Matthew C. Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a staff writer for FangirlTastic and Spinetingler Magazine. Interviewed by Lynn Alexander for PRATE.
1. Can you talk a little bit about some of your favorite creative projects? Looking back, what stands out as a novel or screenplay or other work that really puts forth your objectives as a writer, or typifies your style, what says “Matthew C. Funk”?
A: Matthew C. Funk tells the monster’s story. The writing that inspires me most is the writing that takes the reader to a dark place and shows its reflection is not all too different from their own. I have written about Germans and Russians in World War II, slave-peddling pirates during the fall of Republican Rome and outlaws in modern New Orleans slumland, but all of these projects have the same aim: I want to illustrate how the other side thinks and feels, and for those thoughts and feelings to have an effect.
What kind of effect I aim for differs, but I want all aspects of the writing to drive it. Pacing, structure and word choice all have to fit together into a complete and potent message. I’ve come to regard writing as a process close to sorcery. Just like any magical ritual, the components have to be pure, the rhythm needs to be precise and there has to be a “song” to it.
I wrote a historical fiction manuscript, Reaver, which was about the doom of the ancient Greek hero figure during the ascent of the “civilized” state. My message was that before vast civilizations took hold, humanity’s mythic heroes were, by modern perspective, self-centered psychopaths who thrived in a moral system that valued destruction almost as much as creation. My writing was modern and pulpy, in the style of Robert Howard—Conan’s author—because I wanted to convey rich detail and a gruesome, epic feeling to the reading. It was also unapologetic and intimate, to give the reader an unfiltered perspective on the minds that inhabited this time of transforming collective consciousness. Reaver, the title character, is like Hercules or Jason would have really been, psychologically, so that the reader could see the inner workings of a mind that could act in the atrocious way Greek heroes acted. I wanted it to be disturbing and accurate and, in the style of epics, rather long—a complete mythic style like Joseph Campbell would have nodded in approval to.
My next manuscript, AVA, was very different. It’s a horror novel about a schizophrenic serial killer in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Ava, who believes she kills to save the world. Like Reaver, it is very psychologically intimate—even more so in that it’s first-person. But since Ava’s mind is distinctly different, the writing is different. The novel is casually poetic, given that Ava sees the world in a “synaesthetic” way—the sensations blend with one another and she makes hallucinatory associations with what she experiences. The structure is brief, direct and full of mnemonic repetition, like schizophrenics use to maintain their slipping grasp on reality. AVA is intended to lock you in her mind, the core of its horror being how alien and yet how familiar her thoughts are.
In both instances, I’m trying to relate a provocative psychology in an intimate way. The means vary. Given that both works were so unusual and ambitious, I’ve tried my hand at more easily edible prose lately. It’s difficult to find a market for the bizarre that’s as widespread as I would want. I figured I would carve my reputation with crime fiction since it’s more accessible. My writing usually aims to get the pulse pounding—it’s succinct, savage and disturbing. I still try to convey the complete experience of a depraved mind. I just try to do so through stories people will want to read, so that eventually, I can get them to read the even more difficult stories.
I want to make people think. I want to make them feel—feel afraid, feel hopeful, feel desire. And ultimately, I want to link those feelings with a character that they would never have expected to identify with—one who lives in a very dark place, but who treasures the light of life just as they do.
2. In an interview with Richard Godwin (Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse) you said some things that really stuck with me, on a number of points- and not all of them related to writing.
First, in reference to Chomsky, you stated that citizens often turn a rather blind eye to the atrocities of their own nation, compared to the “enemy”. To me, it often resembles the mother’s inability to find fault with her own child, it is a dynamic I think we can implicate in complicity- although not the whole explanation. Now Amy Goodman once said that if we really saw the pictures, the truth, the real horror- that war would be eradicated. Think so? Is it ignorance, denial, the inability to mix fault with loyalty?
Is there an element of ignorance, that if we only knew what was done in our names we would rise up and rally…or, is it the opposite? That we are not ignorant of killing, but desensitized? Do either come close to explaining the apathy, the tolerance, the acceptance of citizens to avoidable bloodshed?
It comes down to ignorance. Desensitization is just ignorance defending itself.
