Matthew R. Davis is an author, musician, editor, visual artist, scriptwriter, composer and all-round Renaissance man, based in Adelaide, South Australia.
He writes dark fiction and horror with an eclectic angle, and his work is character-focused, broad-minded and averse to standard tropes. He has been shortlisted twice for the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction in the Australian Shadows Awards (“The Heart of the Mission”, 2016; “This Impossible Gift”, 2017), and once for Best Novella in the Aurealis Awards (“Andromeda Ascends”, 2018), and has had over fifty short stories and poems published around the world so far. His first collection of horror stories, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, was released in January 2020 by Things In The Well.
Tabatha Wood talks to him about his early memories as a fledgling writer, why he hates online dickheads, and how authenticity is the key to everything.
Photograph by Red Wallflower Photography, who did such excellent work on Matthew’s first collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep.
The Things in the Well Creatures and I bid you a warm welcome, Matthew. The following are designed to be quick-fire questions, and are best answered in short, controlled bursts.
Describe your writing style in five words.
Eloquent, pungent, heartfelt, authentic, empathetic.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Not words or phrases so much… maybe analogies.
What three themes/tropes make your writing instantly recognisable as yours, and yours only?
Music, loss, intransigence.
What three books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
ONLY THREE? Too hard, man, too hard. Maybe three blank exercise books so I could write my own.
If you could go back in time to do so, what wisdom would you impart to your teenage self?
One – you’re on the right track, and the things you’re getting into now will continue to reward you for the rest of your life, but having a little more confidence in yourself wouldn’t hurt. Two – get some kind of job qualification, because being an anti-establishment punk is all well and good but ignoring the boring practicalities of life is going to bite you on the arse down the track. Three – don’t worry, you will be loved.
Name three traits you find deplorable in others… And three you most admire.
Hypocrisy, lack of empathy, inauthenticity… compassion, sincerity, imagination.
If you could go for a coffee with any fictional character (including one of your own) who would you choose and why?
This question is always a hard one and the answer I scrape up always different. Today, let’s say Phryne Fisher, but the TV version as opposed to the book one.
How do you want to be remembered?
Thank you, Matthew, great answers. So tell me, what prompted you to start writing?
I suppose I just loved stories from the off. I started writing my own from the age of seven and things escalated from there until my primary school teachers were setting aside time for me to read my stories aloud in class. This went down a treat, mainly because my classmates featured in the action, and I fondly recall reading out a story called “The Hairy Horror” that had to be broken into two instalments. This saw me facing off against a werewolf who cunningly disguised himself as a substitute teacher under the name of Loup Garou, and then, after his defeat at the hands of the class, as a bearded bus driver called Poul Goura. Subtlety was not my strong point. My inspirations in the early years were Greek mythology, Doctor Who, dumb action movies, computer games, and whatever horror stuff came my way. I’ve written all my life, but I focused mainly on music for a long time, and I didn’t start submitting my work professionally until 2010. I’ve amassed over fifty publications since then.
Tell me about the first story you remember writing.
The first story I wrote had no title, though I’ve retroactively called it “Invasion of the Giant Chickens”. It’s long lost, but I reproduce it from memory in the afterword of If Only Tonight We Could Sleep. It has little in common with what I write now, but some elements were put into place there that I would return to repeatedly over the years – graphic violence, a sense of absurdity, and the price we pay for victory… in this case, I killed all the chickens, but my best friend got shit in his hair.
That sounds rather unfortunate for your friend! Outside of writing, what sort of things interest and inspire you?
All sorts. I find inspiration from listening to albums, interacting with friends and strangers, reading books, dreaming, exploring abandoned buildings, watching films and stage shows, photographing graffiti, working crap jobs… everything has the potential to provide me with a story, or a detail to improve something I’m already working on. I’m a musician, so I could write endless permutations about just that, but other creative processes are also ripe with promise. People fascinate me, and I like to explore their intricacies and idiosyncrasies, and despite the fact that I’m a hardcore atheist, I find the supernatural and the inexplicable endlessly interesting.
As a horror writer your job is to scare others, but what sort of things scare you?
The rise of toxic bigotry, extremist politics, and intolerance we’ve been seeing lately, just when it seemed that society was reaching toward a better place for everyone – I guess there’s always a backlash to be faced when progress escalates. Why the fuck do we have so many people leaning toward Nazism when we’ve spent the last seventy years rightfully denouncing its atrocious legacy?
The lack of personal responsibility and empathy demonstrated by hateful dickheads online breeds serious misgivings about the next generation or two, though there are so many brave and kind people in all walks of life and always will be. And I’m scared that nothing I do will ever mean anything, that I won’t learn from my mistakes and become the person I want and need to be, that I’ll die alone as a miserable failure having wasted my potential and let down everyone who ever believed in me.
I fully agree with you there. I also suspect like a great number of writers feel like that. Especially about the sharks!
