the future, I’ve got a stand-alone supernatural horror novel in my brain-pan on simmer (along with a dozen or so other half-finished things). And my partner-in-crime and frequent collaborator Libby Cudmore and I have a top-secret project or two that we’ll be unveiling when the time is right.
BiblioSanctum: Wow, we appreciate that great teaser! We’ll be sure to keep an eye out for that, but for now, be sure to check out Matthew Quinn Martin’s new book Nightlife, out October 21, 2013. Thank you once again for joining us, Matthew!