Matthew Johnson’s new collection of stories, IRREGULAR VERBS, just came out last week, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about them, and more!
Congrats on your new collection, IRREGULAR VERBS! Will you tell us a little about it?
IRREGULAR VERBS collects my favourite stories from the fifteen years or so I’ve been publishing in places like Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. I chose the title partly because it’s the name of one of my best-regarded stories, but also because the stories are all different from one another, ranging from epic fantasy to military SF, magic realism and superheroes.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I’ve thought of myself as a writer for as long as I can remember. My parents are both academics who have written quite a few books (in fact my father just published a new one) so I grew up thinking that writing was just a thing that people did. My mother is a big SF fan who would put Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham books in my hands, as well as sitting me down each Sunday to watch Star Trek; she’s also one of Canada’s most important feminist scholars, which definitely had an influence on me as well. had a pretty typical upper-middle-class Canadian childhood that involved a lot of comics, Dungeons & Dragons and bad TV cartoons, but one of the great things about growing up when I did was that I got to see my hometown become one of the most multicultural cities in the world. It’s been an amazing process and a real inspiration for me in my writing.
Do you have a few favorites from Irregular Verbs?
They’re all favourites, though I probably like them for different reasons than readers do. I like “Jump, Frog!” because I think I did a pretty fair job of capturing Mark Twain’s voice, and I’m proud of “Heroic Measures” because even though none of the characters are given names (for reasons that become obvious about halfway down the first page) there’s never any confusion about who’s talking. I also have some sentimental favourites, stories like “Written by the Winners” that didn’t get their fair share of attention because of where they were published, and ones that accumulated piles of “great, but not for me” rejections. And, of course, there are the ones like “Lagos” and “Public Safety” where I just look at the finished story and say “How did I do that?”
What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, speculative fiction?
What I love about SF and related genres is that they let you treat things as both real and metaphor at the same time. In SF the characters, story and themes can be tied very tightly together – and, I think, have a lot more impact on readers as a result – because the characters have a lot more power to affect the world around them. That can lead to pure escapism, of course (though I’m always mindful of Tolkien’s question about who’s most opposed to escape) but it can also let a writer dramatize conflicts that would otherwise be purely internal. In “Holdfast,” for instance, the main character faces a problem that’s pretty common in realistic fiction: he’s facing change that he doesn’t like, and he wants to keep everything the way it is. The difference is that because it’s a fantasy story he actually can keep everything the way it is, if he wants to, so his dilemma is boiled down to a single choice in way that it couldn’t be in a realistic story.
What authors or novels have inspired you the most?
When I was quite young I read a lot of British SF, mostly John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke, and I think they inspired me with the breadth of their imagination and their wonderfully humane quality. Authors who’ve influenced me as an adult include Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, Ursula K. Leguin, Tim Powers, Robert Charles Wilson, Maureen McHugh and especially John M. Ford – if I had to pick a single writer I’d like to be like, both in terms of his body of work and the approach he took to it, it would be him.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Probably John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless. It’s the book I re-read the most often already, because it’s like a master class in how to use SF to get at human themes and how to show without telling – along with leaving a fair bit for readers to figure out or decide for themselves.
What do you look for in a good book? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
I like a distinctive setting, interesting and varied characters and a sense that the book is about something beyond just the literal story. At the same time, I don’t like allegories, and I rarely enjoy things that have a clear political point of view, even if it’s one I agree with: I prefer fiction that gives the reader some room to be part of it and prompts you to ask questions, rather than offering answers.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I spend most of my non-working, non-writing time with my wife and our two sons, doing the things that families with young children do. When I can I sneak in some cycling (mostly to work and back) and canoeing (usually with one or both kids in the boat). Between writing, my work for SFWA and my day job I also do a fair bit of travel: I got to go to Singapore last year and I’ll be up north in Yellowknife this Fall.
What’s next for you?
I wish I knew! I’m currently shopping my second novel around and I’m slowly starting work on a new one, while trying to find the time to write some more short stories as well.
About IRREGULAR VERBS:
keluarga: to move to a new village
lunak,/em>: to search for something without finding it
mencintai: to love for the last time
Meet a guilt-ridden nurse who atones for her sins by joining her zombified patients in exile; a lone soldier standing guard on a desolate Arctic island against an invasion that may be all in his mind; a folksinger who tries to unionize Hell; and a private eye who only takes your case after you die. Visit a resettlement centre for refugees from ancient Rome; a lost country recreated by its last citizen on the Internet; and a restaurant where the owner’s ghost lingers for one final party. Discover the inflationary effects of a dragon’s hoard, the secret connection between Mark Twain and Frankenstein, and the magic power of blackberry jam—all in this debut collection of strange, funny, and bittersweet tales by acclaimed writer Matthew Johnson.