Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award-nominated writer and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor. His novel, King of Shards, was published on October 13, 2015 from Arche Press, an imprint of Resurrection House. His short stories have or will appear in publications such as Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, io9.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede,Apex Magazine, and the anthologies Naked City, After,The People of the Book, and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, as well as other markets. Matthew co-hosts the Fantastic Fiction reading series at the famous KGB Bar with legendary speculative-fiction editor Ellen Datlow. The monthly series highlights both luminaries and up-and-coming authors in speculative fiction. You can learn more about Michael on his website, http://www.matthewkressel.net/, or on Twitter @mattkressel.
Iulian: Matthew, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start with a quick overview of your life before writing: how and where did you grow up, who and what influenced your life? Take us through Matt’s journey…
Matthew: Thanks for having me! Wow, that’s a broad question, so I’ll try to keep it brief. I grew up on the south shore of Long Island in a Conservative Jewish home, but lived a pretty secular life for the most part. We celebrated the major holidays and said the prayers, but there wasn’t too much discussion of God or anything. Most of my friends weren’t Jewish, so I recognized at an early age that the exclusivity that most religions preach is harmful to human relationships in the long term. This led me to learn about other religions and faiths, reading as many holy books of all traditions as I could, then I delved into some New Age stuff, when I finally realized I didn’t believe any of it. I was reading all this as one reads fiction, for the enjoyment of it, for the new ideas. But was it true? After a long period of self-reflection, I realized I didn’t believe any of it was real. So this led me to my current place of agnosticism/atheism. If there is a God, it seems to me that he doesn’t care much for the suffering of humans. It’s hard to believe in a compassionate, loving God when you look at, for example, child cancer, or the Holocaust, or the 2004 Christmas Tsunami.
And so when my father, who is in most respects a logical person, who is an attorney and a lover of science, once told me he believed in the Lamed Vav, the myth that there are supposedly thirty-six righteous people who sustain the world, I was intrigued. How did this otherwise logical, rational human being believe in this myth? I dove back into the mythology of Judaism and discovered a treasure of stories and folktales, beliefs and superstitions, dating all the way back to Babylonian times. A lot of this found its way into King of Shards. I’m interested in how mythology shapes our view of the world.
I can trace your oldest published works to the beginning of the 2000s. How did you get involved with writing and what were the biggest struggles and hurdles along the way?
I’d dabbled in writing for years before a friend suggested I take a class at the New School in Manhattan. It was supposed to be taught by Terry Bisson, but he had just moved to California, and so the late Alice K. Turner, former editor of Playboy fiction, stepped in to take his place. The class was called “Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror,” and was my first introduction to the concept of a workshop. I churned out dozens of crappy stories over the next few years, and went through a couple of writing groups before I found Altered Fluid. They’re a hyper-talented bunch of writers, and good human beings too, and most of what I learned about writing I gleaned from someone in Altered Fluid at one time or another.
I try not to complain too much about the writing life, because I know how lucky and privileged I am to be able to spend part of my time writing, when so many people suffer and struggle just to live in this world. With that being said, I think what I’ve most struggled with is patience. It’s easy to look at others and compare yourself to them. You see someone who is more successful or has more publications, more books, more accolades, and you go, “Shit, why haven’t I got there yet?” What I’ve learned to do is to thank that voice for its opinion, let it go away, and then get back to work. Because that’s really all you can do if you want to succeed: write and write more.
Your first novel was published in 2015, and we’ll talk about it in a bit. But first-short stories. You focused a lot on short stories and for a good reason—you’re really good writing them, and have quite a few awards to show for it. Were short stories just a means to get to novels or do you continue to write them?
I love writing short stories, and I continue to write them. In some ways, they are the ideal form for me. This may be because I’ve written so many. Novels are these giant beasts that you must tame, and this means taking enormous chunks of time away from other things like your job and your wife and your social life to complete them. But I also love the space to play in the novel form. In a short story, you often don’t have the word count to explore ideas as fully as you might want to.
Let’s play the fave game, which some people love and some hate: what is your favorite story from your works and what are some favorite authors and stories by other authors?
My favorite story of my own work is probably “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs.” It’s complex and confusing—and it’s meant to be. It’s a time travel story, with so many recurring loops that the point-of-view characters aren’t even sure how many times they’ve looped back and met themselves inhabiting other bodies. It’s meant as a comment on our never-ending cycles of war, where one side blames the other for something, retaliates as punishment, and the other side retaliates for the retaliation, etc., ad infinitum. I thought, what if we add time travel to the mix? What if the two sides keep attacking each other in the same battle, in the same moment in time, and the battlefield isn’t some country or territory, but a rock concert. There’s a moral in the tale that you have to read to the end to get, but I think it’s powerful.
My readers, however, seem to think either “The Sounds of Old Earth” or “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” are my strongest works. Some are also pretty partial to “The History Within Us.”
