DAVID MATHEW

Interviewed by PETER TENNANT

PT: Okay, Dave, now in a recent review you were described (by me) as an ambient writer, somebody who is always there in the background but without ever making a significant blip on the small press radar. By way of starters and for the benefit of those who dont know you from Adam, could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and writing career?

DM: Sure. But first of all, I loved the ambient writer thing. Thats me. I lurk like a fart in a spacesuit. Thats the commonplace sense of ambient: sort of hanging around, going around. So I lurk like a fart in a spacesuit, but Im not always so welcome. And thats a joke. Of sorts, I suppose

To answer you properly, I got going early. Lucky breaks, I think. I had always been lucky with teachers who found me easy to deal with--no rebel, me--but who recognised embryonic talent, if that doesnt sound too pretentious. Apologies if it does. In particular, a woman named Sheila Furnell made me work on a poem called Zanzibar --a place Id never been to, and still havent as it happens--and made me understand what I was doing wrong. She taught me form. Ill never forget her influence, and actually, on a Christmas-by-Christmas basis were still in touch.

She started me off. A remarkable teacher.

I was published at the age of 17, along with a certain guy named Lewis. Now whats his first name? Is it D.F.?

Apparently hes published the odd story or two.

Shall I keep going in a chronological fashion?

PT: Yeah, I remember that Lewis chap, used to put his fiction about a bit back in the day. I think hes the captain of a submarine or something now, so obviously cant have been too successful at this writing lark.

And yes please, keep going chronologically, though only edited highlights, such as where that first story was published and what projects youre working on now? Oh, and if you have a novel lurking in a bottom drawer next to the clean socks and underpants, or even published under a pseudonym (but no kidding us that youre secretly J K Rowling, cause Ive seen photos and youre better looking)?

And tell us a bit about the non-fiction too. Whats with all those feathers in your cap--reviewer, editor, interviewer, failed Ramsey Campbell biographer--are you multi-talented or simply like me, unable to find something youre actually good at?

Expand, expound, elaborate and elucidate.

DM: Well, I got that sale at seventeen, as I say. It was a great way off the subs bench. It was published in New Visions and the story--if it really was one, rather than a list of things that might or might not happen in a pub for the damned--was called New Arrivals, Old Escapes .

Ive admitted it. Now I feel the need to cleanse myself in the river.

Joking.

Then I went to university, and I wrote two novels--one of which was rubbish and one of which might eventually become something respectable, you never know--and I did my studies and enjoyed my time as a student I wasnt knocking myself out in the pursuit of being a writer--far from it, Pete - but it was definitely on my mind. As it still is--professionally speaking. I cant but help to look at my favourite authors and wonder what it must be like to do this all day long. To live the dream, as they say. As I did for one year, when I returned from working abroad in Poland, which was in the mid-nineties. Writing every day. It was great.

Im not doing very well at this chronology thing, am I? Attention span of a gnat.

I left university, lived in Egypt and Poland--carried on writing in both of those places--but came back thinking of journalism, strangely. I wanted to write about writers rather than writing anything original myself. Im not sure what that says, exactly, but it meant that I would take a stroll out of the Siemens building, where I worked in Personnel, and stroll down to a phone box that became a particular favourite. I didnt have a mobile phone at the time and not many people did. But in my lunch hour I used to do my journalistic deals, selling interviews to The New Writer , for example. Suzanne Ruthven of that magazine was good to me from the beginning. I got lucky.

The Ramsey Campbell biography that you accuse me of failing to deliver (and here I jest, honestly) was simply the bad luck of no one wanting to publish the thing. I still think its a good story, but I was offered a piece of advice from an agent of some standing and some repute: Dont put your name on a manuscript until you have a deal. Total nonsense, obviously; but this one didnt seem to want to work. Which is not to say that it will never work, but maybe the time has passed for me.

I started publishing--seriously--in 1997, thats journalism and stories, and I havent really looked back. Im going to the boatyard tomorrow to buy a yacht.

What Im working on now is based on my experience in a maximum security jail.

Go on--youre dying to ask, Pete, you know you are.

PT: Im still trying to deal with the idea of you strolling down to the phone box and turning into a journalist, sort of like Clark Kent in reverse. But yeah, youre right. Ive got to ask, especially as Ive always wondered about your jailhouse tattoos, but if youre going to tell us you were banged up with Paris Hilton and now have her on speed dial, I have to caution you that nobody is going to believe a word of it.

DM: Oh, okay then, youve seen through my flimsy disguise. As indeed I have Paris Hiltons but thats another story.

