Matthew, my first question is about Scotland and its people. What are Scottish people like?
I moved to Scotland from England when I was sixteen years old. Apart from plenty of banter about my English accent, what I found was a beautiful country, the best sense of humour in the western world, and, later, my future wife. Not a bad trade, all things considered!
When did you first learn that you want to become a writer? And what motivated you to keep working in this field?
I can remember writing a story in primary school and the teacher asking me to read it to older pupils. The notion of writing creatively never really left me after that. Soon after I left university I started to dabble again, and before long I was submitting to websites and magazines. What motivates me? Never quite knowing whether I have the ability to command a reader’s attention or whether all previous successes have been flukes. Self-doubt is an effective stimulant for writers; we are only as compelling as our next story.
Is your focus mainly on writing short stories? Which one of your short stories is most read and liked by readers?
Like three-quarters of those with a pulse, I (perhaps mistakenly!) like to think I have a novel in me. For now, I am juggling writing with a full-time job, a family, and doctoral studies, so shorter fiction suits me better. I can flit from writing about a Hebridean cottage in the 1800s to a futuristic population cull. If a piece doesn’t work, I can discard it without binning years of research and toil. I’ve no idea which of my pieces are most read or liked, but my personal favourites are the ones for which I’ve had to work hardest and research the most. Watan, published by Literally Stories, was stylistically testing, whereas Light in the Blackhouse required months of reading and research.
Who is your most favourite, non-famous short story writer? Why do you like her/his works?
My daughter. She has not long started school, and hers is an imagination unfettered by any concerns of what others may think of her stories. If she wants to tell you a story about fairies and unicorns, then that is what she will do. She writes for her own pleasure alone.
Are you interested in certain topics and genres? Do you always know what exactly you want to write about?
I enjoy writing historical fiction more than any other genre. There is so much richness to explore in the past, and I like the research as much as the writing itself. To make yourself credible as a narrator of times gone by is also an incredible challenge. I am a planner by nature, and this feeds into your next question. I will always work to an idea, if not a defined structure. There is usually a scene or imagined interaction which strikes me as a good basis for a story, and I will build the text around this. It is a cliché, but these ideas often come to me as I am about to fall asleep. I often wake up in the morning to find that I have sent myself near-incomprehensible text messages in the night from which I have to pick out narratives!
Have you ever met a famous author? Could you please name three well-known short story writers whom you’d like to meet one day?
Most of the authors I meet are through academia, so I’m not sure whether they count as famous or not! As for authors that I’d love to meet, Hilary Mantel tops the list for me. Her collection ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is absolutely superb, and of course I would sneak a few questions in about her Thomas Cromwell trilogy as well! I’m cheating here slightly of course, but I’d love to resurrect Ernest Hemingway and Roald Dahl. Both were brilliant writers of the shorter form.
You have a website where you share your works. Do you think having a website is a necessity for all writers? And do you think publishing short stories for free is a good idea?
There is a lot of bogus writing advice out there. One piece of advice which I think does hold true is that a social media presence is important for prospective authors. This absolutely should not be the case; writing should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of how popular the author is on Twitter or Facebook. Nevertheless, I’ve found that as my still-modest follower count on Twitter and my blog has grown, so have my acceptance ratios for pieces. It really is a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, though. Many authors with thousands of followers on Twitter are quite happy to trot out writing advice and to perpetuate ‘writers’ lifts’ to increase their followers, but I see very little end product in terms of stories being written. If you are a writer, then show us, don’t tell. Publish for free if it pleases you. Entertain. Titillate. Amuse.
Would you please name your five most favourite (online) literary journals?
I am going to take an overtly biased viewpoint on this and list five journals that have treated me well as a writer. There are a lot of websites, magazines, and journals at present who do not pay writers, insist on no simultaneous submissions, and take many months to confirm whether a piece has been accepted or not. Doubtless they would argue that they are understaffed or that they do not get paid for their work, but we should always remember that writers sell journals, not editors. That being said, the following journals were excellent with me and I would (and have) recommend them to others.
- Literally Stories – fast turnaround times and excellent, down-to-earth editors.
- Shooter Literary Magazine – one of the higher end magazines, the editors worked with me to refine my piece before publishing.
- Close to the Bone Fiction – clear guidelines, approachable editors, and a great niche market for gorier stories.
- Penny Shorts – a website that pays authors according to how many times their work is read – a real incentive to make your work exciting!
- Gutter Magazine – I’ve tried a couple of times to get work published but have always been (very politely) knocked back. Gutter is still on my list of journals I want to publish in eventually.
Who are your three favourite fictional characters? Do you think you’ve been successful at creating believable characters for your stories?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge my own characters, but some favourites from others’ fiction are as follows:
Arthur in ‘The Once and Future King’ by T.H.White – unusually for a sword-and-tights epic, Arthur is not clever, strong, or handsome. He simply means well, and it is this quality which makes him such an excellent protagonist for a tragedy.
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell – probably the most vivid, complex, and believable character I’ve ever read. After three books, I’m still not sure whether I like or despise him. Perfectly judged.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in Amor Towles’ ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. Not a common choice, I’ll grant you, but I love his understated patience and humility amongst so much hostility and intrigue. Well worth a read.
Do you edit your works yourself or do you ask a friend to edit them for you? Do you have some beta readers?
I’m of the opinion that if an editor sees a piece of work too soon then it will likely wither in the light. I like to draft, polish, then sit on my work for a while before handing it over to my wife, who is my best critic. She is an unfailingly good judge, if only because I can tell when a piece is compelling because she doesn’t get up to make herself a cup of coffee when she is reading it for the first time!