Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How I Write: Authors on Their Writing Process - Mat Blackwell

Today's interview is with an award-winning author of black comedy, Mat Blackwell





1.              When did you first start writing?
All I’ve ever wanted to do is write!  I’ve been writing since at least five years old, although I like to think the quality of my writing has improved slightly since then.  In school I used to harass my teachers with my short stories all the time, and, when I was in my twenties, used to write novels for fun, but they never got any further than my friends and family.  In fact, the only time in my life when I haven’t been writing was when I was studying it at university: it’s like studying it actually killed it for me.  So I shifted my degree from Creative Writing to Philosophy, and maybe a year or two later, I started writing again.  It’s one of my very favourite things in the world!

2.              What are your books about?
I really love exploring the grey areas of life, the places where we draw a moral line, the stuff that is kinda uncomfortable to think about (it’s what I also loved about studying Philosophy – all the pondering and interrogation and logical consequences stuff).  I like to extrapolate: if this is the line we’ve drawn, then what about that?  As a result, my writing either tends to be awkwardly funny, or dark and disturbing.  Or both!

3.              Are you self / traditionally published or hybrid?
I’ve had my jokes broadcast traditionally for a long time: for the last ten years I’ve been writing for TV programs, like “Good News Week”, “Room 101”, “Wednesday Night Fever”, and many others, as well as writing for Comedy Debates as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (through which I’ve written for artists as diverse as Waleed Aly, Corinne Grant, and Barry Humphries).  But, as awesome as all that has been, after a decade of other people using my words, no-one knows who “Mat Blackwell” is, because I’ve always been hidden behind the scenes.  And, because the world of publishing is in such flux at the moment, no publisher wants to take a risk on someone who doesn’t already have an established audience, so, after back and forthing with a number of publishers, I decided to self-publish my novel “Beef”.  It’s been great to have the novel “out there” – I have a history of writing for pleasure, and then never getting it “out there” because I immediately move to writing the next thing!  And so far the reviews have been great: one reader actually said I had "one of the most enjoyable writing styles I've probably ever experienced in a novel".  Very exciting!

4.              What led to your love for literature? Any favorite books / teachers / writing mentors?
As mentioned earlier, I’ve always loved writing.   I was one of those weird freakish children who was reading at 18 months, but couldn’t tie my shoes until I was a teenager.  I remember doing this vocabulary test in grade two, and the results said I had the vocab of a 16-year-old – and yet I could never swing from the monkey bars on the school play equipment.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I’ve always loved words, and not been much good at anything else – so that pretty naturally led to a love of literature!  While everyone else was off playing sports and roller-skating and so on, I was reading, and writing.   I read anything and everything.  Later in life, I had great support from my high school Literature teacher Ms Nicholas, who wouldn’t complain when I’d give her a new short story to read every week.  As far as my favourite books goes, the book that made me need to write again after Creative Writing at university had killed it for me was “Catch 22”.  My favourite authors in general are probably Iain Banks, David Foster Wallace, and Kurt Vonnegut, but I’ve definitely learnt things from every book I’ve ever read – either in terms of what to do, or what not to do.

5.              What's your writing process like? Do you outline? Do you write by hand / type / dictate?
My very favourite writing process is to have one or two ideas, and just start writing, and discover the details through the process of writing.  Sometimes a character will do something I’d never have come up with!  Sometimes I have vague outlines, sometimes just a start and an end, or sometimes I’m just exploring an area or a concept, and have no idea where it’ll go.  As for the precise mechanics by which I generate wordular arrangement, I type.  When I was younger, I’d write with a pen on paper, but I find that I redraft every sentence four or five times as I write, and so for me a Personal Computer (armed with a Word Processor) is the ideal media for cranking out the word-biz.