We are desensitized, but only because we have had this very real, intense, personal human agony cast in abstract. It’s insulated as entertainment or laminated in patriotic purpose. Yes, finding fault in what our nation does is a hurdle of loyalty for many to overcome. But even citizens who frown on the abuses of the prison system or foreign policy aren’t, many times, compelled to act. I believe the missing link between discomfort and action is a lack of personal interest—of intimate experience.
This isn’t to say that everybody who has first-hand experience of a broken judicial system or the horrors war inflicts will have the same opinion. But so often, the political decisions we make are from the remove of ignorance. We don’t consider the actual effect—the cost—of our political action. Some that support Goodman and Chomsky’s point about how, when human lives are abstracted and reduced to just “the enemy,” it is easier to accept their suffering. But some of it is a broader lack of understanding.
Best to use an example: Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an extremely poor country that had always been a site of tribal strife and famously failed nation building. Intervention there is historically costly, sometimes disastrous. But because these complexities are reduced to a simple formula of “us or them,” the decisions made by the body politic are facile. The argument is transformed from whether we can achieve our goals and what they would take, into “How can we not defeat this adversary?” And as I noted in the interview at Chin Wag you cite, the world is filled with adversaries by that standard. Only by understanding the actual cost would people give pause.
The problem that the U.S. public keeps running into is that it signs on for the “us or them,” but then has to deal with the complexities. That’s why we keep intervening in such disastrous and disappointing ways—in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and even in bush wars by proxy like Nicaragua. We get involved but then don’t want to pay the check.
It’s easier to put the emotional gratification on credit and pass the buck on. That’s where the apathy comes from. People want their sense of security and justice to be like their pizza and their DVDs—just a mouse-click away. They don’t want to have to check their bank balance first and they sure as Hell don’t want to worry about long-term interest. Neither side of the spectrum is immune to this—plenty of leftists championed intervening in Afghanistan given the atrocities committed against women. The only hope to overcome apathy and indifference is for people to place as much care in intervening in a life as they would if the life was their own.
We need to not only see the suffering. We need to internalize it.
3. What are your thoughts as far as art, whether literary or other, and a role in swaying people in either direction?
The only thing that would change our attitude would be to feel the consequences of our actions ahead of time. That is nearly impossible. In the heat of the moment, with the media drumming up the tension of an impending conflict and politicians having to act like Pro-Wrestling bad asses to grab a hold of the nation’s fear, people tend to forget the ultimate cost. Military families often don’t, but they’ve already signed on for sacrifice. It’s up to the civilian population to apply the brakes, and that’s very difficult to do when arguments against intervention are boiled down to “us or them.” Decision is distilled to emotion.
This is one of the things I want to achieve with my writing: I want to put a face on “them”; I want to knit the reader’s nerves with the adversary’s. If it happens enough, it may change feeling—and since feeling is where most political action comes from, that’s the only hope we have. But when the government begins the drumbeat for war or for defeating “evil” criminals, it’s nearly impossible to stop. The U.S.A. has never turned away from intervention once it got its blood up. It has done nothing to seriously reform its twisted justice system and economic privation.
Poor minorities remain “them.” The shape-shifting enemy in the War on Terror remains “them.” And until that ignorance is shed, and we see “them” as human beings whose lives we’re trying to control, we’re never going to get an actual grasp on how to achieve our aims. We’ll be firing blind and having to deal with the mess.
4. I want to ask about a quote, by you, again from Godwin’s interview:
“…what mesmerized me – was how banal evil was in these grand tragedies. Monstrosity was less a matter of the cryptic dementia of solitary psychopaths or nefarious plotters as it was born of laziness, pettiness and pedestrian fears.”
For some reason this got me thinking about the surprisingly “normal” details in many of the biographies of history’s “monsters”. I have a few questions in this direction, linking history with writing, the point about Lovecraft and the known vs. unknown enemy.
Do we need the “villain” to look or act different from us? What about this tendency to mythologize historical figures, those considered good or evil, this tendency to glorify and embellish their stories? Do we have an appetite for the Hollywood version of a monster?
Appetites change with the era, and mythologies change with them. What doesn’t change is that the public craves its scapegoats. It wants a figure to blame, burn and exile.
But they want a public execution in high parade style. They don’t want Sean Penn’s Dead Man Walking. They don’t want the monster to have once been a baby, or to still be that tender human being inside.
