Jun 08 2012

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My first author interview – TWO-FISTED ACTION WRITER MATT HILTON

For all you fans of fast-paced thriller and action books I’ve a special treat in store this week. Matt Hilton, one of my favourite writers, and author of the best-selling Joe Hunter novels, has consented to be my first ever celebrity guest.

It’s the easiest and most instructive blog I’ve ever produced. I simply asked the questions and let Matt do the rest. There’s a fascinating story here and lots of excellent advice for every writer.

I began by asking – What got you started in writing?

From an early age I was drawing, making models and writing short tales. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t being creative. But I guess my first real attempt at writing a book was when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I was reading a series of animal adventure books by Willard Price, and was gutted when I found out that Mr Price had died and there’d be no more. In my child-like wisdom I thought it would be a good idea to write the next book in the series and churned out a book called ‘Antarctic Adventure’. It was woefully bad, but it also gave me the buzz that comes with finishing a book, and after that there was no stopping me. My next completed book was at about 13 years old, and it was called ‘AGGRO’: you can probably tell from the title which direction my writing took me after that.

Was it tough getting started?

It was extremely tough. My first published book – Dead Men’s Dust – was actually my seventh completed novel (not including those juvenile efforts), and came after around twenty years of writing, sending the book out, and being knocked back.

So you had plenty of rejections and setbacks?

Loads. I can’t count how many rejections I received over the years. I sent my books to just about every publisher I could think of, and every literary agent, but there were never any takers. There were plenty of those ‘close but no cigar’ moments along the way. I once came close to striking a deal with a mainstream publisher for a crime novel I’d written, but it was turned down at the eleventh hour. I also was shortlisted in a ‘write a novel competition’ by a national writing magazine, but wasn’t placed in the final three (I tell myself I must have come fourth), and I also placed in a regional arts council novel writing competition, but again missed out on the top three (I tell myself I must have come fourth). Coming fourth is no bad thing, it’s better than being told to ‘go forth and multiply’ – which is more or less what my previous rejections implied. Seriously though, placing in those competitions actually told me that I must have been doing something right, but also something wrong. I went back to the old drawing board and re-assessed the kind of book I was writing and came to the conclusion that they weren’t commercially viable, and therefore unattractive to mainstream publishers. I then set out to develop a series that could carry a number of books, and this seems to have done the trick for me. having written the first book in the series – the afore mentioned Dead men’s Dust – I sent it and a ‘business plan’ to the number one literary agent at the time, Luigi Bonomi, who had just had a hit with Simon Kernick. I was lucky to be picked up by Luigi, and he took my book to auction among the ‘big five’ publishing houses. I was stunned to be offered a five book deal by Hodder and Stoughton. In that moment all of those rejections meant nothing anymore.

Describe how you felt when your first book came out.

From signing contracts until the first book hit the shelves there was a period of eighteen months. In the meantime I’d been working on the sequel and third book in my Joe Hunter series. Pretty much the time flashed by, and when the book hit the stands it kind of came out of the blue for me. I held a launch party at my local Waterstone’s and was overwhelmed when around 200 friends, family and well wishers turned out. It was both a very proud moment but also very surreal, and I had to keep reminding myself that all those people had turned out for my sake. It’s difficult to describe how i felt when first seeing a physical copy of my book, and holding it in my hand. I guess in some ways it was the culmination of my dream, but also the beginning for new dreams as suddenly the goal posts had shifted, and now I had to go on to produce more books, only bigger and better. In that respect i also admit to being frightened, nervous, and a little insecure. But I also dug in my heels and set to the challenge, and I’ve barely looked up since.

What is a typical day or week’s work?

I work long hours, and often I’m at my computer for around ten hours a day. I tend to work for four or five hours in the morning, then take off a few hours to spend time with my wife and do the domestic tasks that require my input, then it’s back to the computer again until late in the evening. Not all of the time at the keyboard is spent writing, of course. A major facet of a modern author’s day includes marketing and publicising, and there’s a necessity to engage with readers via social network sites etc. Unless I’m travelling, which is often, I work every day. But it’s something I love doing, so it’s not as if it’s a chore.

Where do the ideas come from?

I’ve an active imagination. I tend to visualise and imagine scenes, and often write in a cinematic style. I can’t say that I consciously come up with ideas, I just go with a scene and build on it from there and see where it will take me. I guess I’m a frustrated movie director at heart.

