The Heart in Conflict with Matthew S. Rotundo

Signing at VromansWelcome to third and final installment of Calico In Conversation with Matthew S. Rotundo. If you missed Parts One and Two, click below to catch up:

Part One: Taking Off Like a Rocket
Part Two: Politics in Fiction

Editor’s Note: this interview was originally conducted in March through July of 2016.

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What else do you have noodling around in that brain of yours? Petra Released came out the end of July, and Book #3 is inevitable. Once you’re done with this story arc, what else do you hope to dig into? Other science fiction ideas? Fantasy? Noir?

Oh, you want to be careful about looking into my brain.  🙂  But since you asked . . .

Let’s see. Post-Petra, I have a few other projects that will need my attention. I’ve written an urban fantasy novel that’s first part of another series. I’d like to take a crack at the second book. There’s also a near future post-apocalypse novel that probably needs another rewrite. And then there’s this novelette I wrote, a story I dearly love that is — get this — middle grade fantasy . . . and which might be the start of yet another series.

See what happens when you peek inside my mind? It’s a mess in there. I warned you.

You’re writing science fiction, but it’s clear you’ve got lots of other ideas and genres percolating in that brain of yours. Would you talk about your influences as a writer?

You betcha. Although I have to be careful distinguish between favorite authors and those that actually influence me; they’re not always the same. I’m a huge George R.R. Martin fan, for example, but I don’t know how much of an influence his work has been on the type of writer I am. I would say that Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Charles Dickens, Madeleine L’Engle, and maybe Emily Brontë are the writers who taught me what fiction was and what it could do.

Of all of those authors, what do you think is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?

I think the single most impactful lesson I’ve learned about writing from any one author came from Harlan Ellison. He often quotes William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, about “the human heart in conflict with itself” being the only thing worth the agony and the sweat of writing.

I’ve heard that quote many times. You probably have, too. But I have to say that it never really clicked with me . . . until I went to Odyssey. That was in 1998, and Harlan was our Writer in Residence that year. Oh, what an epic, unforgettable week that was. You can bet Harlan mentioned the heart in conflict with itself more than once.

Even then, though, it still didn’t click. Sure, it sounded good, but it also seemed more appropriate for some highfalutin literary work, not necessarily the genre stuff I usually work with. I wasn’t sure it applied to my own fiction.

Then, about a week after Harlan departed, Jeanne Cavelos was walking us through the plot beats of a story — some kind of crime thriller, as I recall. And at one point, the protagonist is wrestling with an important decision, and Jeanne makes a little side comment: “The heart in conflict.”

And the light bulb went on.

I realized in that moment that it doesn’t matter what you’re writing. It could be the schlockiest SF or romance, or it could be Most Serious Literature. Regardless, you’re writing about characters first and foremost, or you’re wasting your time. The trappings of genre — spaceships and aliens, magic and monsters — they’re just the window dressing. The real attractions, whether we’re aware of it or not, are the characters with which we populate our worlds.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m awfully fond of that window dressing. But I’m more careful these days not to let it blind me to the fact that the coolest spaceship ever imagined is just a special effect unless you have people to fly it.

So thanks for that, Harlan.

What a great story, and it actually leads into a question I was wanting to ask: you’re a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop; aside from the specific experiences you just shared, can you talk about your time at the workshop, as well as any others you’ve attended and why they’ve been so important to your craft? Also, what did you get out of Odyssey (and any others?) that you didn’t get previously (through school, etc)?

It’s safe to say that Odyssey changed my life.

Of course there were the lessons learned, like the importance of causality to plot, getting story from setting, or the ins and outs of the publishing business. Many of these lessons laid the groundwork for more advanced discoveries later. I won’t say that I would never have learned these things on my own, but I will say that Odyssey shaved years, maybe decades, off the process.

And of course, there was the fact that I made my first sale at Odyssey — a fantastic stroke of luck that would never have happened had I stayed home.  (Results not guaranteed).

But as time rolls on, I come to find that most important of all were the relationships I established during the workshop. I forged lifelong bonds with many of my classmates, and later, with many other alumni — like you. I’ve cheered my peers during their victories, and commiserated with them through their setbacks. They’ve gone on to become professional authors, editors, and agents, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

The only other workshop I’ve done was at Writers of the Future, which was a rewarding experience in its own way. I learned a lot more about the professional side of the business there, and I was pleased to discover I could write a complete story in 24 hours. But again, my biggest win was the gaggle of new friends I made.

So how does your background (education, job experience, etc) play into who you are as a writer? Do you find it’s a help or a hindrance? Do you ever feel one is at odds with the other? And what is your day job, anyway?

I was fortunate to have writing teachers in college who didn’t sneer at genre fiction. In fact, one of my professors called a story of mine “Bradburyesque,” which I of course took as high praise.

