Matthew S. Rotundo wrote his first story, “The Elephant and the Cheese,” when he was eight years old. It was the first time he had ever filled an entire page with writing. To his young mind, that seemed like a major accomplishment. It occurred to him shortly thereafter that writing stories was what he wanted to do with his life.
Matt gravitated to science fiction, fantasy, and horror at an early age, too. He discovered Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” in a grade school reader, and read it over and over whenever he got bored in class. (Needless to say, he read it a lot.) Other classics soon followed — Dune and Lord of the Rings and Foundation, the usual suspects. As a boy, he often pretended his bicycle was Shadowfax, and that he was Gandalf, riding like mad for Minas Tirith. Yeah, he was that kind of kid. Half the time, his family and friends didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
Matt’s story “Alan Smithee Lives in Hell” placed second in the 1997 Science Fiction Writers of Earth Contest. In 1998, he attended Odyssey. The workshop led directly to his first sale — “Black Boxes,” in Absolute Magnitude. In 2002, Matt won a Phobos Award for “Hitting the Skids in Pixeltown.” He was a 2008 winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. He has since continued to publish in various magazines and anthologies, and is the author of Petra, the first book in The Prison World Revolt series.
Matt lives in Nebraska. He has husked corn only once in his life, and has never been detasseling, so he insists he is not a hick.
Editor’s Note: this is part one of a three-part interview. Parts two and three will be published August 9th and August 16th, respectively. Also, this interview was originally conducted in March through July of 2016.
Now, to get started, I ask all of my interviewees the same starting question, and that’s this: how do we know each other?
We both attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop — I in 1998, and you in 2005. We got to know each other via an email group for alums. You graciously volunteered to read and critique an early draft of my novel Petra. (Thanks again for that, by the way). We’ve kept in touch ever since.
I’m really starting to go into denial regarding how quickly the years are passing. Tell me, since my initial beta read of Petra, can you talk about your process from that stage to the published stage it’s at now?
You were one of the brave souls who read the first draft, fresh from my fevered brain. Sorry about that!
After gathering the first batch of comments, I undertook a revision, largely focused on punching up a rather slow opening. Then came another round of critiques, followed by yet another rewrite.
Then Petra went on submission, and I turned to other projects. The novel met with the usual array of responses from agents, from total lack of interest to requests for partials. I banged my head on those walls for many years.
After I’d exhausted the agent route, I tried sending it directly to a few publishers. I found some interest there, but you know how it goes in publishing — in a word, slow. I grew impatient.
Finally, a self-published friend of mine informed me that space opera was currently taking off like (forgive me) a rocket. And here I was, sitting on a polished SF adventure story. By that time, I had even written and rewritten a sequel. I figured the time might be ripe for me to go independent.
So I dove in. I secured a copy editor and a cover artist, taught myself how to convert the manuscript into an ebook format, then typeset the print edition. A few uploads later, voilà! Published novel! And here we are.
So what’s the response been like so far? Are you finding your readers with ease, given the (pardon the pun) boom in space opera?
You betcha. I’m a millionaire now.
Oh, wait. It’s the other thing.
No, I’m afraid it hasn’t been easy finding readers. I mean, my website’s updated, and I’ve put up numerous posts on a social media, but there’s really only so much you can sell to your friends and family. Branching out from there has been hard. I’ve learned a lot about indie publishing over the past six months, but putting together a cohesive marketing plan still eludes me. I suppose I’ll keep fumbling about until I get it right.
That said, those who have read the book seem to really like it. So there’s that.
I noticed the reviews have been really good! And I’m not surprised, given I’ve read the EARLY draft. Are conventions part of your marketing plan? I’ve only been to a few small ones, but the self-published and indie authors always make strong showings. What’s been your experience in the con circuit?
I haven’t been to any cons since Petra came out, but I have a few scheduled, including CONgregation here in Omaha in April, and WorldCon in KC in August. These will be my first cons since becoming a published novelist. We’ll see how they go. Wish me luck!
Indeed! Will you be on any panels?
I’ll have a couple of panels, including a reading, at CONgregation. I’ll also be teaching at one of the WorldCon writing workshop sessions, and I’ll have several panels there, too.
I like doing panels. I’m a bit of an attention whore.
So let’s play what-if: if you could design any panel(s) and then talk on them, what would those panels be? What do you want to talk about in front of a captivated audience?
Me, of course! Remember the part where I’m an attention whore?
More seriously, I’ve done a fair number of panels on a wide variety of topics. I’ve talked about writing, movies, music, science, and even a bit about politics. So I think I might enjoy something a little different, more free-form. Maybe a kind of “ask me anything” panel, where I just ad lib. I could even bring my guitar and sing a song or two, if people like.
