Interview with Matt Spencer, author of Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt: A Tangle of Yarns

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My Doodles Ate Me congratulates author Matt Spencer on the release of his book, Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt! Let's welcome him on the blog for an interview with us today. Read on!

1. What inspired you to write Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt?

All the stories in the book came from different places, different mindsets and approaches, from radically different points in my life. A number of things inspired me to assemble this collection as I did. Ever since I was reading with studying the craft of writing in mind, short story collections were one of my favorite things to chew through. It’s like getting the grand tour of an author’s range. To this day, my three favorite short story collections by beloved authors are Wormwood by Poppy Z. Brite, High Cotton by Joe R. Lansdale, and Tales of Pain and Wonder by Caitlin R. Kiernan. To any author who practices the craft of the short story, putting out your first solid collection is a sort of milestone, if you will…to get enough of a professional writing career under your belt that you can narrow down a body of work that you feel proud of and confident enough in to fill a whole volume. I like to think, now, anyone who already reads my stuff and knows they like it, if they wanna get other readers turned on to me, they can hand ’em this book and say, “Here ya go. Read some of these stories. After the first few of ’em, you’ll have a good idea if this crazy bastard’s work is your thing.” Also, I wanted to experiment with independent publishing. I’ve had some rotten luck working with traditional publishers, and I’d been chatting and taking notes with a lot of fellow author friends – mostly lovely folks who I connected with at conventions and such – who’d gone the independent publishing route and had a good deal of success with it. The only way I’ve usually managed to get good at anything in life is to try my hand at it through trial and error, and hopefully not royally fuck myself in the process. Doing a short story collection just seemed like the obvious first experiment for that kind of business. I’ve learned a lot in the process, had more positive results than not, and I think next time, I’ll be even better prepared and can get even more out of it. It’s definitely been an exciting time for me lately as a writer.

2. Can you tell us what kind of research went behind the book?

I think the only story here where research was a major factor was The Proper Word Is Blackmail, since it’s set in Victorian London. That’s part of the Frederick Hawthorne series, which was really originally inspired by my childhood love of all things Gothic Horror, both the classic Victorian novels and all those great old Universal and Hammer films…and of course detective fiction, which really first took off with Sherlock Holmes, who as an iconic character, in a lot of ways, is just a step or two removed from guys like, say, Dracula, Mr. Hyde, or the Phantom of the Opera, so I wanted to explore a similar duality with Frederick as a protagonist. Of course, that also meant researching the real time period, which only blew my imagination wider open to the possibilities. So I’ve done a lot of research on that time period over the years. I like to refresh myself on it and learn new stuff, whenever I go back to writing those stories. The wild thing about that is, I originally dreamed up Frederick Hawthorne from bits and pieces of all that romanticized literary and cinematic iconography…but the more research I did, and the clearer I visualized him as a three-dimensional character, a man of his time, the more plausible it felt that a guy like that might have actually existed, under the right hypothetical combination of circumstances…maybe not in such a romanticized capacity, but why let that get in the way of spinning a ripping good yarn, right? Sometimes the unexpected things I learn in the research set off the new story. Other times, I’m just in the mood to explore that kind of archaic, atmospheric aesthetic, and that background of information is just there in the back of my mind, so I’m prepared. TPWIB is more the latter kind of Hawthorne story.

Oh yeah, and there’s Have Some Dragon’s Blood. I got the idea because I found out there was a kind of incense called Dragon’s Blood, so I wound up doing research on the history of incense. That’s a funny thing about this racket. You just never know what you’re gonna end up researching. Plus, of course, there’s all that lore and mythology out there about dragons, from all over the world, and that…that just doesn’t even feel like work, you know? My presentation of dragons in my fantasy fiction is largely my own take, but of course it’s laced through and through with dragon lore I’ve read about from all over the world. Of particular relevance is stuff from pre-Christian European lore, in juxtaposition with how dragons in those stories were distorted beyond recognition in later retellings.