What about research – how do you go about it?

I prefer to research as I go. If there’s something I need to know or want to learn more about I will use Mr Google or Google Earth or some such search engine. Sometimes, when looking for locations, I’ll come across a building or feature of the landscape which inspires me and sets me off on a different track. Because I set my books in the USA, and I’m a Brit, there is much I have to check and double check, to make sure I’ve got the details correct. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the USA on a number of occasions in the last few years, and while out there I often take note of popular brand names, makes of vehicles, local idiosyncrasies and such which I then pepper my books with to make them more realistic.

What is your typical ratio of writing to research?

You’ve probably realised that my research is limited in relation to the actual writing, and it’s actually difficult for me to say how much I do. I research on an ad hoc basis only, to be honest. But that’s unless you include the time I spend reading. I read voraciously, and subconsciously am picking up details from all those other books that might worm their way into my own writing somewhere down the line.

Do you set a words-per-day/or week target?

I do like to produce at least 2,000 words a day, but can quite often do much more than that. But really, it’s not about the number of words but the quality of the words, so I don’t get hung up if I fail to produce my word count, I’m happier when i know that what I’ve produced has gone some way to move the plot and story along.

As well as for research purposes do you read other books for enjoyment and who are your favourite authors?

I do indeed. I read a lot of books these days because ‘I have to’, but there are also certain authors’ works that I read solely for pleasure and I make sure that they’re on my to be read pile as soon as they come out. There are a good number of writers I follow, but if I can only mention a few then they’d be Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, Jack (J.A.) Kerley’s Carson Ryder series, and most of Dean Koontz’s books. But I also follow some of my contemporaries like Sean Black, Tom Wood, Adrian Magson, and also a number of authors on the up like Paul D Brazill, Lee Hughes and Col Bury.

Is there a bit of *you* in Joe Hunter, or is he based on anyone?

I guess that where we’re alike is in our moral stand. We both lay a high emphasis on loyalty, honour and family, and making a stand against bullying and prejudice. We both have a keen interest in martial arts. But Joe is more handsome, slimmer, fitter and enigmatic than I could ever hope to be. I suppose, yes, he’s an idealistic version of me. But the difference is that Joe Hunter is more proactive than I am, and enjoys the thrill of the chase: me, I’m all about a quiet life.

Any advice for aspiring authors? (like me for instance)

The best advice i can give seems pat but is true. Read a lot and write a lot. You will only develop your craft by doing it. Not many authors have success with the first book they’ve ever written, so stick in and go the distance and don’t give up. I like to use my own background as an example that if it can happen to me, then it can also happen to you. I live in a rural, out of the way corner of Cumbria, about as far away from the publishing houses as you can get in the UK. I didn’t have any contacts, or routes in, and was only educated to a secondary school standard. I wasn’t a celebrity, or a sports person and didn’t even know one. I didn’t train as a writer, take any courses and wasn’t part of a writing group – in fact I had no contact with other writers for many years before I came late to the internet. So, if I can get published through sheer grit and determination, then so can you. Keep on keeping on, to coin a phrase.

The modern way seems to be to try to blog your way to popularity and to attract readers? How valid is this?

It definitely helps to build a platform and the social media sites and blogging certainly helps to do this. I think the most valid way that blogging etc helps is that you begin to make contacts and meet like-minded people and you share comradeship with them. It’s a support network in many respects, where everyone is willing to help push your writing. Some authors have found their way into publishing deals via this route, and it is my understanding that agents and publishers now keep an eye out for writers showing promise and will actually approach them instead of the other way around. I’m all for it. For instance I mentioned, Paul Brazill, Lee Hughes and Col Bury: I’d never have heard of their writing if it weren’t for meeting them through their work on the internet.

How do you see the future of books and publishing?

It saddens me to see so many bookshops and libraries closing down, but I also recognise it as a sign of the times. Some people prefer reading from ereader devices these days. I can’t change that, so I’ve decided that the best route is to embrace it. I’m old fashioned and prefer a paper book, but if technological advances mean that we’ll all be reading via devices one day, then I still hope to be around and part of that movement. I see the traditional publishing houses also coming to this realisation and embracing the new ways of engaging with readers. For some time there was a feeling of resistance (and I was part of that) to eBooks etc., and the publishing industry suffered as a result, as did the outlets for paper books. But I see the tide changing, and if the publishers get their act together and take charge of the eBook industry then it will continue. I never see a time when books will disappear, but they will definitely change as a product.

