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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Interview w/ Matthew Wayne Selznick

No need for introductions; the interview speaks for itself. Enjoy!

Thank you for doing this interview with me. First, tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into writing and podcasting, etc.? A brief bio if you will.

Thanks for having me!

What got me into writing and podcasting are two different things, but I suppose they have common roots. For as long as I can remember, I have needed to tell stories. The telling can take different forms, from being a child and making up complicated, multi-day adventures acted out between dozens of toy soldiers, dinosaurs and other action figures to writing and performing songs and, of course, writing

I wrote because I read. The earliest things I remember reading are Ray Bradbury's short stories and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels...and comics. Which is kinda of interesting, because Bradbury's early influences are Edgar Rice Burroughs and newspaper comic strip serials. Might be why I've called Bradbury my "story father."

As far as podcasting goes... I've been a DIY (do it yourself) kind of guy since the mid-eighties, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, playing in punk bands. The basic premise of the DIY ethic is this: if you want to make something, make it. If you want to show it to people, put it out there. Don't wait for someone else to offer you a venue, or a deal -- do it yourself.

When I first heard about podcasting in October of 2004, it sounded to me like pure DIY: record a "radio" show, throw it on the Internet where you can say anything and do anything and anyone anywhere can hear it. I was sold. I released my first podcast on October 15, 2004... about a week or so after I discovered the medium.

Your first published novel is Brave Men Run, a novel about a world in which people with extraordinary powers reveal themselves and demand sovereignty, thus changing the social fabric. What exactly made you want to write this kind of novel? Why a superhero novel that isn't really about superheroes or clashes between good and evil, but about people--ordinary and otherwise--dealing with a dramatic shift in how the world operates?

Largely because, as much as I love comics in general and super-hero comics specifically, I know they're not a real representation of how the world would really be if people with superpowers existed. Sure, some authors, like Alan Moore in "Watchmen," for example, have examined the superhero genre in a more realistic setting, but even "Watchmen" is a piece of metafiction -- it's about the genre as much as it is _in_ the genre.

I just don't believe that if a person discovered they could fly, or bend steel in their bare hands, or whatever... I don't think their first inclination would be to dress up in a costume, put on a mask and fight (or cause) crime. It would take a very unique (read: crazy) personality type, and even in a world where superpowers are common, I just don't see a superhero / supervillain culture developing.

As far as clashes between good and evil... again, the world just isn't like that. People are driven by their motivations, their needs and desires. That rarely results in anything so black and white as "good" or "evil." Everyone is a little of both, and just how much of either is in the eye of the beholder.

Finally, I like telling stories about people. Folks call "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" a "superhero book" because that's the easiest way to categorize it, but to me, the Sovereign Era stories are about people, fundamentally just like you and me, trying to make the most of the world they've been given... just like you and me.

Would you say that it might be more possible to have cape-wearing superheroes in a world like ours where superhero culture is so widespread and popular? Or do you see people who found out they had super abilities keeping such things secret?

I think some folks might do it -- in fact, some people without super powers actually do dress up and fight crime:

These people are pretty clearly influenced by comics and comic-book culture, and that gives them a little "out" in terms of their own, um, sanity. If there were people with actual super-powers in our world, would they be influenced by comics or would the comics have been influenced by them? Chicken / egg, I guess.

In the Sovereign Era, super-hero comics never had a chance to really be part of western culture, so that archetype doesn't exist.

Brave Men Run is set in the 1980s. What about this era made you want to set a story in it? (Are you secretly into hair bands?)

"Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" is set in 1985 for two reasons:

Number one, that was the most volatile era of recent human history. The Cold War was at its hottest since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States and the Soviet Union fought wars by proxy in the Middle East, Central and South America and elsewhere. If I'm going to introduce the presence of individuals with remarkable, often dangerous abilities, dramatically there's no better time -- it's one more
burning cigarette to drop in the dry brush of the world stage, a great set-up for global stress and conflict.

Number two, "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" is a coming of age story. I was a teenager, albeit a little older than the main character, Nate Charters, in 1985. I'm pretty sure my experience as a teenager is different from the experiences of being a teenager today... so, I wrote what I knew.

Setting the book -- and the beginning of the Sovereign Era -- in the middle of the eighties also lets me have fun with cultural references and allows me to use the technical limitations of the time in interesting ways. Remember when you couldn't make or get a phone call whenever and wherever you like? That's the eighties, man!

