Thursday, January 9, 2020

Interview with Matt Phillips

You Must Have a Death Wish
by David Nemeth

Late last year, I chatted via email with Matt Phillips. I wanted the conversation to focus on writing. Hopefully, we did that.

Nemeth: Your new book "You Must Have a Death Wish" is out of Fahrenheit 13, an imprint of Fahrenheit Press, what's it about?

Phillips: "You Must Have a Death Wish" is about a hustler named Moonie Sykes inadvertently finding his calling as a hit man. You might imagine some of the mistakes a rookie hit man could/might make––let's just say, Moonie has some trouble. The book is also about wealth and power, the trappings of greed, and one's slow realization of mortality. Set in San Diego, the book is a fast read––comedic and violent and addictive all at once.

Nemeth: You received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. How has your MFA experience helped you in your writing and writing career?

Phillips: Yeah––I do have an MFA. I see the degree as a professional credential. It gave me some time to focus on writing and reading as my daily priority. It was valuable in that way. I used to make valiant attempts at writing 'literary drama.' In one of my courses I wrote a chapter of what would become my crime novel, 'Three Kinds of Fool.' My professor at the time––a well-known poet who lives in Paris––basically told me to stop writing the other crap and to focus on crime and noir. She could tell it was what I wanted to write...That conversation helped me a great deal. The MFA also encouraged me to read widely––from Lydia Davis and Eduardo Galeano to Foucault and Barthes and the list goes on...Just encouraged me to read stuff I otherwise wouldn't have read. Besides all that, the MFA has helped in negotiating my day job salary (I currently work in academia) and it has gotten me into some minor teaching gigs. As I publish more books, I think the MFA will––perhaps paradoxically––become more valuable from a career standpoint. In my academic writing I managed to incorporate my love of crime fiction by studying and writing about books like 'Beast in View,' 'Fool's Gold,' 'A Rage in Harlem,' 'Fight Club,' 'The Expendable Man,' and 'Cry, Father.' As I transition to more and more teaching (fingers crossed), I expect to include more contemporary noir/crime in the higher ed curriculum. That's my secret plan, anyway.

Nemeth: Can you give me an overview of your daily (or weekly) writing schedule?

Phillips: Well, I work at the day job after dropping my son at daycare. Rush home after work and play cars or baseball or ride bikes (whatever he wants me and my wife to do). We get him to bed about eight (god willing) after dinner, etc. Generally I try to write for an hour and a half or two hours after that. Then I'll read for an hour, hour and a half. Might watch a film occasionally. I'll squeeze revision in on the weekends or during lunch breaks. Same with reading––every spare moment, basically. As a parent I've been forced to revise what I consider substantial progress. Some days, 250 words is what I get. Others, I might bang out 1,500. I just try to move the story forward. I'll take sick days or vacation or a weekend to finalize a writing project if I need to. In fact, just took a Friday off to bang out a final novel revision on a rural noir. I take breathers to watch sports or a film now and then. I also do revision while watching sports––a habit I picked up from working in a newsroom. In short, I squeeze my art in wherever/whenever the hell I can. Frankly, I wish I could focus solely on my writing and storytelling––until that day, I just have to grind it out.

Nemeth: When writing a book, are you working towards the end line or do you step back and revise a previous day's work?

Phillips: Great question! I like to revise my work from the day before. This helps me get back into the story and take up where I left off. The best, for me, is to end a day of writing at a chapter's end. But, of course, that doesn't always happen. I like finishing a chapter because it truly measures progress for me––that's a big part of feeling like I am moving towards the finish line. I think to be a writer you have to push yourself to finish projects. If you don't finish, you don't have anything to revise. Nothing to revise? That means you have nothing to submit to a press or agent.

Nemeth: I believe you are a pantser, is this still true? How much of an idea, do you have before you decide that you will begin working on a book? Do you have many false starts?