Some of my favorite living writers are Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Sam J. Miller, Mercurio D. Rivera, Paul Tremblay, Laird Barron, Kit Reed, Richard Bowes, N.K. Jemisin, and Genevieve Valentine.
One of my favorite stories of the past few years (and very timely) is Jeff Ford’s “Blood Drive,” about a school where all people, including children, are required to carry a gun. It’s both hilarious and terrifying, and I think really explores the idiocy of the NRA’s argument that we’d all be safer if we carried guns.
“Mysterium Tremendum” by Laird Barron fully encapsulates the combination of character-driven stories with the weird, otherworldly, supernatural stuff I love. It’s about two gay couples who find a strange almanac in an old gift shop and follow its mysterious map into frightening realms. The slow build on this one is fantastic.
Over the past decade or so, Mercurio D. Rivera has been writing stories about an alien race called the Wergens who can’t help but fall in love with humans on first sight. Each tale tackles a different aspect of love: brotherly love, romantic love, parental love, toxic love, and dissects it in all its forms. In particular, check out his stories, “Longing for Langalana” and “Tethered.” They’re all brilliant commentaries on our own narcissism, how what often passes for “love” in our culture is really just one person using and abusing the other for their own advantage. I know Rivera is working on his final story in the sequence, and I’m really looking forward to reading the collection when it’s complete.
What were some of the tools that helped you with your writing? Were there writing & critique groups, workshops, mentors?
There is one hard and fast rule for writers: place ass in chair, write, rinse, repeat. Writing as often and as much as you can is important. But if you’re just churning out a million shitty words, that’s just typing. You need some kind of constructive feedback. “Is this any good? How can I make this better?” For this, writer’s groups have been invaluable to me. I’ve been lucky to have been part of Altered Fluid, a Manhattan-based critique group, since 2003, and as I said they’ve been instrumental in my growth as a writer.
I’ve also taken several writing classes at the New School, like the one with Alice K. Turner. And I took two grammar classes with Joe Salvatore. For a few weeks after each class, I was unable to write a sentence, because I had suddenly become conscious of every nuance of structure, when before I was writing from instinct. Slowly, eventually, I was able to turn off that critical factor and write again, and I believe my sentences are vastly improved for having gone through that mental dissolution.
As for mentors, I never had an “official” one, but around 2006 I became friendly with Ellen Datlow, and she has always offered her excellent advice when needed. But Ellen’s an editor, not a writer, so there’s a limit to the writerly knowledge she can impart. For that there’s Rick Bowes, who writes these amazing semi-autobiographical stories that are full of subtle supernaturalism and so much gritty real-world stuff that you feel they’re more than half-true. If I’ve ever needed advice, not just about writing itself, but the business of it, the career of it, Rick is the person to ask. He’s never given me poor advice in the many years I’ve known him. On top of this, he’s hilarious.
Let’s talk King of Shards: how did this idea come to you and what drove you to the Lamed Vav myth? Did you have to do a lot of research for it?
It came from the day my father said he believe in the myth of the Lamed Vav. At the time, I had never heard of the myth, and so as I read more about it, I became more intrigued. There’s this awful thing that happened to Judaism in the 20th century. Obviously, the Holocaust is a big part of that, but what was also lost, what is seldom spoken about, is the loss of a language. Yiddish, the language of the Jewish people in Europe for a thousand years, has been pretty much erased in a generation. You’ll still hear it spoken among the ultra-orthodox communities around the world. But secular, every-day Yiddish is gone, except for a few small, close-knit communities. There are many reasons for this: immigrants to the U.S. who wanted their children to Americanize, the push for Hebrew as the national language of Israel in the early 20th century, the Nazis, etc..
Language is intimately tied up with culture, so as this kid growing up in secular Long Island, with no knowledge of Yiddish except as this Germanic language my grandparents spoke so the kids wouldn’t understand, I was cut off from a millennium of culture. In Yiddish there are all these little superstitious phrases, like when you mention someone’s age you always add, “Until 120 years!” Or if you mention someone’s good fortune, you always add “No Evil Eye!” You call your beautiful children “ugly” so heaven won’t see you boasting and send you a judging angel. When I started to look into all these myths and superstitions, my eyes opened, and I realized the tradition I had been raised in held all these amazing secrets and stories. These days I study Yiddish as a way to connect with my culture without having to be tied to religious observance. Also, because it’s fun.
I did a ton of research for King of Shards, but it never felt like work, because I enjoyed every new discovery. I realized I had been sitting on a great treasure all along.
I love character-driven stories; how fun was writing the characters in King of Shards? Give us a few hints about your character creation process. Which ones were the hardest to write and which came out easily?
