Matthew Hughes combines the classic with the cutting-edge. Interview by Violet Kane
No writer exemplifies the sort of creativity and range increasingly available in alternative reality genres today better than Matthew Hughes. His novels provide readers with all the magic of fantasy, the thought-provoking milieu of classic science fiction, the driving mystery of a rousing whodunit and humor to follow in the footsteps of literature's great masters of wit. In other words, if you're a connoisseur of alternative reality fiction that makes you think, but also keeps pages turning, the most pertinent question on your mind should be: "Why aren't I reading Matthew Hughes?" As one of the most eclectic voices in contemporary fiction, Matthew Hughes was kind enough to answer my questions and provide his insights on a variety of subjects from genre to character to his latest work.
V: Your latest release from Night Shade books is Majestrum, a novel set in your Old Earth world, focusing on the character of Henghis Hapthorn. Can you tell us a little about your thinking and your goals behind this book?
MH: My first goal is to entertain. In my fiction, I like to play with ideas and come at reality from different slants, but I always try to remember that my first obligation to the reader is to tell a good story. You have to make them care, and make then laugh now and then. That's what they're paying for.
My goal in developing Henghis Hapthorn has been to see what happens to a character who is perfectly adapted to his society when he discovers that what he thought was bedrock truth has turned out to be mere happenstance. Reality, Hapthorn is finding, is subject to arbitrary change, without notice, as the Great Wheel turns and magic supplants rationalism as the fundamental basis on which the universe operates. It's also fun to draw a character who has great virtues and considerable flaws, though many of the latter are more evident to the reader than they are to Hapthorn himself.
Overall, however, I'm guided by something Jason Williams, one of the partners at Night Shade Books, told me. I'd been writing novels and stories all set in this unlikely far-future milieu I call the Archonate, and telling the tales from the points of view of different heroes, all of them flawed. Jason said he thought Hapthorn was the perfect point-of-view character to bring the Archonate into focus. So I'm doing three Hapthorn novels for Night Shade with that objective in the back of my mind.
V: The front pages of Majestrum promise a new Hapthorn novel, The Spiral Labyrinth forthcoming from Night Shade. Can you give us any previews or speculate on a release date?
MH: The Spiral Labyrinth is the next installment in Hapthorn's development. It's only in the rough-concept stages right now, but I'm planning to start working on it soon because I have to turn it in to NS by March 15, so that it can be in stores by September, 2007. The basic plotline is that Hapthorn becomes separated from his alter ego—the intuitive part of his psyche that has been magically reified and has moved from the back corridors of his mind to share the front parlor of his consciousness—so that our hero has to go in search of him. I'm toying with the idea of transporting them both forward in time, so that they have to cope with an Old Earth where rationalism has completely given way to magic.
V: Do you have any other projects in the works or in development? Do you plan to continue exploring characters in the Old Earth world, or are you hoping to try out something different?
MH: For the time being, I still have plenty to do in the Archonate: I'm contracted for two more Hapthorn novels for Night Shade; in June, The Commons, a novel about Guth Bandar, explorer of the collective unconscious, will be published by Robert J. Sawyer Books; also in June, PS Publishing will release Template, a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Old Earth, but with much of the action taking place on other worlds.
But I am trying "something different," although under a pen name. In February, Pocket Books will bring out Wolverine: Lifeblood, a novel about Marvel's Canadian X-Man, Logan. It's written in a straightforward, hard-boiled style, much different from my Archonate tales. I'd like to do more of that kind of work.
Eventually, I'll try crime writing again. I won the Canadian equivalent of an Edgar before I unexpectedly found myself selling science-fantasy. I have the first 20,000 words of a novel about an Irish-American hit man with Asperger's Syndrome (a mild form of autism) that I'd like to finish. And there's a very big historical novel that I've wanted to write since I was a twenty-something. But that will probably have to continue to wait.
V: Your Old Earth world represents an innovative cross-genre effort. Technology meets magic with a detective or two thrown in. What was your motivation in creating this many-layered world? What prompted you to bring these particular genre elements together?
