Author Spotlight – Matthew Willis
Joining us for today’s Author Spotlight is Matthew Willis!
Matthew Willis is a writer and historian with an interest with things that go bump in the night and things that go boom on the sea. Matthew’s first published novel was the historical fantasy Daedalus and the Deep, based on a historical sea serpent sighting in the 19th century. His short stories have been published in The New Accelerator and Flash Flood, and he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2015. In August 2016, he spent three days conducting archaeological fieldwork on the naval defences on Portland harbour breakwater – an experience that inspired the setting for ‘The Battle of Alma,’ a short story featured in the recent Hell’s Empire anthology.
Welcome to the Hive, Matthew. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
Hello, great to be here. I’ve been re-reading Gareth L Powell’s ‘Embers of War’ before I get to the sequel ‘Fleet of Knives’. It’s just my kind of book. Sweeping space-opera on a grand scale, but centred around a small band of characters including a sentient ship, the Trouble Dog, each trying to find redemption and a place to call home in galaxy painfully rebuilding after a vast war. I loved Gareth’s Ack-Ack Macaque books, and Embers of War has the same fine balance of humour and swashbuckling action with nuance and emotional depth.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I feel bad for my companions. I’ve never played D&D and know little about it other than pop-culture references so forgive me for rapidly looking up a few details to help me answer. I suspect the character class that I’d be is paladin – not because I’m invariably on the side of all that is good and pure, but because I’m the kind of unrealistic idealist that can eventually start believing they’re on the side of good. I’m not sure it matters what kind of weapon I would attempt to wield, we’re all going to die pretty quickly, but at least as we do, I can meet my end in the almost certain belief that I had the moral high ground.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons (or defending your moral high ground), how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
A little chaotic, to tell the truth. I sometimes work in silence, sometimes with music, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m starting out on a project, I like to find music that’s complementary and is going to inspire me – when I was writing a nautical fantasy I had the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks on in the background and that really gave me a lift as well as evoking something of the swashbuckling world I was working on. When working on historical fiction I’ll try to find music of the time and place I’m writing about, as it helps me find my way into the character of the era.
My handwriting was always terrible and working with word processing suits my method a lot better – chopping and changing, cutting and pasting. I’m incapable of writing anything straight out without going back and tinkering, even a first draft. It’s partly why I write fairly slowly, but also why my first drafts are reasonably good. I’m definitely on the ‘pants’ end of the scale. I like to have a sketch to work to, but as often as not the writing will find its own way. One ‘plottish’ thing I tend to do is write the last scene relatively early in the process. I generally write somewhat out of sequence anyway, putting down scenes as they occur to me, and usually within a short time of starting in earnest, I’ll get a strong sense of how the ending is. That being so, I write it down there and then, and it becomes the fixed point the story moves towards. Which is not to say that what happens in the meantime doesn’t change a great deal.
Fwiw, I do write dressed. I suppose the only eccentricity in my writing attire is that when I had short hair and it got cold, I had a flying helmet by my desk to stop my ears and neck getting chilly. (Not a Top Gun style ‘bone dome’ – that would be weird – an old-fashioned cloth one). These days I have a beard and much longer hair, so I don’t need to do that.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
I love the scope and the uniqueness of China Miéville’s fantasy books, particularly the sprawling, sweeping Bas Lag books (‘Perdido Street Station’, ‘The Scar’ and ‘Iron Council’). I also love just about everything Stephen Baxter has written, especially his ‘alt hist’ and ‘alt future’ stuff. His world-building is so beautifully authentic and scientific in its exactness, but it’s his characterisation that keeps me coming back. No-one can portray characters who have to keep going through such physically and morally challenging circumstances as Baxter. I’d love to collaborate with him, but I would feel hopelessly inadequate given that his previous collaborations include Terry Pratchett and Arthur C Clarke. In which case I’ll say Jen Williams – if working with her is anything like her books, it would be a fun and exciting experience, and scary but in a good way.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
