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A Conversation With Matthew Woodring Stover
An interview with Gabriel Chouinard
March 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

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On another level, your writing reminds me of a lot of action and sci-fi movies that I've seen lately. I've been describing you as the John Woo of fantasy; a lot of poetic violence, non-stop action, no clear delineation between good and evil... how much of your style is a reflection of popular culture? Do you consider yourself to be competing against video games and movies? How much do other forms of media influence your writing style?
Hey, I like the John Woo thing. I used to describe myself in terms of Sam Peckinpah, but I guess that's just showing my age.

Or, hell... Walter Hill? David Fincher?
Mmm, David Fincher. I am remotely acquainted with Jim Uhls, the screenwriter for Fight Club. In my petty, envious way, I really wanted to hate that movie. Instead, I am forced to admit it's in my all-time Top Ten.

My style is a reflection of popular culture in only one way: I write the kind of books I like to read. I'm not competing against video games and movies at all; those are entirely different forms of storytelling. You can do things in books that you can't do in any other format -- especially, put your audience right inside your characters. That's always my goal: to make you forget you're reading a novel. I want to make you feel like you've lived through something.

What I'm competing against is shitty fantasy: the books that make grown-ups embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

A strong statement. Care to list specifics?
Hell, no. I can piss off more people by sticking to generalities -- a lot of writers who read this will be thinking, "Hey, he's talking about me!"

In fact, I'd like to go the other way entirely, and say that every fantasy writer living today should get down on hands and knees to kiss J.K. Rowling's, er, feet. She not only has managed to write fantasy that adults don't mind being seen reading on the bus, she has also created millions of new fantasy readers out there. Ten years from now, a lot of those kids will be buying my books.

May the gods rain blessings upon Harry Potter.

As far as influences -- well, everything influences me. Every time I come across a neat bit of storytelling, I file it away. I steal from everybody.

And yet, more and more, people (especially young people) are turning away from books, going to DVDs and PS2s and Digi-Poke-God-Knows-What for their entertainment. Do you find this overall trend disheartening? How do you get people to pick up your books?
Shit, Gabe, reading was never supposed to be for everybody. Universal literacy is virtually an American invention. Novels are for people who are comfortable using their brains, and we all know that isn't the whole human race. I'm not one of those guys who says, "Well, at least they're reading... "

Reading garbage is no better than watching garbage on TV or any other pointless time-filler. Garbage is garbage, whether it comes on a page or in a game cartridge. Anybody who wants to waste their lives on Digi-Poke-God-Knows-What is welcome to; I'm not gonna bitch. Better that than supporting the aforementioned shitty fantasies that crowd the good stuff off the shelves.

If this makes me sound like an elitist snob, it's only because I am.

I'd like to talk a bit about this Next Wave of creators. While I think that there has been a bit of a cultural tilt throughout all forms of media, it's quite noticeable in speculative fiction. The New Wave generated a massive burst of energy within sci-fi and fantasy; it was progressive work that had never been seen before. Now, we're certainly seeing that again through the works of people like yourself, China Miéville, J. Gregory Keyes, Michael Swanwick... What do you think attracts you to realistic fantasy? Isn't fantasy supposed to be 'escapist fiction' of the highest order?
You've said it yourself, Gabe: we're the guys standing outside the edifice of modern fantasy... throwing rocks at the windows. Somebody needs to shake up this pile of crap before it collapses under the weight of its own irrelevance.

Agreed. I was in Borders today, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer... God, almost audaciousness of it all! Shelf after shelf of "Book Seven of --" Doesn't there come a time when people want to throw up their hands and scream "ENOUGH!!!"? But then, I guess that's where you come in, along with the rest of the Next Wave.
Personally, I'm in the doorway. That's why Overworld partakes of so much standard, albeit altered, fantasy iconography -- you know, elves and wizards and swordsmen and all. I'm the shadow on the threshold in the middle of the night, whispering "Hey, wake up! There's a whole new world out here... Sure, it may be a little dark and scary, but I'll show you things you can't see during the day... "

Heh! Like you said, you're working at tipping the balance away from the standard crap, while pandering to those same people by giving them the trappings of traditional fantasy. A sort of rebellion from within.
You can call it pandering; I prefer to think of it as luring. "Hey, kid, you want some elves and dragons? Step over here... "

But tell me... do you plan on going "all the way"? What kind of books will you be writing five years from now?
Good ones.

You've certainly been very vocal in your support of Greg Keyes and China Miéville...and I must admit, today I picked up Perdido Street Station by Miéville, based on your recommendation, and from reading King Rat -- which was exceptional. What have you been reading lately?
I only read books in the genre when I'm between projects (unless an editor is soliciting a quote). I'm in the middle of a Star Wars: The New Jedi Order novel right now, so I've been sticking to heavy hitters like Hemingway (A Moveable Feast, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms) and Joseph Conrad (Nostromo and Youth). Right now, I'm in the middle of Don Quixote -- hey, once a novel's been in print continuously for five hundred years, I can guess it's probably worth my time.

