A week and a half ago I got the chance to do an author interview with Matthew J. Beier, author of The Breeders and the upcoming novel The Confessions of Jonathan Flite, the first book in a seven book series. It came about because I was given the chance to receive a review copy of The Confessions of Jonathan Flite and I was given the option that if I request it to do an interview with him. Naturally, after looking up both books, and finding that the synopsis of Jonathan Flite was intriguing to me, I wanted to interview the author.
1. Tells us a bit about yourself and your background.
I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, a small city on the western edge of Lake Superior. I’m the third of four kids, and we grew up in a very Catholic family. It was a rather closed-minded environment, but it set me on a developmental path toward examining belief systems, origins of ideas, and the nature of so-called “social norms.” I attended film school at Chapman University in Orange County in 2003, but after becoming disenchanted with Southern California, I moved back to Minnesota in 2005. While I never planned to live in Minnesota again, I spent eight more years there working day jobs, writing books, and doing photography on the side. In 2013, I picked up and moved back to California—this time, to the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. I’m very glad I did, because I finally love where I’m living.
2. The Confessions of Jonathan Flite starts off with a deranged Roman Catholic cardinal who ends up using a nuclear bomb in Geneva, Switzerland, but we slowly learn that the big villain of the series appears to be a staunch atheist. What made you chose that instead of the reverse or having them both believe/not believe the same thing?
I’m exceedingly fascinated by the apparent clash of science and religion, even though they’re basically both attempting to summit the same mountain (that being Truth with a capital T). I think religious people are tapping into the undeniable significance of subjective conscious experience, while many scientists currently consider the conscious experience to be a random byproduct of electrochemical brain processes. We all had a horrific reminder of just how far human beings can take blind religious faith on September 11, 2001. Yet at the same time, many scientists dismiss the legitimacy of so-called “spirituality” while openly admitting they have no idea what our universe is or why it exists. I’ve seen firsthand how uncomfortable or frightened people become when their beliefs, preconceptions, or ways of life are challenged or threatened. In The Confessions of Jonathan Flite, I’m telling the story of a teenage boy whose very nature threatens both religious and scientific thought structures and sets the stage for a global uproar. If I said much more about why I chose this dynamic, I’d be spoiling future story elements. So, I’m going to zip it for now.
3. What was the inspiring piece behind The Confessions of Jonathan Flite? How long did it take you to figure out where you wanted to go with it, or did you just make it up as you went with the first book?
This book is the result of almost thirteen years of development. Back in high school, when I first started writing it, the setting came to me full-blown: a set of four small towns surrounding a huge, circular forest called the Moon Woods, where “unnatural” things were afoot. I wrote the first drafts of books 1-3 between 2004 and 2008, but the reincarnational aspect of the series gelled into place after I watched a documentary about a boy in Scotland who, when he began talking, claimed to have memories of another life on an obscure island off that country’s coast. I think the boy was being studied by Dr. Jim B. Tucker, the protege of Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who spent his life investigating people who claimed to have memories of other lives. There have since been other stories, such as that of young James Leininger, whose story about having memories of being a WWII fighter pilot went viral a few years ago. It wasn’t until more recently that I finally realized the only logical way to tell the story was to write from multiple points of view, jumping through time and space. I do have all seven books generally figured out, particularly the elements relating to the seven teenagers who disappeared in 2010. I also have Jonathan Flite’s story pretty much set, but I’m purposely leaving myself space to be spontaneous. Ultimately, I know exactly how I want this series to feel once it’s all finished and the books are lined up on my bookshelf. I’m using that as a guide.
4. Did you ever experience writer’s block when writing either of your books?
Ask my sister Mara this question. She’d roll her eyes. My version of writer’s block happens when I don’t have aspects of a story, or the presentation of a story, figured out. The Breeders was pretty easy in this regard, all around. I almost drove myself crazy with The Confessions of Jonathan Flite, though, because not only did it need to set the stage for six more books, but it also had to set a standard for narrative style, story structure, and book design. Once I decided on all those things, I had to make sure the next six books would fit the mold as well. When I know what I’m aiming for, I don’t usually have writers block, because I’m too excited to get the story out of my head. When I feel a book isn’t working, I tend to get anxious and frustrated, and the only way to move forward is to set it aside and hope the solution will eventually present itself. Thus far, it always has. I’ve been lucky.