I work in the Education Department of a prison, teaching English and Mathematics to 18-21 year old young men. Its a tough gig, quite frankly; but what I got from day one was a total immersion into a brand new language. Prison Lingo. And at that point I hadnt written much for a long time, following my old mans unexpected death (which pretty much strangled any ambition I had for well over a year) and I woke up one day and thought: Hang about, theres a novel in this. And it just chimed--it just happened to chime--with an idea Id had, along supernatural lines. So its a horror novel. Basically. Therefore guaranteed an automatic publishing deal, obviously. But Im bingeing on it. I love it.

The material is in the air I breathe every working day, so why not? Waste not, want not, as my dad would have said. Im due to complete in about October.

PT: Nicely tying it in to Halloween. Lets stick with the prison thing for a moment, or criminals at least. I noticed in your collection Paranoid Landscapes there were a number of stories written from the perspective of career criminals. Is that something which naturally arose from your employment, or did it pre-date working in a prison? And what is the appeal of criminals as characters for you? I distinctly got the impression that you were fascinated by the likes of Dreadnought for their own sake, rather than for any social point you might be able to make through writing about them (apologies to anyone who thought I was going to chase up the Paris Hilton thing).

DM: Dreadnought represents the kind of bravery and quick thinking that I wish I possessed but dont. Even when his own wife--Mazza--is run over in The Inspissation , he decides immediately what category of assault this is, and he delegates the relevant team to distribute revenge. When hes given lip by a guy on a train in Wed All Think Of Different Things hes working out who he needs to use to make sure that the sorry sack of puddings whos upset him never needs do so again.

As youve already mentioned Superman, I will add that Dreadnought is my anti-hero. And I love him. To quote Lou Reed, I think accurately, from Magic and Loss , Im embarrassed by the courage that I seem to lack. So Dreadnought gives me strength.

Not that Im a wimp, mind. Ive done brave things. I once rescued a girl from drowning; I once spoke for ten minutes at my fathers funeral. Ive got backbone. Most recently I informed a yob in my corner shop that the language he was using was not suitable or appropriate in front of a ten year-old girl, who was sitting on a stool by the door while the guy in question--much taller than my six feet height, and considerably broader, and who happened at the time to be boasting about the length of his penis to the girl behind the counter who (Im assuming) he was trying to chat up.

He gave me (to quote another musician and my musical hero, as it happens) some visual and verbal insubordination--Im talking about Tom Waits, if you dont know--and I started to break a sweat about what would happen once Id bought my smokes and left the shop

Nothing happened. And at work I spoke about it to Carl--a lovely bloke, think ZZ Top or the mid-period Ted Nugent in appearance--about it a day or so later. Smoke break. Were outside, having a burn. And I mention my fears and Carl goes, You never know. You might even have taught him a lesson.

Weeks pass. Im there at the weekend, again buying my smokes. And it goes like this:

Well here he is. My old mate.

Oh dear, I think (speaking politely in my head in deference to my mum).

But then he says: Hows it going?

Hows it going? You wanted to kill me three weeks ago.

Me: Im fine. Apart from a bit of a bad back.

Making conversation with the guy!

And you?

Not too bad. Im going to Rome next week. Have you ever been?

At this point Im wondering to wish that the guy has some serious toys in the attic or whether Im just about to wake up.

I have, actually. I holidayed near Ciampino, quite recently.

Thats where my mum lives

Which just goes to show, I might not be a Dreadnought and that there is such a thing as genuine town-based surrealism; but also, that Ted Nugent look-alike Art Teachers can sometimes be correct about when a young punk can learn a lesson.

PT: Well either that or hes lulling you into a false sense of security by pretending to be your mate, and one day youll wake up with a horses head in your bed because you didnt show the guy respect, so there, thatll teach ya.

Okay, lets talk about Paranoid Landscapes , just like Im Parkie and youre a Hollyweird A-lister with product to plug. For starters, what made you decide to self-publish and what criteria did you use in deciding which of your 400 odd published stories to include?

DM: It came by accident, I suppose. Mike Philbin had already suggested that I get a collection together, and I was willing. I just didnt really know how to do it. I thought about the ones that tasted the nicest and I went with them.

When youre an ambient writer, Peter, you can forget about support. JOKE!!!

