Matt Reilly interview

Australian author Matthew Reilly has built an international following through his action/thriller novels. They include: Contest, Ice Station, The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors. Published in over 20 countries and known for their highly visual style, fast pace and large-scale action scenes, over 3.5 million copies of his books have been sold.

Geoff Bartlett: Matthew Riley, you’re the author of nine books, the latest one is…

Matthew Reilly: The Five Greatest Warriors. It came out last year. And, I’m halfway through a new Scarecrow book now. I do one book every two years now.

GB: Is that your own decision?

MR: Yes. When you’re starting out it is important to have a book a year that bookstores get to know who you are and recognise the name. But, after a time I found that was unsustainable for me. I couldn’t finish my book, do the promotional work and then start another one straightaway. I needed time. And, that’s one of the joys of the success I’ve had. The more success you’ve had, the more time you have to come up with better ideas.

GB: How does it break down? What percentage of time is there in structuring, in writing, and then in promotion?

MR: Probably research takes about two or three months, also plotting out the story. I don’t start a book until I know the whole story from the get go. So, I don’t start page one until I know what happens at page 401. About eight months of writing, getting it out of my head and onto the page.

So, three months research, eight months writing, five months revision, and then I rest and stop. And when the publicity, promotional obligations kick in there’s probably two months there.

GB: And when you were writing Six Sacred Stones, had you premeditated that there was going to be The Five Greatest Warriors as a follow up to it?

MR: Yes. It was the only book that I’ve done where I knew the story was too big for one book, so I planned out the point where the book ended, which was the ultimate cliff hanger. I had my hero falling down this bottomless abyss.

GB: So, the first draft finishes up at 400 pages, but how big is the original first draft? Do you literally dump everything in your brain onto the page?

MR: Yeah, usually my first drafts are about 20 or 25 pages longer than the finished product?

GB: Is that all?

MR: Yeah. I’m a planner. But I never expected to write nine books. I thought maybe in my life I would write five or six. But, the more you write, the more practice you have, and the better you get. And, so I’ve learned now as I go to generally get rid of stuff which I am fairly sure is not going to sort of lead down a new subplot.

So, for a 400 page book I might do 425 and when I do the revisions I’m utterly ruthless. If a sentence does not advance the plot or some character, cut it. And that’s where it trims back down after the first draft.

GB: Did you have anybody as a role model when you were starting out?

MR: Not a one. The reason I self published was because I did not know anybody. I wrote Contest, sent it to all the publishers here in Sydney and was rejected by all of them, including famously getting a photocopy rejection letter with a photocopied signature. So, I self published Contest with the sole goal of getting spotted by a publisher.

GB: Was that a big decision for you as far as saying, “The professionals don’t feel that there is going to be a market for this book.” Were you at some stage thinking “maybe they’re right.”?

MR: For about four seconds, I thought “Yeah, they’re professionals, but they’re wrong. I know better than they do.” And, I honestly thought, and I’m serious, I honestly thought Contest had the goods. I thought this book was faster, scarier, and more thrilling than the books I was reading. And I was a big thriller reader, and still am.

GB: So, you’re a big fan of the genre.

MR: Yeah. I am the kind of guy who will go out and buy a Matthew Reilly book. And so, I’m often asked by people do I see lots of movies, read lots of books. Yes. I even go and see the bad movies, because I want to know what people are trying, what stories are out there. I want to know that my books are at the cutting edge of whatever is happening in the thriller genre. I need for my information and my plots, and my twists to be better than everything that’s out there. I thought Contest was an innovation and it just hadn’t been seen by the right person. That’s why I self published it.

GB: But for self publishers, once the book has come out they realise that getting it made was the easy part. Now they’ve got to get it into the hands of the public.

MR: Yep. You end up with boxes of your own book in your house. I had a little 1977 Toyota Celica. It was a bomb.  And, that’s when you hit the road and you go to bookstores and you walk in with a copy of your book. And you say, “Hi, I’m Matthew Reilly. This is my book. Would you like to put it on the shelves?”

