In July 2021, I was interviewed by Liz Barrett Foster on her Eat Like a Writer website. Unfortunately, she is discontinuing her website so she can focus on her writing. Here is the interview. Follow Liz on her website and LinkedIn to learn more about her writing and upcoming projects.
Matthew Arnold Stern began his writing career in high school, graduating to technical writing, journalism, public relations and author of several books, including The Remainders and Amiga. In his interview with Eat Like a Writer, he shares why writers should stop calling themselves “aspiring writers,” how food helps readers connect with a book’s characters, and the ways writing can be therapeutic for the reader and writer.
Tell us a little about how you got started writing.
It started at Reseda High School in Reseda, California. I was going through typical teenage drama, and I turned to writing to deal with it. My English teacher, Darlene Loiler, read my writing, told me I have talent, and encouraged me to develop it. I got involved with the school’s creative writing magazine and newspaper. I gained a love for writing that I’ve been developing ever since.
Your bio says you’re a technical writer, publicist, and journalist. How do you juggle all of those and which is your favorite?
I see technical writing, book writing, publicity, and journalism as aspects of my writing life that all fit together. Technical writing pays the bills. It’s a career I started in the 80s at the start of the personal computer industry. Those early experiences were the inspiration for my novel, Amiga.
To write accurate documentation and quality fiction, I call upon my journalism skills. From journalism, I learned to dig for sources, verify facts, and put information together quickly. As for publicity, it is an essential skill for publishing.
Why did you want to write a book?
That’s the dream for every writer, isn’t it? To create something tangible you can put on a bookshelf and tell everyone, “Look what I made!”
That was my dream when I started writing in high school. But it took years of education, false starts, and a few attempts at writing a screenplay before I created my first novel, Offline. I started Offline in the spring of 2001 and worked on it during every free moment I had. I would bring my laptop to my daughter’s swim practices and write in any spot that had enough shade. The first draft was finished in 2003. I submitted it to several publishers and agents. When I didn’t find any takers, I decided to self-publish it through Lulu in 2005.
Having something I created that I could hold in my hand was a tremendous achievement for me.
Why did you continue to write books after the first one?
When you’ve done it once, you want to see if you can push it further. My goal was to write something that gets picked up by a publisher. I achieved that in 2019 when Black Rose Writing published Amiga.
Now, my focus is building an audience. I look for opportunities to connect with readers and gain new ones. This is where my experience in public relations kicks in. It also motivates me to write more novels. The best way to build readership is to create more books. If one doesn’t connect with readers, the next one might. And if readers like my newer books, they’ll check out the older ones.
It reminds me of when I binge-read Kurt Vonnegut in high school and college. It started with Slaughterhouse Five that I read in a high school AP English class. I loved that book so much that I read his earlier works. The first new hardcover novel I ever bought was Jailbird in 1979. I hope I can connect with readers in the same way.
Tell us about your latest book, The Remainders?
His estranged father, Dr. Oliver Glass, struggles with demons of his own. A private practice and a beautiful girlfriend with children of her own can’t make up for a past of tragedy and abuse. Memories of long-ago terrors constantly haunt Oliver.
Oliver seeks to reconnect with his son. Dylan seeks love and acceptance. Both father and son must overcome their self-destructive urges and painful histories before it’s too late.
You’ve mentioned that you incorporate food into your books. Can you be more specific?
I’ll give you two examples: Sutter Home White Zinfandel and Zlikrofi.
When I visited my dad in Marin County in 1986, we drove to the wineries in Napa and Sonoma. One winery was Sutter Home, where I bought several bottles of White Zinfandel. This was back when the only wines I knew about were white, red, and Boone’s Farm, so White Zinfandel was something new and enjoyable. This also turned out to be the last time I visited my dad before he died. When I set Amiga in San Rafael, the town where my dad grew up, the association with Sutter Home White Zinfandel was strong for me. I had to include it in the book.
As for Zlikrofi, I have a character in The Remainders who came from Slovenia. I wanted to add a distinctively Slovenian dish, and Zlikrofi is so distinctively Slovenian that it is protected by the European Union as traditional specialties guaranteed (TSG). The dish consists of dumplings filled with potatoes, onions, and bacon. It can be served by itself or topped with breadcrumbs, gravy, and beef. I haven’t made it because it requires more time and culinary skill than I have. But it reminds me of similar dishes I’ve enjoyed like gnocchi and beef stroganoff. It’s making my mouth water as I think about it.
Why do you feel food is important in a book?
