So far, I only know Matt Holmes through No Brother of Mine, his second novel, but I feel I know him very well. From his amazing wife, Vicki, I bought a copy of Matt’s book and so began my initiation into his writing and his attitude towards his work. Because of the long, well thought out answers Matt has written to my questions, I am dividing this instructive interview into two parts. The concluding segment will be posted next week.
- No Brother of Mine, your second book, among other things tells the story of two brothers who have an abusive father. How did you keep from letting this plot become mundane and ordinary?
What a great question to lead off with, Elaine! Unwinding the plot of No Brother of Mine a bit, I needed a reason for the two brothers to be estranged, and for it to be dramatic enough that the reader would feel it was both realistic and credible as a catalyst for such a significant rift between brothers. That led me to the idea that the boys had decided to kill their father (only to have one of them change his mind), which then obviously needed some heavy-duty rationale to justify if I wanted to keep the two male leads likeable (as I did). Therefore Dad became the villain of that part of the story. However, a friend who was reading the chapters as I wrote them challenged me, somewhere along the line, to portray the dad with more than just that single dimension. She didn’t think a ‘stock villain’ would be very interesting or believable, and so I had to find angles to his personality that would fill him out more.
One of the tricks I used toward that end was to restrict Dad’s dialogue to almost nothing. Unlike the other characters in the flashbacks, Ed James is defined nearly 100% by his actions, and not his words. I wanted all of the impressions of the man to come to the reader through the narrator, setting up the letter near the end of the book as our first opportunity to actually ‘hear’ Dad speak. My hope was that readers might then soften their impression of the boys’ father, at least to some small degree. Or not, as their own personal values and biases would dictate.
I also tried to write each of the scenes with the father as clearly coming from a child’s point of view, casting perhaps a dollop of doubt on the accuracy of what’s being recounted. When adults talk of their childhood recollections of their parents, especially in cases where the parents have since died, you can often get that kind of black-and-white perspective. It’s usually a matter of them putting their parents up on a pedestal, as if ‘the folks’ didn’t have any human frailties. In this case, though, it was more of a negative, ‘he was nothing but a jerk’ viewpoint that astute readers might read between the lines on.
I’m not sure if any of that answers your question directly, but hopefully I’ve explained some of what went into creating that character and how I tried to breathe some life into him.
- I noticed some pretty clever methods in the structure of this story where you interweave the past with the present. What gave you the idea for this, and did its smooth flow come easily? I mean the links between the short sections are deft and unobtrusive. Was this technique easy or did it take a lot of planning?
First of all, thank you for the compliments! I used flashbacks in my first novel, Game Over, to provide some background on the narrator of that story. However, there I used one flashback at the start of each chapter, and then the remainder of each chapter was set in the present day. I found that technique extremely helpful because it allowed me to establish the theme of the chapter very early on and set the reader up with some idea of what was coming in the main story that followed the flashback.
When I started writing No Brother of Mine, I wanted to retain the positive aspects of using flashbacks but didn’t want to be limited to just one per chapter. The back story in No Brother of Mine is much more crucial to the story than it had been in Game Over, as there are mysteries initiated and resolved there, in addition to character development. Therefore I decided to use alternating sections, switching back and forth between the present and the past. That introduced all kinds of opportunities for me that hadn’t really been there within the format I’d used in the first novel. I realized that I could play off the different time periods against each other at crucial points, such as in Chapter 5 where you (and the narrator) learn that one of the present-day detectives is re-opening the 20-year-old death of the boys’ father just a few paragraphs before discovering that Dad’s ‘accidental’ death may have been anything but. I love that sort of thing as a reader, and so I was delighted to be able to employ it while in the driver’s seat.
I’ve had many readers tell me how much they enjoyed the interweaving of the past and the present, as well as one person who complained that it was hard to follow. So one lesson I took away from the latter feedback was that I need to work harder at making those transitions crystal clear. The best way to do that, I believe, is to put something in the first few sentences of each section that establish exactly when it takes place. I tried to do that but must’ve dropped the ball at times.
I also did something with the structure that was probably too subtle to be enjoyed by many (possibly any) readers: the first 5 chapters from Act I of the story, and those all begin in the present, go to a flashback, back to the present, and so on, until they end in the past. Chapters 6 to 10 comprise Act II, and they’re structured in the reverse order: start in the past, move to the present, then another flashback, and so on, until they end in the present day. The final 3 chapters then follow another pattern, signalling that they’re the final Act. I’ve never heard from any reader who noticed this, but I still enjoyed the experience of building the book that way.
As far as planning the layout of the book in general, it was done more haphazardly than it might appear. I worked without a plot outline for No Brother of Mine, after building a fairly large and detailed plot chart for Game Over. I knew the high level details of the story before I began but I probably could’ve written all of that onto a postcard if I’d been so inclined. A lot of what I’d ‘planned’ out ahead of time were emotional arcs rather than actual plot or character details. I wanted to convey the frustration of the protagonist as he struggled to find out what happened to his long-estranged brother, for example, but I didn’t know how I’d do that until I started writing. One of the nice things about the alternating timelines (past and present) was that I could either write each section in order, alternating my attention back and forth, or write a series of, say, flashback scenes in a row. In the second case, I could flesh out an entire chapter in one timeline or the other, and then turn around and ‘figure out’ what was going on in the other story as a counterpoint. I loved that approach enough that I’m using it again on my third novel, which is now about half-written.