As to the straight-up sword-and-sorcery fantasy stuff…obviously, that’s all set in a far-away made-up world out of my own twisted imagination, but it’s of course informed-upon by all sorts of history and mythology from all over the place, that I’ve studied here and there and absorbed over the years…so of course it informs upon how I depict all those made-up people and cultures and situations. One thing I always shoot for when writing that kind of fantasy, is I never want the reader to look at things like the clashing cultures, like the Schomites and the Spirelights, and go, “Ah-hah, so these guys here are an allegory for this or that in the real world.” Like in Avatar, how you have these blue aliens who are all basically old-Hollywood Native American stereotypes with the serial numbers filed off. That sort of thing is just painfully outdated and lazy to me, so I try to not do that. At the same time, it’s not like anyone creates fantasy worlds in a bubble, from nowhere, so of course there’s still all sorts of influences, a lot of common occurrences throughout the history of human nature, that went into how I crafted the Deschembine histories and cultures. I’m sure readers with the right kind of eye will spot what I did there. 

The one story here where I arguably should have done more hard research before calling it done is The Reverend. Because technically, yes, it’s a period piece, as in set in a specific era before my lifetime, though still within living memory. I really just shot from the hip there, from my impressions of the time period, based on a lot of crazy anecdotes I’ve listened to, from people who were actually there, plus from movies about the era. Easy Rider jumps to mind as an example. Plus, since it is within living memory, a lot of what goes on, the kind of lifestyle the characters are living, isn’t really all that unrelatable or far removed from a kind of countercultural lifestyle you can still find and experience today, particularly up here in hippie-ville Vermont, so it wasn’t such a leap. Still, like I say in the story-notes at the end of the book, anything I got right, thank those direct sources, and anything I got wrong…well, I hope you still had a good time reading it.

3. How did you celebrate the first sale of your book?

You mean the first time someone actually bought a copy of the thing, that I know of for sure, specifically? That would have to have been at the release party we threw at Echo, which is also the restaurant I work at for my day job. If you’re ever in Brattleboro, stop in for dinner. Good eats. So anyway, whoever it was who first bought a copy, I took their ten bucks, signed the book for them, then we probably did shots of Jameson together or something. 

4. Which is your favorite story from Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt and why? Pick one!

I’m gonna go with Kids Say The Weirdest Things. This may sound odd, considering what a casually messed-up, one might say mean-spirited story it is…but how it came about, I honestly associate with what was truly the happiest time in my life so far, looking back. I certainly can’t say that about where most of my stories come from on a personal level. Plus, it was a bit of an experimental departure for me, which I seem to have pulled off, because everyone I’ve heard from who’s read the book, they almost always mention it as one of their favorites, so I ain’t gonna argue with that.

5. What are some of the biggest challenges or learning experiences you faced throughout the writing and publishing process?

In short, how to self-promote. I listen to the advice of other authors in the same boat, take all those notes, take as many of the steps as possible within my means, but my brain often just feels Sisypheanly ill-wired, neurologically, to master the required skillsets. I’m getting better at it, though, little by little.

6. Do you get creative blocks or burnouts? How do you get out of those, if and when you do?

Of course I do. Any author, no matter how great or respected, who tells you otherwise is lying. That said, the realer shit gets professionally, the less you have the option to treat it as a hobby, that you can take and leave as you feel like it. At a certain point, if you’re serious about this shit, you have to set aside the writing time, and when you’re there, you’re there to write something. A good way to stay active is to remember that the first draft doesn’t need to be good, let alone fit for public consumption. It just has to get written. The first draft is telling the story to yourself.

