I had the chance to interview Matthew Funk about horror, killers, gumbo, and the makings of a great story.
What do you think separates horror from literary fiction?
In Horror, fear has to be felt, beating hard, at dramatic point in the story.
While I find many genre distinctions arbitrary, I think that one holds true about the Horror genre: Its dramatic developments have to be infused with fear. Put plainly, this means that every time something big happens in the story—something that wrenches the narrative in one direction or another—it has to have a major element of fear in it.
I’ve written before that fear has to be in the veins of every story. Without something at risk, a story can’t carry the heart of the reader. In Horror, I believe that risk has to be something truly ghastly—mortality, mutilation or some other fatal transformation. Literary fiction’s stories can subsist on the little fears of love lost or dreams deferred, but Horror stories must be populated with lost lives and devastated identities.
Marketing opinion differs with me: For the purposes of stocking bookshelves, Horror stories just need some manner of grotesque monster. Cast a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf in the plot of any Nora Roberts book, and marketing labels it a Horror novel. I suppose that I can’t much argue, given that monsters have been the meat and potatoes of Horror fiction since the term was coined. All the same, it seems silly to me sometimes that the sultry, hack-and-slash action-romances of Lilith Saintcrow share a shelf with the stark, ghastly descent into human depravity dished out by Ketchum, Lee or Laymon.
You’ve written books, screenplays, and short stories. Which presents the most challenge?
Novels present the most challenge.
Writing a short story is a matter of making a single statement—whether that’s a scene, a twist, a punchline or a discreet set of dramatic events. You can only have so many moving parts, and they’re all directed toward a central message. Sure, subplots can survive in a short story, but unless they somehow help that central message resonate, like bass under guitar play, they’re just flab.
A novel demands sub plots, elaborate sequences of events, and more than one message. I’ve seen “one message” novels, but they are neither terribly long nor terribly good. For a novel to truly be a handsome model of its art, it has to have plenty of flesh to it and an intriguing bone structure—an interesting shape to the plot in the way it twists and turns.
Screenwriting must be more limited by its nature. Even if a screenplay is going to have more substance than a short story—and some screenplays, even feature-length, don’t really need to—then it has to keep the writing pared down. A screenwriter writes to a formula. They have to hit a certain length, pacing and brevity of prose.
With a novel, there is no real formula: There are just you, infinite ideas, zero rules and a heap of blank pages.
Conversely, what flows more easily?
For me, a novel, actually.
The first works to win my affection and fire my imagination were serial fiction: Comic books, fantasy series and pulps driven by characters larger than any one story, with names like Holmes, Drizzt and Conan.
My imagination feeds best on a vast, sprawling terrain. It demands far more concentration to crisply cut a story down to certain set confines than it does to let my mind roam a huge pastureland of backstory, subplot and future threads of fate.
In sum, size may take more effort, but it comes more naturally to me.
How has your background in political science affected your writing?
It infuses it with greater depth and detail.
I believe as much can be said about any realm of scholarship, not just the discipline of political science. A writer harvests stories from their studies, whether accounts of past events, interpersonal dynamics or random, neat ideas. All that data serves to give a story that flesh I mentioned earlier.
In the case of political science, it brings a few distinctive benefits to my writing. Political science is fundamentally an awareness of how power dynamics work, on many levels of human interaction—international, social and personal. That makes it a study of the forms of conflict. Conflict is what propels a story. Other areas of scholarship might be better at divining why people do what they do—psychology, mysticism and biology immediately come to mind—but political science and history are great archives of what people do and how they do it.
In your opinion, what separates a story that is good from one that is unforgettable?
Unforgettable stories take an experience we all share and cast it, beautifully, in a new light.
For a story to be truly unforgettable, the event of reading it has to change us. It has to mark our memory in some way, dividing who were before from who become. In order for a story to inflict that change, it needs to offer us something entirely new.
But “new” doesn’t last on its own. A new bit of information can be a pretty firework and nothing more. For its light to linger, a story has to stir up something already deeply woven into our character. It has to take something already within us—not just an absence, but something bound to our feelings—and shift it.
Unforgettable stories remind us that we always have something more to discover about ourselves.
As an editor, what do you think defines an author’s voice?
Voice is the sound a writer’s imagination makes when it’s sprinting.
It is, I believe, the power of “flow” in a writer’s prose—of rhythm blending with word choice, channeled into paragraph structure, permeating tributaries of plot. It’s when the writer is bringing this all together and finding a level of creative comfort. Their character as a writer congeals. It becomes distinctive.
Voice is difficult to define for some writers. With others, like choppy Chuck Palahnuik or poetic Ellen Hopkins, it’s more obvious. But whether a subtle distinction or a bold one, voice is, in some way, a distinctive quality of a writer. And as I said above, it’s the combination of numerous factors.
Where I may differ with a conventional definition of voice is that I don’t believe the writer’s voice has to speak to an audience to be heard. I think voice is almost wholly an internal process. Just like with learning to speak, it’s difficult to develop a clear and engaging voice without listening to those who listen to you. A writer must listen to their readers to hear the effect their developing voice is having. But ultimately, it’s the writer’s decision—one that’s usually felt, rather than made by force of will—that determines their voice.
Are you working on something now, and can you tell us what it’s about?
I’m working on a novel about New Orleans’ tortured year of recovery after Katrina. I expect it’ll be the first in a trilogy on the subject. It follows one of my frequently featured characters, Jari Jurgis, with her agonies in the saga serving as a mirror for New Orleans’ post-Katrina experience. Each story will be centered around events that reshaped the city but that remain unseen by most of the public.