So the villain is abstracted. What that means, is to take a fully fleshed person or a complicated idea and to stick it in a framework like an abstract shape: It makes it less tangible and less complete. It lets us feel it as less real.
That’s the Hollywood villain—or the death row inmate, the restless enemy abroad, the convict. It’s what the public wants because it’s what the public can invest their own fears and darkness in. It makes it simpler to slaughter such a creature. It focuses on the sin, not the sinner.
Not all villains need be like this. The appetite for the grotesque varies with the era because the public’s sense of security varies. The less secure the public feels, the more monstrous their villains. The more secure the public, the more complex and “real” the villain can become. That’s why the 30s, 50s-60s, 80s and 00s are epochs of grand guignol—famous eras of swaggering action stars and larger-than-life monsters.
But just like almost every artist has to admit, the message that reaches the masses has to in some way hit the common denominator. Even in a time of sophisticated story, mainstream media continues to sop to the simplistic story if it wants a big hit. And that’s because conflict is necessary for story, horror necessary to drive conflict, and horror has to be abstracted to be universally edible.
The other part of why history’s “monsters” are embellished is because sensationalism sells. The “Helter Skelter” or “Rise And Fall of the Third Reich” approach to history—where the historian lards on scoops of sleazy facts about their monster, from drug addiction to underage sex—is because when it comes to dirt, the public’s in for a pound if it’s in for a penny. The more extravagant, the more the masses love it. It gives them more to feel superior to, more sins to slay.
It all comes down to that Biblical scapegoat—a beast ceremonially presented, invested with the public’s sins and slaughtered. It doesn’t give us the fact of justice. Far from it. But the act gives us a feeling of justice. Feeling is what’s craved, not fact.
Do you think this tendency carries over into a tendency to embellish characters, to exaggerate their backgrounds in novels? I mean, some of the scariest people to me weren’t the ones with eccentricities, but the ones who blended, the “murderer next door” types. Consider the mother who microwaves her infant, or the killer who entertains children as a clown by day… consider hidden illness, secret depravity…
“Monsters” are about fears we understand, maybe?
Monsters are the fears we can defeat.
We can’t fully understand our fears. We certainly can’t conquer them. Fear is a constant and it is a complex creature. As soon as we’ve demolished it in one form, it springs up in another.
Not monsters. Monsters are abstractions—they’re not real fears, but the “masks” or the icons we create to contain our fears. And just like the icons ritually destroyed in pagan ceremonies that mark the change of the season, we tell stories of how monsters can be bested.
In some of those stories, the monsters live on. The notion that the menace isn’t quite destroyed just sweetens the thrill. But the important part of the story is that something conquers the monster. Jason Vorhees of Friday the 13th may always rise from the grave and Apophis the Egyptian God may eat the sun every night, but the moral of the myth is that they will always be defeated.
You’re right when you say the scariest monsters are the ones who seem like everyone else. And I believe that the worst real monsters are the ones who never seem different. Politicians have inflicted inestimably more pain than serial killers. But even though the real human cost is worse, they don’t act depraved. They hardly pay it much mind, and that casualness to cruelty is contagious—epidemic in the public.
The reason why it can stay casual is because most people don’t want their fears to be that real. Whether it’s prison conditions or poverty or PTSD from combat, most people push those fears away before they can touch too deeply. More people read True Crime than watch documentaries on the agonies their political decisions cause, but not as many people as read Horror novels.
And when it comes to Horror, the most popular are the monster stories: The Stephen King and Sookie Stackhouse of Tru Blood fame. It’s important to keep this in mind when writing a horror story. If you write a horror story, it’s difficult to win over the audience from the monster’s perspective. Most readers want a sympathetic protagonist. And, as opposed to a Thriller story, monster stories require an antagonist that is larger-than-life and stalking the protagonist. If you start getting deep into the monster’s head—truly deep enough to reflect the humanity of the reader—you’re entering disquieting territory. Plenty of writers do it, but they’re not as widely read as those that don’t.
Do you think it preys on that sense of being able to decipher good and evil with our filters, the sense that we can somehow keep ourselves protected when such monsters rarely appear so in front of us? Do we want predictable fear, monsters we understand, or can explain?