MH: I wouldn't call it particularly innovative. Science fantasy has been around at least as long as "pure" science fiction. And, of course, I'm heavily influenced by Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, where magic and decadent science cohabit a tired old world that's waiting out its last days before the sun goes out. At the risk of sounding artsy-fartsy, I don't really feel as if I'm creating a world; instead, I'm discovering it as I go from one story, and one point-of-view character, to the next. Like Guth Bandar, I'm exploring the back pastures of my own mind and finding all kinds of interesting stuff.
Using a sleuth as a hero was also no great stretch. The probing investigator is a perfect protagonist if you're out to tell a tale built around a secret; the detective has a built-in motivation to find out what's going on and why—it's what sleuths do, after all. But it's fun when the investigator comes to understand that the coils of the mystery he's unraveling are reaching out to ensnare him. It raises the stakes, which is never a bad idea when you're crafting fiction.
V: Had you read any cross-genre novels before creating the Archonate that inspired you, or enlightened you to the possibilities of mixing elements from traditional publishing genres?
MH: I've read them but not for inspiration. I suppose I'm mixing genres because, at heart, I'm a crime writer who, through a couple of flukes, has fallen down a rabbit hole into the world of SF publishing. So when I get an idea for a story and then start thinking in terms of character and plot, I naturally slip into a crime-writing mode. In fact, one of my favorite characters is Luff Imbry, the Archonate's master criminal. I've done four or five stories about him, all set in the years before he was arrested and rehabilitated (or at least so it seems) in Black Brillion, and I've found them very enjoyable to write. Someday, I'll do a novel about him.
V: One of the things that struck me in reading Black Brillion is the way you stick to a classic character-conflict arch while also telling a traditional whodunnit mystery tale. In my experience, these two are often mutually exclusive. How do you manage to achieve a balance between the two?
MH: It must be intuitive. I'm an intuitive writer. I don't do detailed outlines, but just start out with a rough idea of who my main characters are and how their goals conflict. I get a idea, early on, as to what the story is about, thematically, so I also have a rough concept of how it has to end. Then I just write it, a thousand or two thousand words a day, until it's done.
I don't build my characters so much as I feel them emerge as the story unfolds, but I do consciously look for an inner conflict in my heroes. For me, a villain can be a pure psychopath—I've met them, so I know they exist—but a protagonist who has no self-doubt or who feels no internal push/pull doesn't interest me when I encounter such a hero in someone else's book. So I suppose that type doesn't resonate down in the belly of my psyche, and thus my unconscious doesn't send one up the pipe when we're setting up to write a story.
Looking at it objectively, I believe that character makes story. It doesn't matter how original your premise is, or how well drawn your setting; if it doesn't have a decent facsimile of a human being at the heart of it, there's nothing for the reader to care about. It's just an intellectual exercise, and that's not a story.
V: What sorts of research do you do to prepare for writing a novel? During the course of writing a novel?
MH: None, really. I'm writing about places and times and circumstances that don't exist, so there's nowhere to go and look them up. I rely more on my own life experience. I have had a somewhat unusual life: born into a working-poor family, largely self-educated (I dropped out of university to become a newspaper reporter), I wound up by sheer chance as a speechwriter for political leaders and CEOs of billion-dollar corporations. Because of the peculiarities of my upbringing, I grew up as a social outsider, always the guy who was just passing through. That sense of being out of place continued as I plied my trade as a freelance speechwriter, popping in and out of the inner counsels of the rich and powerful. So when it comes time to create a character who doesn't fit his environment (as so many of my heroes don't), I don't need to exercise much imagination. I also don't have to imagine how power works—whether it's economic, political or personal charisma—because I've seen all of that close up. I also don't have to imagine what it's like to be broke, cold and hungry on some lonely highway, because I've been there too.
V: How do you create a balance of reality and otherworldliness in your "Old Earth" milieu? Does any "real world" research go into it? To what extent in your opinion, do readers want fantastical worlds to be grounded in reality?
