Please welcome Matthew FitzSimmons to the blog! His debut novel, The Short Drop, is out today, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about The Short Drop and what inspired you to write it?
In a real way, the writing of The Short Drop was a desperate act. I’d produced a mediocre novel in my 20’s, but one that I’d poured myself into writing. It was my “great American novel” that proved to be neither great nor especially American. The hard lesson I took from it was that, on the balance, I wasn’t good enough. So when I put that book aside, I also put writing aside. For good, I thought. It was a long road back to writing, and I didn’t have any intention to return to it. I taught for a decade and began dabbling with short pieces with no great seriousness. The reasons that I began writing The Short Drop are private, however, I can say that I gave no thought to seeing it published. It was something that I needed to do; I had something to prove to myself. That was my inspiration. It was only slowly that it dawned on me that I might have something. At the one year mark, I had fifty thousand words. I shared it with ten friends and family members whom I trusted to be brutally honest. I asked them one simple question: would you keep reading? They each said that they would. And like that, I had a second inspiration.
What makes Gibson Vaughn such a compelling character? Why do you think readers will root for him?
When imagining Gibson, it was important to me that he be human. I wasn’t interested in writing an antihero, but neither was I interested in an infallible superman. Gibson is young – he’s in his late twenties in The Short Drop. He’s had a lot of life experience but still has a lot to learn – long on knowledge, short on wisdom. He’s smart but is sometimes stupid. He knows what the right thing to do is, but doing it is often another story altogether. Losing both his parents young, he missed out important role models during his transition from childhood to adulthood and that has cost him. He’s had to come up with his own answers, not all of which are constructive. That said, he has great heart. He has potential, and, since this is the first book in a series, I have the opportunity to see him grow up. If he’s still the same man five books from now, I will have failed.
Research is a constant. A running joke among the thriller writers whom I have met is that our Google search histories would be very damning in court. I’m forever looking up unsociable topics such as poisons, kidnappings, enhanced interrogation techniques…how to buy a silencer on the black market. That sort of thing. It would not paint me in a very sympathetic light to a jury. Beyond that, I have a remarkable network of friends with expertise in all sorts of interesting fields who help me sound smarter than I am. If I still have questions, there is no better icebreaker than, “Can I ask you a few questions for a novel that I’m writing.”
I’ve recently segued from teaching to writing fulltime so my writing process has undergone an evolution. These days, I write six days a week from eight to four. I know it’s been a good day if I feel drained and need to lie down for thirty minutes. In the mornings, I edit the previous day’s pages and in the afternoons, I press forward again. Sometimes I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling until the solution that should have been perfectly obvious three hours ago occurs to me.
You have a background in psychology, but have you always wanted to write? What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
I was always fascinated by storytelling but was more involved in film and theater in high school and college. After graduation, I moved to New York City to work in the theater. I shared a series of illegal sublets with a college friend and writer, and it was conversations with him that planted the writing bug.
The first piece I wrote was for my eight grade English class. Around that age, I’d become engrossed in fantasy authors such as Tolkien and Brooks, so my story was about a young elf embarked on a rite of passage. The assignment, I believe, was to write the first ten pages; I wound up writing several times that length. I remember loving the world building and plotting that went into it. The night before it was due, I borrowed stencil sheets from my mother – she was a interior designer – to make a cover page. It was a labor of love, and I slaved over this cover page to get it exactly right, exactly straight. Of course, I misspelled the title, “The Mage in Spirt” instead of “Spirit.” I was devastated, in the way that only twelve year olds can be, when it was pointed out and didn’t write another word for years. It also marked the beginning of my lifetime’s losing battle against typos.
Why crime/suspense? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, in the genre?
I came to write The Short Drop in somewhat circuitous fashion. A few summers back, I went to a writers’ conference called Thrillerfest in New York City with my uncle – to whom the book is dedicated. Before that, I had never considered writing a thriller but four days of listening to authors discuss the creative process left me feeling inspired. That fall, I began work on a story that eventually became The Short Drop although ironically after six months work, I threw out my initial concept almost entirely and kept only the hero. And that’s what I enjoy about reading and writing in the genre – the intellectual challenge of constructing a story. Whether it is understanding how a Dennis Lehane or an Elmore Leonard fooled me, or working and reworking my own story until the pieces fit together. There is no greater rush than turning a stubborn story element over in my mind until a new, more interesting solution occurs to me. And there is nothing worse than knowing there is a more interesting solution but being unable to name it. That’s generally when you can find me lying on my back staring at the ceiling.