Why Lulu Press? Why self-publish? There are a couple of answers, really. The first was that I already knew their work: my collection with M.F. Korn (and others) called Die Earthman Die (a deliberately OTT title) had appeared previously and Id been happy with what theyd done. And they were fast. They told you what time it was. Other publishers were talking about lead times of two, three, even four years. To be frank, I didnt want to wait that long. Id had a very rough year and I wanted something good to emerge from the end of that particular tunnel. And those were the publishers that liked it. Other publishers, here and in America, said that they were currently closed to submissions or that it simply wasnt their cup of tea. Fair enough. One publisher even went as far as to say something like: youve got horror, youve got crime, youve got thriller, youve got mainstream, youve got science fiction, youve got romance. Its too eclectic in its genres. Needless to say, I disagreed--and continue to disagree. Whats wrong with that? Like most other people, I would imagine (because its certainly a relevant cliché), you write what you like to read. And it was flattering, the comments about the style of writing; but comments dont turn into pages in a book. So I went with Lulu.

PT: Yeah, now that eclectic thing is something I want to pick up on. While reading Paranoid Landscapes it definitely stood out for me that you were all over the literary landscape rather than concentrated in one area, be that area called Horror, SF or whatever, and it occurred to me that maybe you werent as well known as writers with comparable story credits, such as Paul Finch or Rhys Hughes, simply because you werent as easily branded, that instead of a body of work you had several bodies, plus a spare one or two for weekends. So, a question at last, do you think its a good thing for a writer to be pigeonholed, a recognisable brand name as such? Id say obviously it is from a marketing perspective, but how about creatively?

DM: The only useful thing about being pigeonholed, I think, is that it makes life easier for people who want to buy a certain writers book and know that itll be found in, say, the Horror section, or for those whod rather not read outside a preferred genre. But for me, I like to read and write as widely as my time will allow me. In the same way that Ive got a couple of books to read at any one time, I am usually working on more than one idea at any one time. It keeps things fresh and interesting, and I certainly wouldnt wish to be pigeonholed. If that dilutes any possibility of a regular readership, then Ive got no one to blame but myself, I suppose I hope that doesnt sound too pretentious!

PT: Now a moment or two ago you mentioned your favourite authors, so Im wondering who those are and, recognising that they might not be the same people, which writers have had an influence on your own work and how?

Or, more succinctly, Dave Mathew who do you plagiarise?

DM: Well, my absolute writing god is Martin Amis. Ive read everything hes written (and re-read in many cases) and only failed to be enchanted by one book, called Koba the Dread , which is beautifully written but the subject matter, a non-fiction account of Stalinist Russia, just wasnt my thing, philistine that that comment might make me seem. On the other hand, his London Fields is my favourite novel of all time, and Ive read it to the point of it falling to pieces; and his most recent one, House of Meetings , is absolutely gripping and the best thing Ive read this year.

Other than Amis, I like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Terry Bisson, Jonathan Carroll, John Updike, Geoff Ryman, Peter Carey, Vladimir Nabokov, Tobias Wolff, Tim Winton, Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee, Thomas Harris ( Hannibal Rising is a recent masterpiece), Peter Hoeg (especially Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow ), Charles Bukowski, Stephen Gallagher, Saul Bellow and Colin Dexter.

Im not sure which of these favourites have had a direct influence on what I do, other than Amis and Hoeg--and maybe Bukowski in a story or two. But I suppose thats not really for me to judge. As for the accusation of plagiarism, Ill see you in court

PT: Ill just tell them I write Horror and theyll accept a plea of insanity, no sweat.

Have to admit that I havent read any Amis, though I am familiar with plenty other writers on that list. And talking of other writers, one of the things that distinguished Paranoid Landscapes for me was the number of collaborations. So whats the appeal of collaborating for you? Do you make the approach or does the other writer? And from a work/method point of view how does it compare with going solo?

DM: Its harder work! Its an arm-wrestle! But I wouldnt do it if I didnt enjoy it. The whole idea of collaborations goes back, oh, the better part of a decade, when I was among the early members of what at the time was a quite new idea: a cyber-community of likeminded individuals, called Storyville. Its long since gone into hibernation, but for a good few years we had fun, these disparate people with only the idea of being in one way, one form, or another creative, creating a kind of electronic neighbourhood. M.F. Korn and D.F. Lewis were already collaborating and I forget exactly when but I got invited to the party, and I worked with Mike and Des in various adulterous combinations. Now as you know, Pete, Mike and Des write very differently, and their working methods differ dramatically as well. So right from the off when I started to collaborate I enjoyed the challenge of putting on a new voice every project and--jamming, I guess, is the closest word. Little by little, things got tighter, more serious, and we started to produce actual stories--stories that we felt could be submitted somewhere to earn the customary ten bob and a bun.

