In 2017, I was interviewed by Joannes Rhino about writer’s block, fiction, being a cubicle author, and more. The interview is no longer available at Rhino’s site, but I saved our emails. The restored interview follows (with some updates).
Johannes Rhino: Tell us about yourself, and how would you describe yourself?
Matthew Arnold Stern: I consider myself a cubicle author. I find that many of my stories, including my alternate history novel Doria, take place in offices. Our work lives aren’t often covered in fiction, even though we spend over a third of our day at our jobs and define ourselves by our careers. (When we meet new people, “What do you do?” is the second question after “What is your name?”) In cubicles, we can find enough drama, humor, and personal growth to create engrossing and entertaining stories.
JR: When did you first realise you want to be a writer? Who spotted that talent and what was the first thing you do knowing that?
MAS: In high school. I started writing to deal with those typical teenage feelings. My English teacher, Darlene Loiler, read my journals and encouraged me to write for the school’s creative writing magazine. I later joined the school newspaper. As my classmates started to recognize my writing, it motivated me to write more.
JR: Do you have any formal education in creative writing? Do you think formal education in writing is necessary?
MAS: I have a bachelor’s degree in English from California State University Northridge. What I gained from it was exposure to different authors, the ability to study writing critically, and feedback on my own work. I don’t think formal education in writing is necessary, but it is helpful. At least, you need to learn the mechanics of proper grammar, composition, and story development.
JR: Are you a full-time author? Do you have other activities as main source of income? How do you organise your schedule and time in writing a book?
MAS: I am a technical writer, so I write professionally full-time. As far as my own books, I set aside to write them in the early morning, lunch breaks, and whenever I can fit in any free time. Now that Scrivener is available for iOS, I can even write on my iPhone when I’m doing errands with my wife.
JR: What made you decide to start writing something? What or who influences you?
MAS: My stories usually come from some sort of problem or fear, and I write to seek solutions. Let’s take my two recent novels as examples. The Remainders comes from a personal crisis, and I express my hope that we can grow from the experience and find redemption and reconciliation. Amiga comes from my concerns about being middle age in a youth-oriented job market. We worry that our jobs will be taken from us by millennials who grew up with the technology we developed. Amiga shows how our past experiences can help us deal with present-day crises, including the political changes we’re going through.
JR: What is the greatest lesson you have learned and/or greatest achievement you have reached as a writer?
MAS: It’s not necessary to reach millions of readers to make a difference. If you change the life of only one person with your words, you’ve succeeded as a writer. A few years ago, I was the president of my son’s Little League. There was an ugly dust-up with one of our all-star teams. Although I wasn’t involved, I felt that as league president, I had to say something to the kids. I wrote them a letter of apology. A year later, a father of one of those players talked to me on the field. He said, “I wanted to thank you in person for the letter you wrote to my son. He was really upset about what happened. What you said meant a lot to him. It made him want to come back and play.”
JR: Do you have habits in writing? Any specific time and/or place to write?
There are several habits that work well for me:
- I write with a laptop, so I’m free to write wherever I like. I have several places around the house, and my favorite is the recliner in our sunroom.
- I usually put together a soundtrack for a book that I’m writing. I pick songs that fit the theme and mood of the story. The music keeps me inspired and stimulates my creativity.
- I act out dialogue while I’m walking around the house or neighborhood. I’m surprised that my family and neighbors haven’t had me committed.
JR: How long do you normally finish writing a book? What is the hardest part in the process?
MAS: It depends. I finished my two recent books, The Remainders and Amiga in three to four months. Doria had been forming in my mind for decades, and it took about a year to write. Editing is the hardest part for me. I get worried about leaving in any typos and mistakes when I’m preparing my work for submission or publications. And I always find something I missed!
JR: Do you have professional editors to furnish your books? If you do, any recommendation you would like to share to fellow authors?
MAS: No, but I would strongly recommend getting them if you have the money. If you can’t afford an editor, join a writer’s group or share manuscripts with other writers. You need honest and intelligent feedback any way you can get it.
JR: How do you think you have evolved creatively?
MAS: I’ve become more open to experimenting. In my recent novels, I use shifting first-person points of view. In The Remainders, the story is told from the point of view of a father and son in different parts of Southern California. I can show how little one knows about the other, and how much they both want to share. In Amiga, the point of view is from the same person. We see her starting out as a recent college graduate in 1985 and as a middle-age woman in 2016.
JR: Do you ever face writer’s block? If you do, how did you overcome the situation?
MAS: No. When I get stuck on a scene, I jot down a few notes of what I expect to happen and then work on another part of the book. By working on another section, I usually find the solution to the problem. The key is to keep going. Don’t think that your words have to perfect the moment you commit them to text. Just get something down and keep writing.
JR: Do you have professional designer to design the cover and/or interior of your books? If you do, any recommendation you would like to share to fellow authors?
MAS: It’s the same thing with editing. Hire professional cover artists and designers if you have the money. I also recommend looking at cover designs in bookstores and on Amazon. What are the current trends in covers? What fonts do people use? What graphics and designs are used in books of your genre? How can you make your cover stand out?
JR: How do you involve in promoting your books? Any marketing technique you can share?
MAS: You have to be creative in your promotion because there is so much competition. Look for alternative methods of promoting your work. My inspiration for this is Robert Oliphant, who was my writing teacher in college. To support his novel A Piano for Mrs. Cimino, he wrote several op-ed pieces about the rights of the elderly, which was the subject of his novel. These articles established him as an expert in the field and brought attention to his book. His novel became a bestseller and was made into a TV movie.
JR: Give your thoughts about traditional publishing versus self-publishing?
MAS: I like the creative control and entrepreneurial spirit that comes with independent publishing, but I still seek the validation and resources that come with traditional publishing. The method you choose to publish your book depends on your goals and the type of audience you want to reach. If you have a specialized book for a specific market, like my Mastering Table Topics book, independent publishing is a better choice. If your goal is to write the next Harry Potter, look for a traditional publisher.
JR: How many books have you written (published and non-published)
MAS: Here’s a list:
- Offline (published fiction)
- Doria (published fiction)
- Mastering Table Topics (published non-fiction)
- Amiga (published November 2019)
- The Remainders (submission in 2020)
JR: What genre that you normally write, and what draws you to this genre? Do you always write in the same genre?
MAS: I have a hard time writing for a single genre. I find genres too confining. I also notice too much of a herd mentality in some genres with authors writing the same type of book. Yesterday was zombies, and today is werewolves. I know the whole publishing and bookselling business is based on genres. But I think you should write what moves you and then find the genre that fits it.
JR: Of all the books that you have written down, which book that you think the best one? And what do you think readers will find most appealing about this book? What’s the “real story” behind this book?
MAS: Of all my books, Mastering Table Topics is my favorite and the most successful. It’s a practical book that fits the needs of public speakers. I also enjoy coming up with new questions that I post on my Twitter feed (@maswriter) with the hashtag #masteringtabletopics. Of my fiction books, I’m the proudest of my newest novel Amiga. It appeals to people who have an interest in vintage technology and how it evolved into the smartphones and apps that have become a part of our lives. Readers will also enjoy seeing my main character in her past and present and how the two intersect.
JR: What advice would you want to give to an aspiring writer?
MAS: I’ve never been comfortable with the term “aspiring writer.” If you write, you are a writer. So, look for any opportunity to write for publication, whether it is your school newspaper, an online magazine, or your own blog. This gives you experience that you can build upon in your career. Look for honest feedback from teachers, editors, and other experienced writers. Accept rejection and negative reviews as part of the learning experience. You need to get through bad writing to get to the good writing.