The last thing I watched on TV was the Game of Thrones Season 8 finale. I chose to watch it because I would have felt physical pain to miss it. For years, my wife, who is a massive, massive fantasy fan, prodded me to read George RR Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ books and I just about started as the series did. And of course I was blown away by everything about them, and the series was as good an adaptation as anyone could reasonably expect. I have to say I loved the finale. For all Season 8’s problems, the ending struck just the right tone.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Probably panicking about how to use the precious extra time and procrastinating into doing nothing with it. Actually, reading. One thing I am perpetually short of is time to properly get into a book – reading tends to be snatched moments here and there, so a whole day to do nothing but read and drink tea would be bliss.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’m working on three historical fiction novellas set in the Malta convoys in the Second World War, the first of which has just been delivered to the publisher. Probably of more interest to your readers is a novelette, ‘The Battle of Alma’, that has just come out as part of the ‘Hell’s Empire’ anthology. This anthology was the brainchild of John Linwood Grant who runs the Grey Dog Tales website, and Sam Gafford of Ulthar Press. The premise is a demonic invasion of Britain in the late 19th century, and there are 14 stories exploring different ways in which this manifests itself from an outbreak of wanton violence in Brighton to possessed sheep on the Welsh borders and an infestation of lizards, and something stranger, in rural Ireland. My contribution is the opening story, which concerns a young woman imprisoned for witchcraft, who has to use all her abilities both to overcome ingrained bigotry and to fight off hordes of sea-demons on the South Coast. I found the premise really enthralling to write about, and I definitely want to write about it more.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The least helpful writing advice I’ve ever received is anything that starts with ‘always’ or ‘never’. There are no rules in writing and anyone who tells you there are is either lying or wilfully closing off avenues that might lead to worthwhile writing. This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of very useful guidelines – I don’t mean to suggest that a writer can just throw convention and good sense out the window, just not to limit themselves unnecessarily, as a lot of writing advice seems to advocate. Ultimately, the more you write, the more you can explore, learn where the boundaries are, and where they can be pushed.
The best piece of writing advice I’ve had is to find alpha/beta readers (who may or may not be other writers) who ‘get’ your work, respect your vision and won’t try to turn your work into something it’s not, but will be totally honest with you about what works and what doesn’t.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I have ways of tricking myself into writing, when I am really stuck and getting in my own way. Usually this involves making notes and sketching out ideas, in order to get things out of my head. After a while, the notes will start to look like writing, and odd sentences will start to knit into paragraphs. Once you have a few of those, I can start to fashion them into a passage, and then a page or two, and so on. If I’m really stuck, I’ll just step back and find something to read – which will probably start ideas firing.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
That’s an unbelievably tough question. Just one? I don’t think I could even begin to choose. The one that leaps out right now is Avebury in the Bronze Age during the construction of the vast henge and stone circle there, partly just to see it happening and partly to find out if it’s possible for someone with a modern mindset to figure out why they were built. I know that’s technically prehistory, does it still count?
Absolutely! Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’ is a remarkable book that I recommend to anyone who’ll listen to me. It’s a portmanteau novel, so really a collection of linked novellas, set in an alternative England where the Spanish Armada succeeded and Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated. The narrative begins in the 1960s, and although it’s almost unrecognisable from the real 1960s, the world and characters are so beautifully rendered that they feel utterly real. Although technically it’s alt-hist and therefore a branch of science fiction, it begins to feel like fantasy at times, which might be due to a sense that in the different history that grew up in the world of the novel, the characters have an almost mediaeval belief in the realness of the supernatural…or it might be that certain fantastical things are real in this book. It’s a beautiful book and well worth reading.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
With questions like this I have to fight the urge to wonder aloud if they should…but with any luck that’s just the doubt demons talking. I suppose if people like reading about unreal things happening in real history, in writing that doesn’t really know whether it’s historical fiction, fantasy or sci-fi, and can be all three at once, then they might find my work interesting.
Brilliant. Thanks again for joining us, Matthew!
Thanks for having me on The Fantasy Hive!
Matthew Willis is the author of numerous non-fiction history books, as well as the historical fantasy novel DAEDALUS AND THE DEEP. He’s also the co-author of the historical OATH AND CROWN series, and the co-editor of the STALKING LEVIATHAN anthology. Matthew’s most recent work is the novelette ‘The Battle of Alma,’ which appeared in the HELL’S EMPIRE anthology, available now.