5. Why did you write your first book, The Breeders? Was there a specific message you wanted readers to take away from it?
The Breeders was first and foremost a career experiment. I wanted to see if I was capable of writing a standalone book. I had written multiple drafts of the first three Jonathan Flite books by the time I started The Breeders, but The Breeders came quite clearly and took me two years, from idea to published book. A lot of readers (including its Publishers Weekly reviewer) didn’t like the ending, because it wasn’t exactly happy, or they didn’t consider the logic behind it. While the ending was a result of the story being a pretty heavy satire (plot-wise), it also was serious in the sense of conveying the idea that we all die, and what we do while we’re alive—how we live—is what matters most. The book, particularly the ending, didn’t shy away from implying that death may not be the end, and no matter how bad things get during life, perhaps we ultimately have nothing to be afraid of. That’s an idea I gravitate toward in general, so it’ll probably permeate all my work.
6. What inspired you to write your first book series?
J.K. Rowling has been my #1 life inspiration. She showed me just how powerful a fiction book series can be. I loved my Harry Potter experience, and I loved that there were seven of them—longer than a trilogy but not too long to overstay its welcome. It’s not a coincidence that my Jonathan Flite series tells the story of seven teenagers who disappeared. Once I decided on seven books, I knew there’d be seven kids whose stories I’d be telling, and it all fell into place. I had all the characters in mind beforehand, so it kind of just worked.
7. Do you have an outline for all the books you plan on writing for this series? Or will you be hitting certain points you want to touch on while making the rest up as you go?
As I mentioned above, I have most of this story figured out, with room to be spontaneous. I have running notes on each book, a master series outline, a master character spreadsheet, character biographies, and a mess of research and brainstorm ideas. I ultimately decided to write this story in a way that required me to have a very solid grasp of major plot points down the line, because things I mention in Book 1 may be expanded upon in, say, Book 6. I’m a perfectionist, and if I were to make a mistake in continuity, I’d probably hang my tail between my legs for at least a year.
8. Can we expect any of the characters we meet to die in the series or is that all up in the air for debate when you get there?
There will be some carnage in spots. Many deaths are set in stone, because I’m telling a story within a story and need to keep it all consistent for the sake of continuity, but I’m purposefully leaving certain death possibilities open until I get to the particular books in question. Even so, my approach to how I’ll handle character deaths is established in the third chapter of Confessions (or Jonny 1, as I call it).
9. What was the easiest part when writing your book when you look back on it? The hardest?
The easiest part was knowing that I had a big, cool story that really was my own thing. It’s not that past-lifey stories haven’t been done before—they have—but my particular world is so intertwined with where I came from and my life experience that there’s no way I could really be copying anybody. At least, I don’t think so! The hardest part was organizing all angles of the story and finding a logical way to present it, so that it could align with my overall vision. It took a lot of tries before I realized I had to blow the story open and write it from many different points of view—not including that of my title character.
10. Why the title, The Confessions of Jonathan Flite? Why not something else?
I purposefully chose “Confessions” for this book, because it’s a title we’ve seen in a million times before. We all know (or think we know) what type of story we’re getting with a title like that—probably one with shady characters, dark secrets, and earth-shattering scandal. I love what the a “Confessions” title implies, and it accurately reflects what this story is. I wanted my main character, Jonathan Flite, to be in the title as well, to help brand the series. Book 2 is called The Release of Jonathan Flite, and Book 3 is The Rise of Jonathan Flite. You get the idea.
