Thursday, March 14, 2024

Tell the best story you can: An interview with Bobby Mathews

Bobby Mathews is a University of Alabama fan, but don't hold that against him.

He won the Derringer Award for Best Long Story with "Negative Tilt," the title track for his new collection. He won awards with the Alabama Media Professionals for his novel, Living the Gimmick, and for his short story, "The Ghost of Buxahatchee Creek."

And, about Mathews's 2023 novel, Magic City Blues, Peter Farris said: "Somewhere at the great poker game in the sky, Donald Westlake, Robert Parker and James Crumley are raising a glass to Magic City Blues."

Now Bobby Mathews is here to chat about that new collection of stories, Negative Tilt.

Steve Weddle
: NEGATIVE TILT, your collection of 28 stories, comes out March 19 from Shotgun Honey. Why these stories? Why now?

Bobby Mathews: Stephen King once wrote that he loved to read Harlan Ellison's short stories because each one was sort of a glimpse into Ellison's art and continued development as a writer — "This is where Harlan is now." That's what NEGATIVE TILT is for me: I look at where I've been, where I currently am, and a glimpse of where I'm going. My hope, of course, is that I'm continuing to grow and learn as I put words on the page.

After the failure of my first novel — a self-published book that I still love despite its many flaws — I stopped attempting to publish and wrote very little for about nine years. In 2020, I sent out a story to a magazine called The Dark City, and it was accepted about three weeks after submission. I placed about thirty stories over the course of the next three-plus years. Many of those stories are included in NEGATIVE TILT, along with some new ones that I hope readers will appreciate.

SW: The title story, "Negative Tilt," features a former newspaper man who now drives a tow truck. Your descriptions of working the tow truck seem very detailed. Have you worked a tow truck before?

BM: I worked for three years or so as an investigator for a repossession company, a sort of advance scout for the tow truck drivers. I'd find the vehicles, assist in tying them down to the truck's boom if I needed — "throwing straps" is the colloquial term — and I'd do the investigative work of field interviews to track down and locate debtors. Like any investigative job, there were long stretches of boredom. But there were also elements of excitement and danger, and the assortment of strange and unusual people I worked with can only be rivaled by the weirdos who gravitate toward newspaper work.

SW: You've used a hotel room as a setting here. What sort of story could be better set in a hotel room than in a home? If there were a submissions call for hotel room stories, what would be obvious? What would you do?

BM: There was a point in my life where I was effectively homeless, and I document some of that in the short story "General Excellence." I would stay in a hot-sheet motel for three nights a week — because I couldn't afford the weekly rate — and crash in my vehicle for a couple of nights before trekking three hours to my ex-girlfriend's apartment, where I would do laundry and try to rest and be "normal' for a day or two before heading back to the job. I drank Faygo sodas because they were cheaper than bottled water or brand-name soft drinks. I ate stuff I could scrounge from leftovers in the office fridge or the cheapest convenience store food I could find. On the job, I was producing the best medium-sized daily sports section in the state, but my personal life was an abject failure. It was a hell of a place to be, and it was unsustainable for long. Those are the kind of details that speak to me, and that's the kind of story I'd submit to a call for hotel/motel room stories.

My experience leads me to believe that hotel room stories are intrinsically about alienation. If you've got a home to go to, a place to land, you're never truly alienated. But once you don't? Anything and everything becomes possible. In that room where there is nothing permanent, it's easy to see how you've hit rock bottom. The choice for a character — and, obviously for me at the time — is whether you choose to stay at rock bottom or choose to rage against the dying of the light. The stories that speak to me the most are ones where the characters long to return to something or to dig their way out to something new.

SW: A review of MAGIC CITY BLUES said: "Some of the best writing is by authors—like Mathews—who have only written a couple of books. Often, by the time authors have written a half-dozen, the sentences start to get bloated and sloppy." Do you think your newspaper experience has contributed to your writing style?

BM: Hemingway famously said "Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time." I didn't get out of it in time. I worked for newspapers for about 20 years, and I still keep a hand in by occasionally writing feature stories and sports coverage for a statewide news organization. The daily writing and editing helps in a couple of ways: First, the job helped me view writing as work and not something that's motivated by a muse or some version of art that I used to have in my head. As a result of having daily deadlines imposed, newspaper writers tend to work very fast and pretty clean, and I produce first drafts that are close to what I want the story to be. But because newspaper work is so fast — and media writing in general has to be even faster now, with immediate publishing to the Web — there is often a tendency to call that first draft good enough. And of course it never really is.

SW: Tell me about a short story you've tried to write but can't.