You say you’ve always loved stories but what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
The same lesson art has been teaching me all along, which sounds kind of counterintuitive when applied to fiction but is paramount nonetheless: keep it real. You can be a little pretentious, you can act out, you can play at being people who are nothing like you… but authenticity is key to everything. Don’t do shit you don’t love just because it’s popular or saleable, don’t be an entitled prat because you think what you do makes you better than others, don’t write anything you can’t pour your heart into. The fictional world is full of paper-thin tales and cardboard characters, and it doesn’t need you to add to their numbers. You must be confident in what you do, but that confidence has to be justified, and the only way to earn it is to keep working and growing.
What do you think is your biggest obstacle when it comes to writing?
My biggest obstacle is making the time, ensuring I’m physically and mentally feeling up to the challenge of the work. The only way to overcome it is to do it, and once I do, I realise that there’s truly nothing ever stopping me. I don’t spend all that much time on social media, and writer’s block is self-induced. When worse comes to worst, I take a break and recharge the batteries until the craving is back again.
And what do you think is the best bit?
The best thing about writing is the accomplishment, the joy of doing what you love and watching it unfold before you, reading it back and feeling that you got it right; second best is seeing the effect it has on others and understanding that you’re not deluded in your faith.
Are there any topics which you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
Yeah… my writing used to include more sexual violence when I was younger, and I never glamorised or excused it, but the older I get, the more reticent I am to put myself and my characters into that space. I know far too many dear people who have suffered the horrors of abuse, and I’ve read too many books that handle the issue with a clumsiness that can border on offensive. It’s not that I won’t go there, it’s more that I have to know it’s warranted by the story and dealt with in a way that is truthful and empathetic – not exploitative trash or a heavy-handed righteous tract. Also, while I like to explore different types of people – different outlooks, orientations, and nationalities – I don’t feel comfortable going too deep into cultures I’m not personally familiar with, because I don’t believe I’m educated enough to do them justice and getting that wrong would be insulting. Representation is important, but misrepresentation is undesirable.
That’s a really great answer, and shows how you’ve grown as a person, not only as a writer. So what piece of wisdom would you give to any new and upcoming writer right now?
To someone starting out, I’d say don’t do it unless you’re willing to do it forever. If you’d write even without anyone ever reading it, if the very act soothes the chaos in your soul, if you feel compelled to write and can’t stand the idea of ever not doing it, you might just have what it takes. And to anyone who says that writing is easy, I’d say: “You’re right. Writing is easy. And so is heart surgery, playing with a symphony orchestra, or riding a unicycle across the Grand Canyon on a string of dental floss. Of course, results tend to vary wildly without the requisite experience and passion, you dipshit.”
What kind of responses do you get from friends and family to your work? Has writing made you more friends or expanded your community in any way?
Most of my friends don’t really read, but they respect and support what I do. I have made new friends through my work, lovely people all, and talking the craft with them is so fulfilling when I’ve spent most of my life labouring away alone with no-one to truly understand what that involves. Increasingly, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to interact with authors whose writing I’ve admired for a long time, and being in a position to reach out to them for book blurbs is very heartening – and as a lifelong fan of Ramsey Campbell, I have to say that getting birthday messages from him these past few years has been a particular highlight.
Are there any stories you’ve written that you’ve purposely hidden from those close to you and why?
There’s really no need to hide anything – no-one’s insisting on reading everything I’ve ever written – but there are a few things I don’t want anyone else to see. Mainly it’s because those older stories just aren’t good enough to justify the time it would take to read them, or because they are youthful work that makes me cringe with its earnest clumsiness. Some are just a bit too egregious or nasty, and I’ve outgrown their excesses.
What are your goals for 2020? What dreams do you hope to accomplish?
I plan to keep plugging away, increasing my profile, doing the good work. My ambitions often outstrip my abilities, but that’s fine. I want to record more albums, get back into live performance, travel more, put out as many books as I can, publish more poetry, write and direct and score an independent feature film, live and love better… I want to do all the things. I’d love to make a living off my art, but I’m optimistic, not naïve.
Do you have any upcoming books/work which you’d like to mention? Or previous works which you’d like to draw attention to?
Oh, absolutely! Persons of integrity and discriminating taste should check out my novelette “Supermassive Black Mass”, which is currently available as an e-book through Demain Publishing as part of their Short Sharp Shocks! series and will hopefully be receiving a physical release in 2020.
As previously mentioned, my first collection of horror short stories, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, was released through Things in the Well in January 2020. It’s a strong and substantial book that has received glowing praise from the select few who have read it so far, and I’m very proud both of the stories and the work that Red Wallflower Photography put into the beautiful B&W images that accompany them. I’m holding a book launch in Adelaide a few weeks after the release date that will feature readings, a live performance by me with a stripped-down acoustic band, and other delectable little treats; I’m also organising other such events to follow.
I’ve also recently signed a contract with a name publisher to release my first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that development, but it is a very welcome one indeed!
Thank you, Matthew, for a truly brilliant and engaging interview. I wish you very well with all your future endeavours and I can’t wait to read your new collection.
Please exit the Well in an orderly fashion, and whatever you do, whatever horrors you see, don’t run. The Well Creatures love a good hunt…
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