What: Matt Coyle has a degree in English from UC Santa Barbara. He’s taken detours into the restaurant, golf, and sports collectible businesses. His first novel, YESTERDAY’S ECHO, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery, and the Ben Franklin Silver Award. NIGHT TREMORS is Matt’s second novel in the Rick Cahill crime series. Matt lives in San Diego with his Yellow Lab, Angus.
Where: San Diego
Interview conducted by email. Some questions/answers have been edited.
You set out to write the “great American novel” after college, but didn’t publish your first book until thirty years later. How did your publishing dreams and writing style change over the course of three decades?
First of all, thanks for having me. I think dreams is a great choice of words because my preparation and expectations were unrealistic when I first started writing. First of all, I had to get off my rear end and consistently write. That took about twenty years to figure out. Then I thought writing was a completely solitary endeavor: You write in a cocoon without outside intervention because it’s your story. How could anyone else have anything to add to it? Once I finally had a first draft done, I thought, “Okay, time to find an agent, sign a big book deal and quit my day job forever.” Hard knocks taught me that the life of a writer is quite different than my dreams.
My writing style evolved as it had to for me to have any chance of getting published. I took novel classes at UC San Diego Extension and joined writers groups. I broke out of the cocoon and realized that readers my not be reading the story I thought I was writing. Plus, I starting writing in first person and found the voice of my protagonist, Rick Cahill. That changed everything.
How did the publishing industry change in that time? What are the biggest challenges of being a writer in 2015?
Well, as we all know, the big publishing houses have consolidated over the last ten to twenty years. Advances and marketing outlays have shrunk for mid-list and debut authors. Obviously, online self-publishing has changed things as well and made getting readers’ attention more competitive than ever. However, I think it’s an exciting time for new authors. With the consolidation of the big houses, small genre specific publishers have sprung up. The smart ones are narrowly focused and know their strengths. Some of these publishers have authors who have been nominated and won the biggest awards in all of Mystery.
Some of the challenges for writers are not to get discouraged that your work hasn’t yet found a broad audience, finding enough time to write and market your work, and budgeting your expenses for all the marketing you have to do on your own.
Rick Cahill lived in Santa Barbara but relocated to San Diego following the suspicious death of his wife. What made you move from Santa Barbara to San Diego in real life? Why is San Diego the right location for you and Rick Cahill?
I’m actually originally from San Diego and went to Santa Barbara for college—write what you know.
San Diego is home, and I think it’s under-served as a mystery setting. That’s not to say that we don’t have wonderful mystery writers in the area. T. Jefferson Parker has lived in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, for over a decade. Don Winslow lives in the county. Alan Russell, Ken Kulken, and Lisa Brackmann are all San Diegans. There are many others. However, most of the great authors I’ve mentioned don’t set their stories in San Diego too often. I want to tell my stories in the slices of San Diego I know and grew up in.
Besides the location, in what ways is Rick Cahill based on you and your experiences? Have you had better luck in love than he has?
Again, write what you know. Aside from going to UC Santa Barbara, Rick and I both spent a fair amount of time in the restaurant business. There are a few real-life experiences that were expanded in my book like being chased through a Vons grocery store and jumping out a delivery door into a dumpster to escape. However, most of the experiences, if not the emotions, are pure fiction.
Regarding love, I’m divorced. But nobody died.
YESTERDAY’S ECHO won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel in 2014, in addition to other awards. Given the many accolades, were you tempted to wait another 30 years to write the follow-up? Did you feel any pressure—external or internal—to avoid the so-called “sophomore slump”?
I’m always tempted to wait instead of writing. It’s so much easier.
I never felt any external pressure to not write a crappy second novel. My agent and publisher are incredibly supportive. However, there’s always internal pressure, fear, and insecurity when it comes to writing. I wrote and rewrote YESTERDAY’S ECHO for ten years, getting it as close as I could to where I wanted it to be. I emptied my soul into it. When I starting writing NIGHT TREMORS, I didn’t know if I had any soul left. Luckily, I figured out that Rick had changed through his ordeals in the first book and I found fresh material in learning how he would deal with his new circumstances and new challenges.
The second Rick Cahill novel, NIGHT TREMORS, comes out on June 2. How has the character evolved since we last saw him? What can readers expect from the new novel?
Rick made decisions and took actions in YESTERDAY’S ECHO that had consequences, both externally and internally. They changed him. Damaged him. Gave him a slightly harder shell. But underneath he’s still the guy who wants to do the right thing, only on his terms.
In the beginning of NIGHT TREMORS Rick is working for a large investigative firm in La Jolla and making more money than he ever has. He just bought his first home, but the work doesn’t feed his soul.
When the opportunity to help free a man who’d possibly been wrongly imprisoned, Rick grabs it. However, in doing so he risks losing his home, his job, his freedom, and even his life. Ultimately, he’ll have to make the most difficult decision of his life.
In both novels, Cahill has a combative relationship with the police due to events in his past. How does his growing resentment and mistrust of law enforcement effect his character development? How hard is it to keep him from becoming a blatant criminal?
It makes him a little paranoid and forces him to battle himself internally. He’d been a cop. So had his father. At heart, he’s a law and order guy but he’s had bad experiences with law enforcement. He was kicked off the force in Santa Barbara and the same thing happened to his father before him in La Jolla. He’s a much less trusting person than he used to be in all facets of his life.
Rick breaks the law at times, but he doesn’t consider himself a criminal. He follows the code handed down to him from his father: Sometimes you have to do what’s right even when the law says it’s wrong.
In NIGHT TREMORS, his own perception of what he thinks is right will be tested.
Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald are probably my two biggest influences. I read them both in high school and college and learned a tremendous amount about detective fiction from them. I loved Hemingway and Fitzgerald, too.
I’m reading THE REPLACEMENTS by David Putnam. He’s an ex-cop, a friend, and an excellent writer.
What advice do you have for new writers? If you could help them avoid one mistake that you made, what would it be?
I’m going to reverse the questions in my answers. First of all, I’d tell them to write. Don’t be stupid like I was and wait for inspiration. Write everyday. Write when you don’t want to. Don’t be afraid that what you’re writing isn’t perfect. It’s not, but it’s going to get better.
My other advice is get thee to a writers group or, at least, find a couple of beta readers who aren’t related to you and won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings. We may write for ourselves but none of us want our work to go unread. Fresh eyes will find things you think are there but aren’t and will find things that are there that shouldn’t be.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2015? What else are you working on?
Right now, I’m working on the third Rick Cahill crime novel. I’m behind, as usual. Rick’s actions in NIGHT TREMORS have put him in another tough position in the next book. This guy never makes it easy.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015 and 2016.