BM: I started a story a couple of years ago that I titled "The Devil I Knew," drawn from my real-life childhood bully, who was convicted in 1995 for two counts of rape, and is now serving a life sentence in a prison located about 20 minutes from where I live. Considering that we grew up maybe 75 yards away from one another on a dirt road three hours south of here, it feels pretty odd. The idea — a man has been sending his childhood bully postcards from vacation spots around the world in order to stick it to him, a vicious little needling to remind him that he's stuck in prison while life for other people moves on. The story starts when the narrator eventually confronts the bully in person but is now physically safe from him because of the prison security apparatus separating them — not too bad, though it's probably been done by much better writers than me. But what keeps me walking away from the story is that I see the racial power dynamic of a free white man and an incarcerated Black man, and can't unsee it. Maybe I could flip the race of the narrator and the bully and make it work — that feels like the simplest solution — but the simplest solution isn't always the best.

SW: As a reader, what do you want from a short story?

: I want to be entertained, of course, but I also love being surprised by something new. I think about Jordan Harper's story, "My Savage Year" in Southwest Review. It's the best short story I've read in the last five years, at least--maybe longer--and every bit of it is a surprise and a pleasure to read. A weird thing to say about a short story where one character annihilates his family, but there it is nonetheless. I love reading stories where not only is the tale itself terrific, but where you can marvel over the craftsmanship of it. James D.F. Hannah's story, 17-Year Cicadas is also an absolute rocker of a noir story and shows the kinds of things that writers are bringing to the genre now. Paul J. Garth and Hector Acosta had two phenomenal stories in an anthology called The Eviction of Hope. Neither is a mystery story, but both are deeply noir, and they bring something new to mystery/crime genre. I think--hope--many of us are more interested in writing about why someone makes the choices they make rather than paint-by-numbers whodunits.

SW: As a writer, what are your goals in telling a story and how do you know when you've been successful?

BM: When I started writing, my first goal was just to be published, you know? Once you hit that goal a few times, though, your outlook changes to something like "I want to write a good story," or "I want to write a story that's worthy of being included with some of my heroes/influences" or "I want to write a story that blows everyone out of the water." My goal with short stories right now is to pursue the craft in the best way I know how and tell the best story I can. The hope that goes alongside that goal, of course, is that people will find those stories and the tales will resonate with them on some level, whether it's mere entertainment or something on a deeper level. For me to know I'm successful, I need to be able to read the story back and not find holes in it, to know that I've touched on something that I wanted to say or an experience I wanted to share or found an emotional gear that I didn't expect.

SW: Finally, is there a character in one of these stories that you'd like to develop further?

BM: The lead character in "A Little Push" is a hitwoman masquerading as a true crime podcaster in order to get near her target. There's potential there, I think, for a follow-up. Stories or a novel, I'm not sure. I like the idea of this nameless woman immersing herself into a world so fully that she leaves a void with the people around her once she fulfills the contract and does her final disappearing act, and I hope to revisit her character at some point.


From the Publisher

An out-of-work journalist finds a second life ‘stealing cars’; A grad student finds out that theft is easy, but getting away with it is another matter entirely; A long-lost love can’t be rekindled in a remote hotel room, but a long-held ember of anger can be reignited; A tale of murder and mayhem in the Big Easy …

In NEGATIVE TILT: Stories, award-winning author Bobby Mathews shares twenty-eight tales that run the gamut, from a literary punch in the gut to unrequited and lost love to fast-and-hard crime fiction to out-and-out horror that’s hard to turn away from.


“This gripping, wide-ranging collection encompasses backwoods vengeance, Parisian tricksters, a mirror that reflects the crimes of the past, and so much more. Bobby Mathews’ versatility is matched only by the humanity he invests in even his most broken, desperate characters.”

Scott Von Doviak, Edgar Award-nominated author of Lowdown Road and Charlesgate Confidential

“Most crime writers come on hard, like they want to show the world how tough they are. Bobby Mathews is a different kind of cat: in Negative Tilt, he wants to show you how even the worst of us have a vulnerable heart. This insightfulness and empathy make him one of the best writers working today.”

Nick Kolakowski, author of Payback Is Forever and Love & Bullets

“Negative Tilt is more than a collection, it’s a body, sprawled out on the table, open and sensitive and bleeding yet furiously, gloriously, alive. With a reporter’s eye for detail, a barbarian’s taste for chaos, a poet’s sense of soul, and a conman’s mastery for turns of phrase, Bobby Mathews announces himself as a vital voice, not just to crime fiction, but also as an heir to Portis, Woodrell, and Hiaasen.”

Paul J. Garth, author of The Low White Plain

1 comment:

Sarah Bewley said...

I have pre-ordered this book because after reading MAGIC CITY BLUES, I've decided Bobby Matthews is a writer I need to know better. I will also say, he does a wonderful job moderating panels. I saw him be a last-minute substitute at Bouchercon in 2023, and he was wonderful.