Always good to see you.
Author Interview: Matt Dovey
2020-07-31 · by Natalia Theodoridou
Matt Dovey is very tall, very British, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm that he’ll lie to you about. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife and three children, and still struggles to express his delight in this wonderful arrangement. Although his surname rhymes with “Dopey”, any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place: you can keep up with it at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter. If you enjoyed Bone Poet, you’ll probably also enjoy Squalor & Sympathy (fantasy) and The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself (science fiction).
Matt is the author of our August story, “The Bone Poet & God.”
This interview was conducted via email in July 2020.
sub-Q Magazine: One of the things I loved about this story were the lush, vivid, and detailed descriptions of the natural world. What role does nature play in your work?
Matt Dovey: In trying to answer this question I glanced back down all my other published stories and realised that the power of nature plays a part in arguably about half of them. I honestly hadn’t noticed before; as with so much about writing, your subconscious is spilling out without your knowledge. Writing: it’s like therapy, except slower and full of rejection!
One of my favourite words, and one that’s not nearly used often enough with its full and true meaning, is sublime. To be sublime is not simply to be beautiful: it’s to be beyond the scope and comprehension of a human mind. I am absolutely and undoubtedly an atheist, so I find my wonder and beauty in the sheer, impossible, inconceivable scale of nature. Geological time is a staggering thing when you stop to think about it, let alone universal time and scope. I think the power of that scale is something that keeps coming up in my work, intentionally or not–Quartet of the Far Blown Winds is a deliberate musing on it, but something like Remember to Breathe has it as a background assumption for the setting. I hadn’t meant to comment on nature, there: nature is just a force that happens to the story, where the characters are helpless against it.
It’s interesting to realise that every time I’ve done magic in a story, too, it’s been a natural force, part of the world and not drawing from some other plane or some such. In Bone Poet & God it’s a part of the bears, a part of their world; Homebrew Recipes is a very obvious nature-magic story, but even Squalor & Sympathy‘s magic is something innate and inherent to everyone.
sub-Q Magazine: Ursula approaches her poetry and her bone magic, to an extent, not just as a combination but as a collaboration of and with words. So you got me thinking about that in relation to the writer’s work. I think that all short stories are, in a way, a collaboration between author and reader, and interactive stories even more so. But you have also collaborated with our very own Editor-in-Chief on another short story in the past. What role does collaboration play in your writing life?
Matt: Well not a one of my stories has ever gone anywhere without getting feedback on it from other people first, so it’s pretty fundamental I guess. First drafts–in fact, all my ideas, in writing and in life–tend to be a big rush of creativity and possibility and I could do THIS and I could do THAT and it’s only when I sit down to talk them through with other people that I re-evaluate and notice all the flaws and holes and bits in need of patching up. Most of my process for anything longer than flash is a jigsaw puzzle of problems and patches, and I have to juggle all the pieces in the air as I try and work out how they all relate and which ones I need and which ones I can put down before I finally spot the pattern and it all clicks together. Most of my published stories are on their 3rd or 4th major version, with big structural changes between them.
And, as you say, all fiction is a collaboration between author and reader. Stories exist in a nebulous space between both parties: shaped by the author, but also shaped by each reader’s experiences and perceptions and assumptions. A lot of writing is working out where you can lean on that baggage that readers bring, and in deliberately leaving enough space for them to fill in the gaps and personalise the story to them, giving it a greater connection. An example I had to learn early on: if I’m describing a room I’ll have an image in my head based on a room I’ve known in real life, but I don’t need to describe it completely because it doesn’t really matter (and is reeeally boring prose, too). What matters is the emotional connection I have to it, and to recreate that connection for an unknown reader I have to give them enough details to latch onto but enough space to make it their own. You have to consciously give up some control to the reader, in order to get them to buy in.
Actual collaborations are like play. Certainly with Stewart–Coruscating Queen was mostly a game of “try to stitch the other person up with where you leave the story, and see how they get out of it” (and I will never not mention that Stewart totally cheated one night and decided he would “revise what we’ve written so far” instead of trying to solve the problem I had left him, and so the sword-pulled-along-via-shorn-ponytail is my own solution to my own problem). Even ones I’ve written with other people that are less jokey are still playful, though, even when the story itself is horror; it’s all about the joy of trying to delight the other person, and being delighted by the way their brain works in turn.
sub-Q Magazine: What do you think your breastbone rune might be?
Matt: Probably “sorry”. I am a bit too British in that regard and apologise in all circumstances, up to and including “someone has paid me a compliment”. “I really enjoyed your story!” “Sorry about that.” (Apologies don’t need to make sense to be made.)
sub-Q Magazine: Do you have any favourite recent games or interactive fiction pieces?
Matt: Like everybody else in the world I bought the itch.io bundle for BLM, and a new life by Angela He in that collection is short and beautiful, both the art and the writing. Two more well-known (and not necessarily recent) games that both made me ugly-cry are Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which wouldn’t work as anything except a game–that moment, oh my god, it broke me–and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is simply the pinnacle of the art as far as I’m concerned, a studio operating at the absolute peak of its powers in all regards. It’s only ten hours long but the character design, sound design, world design, combat design… everything works together as whole, each aspect supporting every other aspect. I rambled about it drunkenly as soon as I finished it, in fact, if you want unfiltered and awe-struck thoughts on it. I cannot recommend it enough, though I must caveat it with all the content warnings.
sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?
Matt: Frustratingly little, ha. The last 18 months of real life have been pretty emotionally draining for all sorts of personal reasons, and writing–fundamentally an emotionally draining task–has been all but impossible at the end of another long day. I was finally getting some space back in my life for it and then the world ended in March. But it’ll come back again! It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
I have got a third story out at Diabolical Plots next year–a very silly piss take of DOOM, attempting to answer the infamous question of “what if you could talk to the monsters?”–and I just had a short flash piece out at Tina Connolly’s Toasted Cake podcast that might be a pleasant way to pass twelve minutes.