Interview With M.R. Mathias
M.R. Mathias is the best-selling author of the Dragoneers Saga and The Wardstone Trilogy as well as a number of other stand-alone works. Flurries of Words (FLOW) sat down with him for a virtual but forthright chat about what influenced his writing and works as well as his current interests and plans for the future.
FLOW: From your previous interviews, I see that your time in prison shaped you as an author. How has that experience influenced your storylines, if at all? Shaped your characters?
M.R. MATHIAS: I tend to think about life from a different angle than most people who have never done time. I suppose it rubs off in my characters. I think the idea that a good character has no bad traits and vice-versa is too prevalent in modern fiction. That evil wizard might have a daughter he loves. And that righteous King no doubt has a mistress. No one is perfect, and most bad people have a good side. I just try to keep things real. Prison taught me that.
FLOW: That sounds like a very practical but unusual worldview. Can you give us a favorite example from one of your books on how this outlook changes the plot or characterization from what you might typically see, particularly in the fantasy genre?
M.R. MATHIAS: I'll give an example of someone in fantasy doing what I mean. Where most other heroes are quite noble, honest, and righteous, (Hobbits, Rand, Pug,) Sir Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, the hero of Lord Foul's Bane, was a leper, and a rapist. How's that for an imperfect hero.
In the Wardstone Trilogy, Pael is the best example. He is an evil scheming monster of a wizard, but he is doing all these things for the daughter he fathered. Not until he is overcome with demon lust does he get off that track and start his insane campaign across the kingdoms.
FLOW: How much did you base your characters on the people you encountered in prison? The relationships that unfolded there?
M.R. MATHIAS: In The Butcher's Boy, I based Oliver on several people I've encountered. Myself included. He has addiction issues and is as weak as any addict at times. I tried to show how his will was true in his desire to stay clean, while the temptations of the world are mighty.
Some of my hard edged fantasy characters are based on the violent guys I did time with. Prison was a wild place. I fought often and have firsthand experience with facing men with steel in their hands. I ended up in solitary because of the fights. I think that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I started writing there in my empty cell. It seems strange, because it may have been the worst thing to ever happen too.
FLOW: Having experienced combat first-hand, how did your real-life fights influence your writing of fictional skirmishes?
M.R. MATHIAS: I learned that fights are usually very fast and decisive. I was stabbed in the face once. The guy's shank got stuck between my upper teeth. That fight caused my first stint in solitary. I learned that I am no coward that day. I was 19 years old and I won that fight with a homemade knife sticking out of my face. I learned that most knife wounds are not fatal, and long drawn out fights are rare, save for Hollywood, and boxing. Men, in prison anyway, don’t want to die, so they are savage and destructive. It's survival in there, because the guards are not always willing to step in. I saw a man bleed to death while even the guy who stabbed him pleaded with the guards to come in and help. They wouldn't because they were afraid.
I LOVED writing the "Brawl" scene with Lord Gregory and the Seaward fighter in The Sword and the Dragon. It was a dramatic fight, but if any battle scene was like a real prison fight it’s that one. After reading several books on sword fighting in large battles, I learned that almost all sword wounds are fatal. Some men rubbed garlic on their blades to make sure of this. It’s not superstition. Garlic in an internal wound usually causes gangrene. Medieval battles are gruesome. Dragons that spew acid are even more so.
FLOW: You mentioned solitary being ‘the worst thing’ earlier. What did you mean by that? About the writing or something else? Can you explain?
M.R. MATHIAS: I can briefly explain. After so much time alone, I find that I come off as egocentric. I'm really not. I'm proud of what I've done, and usually so surprised by the way my writing is being received that I talk about it with enthusiasm. Beyond that, I find that life has very little chance at competing with my imagination. It almost lived up recently. It was refreshing.
Try this: Lock yourself in a bathroom for 24 hours. Don’t open the door. Try it for just an hour. Then imagine nearly four calendar years of that type of solitude. Think of how far and deep an intelligent mind can travel with so much time. I flew on the backs of dragons and created several worlds. Imagine how I feel standing in a crowded department store now.
FLOW: Given that background and the old adage ‘write what you know’, have you ever been tempted to switch into the crime or mystery genres? Why/why not?
M.R. MATHIAS: Well I have ideas, but until the Wardstone Trilogy is complete, I am not going to start anything new. But look for more stuff like The Butcher's Boy in the future. Crime, thrills, violence, and paranormal freakiness will be featured in more than one future novel.
FLOW: Can you give us any spoilers about the rest of the Wardstone Trilogy?
