Matt Phillips is banging out work like tomorrow has been designated as the official last day in history, and all of it is of the highest quality. His Know Me from Smoke was one of my favourite of last year, and Countdown just piles on the admiration. His new one, You Must Have a Death Wish is locked, loaded, and ready on my Kindle.
A friend of mine doesn’t read fiction, paraphrasing Frank Skinner about it all being made-up and he has no time for any of that (???). What words do you have for such a philistine?
Oh, man! I’ve heard this one before. Look, the best way for a human being to understand a reality outside his/her own perception is to dive into another’s psyche. This is what the best fiction always is—a foray into a reality outside and independent of the self. Reading fiction is about exploring. It’s about seeing/feeling/understanding somebody else. You don’t have time to explore alternate perceptions than your own? That’s on you—I simply can’t help you.
What must a protagonist have to make you read on?
You know, there’s a lot of things I love in a great protagonist. I think some charm goes a long way—even for crooks—and I love a good sense of humor. I like serious characters too, but if you can combine noir or crime with a comedic element…I’ll read through to the end. That’s for damn sure.
Do you need a likeable protagonist?
Well, a protagonist doesn’t have to be like-able to be enthralling or captivating or amazing. Like I said before, the point is to escape part of my own reality. Reading about people I ‘like’ is rarely going to do that for me. Instead, I ‘like’ conflicted characters, people grappling with moral and ethical questions. Let’s explore the human animal—do that with a character and you’re making art.
Name a great antagonist, novel or movie, and what they do for you.
Well, I just read Alec Cizak’s phenomenal noir novel, Breaking Glass. His protagonist is really—in the end—a kind of antagonist. That role reversal, I think, is one of the most fascinating tropes in noir. Chelsea Farmer is someone you root for from the beginning, but even as she makes good decisions the world decides to chew her up. And that moment when she becomes the chief evil in the story is at once brilliant, horrifying, and understandable. Make no mistake, Breaking Glass is one of the great noir novels of the past decade. I have no doubt of this.
What makes you throw a book out the window?
Lack of distinct voice. That’s always number one for me. If I feel like anybody could have written the book with a ghostwriter, I’m not going to read. I just don’t give a shit about it. I used to help select films for a major film festival and here’s the deal: I can watch the first three minutes of a film and know immediately whether I’m in good hands, whether the director has a distinct vision. Same thing with books. Only takes a few paragraphs. I’m quick to stop reading—life’s too short, man.
Do you grit your teeth all the way to the end of a dodgy novel?
Nope. See above. Life’s too short to slog through a book. There’s too much great shit out there.
What gets you writing? A great novel, maybe? Something you saw on the street or on TV? Something else?
Yeah—I’m definitely inspired by reading a great book. I try to write five days a week no matter what, but reading something great always helps. I’m fueled by great music and film as well. I’m always searching for the next incredible piece of art or storytelling. I have to say, hanging with other writers or storytellers will do it too. Got a great bit of inspiration from attending Bouchercon. I’ll be at Left Coast Crime this year—hoping for the same fix.
What did you learn about writing from the last book you wrote?
This shit just DOES NOT get any easier. It’ll always be a hill to climb—that’s what being a writer is, never giving up.
What’s your next book, in 30 words or less?
Well, here’s a brief primer: A rural American noir, part murder ballad and part coming-of-age story. Follows two buddies from a small town—one went to war, and the other didn’t. Now they’re back together.
Where can readers connect with you?