Today I’m welcoming the author and Dean of the School of the Ages– “America’s Greatest School of Magic”! This delightful YA series is being released in five parts through 2015. Matt also writes poetry, literary and genre fiction, and is gearing up to release a non-fiction book geared toward teens in May. Welcome Matt!
A Little About Matt
Matt Posner is a writer and public school teacher from New York City. Originally from Miami, Florida, he has been happily married to Julie for twelve years.
You currently live in NYC. What’s your favorite thing about the city?
Matt: New York City is a multicultural place. The mix of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures makes it more complex and more in the spirit of America than any other place I have lived. I like other places where I’ve been for other reasons – I like small-town life also – but if I’m going to live in a big city, then let it be one where there are many different types of people to meet, all blended together.
Also, NYC is full of museums and restaurants. I like to see great art and to tell my students to see it; and I appreciate the variety of restaurants. You can find me at Museum of Modern Art especially.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Matt: I decided when I was twelve to be a writer. I started writing fiction then. I figured, sort of vaguely, that I would be a teacher also, because I liked to impart knowledge. Alas, I didn’t have the expectation then, because my generation had a different energy, that teaching would be so substantially about disciplining and controlling kids who would so fiercely resist being taught. Overall my plan from about age twelve was to be a full-time novelist. I haven’t reached that one as yet, and so long as I have a union job, I don’t think I will leave teaching. You just don’t leave union jobs – we trade-unionists are beacons of hope for Americans, demonstrating as we do how working lives in the United States should really be. The American worker is always getting screwed by the employer. Not as easy to mess up union workers through no fault of their own.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
Matt: My wife and I watch movies and TV. A lot of cooking channel, mainly competitions (Chopped, Sweet Genius, Top Chef, Next Iron Chef, etc.) and fix-the-restaurant shows (Kitchen Nightmares, Restaurant: Impossible, Restaurant Stakeout) and sci-fi/fantasy (Star Trek, Doctor Who, Warehouse 13, Eureka) and paranormal shows (currently Paranormal State). We also like foreign movies. I read, of course, but a lot of that is work these days, since I accept for review far more books than I can keep up with.
I used to be an active gamer, involved daily with role-playing and collectible card games, but those days are over, although I still think about my amazing former hobbies.
Share one thing about yourself that not a lot of people know about you.
Matt: I was a high school wrestler. I wasn’t very good, but I spent two years hanging with the team and wrestling JV in order to prove to myself that I could be more than just a bookworm. I never have been athletic, but I took on the toughest challenge imaginable in amateur sports because I was attracted to it and I wanted to be a more complex and capable person.
You’ve mentioned that you are also a musician. What instruments do you play (or have played)?
Matt: I’m a percussionist, one hundred percent self-taught. My parents are musicians, and I inherited musical talent from them. I’ve never had a percussion lesson, and as a result I don’t have the skills to work a drum kit, but I have good musical impulses and I use them in performing. In my group I am also a voice performer, which means that I offer expressive renditions of poetry I have written. For music, I also now use the iPad with good musical apps such as ThumbJam and Animoog.
Matt on Writing
I’m going to ask you a very obvious question. Reading your reviews, I saw the name “Harry Potter” come up a lot. What makes your books different from that series?
Matt: If I had the last many years to do over, I would not start a series I would then have to defend from the accusation of being like Harry Potter. I was writing about wizards and magicians long before J.K. Rowling did; she just got into print first. The similarities are that I am writing about a magic boarding school, and that there is a British girl in the book. But half that boarding school is Chasidic Jews direct from Brooklyn! My books are American in flavor, multicultural, with real history, beliefs, and religion included. The first book, The Ghost in the Crystal, deals extensively with Jewish themes. Although these don’t go away, I explore other cultures and other aspects of history as the series continues, with strong interest in Asian India. I use real places in New York, and in later books, real places in other parts of the world.
My magic system is much more like the real-world paranormal. Most of the magic is mental, and the kids get their powers through meditation and through knowledge of the European tradition of Hermeticism/Occultism. Their powers look a lot like powers attributed to historical mystics and magicians, ranging from John Dee to Gurdjieff. Ghosts (I have lots of ghosts) behave a little more like ghosts than Rowling’s, who behave like Disney cartoons.
I think J.K. Rowling’s message is primarily about sacrifice and is fundamentally a Christian message. Her books constitute a giant Church of England version of C.S. Lewis, it could be argued, with Harry dying and being reborn in the same fashion as Jesus, sacrificing himself out of Love to protect others. I find this a relatively rancid theme. “Good people must sacrifice themselves to fight against evil; courage is the greatest virtue.” Yeah, yeah. After all that inventiveness and all that world-building she did, and her ultimate inability to sort it out properly so that she just dumps all her characters into the climax because she can’t bear to part with them, and kills some of them off meaninglessly just because it would be unrealistic not to… After all that, we get in the end the same old message of Christian virtue that may have been drilled into her in church hymns when she was an impressionable youth.
