by Grace Topping
One of the pleasures of meeting writers is discovering their books. Meeting Matthew Iden introduced me to the broad scope of his work, which includes crime fiction, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist. Matt’s books could keep me reading until the end of the year. Recently, I read the first book in his terrific Marty Singer series about a retired DC homicide detective and his latest standalone, The Winter Over, a psychological suspense thriller set at the South Pole. That one was not only entertaining but also provided me with a bit of relief from a blistering hot August day, if only in my imagination. It was a pleasure talking to Matt about his writing career.
Welcome, Matt, to Writers Who Kill.
When you introduced Marty Singer in the first book of the series, A Reason to Live, he is fighting a number of challenges, including adjusting to life outside of the police force and fighting cancer. Has Marty changed throughout your series?
All writers who embark on a series ask themselves how to formulate the life arc of their characters, but I knew I never wanted a static “Hardy Boys” type of life for Marty. Things have to change and evolve for him, just as they do in real life.
Marty Singer’s struggle with cancer humanizes him greatly. How have readers reacted to this aspect of your plot?
The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, including many—I’m flattered and humbled to say—from cancer survivors who have shared their stories with me.
When I started out with Marty, I didn’t want to create a superman, impervious to harm…or change. The fact that he suffers from a life-threatening illness, that can affect anyone at anytime, was a way of bringing out the best in Marty and, I hope, in readers.
With Marty’s milieu being in Northern Virginia/District of Columbia, do you hear from readers, especially local police officers, about things that Marty has done or places that he goes? Do you use real places?
Several readers have written to me to thank me for getting DC “right.” I research the locales that I use in and around DC—if I don’t already know them well, like Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia—but I confess as a transplant myself (Pittsburgh), I don’t have the deep, intrinsic “remember when?” knowledge that DC natives do.
DC is so compact and under such urban pressures that neighborhoods and towns that were prominent cultural outposts for decades have been swallowed up, transformed, and even erased as the (rather weird and artificial) demands for growth continue. I tried to write about that in The Spike, when I watched a historic African-American neighborhood succumb to development…and now no one remembers it was there at all.
A reviewer said that your “…writing and storytelling gifts get stronger with each Marty Singer novel.” Another reviewer said that you have “…the ability to surprise… and offer up twists that are not what you'd expect.” What is the greatest challenge to keeping each book in the series fresh?
Keeping Marty’s life arc (as opposed to the plot of the novel at hand) surprising and creative are the hardest parts. We can all name beloved series characters who lost their shine once their personal lives became complacent and steady…even though that’s what we, as readers, thought we wanted all along. Conflict, as they say, is at the heart of every story and the same is true in every series. Once the home life is perfectly stable, it might be the end.
You’ve written several standalone books, including your most recent one, The Winter Over. Which do you find more challenging to write, books in your Marty Singer series or your standalone books?
Standalones, by far. Like, by a mile. There are several reasons. The first, naturally, is that I’m not tapping into a familiar character with an ensemble cast and a nicely constructed back story.
But standalones, by their nature, are departures from the norm. They are one-off ideas or have special circumstances that require unique crafting or approach. This is what makes them so exciting to write, but is also a source of extreme challenge.
A good example is my current project, Birthday Girl. It is more emotionally complex—from the internal revelations of several characters to the interactions between those characters—than anything I’ve written to date. I found it exhausting. I think I learned something in the process, but I am dying to get back to a good old car chase or fist fight.
Cass Jennings, the main character in The Winter Over, a young female mechanical engineer—is a real departure from Marty Singer, a tough former policeman. What prompted you to make the main character of this book female?
Within the story, I wanted everything about the protagonist in The Winter Over (TWO) to be against stereotype. A rough-and-tumble bearded guy who fixes snowmobiles and is always at the center of the action? Too pat. I wanted a woman, an engineer, and a tough cookie. When Cass auditioned for the job (in my head, ahem), I knew she was it. Strong, smart, immensely competent in her field, opinionated, but emotionally vulnerable.
Outside of the story, I wanted to stretch a little bit and write a protagonist in another gender. I think I learned a few things including, I think, that characters are born, not made. I simply cannot imagine a man (or another woman) than Cass in that role, now.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing from the viewpoint of a woman?
Attempting (and probably failing) to show the slights and put-downs and straight-up sexism that women face from their male counterparts in everyday situations. I tried to make it apparent that several of the male characters in The Winter Over have a difficult time adjusting to the fact that Cass is not only competent, she’s willing to buck authority and take matters into her own hands.
I should add that everything I’ve read, and the people I’ve talked to, about life at the South Pole is that it is thoroughly meritocratic—if you can do a job competently, gender is irrelevant. But there are special circumstances I created in TWO that make the situation a little more “normal.” Which is to say: many men are jerks to women in workplace environments.
It’s often said that setting or location can be another character in a book. This is definitely the case with a setting in Antarctica. You write so authentically about a research facility at the South Pole that it made me wonder if you had spent time there. Have you? If not, how did you learn so much about wintering over at the South Pole?
I have not been to the South Pole (would love to go), but I have been to Antarctica as a tourist—and I am in love with the place. If I could, I would write several more novels set there.
