Interview with Science Fiction Writer Matthew Alan Thyer

It’s time for our irregular series “Interviews with international indie writers” again. Today I welcome science fiction author Matthew Alan Thyer to my blog. Matthew has been kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Matthew Alan Thyer1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

These days I’m a card carrying member of the middle aged. A stay-at-home dad. Husband. And, most notably for the purposes of this interview, a new author. A big transition is coming my Family’s way, my wife Tess just accepted a new position that will move us from my native homelands in Colorado to the east coast. Although I’m currently half way through my next book and neck deep in moving boxes, I’m actually looking forward to the new environment and the new challenges and experiences that will come with living in the DC area. So, at this point in my life, I think you could safely say that I am an optimistic person.

2. For how long have you been writing and why did you start?

As a hobby, I have been writing for a long time. I’m not sure I could put a date on it. Telling stories used to be a way for me work things out. Also, journaling kept my pen busy when I had time to fill working as a wilderness guard, when I was younger, or when I was deployed. But until recently, writing was never more than a past time.

In the spring of 2012 I had the first of many seizures. At the time I was working for a large software corporation in the Pacific North West. “Overworking” would be a more apt description. What followed was a long and difficult tale of recovery. I had to come back to health and ultimately, I know I am a very lucky fellow. I had the support of my family and friends, and especially of my wonderful wife Tess.

Eventually, when I got the seizures under control, it felt like I had some spare time on my hands and a desire to try something new. And for the first time in my adult life I was able to search for my earthworm. By July of 2013 I had several stories outlined and was steadily tapping away at the keys. And that’s when I made the transition to being an author.

Since then I have not looked back. Each and every time I get to write I feel a sense of contentment that is unrivaled in my adult experience. I would tell stories even if I never sold any, stacking manuscripts up on the table Jack London style.

The Big Red Buckle by Matthew Alan Thyer3. Tell us a bit about your books, The Big Red Buckle and Joulupukki.

The Big Red Buckle is the first in a series I’ve been working on that are designed to be shorter length reads (novelette to novella). The unifying theme of this hard science fiction series is “sports in space”. This book is the story two Martians who are the first native-born colonists to compete in the solar system’s premier endurance race, The Grand Martian Traverse. “The Big Red Buckle” is the prize. Competitors run and soar, using foot launched aircraft, about 1,500 kilometers between two shield volcanos on the surface of a partially terraformed Mars.

Joulupukki is a YA short story that I wrote in response to an online writing challenge in December. The idea was that we were supposed to write a 2,000 word story about the Holiday. I suppose I went a little further back into history to build the framework for my holiday than many other challengers did, but I’m very happy with the result. Again, this turned into a series, number two is nearly done.

4. The theme of your series is “sports in space”, which is a pretty unique subject for an SF series. So how did you come up with the idea?

I hate to admit this, but I really don’t know how the idea got going or where it came from. The truth is, more often than not, this is the case. Something overheard or a passing conversation is the seed for a story, but the story itself only emerges seasons later when it has had enough time to sprout underground.

As far as I can tell, “sports in space” is unique within both genres (Sci-Fi and sports fiction). There are some sports I’m really enamored with (like paragliding and distance running), but then I’ve got outlines for sports I know almost nothing about (like rugby and solar car racing). The stories have been fun to work on and I hope that others find them compelling and entertaining reads.

Number two in the series is titled “Up Slope” and I’m targeting April for its release. It is about scientists living on Europa who ride fat-tired trikes in their spare time. I’m having a lot of fun with this manuscript because it is less about the competitive elements of the bicycle and more about the utility of the sport. I’ll save the spoilers, but rest assured there is plenty happening and trikes bridge a functional gap for the scientists in a moment of turmoil.

5. Are you a sports person yourself, either as a fan or active participant? What sports do you like?

Oh yes, long distance running has been a life long influence. I got my P3 paragliding certification years ago too, but ended up giving up soaring when my youngest son came along. I’ve always been a pretty active guy.

