At the start of this year, a chap I follow on Twitter, Matt Dovey, said that one of his things he'd like to do this year that he hadn't done before was be featured in an interview. So asked, so done. I said hey, come visit the blog and tell us about your work. And what intriguing work it is. Matt is a short story writer, with work published in the likes of the short story anthology Sword and Sonnet, and part of the team over at the Podcastle fiction podcast site. He also has a new story up today at Diabolical Plots - you can read that here. But hey, let's hear him tell you all about his work...
Hi Matt, and welcome to Altered Instinct! You’ve had quite a range of short stories published – and I know some authors who say they would struggle to condense a whole idea into a short story; what is it about the short fiction format that you most enjoy?
Thank you for having me!
Short fiction just suits my brain. I am forever being distracted by the next idea. Once my brain gets going on something, it obsesses over it, burns through its fascination with it fast, and then gets bored and wants to move on to the next thing. I'm going to have to fix that one day if I want to write a novel, but basically: short fiction lets me move as fast as my brain's fascinations, both as a reader and a writer.
This is also the only reason I have never yet gotten a tattoo: there's no idea I won't be bored of within six months.
I also think there's something pure about stripping down an idea to its absolute essentials. Short stories require merciless focus on the key moments and primary implications of a story. That allows them to be neat and tidy in a way I find very satisfying, even with an ambiguous ending.
I really loved your story Bone Poet & God over in the Sword and Sonnet anthology last year. For those unfamiliar with it, it tells a story of runic magic carved into bones, and the different factions that seek out such bones – the scavengers and those more respectful, but what I’d love to ask you about is the characters in there. The lead character’s a bear, there’s a family of badgers… what prompted you to make the choice of having animals as the central characters?
Honestly, the initial idea was entirely mercenary. Aidan famously loves bears, Elise ran Shimmer (RIP) for years with its badger motif… it started as little more than a drive to appeal to them both. (The religious aspect was for Rachael.) I suppose calling it "mercenary" is maybe a little facetious and harsh on myself: I needed a starting point to start churning ideas, and "what do the three editors like" seemed as good a set of prompts as any.
At a deeper level, I grew up on the Redwall stories. That was the first fantasy series I really sought out and consumed like it was oxygen, at around 6/7 years old. It was a shared love of Redwall at that age that led to me first meeting my future best man, as it happens (along with a healthy dose of correcting a stranger: "don't you mean Martin the Warrior, not Martian the Warrior?" as he wrote a book report. I have been on-brand my whole life). And, y'know, I live in the depths of the English countryside: I'm seeing owls and pheasants and robins and hedgehogs and badgers and voles and deer on an almost daily basis, and they've all got so much character. I enjoyed doing it so much with Bone Poet that I'm certain I'll pull a similar trick again. There's a half-finished draft of Sir Fuzz-a-Lump the Badger Knight round here somewhere, in fact.
That’s a really good anthology, full of splendid stories – what are the other stories in there that stood out to you and what was it that you loved?
It really was a phenomenal volume. It seemed like such a narrow, specific call, but the range of invention was staggering. I know I'm biased, but it really is worth a read.
Two in particular stood out for me: Dulce et Decorum Est by S L Huang posed a difficult, honest, human question about the nature of violence and war, and how the people we love most of all are still strangers to us in some ways, and how it is sometimes impossible to reconcile all the aspects of a person because we are made of contradictions and illogic. I love that it didn't condescend to offer answers, either: it just let the question echo, and was all the more powerful for it.
The other is This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George which is such an astonishing burst of fun it's impossible not to love it. It has so much energy and invention and goddamn voice. It was rattling around my heart for days. It's like mid-90's Tarantino directing Mass Effect.
I was very struck by a piece you wrote about a story you felt you made a mistake with. Readers of this blog can read more about that at length on your website (and it’s certainly lengthy but a very thoughtful response), but I’ve got a couple of questions about that – first, how hard was it for you to separate any feelings of defensiveness about the story to more openly listen to concerns; and second, it’s been some months now since you reassessed that story, how have your processes changed since then to examine things from other perspectives?
Yeah, that was a learning experience. I was very lucky with that situation, in that I was warned privately over email by a friend just after publication rather than being called out on Twitter, which gave me the space to process and get over that kneejerk defensive reaction in private. I don't know what I did to engender the good will that gave me that grace, but I'll be forever grateful for it.