Food tells us a lot about a character. It’s something all of us do, and watching characters eat helps a reader connect with them. In The Remainders, food plays an important role. It tells us where characters are at certain points in their lives.
Several characters turn to fast food when their lives fall apart.
There’s a flashback of a funeral where a character is surrounded by food but is too grief-stricken to eat.
We see a character who has to dumpster dive for spoiled food so she can feed her starving children.
We also see food as a sign of generosity, when one character regularly gives food to a homeless person out of kindness.
Here’s a scene about food that helps us learn more about Oliver:
Before Rachel, grabbing something to eat meant running to a nearby fast-food place. Now, lunch was a sandwich on cracked wheat berry bread, romaine lettuce, avocado, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and roasted pepper hummus. It was delicious, but I would kill for some bacon. I was never good about keeping kosher, even as a kid. When Grandma Dinah wasn’t around, Mom would take Maury and me out for cheeseburgers. I was glad to give up bacon and cheeseburgers to have the life I’ve had since I started dating Rachel.
How do you feel about the term “aspiring writer?”
I believe there’s no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer. It’s important for beginning writers to think of themselves that way. When you call yourself a writer, you’re motivated to put in the work and learn your craft. You’ll make writing a commitment. But if you consider being a writer a goal you have not yet achieved, you might put off writing because you don’t feel qualified to do it. And if you write and get rejected, you’ll give up because you feel it’s something that’s just not meant to be. If you want to achieve a goal, claim it. Don’t say you’re an aspiring writer. Say you are a writer and write.
Can you explain the “boneyard of ideas” and how writers can organize and use those ideas to their advantage?
It’s the answer to the question, “What do I do with a manuscript that isn’t coming together?” I keep all my unfinished stories in what I call my “boneyard,” like how mechanics and other service technicians keep scrapped items and loose spare parts to use later. Every so often, I pick through the boneyard and find things I can use.
I based Amiga on a story idea I struggled with for years until I found the right characters and plot points to make it come together. I’ve revived characters who had potential, but they didn’t fit in the story they were in. The boneyard is a great place to go when I’m stuck with a story problem.
By saving your unfinished work in a boneyard, your writing is never wasted. You can use it to find the fix for a broken story or use pieces to make a healthy story stronger.
You mentioned that writing can be therapeutic. In what way has that worked for you, and how can other writers/readers learn those skills?
Most of my story ideas come out of some sort of problem I’m dealing with. This was the case for Amiga and The Remainders, which I wrote during a difficult time in my life. I use writing to help me look at the situation, understand it, and come up with a resolution.
As we try to write our way out, we offer our readers solutions to their own problems. The heroes we create to save us can save them. The worlds we build can offer them refuge. The villains we create reflect their fears and demons as well as ours. We can show how they can be defeated or endured. When we do that, we create a connection. Our readers find healing in our words, just as we found healing in writing them.
My advice to authors is, don’t hold yourself back. The thing you’re scared to write is the thing that needs to be written. And it is the thing that someone needs to read.
And if you’re a reader who’s dealing with your own difficult situation, find a book that deals with it head-on. I know our first instinct is to find a light beach read or something in a comfortable genre to take our mind off things. That’s understandable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a book that challenges you and makes you uncomfortable may be the one you need. You might even find your next favorite author.
What would you like to see change regarding writers/journalists and/or authors?
We live in a tough time with the pandemic still raging, the dangers of climate change becoming too obvious to ignore, and our democracy coming under attack. We’re told that we live in a “post-fact world” with “fake news” and “gaslighting” as bots spread disinformation through social media.
At these moments, we writers need to ask ourselves, “What do we want the world to be?”
Throughout history, writers and other artists have looked at the chaos surrounding them and dared to imagine a better world. During the Cold War, the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still cautioned that humanity has a choice between peace and destruction. The original Star Trek showed a humanity that overcame its self-destructiveness and prejudice to venture among the stars. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a Christmas song that contained a call for peace out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. These works imagined how we can get past the threat of annihilation and create a better world.
Dystopias and zombie apocalypses were fun when the danger seemed far off. We’re facing danger now. What the world needs is hope—an honest hope that shows people facing challenges and mustering the courage to overcome them. Antiheroes like Walter White and Joker are fascinating, but we need characters who are models of decency. Even when they slip up, they seek to make things right.
This is what we can do with our fiction. We can inspire readers to believe there is good in the world that’s worth fighting for.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in writing is that you don’t have to sell millions of books to be successful. If you change the life of only one person with your words, you’ve succeeded as a writer.
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.”
Although I have many goals to accomplish as a writer, making a difference for that kid has made the journey worthwhile.