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A Conversation With Matthew Woodring Stover
Part 2 of an interview with Gabriel Chouinard
April 2001


Photo © Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover was born in 1962. He graduated in 1983 from Drake University and settled in Chicago. He worked as a bartender in a private sports club as well as spending time as an actor, theatrical producer, playwright, and theatre co-founder. His previous fantasy novels include Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with artist and writer Robyn Fielder.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Blade of Tyshalle
SF Site Review: Heroes Die
SF Site Review: Jericho Moon

Blade of Tyshalle
Heroes Die

Art: Douglas Beckman
Heroes Die
Jericho Moon
Iron Dawn

SF Site Interview: | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 |

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So, I've just finished reading Blade of Tyshalle... and to be perfectly honest, I feel like I've just spent a week in Tijuana sampling every bottle of tequila I could find. That's a compliment.
Thanks. I'll take it as one. Now just imagine how I felt when I finished writing the book.

When Joseph Conrad finished Nostromo, he sent a telegram to a friend saying "I feel I ought to be congratulated, as one who has recovered from a long and debilitating illness." When I finished Blade of Tyshalle, the email I sent to my family and friends read "DONE, BY CHRIST! Don't bother calling for the next two or three weeks. I'll be asleep."

The first word that comes to mind in describing Blade of Tyshalle is, for me, relentless. It's an intense storyline, which most authors would be tempted to lighten up with some humor, or even a sugary romance. You've avoided those things... what kept you from lightening things up?
What, you didn't think it was funny?

Maybe I should have thrown in an absent-minded wizard, or a wisecracking dragon... Too often, comic relief is an author's way of telegraphing to the audience, "Hey, just kidding. It's only a show, folks."

Well, guess what? I'm not kidding.

Which is not to say there are no smiles in the book -- they're just the hard kind, the ones people share when they're fighting for their lives. Hesse put it well in Steppenwolf: "All humor is gallows humor, and it is on the gallows that we are constrained to learn it."

Don't get me wrong... I think that's a strength! I've never been one for sugary romances or absent-minded wizards... but then, that isn't the audience you write for. Just out of curiosity, Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?
Yes, in fact, I do.

Me.

I'm just that arrogant, I guess. I am my own ideal audience. I've said it before: I write the kind of books I like to read. If lots of other people were writing books like mine, I wouldn't bother; I'd just read theirs. Reading is a lot less work.

So, yeah. When I start to wander in a story -- I fall into that "can't see the forest for the trees" trap pretty regularly -- the way I find my way back is to ask myself what would work for me as a reader. What would I be itching for? Then I try to find a way to scratch that itch in a way that's satisfying not only viscerally, but emotionally and intellectually -- and would leave me itching for more.

Almost everyone in the novel suffers. A lot. When things seem at their worst... they get even rougher.
Kind of like real life. But -- also like real life -- there is the occasional ray of sunshine. Just not always coming from the direction you expect. Part of surviving is learning to take your happiness where you find it.

As a writer living inside these characters for so long, what kept you from getting depressed and throwing yourself off the Sears Tower? I mean, how can you keep this relentless pace while writing, when it's hard enough to read it?
Now there's a selling point, huh? "Dude, you GOTTA check out this book! Made me want to slit my wrists!"

Writing it wasn't depressing at all. Just the opposite. Sure, everybody suffers -- just like in our world. But the book isn't about their suffering; it's about why they suffer, and what they do about it.

One of the primary themes of 20th Century literature has been the way the world -- society, reality, what you will -- inevitably erodes our hopes and dreams; there is volume after volume about the death of everything that's fun about being human. There has been a time when a story could not be considered serious literature unless its protagonist is crushed by the futility of existence -- the existential void -- figuratively, if not literally.

I say, screw that.

Suffering is the fuel in the engine that drives the world. All progress is the result of somebody being unhappy -- then making a move to change whatever it is that's dragging them down. Suffering is not depressing in itself; what's depressing is helplessness. What's depressing is giving up. That's why writing the book wasn't depressing: because when these people hurt, they do something about it.

For me, that's the opposite of depressing; it's what keeps me alive.

One of the themes that you return to again and again is the idea of a person's sense of individuality, and the power one can gain by recognizing that individuality and using it to overcome any adversity. In some ways, that reminds me of the old punk ethic of "DIY", do-it-yourself. Are there parallels here?
I can see some parallels. They're not intentional; I hadn't thought of it in those terms. But yeah, there is tremendous personal power in recognizing that your problems are Your Problems; no matter how much they may resemble everybody else's, they are as individual as you are. A great deal of trouble is generated in this world by people telling each other "You can only be Happy (or Successful, or Righteous, or whatever) if you try to be more like Us."