The monster that blends is the monster we want protection from.
The less protection that a Horror story allows us, the less it’ll appeal to the public. There are exceptions. Good writing can lure a reader into a healthy sense of security, then repeatedly rip it away. I attempt that very thing on a regular basis. But you are exactly right in that most people want monsters they can identify. Whether on the news or in a paperback, we generally feel most comfortable being able to stick an obvious target on our monsters.
The exceptions depend on exceptional people. Not most, but many readers feel more secure in reading about the monsters that grin and blend and pay their taxes. There is a market for the kind of smart, sophisticated story that seats you soundly in the monster’s forebrain and rivets you there for every vicious deed. This audience is generally the kind of person whose sense of security comes from skepticism.
This breed of audience finds the unpredictable more predictable than the plain and ordinary. For whatever reason—usually a childhood populated by masks, false flags and other forms of lies with the seams showing—that audience has been forced to accept life in its chaos and complexity. They crave the bizarre and deceitful because they’ve come to know that’s how the world works. They feel safe being told this is an unsafe world, usually because the trust they put in safety was betrayed.
I am that kind of reader. I like to read gray stories, dismal stories, sophisticated stories. I don’t want my heroes to survive. I don’t want my victims to die gloriously. I want the fear to go on and on, flashing its myriad shades, because that’s what I see when I look at the world around.
It’s just my own pallet of predictability—predicting the unpredictable. And reading, like any consumption, comes down to appetite.
5. Speaking of fear and the senses, and your experience with the psychology of warfare, I wonder about your take on terror and heuristics, or terror and statistical likelihood as skewed by the media or repeated imagery. For example, a Friedman article once made mention of the way image repetition skews the mind’s sense of threat. You might be much more likely to die from the flu, but news clips of the Twin Towers have you more afraid of an event that is really quite rare. Terrorism, as a cause of death compared to other things, is pretty rare. And yet we devote quite a lot of resources and it keeps us awake at night in a way that food bacteria or black ice can’t seem to match.
What can you say about perceived threat, and horror? Perceived threat, and advantage? What about character, the monster again, how important then is image in that fear equation?
Monsters are bought and sold every day—from book shelves to board rooms to cable TV—for the same reason: Profit.
Perceived threat is a tool used to make money. That’s venal and boring and true. There is a much greater likelihood that a person will die of the consequences of poverty here at home than of a terrorist attack. Criminal acts from desperation, disease from inadequate health care, plain old starvation—these kill more people than extremist bombs. But the cost of tackling these problems here at home is toxic to the corporate bottom line.
It may seem cynical to cram the Twin Towers tragedy and the resulting War on Terror into so mercenary an outlook. I believe it holds up. The political gain of regime change in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq, was seen as immense by the war planners. That’s not without merit. The concept was actually a lot more “noble” than just Big Oil. The central Neo-Conservative idea began as a Liberal idea: That by putting American troops and American cash in these centrally located nations, you could introduce prosperity, democracy and liberties in an entire region. That is still being put to the test and I believe its success relies more on the nations we intervened in than in our investment. And as for the profit to the media, war sells. Whether the media is pro-war or anti-war, people tune in. And for them, it all comes down to keeping us from changing the channel.
So, those complex, domestic monsters only get trotted out on a slow news day. Any solutions to defeat them are kept dull and confused. Meanwhile, when a foreign policy of intervention will turn a buck, the media and politicians fire us up into a fury.
Senses fire that fury. The more we see something offensive, the more it has power to offend us. The media’s message shapes the mainstream fury. And the simpler the fury, the better the media likes it.
Fury sells and so does the simple notion that a few divisions and a couple thousand smart bombs will solve a situation. It plays better than the health care crisis or judicial reform. It’s more difficult to argue against. That’s why, in terms of heuristics, it’s easier to peddle a war than it is a repeal of insane drug laws—even though, in terms of our American values of liberty and self-determination, it is logically opposite.
With a war, you can simply say, “Look at all the evil They are doing. We must smite Them.” And from then on, the argument is defined as “Anti-Evil vs. Pro-Evil.” That’s a tough argument to win. But the heuristics of domestic evil are more complex. You can’t break it down to “us and them” as easily. It is especially difficult considering the “Them” are the people who have the money to broadcast the message. They don’t want to broadcast grounds for their own dismissal or execution. The result is an argument so complicated that when it grinds to a stalemate, nobody’s surprised.
