Author Interview: Matt Spencer

Welcome to TRB Lounge!

Today, we are featuring Matt Spencer, author of The Blazing Chief, the third book in the The Deschembine Trilogy, for our Author Interview feature.

About The Author

Matt Spencer

Matt Spencer is the author of five novels, two collections, and numerous novellas and short stories. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. He currently lives in Vermont. 


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The Interview

Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin. 

Well, my life has abruptly hit the reset button of late, to put it kindly, not under circumstances I’m happy about, but either way, here I am living on my own again for the first time in years, feeling kind of like a stranger to myself in some ways, like I’m catching up with this version of me. It’s been weird, especially in these Covid days, where getting out around people like I used to isn’t such a thing for the foreseeable future, but I’ve come to realize that ain’t such a bad thing either. I’ve been making the most of it in a lot of ways, eating/exercising/living healthier, to the point where the old saying “40 is the new 30” suddenly makes a lot more sense to me than I’d expected it to. I still work in a restaurant, which is only open to limited capacity, with reduced hours. I assist my best friend in teaching fencing, and we love to sword-fight and martial-arts spar. With a little luck and prudence, I’ll keep the positive things on track, continue to grow and change for the better, do what I can for other people, and keep writing crazy yarns that people get a kick out of reading.

Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?

As the final book in a trilogy, it’s the one where everything boils to a head for a giant blow-out go-for-broke finale, y’know? I’m proud to be able to say that a lot of people have been asking me for years, “So when the hell is the next book coming out?” [more on that later] and now that it’s finally officially on the way, I’m both thrilled and nervous about how it’s going to be received. All of the major characters – Rob, Sally, Sheldon, Janie, Remelea, Jesse, Zane, Puttergong, among others – wind up where they’ve been headed this whole time. Many of them change drastically, some for better, some for worse, some, well, in-between. And yes, some of them die.

What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?

I don’t typically write stories with didactic messages at the heart of my authorial intent/narrative. There are obviously themes I want to explore, regarding the human condition and my complicated feelings and opinions about where we’re all at, have been, and could go as a species. I find I explore those kinds of themes best when I discover them organically as I’m writing the story, through what the characters are going through and what they’re struggling with, which makes me more aware of what we’re all struggling with, so it sort of builds from there. Whenever I’ve tried to write a story with some thematic social-commentary axe to grind as my driving motive, the characters end up feeling like mouth-pieces for my argument or whatever, rather than living, breathing people, with their own perspectives and motivations that drive the story forward to its natural conclusion. If I lose sight of that, then the story starts to feel like a writing-exercise, and I’m too old for that shit, so it dies on me.

If there’s a “moral of the story” to The Blazing Chief, it’s probably “Hang onto your critical thinking skills, and don’t be a bootlicker.” There’s definitely a running theme throughout the entire series about the cycle of violence and cruelty self-perpetuates itself, and my perhaps naively idealistic belief that healing those cycles begins with small human connections of empathy and love, that can eventually snowball out and make a difference, with the ignorant growing and changing through self-education and better exposure. 

Who is your favourite character in this book and why? 

It’s a toss-up between Remelea and Balthazar, both of whom were characters who never honestly got their due in this book ’til the last couple drafts or so. In whipping this book into shape, they were the ones I really got to explore on the most fresh ground, so I pushed myself into new territory, and ultimately surprised myself, in ways that I think will make the overall tapestry of the larger narrative far richer and more rewarding to readers.

Remelea’s a character who’s introduced in the second book. She was a hit with a lot of readers. In a lot of ways, she’s the most morally gray character in a series full of morally gray characters. She starts out as this very formidable warrior woman, with a strong, brazen, irreverent sort of personality that readers get a kick out of, that I certainly got a kick out of writing. She likes to see herself as this outlaw rebel who plays by her own rules, except she ironically comes to realize that she’s always just been sort of going through the motions, living life according to how she’s been trained and conditioned, but hasn’t had a cause she’s felt truly passionate about fighting for, ’til she takes up with Rob, one of our central protagonists. She eventually hits a point where she’s forced to question whether this whole revolutionary rampage she’s gotten swept up into is what she really believes in, or if she’s been lying to herself because of her personal emotional connection to Rob. I think that’s a very relatable thing for a lot of people’s continuous journeys of self-discovery through life. A lot of us form deep emotional bonds with people with strong personalities that fire us up to their tune at the time, to where we fall in love more with the idea of them than who they actually are. Then we eventually come to realize later that the relationship was never a healthy one in the first place, and starting over from that place is scary and full of inner-conflict. Most of us aren’t, y’know, monstrous superhuman blade-wielding fighting-machines like Remelea, but still. In the third book, her path diverges from Rob’s, so she’s back to trying to figure out where she fits into this whole apocalyptic mess she’s caught in the middle of. By the end, she’s forced to make some painful decisions, with dire consequences for the big picture, that ultimately define who she truly is on a new, more solid level, as a truly rounded person. 

