Chris Roffey asks Matt about the writing process

Chris: I have tried to write a novel and failed miserably. We may all have a novel in us but getting it out - that’s the thing. There is a huge amount of skill involved in being an effective story-teller and so it was only a matter of time before I was going to ask Matt a few questions about just how he does it...


Chris: Black Flag draws inspiration from 1984. Does giving nods to an acknowledged classic present you with any unique challenges?
Matt: Absolutely. The last thing you want to do is copy something slavishly – it’s already been done, it’s called 1984. Equally, you want to make something your own. You want to tell the stories only you can tell. So in this case, I looked at 1984 and thought, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see England in 2084, one hundred years on, looking at all of the problems we face today like news cycles, media lies, Broken Britain and a surveillance society, through the lens of science fiction. What it gives you is a skeleton, the bones you can hang your own story on. The big difference for me, in Black Flag Marshall Trent doesn’t see himself as a bad man. He’s doing what’s necessary for his country. He’s the hero of his own story, even if he’s not the hero of our story.


Chris: Is being a writer all about traveling to exciting venues to do research, writing in coffee shops when inspiration hits you and being your own boss?
Matt: Ah, you know me so well. Only, the exciting places I visit are in my mind. I do know writers who are very much hand’s on – one friend doing a story about scuba divers nearly drowned in a swimming pool simulated dive. I don’t tend to do ’risky’ stuff in the name of research, though in my first job I was lucky enough to be escorted at gun point once, and forced to land in a conflict zone in a helicopter because things weren’t great… so yeah… I try to live a boring life now of coffee shops, with all the scary stuff happening on the page. The thing is, you need to develop a lot of new skills, to be disciplined, to take responsibility for your life really, making sure you get done what you have to get done, when you have to get it done because other people’s jobs depend upon it. But the coffee is good.


Chris: In English lessons students are asked to make a plan before doing any creative writing and then encouraged to re-draft their work. Is this how you work?
Matt: Honestly it depends on the book. With Black Flag I wrote a fairly detailed outline first, which I didn’t really deviate from as I wrote the book, so I knew exactly what was going to happen to Cal and Sasha long before I wrote the scenes. My old English teacher used to say when you write something you need to think of yourself as a helicopter hovering above the story, from where you are you need to be able to see the beginning, the middle and the end. It isn’t necessary to know every single thing that happens along the way to those points, sometimes it can be fun to discover how you get there as you are writing. That’s like setting off on a grand adventure, you need a few surprises along the way.


Chris: This is quite a bleak vision of our future, do you think this is where we are really are headed?
Matt: Ah. Erm. Ah. Growing up I was sure the world was going to end in nuclear war. The Russians were going to bomb us. We had tv shows like Threads which scared us half to death. Then we had illnesses like AIDS and the government having to put out infomercials explaining that you couldn’t catch it from public toilet seats. We had the IRA bombing London so there were no rubbish bins in the city. It just felt like between all of this we were doomed… and yet here we are, we’ve invented the Internet, cured countless diseases, and I mean wiped them out, we’ve got all the information in the world available in our pockets as we walk around, permanently connected via social networks, can carry twenty thousand songs and the same amount of books around with us and play games that aren’t PONG… or Donkey Kong… all on our phones. We can bounce messages off satellites and locate ourselves anywhere in the world with military precision and look at images being beamed back from Mars. We haven’t done so bad, really. What’s going to happen next? More of the same. Each generation will make its mark on the world, building on the shoulders of the giants who came before it, creating things we never imagined. The future? It’s golden.


Chris: Who is your favourite character in Black Flag and why?
Matt: Of the main characters, it has to be Cal. He’s our eyes into the world of New Edgehill. We learn this world with him. He’s a not perfect. But he really has a good heart, and I think really grows into the role of hero as the story goes on. In terms of secondary characters, the ones we don’t see a lot of, I think Danni’s got a lot of story left to tell… so maybe we’ll get to see some more of it one day?