I've heard from writers that feel bogged down when returning to worlds that were popular with readers, as if they were expected to keep writing the same thing over and over. Do you ever feel that way? What keeps you fresh when returning to Overworld, or to Barra and Company? How do you keep the passion?
Easy: you just have to remember that a world is a very big place. The Overworld sections of Heroes Die take place in one single city. Think of the multiplicity of cultures on Earth in the 18th Century: travel five hundred miles and you might as well be on a different planet. Or take Barra & Company: Iron Dawn was set in Bronze Age Tyre. Instead of going back to the same environment with the same characters, Jericho Moon moved the characters a hundred miles southeast: to Jerusalem, under siege by the Nation of Israel. All of a sudden, it's a whole new story.

By the same token, you should bear in mind that one lifetime has room for many, many different experiences. The idea that a character has one main lesson to learn or issue to resolve is a literary convention, not a law of nature.

That feeling of being bogged down arises from being bored with your own creation. I have news for those guys: if you're bored, you're boring. Nobody's forcing you to tell the same story over and over. The ones who do are just goddamn lazy. If you're not excited by the story you're telling, shut the hell up.

One of the things that I like best about your books is that you keep me guessing for the duration of the story. You're willing to do just about anything to your characters, which makes the threats seem more realistic. How much of this do you decide beforehand? Do you know who will live, and who will die?
I produce very detailed outlines, which are necessary to keep the complexities of plot more-or-less in order. But an outline no more survives contact with the story than a battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Things that seem perfectly reasonable in outline often look pretty damned stupid when you actually spin out the tale. In an outline, you can just push characters around; they're really nothing more than the X's and O's on a football coach's chalkboard. Once a character begins to live and breathe, they push back.

There is sometimes a character or two I have decided in advance will die, for plot purposes, usually early in the story. Other than that, anything goes. NO ONE IS SAFE. Ever. I don't write with one eye on the future of a series. All I care about is making the book I'm writing as close to perfect as my skills allow.

That being said, though, I don't indulge in gratuitous character-slaughter, either. A major character is an investment of a hell of a lot of my time, energy, and emotion. If I'm going to kill one off, I damn well want to get my money's worth.

The fact that you don't write with 'one eye on the future of the series' may be what makes your novels stand out amongst the crowd of bloated epic fantasies on the shelves. As a matter of fact, one criticism I heard from someone that had read Heroes Die was that they didn't think there needed to be a sequel. Now, I know that Blade of Tyshalle isn't a "proper sequel" in most aspects. But to those critics... how do you justify returning to the same characters, while railing against bloated epics?
Was I railing? I thought you were railing; I was just nodding and smiling . . .

Straight face now: I don't justify squat. I don't believe in it. The books will justify themselves, or they won't. If they don't, nothing I have to say about them matters a damn, anyway.

You envision a future Earth that is, to a certain degree, decaying with corruption. How much of this is a reflection of what you see around you today? Are we headed toward Hari's caste-system?
It's entirely a reflection of what I see around me today. It is a function of American culture, in our dream of the classless society: increasingly, You Are What You Do. All our old modes of self-definition -- village, clan, tribe, ethnicity, religion, you name it -- are continually eroded in order to make us more smoothly interchangeable as clerks or data entrars, secretaries or lawyers or doctors, teachers, mechanics, cops, whatever. In America, it's considered threateningly bigoted to even mention our differences, unless those differences are purely voluntary, like your politics, your taste in music -- or your job.

Pile on increasing deregulation of international business, the increasing power of corporations to buy and sell entire governments, a few details like the repeal of the estate tax... It's almost hard to see how a caste-based society can be avoided.

Unless enough people wake up to the ugly trend to start the pendulum swinging back. You never know. Sometimes, people can surprise you that way.

On the other hand, I don't see Hari's Earth as corrupt. The term corruption implies a moral judgment that I'm not willing to make: it implies that the civilization so judged falls short by comparison with some other. It pretends that there has been, at some time, a human civilization where there really was "equal justice for all."

Like the man said: it just ain't so.

Hari's Earth is human, that's all. Too much like ours.

I think it was Orson Welles that said; "Nobody gets justice. People get good luck or bad luck."
Uncle Orson knew his shit. To quote Blade of Tyshalle: "Justice? What's that? Put some justice in my hand. No? Then just tell me what it tastes like, huh? What's it smell like? What color is it? Don't talk to me about justice. We're both grown-ups here, right?"

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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 -- go there to rain torments upon him if you wish.

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