And, you just have to develop a thick armor and say, “Well, my goal is to get this book out there…” I thought this book would entertain people like me. So, I need to get it into book stores. And the bookstore that made a difference was the Angus and Robertson on Pitt Street. The manager gave a couple of copies to staff members who enjoyed that kind of book. He said, “I’ll give it to them, see what they think.” They liked it, so he took some copies, and when they sold he took more and put it in front of the store.

And, that’s where it was found by the commissioning editor of fiction from Macmillan, Kate Patterson, who, like a good publisher, was going to stores to see what the competition was doing, to see what was out. And, she bought it, read it, rang up the number that was on the coverlet page and asked to speak to me. And importantly, she said, “What else are you working on?” “I don’t want an author who just writes one book. I’m after somebody who writes, two to four books.” And, I had just started Ice Station.

GB: So you were getting reasonably good success when you were self publishing with your first book?

MR: I reckon about two thirds of stores took it. One third slammed the door in my face.

GB: Was it then a big decision to go with a publisher? Did you think, “Well, self publishing seems to be working. I’m making more money doing it this way.”?

MR: I wanted distribution around Australia…and around the world. And so, when the call came from Macmillan, and ultimately the letter to publish, I was over the moon.

GB: You’ve been doing this for how many years now?

MR: I self published Contest in late ‘96. Ice Station came out in late ‘98.

GB: So, knowing what you know now about publishing, self publishing and the industry, what would you tell Matt Reilly back in ’96 who’s just starting out?

MR: If I had my time again I would have gone to more agents. Agents have the super highway, broadband connection to publishers. So, if you want to save time, send your manuscript out to agents. I would even say send it to agents in London and New York. Because there’s a certain amount of agents here in Australia, there are lots in London and New York. And, publishing has become very global, and with the internet as well, you can send the first few chapters as a PDF. It’s not even going to cost you postage.

GB: Have you a better idea of who your readers are now? And, when you’re putting a book together, are you writing with them in mind? Has it changed over the years?

MR: Actually, no. I still write for myself.  And the change that has come about is that I’m acutely aware, year after year, that the audience is getting more sophisticated. In the two years between my books, the audience has watched several dozen movies. They’re getting TV shows now, like House and CSI, which are filled with plot, filled with twists, and exceptional film making.

And, so they’ve watched two years’ worth of that. So my twists have to be better. My plots have to be better. I think a single episode of House, one of my favorite shows, it’s got more plot and character than most movies that you pay $17 to go and see.

GB: For a lot of first time writers, one of their greatest decisions is “I think it’s finished, but I’m not sure.” Was that a difficult process for you with Contest?

MR: Publishing a book, it’s a really weird thing because to write a book you have to spend a lot of time by yourself. It’s quite an introverted activity. And, then you put your name on the front cover and you put it out there to be evaluated, reviewed, or worse, ignored.

So, it can be a bit of a warm blanket to say, “I’ll revise it one more time.” Because to take that step to the extroverted side of it, of sticking your neck out there, that’s a big step. But at some point you have to say, “This is the best I can do” and put it out there.

And, yes, you need a bit of a brass neck. I’ve had reviewers say that Scarecrow had less literary merit than a shopping docket. I get people on who hate my guts. It’s going to happen. But, you also get those wonderful emails from people who say, “I’ve never read a full book before, but then I read Ice Station,” or Hell Island “and now I read all sorts of books.”

GB: It can be difficult to answer, but how much of writing is a trade that you can learn through spending eight hours a day at the computer, and how much is actually skill?

MR: It’s very hard to break it down. I think it all starts from one first step. And I found it quite independently in Stephen King’s book on writing, where he wrote, “At some point in their career, every writer looks at the books they’re reading and says ‘I can do better than that’.” And, so I don’t know if you can write yourself into skill, just through sheer hours and hours, and hours of doing it. I do think that I certainly looked at the books I was reading and I said, “I’m a bit of an expert in this. I’ve read dozens and dozens of action thrillers and I reckon I can do it better.”