MH: I don't know if there is a balance. The way I tell the tale, the formal language, the heavy use of arch and ironic dialogue (for which I am deeply indebted to the magnificent examples of Jack Vance and P.G. Wodehouse, the giants on whose shoulders I perch), are all intended to create a sense of difference. I try to make it implicit rather than explicit, but my Old Earth characters are not like you and me. They live in a world where everything that could ever be done has been done. There are no new ideas, no new concepts, no new paradigms—it's all been tried, explored, delineated, defined and categorized untold millennia ago. Some of them wistfully wonder what it must have been like to have lived in the remote past that was our times, when no one knew what would happen next and we could just make it up as we went along.
My technique is that of the minimalist: I don't describe my worlds so much as I evoke them, by picking what I hope are the few minimal, but apt, details that will ignite the reader's faculty of confabulation. As for what readers might want, I really don't know. It's not a big issue for me. I'm writing the kind of story I like to read, and I'm hoping that there are enough people like me out there to keep publishers interested in bringing out my work. Which is kind of an odd hope, when I think about it, because I haven't met many people like me.
V: What authors and fiction first inspired you to want to become a writer? First captured your imagination and spurred you to want to write SFF?
MH: From the ages of ten through thirteen. I lived mostly on farms with no access to a library and we never had much in the way of reading material at home. Then came grade nine and a school bus to a city high school that had a pretty good library. I'd read a little SF by then, a couple of paperbacks and some pulp mags (including the Galaxy issue that ran Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters), that my eldest brother left lying around before he moved out. Now I started reading whatever the school library had—lots of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury. I also discovered historicals by people like Henry Treece and L. Sprague de Camp, and comic fantasy by Thorne Smith (though that was too risqué for the school stacks).
I got a card from the public library and, for the next few years I read three or four books a week, my taste expanding as I grew older. I read all of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kazantzakis, Graves, then went on to new and popular works like Catch-22 and The Lord of the Rings. Probably the authors that interested me most in those days were writers of historical novels, and if anyone inspired me to write it must have been de Camp, because the summer I turned sixteen I started a novel about a Greek sailor who was sent by Alexander the Great to circumnavigate Africa.
V: Your writing style has often been compared to Jack Vance. You mentioned him earlier among your influences. Have any other authors had specific influence on particular aspects of your writing?
MH: I write in different styles, depending on what suits the story I'm telling. The voice of the Archonate tales is a blend of Vance and Wodehouse, because I think that helps achieve the effect I'm trying for, taking the reader into "another country" (that is, the future) where "they do things differently." Sometimes, though, I use a stripped-down, Hemingway-influenced style—see "The Hat Thing" or "Shadow Man" in my short story collection. And I had a time-travel story in Asimov's—"The Devil You Don't"—that is told in the first person by Winston Churchill, and in which I used all my speechwriter's skill to try to capture his unique voice.
V: Where do you see cross-genre fiction going in the near future? An increase seems almost certain. Who, in your opinion, are the authors who are going to be key in the furthering of cross-genre fiction over the next ten years?
MH: I'm not well enough read in the field to make an informed prediction, but I think there will always be cross-genre fiction because there always has been. And there will always be readers who want it. Consider Diana Gabaldon, who innocently wrote a novel that straddled the romance, SF and historical adventure genres because she didn't know that she was supposed to keep the lines of separation clear. Her first book sold avalanches of copies and millions of women couldn't wait for the next one.
Besides, genre distinctions are largely the invention (and a fairly recent one, at that) of marketing departments that are full of people who think in terms of market segments (i.e., brands), because that's how they were taught to think in their MBA programs. Today's highly corporatized publishing industry does a disservice to readers by working to press them into little boxes—"cozy" mystery readers here, military SF readers there, high-tech thriller readers over there—because the industry is trying to achieve predictability of return on investment. But publishing, as Gabaldon's experience shows—or that of J.K. Rowling, or Susanna Clarke, or any number of other "unexpected" successes—is an inherently unpredictable business. Nobody knows where the next break-out will come from, and trying to force the phenomenon is yet another repetition of the tale of the folks who abused the goose that laid the golden eggs.
V: Any closing comments?
MH: Yes. Please buy my books. I'm trying to do this for a living and I need more readers.
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.