6.              What's your editing process?
Well, first of all I have an idea or a character or something I’d like to explore.  I power through it, trying to write as much as I can in as short an amount of time as possible – my attitude is, bad writing can always be refined, so I don’t mind how terrible it is on this first draft, because everything can be changed later.  What’s more important is to have something actually written, something that can be tweaked or caressed or even scrapped entirely, because this draft is just about exploring and creating and brainstorming and seeing what works and what doesn’t.  Once I’m happy with the first draft, then I let it settle for a while, then give it to my army of beta-readers (my partner, several friends and co-writers, etc).  They tell me how good/terrible it is, and then I redraft, either taking their advice on board wholeheartedly, or realising that they had that particular piece of advice because I hadn’t explained something well enough, and so I try to make myself clearer.  Or I just totally disregard their opinions altogether, philistines the lot of them, what would they know about high art, damned fools, let’s see them make something this awesome, etc.  Then I let it settle for some time longer, before diving in for another redraft, really being as honest and rigorous as I can be.  Repeat until it’s finished.

7.              Who or what inspires you? Where / how do you get your book ideas?
I’m inspired by all of the strange and baffling things around me.  I’ve never quite understood the world, and have always been amused by the people who seem to “get it” straight away – people who seem to know when low-cut jeans are “out” and high-pants are suddenly “in”, and suddenly start wearing high-pants, as though they weren’t just laughing at people with high-pants only a few weeks earlier.  I’ve never understood how people are deeply fascinated by gymnastics and synchronised swimming, but only for a few weeks every four years – how do they switch that stuff on and off?  Or that thing in Australia where in summer, people are interested in cricket, in winter they rave about football – how?  Why?  If someone said “I only like Cubism in winter, and Surrealism in summer”, people would act like they’re crazy.  I’m endlessly fascinated by foibles and taboos, and the imaginary lines people draw and then act as though they are real: eating a dog is bad, but eating a pig is somehow okay?  Farting in public is bad, but filling a handkerchief with snot and then putting it back into your pocket, that’s fine?  Women can wear skirts, but men can’t?  It’s all clearly madness and make believe, but people act like it’s real.  It’s never hard to get ideas: I just look around.

8.              Where do you feel most inspired to write?
Unfortunately, a lot of my inspiration comes to me when I lay down to drift off to sleep – perhaps it’s a mental state or something, but I constantly find myself coming up with genius ideas for stories and essays, or find things falling together in amazing ways, just as I’m about to fall asleep. So I either have to get up and write it down, which kills my sleepiness, or I have to just hope that I remember the idea in the morning.  And I can tell you that I never ever ever remember the idea in the morning.  Another great place for inspiration is walking dogs or washing dishes – again, I think it’s a mental state, where things just seem clear and awesome and accessible.  Alpha waves?  Theta waves?  No idea.  

9.              Describe your desk / writing corner / favorite writing spot.
I have a studio space downstairs, it’s dark and dismal and strewn with miscellaneous detritus; the walls are green/grey and splashed with drips and mottled danknesses.  My paintings are up, crammed against each other; my drum kit (augmented with pot lids and bells and misc percussive objects) fills up an entire corner.  Rows and rows of CDs line rickety shelves.  A set of old drawers is filled with more instruments and effects pedals and years’ and years’ worth of collages (I make art and music as well as write, I should’ve mentioned).  Junk is everywhere.  On an old desk sit second-hand out-of-date loud-fanned computers – they were out-of-date when I bought them second hand, nearly twenty years ago.  They don’t do internet (they did once, but something happened (inexplicable to me, I have no tech skills) and now they don’t).  This is where I write. It’s like being in an isolated wasteland of concentrated creativity, something between a dungeon cell and a cramped cave, and I love it.  

I actually spent an entire podcast talking about my writing space:
http://therightspaceshow.com/#/mat-blackwell/

10.           Do you listen to music while you write? What kind of music?
I used to, but now I find I get too distracted.  The only kind of music I can write to now is either extreme grinding powernoise, or ambient minimalism.  Extreme grinding powernoise is probably best, because it simultaneously blocks out any other distractions – but my studio space is sound-proofed anyway, so it doesn’t really matter for me.  Silence is fine!