And, yeah, I Iike hair bands. Long hair and short hair.

(Do you have a favorite 80s band?)

Probably the two bands who had the most lasting influence on me since the eighties (and still) would be X and fIREHOSE.

Your novel is primarily a teenage coming-of-age story that rides over the deep impact of a social upheaval. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write a story that made one young man's almost isolated struggle the central concern rather than the grander, society-rupturing subplot that has been seen in certain forms elsewhere (such as in X-men with the focus on anti-mutant movements, the government's use of the Sentinels to hunt down mutants, etc.)?

I told the story I wanted to tell. Epic summer blockbuster-style plots have their place, and there will be some of that in future Sovereign Era books and stories, but I'm most interested in telling stories about people in difficult situations... and usually the most difficult situations stem from our relationships with one another.

In "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" and, really, in everything I write, the characters come first. The story of a young man finding his place in a world that's suddenly changing both personally and socially is a compelling idea for me, and I'm the first (and pretty much only) person I write for. Fortunately, "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" has found favor with tens of thousands all over the world, which is a lucky break for me!

What made you choose to write Brave Men Run in an exceptionally open first person? Was this intended for the podcast, or simply the way the character came to you?

The book wasn't written for podcasting -- the decision to podcast the novel came a few months before I finished writing it, more or less, because I wanted to distribute it in as many forms as possible. When "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" came out in November of 2005, it was the first novel ever to be be simultaneously released in paperback, several DRM-free e-book formats, and free podcast editions.

As far as the first-person point of view, I didn't really give that much thought -- it seemed obvious to me. I don't mean that to sound like I'm a know-it-all; far from it. I just mean that if I'm going to tell the story of a young guy discovering himself, we should discover him, too... and being in his head the entire way just felt natural. It gave me the chance to show the reader just how much of a teenager
Nate Charters was, too -- complete with the frustrated rebellion, the selfishness and the overly-dramatic reactions. It was fun!

What drew you to Swarm Press? Or, how did you get Brave Men Run published as a printed novel (your journey to publication, if you will)?

Similar to my interaction with St. Martin's Press in 2007, the publisher of Swarm Press approached _me_ in 2008. Previous to that, "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" had been available as a paperback from my own MWS Media, printed and shipped through I never sought out traditional publication.

In the spring of 2008, the owner of Permuted Press, a successful horror / zombie house, wanted to launch a second imprint with a greater variety of genre books -- Swarm Press. He wanted to begin with a few "superhero novels." He found "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" through and reached out to me. The
Swarm Press edition of "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" was released on July 13, 2008 with a brand new cover and some minor editorial polish.

What do you think are some advantages of being with a particularly small press like Swarm over a larger press, if any? What about disadvantages?

Well, the biggest advantage to being with a small press is probably the fact that someone else other than myself is taking care of tracking distribution and sales -- which of course is exactly what a large press would do, too.

Another, lesser advantage is that some readers will perceive a book as being higher quality if it is not self-published, even though the text is fundamentally identical to the self-published edition. I've certainly sold more copies of the Swarm Press paperback than I have the self-published edition -- since very little marketing was done by Swarm, I have to assume it's the association with an "established"
publisher, however small, that has helped sell those books.

As far as disadvantages, I think it's easier to talk in terms of a lack of any real advantage, at least in this instance with this book. Swarm Press does not have brick-and-mortar distribution, so "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" is available in the same online venues the self-published edition was. While Swarm did purchase a little advertising in print genre publications, this didn't result in
any noticeable bump in sales, and no other marketing was done by the publisher.

This is not uncommon, nor is it unexpected -- small presses have very little budget and are usually run by one or two people, so resources and time are limited, too. Of course most new authors signed to a large press will face the same issues on a different scale: a large publisher is going to dedicate most of their resources to the handful of established authors who will earn the publisher the most money, and
first-time authors will often have to fend for themselves.

In the long run, it may be that the DIY approach is gaining ground. I own the electronic rights to "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era," and the Kindle and Apple App Store (iPhone and iPod Touch) e-book editions routinely outsell the Swarm Press paperback by about three to one.

What one piece of advice would you offer to budding writers out there?