It doesn't really matter how hard was it for me to get over that defensiveness because it shouldn't be about me. But I will say that the kneejerk defensiveness does not ever help. Getting called out is hard, because it's being presented with evidence that you hurt people. That's a difficult fact to assimilate into your self-image, and you instinctively want to reject it. But your self-image is always, always less important than the harm you caused to others. Even if, in the first flush of the mistake and fallout, you don't agree with what's being said ("I didn't mean it like that!" or whatever excuse your brain has), shut the hell up and listen. Because once you calm down you probably will agree with it, and keeping quiet and taking it all on board is the only way to avoid causing more harm in the moment. Disagreement and argument and denial only increase the hurt. Don't do it. Absorb it and contemplate it first.
Maybe you will turn out to disagree with it, but approach that in a measured way a few days down the line. You need to remove yourself as an individual from the equation as far as possible when responding to harm caused, and that takes time and cooling down. (I want to emphasise that I still absolutely agree with the criticisms I received.)
Processes: I'm ashamed to say that the whole damn thing just proved how much I was one more oblivious, well-meaning mountain of privilege. I thought I was special (don't we all?) and magically empathetic enough to avoid all these mistakes on my own. Turns out I'm not, who'd have guessed? I warrant the same is true for everyone. The world is too complex to understand all its nuances. I've learnt humility the hard way through this.
So I have started engaging with sensitivity readers when I know I'm brushing on topics outside my lane. I've got a forthcoming story at Cast of Wonders this year about a couple of gay teenagers that I sold just before the mess I made last year, and I asked for a hold to be put on it while I got sensitive eyes on it. Said sensitive eyes pointed out some stuff that had gone completely over my head and would have made the whole thing a really bad, entirely unintentional metaphor for AIDS. I'm still nervous about that one coming out, because now I'm more conscious of the potential for harm (and anything bad left in it is still entirely my fault), but it could have been a lot worse. I'm impossibly thankful to my sensitivity readers on that one, and to Marguerite at Cast of Wonders for understanding and accepting my request to pause without hesitation (as well as a few other details she caught later).
In terms of longer fiction, have you got something cooking? Give us a few hints about it – if you can! Side by side with that, what are your goals for publishing this year?
Hahahaha yeeeeeah, about that. I really should get round to that. I still feel like I'm learning too much, like I've got too far to go on my craft before I can dive into that, but… you never learn until you're doing it, right? At some point I'm just going to have to get on with it. There's not anything brewing right now, but it is a direction I want to go in - will go in. It's just finding an idea that can keep me occupied for 4-6 months of first-draft.
The current song of my brain weasels is that I've not yet broken into the really big name magazines - I've got a solid stable of good pro publications, enough that I actually have to look up the number these days (20!), and 2015 Matt would be astonished at my achievements - but it's human to always be looking up at the next ledge, isn't it? I want to be consistently landing at the awards-nominated venues like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex and, of course, the Big Three of F&SF, Asimov's and Analog. The happy news is I just sold a flash to Analog at the back end of last year, The Movement of Other Starfish, so I'm making progress on that count!
What were some of your favourite books to read as a child? Which were the first books you remember falling in love with?
Well, Redwall mentioned above, of course - and interestingly, I've only recently come to the revelation that they're fantasy novels, aren't they? I just accepted them as they are at the time. I've got small kids now, 5 and 6, and it's astonishing how much of kids TV is science fiction and fantasy. It's simply the natural order of things at that age. No-one ever gets into speculative fiction; some people just get out of it. (The fools.)
The Alchemist's Cat and Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy (Diggers etc.) stick out, and Joe Dever's Lone Wolf game books too - I can vividly remember getting the Sommerswerd while sat quietly in the corner of a family wedding. David Edding's Belgariad was the first Proper Fantasy Series I read, though by the gods it does not hold up today, and I started on Discworld at 11 with Interesting Times--and that has been my absolute favourite series ever since. It's not an exaggeration to say that Discworld is this atheist's equivalent to the Bible, because so much of my moral underpinning comes from Pratchett's obvious outrage at the injustices and iniquities of the world. Vimes is my favourite character, and Night Watch is the very best of him.
What has been your favourite reaction from readers?
I'm going to have to cheat horribly and offer two answers here, because they're both such different reactions that I love for different reasons and you cannot make me choose between them no you can't no you can't.
Firstly, the comments on the Escape Pod forums for The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself, because it's the first time I had proof that I'd achieved what I'd set out to do--which is to say, make people cry. I'm an absolute sucker for a sacrifice story, I'll cry at 'em more often than not (goddamn Iron Giant, gets me every single time), and I wanted to capture some of that lightning for myself. Looks like I managed it for at least a few folks.