And, so I think it’s that first step. All it takes is the ability to look at what you’ve been reading and to say, “You know, this could evolve.” And, I will always look at what I’m writing and say, “Have I ever read anything like this before?” And, I’ve watched a lot of movies, I’ve read a lot of books. If I’m writing something and think “you know, this sort of was in Predator II.” I go, “OK, I can’t write it.”

So practice helps but the first step is knowing your genre and saying, “I can do better than that.”

GB: Traditionally in the thriller genre there isn’t a lot of what you would call ‘character development’.  It’s more about plot structure and action. Is that a concern for you? Do you feel that you’re neglecting the character?

MR: No, this is where I think I build a better mousetrap. I am inserting character into things. And, one of the key problems, especially with a sequel, and I’m a student of sequels. I look at movies, why Lethal Weapon 2 is a good sequel, why Speed 2 is a bad sequel. Lethal Weapon 2 is a good sequel because it advanced the character of the lead characters.

So, I think it’s a tough call when people say there’s little character development in thrillers, because I think it’s very subtle. But there is character development because you care about them. And, I put a lot of effort into that in the revisions. I’m inserting more character. “Where can I put more character?” “Where can I get more interest so that the readers care about these characters?”

GB: Is there still the same passion for you writing novel number ten as there is for writing number one?

MR: You know, the passion is still there. The hard part is that I get the idea – as I said before, I map out the whole book in my head. And, so I map out 400 pages of a jam-packed story. It’s in my head, but writing still takes me eight months.

The biggest question I get asked, apart from, “Where do you get your ideas?” is, “How do you maintain the discipline?” “How do you sit down and write for these periods of time?” And it’s the passion which drives me to sit down and do the typing.

GB: When you’re creating an environment for your plots, do your books live somewhere between reality and sci-fi?

MR: I think that’s a pretty good description. But the thrillers always have the hint of sci-fi. And, that’s more just, that’s the story I like. My books I think are in the James Bond level of outrageousness – people jump off moving vehicles onto moving planes. It’s big action. But, it has to be grounded in some sort of reality.

And I’ve done speeches at libraries around Australia, and I say, “I researched Ice Station in a local library just like this.” And the people in the audience, many of who are aspiring writers, look around and go, “You can write an international best selling book starting here?”

GB: So for people who are self-publishing or who want to get a book published, what’s the key advice that you can give them?

MR: The first thing I will say is write the kind of book that you like to read yourself. Don’t write thrillers if you think, “Thriller writers make money. I’ll write a thriller.” Thriller readers will spot you as a fake in a second. Write what you love and try to write a book which is better than the stuff that you’re reading.

The way I write my books – I have my starting point. I have my finishing point. So, when I sit down, all I have to do is make sure I’m moving myself towards the finish. So, write what you love, the passion, discipline will follow and get the end in your head before you start.

GB: Discipline is a key thing. A lot of people say “I’m halfway through it, but I can’t find the time to finish it.” Were there any things that helped you to write day after day?

MR: You know, the thing to keep you going is to know that it will take a long time.

When I wrote Contest and Ice Station, and to a lesser extent, Temple, I was studying at university and working at a bar. What I would do is write on Thursday nights, or Sunday afternoons, or Saturday afternoons.

And, slowly – the pile of pages gets bigger. There’s no rule that a book has to be done in six or twelve months. It can take as long as it takes, but if you make it a hobby, then you just find a little bit of time here and there to work on it.

GB: Matthew Reilly, you’ve lived that dream. You’re now a best selling Australian author of nine novels with another one to come. Thank you so much for your time.

MR: Thank you for having me, and good luck to everybody with their writing.

This piece first appeared on the Sydney Writers’ Centre Website in 2010.

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