11. Can you tell us about the covers for both your novels and why they look the way they do?
The Breeders is a satire that deals heavily with Antarctica and genocide, but as I said before, it also involves a more serious message of hope. The cover has a rather menacing-looking iceberg, with a rainbow shining down over it. The rainbow works on two levels: to satirize the gay agenda aspect of the story, and to symbolize that ray of hope. The Confessions of Jonathan Flite has a butterfly on the cover, and it regards a small (but major) plot point involving my character Molly Butler, and her realization that consciousness survives death. I like bold color and simplicity, and all seven books in the Jonathan Flite series will have unique versions of this design.
12. Where and when do you like to write?
This is going to sound lame, but I write at Starbucks. It’s a predictable environment no matter where I am on Earth, and I never have to mentally adjust to a new space. I worked on The Breeders at my favorite Starbucks in Wellington, New Zealand, and I worked on The Confessions of Jonathan Flite at Starbucks in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’m currently working on The Release of Jonathan Flite at Starbucks in Sausalito, California, where I’m now living my frugal little life. I usually work on Saturdays and Sundays, but I love when I have time on weekdays. Sitting at Starbucks with my headphones, tea, and computer is my favorite thing to do!
13. For you, is writing a career, or a passionate hobby that you chose to pursue?
I write novels, but I’m also developing my first feature film, so I’d say my career is “arts and entertainment.” These things are what I do, and everything else is just a day job. The hard part is that a career in this field doesn’t always equate to earning much money, unless you get really lucky. I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching to get to the point of being okay with choosing such an uncertain life path, but it’s what I value, and it makes me happy.
14. Ever a popular debate piece in the book community, what do you think about ebooks and the impact they’ve had over the last few years?
E-books are awesome. They’re here to stay. They’re an essential part of the book market, especially in fiction. Amazon developed the modern bookselling game, played it, and won. They were really smart, and now they’re reaping the rewards. I started my e-book life with Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and I spent about two years reading e-books until book research demanded that I read paper (so that I could highlight things and flip back and forth easily). The best thing about e-books for me is that they’re easier to move around. Every time I move, I purge paper books. With e-books, they’re with me forever. I now read Kindle books on my iPad. Apparently I’ve supported all three major markets.
15. What books and authors had the most influence over you growing up?
The first book I ever read (because I started late and went straight from phonics to bigger books) was The Boxcar Children #21: The Deserted Library Mystery. I gobbled that series up, then went to Encyclopedia Brown, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, and Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is An Alien series. Just before fourth grade, I read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. It was my first “grown-up” book, and from there I read other books by Crichton, along with quite a few Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. I’d say my love for books took a more serious turn when I discovered Stephen King in seventh grade. After some initial trepidation, I bought The Shining at a used bookstore, and it was the first time I ever reacted physically to a novel. It was the scene with the lady in the bathtub in Room 217. I was reading in the dark, under my bed lamp, and I almost had a heart attack. It was amazing. From there, I read It, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Misery, The Dark Tower—pretty much every King book I could get my hands on. I was a freshman in high school when I first read Harry Potter, and that’s when life really shifted. I had always planned on going to film school, but it was around that time that I started seriously attempting to write books as well.
16. Have you ever hated something you wrote? If so, what was it?
Oh man, yes. There’s a story thread in The Confessions of Jonathan Flite that used to be its own ridiculously long book. I spent eight months writing it back in 2005/2006, and when I finally read it, it was terrible. Long, drawn out, and depressing as can be. It ended up being an essential part of the world I was creating, but as a standalone novel, it was incredibly disappointing. Everything I loved about the story didn’t actually come through in the words. All first drafts are usually terrible, but this one was just never going to work. I’m glad I reshuffled it into The Confessions of Jonathan Flite, though! It works far better there.
17. Out of a bunch of authors that have surfaced over the last few years into popularity, which ones have caught your attention most with their works?
Again, J.K. Rowling. I can’t say that enough. But also Suzanne Collins. I’m a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy; for me, it’s almost up there with Harry Potter. I do also love the His Dark Materials trilogy, which is a bit older. Other than that, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction over the past three years, so I’m a bit out of the loop.