Then there’s Balthazar, who’s the new heavy-hitter villain who this book introduces. He’s one of the most broadly over-the-top major characters I’ve ever written, in ways that were a lot of fiendish fun to write. I treated him in earlier drafts like a sort of glorified red herring, but in the later drafts, I realized that I hadn’t explored him properly, or made the reader truly feel the threat he represents. In brainstorming from my editor Garrett Cooke’s suggestions, I found myself delving into Balthazar a lot deeper. He ultimately turned out to be a lot more psychologically interesting than I expected. On the one hand, he’s this grotesque, diabolical genetically crafted monstrosity, with superhuman abilities and a brain crammed since birth with all this strategic and tactical military prowess on how to use those powers to make him and those he commands a major threat to what’s left of civilization, yet he also has this childlike, naïve mentality about it all, because of the people who abused, twisted, and conditioned him from birth to be what he is. He’s sort of a pitiable Frankenstein-monster sort of figure in a way. There’s no redemption for him, and he has to be stopped, and he’s the center of some of the book’s most disgusting, nightmarish moments. Yet it’s ultimately not his fault that he is the way he is. The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that a lot of the worst harm people are capable of doesn’t come from malice or what have you, but just from what people have been conditioned to see as normal behavior. With Balthazar I just took that to the most grotesque, deranged extreme I could think of within the context of these already extreme hypothetical circumstances. A lot of both Balthazar’s character-development and an up-close view of the destruction he’s causing and the threat he poses, comes from the point of view of this young human man who he’s tortured, mutilated, broken, and basically made his pet…who he now sees and treats with what he views as affection, like people raise livestock to eventually kill and eat, who they treat like a beloved pet right up to when they slit the animal’s throat, and don’t recognize the cognitive dissonance there. 

What inspired you to write this series?

At the time I started writing the first book, there were several ideas of books I wanted to write, then there was the book I started writing. I was playing around with all sorts of concepts, stumped on what to start next. My mind was a pretty big mess over a lot of recent trauma, including the death of a dear friend, and I wasn’t sure where to start processing that whenever I sat down at the keyboard. I felt like writing a straight-up horror novel, in the old-school Stephen King or Robert Bloch vein. I also wanted to write a giant epic adventure story, incorporating all the classical elements of heroic myth…all the intrigue, action, romance, friendship, betrayal, and epic stakes, like in all the great stories my dear departed friend and I used to geek out about…but to somehow make it all my own, to turn all those elements on their heads, say something about my own observations about life, so readers might not even realize that’s what they were reading at first, but by the end still feel something of that sublime rush that my buddy Dave had always gotten out of such tales at their best, hoping to honor his memory that way. I just didn’t know where to start, had to find some way in to make it my own, so I wouldn’t just regurgitate what had already been said in all those masterworks we’d read/watched/loved.

When I started writing The Night and the Land, that’s honestly not the story I thought I was getting myself into. I was more fascinated with the daily minutia of Brattleboro, Vermont, my adopted home town I was living in at the time and have since moved back to and settled in. I started tinkering with writing a quieter, semi-autobiographical magical-realism ensemble novel, about the various quirky characters in the community I was part of. Hell, if I’d continued in that vein, it may well have turned into something publishable under the label Literary Fiction, and wouldn’t that be a hoot? Then I wrote that scene in the bus station in Pittsburgh, where we meet Sally’s family while they’re looking for her, and the whole thing took on a life of its own from there. I sure as shit didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but here we are.

A lot of people these days in the speculative-fiction community will say that the trilogy is a played-out, over-used format. It’s one Tolkien pretty much accidentally invented when he wrote his giant War-and-Peace-sized epic which the publishers decided to split into three parts, but it’s a cool format, in my opinion. When it works, it works, particularly for a long, multibook story with a beginning, middle and end. I was never interested in writing one of those gargantuan 12-books-plus fantasy series that I saw cluttering the bookselves at the time, nor was I interested in making it feel like one continuous book split into three parts, or anything pretentious like that. Once I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it wasn’t long before I had an amorphous, general idea of where everything was headed, and a trilogy just felt like the story’s natural shape. The whole thing should tell a cohesive story, but I always approached each book as its own entity with its own beginning, middle, and end. The first book wound up being on some levels a small-town horror story in that aforementioned King/Bloch mode. There’s a love story driving the central narrative, but I wouldn’t call it a romance novel. The second one expands a great deal on the hidden-world mythos, through the perspective of a lot more characters in lots of different places all over North America. It’s probably the tightest and fasted-paced of the three, basically a chase/road-trip-through-hell story. Which brings us to the third and final book, which starts out like a post-apocalyptic story, then turns into a full-on psychedelic multi-dimensional fantasy tale, with hints of sci-fi, where certain characters, under circumstances I won’t spoil, actually travel through time and space to these other worlds and realities that through most of the series, we’ve only heard spoken of as vague lore and mythology among the people of this hidden society. 

