Since self-publishing his first novel, Contest, in 1996, Matthew Reilly has gone from strength to strength. Known for his explosive, hectic storytelling, Matthew has published fifteen novels and in 2011, his novel Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves was Australia’s best-selling fiction title. AWM intern took some time to chat with Matthew about all things action-thriller: research, self-publishing, and how action-blockbuster films inform his work.
Your thrillers have been critically acclaimed and are New York Times best sellers. What do you think makes a great action-thriller? What thrillers do you enjoy reading and what kind do you enjoy writing?
I think the main ingredient is this: characters that readers want to cheer for. Thrills only come when a reader cares about a character – so unless you have that, action becomes meaningless. When readers come to my book signings, they always tell me about the characters they love, not the action scenes. I often get sent a book for a “cover quote” and many of them dive straight into the action but don’t set up characters I care about…and I put them down.
I’ve always enjoyed thrillers by Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris and Robert Harris’s Fatherland.
Many thriller writers are known for their extensive research techniques. What is your research process?
I am always researching! Whether it is reading the newspaper most days or reading lots of non-fiction or watching documentaries. My favourite form of research is travel: nothing beats going there. I recently went to the remarkable ruins at Chichen Itza in Mexico and it was only by going there that I discovered some cool insider knowledge.
Other places I’ve been for research include the pyramids, Easter Island, Stonehenge, China, Istanbul. I love it!
You self-published your first book in order to get it on the shelves in bookstores after a series of rejections from major publishers. Your book was then picked up by publishing house Pan Macmillan Australia. Do you recommend aspiring authors to self-publish their works in order for them to get their name out there?
Yes. Do whatever you can to get discovered! If I were self-publishing today, I’d be doing online self-publishing in a heartbeat and selling my book for $1 – readers will give you a go if you lower the price (which was something I couldn’t do back in 1996).
Regular rejections are common for authors. How did you handle the rejections from the major publishing houses for Contest? Now you’re a celebrated thriller author, do you ever look back on those rejections and wonder how you kept going? Were there moments where you wondered if you were heading in the wrong direction?
Rejections do take the wind out of you, I know that. When I received those rejections I was sad for a few minutes and then I said to myself, “I’ll show them!” Confidence is everything, and if you honestly believe your book has got the right stuff, then just find another way! Power on!
What a lot of people don’t realise is that before Contest was discovered by Macmillan, I had started writing Ice Station. I was going to write it anyway, even though Contest was an abject failure at that stage. I think that shows I was a writer. I enjoyed writing. I was going to write Ice Station (which was the book that catapulted me around the world) anyway. So I was going in that direction, no matter what!
You’ve stated that your stories feel like films in your head, and indeed they read very cinematically. You’ve also written screenplays. How do you find writing your novels different from writing your screenplays? Do you prefer one medium to the other?
Novel-writing and screenplay-writing are actually two vastly different skills. People think they are the same because they are both “writing” but, trust me, a writer who is good at one is not necessarily good at the other. I had to teach myself screenwriting. Screenwriting seems easy because screenplays are shorter than novels, but they are actually harder: a screenplay must be lean and mean…and then you have to get it made, which is very, very difficult. I don’t prefer one over the other: some stories are better suited to be novels, others (usually shorter stories) are suited to be screenplays.
In the end, I write for an audience that – like me – sees lots of movies, and thinks in a cinematic language. It’ll sound simplistic, but I am just like my audience; I write what I like to read myself, which are fast-paced, action-packed, character-filled, highly visual, escapist thrillers that are bigger in scale than any Hollywood movie!
You can read more about Matthew Reilly here.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.