Monday, July 30, 2012

Dark Fantasy Author: Todd Maternowski #AuthorInterview

Todd, you describe yourself as a Dark Fantasy author. What does that entail?

Realism with a hint of hope. A lot of fantasy is very this-is-good, this-is-evil black and white, and real life just doesn't work that way. No one is out there dressed in all black, spending tens of billions of their hard-earned cash on doomsday devices (not since the Cold War, anyway). Bad guys are motivated by the same things as good guys, and the differences are often only cosmetic. That said, life isn't all bleakness and horror: there's quite a bit of upside to being alive. A relentlessly negative book would probably be relentlessly unreadable. You've got to have that speck of light for any of the darkness to have effect. That's what the best dark fantasy authors do extremely well.

I downloaded your book, Golem. You list it as Horror. Can you give us a bit of background on it?

My wife and I went to Prague for our honeymoon, and it was magical. One of the many intriguing places in the city was the Old New Synagogue in the Jewish quarter. Allegedly, four hundred years ago the Christians in the city were ready to storm into the Jewish quarter and start another pogrom, so a very wise and learned rabbi went down to the banks of the river and fashioned a "golem" out of clay. Using kabalistic magic, the rabbi breathed life into the golem, ordering it to protect the Jews in the city. It did its job, perhaps too well: depending on the legend, the golem may have gone out into the Christian part of the city and started killing people. Regardless, the Hapburg Emperor intervened, promising that no harm would come to the Jews if they would lock up the golem. So they did, keeping it in the attic of the synagogue... where, the guides and gift shop people will gladly tell you, is still there to this day. We walked around the synagogue, and wouldn't you know it: there's a freaking ladder leading right up to the (presumably locked) attic door! I HAD to get in there, but since committing crimes was not on our honeymoon agenda, I decided to write about it instead. It may not seem like a traditional "horror" story, but... keep reading.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I fought the urge for decades. I'd always pictured "writers" as self-absorbed narcissists with an overwrought sense of importance, so I slaved away at trying to be a productive member of society until Dec. 2010, when I finally gave in to my friend's repeated requests and read George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones." I had read Tolkien as a kid and Neil Gaiman in my early 30s, but absolutely zero fantasy other than that up to that point. Martin was different: there were no high-sounding elves with poles up their rears, no cardboard evil wizards or bland one-note heroes slaying entire armies without getting a scratch. To say I was entertained is an understatement: I was inspired: "I can write like this. I *should* write like this." Before I'd finished reading the first book in Martin's series, I was already hard at work starting my own.

That's great! What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I'm blessed to work from home for an online news site, so I can manage my own schedule. My daytimes are full of being a dad to a three year-old girl, so after she goes to sleep, after my full-time work is done and there are no more distractions, I can write in complete silence.

Ah, yes... silence often comes after all are asleep in the household. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
I'm a storyteller, and hate literary gimmicks. I just write in a straight-ahead third-person narrative with very little experimentation, no unreliable narrators, no clever wordplay, etc. Those things tend to distract rather than add, and I want the reader as fully immersed in the world of my novel as humanly possible. Anything that reminds the reader that they are reading a book is a big taboo for me. The characters and settings need to be as real as the ones outside for a novel to really work. 

Nothing getting in the way of the story, right? How do your books get published? Traditional or Indie?
I tried traditional on my first go-around, and was rejected by 43 of the 43 agents I queried. Going over a list of 100+ fantasy publishing houses, I was shocked to find that only three of them accepted submissions from unknown authors, and that the waiting period for a *possible* callback would be 12 to 18 months (not to mention that 40% of them were out of business... on a list that was just two years old. Imagine that.) Having worked in plenty of other industries that are not on the verge of catastrophic collapse, I couldn't fathom how any of these houses stayed in business. The model itself is sick --if Walmart or Best Buy operated like the publishing industry, they'd be out of business in a week-- and I couldn't justify wasting my time sitting by the phone waiting for some phantom phone call. And that's not even mentioning the horror stories from traditionally published authors regarding titles, cover art, lack of marketing, and editorial direction. So I went indie after two months of waiting, and while I'm not successful financially I have found the process extremely rewarding artistically. I didn't even consider going traditional for my second book. There's simply no good reason to do so.

Well, times sure do change fast. I'm glad you found an audience. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Since I started writing fantasy, I started reading the competition: Abercrombie, Gene Wolfe, Eco, Herbert. I've always loved Russian literature from the 1800s, as well as Dungeons and Dragons, and have tried to meld both influences through my books. The setting of my novels was a D&D campaign I had been designing for years, but knew that I would never get the chance to use (all my friends, like myself, are lame working dads in their mid-30s). So I created different versions of myself through the years, shaped them into the four main characters and put them in a world I find extremely interesting. The side benefit to fantasy is that you don't need to do a lot of research into how things really operate in the real world: nevertheless, I tried to remain as grounded as possible, particularly with something as tricky and over-abused as magic.

Ha, ha, too much magic can take away suspense. Do you have any suggestions to help our readers become a better writers? If so, what are they?
Yes! Ignore the vast majority of advice for self-published authors, because most of it is obsessed with marketing, not writing. If you want to spend your entire life marketing, go join a marketing firm. If you want to be a writer, write what you need to say, not what you think will sell. This is not a "career," this is an artistic pursuit. The idea of authors becoming rich off their books is a relatively new concept, and incredibly short-sighted. Second: go as deep as possible. Don't hold back because you're worried your grandma will read this and think less of you. Go all-in on conflict, desire and pain, even if it embarasses or exposes you personally. If you're worried that imaginary readers might not like a certain scene or plot line, you'd better be doing this for money and nothing else.

I agree. Writing is a chance to explore those forbidden emotions and dark secrets. What do you think makes a good story?
Conflict, conflict, conflict. The protagonist needs to want something, and someone or something needs that same thing. That's the core of every great story, whether it's a twenty-second parable or a 8000-page multi-volume fantasy series.

Thanks for talking with us. I wish you best of luck with your career.

Todd Maternowski
Available on Amazon Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and everywhere else eBooks are sold
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  1. Hi, Todd and Rachelle! insightful interview. Thanks for the glimpse into your life :-) I'm glad you didn't wait on the traditional houses. I haven't been particularly impressed with most of them, and with perseverance, success often comes as we Indies find our audience. I'll certainly check out your books, now.

  2. Thanks Dariel! While I'm sure some of the traditional publishing companies will eventually come around, it probably won't happen for a while... no need to wait for them anymore, tho!