7. What do you like to do when you are not writing or reading?

I love sparring and studying martial arts, for one thing. I’m big into fencing and medieval longsword armored combat. I do that every week at a local studio, where I’m the assistant instructor to both kids and adults. Often after the students leave, the head instructor and I stick around to get into more hardcore training and sparring. It keeps me in good physical condition, even though I’m pushing 40 and don’t shrug off injuries quite like I used to. It’s also a healthy outlet for all my aggression, of which, not gonna lie here, I have quite a bit. That also helps with the writing, because I love to write swashbuckling action scenes, I love rendering those for the reader as electrically and viscerally as possible. It’s been…wow…the better part of a decade, I think, since I got into a real fistfight or anything like that, so it’s cool to have a sporting, won’t-get-me-arrested-or-worse way to keep in touch with that raw, unapologetically savage part of myself. Incidentally, I regard the ability to write strong action scenes as a supple, underappreciated literary art. It’s harder than it looks, to put the reader there, on a kinetic, sensory level.

I also like to kick back at the local pub, with the fellow weirdos and misfits of my little community, preferably with some live music happening. Local live theatre is also something we have around here, and I’ve recently rediscovered the joys of keeping up with that. Finding time to get away into the woods for a while is also a must. Spending time with my girlfriend Laura, in any capacity, still puts my head in the clouds yet also reminds me to stay grounded and keep it real…even if most days, it’s the best I can do to keep it surreal.

8. Tell us something personal about you that your readers may be surprised to know.

Since Laura talked me into switching to a plant-based diet, I feel like I’m ten years younger, lighter and spryer. Everyone should try it. Don’t believe me? Ask the ol’ Roman gladiators. 

9. What's next?

My next novel, Changing of the Guards, comes out in March, from a new publisher called Azure Spider Publications. It’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel, about an international police agent who we first meet in the service of a tyrannical theocracy. I don’t wanna give too much away here, but basically, he finds out that some higher-ups have betrayed and lied to him, so he snaps and goes rogue, against the social power structure he’s been raised to serve and protect. He teams up with a tribal freedom-fighter he was originally assigned to hunt down, and it’s about their uneasy partnership, how it changes them both, and as a result, how they change the world around them, in ways that are good, bad, and, er, jury’s-still-out. After that, my next independent book will be a short novel, The Renegade God. It’s a loose sequel/spin-off to CotG, featuring a couple of supporting characters I met therein, who’ve since come into their own as recurring protagonists in novellas and short stories. CotG is a pretty deeply personal book, where I let myself go crazy, get experimental, push the envelope some, and bleed from some raw nerves onto the page. I actually tried to say a few things. I’m excited and nervous and morbidly curious about how it’ll ultimately go over with readers. TRG, like I said, is a spin-off from that, but is written to stand on its own, as more of just a straight-up wild, fun action-adventure yarn, hopefully the start of its own series. I expect to release that one sometime in late Summer of 2019.

10. Lastly, any special thoughts for our readers?

Keep it weird, my friends.

Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt: A Tangle of Yarns

by Matt Spencer

Publication Date: September 1st 2018
Published by: Back Roads Carnival Books
Page count: 359

Gather round, folks. Pull up a chair. Grab a drink. Make yourself comfortable...while you still can. There's a maniac loose in society, and he's here to tell you some stories.

Stories of the vengeful ghosts, psychotic vagrants, zombie dogs, junkies, musicians, traumatized Veterans, road-tripping vampires, church socials that go demonically wrong, and shady antiques dealers, all of whom haunt the backroads and small towns of Vermont.

Stories of ruthless men and women who live and die by the sword, driven by untamed, primordial passions, hacking out their survival in ancient, devil-haunted realms.

Welcome to Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. Don't get lost, unless that's what you came here to do.

Buy the book

About the author

Matt Spencer is the author of the novels The Night and the Land, Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere, Cult of the Stars (illustrated by Deirdre Burke) and The Drifting Soul (illustrated by Stephen R. Bissette), as well as numerous novellas and short stories (including award-winners The Red Duke and Petticoat Lane), and the collection, Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt.

Mister Spencer has been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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