Phil: I have a lot of things that I’m dying to ask you, but to start off, let’s dive deep into your past. What first motivated you to join the Navy?
Matt: A combination of things really. Through high school, I thought I wanted to go to college and wrestle. I started wrestling at age 4 and wasn’t all that bad at it. I did a few recruiting visits to different places during my senior year, but by then I was tired of the grind. I’d gotten to a place where I just didn’t want to wrestle anymore. That combined with an early interest in the Navy (I’d been given my first Tom Clancy novel at age 8 and my oldest brother, Tim, was an Aviation Machinist Mate at the time) led me into a recruiter’s office shortly after graduation.
Ultimately, I’d have to go with a pair of time-honored reasons for joining the Navy. I wanted out of my hometown. I wanted to see the world and visit places that had more to offer me than corn, cows, and basketball. I’d gotten a small taste for travel wrestling (regional tournaments, national tournaments, Team USA events in Europe) and truly enjoyed it.
Those reasons tally with my own for joining the Army, particularly the need to get out of my hometown. Looking back on my own military career, I can clearly see the decisions and experiences that were particularly formative or that changed he trajectory of my life. Can you say the same about your own time in the Navy?
I’d have to list three events:
Meeting my wife… I think back to the chain of events early on that led me to Hawaii and eventually put me in the same room as the woman I’d eventually marry and I’m still kind of amazed.
A few years later, on the USS Constellation…When I first checked in to CV 64, I was placed in Auxiliary Division-Steam and Heat Shop. I spent my first 6 months there doing maintenance on water heaters and dishwashing machines and I was bored out of my mind.
It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!
That’s the truth. I was so fed up that I spent a week wandering from division to division in my spare time, asking what everyone did and watching them work. I ended up dropping a request to transfer to 3 Main Machinery Room. The boilers and steam turbines were fascinating to me, as were the people who worked there. When the chit got to the ship’s Boiler Tech Master Chief (a gent with 32 years in service—he’d joined the Navy in 1967), he sat me down and said “Shipwreck, this here chit…You know what you’re asking? You’re asking to go from heaven to hell and I’m the goddamn devil himself. Is that what you really want?”
I can smell the salt coming off this guy! I consider myself lucky that I got to serve with some of the crustiest guys around. They always taught me the most, even if the lessons were sometimes pretty harsh.
That guy, and just about everyone else on that ship, taught me a lot. The CO used to stop in 3MMR on a regular basis and talk to us about how we worked and operated.
I learned a lot in those first few years, but I learned the most at the end of my career, onboard USS James E. Williams. Some of the events that happen to Chief Brian Thompson are based on things that happened to myself and to the crew of the Williams in real life. Equipment on that ship broke left and right and the crew couldn’t buy a break. Toxic gas casualties. Fuel leaks. Flooding. Fires. We lost crew and didn’t get replacements. It quickly became overwhelming and the remaining crew could have phoned it in, they could have given up. We could have tied up to the pier and waited for assistance from repair activities…but those sailors wouldn’t give up.
Those experiences really come out in the story you tell in “Interdiction.” When did you start thinking about writing?
One of my older brothers, Jim, took me to the library one day and there was a Young Authors contest. If you signed up, they gave you a couple blank hardback books and a copy of the rules and entry deadlines. I think we signed me up just to get the blanks, but on the walk home, we started brainstorming story ideas and I ended up writing a story about three snake cops who solve crimes. Jim did the illustrations and we ended up honorable mention.
I hope that award is hanging on the wall somewhere…
I wish I still had it. To be honest, I’m not sure where it went after I joined the service. I lost a lot of my childhood things over the years, moving from place to place and constantly packing and unpacking. It happens.
Around middle school, I began working on how I wrote…paying attention to details and dialogue. I read a lot and tried to mimic some of the techniques I was seeing, though I didn’t precisely know that that’s what I was doing. It actually cost me an F in an English class during my freshman year of high school when my teacher accused me of plagiarism and told my parents that no high schooler “writes that well”. Everything settled down when I was able to prove it was all my work. After that, in the Navy, I just kind of scribbled together stories and tales here and there during what little free time I had.