It was incredibly fun! It’s always hard for me to describe how I create characters because I think a lot of what happens occurs subconsciously, and when I try to describe the process, it sounds cheesy or cliché. But here goes: I start with an image in my head of a motivation. What does my character want? What does she look like? What is her class and job? Why can’t she get what she wants? What stands in her way? I try as much as possible to put myself in the character’s head, to feel what she feels, think what she thinks. I force them to interact with other characters, to have others challenge them and call into question their motivations or prevent them from getting what they want. It’s where a character is separated from her desires that stories happen.
Daniel Fisher, the Lamed Vavnik, was the hardest to write. He’s literally a saint, keeping the world alive by his good deeds. While that makes for a great human being, it doesn’t make for a good genre fiction character. So, like above, I had to challenge him. Ashmedai, the demon king, continually challenges Daniel’s assumptions and motivations until Daniel breaks his own moral code and becomes something else. Part of the challenge was getting Daniel to that point and making his motivations realistic.
The easiest to write was Ashmedai. He’s the demon king, cast out of hell, which is called Sheol in King of Shards, and stripped of his power. He’s been spurned not only by his wife, Mashit, who usurped the throne, but by God herself (the demons in King of Shards refer to God in the feminine), who has smashed his world and left him and his brethren adrift without a home. So he’s full of righteous indignation, searching for a way out of suffering. But he’s a demon, and so his methods are not what we would deem moral or righteous.
Rana was also heck of a lot of fun to write. She’s at heart an artist, and her explosive creativity has, at times, mirrored my own.
What should people expect from the series going forward? Where is it going next?
I’ll try to avoid spoilery details! In the second book, Queen of Static, I travel away from only Judaic myths into the myths of other faiths, and I explore how each tradition might interpret the same idea. So we see, for example, how a Buddhist monk might see a Lamed Vavnik as a bodhisattva, an essentially selfless being. In King of Shards I suggest that not all the Lamed Vav are Jewish, and in Queen of Static I run with that idea.
In Queen of Static there’s a lot more focus on Earth and Sheol and the changes taking place there since the events of SHARDS. It’s about how the media manipulate us, about how destructive narcissism is. After King of Shards ended, there were still many loose threads, so Queen of Static continues a few months after Shards leaves off. I think readers will be pleasantly surprised where I’ve taken the story.
You’ve also edited a magazine for a few years. How fun (or not fun) is it being an editor? What did you like about it most and would you do it again?
Editing Sybil’s Garage was great! I highly recommend, for all aspiring writers, to read slush at least one point in your life. When you have fifty stories to read before the end of the week, very quickly you’re able to see when an editor stops reading. Seeing stories from the other side of the transom gives you a different perspective on your own work, how you must hold the editor’s attention. Of course every editor has her tastes, but it’s a good experience to have.
For me, the best part was building something from scratch. I tried to make each issue of Sybil’s Garage a work of art, and I think that’s apparent in the design, but also in the selection of stories we published. It was a lot of work, and it took me away from my own writing, which is why I ultimately had to stop. But I would definitely edit again if I found the time. I’ve been wanting to edit an anthology for ages.
Here’s one question many writers dread, but I ask it anyway: what is your advice for young writers today?
My advice is this: shut up and write. I used to read all this writing advice, buy all these books, and read as much as I could online. Once I was in a bookstore, reading yet another writing advice book, and it said, “Why are you reading this now? Why aren’t you writing?” And it hit me then that all of these things are just distractions our subconscious uses to keep us from actually writing. Sure, you might glean this or that from a book or article. But at the end of the day, the only thing that’s going to help you improve your writing is to write more. Make sure to see my comment above about constructive feedback.
Also, the sooner you can develop a thick skin, the better off you will be. The writing life is full of rejection and heartbreak. You can spend five years working on your epic novel only to have it sit in a drawer because no one wants to buy it. You can have your favorite story rejected twenty times by all your favorite markets. You can have your beloved author or review site pan your work. Etc., etc. You have to learn not to care about this too much. It’s really hard, because we’re social creatures and primed to seek approval from others. I still struggle with this. But at the end of the day you have to just acknowledge the hurt and put your derrière back in the chairière and do the old clackety-clack.
Lastly, where can we find you? Do you stop by conventions or other spec fic events? Is there anything else you’d like to plug?
My horror story, “Demon in Aisle 6” is just out in Nightmare Magazine. You can read it here: http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/demon-in-aisle-6/
I’m on the usual social networking sites, Facebook, G+, Twitter. I occasionally blog with writing updates and angry rants about this or that on my blog at www.matthewkressel.net.
I’ll be attending Arisia in Boston in January, and I will be attending Readercon in Boston in June, and the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus in November.
I also co-host the Fantastic Fiction at KGB with Ellen Datlow, so if you’re ever in New York City, you can stop by there and say hi. Our schedule is always here: www.kgbfantasticfiction.org.
Matthew, thank you for this interview and good luck with your future writing!
This was fun, Iulian! Thank you so much for having me!
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