Something more sophisticated is needed now. We are living in a global culture, and we must reach for universal themes. What is common to all humanity? What is a view of reality that crosses national, ethnic, religious boundaries? How can we empower young people to solve problems rather than saddle them with another batch of stiff-upper-lip twaddle about responsibilities imposed upon them by an obsolescent social framework? I do believe in social responsibility, of course; I’m a teacher, after all. But I don’t think kids are inspired to it by Rowling’s message. Sacrificing yourself for others is admirable, of course; it’s her heavy-handedness I’m complaining about.
You’ve written in a few different genres over the years. What do you like (or not like) about each of them?
Matt: I will write in any genre that appeals to me and that I think I can handle. My goal is to build myself as a brand and I don’t think I need to limit myself to one category of output in order to do that. Young adult fantasy is my primary genre now because I’m moved by it and I enjoy writing it. I like the ability to combine the world I live in with mythical and paranormal elements. In a sense I’m writing about the world I’d like to live in. I’d like to live in a world full of ghosts and psychic powers and time slips and UFOs and cryptids. I can’t dwell there, since my actual world is full of curriculum mapping and counseling memos and teen pregnancy and traffic jams, but my characters can live in that wonderful world that I long for. Like most writers, I write what I want to read.
My next book, Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships, coming in May and co-authored with Jess C. Scott, is my first published nonfiction, but imparting nonfictional content is what I do daily as a teacher, so it’s far from new territory. Jess and I (she’s a wonderful, cool, nonconformist author who specializes in relationship-based erotica) give advice to teens about sexuality and emotions, speaking like older, caring, experienced friends. Our beta readers like it so far; I think kids will as well.
I did a poetry/photography book, Vampire Poet, because poetry and photography are hobbies and I wanted to share what I had done with them. Poetry is not a commercially viable form, but it appeals to me because of the ability to pack a lot of power into a small and digestible unit.
I have written literary fiction, which you can find in some of my anthologies (With Love; With Love: After Dark; and of course the top-selling Kindle All-Stars: Resistance Front) but genre fiction is more natural for me. Epic fantasy was my genre of choice as a young man, and I will return to it eventually, perhaps once School of the Ages has run its course. In a recent anthology, The Evil Within, I took on genre horror, and I plan to write some more of it also. I read Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre as a teenager, which describes how to do it, and I essentially will write horror the way King describes there. Blood and mutilation aren’t a natural form of expression for me, but I can do them, I figure.
What is it about writing that brings you back to the page for more?
Matt: The story isn’t finished yet. The characters haven’t been brought to the place where I can leave them alone. They haven’t been explored to their inner reaches, their hearts bared entirely. They haven’t settled their conflicts. That just has to be done if it can be done.
How do you decide on the titles of your books?
Matt: My book titles are full of expressive powerful nouns, and they carry a certain amount of mystery. The Ghost in the Crystal as a title is like Tolkien’s The Two Towers; it can be explained more than one way. There is a crystal, but who is the ghost? It seems to be the villainous dead heretic who gets young apprentice Simon in trouble, but by the end, you will see that title in a new light. Level Three’s Dream, my second novel, has the word ‘dream’, which has been proven mighty by Neil Gaiman and others before, and again there is more than one meaning, since we have dreams both when awake and when asleep. Is the dream of Level Three (who is an autistic teen) the hundred-page Alice in Wonderland fantasy realm that occupies the later part of the story? Or is it something he aches for every day of his life? Book three, coming this summer, is The War Against Love. War? Love? Obviously, that’s a winning combination!
My titles are all written intuitively; usually they just emerge in my mind, with only slight tweaks to follow. However, these are the qualities that I find in my titles after I make them.
Are any of your characters based on people that you’ve known, or situations in your books things you’ve encountered in real life?
Matt: All my characters are aspects of me, even the villains. They are of course inspired, are of course sometimes riffs on people and characters I’ve loved before, but I can only fill out their emotional and intellectual profiles with content from my own personality. I use real-life places a lot, in New York and elsewhere, and as the series progresses, I will increasingly convert a lot of my European vacation spots into sites for the teen wizards to have adventures. Book four has big chunks in India, too, where I have been once and will go again soon.
What is your writing process- do you plot/plan or do you write from the seat of your pants?
Matt: I work from notes. I write outlines but I violate them when I get better ideas. I write scenes in the order I feel like, not in the order they will appear in the book. I always write multiple projects at once, and in the past I have written multiple books in my series at once. In doing this, I recall the strategy of Isaac Asimov, who wrote a novel and a nonfiction book at the same time, switching whenever he felt stuck. But Asimov was a full-time writer; I’m part-time, so things develop relatively slowly. I have long gaps between sessions of writing on a novel while doing other projects. I sometimes get jealous of my more prolific buddies in the business. My projects percolate a lot, and my job leaches away my writing time.
How much research do you do for each of your projects?