My knowledge comes from the amazing blogs, photographs, and online journals that many Polies, as they’re called, have written and shared. The experience is so unique, it’s small wonder that so many share so much, but we are lucky to have it. I list many of the blogs and books I used in my research in the Author’s Note in the back of TWO, but I would highly recommend interested parties check out Bill Spindler’s incredible forty-year love affair with the place (www.southpolestation.com) and world-traveler Jeffrey Donenfeld’s video tour of the Amundsen-Scott station (www.jeffreydonenfeld.com).
What inspired you to write a book set at the South Pole?
It’s so stark, so mysterious, so remote. It is a proxy for all of the facets of the human condition. It’s an integral part of the ecosystem of our planet, yet so inhospitable that it is almost certainly lethal to humans. We didn’t even set foot on the continent until the 19th century and didn’t reach the South Pole (barely) until the 20th. I see the same fever in other writers: Edgar Allan Poe’s Gordon Pym, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica…I know they’ve felt the same call.
The Winter Over shows how isolation and the threat of the elements can drive people to do things they never thought themselves capable of doing. One reader described it as “… a nice mixture of “Nordic noir” and psychological thriller.” How would you categorize this book?
I’m flattered by the comparison to Nordic noir. And I know it’s also been called a classic locked room mystery, albeit set at the South Pole. I call it psychological suspense.
You placed The Winter Over at a fictionalized South Pole research facility. Why a fictionalized location instead of one of the actual research stations?
I created the Shackleton Research facility to discourage any comparisons to the real-world Amundsen-Scott station upon which it is based. The events and timeframe of the novel are meant to be very current or very near future, so I didn’t want any angry readers (or researchers!) getting their knickers in a twist over some of the fictional license I took.
There are also some plot circumstances that are simply made up (the privatization of the facility, for instance) that a name change helped explain.
For writers, reviews are a fact of life. What the most valuable thing you’ve learned from good and perhaps less favorable reviews?
(Spoilers!) Readers, no surprise, get attached to characters, even secondary and “spear carriers.” So, when (many of) those characters met their end during the course of the story, I heard about it. In writing TWO, I had used the movie Alien to guide my sense of psychological fear, but I may have overdone it. It’s important to keep in mind what your readers will feel viscerally as they go through the book—if you betray that trust, you better have a good reason…and be prepared for the consequences.
At what point did you feel you had become a successful writer, or have you reached that point yet? Have you had an “I’ve made it” moment?
I once thought there would be an a-ha! moment of achievement—and perhaps there is, further down the line—but what I’ve found is that being a writer brings with it a series of wonderful milestones.
I’m not trying to blow smoke here. I popped a bottle of champagne upon my first book sale—not a contract, I mean the first single book I sold. The first positive book review I received from someone not a friend or family member blew me away. The moment I’d sold a hundred books, or hit 1,000 reviews were amazing. When Thomas & Mercer called me and said they’d like to work with me on my career…I was shaking.
I think most writers feel the same way—a sense of wonder that we can make a living at sharing the stories in our heads. So each small achievement is an “I’ve made it moment.” Though I wouldn’t mind being on the NY Times bestseller list, of course. J
With a busy writing schedule, how do you find time to promote your books? Do you enjoy doing promotion?
The first five Marty Singer books were originally self-published and I had to promote all the time. I truly enjoyed the experience because I could often see the direct results of my efforts. Currently, however, Thomas & Mercer (as an imprint of Amazon Publishing) handles my promotion and, naturally, dwarfs anything I could do! But I still enjoy reaching readers through social media and at conferences.
What do you have planned next for Marty?
Marty is currently on hiatus while I fulfill a few books on contract for Thomas & Mercer, but I do have book 7 outlined and started. I’ll just say the next mystery involves polo, Virginia wine country, and an ancient inheritance that has to be unraveled by our intrepid former DC homicide cop.
Any standalone books coming up?
Yes, I’m currently in the late editing stages of Birthday Girl, another psychological thriller that takes place in a slightly more prosaic locale than the South Pole—it’s set in DC, naturally.
In Birthday Girl, Amy Scowcroft, a struggling single mom, searches for Lacey, her kidnapped eleven-year-old daughter. So much time has passed, however, that the police have given up. The only help she receives is from Elliott Nash, a gruff and eccentric homeless man who was once a hotshot forensic psychologist with the DC police force, but who is emotionally broken by a terrible event in his own past. Together, they discover that Lacey, far from being the only child abducted, might be just one of many.
Thank you, Matt.
The Winter Over
Each winter the crew at the Shackleton South Pole Research Facility faces nine months of isolation, round-the-clock darkness, and one of the most extreme climates on the planet. When a colleague is found dead on the icy Antarctica plain outside the station, Cass Jennings must find the strength to survive not only a punishing landscape but also an unrelenting menace determined to destroy the station—and everyone in it.
To learn more about Matt, follow him at www.matthew-iden.com and at the following:
- Twitter: @CrimeRighter
- Amazon Author page
- Goodreads Author page
- LibraryThing Author page
See below for a link to an interview Matt conducted with Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin about his experiences wintering over at the South Pole.