What are your writing ambitions? 

Artistically, to keep stretching myself, to keep working with the various elements of storytelling that I love, keep making them my own in ways I haven’t even thought of yet, and overall to keep spinning good yarns driven by fascinating characters who hopefully more and more readers continue to discover and connect with. Professionally, I’m very proud to have beaten the odds to the point where my writing is legitimately a source of secondary income, so I figure if I keep my shit together and stay on track, five years from now I’d like to have made it my primary source of income…that’s all assuming, the way things are going in real life, that we’re not all fucked and living in a worse dystopian, apocalyptic nightmare than anything I could come up with. But hey, no one ever accomplished jack shit by succumbing to despair and futility, amIright?  

Are you working on any new projects presently? 

I’m in the process of re-writing a new novel set in the far future of the world of these stories, where the world is still in the process of rebuilding itself after an apocalypse or two, and many of the characters readers have come to know in the trilogy and the adjacent works have themselves become the stuff of distant, unreliable mythology. It’s been wild and challenging, in some ways like settling back on familiar ground, while at the same time in many ways building a whole new world, with its own new rules, from scratch, and dropping a whole new set of characters into the middle of it. I’ve also had a hankering of late to dive head-first back into contemporary horror, and I have several ideas kicking around about where I might go with that.  

Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you work in multiple genre?

My first love, writing-wise, was really horror fiction, particularly the classic Gothic horror works from the likes of Poe, Stoker, Shelley, and Leroux. I really cut my teeth at a young age trying to emulate those styles, before maturing, reading more broadly, going through more life experiences, etc, and developing my own style. As an oddball, neurologically atypical misfit kid growing up, I was particularly drawn to the kinds of larger-than-life human-monsters who were really just misfit social outcasts at odds with mainstream society. I’ve also always been drawn to stories of high adventure, and there’s a fine line between a lot of the morally gray kinds of heroes from those kinds of stories (such as Indiana Jones, the Man With No Name, Conan the Barbarian, or Long John Silver) and Gothic horror villains/anti-heroes like Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, or the Phantom of the Opera. There’s also a very fine line, I think, between adventure stories and horror stories. Compelling fiction is driven by conflict, and both adventure and horror distill that to a primal level, where it’s about high stakes such as the struggle for survival – the stuff of a ripping good yarn that gets the reader’s blood pumping. I think what continues to fascinate me the most at this point, with those kinds of stories, is exploring the contrasting psychologies of different types of characters caught up in those kinds of situations, how different kinds of people will respond differently in any number of ways, depending on their background, temperament, etc, and how those kinds of experiences change people, for better, worse, or some combination of the two. 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

When reading the kind of shit you want to write, take mental notes on what does/doesn’t work when perfecting your craft. Also, get out there and live a life that makes you feel alive. Take risks, make mistakes, get into trouble, get into adventures, whatever that means to you personally (if not on the scale of the kind of “adventure” yarns I write, well, that’s probably for the best 😉 ). Above all, follow your own inner creative voice. You never know where that’ll take you. You’re not so unique in your experiences and feelings as it often seems, but no one can write about it exactly like you can, and you never know whom your voice is exactly what they need. Shoot for the moon, you may or may not make it, but you’re still likely to hit something along the way that those who didn’t dare never would have dreamed of. 

Thank you, Matt, for all your insightful and fun answers!

About The Book

The Blazing Chief

For untold ages, the refugees from the land of Deschemb have lived secretly beneath the surface of human society. Now modern civilization crumbles as their ancient feud boils to the surface. As chaos and brutality engulf the world, strange alien forces reshape the lands for a new beginning…for whoever survives.

In the frozen Canadian wastes, the United Deschembines take shelter in an abandoned military base, under the leadership of Jesse Karn, Zane Rochester, and Sally Coscan.

In the Louisiana swamps, Rob and Remelea press towards the ruins of New Orleans, for a final confrontation with Talino.

In Brattleboro, Vermont, a long-forgotten doorway opens, to a land beyond living memory, where two lifelong enemies must journey as allies, to save two worlds, or destroy them.

You can find The Blazing Chief here:

Amazon | Goodreads

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