The fear equation works best when there’s a monster—a “Them” to defeat. When “Them” is “us,” the fear equation equals frustration.
6. Do you think that the sense play a role in fear, that the visual image holds more sway in the minds of the scared?
Senses are the core components of fear. If you want fear to flower in the mind, you have to seed the senses. It is a chief reason I am smitten with studying the aesthetics of horror.
Visual image is not the most powerful, though. Look at modern horror movies as a case study. Paranormal Activity typifies this best, as it relies on loud, instant sounds to shake up the audience. Spooky, brooding noises and eerie soundtracks are also potent instruments of horror. Watching a horror movie without the sound diminishes the effect considerably. From what I’ve seen, sound tends to be used to amp up the foreboding or ferocity, while images supply the substance of the shock. In writing, these tools are present, as are others:
Suddenness. That is a particularly powerful sensory device when it comes to inflicting horror: Composing something in the space of a heartbeat. Subtle flaws are also sublime when it comes to cultivating terror. Some of my favorites are skewed, scratched or repetitive recordings. Perverse or broken innocence is another tool—consider how creepy dolls, carnivals and children in general are when used in horror.
But all manner of sensory disquiet is used in horror. I love writing the horror of smells especially. There are some truly vile smells, and our experience of them is confined to the imagination. When I want an element of horror to linger and taint the imagination, I give it a smell.
7. What is next for you? Do you have anything in the works? Is there a dream project in the back of your mind?
Next is getting published in as wide a market as possible.
I always want to tell the monster’s story. That hasn’t changed. What has changed—evolved—is my awareness of what it takes to get that story out to the broadest audience.
In the last couple years, I’ve been studying Web marketing and literary marketing. It’s led me to a few conclusions about reaching the reading audience.
First and foremost has to be that you need to know your readership’s tastes. This isn’t as cynical as it may sound. On the contrary, I think that there’s a market for just about any kind of well-written material. The Internet is a huge facilitator of this. But any writer looking to reach a market—large or small, mainstream or fringe—needs to recognize the demands of that market.
It is easier to sell non-fiction than fiction to a broad audience. That’s a basic numbers game: More non-fiction books are sold every year than fiction.
It is also easier to sell “genre” fiction than “literary” fiction. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, a publisher or producer wants to be able to sum up a story’s selling points readily, and a genre is a neat package for them. This isn’t to say that a genre piece can’t be complex—more that it needs to be able to sum up its selling points, and a label like a particular genre helps with that. And secondly, “literary” fiction is actually its own genre, just as restrictive as any label. The academic critical community that run lit mags and supply book reviews have very prejudiced ideas as to what a Literary Fiction novel needs to be. Anything that smacks of another genre need not apply.
The result is that a lot of good stories are in commercial limbo because they’re difficult to sum up in marketing terms. So, I decided to gear my fiction towards the “genre.”
Once an author is published in this environment, their story’s success depends on the quality of the writing and the “platform” of the author. The latter is increasingly important considering how promotional budgets are slashed. Just like how some stories languish, unpublished, because they fail to fit in a neat commercial model, some authors languish, unheralded, because they don’t make for great TV.
An author needs to market themselves. Social media helps with this, but in many ways, it’s just raised the bar. They need to be able to tap into the appetites of the market they want. Whether we’re talking about Stephenie Meyer or Jonathan Saffron-Foer, the author has to have a timely story and to seem like an interesting property for the media to point the cameras at.
This is all a long way of saying that after writing two intense and bizarre manuscripts, I have resolved to tell a story that both I and the mainstream would want. It’s a novel set in post-Katrina New Orleans and, yes, the protagonist is a kind of monster. But she’s a sympathetic monster—driven by trauma to seek redemption in an ecology of damnation. I’m telling her story so that I can earn the trust of the market. Once they trust me to tell a good story, I’ll tell the ones I wouldn’t have got them to listen to otherwise.
One way or another, I’ll be putting them in touch with some real monsters.
We thank Matthew Funk for taking the time to answer these questions, and for indulging a little bit of departure. You can find out more about his work by visiting his website, here.