Matt: My research is ongoing. I read nonfiction a lot to keep on top of ideas and events, principally The New Yorker magazine which has a broad range of subjects. I always draw on my background knowledge, which has been enlarged by years of being scholarly by nature, and I look stuff up online, often mid-sentence, as it comes up. When I write in my notebook, I leave gaps or notes to look things up later, and I do that research when I’m typing up my notebook. Sometimes though I may lose track of where I got my information. In The Ghost in the Crystal, Leah Ritz uses an Aramaic magic formula “Havaya tseva-ot” to fight against evil spirits. I couldn’t now tell you where I got that from, or how much, if at all, I changed the wording.
I also research by travelling. All my vacations are working vacations as I gather knowledge of places I can put my characters in. I’m going on vacation in April to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, and I’m sure I will use all three locations in the future. Prague is already in The War Against Love.
What do you think it is about your writing or your stories that resonates with your readers?
Matt: My readers relate to my teenagers who feel like real teenagers to them. They aren’t digital natives like the kids I see in the classroom – they are more like the teenagers I grew up with – but they have strong feelings, tender hearts, insecurities, mixtures of bravado and anxiety, things you expect in good kids who are trying to find themselves.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Matt: I spent seven years blocked, largely because I was going through a bad time in life, but now I’m not blocked anymore, and I can write any time I have time to write. The hardest part of writing for me now is clock time: carving out enough hours in the day to expand myself mentally and emotionally so that I can be creative. I so often have to shift to being practical that the practical and creative are always in opposition, and I often feel guilty being creative. “How am I supposed to write when I didn’t deal with that call I was supposed to make?” I do a lot of thinking while commuting, and that’s productive, but thinking is only one stage of the process and I need to spend more time on the other stages.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
1) Get a well-paid career to sustain you while you write. Financial services looks good.
2) Learn these skills: digital book formatting, social networking, marketing, investing.
3) Fuck literary agents.
What is your favorite supernatural character to write?
Matt: I like to write about magicians/wizards and I like to write about ghosts/spirits. I love elementals also. I have a vampire in Level Three’s Dream, but he is an energy vampire, not an undead vampire, and primarily he’s a magician.
Separate from School of the Ages, I have some work about zombies I am presently niggling at, inspired by my love for the Resident Evil movies and the work of some great zombie authors I’ve met, such as Mainak Dhar. I am not presently drawn to write about undead vampires, werewolves, shifters, or fairies. When I do, though, I will do my damnedest to make it different than anyone has ever read before.
What are you current working on?
Matt: Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships, with Jess C. Scott, is going into final drafting next month. Jess and I are talking about writing two other books together after this one is done. My next solo book is The War Against Love, the third book of School of the Ages, coming out this summer. I will be publishing some short stories this year. I’m working on a School of the Ages story now which I will publish as a teaser for War Against Love and probably give away through amazon prime. The working title is “Sara Ghost.”
Matt’s Paranormal Perspectives
How would you define the paranormal genre?
Matt: There exist many traditions of storytelling that react to human experience by creating mirrors of it full of events and experiences that aren’t replicated in daily life. You look in the mirror and you see a vampire, a reflection of your emotional life but not your physical life. You read a book about a vampire or a person who deals with vampires, and on a deep level, you feel the echoes of that non-daily experience as ways to clarify, by allegory or analogy, that turmoil and those traumas with which you must actually deal.
How you feel about the boom of paranormal fiction recently?
Matt: I’m going to sound like a teacher and a scholar as I answer this.
Popular culture trends in horror and supernatural fiction are reactions to popular fear. The paranormal genre puts a more comfortable face on darkness. It is partly psychotherapy, but mainly escapism. The darkness we actually face in the world is a darkness of purely human sickness, ranging from religious fanaticism (terrorists and Taliban, the Republican war on women) to economic ruin (epidemic of foreclosure, income gap, the corporate takeover of the American government). I’d much rather think about a vampire or a werewolf, even a really nasty one, then think about Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or Rick Santorum.
Why do young adults in particular like the paranormal? I think most teens feel that they are somehow different from the ordinary, or fear that they are. These feelings can harmlessly be managed by the creation of paranormal alter-egos. For me, when I was growing up, it was wizard characters, like Belgarion in the work of David Eddings, who grew up and grew to power, as my own Simon, Goldberry, and Mermelstein are doing in School of the Ages. For teens today, it’s Edward and Bella or it’s Sookie Stackhouse. I would have been into them if I were the right age. Similarly, dystopian fiction like Hunger Games is an exaggerated version of the dismal disempowered cultural landscape today’s kids find themselves in.
What scares you?
Matt: Poverty scares me. I don’t want to be poor. There is so little humanity in being poor, and so little fairness in it.
What is your favorite paranormal book?
Matt: The Occult by Colin Wilson, along with its sequels, has profoundly shaped my world-view. Mysteries, Poltergeist!, Beyond the Occult – Wilson’s nonfiction books about the paranormal are just incredible.
What is your favorite paranormal movie?
Matt: As soon as I answer this, I will think of another one I should have listed. Let’s go with The Mothman Prophecies for today. As far as TV paranormal, I really like the first and third seasons of True Blood although I find the sex a little overstated. For a lighter touch, how about Beetlejuice?
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