Secondly, this blog post by Alex Acks on my co-authored (with Stewart C Baker) ridiculous fantasy story from the No Shit! There I Was anthology is the post that has carried my ailing confidence through many a dark night of the soul. I can't read that post without grinning all over again. It's happening right now.
Away from books, what are your loves when it comes to TV and movies? (Altered Instinct will plant a flag on behalf of Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, Stargate, The West Wing and Star Wars, and fight to protect it!)
Probably my favourite TV series is Breaking Bad (and lately Better Call Saul) because it did such an astonishing job of being character-driven. Everything in that series flowed organically from the first decision, and it built to such a crescendo of tension. There's a scene towards the end of everything where Jesse is having dinner with Walt and Skylar and if you were coming in fresh, it'd go over the top of your head. But after 4½ seasons it was dripping with comedy and conflict just from the notion of those three sharing that moment at that point.
It's not particularly representative of my tastes, mind you, as everything else is as spec fic as you’d expect. Star Trek, obviously (TNG is my series, though I'm going through DS9 again right now and continue to believe Discovery will eventually come good), and Game of Thrones and Farscape and Orphan Black and Firefly and so on and so forth. Also Sharpe, because Sean Bean. We used to play Sharpe at lunch when I was about 10 and we'd shout at people for not pretending to load their musket properly. I have never not been a nerd.
Films, I'm big on the classic trilogies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Back to the Future (we had a DeLorean on our wedding cake) and Lord of the Rings. There are too many others to list.
I'm going to take this opportunity to shout about Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice on the gaming front, too, because it is the most astonishing experience I've had in thirty years of playing games. It's an extraordinary artistic achievement. It is very dark, though, so check for content warnings before you go in.
I'll happily join you in Sharpe fandom! Putting on a different hat, you are an associate editor over at the very splendid Podcastle – for readers who don’t know what that is, for shame! But it’s a splendid podcast for audio fiction. When it comes to receiving submissions, what are your big turn-offs in a story when it arrives for consideration? And conversely, what kind of things give you the oooh yes goosebumps in a submission?
I love PodCastle. I'm so proud to be there, because it's doing so much good trying to do things right, and the people involved are such wonderful people.
I don't want to be negative, so I'll just concentrate on what I love: for me, personally, that's voice. Sheer force of character through narration. Cooking Creole by Alyx Dellamonica is a good recent example, or anything by Malon Edwards (or Rabbit Grass, or We Are Sirens, or…). I'll forgive a lot of sins if something can pull me in with an assured voice. It doesn't even need to be something as overtly stylised as any of those, but just confident in itself. It's something I'm trying to protect in my own writing these days--if I'm not careful I polish the life out of a manuscript, but I think the rawness of your instinctive voice has value. It's when you're at your most you, bringing what no-one else has.
In terms of writing for audio, are there differences you feel stand out? For example, do you find stories with less dialogue work better to avoid confusing the listener, or perhaps does a first person perspective draw people in more?
As above, I think it comes down to voice, really. That'll engage you like nothing else (especially because it makes it easier for the narrator to have fun with it, and you can really notice that). Not getting too carried away with stylistic fanciness, either, and making sure there's no grammatical ambiguity, because it's much more of a pain to rewind to parse a sentence than it is to just scan backwards with your eyes.
Where can readers follow you to find out more about your work?
Everything I've had published, and a few things I've put out myself just for the heck of it, is always on my site at mattdovey.com as soon as it can be. A lot of it is on Curious Fictions too, if people are feeling generous and want to tip.
If you want to follow and find out more about every passing banality that goes through my head, good news! That's exactly what Twitter was invented for. Well, not for my head specifically, but you get the idea. I'm @mattdoveywriter there.
A traditional question here at Altered Instinct – what are you reading at present, and what is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Right now I'm listening to The Poppy War by R F Kuang, which starts with the cosy structure of Fantasy School (which I always love) but by halfway has already turned to something much darker. And I gather there's worse to come yet. It's an awfully good book.
I've not long mainlined both the Lady Astronaut novels (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) back-to-back, because oh my god I adore the Space Race aesthetic in all forms (Hidden Figures! The Race for Space!) and it ticked all those boxes and more. They both do an amazing job of rendering Elma York's anxiety, and in the second book especially I was starting to feel a painful amount of second-hand embarrassment at all the well-meaning-liberal stuff. It makes the 2013 novelette a lot more painful in hindsight, too.
Many thanks for the chat, Matt, a pleasure to learn more about your work!