That’s right! I remember now that you’re a musician. Would you talk about that some: do you play anything other than guitar? What type of music do you play?
I’ve fooled around with keyboards and drums, but no, I’m a guitarist. And I love to sing. I go out to karaoke at least once or twice a week. It’s kind of a sad addiction.
I’m a rocker, for the most part. Classic rock, hard rock, metal. But I’ve been known to branch out into other genres, too. Just don’t ask me to do any Justin Bieber.
Note to self: ask Matt to do Justin Bieber next time I see him…. Just kidding! So as a fellow musician, albeit as a classically trained vocalist, one of the things I learned really early was how to take criticism. When you’re a singer, there’s a certain point where I’ve practiced my heart out, got the breathing and technique down, but there’s always going to be SOMEONE who just doesn’t like the tone or quality of my voice, which was a great lesson in knowing that not everyone is going to like my work, no matter how awesome I am at it. Have you been able to take any lessons from your music and apply them to your writing?
I suppose my experience with karaoke has taught me much the same lesson. There are times when you deliver a vocal as well as you possibly can, and nobody cares. On the other hand, there are times when you know you haven’t performed a song well, but the audience goes crazy, anyway.
And then there are those times when you absolutely crush the song, and everyone loves it. These, I have found, are rare and magical moments.
I’ve also seen people who can’t carry a tune in a bucket get thunderous applause — largely, I think, because the crowd knew and liked the song, and so really didn’t care about the way it was being butchered by that singer. They were hearing the song in their heads, you see.
The larger lesson might just be this: Human beings. Go figure.
What an interesting thought…. They were hearing the song in their heads. As a former book blogger, and an all-around consumer of entertainment in general, I find we often judge our books, movies, and television shows by what we WANT them to be, rather than what they are. I know when giving critique, I have to be careful to be aware of what the WRITER is trying to accomplish, not what I would do if given the same premise. That’s a very, very, VERY fine line when giving critique, at least it is for me. Any thoughts on this? People judging work for what they want it to be, rather than what it is?
We all do this, to some extent. It’s unavoidable. We all bring our own baggage to each story we read, each movie or show we watch, each song we hear. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It’s what makes us individuals.
I also have to say that I don’t understand the whole notion that when we’re critiquing a story, we must be careful not to somehow “rewrite” it. Seriously, I’m totally baffled by this. In the first place, I can’t possibly rewrite your story when I’m critiquing it. You are always free to disregard any suggestions I might make. No one’s putting a gun to your head. Secondly, the way I see it, any reaction I have to your story is valid. It’s my reaction, and I’m entitled to it. If it isn’t what you intended, that’s not my fault, and it’s not my problem. Perhaps you need to examine where you went wrong.
OK, maybe my suggestions aren’t the direction you want to take. So what? Even if you find my comments totally off base, they might spark an idea you hadn’t previously considered.
All I can do as a writer is tell the story as well as I know how. After that, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the reader.
Since we started this interview (back in March, if you can believe it), you’ve since attended CONgregation. Tell me about the con: how did it go, and how did it feel being there with a book to sell?
It went OK. It’s a new con, only in its second year, so it’s still on the small side. It’s also focused more on comics and cosplay than on books. Still, I had some nice people show up to my panels, so that was good.
It was a little different having a book of my own to promote. Most notably, it’s a bit easier to explain to people, rather than trying to point them at some online fiction, or even a print anthology. For all the options that new publishing paradigms have ostensibly opened for writers, audiences still want novels. Most of the public, even among SF fans, has little interest in short fiction. Which is a bit of a shame, but not too surprising.
It’s a good thing I like to write novels, I guess.
It’s funny, I was talking to a writer about this very thing at my day job. Her favorite thing to write is short fiction, but I think there’s SO MUCH PRESSURE to write a novel that she felt obligated to try, and it wasn’t going anywhere. But if short stories are your jam, that’s what you should do: just write enough to publish a collection, and there you go! But yes, it’s good you like writing novels. Sending people to websites only goes so far, especially for conventions. Did you have a book signing?
No signing, but I did a writing workshop panel and a reading.
I did a few signings back when I won Writers of the Future. It was fun, but of course I was just one of many authors there. Part of me is pretty sure that if I did a signing on my own at WorldCon, I would spend most of my time twiddling my thumbs, looking pathetic. Ah, the glamorous writing life.
Next week on August 9th, Matthew S. Rotundo talks gives advice about self-publishing and the steps he took, as well as politics in fiction. Believe me, you do NOT want to miss out on that!