11.           Do you ever get writers' block? What are some ways you get around it?
For me, the best way through writers’ block is to just write something bad.  Not like morally bad: just inept, unskilled, pedestrian – basically just space-filler for where the awesomeness will one day go.  My attitude is that it’s so much easier to fix bad writing than it is to fix no writing: bad writing can always be refined, or, if it really is terrible, just deleted.  But more often than not, I find that the writers’ block only lasts for the length of a sentence or so – once I start writing, no matter how crappy it is, it really doesn’t take very long for the flow to come back.  I really do love writing quite a lot.

12.           Do you now, or did you ever have any day jobs? Did they add to or detract from your writing?
For the last decade and a bit, I’ve been employed as a gag-cruncher/funnysmith for various TV shows – the head writer will say “okay, today I want jokes about penguins”, and I’ll write a page of jokes about penguins.  Repeat, but instead of “penguins” substitute “Kardashians” or “ISIL” or “Donald Trump” or “the dwarf planet Pluto”, ad infinitum.  Although it’s great to make a living doing what you’re good at, those kinda jobs do make doing any other kind of writing (i.e. novels and short stories) really really hard, because all the words in my brain have already gone by the end of the day, I’m like a juiced lemon, just a vocab-free husk of a man with only grunts left.  For the last couple of years, the TV work has reduced, and so I’ve had time for my own stuff once more, which has been great.  

Previous to the TV gagsmithery I did a whole bunch of different and unrelated day jobs (childcare, tutor, phone surveys – I even had one job remixing dance music for some aerobics-style fitness craze), and I did do a lot of writing, but I don’t think the jobs helped that – if anything, they got in the way.  In my ideal world, I’d be paid a whole lot of money for writing exactly whatever it is that I feel like writing, when I feel like writing it, perhaps perched in a tower at the very top of a Dracula-style castle, with highly efficient but silent minions at my constant beck and call, bringing me coffee and macadamia nuts and sandwiches at ungodly hours of the day, while I pace and cackle and hunch over my keyboard, and I wouldn’t have to worry about jobs ever again.  JobsBah!

13.           How do you make the time to write?
By not going out to see music or movies or friends or family or ever socialising or even leaving the house ever.  By not watching TV or listening to the radio or writing tweets.  By writing instead of doing other things that good decent normal sensible people do.

14.           How much research do you do? What kind?
It depends on what I’m writing.  A lot of things don’t require research, they just require observational skills and a lack of qualms about stealing others peoples’ real lives and slapping them into your stories without permission.  But, for instance, with my novel “Beef”, I wanted all the stuff about artificially-grown meat to be as factual as it could be, so I did heaps of reading about that – different attempts at making it, who was behind what attempt, when it occurred, what it tasted like, etc – so that when I talked about it in the book, it wasn’t all just made-up nonsense.  One of my short stories deals with an old couple dealing with dementia and mercy-killing, so that took a fair bit of reading to deal with in a sensitive and accurate way.  I like to be as “true” as possible in my writing, so when I feel that I need to research something, I read as much about that thing as I can.  (But sometimes Wikipedia will do.)

15.           How much marketing do you do? Which platforms are you most active on?
This is the worst part of writing, for me – the marketing.  All I want to do when I’ve finished a story is write another one, but, especially as a self-published author, so much time has to go into publicising it, trying to make a tiny splash in a world of seven billion other people.  Marketing is so totally not my thing.  There’s nothing I hate doing more than hassling people to read my stuff, trying to convince people to look at me, look at me.  It’s horrible.  But we have to, don’t we, otherwise no-one’s going to notice us amongst the seven billion other people crammed onto this silly planet, so we just have to grit our teeth and try desperately to get noticed somehow.  These interviews are all a part of it, of course – as much as we might pretend that they’re not just a despairing cry for attention, as much as we might avoid mentioning within the interview that it’s really just a thinly-disguised advertisement for our product, it really is, and we’re not fooling anyone, and we all hate doing it (except I guess the rampant egoists, who probably love it more than the writing part).  As far as “platforms” go, I have a Facebook page for Beef, and I have a Goodreads profile as an author, but honestly my heart’s really not in it.  They’re just part of the marketing push, the futile straw-clutching required to attempt to turn labour into capital, and even just writing about them now, I feel so terribly terribly sad.  I think I need an agent or something.