Phillips: Oh, man. Yeah––I tend to write without an outline. For me, it's about discovering parts of a story as I write. At some point, if I write enough, the ending of a story will kind of emerge. I love that discovery...That said, I have had a lot of false starts. And I have some projects in limbo. Like with any 'method,' writing without an outline has its issues. I think doing the opposite, too, has its issues. Being a writer (or a film director or a musician or a painter) is certainly about craftsmanship and vision––it's also about making decisions and choosing directions. Some writers choose to start with the events of a story (outline). I prefer to start with character exploration and development. I simply care about that more than I do the events of a story. Both things are important, but a writer––I think––has to choose a method that works for them. And, by the way, that doesn't mean I can't change my method in the future. Or right this second, for that matter.

Nemeth: If I understand correctly, before you start writing, you give some thought to your main characters? Their motivation or even backstory?

Know Me From Smoke
Phillips: I'm not certain if I think about them before I start writing. To me, it's like I'm thinking about the character as I begin to write. They're growing as I write and, somewhere along the line, they're fully formed. I think of it like a seduction––the reader should be seduced by a character. They should find themselves caring about the character. That rarely happens with one paragraph of back story, let alone a chapter of back story. I'm not sure if I answered this question very well...Another thing I can say is that many of my characters are composites of people I know or have met. Or, I'll build parts of people I know into unique characters. Stories people tell me are great for injecting into a character's mouth or their personal story/history. Of course, I'll transform those stories into something new. Anyway, that's kind of how I think about and approach characters.

Nemeth: Have you had the chance to read "Story Genius" by Lisa Cron? She writes about the importance of character development before you even start thinking about plot points or even writing. Crone writes, "Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes internally as a result."

Phillips: Never read it, but I agree––largely––with the quote. I'd extend it and say that story is also about how the reader is changed, or not, by the characters and conflicts and worlds they encounter while reading. Story, in general, is actually about telling and archiving our collective human story. No story is simply about itself––each story, to me, is part of our collective journey. Being a writer is an important profession because it represents a responsibility to archive the world, a feeling, a trajectory of logic or illogic, moments of joy or desperation or epic failure. The medium itself helps others enter into these archives. and––I hope––be changed in some meaningful way. And the writer, too, is changed for their work. If there's one book that might help a novelist (or potential novelist) see writing as a calling, it's "Letters to a Young Novelist" by Mario Vargas Llosa. He approaches the novel form in a way that is inclusive of every genre, and he touches on the most important parts of a story, parts that live beyond mechanics. I don't know...Maybe this is all too confusing. I do know this: The super-short story "Borges and I" by Jorge Luis Borges is what I read when I want to be reminded of the importance of this work. Like Borges writes of himself, "It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition."

Nemeth: When do you start sharing your work with other people? What kind of feedback are you looking for during this process?

The Bad Kind of Lucky
Phillips: Man, I'll be completely real here: I rarely, if ever, share my work with others. Back in the day, I used to ask people to look at the work because I wanted to verify it was 'good enough.' I think that fact, in and of itself, says that I wasn't ready. I needed to write more and fail more. At this point, I'm confident enough in my abilities to create what I intend to create. I know there are people out there who have beta readers and the like––I just see that as a whole bunch of admin work. I'm sure it's useful, but it ain't for me. You're better off finding one person you trust and working with them. The first people to see my work are the people I want to publish/edit the book. In my case, that means about three freaking people who I know––based on their work––have an expertise in the genre. I've been incredibly fortunate to work with Chris Rhatigan at All Due Respect Books and Chris Black at Fahrenheit 13. Both those guys have their fingerprints all over my books––seriously. I feel like the initial work, though, is my own unique creation. And that's because I haven't solicited a ton of feedback. Sure, there's some weird shit in my books, and most of it would have been flagged for changing by beta readers. But then my books wouldn't be the unique creations they are. There's one other person I may work with, and that's because I respect the work this person has put out into the world. I'm getting to the point where I'm searching for an agent or a manager, but I'd love to maintain the luxury of free expression as I write new books. It's important to me that my work be unique to me––like my fingerprints on the world.

Nemeth: Lastly, how do you know when you're done with the book?

Phillips: I know it's done when the damn thing hits the shelves! Until then, there's always a chance it'll sit on a hard drive somewhere. As far as drafting, I don't know––its a gut feeling with the ending. Like, I got it right...That's how this ends. And, like I said above, people who know what they're doing can help you get to the true finish line.


Lisa Ciarfella said...
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Lisa Ciarfella said...


Mike JN said...

Wow. Thank you for this. Love his answers.