So do you think hardbacks, even paperbacks, on the way out?

I think hardbacks are probably as strong as ever. Collectors buy hardbacks, as do libraries, so numbers will remain consistent (as long as the libraries don’t disappear), but there’s definitely a down trend in the number of paperbacks being printed these days. It’s down to the fact that many of the outlets to sell them have gone. Even the supermarkets stock fewer paperbacks than they once did. I think it’s because the ebook revolution has primarily hit the paperback reader. Where once someone would have grabbed a few paperbacks to take away on vacation with them, they now load a few books onto their devices instead. I really hope that I’m wrong and that paperbacks make a resurgence; I’d hate to find that a visit to a bookshop turned into a similar experience as entering a catalogue shop where you browse a screen then make a selection to be downloaded to your device.

So you’re saying that the Kindle and the iPad will take over one day?

I heard an interesting statistic in that everyone born after 1996 has only known a world where mobile phones, computers and reading devices etc., are the norm. It’s ‘reality’ to this generation, and they see nothing wrong with reading books on Kindle etc., but I also hope that it will mean that even more people are reading than ever, and that it means that it actually turns more people on to books. When I was a lad in the early eighties, i was in the minority of boys that actually read anything that wasn’t a comic book. I’d like to think that by having access to eBooks, more kids now read and will make the transition to the real thing. What we need is for someone to make reading paper books cool. Then we’d see a trend towards reading books again. I’d like to lead the trend, but can’t actually describe myself as being a cool dude.

You said you have an agent – does a writer need one?

I’m lucky in that i have a terrific agent in Luigi Bonomi, and that he works tirelessly on my behalf to secure the contracts i need to continue my writing career. I think a good agent is invaluable, and they are worth every penny they earn from my advances. But, there’s also a trend these days for authors to go without an agent, and some have been highly publicised in dumping their agent. It’s all well and good if you’re established, and understand the publishing industry and have the necessary contacts, but the reality is that most aspiring authors don’t. They really do need a good agent on side in my opinion. Sadly, due to there being fewer openings for mainstream publication these days (due to the current state of the industry and the sales outlets closing), agents are representing fewer authors. It’s now probably harder than ever to secure an agent, let alone a publishing deal. But if you don’t try, it won’t happen. Stick at it, like I said. never give up.

Looking ahead – will there be more Hunter books?

The short answer is yes. In the UK there are seven Joe Hunter books on the shelves, but I have also completed a further two in the series that will be published next year for which I was contracted. I’ll be speaking with my agent and publisher very shortly with ideas for further books in the series. I also have plans for another collection of Joe Hunter short stories, similar to the one already out as an ebook (Six of the Best). I’d also like to write a spin off with Jared Rink’ Rington as the main guy, or even a spin off concentrating on Hunter’s nemesis, the bad boy, Tubal Cain, but these are all ideas for the future.

I take it you write mainly for men? Yet I’m told 80% of readers are women. Do you reckon they like a bit of violence?

To be a little contradictory, I don’t write mainly for men. I write for readers, and it doesn’t matter what the gender is. In fact, I’d say that my readership is predominantly women. Seeing as my books are a tad on the violent side, you’d think that meant that women enjoyed violence., But I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s more about women preferring justice, and that’s what they get from the likes of Joe Hunter. He’s a bit like the wandering gunslinger, or knight errant, bringing violent justice to more violent bad guys, slaying the dragons so to speak, and that’s what women find attractive about him. Or maybe it’s because they find him hot! I don’t know.

Are there days when the idea of writing palls and you just head for the hills?

I love writing, but even something you love can become a drag if you don’t take time out now and again. When I feel that I need a break I usually do literally head for the hills. I love heading off to Scotland and chilling out in a log cabin next to a lake (Loch) in the mountains. My idea of heaven. Funnily enough, while I’m off on a break, my head is usually full of new ideas for the next book, and then I get antsy and want to get back to my writing once more. Sad or what?


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  1. turner_tasha

    Fantastic interview. So much good stuff to learn from Matt. So many authors believe as soon as they have a real publishing firm that they won’t have to do the marketing and social media thing. Fantastic job Brad. I look forward to seeing more such interviews.

  2. Brad Fleming

    Thanks Tasha. Matt is a great writer and a real down to earth guy. He has come to authorship the hard way and has loads of tips and advice for both established and budding writers.

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