18. Do you have a favorite mythical creature or legend or maybe even a folktale that you really like/love?
Hmm, not off the top of my head. I always loved the creepy tales like Hansel and Gretel, where children are in peril and might end up being somebody’s food. I was the type of kid who always imagined what I would do in worst-case scenarios, and I think stories like that fed this weird tendency. It would be a copout to say my favorite mythical creature is the hippogriff, because I only discovered them when I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But they are pretty awesome.
19. What books are you currently reading?
I’m currently (finally) reading Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, and I’m also working my way through the Seth material by Jane Roberts. A few highlights from the past few years include Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Fabric of the Cosmos by physicist Brian Greene, Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr. Brian Weiss, and Biocentrism by Dr. Robert Lanza.
20. What social medias can potential future fans find you on?
Facebook and Twitter! I have Google+ but never use it. I’ve usually so busy that social media is an afterthought, but I know it’s an essential part of being an author nowadays. I truly love hearing from readers by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, though. There’s nothing better than interacting with fans that way! It makes all the hard work worth it.
21. Do you have a favorite genre that you like to read?
For fiction, I’d say drama with a tinge of paranormal (again, Stephen-King-type books). I do like some fantasy that is rooted on Earth. For book research purposes, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately—mostly on topics I’m fascinated by, like quantum physics, consciousness, psychology, past-life regression therapy, forensics, and law enforcement. My third career choice (behind being a psychotherapist or life coach) would have been to be an FBI agent. I was absolutely giddy while reading The FBI Career Guide by Joseph W. Koletar.
22. Free books like ARC’s and giveaways held by authors to promote their works—what are your thoughts on using them for marketing? Do you think it helps promote sales on books or does it do nothing?
Well, I recently did a Kindle giveaway of The Breeders, and I had over 1,000 downloads in a single day (which is pretty modest, actually). It’s didn’t generate a ton of income, but it was amazing exposure with the possibility to generate word of mouth, which makes or breaks a book these days. The only downside is that people may start expecting their “art and entertainment” to be free, without realizing how much time and work goes into making it. Writers cannot write (or publish) if they can’t afford to take the time, so the best thing readers can do for writers they like is to buy their books and spread the word.
23. In the battle between digitalized books and the physical books, do you think that ebooks are actually taking the market for physical books down and eventually will nullify printed books?
I think bookstores will eventually go away, because there’s no real reason for them anymore. Amazon is cheaper. You can also list high-quality print-on-demand books on Amazon, which are printed only when they’re ordered. I don’t think print books will go away, but the business model of print-book publishing needs to change. It’s not cost effective and simply doesn’t make sense. I think what matters most is delivering professionally-produced, quality content to readers. The challenge will be marketing in the digital age. There won’t be mainstream bookstore chains around to display the books—unless Amazon develops book showrooms, or something. My big concern is that people (younger people, as they grow older) won’t see bookstores anymore, and thus they won’t read, or learn to value reading. Reading takes time, and we live in an age of insanely short attention spans. Thank heavens for film adaptations?
24. What formats will your book be available in once it hits the shelves? Did you choose them?
The Confessions of Jonathan Flite will be available in hardcover and on Kindle on August 19, 2014. Availability on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo will follow in October. The paperback will come out on April 14, 2014. I wanted this book to be available in all possible formats, but I did choose purposefully to release it on Kindle first for promotional opportunities.
25. Pirated ebooks, what are your thoughts about debate around them? What would you think if you discovered someone was pirating your books on the internet?
It’s so funny that this question came up. The day after you sent it to me, I got a Google alert for my name and the title of my book The Breeders. It was for a website where people ask for pirated books in exchange for some sort of virtual currency. I was both flattered and irked. Piracy is stealing, flat out. It’s like slapping artists in the face and then snatching up what they have to offer. It also creates the expectation that quality work can be produced and then given away, which isn’t the case. Producers of creative work need time to create that work, and they also need money to put food on the table. Stealing somebody’s work digitally is the equivalent of stealing money out of somebody else’s bank account. In my own case, I’m considering writing a polite response on the forum where my book was listed, but I’ll only do this if the book actually ends up being pirated. If it doesn’t, the post will be deleted, thankfully.