M.R. MATHIAS: Remember what Lord Gregory tells Mikahl as he lay dying in Hyden Hawk's village in The Sword and the Dragon. And sadly, not all of our heroes will survive the final book. Anyone who reads my work already knew that though. *He laugh's a laugh very similar to Pael's*
FLOW: What about the future works?
M.R. MATHIAS: Well fans of the Dragoneer Saga will be glad to know that Jenka and Zahrellion will most likely reunite in The Emerald Rider. I see that one available in 2013. After another paranormal thriller.
FLOW: What inspired you to write while in prison rather than say, take up a trade, continue with drugs or join a gang—other common prison pastimes? How did you maintain that inspiration (prison can be a very depressing and/or scary place!)?
M.R. MATHIAS: I was doing some of the above mentioned things until I ended up in solitary. Once there, I was consuming books like a mad man. It got to the point where I just said, "Hey, you can do that." And I did. For the better part of four years I read 300 pages and wrote 3k words a day. I still have novels on the shelf that are in longhand. I’m hoping to find someone who can read my terrible handwriting and will enter them into word for me....lol Yes my penmanship is that bad.
FLOW: So, in a sense like you said, solitary was good for you. Were other inmates ever a hindrance to your work rather than an inspiration or facilitator? Staff?
M.R. MATHIAS: Yes. Solitary is crazy. Guys yelling from cell to cell all day. Gambling on every sport event that made the radio (No Television at all) I could read through all of that. If the book was good enough, like Robin Hobbs, Scott Lynch, or G.R.R.M. it would all fade away. Writing in the day was impossible. But there is a time, after the noise dies away where its nearly still, only a distant whispered conversation echoing around the concrete. In that time I wrote, and I escaped into my stories.
FLOW: As you’ve said in past interviews, lack of resources was a real problem in prison. Plus, prison libraries are often chronically under-stocked and outdated. How did this influence the formation of your writing style and habits? What, if anything would you change or unlearn about them if you could?
M.R. MATHIAS: I have some bad point of view habits. I tend to want the reader to know what all the characters are thinking. I'm working that out as I go. I am also working on the issue of showing instead of telling. Sometimes I am telling on purpose, to advance the story because one thread or another has passed a lot of time and the current one needs catching up. I don’t think the reader wants to know what every day of a journey is like. Over capping the bulk of a trip while detailing the few exciting events is telling, but necessary. I'm learning to better pick and choose what needs showing though. My editor helps me greatly with suggestions and even sternly typed lecture.
I wish I would have had him for all of The Sword and the Dragon. It has some editing issues still, but I think overall the version that is available now captures the raw nature of writing such a huge book in a prison cell with an ink pen. I didn’t have backspace keys or spell check. At least twenty percent of the trilogy is written the margins sideways, upside down, in balloons, with tiny, tiny printed letters and arrows pointing to where the insertion goes. I challenge anyone alive to do as well. I think people want to read what I wrote in prison, not what a fancy editor turns that into. The distractions of the mistakes should act as a reminder of the conditions the story was created under. After all, that’s half of the whole story, right. It’s the "huge fantasy novel that guy wrote in prison." That said a fully revised edition will be available in the future. The "as is" prison version will always remain for sale too.
FLOW: How do you see your writing as having evolved since leaving prison? Since becoming an internet success? How would you like to see it continue to grow and change in the next 5 years?
M.R. MATHIAS: I think I am learning with every chapter I write. My POV is getting tighter and my grasp of showing the story instead of telling it is gaining strength too. I have never had a problem with content. I was always the dungeon master when I played AD&D as a kid. And in prison I made up an entire system based on Gary Gygax's game so that we could play structured RPG's without the many books and charts associated with such. As I learn the mechanics of writing, even the storytelling becomes easier. I can only thank the Gods for that. Learning the proper way to write is work, though. I think it’s clear to my readers that I am undertaking that task seriously.
FLOW: It sounds like you had a lot of time to use your imagination. Is that why your writing predominantly focused on fantasy rather than other genres? Was it escapism or did you always know it was something more?
M.R. MATHIAS: I would like to write a definitive masterpiece of fantasy. I have it brewing in the back of my mind. It will be called Harthgar and be a standalone novel of about a thousand pages. And if you have read any of my series, you will have heard of that distant place. It is a fantastic city/continent, but only mentioned vaguely. I am sort of planting the seed for it in my readers now...lol that’s what convicts do. We think ahead. Way ahead.
FLOW: How far ahead? Is it akin to the lifetime work of the Tolkein universe or something a little less consuming?