16.           What's the most fun aspect of marketing? The most challenging?
There is nothing fun about it.  Literally nothing.  I really don’t like it at all.

No, actually, I do enjoy talking about creativity and writing, but I wish there wasn’t this desperate commercial engine driving the whole enterprise.  It’s like, on one hand there is a practical need to get known, otherwise no-one’s going to buy your books, but on the other hand you’ve got to pretend that you’re not really actually trying to get known, because no-one likes blatant commercial self-aggrandisement.  Like this interview: I’ve got to pretend that I’m just doing it for fun, as a bit of a lark or something, just a perfectly normal activity that I do to pass the day, just a little neutrally-driven chat, when of course I’m really doing it in a desperate attempt to help me sell some books. 

So all this constant marketing, while continually hoping to come across as not really marketing at all, creates this perpetual state of inauthenticity that underlies every interaction, and undermines all the good things I’m actually trying to do with my writing.  It’s like I spend all this effort and time and deep exhausting soul-searching to try and make my writing as true and honest and real as possible, only to have to create fake connections and forced networks and nongenuine community just to try and get my Product in a position where it can be Leveraged into making me some money, as though that’s actually the real reason I wrote it.  It’s all very depressing and distressing and feels like I’m a liar and a fake, like I’m as bad as any downsize-crazy bottom-line corporate executive psychopath, but with none of the cash to show for it.  So that’s the most challenging aspect of it: motivating myself to pimp myself out in a continual stream of exhausting and insincere networking media stunts, and then living with myself afterwards.

17.           What project are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a batch of short stories, because there’s something very special about pithy little snapshots of a variety of people and situations, compared to the more in-depth concentration of longer-form novels.  Short stories are also more suitable to the bite-sized dollops of attention readers have in this constantly-on multiple-tabs-open triple-screened twitterfied vine-looped cultural omniverse we now find ourselves in: a short story is something you can read between status updates, or while waiting for your pumpkin-spiced decaf soy mocha chai latte.  So far, the stories are either terribly depressing, very black comedies, strange little character examinations, or existentially-bleak ruminations on the meaninglessness of being alive in an uncaring universe just because our parents had sex some time.  Seems such a poor reason to exist, doesn’t it?

After the book of short stories, I’ll be working on another novel, a sequel of sorts to ‘Beef’: it’ll be set in the same world as the other novel, but following a different group of characters (minor characters only briefly met in the first one).  It’ll be all about feminism and gender and motherhood and what living in a post-gender-divided world might look like, and how motherhood might be rebooted in such a world.  At this stage, it’s called “The Post-cultural Pregnancy of Sydenham Jones”.  Stay tuned! :) 

Bio:

Mat Blackwell is a multi-award-winning comedy writer for TV who is now spending his late-summer-to-mid-autumn years writing gritty sordid blackly comical tales of awkwardness, failure, obsession, anxiety, and poor personal hygiene. He is a hermit, a recluse, a chaos-magician, a father, a partner, a noise-maker, a collage-artist, and a terrible disappointment. 

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      Beef

Can an affair be non-physical? Is infidelity really just about meat slapping together? Or is what goes on behind the meat actually more important? 
      
      Beef is a contemporary satire about love, meat, and infidelity, set in an Australia of the incredibly-near future. It is a multi-generational tale of unseen consequences, and the pressures of leaving a legacy. But most of all, it’s the rollicking story of an awkward middle-aged sociophobe’s attempts to be a good partner and a good father and a good son, in the context of desperately trying not to have an affair with a wildly attractive psychic… a psychic who insists they are going to end up together, like it or not, because “it’s destiny”. 
    
     From one of Australia's most-awarded comedy writers, Beef explores desire and faithfulness in a dystopian future Australia where bizarre cults thrive, where music is advertising, where psychics are out of the closet, and where meat is no longer murder.
                                                            
      Paperback | Kindle




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