6. Sports are a subject which is often neglected in the science fiction genre to the point that you get entire worlds or even galaxies where no one seems to care about sports at all. Given the huge amount of attention sports receive in the real world, this is flat out unrealistic. So which science fiction works handle sports right in your opinion?

Kim Stanley Robinson touches upon sports and leisure activities in his seminal Mars Trilogy. One of my favorite descriptions is of Nirgal’s around Mars foot race. I love this narrative because Nirgal does this because of the pleasure it brings him, no other reason. KSR does an admirable treatment of the topic when he imagines how a single person might circumnavigate thousands of kilometers at a time without support, and his marriage of Paleolithic survival methods to future materials technology is compelling to say the least. But at the root of the endeavor is Nirgal’s pleasure in this activity. He loves it, the runner’s high, the proximity to the landscape, the challenges, physical and mental, that he must confront with each advancing step.

I’m sure there will be readers who say “What about Ender’s Game?” And yeah, Orson Scott Card’s descriptions of competitive war simulations in zero gravity has all the trappings of a “game”, but the stakes are different. Not a single child at Command School participates because they love it. Not even Ender. There is no poetry of motion, not flow state obtained. None of these kids are polishing skills that will take them to the Olympics. The activity is utilitarian at its core and this denies how much pleasure you can get playing frisbee in the first meaningful spring warm up, in bare feet, on a recently defrosted lawn.

7. Worldbuilding is crucial for science fiction. So how did you approach the worldbuilding for your series?

I dove in. I have outlines, time lines, and plenty of character treatments, but ultimately I like to let the world emerge on its own. The first story I played with in this world has a working title “Orbital Courier”. It follows a rather solitary man who maintains one of many networked orbital sling ships that move goods, materials and labor throughout the solar system aboard hollowed out asteroids that have bootstrapped propulsion systems attached. This story opened up a plethora of implied technologies and settings.

I wrote a number of additional “test pieces” in a variety of locations. Each one linked back to the original. And I kept on discovering more about the future I was writing about.

Finally, my wife and I have conversations about this world as if it’s a real place and time. We exchange articles that suggest new, interesting plot twists. When the seedlings are ready they get transplanted to stories.

Joulupukki by Matthew Alan Thyer8. Your short story Joulupukki draws on the traditions of the Sami people of Lapland, which is quite an unusual background for a science fiction story. So how did you get the idea?

So take a close look at my face and you’ll see an epicanthic fold over both my eyes. My oldest son has expressed a strong interest in knowing and understanding his own heritage. Often I think some of this is his desire to fill a void with a cultural legacy lacking in his contemporary reality. Years ago I began following the thread of our shared genetic and cultural history and with the aid of some genetic testing I discovered that we share a common ancestry with the Sami.

It is a distant and tenuous connection to be sure, but that realization sparked an interest in the cultural heritage of Lapland. Joulupukki is a traditional Yule hunt held near the winter solstice. The protagonist in my story, Birki, is a young man who, as fate would have it, shares some common traits with my oldest boy. Birki is growing up in a place where myth is of cultural importance, and the power to make myth manifest exists. The challenge is making the stories matter despite that god like power over matter.

The next in that series is “Jojk” and it is about done. Keep an eye open for its impending release. I’m writing these as if they were comic books, each one has to end with a cliffhanger. Make the reader want more. Soon.

9. Have you ever been traditionally published or did you ever pursue traditional publishing? And if so, what were your experiences?

I have article publishing experience, all non-fiction, but when I started writing fiction for publication none of that seemed to translate within this new publishing context. Beginning last July I started collecting rejection notices. Often these were just form letters that seemed to indicate no one read my samples. Worse, I’d write and wait for months before I got back a couple of paragraphs of generalities that could have been sent to anyone.

It never occurred to me that I would not be successful writer; if I invest myself fully in the effort I know, deep down, that eventually I’ll find my readers. The rejection letters never said to me “Don’t be a writer.” Rather they seemed to be saying, “Do it yourself.” I’ve never been the kind of person to wait on someone else’s permission or approval to do something, anything.

