Matthew Metzger is best known for his novels Enough and Vivaldi in the Dark. His ability to write believable characters pull readers through the pages of his novels.
What got you interested in writing m/m fiction?
I think the name says most of it… I like characters. I love people, they’re weird. Fascinating little freaks, every last one of them! Any writing I’ve ever done that’s longer than about a thousand words has been about characters and the way they interact and relate to each other. I started out with young adult novels, and the LGBT+ part…well, yeah. Been there, you know?
How did you begin your career and how did you grow your fan base to be so humongous?
Haha, it’s not that big! I wrote a book. I sat on it for a while. I tidied it up and sent it off. Someone accepted it for publication. Then I did it again…and again, and again, and you get the idea! I’ve wanted to write books since I was about sixteen, and did it by the time I was twenty-three. And now I’ve started, there’s no point in stopping, right? As for the fans…I don’t know – you‘d have to ask them!
You write under a pseudonym. Why?
I’m as queer as they come – but you‘d never guess it to see me in real life. I’m very much in the closet at the moment, and had a major crisis about my sexuality a few years ago that I’m not completely over yet. Fact is, I don’t quite accept my own identity yet, and I’m certainly not ready to share it with anyone but my absolutely trusted nearest-and-dearest. The other side of it is that my day job is for a company that’s a political minefield. Employees strictly have to keep any secondary business separate from their working lives, and my legal name is as distinctive as my pseudonym! So even if I were out and proud, I still wouldn’t be able to link the two identities.
What is it like to write six books in two years? Is it a difficult process?
It’s a busy process – particularly as I work full-time – but it’s not difficult. For me, anyway. I write whether it’s going somewhere or not, so if I channel all that energy into books, I can snap them off very quickly. The number is a bit mind-blowing though. Two years ago, I didn’t even have a single contract, and now I have six books and four more manuscripts I’m hoping to get signed up in the next year.
Who is the LAST person you’d want to discover you write m/m fiction and how do you think they’d respond?
I don’t think there’s any one person in particular. I’ve learned to give less and less of a shit about what other people think about me, and the people with the power to destroy me by their disapproval are all in the know or accepting enough they wouldn’t care. If I had to choose someone, it would probably be my aunt. She’s rabidly homophobic, so it wouldn’t be a pleasant conversation. But we’re estranged now, so I’d probably just be vaguely amused if it happened.
What was it like to attend the UK LGBT Fiction Meet, and participate in panels?
Scary, as it was one of my many, many baby steps in coming to terms with my own sexuality, but quite a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing panels (apparently I never outgrew making a shameless arse of myself in public) and they’re pretty sweet because when I’m nervous, I just blurt out random crap and people apparently find it funny. I’ll probably be there again next year, hopefully a little less twitchy in my own skin!
Why do you think so many women love to read m/m?
Same reason a lot of men like lesbian porn. They find it hot. There’s a lot of focus on the sex in m/m romance as a genre, from the books themselves to conventions and their numerous sex panels. Any book in the genre will have reviews packed with commentary on how sexy the characters were, any sexual tension (unresolved or otherwise) and – of course – the sex scenes. Sometimes I think there’s too much sex and not enough story in the m/m genre, but that’s a personal taste thing.
What was it like to create Darren Peace in Vivaldi in the Dark? Was it difficult to maintain his character traits throughout the series?
The hardest part about Darren was putting fingers to keys and actually writing his moods. As a character, he was easy enough to build and run – apart from the ridiculous amount of research I had to do into classical violin – but his depression knocked me for six. A good 90% of Darren’s depression is drawn from my own. I got a lot of feedback that the trilogy was very – some said too – intense. And honestly, that feedback makes me smile, because if you think reading books about depression is intense, try living with it. At least you can close the book and walk away.
What are you currently working on?
My current project is Thicker Than Bone, which is about the dilemma Alasdair ‘Ali’ Barraclough faces when his older brother desperately needs a bone marrow transplant, and Ali is a match. But the history between the two brothers is hideous, and Ali is torn between donating and letting Tony die. Tony is a nasty piece of work – he’s a very committed racist and homophobe, and takes particular exception to Ali’s partner, Yazid. No prizes for guessing why! But he’s also Ali’s brother, and there’s a lot of family pressure to do the ‘right’ thing. It’s based off two things – firstly, the question of whether you would save someone’s life if you could, no matter what that person was like; and secondly, the idea that blood is thicker than water.
Tell me about your writing process from idea to finished draft? Do you rewrite to death? Do you outline?