M.R. MATHIAS: Far less consuming. It will come easy or I will write something that does instead. I hate struggling to write. Luckily I have found inspiration when needed and usually my steady work ethic carries me through. Harthgar won’t be a reality for several years, but it’s a story that I think will have to be freed from my mind.
FLOW: Thinking ahead like that has lots of practical advantages. How does this ability help you with your writing?
M.R. MATHIAS: When I wrote the Wardstone Trilogy I had never heard of a Kindle or an eReader. I think that’s why people like it. It’s pure. I wrote it for my sanity and published it so my mom and dad could be proud again. People respect that. Its real. The thought of success and making money as an author had no part of the process.
FLOW: Have you been able to hold onto that outlook or has being on the outside and having to earn a living changed things?
M.R. MATHIAS: I write for a living now. I have published 16 titles in less than two years. My work ethic speaks for itself. I try very hard to stay on top of things and keep my own rigid deadlines. Few people who get into self-publishing haven't heard of me. That is because I am serious about what I do, and as my own publisher I try to do a good job of putting my name and work out there.
FLOW: One of your novels, The Butcher’s Boy, is a complete departure from much of your other work. What inspired you to write this? Do you have any plans to write anything else in this genre?
M.R. MATHIAS: I think I may have covered this already. I love writing real life people in our time. I will write more stuff like The Butcher's Boy. Maybe less horror and more mystery/thriller, but who knows.
FLOW: Looking forward to seeing it! Meanwhile, you have been putting together Dragon Poem anthologies for charity. Could you tell us how this came about, the charity itself and what inspired you to champion it?
M.R. MATHIAS: One year I won three thousand dollars in a poker tournament in New Orleans. It was just before the holidays and my mom had been researching charities that actually use the donated funds for charity. She suggested I donate, as a way to keep my karma good, to smiletrain.org and I donated. It is one of the best donation direct to purpose charities out there. The idea that those kids have no smile is appalling to me. There are other charities that need money, and some closer to home, but those kids are helpless and a smile is such a terrible thing to have to live without. Anyone who reads this should write a silly dragon poem, and more importantly, put the anthology on your kindle. The first anthology made less than $100 last year and one cleft reparation operation is $250. I donated the rest of the money, and will do so every year until the anthologies start making enough. L.M. Stull, author of A Thirty Something Girl, is a fantastic person. She hosts and does the judging. I sponsor the event and make sure (upfront) that a surgery is paid for.
FLOW: What a marvelous charity and way to raise money for it. If it is an open competition, where should people submit their dragon poems?
M.R. MATHIAS: http://lmstull.com/2012/01/21/annual-m-r-mathias-dragon-poetry-contest/#comment-12502
FLOW: It sounds to me like you are more than ‘repaying your debt to society’ and could really be an inspiration to both prisoners and former prisoners alike. Have you ever thought about giving talks either in prisons or for former prisoners re-entering society? Is that something that would interest you? Donating your books to prison libraries?
M.R. MATHIAS: I've thought about it. But the idea of going back to a prison, even as a speaker sickens me. I might start speaking to addicts, and people who have been newly released. I also have an idea for an inmate reading program that Amazon and Createspace, as well as many of the great indie authors could benefit from. It’s still forming in my head though and might come to fruition after Wardstone III is on the shelves.
FLOW: So who is Mr. Stubbs and why is he so irreverent on Twitter?
M.R. MATHIAS: Mr. Stubbs is a blue eyed charmer with a potty mouth and people seem to love him. Someone even made a Mr. Stubbs fan club with t-shirts. He's just my dog. He is real popular with my younger cousins and one day I opened up a Twitter account for him. He tweets stuff for dogs and funny stuff. The idea is to cause a smile or get a laugh. Also to promote stuff like Dragon Poems, or new releases from fellow authors. Sales of certain books, reviews too. He tweets things like: "I can lick my own nuts. What can you do?" You would be surprised at the thousands of twitter responses his tweets get. It takes hours to go through them, and I had to stop responding just to be fair. Never-the-less his following has grown into five figures now I think. He's a popular dog. If he would quit eating my shoes while I'm out he might get a milk bone.
FLOW: Sounds like a great dog! J Thank you very much for giving us such wonderful insight into your work and plans for the future. Is there anything else you would like to add?
M.R. MATHIAS: Yes, Write a poem about dragons and enter the contest linked above. Buy the anthologies and tell a friend. It’s just a buck and a child with a broken smile gets the profit. Thanks for the interview. It was my pleasure answering your questions.