- I thought starting with the two detectives on the porch was an effective way to introduce Mitch, your main character, through his reactions and inner thoughts. Did you have trouble coming up with that opening?
The opening scene of No Brother of Mine was literally the first thing I wrote for the book. I didn’t even have a title at that point, or much of a plot. I just had an image in my head of a man being visited by a pair of detectives who had the sad duty to tell him that his brother, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years, had gone missing months earlier, was believed to be in the morgue and would he please come identify him. As I started writing it, I realized that I had to provide an explanation as to why the estranged brother would be the one asked to provide the identification: why not the parents or spouse of the dead man, or even just someone who was currently close to him and might therefore be more likely to recognize the missing man? So I had to address that, which was fine. Then a strange thing happened: the detectives asked the older brother to come with them to do the identification, and the man replied that he couldn’t come until the next morning. I hadn’t really planned that, and yet it came out that way. And as soon as I’d typed it, I realized that I’d introduced another (admittedly minor) mystery that would have to be solved by the time the book was finished. As it turned out, I didn’t know the answer to that particular puzzle until I was nearly done the first draft. I’d discovered on my first novel that I could plant little bits like that into the story as I went along and they would invariably bear interesting fruit later on. I’ve referred to that before as ‘flying trapeze’ work, where you let go of the one bar, high up above the crowd, and trust that the other bar will be there when you reach for it. The nice thing about writing, as opposed to the real trapeze job, is that you always have a net – editing! – but no one ever knows it was there except your editor. That definitely made it easier to write the opening section, as I didn’t have to worry about figuring every little detail out before I could proceed.
I should also mention that the opening did undergo a few significant changes after I initially wrote it. The protagonist’s name changed, his attitude toward the detectives mellowed a little, and a few recreational reefers that had been strewn around his house thankfully disappeared. But those changes notwithstanding, the opening scene was what I wrote first. Reading it aloud to my wife and a friend of ours, when it was all I had, garnered a positive enough reception to urge me onward.
- Where did the use of Ray’s obsession with comics come from? Do you know someone who adores comic books? What made you choose this characteristic for Ray rather than, say, him being an avid fisherman?
Confession time: I’m the comic book geek! It’s all I can do not to make every one of my books be about a ruggedly handsome comic geek who’s been misunderstood and unfairly judged by a cruel world. OK, maybe not. But I definitely love using my knowledge of comics to provide a bit of extra colour where I can. I made the decision early on that it would not be the narrator who was the comic reader, as I wanted comics presented to the reader through the filter of someone who doesn’t understand them any better than the average person does. That hopefully prevented me from entering Full-on Geek Mode whenever comics were mentioned, which I think we can all agree is a good thing.
Comics also allowed me to accentuate some of the characteristics of young Ray that I wanted to come through: his fearlessness, for example, which worked well with the superhero Green Lantern (a figure known for that trait). Ray had to be a daredevil of some sort as an adult, and so a childhood love of comics seemed like a natural gateway to that outcome. And, as they always tell you in Literature 101, ‘write what you know.’ So I did.
- What would you say is the main theme of No Brother of Mine? Is there a personal reason why you chose to write this story?
I gave a copy of the book to one of my yoga instructors, and after reading it, she not only praised the book to the class but also informed them all that “it’s a book about how ‘family’ can take a lot of different forms and isn’t always just about bloodlines” (my paraphrasing). That’s definitely one of the main themes. My own family tree is full of non-traditional descriptors such as ‘step-’, ‘adopted-’, ‘half-’ and so on. Because of that, I’m a firm believer that while blood may be thicker than water, love is way thicker than blood. Or, as someone said to me recently, ‘family is who you love.’ So that’s a big part of No Brother of Mine, although to say much more than that might spoil a few surprises for anyone who has yet to read it.
As for the origin of the story, it was inspired by my own estrangement from my brother, which lasted something close to 20 years. It happily ended in 2011, after which I began a process of reconnecting with not just my brother, but also his grown children and their children. That experience so fully captivated me in the autumn of 2011 that I began thinking of the dramatic possibilities built into it. The details of what had gone on between my brother and I were relatively mundane, but I quickly saw potential new directions I could go in with a fictional pair of brothers. In the end, the story in No Brother of Mine bore no resemblance to what happened in my life, but the inspiration was more than enough. And one of the happiest outcomes of all that was that my brother provided invaluable assistance to me in the writing of the book, and hence it’s dedicated to him. Awwww….
Part II of this interview will be posted next week. In the meantime, consider leaving comments or questions for Matt or myself and we’ll do our best to answer them.
Download your free copy of 10 Ways to Improve Your Writing from the link in the side column.