How do you balance writing with teaching?
I’m no longer teaching, but I was while writing The Short Drop. Obviously, the conducive aspect of teaching to writing is the structured vacations. I did the bulk of the writing over two summers. I found it difficult, as many writers do, to segue from a full day’s work to writing in the evenings. However, I found time away from the story to be exceedingly valuable; it gave me perspective and the chance to step back and find better solutions than what was already on the page.
What authors have influenced you most in your writing, and your life?
Don DeLillo had a huge impact on my writing. I’ve never read anyone with the ability to make the familiar or the mundane so utterly alien and fearsome; perhaps Burroughs. And DeLillo does it with the same words that we use every day; his art is in his phrasing and combinations. In my twenties, when I was living on the lower east side of Manhattan, I was obsessed with his sentences and tried/failed to imitate him. Eventually, it occurred to me to write like myself, but his influence will always be there. I mention his novel, Great Jones Street in The Short Drop as a nod to that influence. I’m also inspired by writers such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, both of whom are pigeonholed as science fiction writers, but who both, in my opinion, transcend genre and are simply great novelists. The inverse could be said of Kazuo Ishiguro who is a literary novelist but whose last two novels have experimented with science fiction and fantasy tropes. I admire anyone who will kick the tires on a genre and see the possibility for greatness in its structures.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Oh good question and my answer would probably change depending on the day. But today, I think that my answer would be It by Stephen King. I bought it at my college bookstore one Friday when I felt myself coming down with a bad cold. I stayed in bed the entire weekend reading and finished it Sunday night, having done none of my homework. My fever made the nightmarish quality of the story all the more vivid, and I can’t remember a reading experience that was that visceral. For forty-eight hours, I was owned by a writer. I’m not sure I’d recommend being owned by Stephen King though because that book haunted me for a long while after.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to have a few books going at any given time. Right now, some of them include: Ways to Die in Glasgow by Jay Stringer, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, Between the World and Me, which is a stunning book.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
What’s next for me is a second draft of the next Gibson Vaughn book. It’s called Poisonfeather and is due out in September, ‘16. After that, I could really use a vacation.
About the author:
Matthew FitzSimmons, an American boy from Illinois, grew up in London in the 1970s under the baleful eye of the Kings Road punks. His otherwise idyllic childhood was shattered by the traumatic experience of seeing Star Wars on December 27, 1977 in Leicester Square, listening to his father sleep through what was clearly the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, and fearing he was adopted.
For college, he attended Swarthmore College where he earned a B.A. in Psychology but lived largely in and for the theater.
After several years in New York City, and having learned he wouldn’t do absolutely anything to make it, he absconded to China. There he wrote a first novel (the less said about which the better), played center back for a foreigner’s soccer team, sparked a near riot and was forced to write a ziwo pipan (self-criticism) by the University of Nanjing—his first work of political fiction.
He now lives in Washington, D.C., where he taught English literature and theater at a private high school for over a decade. He cohabitates with a pair of old boots, collects bourbon and classic soul LPs, and wonders if he will ever write anything half as good as the first sentence of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.
About The Short Drop:
A decade ago, fourteen-year-old Suzanne Lombard, the daughter of Benjamin Lombard—then a senator, now a powerful vice president running for the presidency—disappeared in the most sensational missing-person case in the nation’s history. Still unsolved, the mystery remains a national obsession.
For legendary hacker and marine Gibson Vaughn, the case is personal—Suzanne Lombard had been like a sister to him. On the tenth anniversary of her disappearance, the former head of Benjamin Lombard’s security asks for Gibson’s help in a covert investigation of the case, with new evidence in hand.
Haunted by tragic memories, he jumps at the chance to uncover what happened all those years ago. Using his military and technical prowess, he soon discovers multiple conspiracies surrounding the Lombard family—and he encounters powerful, ruthless political players who will do anything to silence him and his team. With new information surfacing that could threaten Lombard’s bid for the presidency, Gibson must stay one step ahead as he navigates a dangerous web to get to the truth.