There will always be people who want to knock your corners off so you can fit more neatly into their pigeonholes.

And a lot of them, it seems, write book reviews...

So, you're a bit of a non-conformist. Has it been that way all your life? Is that what drives you to write such non-conformist books?
I'm not a non-conformist. I'm an individualist. No, screw the "ist." I'm an individual.

Non-conformists are still mental slaves to the society they reject; they still use the rules of that society to define themselves, but negatively. They even have a uniform -- I should say, uniforms, depending on the Non-Conformist Flavor of the Month.

Pretty much all my life I've just gone ahead and done whatever I thought was the right thing to do. It's not that I don't care what other people think; of course I do. It's just that I don't let it stop me.

I don't set out to write non-conformist books, either. I just try to write honest ones. At the end of the day, what I do best is still pretty old-fashioned: they used to call it swords & sorcery. I just think -- I really, truly, profoundly believe -- that swords & sorcery (fantasy, SF, whatever) ought to be more than junk food.

If that makes me a non-conformist, then modern fantasy and SF are in a shitload of trouble.

Fritz Leiber wrote a novel called The Silver Eggheads, in which the narrator/hero is a celebrated author of "wordwooze" -- which is a literary narcotic produced by machine, churned out in endlessly thick-volumed series, offering readers little soporific vacations from their real lives -- and making sure they'll buy the next installment. Leiber intended it as a satire on publishing, but his satire has become the truth. Our bookstores are full of wordwooze. Every genre, not just SF&F. You can't get away from the stuff.

Yeesh. I hate that crap.

I dimly recall reading an essay from Ursula K. Le Guin in which she suggested that SF and fantasy should be reviewed within the crop of mainstream works -- rather than as genre pieces -- by professionals that actually KNOW what they're talking about when dealing with a work's literary merits instead of the current incestuous methods of reviewing. Do you think that fantasy and SF in general, and your books in particular, would benefit from a few changes in current practices?
Well, yeah, I'd like to think they would, but who knows? Most of the stuff in our genre doesn't deserve consideration as anything other than genre pieces. Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of science fiction is crap -- but then, 90 percent of everything is crap.

Maybe someday reviewers with real expertise in SF&F will start applying serious critical standards -- and writing about them with eloquence and passion -- rather than just cheerleading books that happen to amuse them, or that they expect will become successful. But any such transformation has to start from inside: we need to be producing more books that merit serious criticism before we can expect to get any.

I guess what I'd really like to see is less reviewers, more critics. After all, most reviews are really just book reports, wrapped up with a sentence or two on why you should or shouldn't spend your money on this book. Maybe what we really need is someone eloquent enough to explain to all the Wall Street Journal types why they should be paying attention to SF&F. It takes great criticism to direct the world's attention to the 5 or 10 percent of our genre (or any genre) that's actually worth reading.

Another theme that you return to is the idea of fate, or lack of fate, or what-seems-to-be-lack-of-fate-but-isn't-really. You don't really offer an answer to anyone that reads the book, instead leaving people to formulate their own opinions on the matter. I find that intriguing; unlike so many authors, you don't like to hold hands with the reader. Why aren't you definitive? How do you resist the temptation to spell things out?
Easy. I hate storytellers who are constantly dictating to me what I should think. It's why I don't like Spielberg's movies, for example, or Oliver Stone's.

I had people ask me about Heroes Die: "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about Ma'elKoth. Is he a bad guy, or a good guy, or what? Am I supposed to like him or hate him?" My general answer: "You're not supposed to feel anything but whatever it is you feel. Make up your own damn mind."

Even Caine himself: his activities and attitudes in Heroes Die made a lot of people -- mostly reviewers -- uncomfortable. Many of them were disturbed to find themselves rooting for this ruthless, amoral murderer; they were even more disturbed by the lack of moralizing from the author. Some of them even invented a "moral progression" for Caine, to excuse themselves for liking him.

But I'm not a moralist. Just the opposite. My goal is to present a story as honestly as I can; what you think of it, and how it makes you feel, is your business. I'll tell you what the characters think, and how they feel, but the rest is up to you. My hope is that some readers will take the time to read these books more than once. They might find that these stories hit them differently, a few years from now. The meaning of any work of art depends on who you are when you look at it.

On the subject of fate in Blade of Tyshalle, I'm going to hide behind a quote from Nietzsche: "There is no such thing as free will. There is also no such thing as unfree will. There is only strong will, and weak will."

SF Site Interview: | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 |

Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is struggling to become a published author by chucking rocks at windows and hoping someone will notice. He runs a speculative fiction forum at www.delphi.com/specfic -- go there to rain torments upon him if you wish.


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