I like that you mention trying to emulate writers and stories that we like. I think that there is a lot to be learned from doing that, but it also speaks to a basic motivation for a lot of writers. We want to write the kind of stories that we want to read. And so, it makes sense to look at what we can learn from the books we already like.
I agree. As I look back, flipping through a bunch of old notebooks and word docs, I realize that that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Interdiction reflects what I like and what I know. Most of my other stories are the same, reflecting some Stephen King, Jeff Shaara, Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Gogol.
Your first novel, Interdiction, is a thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy or Stephen Coonts. Was that what you read growing up?
Initially, I started out on typical kid books. Hardy Boys. Encyclopedia Brown. Matt Christopher’s The Kid Who Could Only Hit Homers. The first book I ever read to my parents was Drummer Hoff (I still have my copy). I read just about everything Brian Jacques wrote, too.
I was obsessed with Encyclopedia Brown!
I loved those books. I practically lived off of them in second grade. The change came when I was 8 or 9, my dad gave me his copy of The Hunt for Red October. I was hooked. That was followed by his copies of To Kill the Potemkin, Patriot Games, and Flight of the Intruder. Jim, the older brother who helped with the Young Authors book, would hand me his copies of Stephen King books (The Stand would eventually be his favorite and Christine made it near impossible for him to ride his bike home from practice at night). Mix in some Tolkien, lots of military history books, and some of the classics and you’ve got a pretty good picture of my personal library.
Two books made every deployment with me. Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
When you first pitched “Interdiction,” you made a reference to Herman Wouk. As soon as I saw that, I knew that I was going to like what you’d written. The Caine Mutiny as a film is fantastic, but the book is so much better. I ran into a few Queeg’s in my career, and I credit Wouk with helping me spot them right away, before much damage was done.
Unfortunately, the Queegs of the world are out there. I ran into more than a few in my career too. There are also plenty of sailors out there like Willie Keith out there and being able to help them through the first few years the way people helped me was rewarding. The Wouk inspiration of the book, and most of my other writing in this genre, is the idea that not every military thriller needs to be filled with stereotypical, gung-ho characters. I liked that Wouk’s characters were flawed humans who expressed anger and suffered from sleep deprivation and made stupid, irrational choices.
Much like a lot of writers, you read pretty eclectically. What is it in all these different stories that attracts you?
It depends. Early on (high school and before), with the military thrillers, it seemed like a world beyond my reach. I didn’t really know you could just up and volunteer for things like that until I was in high school.
With everything else, my attraction to the stories was a mixed bag. I’ll always think The Count of Monte Cristo is the most complete book ever written. It has everything. I have to admit that The Caine Mutiny is much better after having served in the Navy and on a destroyer (it’s a bit like rewatching Full Metal Jacket’s boot camp scenes after going through boot camp—you just have a personal attachment to it then). The Brian Jacques books were, like the rest of the fantasy stories, an escape (though reading the descriptions of food in Redwall when you’re trying to cut weight for a wrestling tournament is not recommended).
I think there are mixed opinions on the value of different writing programs. I see it as one of the most direct ways to get mentorship on the craft of writing. You completed a degree in writing at John Hopkins, so you must see the value as well. What advice would you give writers considering pursuing an education in writing?
I’d give the same advice that one of my old wrestling coaches gave me. My sophomore year in high school, I’d spent the first few practices drilling what felt like a year’s worth of new moves and wasn’t good at any of them. There was something off and uncomfortable there. I guess it showed. The first Friday of the season, Coach Tone pulled me aside after practice one day and asked what I was doing. I think I shrugged. He sat me down and asked if I’d ever been to a shoe store. I said yes. He said, “did you buy every shoe in the place?” I said no. He grinned and asked why. I explained that not every shoe fits and maybe I don’t like every shoe design. He smiled again and walked out of the room.
I suppose that would be my advice. If you go to school for writing, you’re going to be hit with idea after idea, recommendation after recommendation, rule after rule. You can’t adopt them all. Some don’t fit. Some styles aren’t attractive. Some rules just won’t apply. Find what’s comfortable. Find your style. Buy into that.