Self-publishing is a viable option that is gaining respectability and market share. However, self-publishing is not a shortcut. Whatever you write, however it's released, you must make it the best it can possibly be. A new writer's goal must be to be at least as good as everyone else out there, including traditionally published work.

Take your time. Three-fourths of writing is revision and editing. Don't say "finished" until you've received critiques and feedback from a few people and you've edited and re-written until you're absolutely sick of it. Then, maybe, you might be ready to submit it to an agent or self-publish.

Would you say that one of self-publishing's biggest problem is that not enough people take it seriously enough to really rip apart their work and get it in the best shape humanly possible?

That's part of it, for sure, and that's one of the factors that has created a bias against self-published fiction. Self-publishing is not a short-cut -- if you put out sub-par stuff, people won't give you much of a second chance.

Do you see that changing in the future, or do you think that people will continue to see self-publishing as a shortcut?

I really can't speak for what people might do. I suspect those folks will always be there, shouting into a vacuum. They don't matter, ultimately, because the readers will filter them out.

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming and current projects, such as Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights, etc.?

"Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" is my current and primary project, and I'm very excited about it!

"Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" is a subscription-based ongoing episodic serial fiction webzine. The story follows several friends from near the beginnings of their friendships and through the next twenty years of their lives.

Fans of "Brave Men Run -- A Novel of the Sovereign Era" will be intrigued to know that several supporting characters from that book are the lead characters of "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights." Since "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" begins in 1984, that means eventually we'll see the events of "Brave Men Run - A Novel of the Sovereign Era" through the eyes of those characters.

While "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" takes place in the Sovereign Era setting, the characters are rarely directly affected by the events of the larger world -- much the same way you and I are (I assume) rarely on the evening news. The stories of "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" are about young people learning to be adults, growing and making mistakes and loving and changing along the way.

The stories of "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" are accessible via a paid subscription -- something some say flies in the face of the "everything for free" culture of the Internet. However, I believe plenty of folks are willing to compensate an author for their work, especially when they know their money is going directly to support the
author -- no middleman, no publisher, no intermediary. It's a much more intimate process, a kind of neo-patronage, and that direct connection builds a real relationship between author and reader - something I strongly believe is essential to the future of art.

I hope folks who read this will head over to the Hazy Days website and check it out -- the most economical subscription level gets you a year of content for just $14.99, and there's a free trial if you just want to get you feet wet. Where else can you get twenty five pieces of fiction, a year of entertainment, for the price of a pizza, and know you're helping support independent art to boot?

What are your future plans for your Sovereign Era universe?

Later this year I hope to release "The Sovereign Era: Year One," an small anthology of Sovereign Era fiction written by some of the biggest names in podcast, online and independent fiction. The book will be available in paperback, Amazon Kindle and numerous DRM-free e-book formats. It's in the planning stages as of this writing.

Meanwhile, I occasionally release short stories through my website, and sometimes these are Sovereign Era fiction. I'm also working on the next Sovereign Era novel, "Pilgrimage," and there are other novels in that universe that could be written.

I've also got several short stories and novels I'd like to write that are not associated with the Sovereign Era. Right now, I'm most focused on building up the queue of installments for "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" and getting ahead of schedule there. Since "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" is one of my primary sources of income, I'll have time to write more novels, short stories and everything else if "Hazy
Days and Cloudy Nights" attracts a large subscriber base and is successful.

Is there anything else you'd like folks to know that I might not have touched on here?

I think we've hit it all -- I'd just like to encourage folks to give "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights" a chance. Together, we can help show that patron-supported fiction can be a viable business model for writers of all kinds. I'd love to say I was part of the serial fiction revival, almost as much as I'd like to say I make my living as a writer directly supported by my readers.

Let's make it happen! I'll bring the words.

Now for a silly question: If you could be any species of marsupial, which would you be and why?

I don't know enough about all the species of marsupial to give a really thoughtful answer. Of the species I do know, I'd have to say opossum. Those guys are nasty, ferocious, practically prehistoric little buggers. I respect 'em.

Thanks for the opportunity and for taking the time! This has been fun.


Thanks again to Mr. Selznick for doing this interview. Make sure to check out his website for more information about his past and current projects!

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, Shaun!

    I'm open to taking questions about "Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights," the DIY ethic, publishing and anything else your readers might like to discuss.