Chris: Is it hard to come up with dialogue for teenage boys and girls when, with respect, you are quite a bit older?
Matt: Ha! I’m positively ancient. But I spent ten years as an English teacher before becoming a full time writer. The thing is what you don’t do is try to catch all of the slang and ’cool’ words of the day because those will date the story really quickly. You can be too authentic. Instead you want to focus on the clarity of the idea you want to get across, and find the easiest way to say it. The rhythms of character dialogue will establish themselves as you get to know the characters more. If you look at Sasha, you can tell her voice from Cal’s without the ’Sasha said’s’ tagging on the end of the dialogue. It’s how she says things as much as what she says. That comes with practice. Ideally though you’ll get to know the characters so well you don’t need to identify the speaker every time because the reader will just know. That’s when you’ve got it perfect.


Chris: Oh, and finally what made you get into writing in the first place?
Matt: That’s a very tricky question, Chris. I know I should have an easy answer for it, but the truth is nothing is ever simple. I wasn’t the kid in the playground who delighted everyone with ghost stories recited from the Pan Book of Horror. I wasn’t even particularly bookish, though I had devoured Lord of the Rings one Christmas and was fairly obsessed with Star Wars. My old art teacher used to joke that without Star Wars I wouldn’t have left school with any qualifications. He was right, my final art piece was a movie poster featuring Darth Vader, my English essay was essentially a further adventure of Luke Skywalker, and so on. But, outside of the Star Wars obsession, I was sports mad back then and probably dreamed of being the next Glenn Hoddle or Ian Botham (which would translate today to being Lionel Messi or Kevin Petersen). I guess I’ll have been about 18 or 19, having decided the summer before that I fancied being a sports journalist, when I ended up writing my first story. It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. That was something. Actually something fairly important. Lots of people think: you know, I think I could write a story, but then never actually write it, and if they do start, end up putting it down because their favourite show comes on or some other distraction turns up.

The summer holiday arrived and between watching the very depressing Test Match series I had nothing to do (I’d moved to Newcastle from London and hadn’t really made a lot of new friends up there, meaning I was on my own for six or seven weeks). I ended up writing the opening 40-50 pages of a comedy-fantasy novel that I never finished, filled with bad lines like ’She rolled her eyes at him. He picked them up and rolled them right back.’ And ’My feet are killing me!’ ’Then learn self-defence.’ Yeah. Cringe. I know. I can still remember it really well, actually. It involved a magic system where wizards drew their power from fresh fruit, and one of the most powerful men of the age had gone missing after casting a perpetual rain incantation, meaning they were onto their 273rd consecutive day of rain. It was a crime story with demon gangsters running a mob and a ticking clock problem because the spell could only be reversed by the man who cast it, and with the original fruit…

Like I said, I never finished it, mainly because I went back to uni for the winter term and had to actually work for a while, but writing became a great excuse to skip lectures (which you shouldn’t do if you’re reading this! Skipping lectures is bad. Capital B. Capital A. Capital D. Don’t do it. I’m certainly not telling you to skip class, definitely not. Study hard. Expand your mind. Become an evil genius. Take over the world. Much better plan.) Then, after graduation, it was really hard to land a decent job, so while hunting I wrote a couple of novels and somewhere along the line found my voice and started to get into it seriously. I think I was always meant to write. I remember visiting my careers officer at school and when she asked ’So what do you want to do?’ said I wanted to be a camera man so I could film Doctor Who. She suggested I become a vet. When I said no, I really didn’t like animals like that she asked what else I wanted to do. I said ’Be a writer, so I can write Doctor Who’. She suggested I become an accountant… and so on. Sometimes you just know…it’s like a little voice in the back of your head that says ’I want to make things up for a living…’

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© in the Site, Chris Roffey 2012
© in extracts from Black Flag, Cambridge University Press 2014
© in the characters and images derived from Black Flag. Cambridge University Press 2014