Interview With Author Stephen J. Matlock

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

I’m a writer of various types of stories and outputs. I tend to write short stories, essays, and a few novels (one which is published). I also like to edit the works of others, to help them find the best words and phrasing to say what they want to say and how they want to say it!

I began writing in the fourth grade because my short story for my class got a gold star plus the approval of the teacher. I never looked back! I took a hiatus from writing from my 20s to my 50s, but got involved again a decade ago. NaNoWriMo is a big reason why I started writing more.

My first published book, “Stars in the Texas Sky,” was an ABNA semi-finalist in 2012. I’ve started a few more, but have been spending more time writing short stories and essays, some which have been published in a few more books and collections. I wrote a small prequel to my novel and had that published as a very short novella.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

“Stars” is a semi-biographical re-imaging of my childhood, but pushed back about ten years, and pushed south and east by 1500 miles. My own life was as a sheltered kid in the suburbian sprawl of a mega city; by placing the story in a small town, I was able to constrain the story and the events to those of the early 1950s. I wanted to answer the question that provoked me as a child and still provokes me as an adult: “What do you do when your sense of right and wrong doesn’t fit the laws and customs of your world?” That question was crystalized by a phrase from a writing prompt: “The car ran through the STOP sign as if it wasn’t there.”

That led to a “blink” moment. Indeed, what do you do when you see that people do what they do in spite of laws and customs that tell them not to? What makes someone do one thing, and not another? I tried to develop that question—and the answer I’m satisfied with—in the novel I wrote.

Like my protagonist, I watched a lot and considered a lot as a child. And in developing the book, I discovered things within me that I had forgotten about or maybe even suppressed from my time growing up from a child into an adult. (There were two significant events that I wrote about in the book that, after a year, I figured out that they were connected to the actual events in my life that I’d just hidden away!)

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

Mostly people. I watch people. I watch how people speak and present themselves. I watch how people act, whether when it’s in public or when they don’t really know anyone’s watching. I watch, and I try to figure out their motivations, their pasts, and their dreams. Then I tell their stories as I imagine they might be.

How do you deal with creative block?

I do something else. I read. I listen. I write something not related to my creative outputs. I edit. I go visit my friends and do nothing at all related to my writing.

And I let my mind just work behind the scenes. Often when I return my mind will just present some ideas that were there, but that I wasn’t paying attention to.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Trying to make it perfect the first time. Write the damned stuff, and let it all out—the messy, sprawling thoughts, the contradictions, the mistakes, the things you’re still lying about to yourself. As Betsy Lerner says, write as if your mother is dead—don’t censor your writing to what is safe.

Your final work will not likely be your draft. And that it okay! It’s like having a speech in front of a crowd where you’re attempting to sway or convince or inform versus the chit-chat you have with friends where you just dump all sorts of nonsense.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Sometimes I lift a line from the work that’s significant. More often I try to choose a title that is ambiguous but that takes on new meanings—multiple meanings—after you read the work. My first novel’s title is an example: There are several scenes where the topic of stars come up, but never does a character say the line or all the words—until when it just sets the moment in time and space. Other examples of generating a title that hints at the story are a story about a gentle mortician dealing with the too-soon death of children by social violence (“No Sparrow Falls Unseen”), a young unloved hero who unites her nascent country (“She Who Made the Land Her Home”), a comedy about a screwball gang of jewel thieves (“Ice Capades”), a story of broken people seeking restoration (“Clay Pots”), and a story of memories gone horribly awry (“The Time Flies”).

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I love negative reviews! Love them! I love it when people are invested in the story enough to write what didn’t work, and even what they hated. I’ve written a few things that were edgy and have received feedback that was mostly about how unpleasant the story was and how it made them feel. It gave me ideas on how to revise the story—but I loved that I got such strong reactions. Those reactions mean that they read the story!

Honestly, sometimes people just have opinions, and it is okay to listen, see their point—and stay on your target. A recent story with a deliberately ambiguous ending generated a lot of responses of “But what happened at the end? Who made the ultimate decision?” There are enough clues to suspect two people. But not enough to say which one. It is the ultimate question we are presented with when we are an observer and do not have all the facts. What we choose is very often the result of who we are!

How has your creation process improved over time?

Yes. I know I can write something given a prompt or idea, but I don’t have to sweat it. So I’ll just keep a notebook around and write ideas as they come up, then incorporate them as needed. I’m not under the gun and I don’t have someone who say “You need to be better.” My mind is my creative engine, and we’ll come up with something from my awareness and from all the hidden places with all the secrets!

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

Ugh. I spend way too much time developing backstories and characters. The most common objection to my work is that there are too many characters, and I struggle to kill the darlings. I love that I come up with surprising (to me) stories, where I had no idea what I’d write until the moment when I sit down to write. And I love that I get to write.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

BOTH. But for different values.

I have a story I want to tell. I want to tell that story as clearly and distinctly as possible. I want the people in my stories to live, and their lives to matter—even though they don’t really exist!

And I want my readers to feel my story and my characters. I don’t want to dazzle them. I want to embrace them and have them come into the story with me—to see my characters, to love them or hate them—and to be emotionally moved by their lives. One of the things I’m most proud of is a reader-friend who punched me in the arm after reading one of my works, saying “How could you have killed off [X]?” If I can get readers to feel that passionately, then I’ve done my work as an artist.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

EVERYTHING. I want to feel what I’m writing, and why. Words by themselves are not good enough. Emotions are what connect us to living and beauty and love and truth. That’s what I look for when I write.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Go for a walk. Go ride a bus or train, take a notebook and pen, and just watch. Write your feelings and observations. Let people tell you their stories by what they do and where they go. Those people are real-life stories, and they are the people I want to write my stories about.

What are your plans for future books?

A sequel to my first novel. A murder mystery set in Seattle’s theatre scene. A developed screenplay based upon some of my short scripts.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I’ve never been someone to say “This is my career and life and way.” I just do what’s interesting, and have done a bazillion things in my life because it looked like something I wanted to try. One day I’ll figure out what my job should be, but for right now, I’m just doing what makes sense to me in the moment.

Books and works in print Stars in the Texas Sky (novel) When the Stars First Fell (prequel to “Stars”) River of Dreams: Essays, Short Stories, and Flash Fiction Mountains of the Moon: Thoughts About the Journey Take a Mind Trip: Book a Fantasy – An anthology containing my short story SHE WHO MADE THE LAND HER HOME Only a Mother’s Love (short story mash-up sci-fi/true crime) Clay Pots (short story of broken relationships that would be healed) Essay about whether what we feel is as important as what we think and how we act. A featured story on Medium. Essay about becoming aware of social issues. An Editor’s Pick on Medium.

WebSITE – I write here of whatever interests me. Having my own site means I don’t have to please a publisher or editor. 😉


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