I am thrilled about it. It is one of the tightest works I’ve done so far, it has many challenging themes and it burns with the fusion of genres, horror and crime, which I find characteristic of my work.
I’m wild for it, and I hope many of my readers will be too.
Do you have a project that has been asking to be written but has been on the shelf for a while?
Kind of. Most projects that I think of, I manage to find time to work on. When I’m in a project, I’m usually submerged in it. There is one project that sits patiently with its feet up on my shoulder, though.
It’s a straight forward revenge story—a pure-hearted and red-handed vendetta that involves a ne’er-do-well with a noble side tracking down his girl’s tormentors and doing ill to them. I would find my way to put a twist on that ancient arc. I know Voodoo, bounce music and the Kentucky Derby are all going to play a part. I know it won’t be pretty. The rest, I’ve yet to cohere.
If you had to chose, what do you find scarier– serial killers or mystical beings?
I find serial killers scarier.
This is for a number of reasons. Foremost, I find that fear is at its most powerful when it’s grounded in fact.
When we’re very young, and fact and wonder are closest cousins, the mythical and the material are almost indistinguishable. We tend to trust others as authorities, especially adults, because we don’t have experience to shape our critical thinking. At that point, mystical beings could be just as scary as serial murderers—for all we know, they both exist. But eventually, we come to learn that mystical beings likely don’t exist or, if they do, they are rarely encountered. Serial killers—and their seamy, human ilk—are monsters that are real and common enough. That’s why I find them more frightening than a werewolf. Lycanthropy may be a horrible curse, but given the odds, it makes more sense to fear a shark bite than a werewolf bite. On the other hand, a murder occurs every 34 minutes in American, given the latest crime stats. That’s scary.
The other reason I find serial killers more frightening is because they’re pitiful. With mystical beings, they tend to be portrayed as deadly and relentless, and in many cases what you see is what you get. By contrast, serial killers customarily look like the sexually repressed geeks and dirty old men they are. They are motivated by their sickness, which is usually rooted in past trauma or kinky dysfunction, mixed in with a basic inability to relate to others. That’s sad and sick, rather than romantically tragic like a vampire bite or a demonic possession.
Real monsters are usually inglorious, shabby, stupid and seedy. That scares me more than an Anne Rice rockstar or a beast from beyond that’s less likely to strike than lightning on a clear day.
Can you pinpoint a particular movie or book that influenced your style as a writer?
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Mind you, I can pinpoint a pile of movies and books that influenced me. It becomes a “choose a needle from a stack of needles” process. Out of all those influences, one has dug particularly deep.
That would be the leading work of Gonzo Journalism, now and for the foreseeable future, Fear and Loathing. It stands out because it didn’t so much determine my style of writing, but it was the foremost influence on my style as a writer—it formed, polished and stuck on a pedestal my ideal identity of an author: A wild, pugnacious rebel who hurls himself into the shame and glamour of dangerous discoveries.
I can say it without shame: I wanted to be like Hunter Thompson. It’s closer even to the truth to say that I wanted to live by the same principles of adventure and passion and spectacle. Those were the causes that inspired me and still inspire much of my writing. I want to have impact, both on the page and off of it.
Challenging writing is great, but I want to be a challenging writer.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
That list would be a long one, but here are a few of the key pieces:
Persist. That has to be number one. Do not worry whether you are a good writer or a bad writer. Make that difference irrelevant. All that matters is that you are a writer. Work from there to improve yourself, but do not doubt your purpose and do not let excuses impede what you do.
Read what you love to write. Steep yourself in the kind of writing you want to produce. This will help you learn what works in that storytelling form and what doesn’t. Many young writers are like kids playing with matches—they have just discovered possession of this incendiary tool and want to burn down everything with it. While that creativity is great—awesome, even—it isn’t all you need to get published. Learn the rules and forms of what you want to write. Elements like length, plot and the pacing of reveals, drama and hook lines have more bearing on getting a story published than brilliance of talent or intelligence. A writer picks up those elements by studying kinds of stories, so study the stories you want to write.
Edit yourself after it’s done. Don’t edit yourself when you’re writing the rough draft, unless it’s something simple like fixing a typo or going with the second way to phrase something that popped into your head rather than the first. And be sure to edit what you are going to send out, reading through it twice and cutting out anything that is unnecessary to the story. Thinking of it in terms of necessity goes a long way toward making a writer into a better storyteller. The inclination is to protect every single precious word produced, but writing comes down to preserving the story over preserving the words.
What’s on your list of books you’d like to read.
Much of my reading is directed toward research, placing books like This is for the Mara Salvatrucha by Samuel Logan, Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics on the Mexican Border by Sebastian Rotella and Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana by Tallant and Saxon at the top of the pile.
I am sure I’ll mix in some entertainment as well. Chevy Stevens’ long-anticipated Still Missing is up there. I want to read what all the fuss is about. I also want to devour Slow Fire by Ken Mercer pretty soon, and The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski, which a friend of mine, fellow author and reviewer, Jimmy Callaway describes as a genre-shaking work. And, no doubt, I’ll read more Richard Laymon, because getting addicted to his sleazy horror is one of the best bad habits I’ve ever developed.
Almost every night, I read a story from My Mother, She Killed Me, My Father, He Ate Me, a superb collection of twisted fairy tales by some of the top modern authors, or one from the Akashic Books’ Noir series. The Akashic volume I’m currently on is New Orleans Noir. Julie Smith, the editor and a stand-out mystery writer herself, did a great job casting New Orleans’ many moods and themes as crime scenes.
What is the one thing you’d like your readers to know about you?
I am especially superstitious. Thirteen questions in this interview made me feel it would be a lucky one. I feel lucky for every reader I have.
©2011 Lori Titus