And I know I have a lot to learn. The business side of writing is simultaneously a distraction and an interest of mine. When I’m wrapped up in copy-edits or distribution questions I’m not writing, that’s bad. But, because those questions of business ultimately get made on the edge between producer and consumer, I feel like I’m a lot more in touch with my readers than I ever would have been had I taken the “big ink” route. I hear back from readers. They tell me when I’m making mistakes and also tell me what they like. Readers are a component of the rocket fuel that propels future stories.

That said, at this point in my publishing career I would gladly accept the help of a traditional press. My writing time is constrained enough as-is and having that kind of leverage would sure take some weight off my wagon. But there are two caveats. First, I know how valuable that link to the reader is and I just don’t see it happening for a lot of traditional writers. They may not even know its missing, or if they have it, they spend a lot of time cultivating it (see John Scalzi and his blog). So if I ever signed a contract, I’d make certain that I could still respond to readers in a meaningful way. Which means being able to write what I want, when I want.

Second, I’ve already got this ball rolling. Sure, mine is imperfect, but it is rolling. I’ve found an illustrator who does brilliant, unique and eye-catching work. I’m searching for an editor who has both an interest in my work and can help me put the polish on future works for a reasonable price. I’m already building a team and I know they’re the right people for the job.

10. According to your author bio, you’ve lived a really exciting life? So how did those experience influence your fiction?

I think I’ve had an unconventional life, but let me tell you there is very little about capacity management at a large software corporation that I’d consider “exciting”. That said, some of my past experiences have informed what I write. For instance, because I spent hundreds of hours learning how to pilot soaring aircraft, and subsequently soaring everything from butter smooth marine air to rodeo thermals in Eastern Washington and Oregon, I have a fair appreciation of what might go into the sport. Also, it is an ongoing interest of mine so I watch video and pay attention to some of the people who are opening up the sport.

Proximity helps, and while I am fabricating fictions, they are stories grounded in experience.

11. According to your website, you will be attending this year’s WorldCon in London (so will I BTW). Is this your first WorldCon and/or your first visit to London? And are you excited?

I am very excited to make appearances at a growing list of conventions. I just got back from Legendary ConFusion in Detroit and not only did I have an awesome time I learned a ton and met many awesome people.

That said, my wife and I are in a transitional period. She just accepted a new job and will be over seas for the next six months. I would very much like to go to London this year, so I’m holding onto that candle. But at the moment, I’m just not certain how I’m going to make it happen. I’ve got to figure out the finances and have a viable childcare plan in place before I can board the aircraft (or ride Heathrow’s PRT).

London would be my first WorldCon and that would be very exciting. I’m sure it would be a lot like walking into an Ancient Egyptian tomb, just a treasure trove of information and experience. For this reason I’m doing my best to make it a priority.

12. As a WorldCon member you’re also able to nominate and vote for the Hugo awards. So what’s your choice for the best novel of 2013? And are there any other works, writer, artists or editors you believe deserve some Hugo recognition?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman came out last year and I certainly enjoyed the read. I’m not certain if it really fits though, it is more of a hard anthropology fiction. So maybe, since anthropology is a science.

If The Human Division made it on the ballot (John Scalzi) I would not be displeased. In many ways the later books in the Old Man’s War series are much better than the first few. It would also be interesting to see any one of the episodes from the collected series on the ballot (I’m guessing here, but they felt novelette in length) because it might force the question that I’ve never felt was answered last year in Texas around Mary Robinette Kowal’s contribution.

Finally, if it were my ballot I’d nominate Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long War. I read all of these last year and of them all “War” was my favorite. A really interesting departure for Pratchett which does not get mired down in the dystopic. In the baseline Earth there is still deprivation and scarcity, but the story seems to overcome the sadness.

13. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

Sure! I want to thank them for giving my stories a try.

Thanks for answering my questions, Matthew. Hope to see you in London in August.

Visit Matthew’s blog at Feet for Brains, follow him on Twitter at @feetforbrains, Facebook or Goodreads.

Matthew’s books The Big Red Buckle and Joulupukki are available at Amazon.

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