On a good day, the initial idea comes to me fairly intact. Vivaldi in the Dark was, from the very beginning, ‘this story about this kid with depression.’ Others are spun out from single scenes in my head – Thicker Than Bone all started because I had a mental image of a Middle Eastern guy coming home and pouncing on his partner. Yazid as a character was entirely constructed in about an hour, and the story he belonged to flooded out about a week later. Once I have the idea, I write a ‘plotmap’ of the chapters – a kind of loose outline that if the manuscript is ever finished becomes the synopsis – and start writing either stand-alone scenes to get the character voices and dynamic going, or just launch right into the book. I don’t rewrite very much – with one exception, I have no ‘first drafts’ versus ‘final drafts’ as I just keep tweaking the original document. It’s a bit of a seat-of-the-pants approach, but it works!
How long does it typically take you to write a novel?
About four to twelve weeks. Vivaldi in the Dark took four weeks and is my fastest novel so far. Its sequels were about eight weeks each. I think my average is around six weeks, but I tend to dither and poke and prod them for months before getting up the guts to submit them to publishers. Ironically, despite six books in two years, I’m not actually all that confident about my skill!
Do you find writing about hard topics geared towards young adults is a necessary process?
For me, yes. I didn’t read a lot of young adult books when I was a teenager. I was pulled into Artemis Fowl and the CHERUB series because they featured young adults who didn’t have tidy little lives. CHERUB kids were almost all orphaned or from foster homes. Artemis Fowl is sixty kinds of screwed up under the genius, and so scathing it burns your hands on the paperbacks. I grew up in a neat little middle class suburbia, but my family situation sucked, I was bullied at school, and had mental health issues up the yahoo. I was a messed up kid, and there weren’t any around to relate to in books. Young adult books had all these teenagers angsting about stuff, and I was sitting there going, ‘I would kill to have that be my biggest concern. Holy shit, get over yourself.’ Finding Burgess’ Junk was a godsend for me, it restored a bit of my faith in the book world. So for me, yeah, young adult books are the places to air those darker issues and those problems. We find them hard as adults, but they’re needed because those issues are even harder for kids, and they need to know they’re not the only ones out there. And for those kids lucky enough not to have to worry about it, giving them a little understanding can go a long way.
Do you think more authors should expose these topics to their audiences?
Absolutely. There’s too many people romanticizing childhood – ‘oh, you can’t write about that for a young adult book, it’s too intense. Think of the children!’ Well, hang on. Think of the children for a minute, really think about them. Nobody’s dumb enough to pretend everyone has a great childhood. Growing up sucks on a good day, never mind if your live has actual ugly bits in there. There needs to be more effort to address these problems and these kids who are suffering, and more effort to promote understanding amongst their peers. The worst moment in my depression was when my friends abandoned me for being too much trouble – I nearly killed myself, and to be honest I probably never quite got over it. I’m still very aloof and distant around new people; I out-and-out do not trust people when they claim to want to be friends. It lasts. Kids are suffering, and we need to acknowledge some of that. Plus, let’s be perfectly honest here, kids like a bit of darkness. From Roald Dahl right up to the CHERUB series, kids aren’t precious about it. They like a good dose of dark humour – let them have it, I say.
What advice do you have for those thinking about writing gay romance and what advice do you have for those who are trying to build an audience from scratch?
Don’t get precious. That’s the big thing in this industry. Do not get precious about your work because it is not the best novel in the world, and it can do with improvements. Accept all the help you can get to make it better. Always try to make it better. That said, don’t take every review out there to heart either. Some people just don’t like things. Some people want to rant. Some people will take things you wrote personally when in reality it’s a case of ‘the curtains are just blue, okay?’ If all your reviews say the same negative thing, you have a problem. If only one does, you don’t. For gay romance specifically, talk to actual gay people. I cannot stress this enough. Lists on ‘how to write gay characters’ don’t work, because they lump gay people into groups that are not true for all of them. Recently I saw a blog post stating that ‘we (LGBT people) want to come out.’ I’m queer as a monk in a brothel, and I absolutely do not want to come out at work – I’d never here the end of it! The stereotypically camp gay guy does exist. So does the gay builder who can put away lager and dodgy curries like there’s no tomorrow, farts in bed, and actually uses ‘queer’ as an insult. Lesbian ballerinas are real. People who have a different label for every day of the week are real. There is an enormous spectrum of people out there who identify as one or more of the QUILTBAG letters, but you have to talk to them, engage them, use them. And your work will be five hundred times better for it, I promise you.