My day job [in insurance] pays the bills, doesn’t demand too much creative energy from me, and compensates me fairly, so I don’t have too many complaints there.  Sure, I’d love to be able to write full-time, but I’m also fond of a steady income, insurance, and being able to save for retirement.  That last bit, not incidentally, is probably my best shot at being a full-time writer someday.

So I’ll keep suffering through Monday mornings, I guess.

Steady income, insurance, and retirement savings? SO THERE. I can’t let go of that comfort. I think even if I won the lottery, I’d still make myself work, if only part-time. So while other writers talk about retiring from writing, you talk about retiring to write more! Sounds like a plan to me! But until that glorious day, what does your writing schedule look like with a day job?

There was a time when I harbored fantasies of getting up a little earlier during the week to squeeze in some writing time, but a man’s got to know his limitations.  Mornings are just out for me.  Ideally, then, I put in two hours a night during the week, and some afternoon hours on the weekends. When I’m drafting, my goal is 5K words a week — so if I can get in 1K words a day during a particular week, I get two days off!

Hey, don’t scoff.  It works for me.

No scoffing here! We talked about your influences earlier. Now tell me, who in your genre do you love but feel is CRIMINALLY under-read?

Me!  Duh.

Oh, wait. That’s probably not what you meant.

Well, I’m a bit sad that the late Jay Lake’s novel Green never quite caught on. I thought it was his best work. My colleague David Walton put out a book called Quintessence that I loved, but that didn’t seem to find its audience. One of my Odyssey classmates, James Maxey, has had some success with his Dragon Age books, but he also wrote an absolutely brilliant story called “Silent As Dust,” which came out in Intergalactic Medicine Show years ago. It never got the acclaim I felt it deserved.

And it sure seems that a lot of people have some strong opinions about Rachel Swirsky, but it’s equally obvious that the most vitriolic of those haters have never read word one of her fiction. If you’re allergic to “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” because it isn’t really SF or fantasy, then try “Eros, Philia, Agape.” Both are extraordinary and moving pieces.

Great picks! Let’s talk about tropes a bit: all genres have them, and they have them for a reason. Tell me: what trope in space opera are you most tired of — and here’s the kicker — what’s your favorite book that uses it?

I’ve never been overly interested in generation ship stories, and I sure don’t understand why the field keeps producing so many of them. I wouldn’t say that I hate them; they just don’t inspire my imagination, and never have. Consequently, I haven’t ready many of them.

That said, I found Rendezvous with Rama fascinating and thrilling in many parts. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but somehow, Arthur C. Clarke managed to make most of the story work. I suspect he’s about the only author who could get away with what he got away with.

Let’s switch tracks a bit: you’re one of those writers who tinkers in both short fiction and novels. Let’s talk about your short fiction: what can you tell me about the pieces you’ve published?

Only that they’re singularly brilliant, and if you haven’t read them, your life is poorer for it.

Wait. I did it again, didn’t I?

Well, my short fiction ranges all over the genre spectrum. Interplanetary adventure? Yep. Horror? You bet. Contemporary fantasy? Of course.

Of these, I guess the best known is my Writers of the Future story, “Gone Black.” In addition to winning an award, it’s also garnered a bit of fan mail. I’m pretty proud of it.

I also got some favorable notices for “Right Before Your Very Eyes,” which appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show. Ellen Datlow put it on her list of Honorable Mentions for volume three of Best Horror of the Year.

Other personal favorites include “The Frankenstein Diaries,” “The Multiplicity Has Arrived,” and “Wet Work: A Tale of the Unseen,” which all appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show.  What can I say?  IGMS likes my work, and I’m grateful for it.

My most recent short fiction publication was “Take This, and Eat,” which came out in Eldritch Embraces, an anthology of Lovecraftian romance stories. No, I’m not kidding. I don’t know what’s weirder–the anthology’s theme, or the fact that I had a story in inventory that was a perfect fit for it.

Add it all up, I don’t know what it means. But there you go.

There we go! Matt, thank you so much for your time and effort for this multi-month long interview! Tell us where we can find you online!

Thank you! This has been fun.

Online, Rotundo HQ is www.matthewsrotundo.com (note the s). If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter, go to http://www.matthewsrotundo.com/subscribe-to-the-pixeltown-dispatch/.  You can find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/matthew.s.rotundo.  On Twitter, I’m @MatthewSRotundo.

See ya in the funny papers!

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And that wraps up our third month of Calico in Conversation! Many thanks to Matthew, who let me pick his brain so we could learn more about self-publishing, what it means to be a professional liar, and the all of his various influences!

September is going to bring us something a little bit different, as I interview my good friend Aubrey Gross, otherwise known as my Brain Twin. Aubrey writers ROMANCE, and while I now this is a Spec Fic blog, we can all learn something new and exciting from authors of other genres, so don’t be shy and be sure to keep checking back to hear what Aubrey has to say on Tuesday, September 6th!

In the meantime… maybe there will be a Scavenger Hunt with Matthew S. Rotundo… and maybe there won’t… you won’t know unless you come back next week to check!

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