Ive collaborated more with Korn than with anyone else and its always different--the project always has its own unique feel. For me at least it does. Ive enjoyed exploring, with my minds eye, his Louisiana neighbourhood, helping myself to the host of memories from when I travelled quite extensively around the States. Writing Templeton with Korn was a massive project--a novel big enough and hard enough to write if Id been flying solo, but when youre batting Word files back and forth across the Atlantic, theres an extra challenge, and were both immensely proud of the book. (Its with a publisher right now, awaiting absolution or execution.) Weve taken a breather and now were just about to start another one.

Collaborating with Paul Meloy is a different notion altogether. Hes my best friend and we tend to do all of our (ahem) planning meetings in The Falcon. I scarcely think I need to elaborate much. But I will say that I think the two stories we have managed to finish ( Delivery Night and The Drive-By Heart ) are two of my favourites of anything Ive ever done. We had a good time doing those stories.

PT: Yes, spirits. Which leads neatly into my next question. Eclectic as it is, nonetheless I did take note of some recurring themes/subjects in Paranoid Landscapes , one of which happened to be ghosts, though you seldom use them in the accepted chain rattling, white sheet waving sense. So Im wondering what significance ghosts have for you, and whether theyre anything more than simply convenient literary devices? Have you had any experience of the outré?

DM: My ghosts dont even take centre stage! Sometimes theyre nothing more than extras, while I deal with the themes of bereavement, adultery, loneliness and loss. But thats where I am at the moment, and I would like to believe that the non-inclusion of chain-clanking ghosts would offer up something fresh. I could be wrong.

But when I introduce one into the scene its with malice aforethought. Trust me. Theres no point in introducing the supernatural unless it serves a purpose. Otherwise, just write about the sports day or the promotion or the carnival. Those events are scary enough without ghosts.

As for the outré, well, yes. Imagine: its 1997. Im on a holiday home from where Ive set up base in a place called Brzezno, a suburb of Gdansk, North Poland, which is cheerfully subtitled the place where the knives fly. Brill, Im sure you will agree. And Im at my mum and dads place, reading happily in the back garden.

I go in for a drink. Mums face, as they say, is ashen. I ask her what the matter is and she says, You just went through there. I hadnt. Obviously. Taking a saucepan as my weapon (we were in the kitchen), I stalked through the house, seeking out the intruder. I didnt find anyone--a conclusion I had to report back eventually.

Theres no one here, Mum, I said.

But she was shaken. An hour later, by which time Dad was home from work, and its a copper at our door. Im sent upstairs.

At exactly the time that my mum had her sensation, her brother had been discovered dead in Wembley. Ghosts? I dont know. But she knew.

PT: Now then, my last question here was going to be about what we can expect from you in the near future, but reading back I guess we already got that covered, which has really buggered up my game plan.

So, now for something completely different.

For those who dont bother reading the indices on the first page of magazines or (shock, horror) dont purchase Interzone , I should mention that youre part of the Interzone editorial team, as was I at one point. And so, by way of opening a window on your editorial psyche and increasing our readers chances of acceptance when they submit to Interzone , Im going to ask what is your all time favourite Science Fiction story and why?

DM: My idea of a good SF story is no guarantee of anything! As you know, Pete, we debate stories like toddlers squabbling over Smarties. Rare is the story that we all love unanimously but here goes. The award for Favourite Science Fiction Story of All Time goes to Dead Space for the Unexpected by Geoff Ryman. I hadnt realised that SF could be like that--maybe it hadnt been. The title alone was sere and come-hither; but the story was a masterpiece of what would now be called Mundane SF. Its brilliant. I think I read it in 1994, that magical year when I lived in Cairo and got my Interzones sent to me--when Shane MacGowan and The Popes released The Snake , Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds released Let Love In , and Mary Chapin Carpenter released Stones in the Road Happy times.

The magazines arrived, battered and bruised, having endured--it would seem--a trek across countless deserts and at the very least a thorough kicking in the sub-post office of Dokki, Cairo, by a team of specially trained camels. But I was in love. Dead Space launched my love affair with Rymans prose, which continues to this day. When it comes to science fiction, Ive had affairs with the writing of other authors--Rucker, Shirley, Brooke, for example--but Ryman is where my heart lies.

PT: And on that note I think we have to bring down the curtain on an entertaining and enlightening interview, for which many thanks to Dave Mathew, ambience and all.

DM: Thanks, Pete. I really enjoyed that.

Links:-

Review of Paranoid Landscapes here

And to purchase Paranoid Landscapes go here

Go here to read Rivereyes by Dave Mathew at Infinity Plus

And here to discuss and/or give feedback on this interview


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