Amen to that. Knowing what to do comes from paring away everything else.
Aside from drawing on your education in writing, what aspects of your experience in the navy do you draw on?
Mostly my experiences and the experiences of others around me. One of the greatest traditions in the Navy (in any military service, for that matter) is the art of the sea story. If I can take those and craft them into my books (at least the military thriller books), I can lend some realism to the tale. I can reach that old veteran out there somewhere who recognizes the story or maybe snare some young kid like me.
Are there some stories that you heard while serving that you’ve repeated in “Interdiction?”
Not so much in Interdiction. For this story, I stuck with recreating and fictionalizing things that happened to the crew of the Williams. In doing that, maybe I’ve created some sea stories of our own, things that will be passed down by my old sailors as they take over leadership positions.
Nearly two decades of the Global War on Terror has created a huge number of veterans in the Untied States, and also a growing number of veteran authors. What do you think the impact of this will be on 21st century American literature?
I’m not quite sure. I would imagine and hope that the impact would be the same as in previous generations. Maybe the locations change. Maybe the technology does, too. But the stories of veterans tend to have common threads. I think back to the sea story reference. Most of the stories I’ve heard over the years are variations of the same tale, updated to fit the ship.
That said, I think that literature in general has always been impacted by veteran authors. A good portion of the books I mentioned earlier are the products of veterans, regardless of nationality. Tolkien fought in the trenches in WWI. Wouk served in the Pacific Fleet in WWII. Coonts flew the A-6 Intruder over Vietnam from the deck of the USS Enterprise. Stephen Hunter did a couple years in the Army. Ian Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence.
Quite a few of the current day names in the business are veterans. Rip Rawlings comes readily to mind and Don Bentley was a helo pilot in Afghanistan.
In fact, I would suggest that some of the greatest works of American literature was written by veterans. Hemingway. John Dos Passos. James Jones. Norman Mailer. Kurt Vonnegut. Joseph Heller. The list goes on. Maybe it’s too soon, but I don’t think that we’ve seen any literary giants on the scale of these folks emerge from the pool of veterans who are writing. There seems to be more of a focus on commercial fiction.
That’s a good point. It is possible that the mass production of books (now versus maybe fifty years ago) has affected the emergence of a modern-day vet as one of the literary giants. It is also possible that that emergence is limited by the modern-day vets themselves. The folks making really big sales (at least in American literary circles) are vets like Bentley (who writes Tom Clancy novels and his own series) and people who are either sticking solely to the military fiction genre or are writing military history. I think it would be difficult to classify someone as a literary great in this day and age who is sticking solely to the military niche. I sure there are exceptions, but the giants tend to be authors who crossed genres and got down to the fundamentals of human existence.
That said, there is one thing I am seeing more of. Women in uniform becoming writers. Maybe that’s the difference in this generation of vets. A new voice is being offered to the literary world that’s been too often missing in the past 200 years.
That’s a great point. That can only be a good thing.
The past two years have been hard for a lot of people. Has the pandemic changed your view on the role of the artists/writers within society?
I don’t know that the pandemic has changed my view. It has reinforced the idea that writers and artists are a vital part of society. We record history and create worlds. We preserve memories and provide escapes. The medium does not seem to matter. Photos, paintings, film, sculpture, poetry…the written word…music…It all works to the same end. To communicate something…whatever that thing may be. It may be serious and it may be satire. Whatever it is, it is necessary. People need to be able to pick up a book or play a song or sit and take in a work of art.
I wonder if the pandemic is shaping literature as well? Not just in terms of subject matter, but as a by-product of the shaping of our collective psyche. I’m not sure what it has been like for you, but here in Toronto we’ve endured weeks and months of lockdowns and isolation that has really taken a toll on people.
I’ve noticed an uptick in creativity over the past two years. On social media, in public…People have been stuck inside or with limited access to public spaces and events for two years. It seems logical that people seek some sort of escape beyond the same four walls they see day in and day out.
On a happier note, and looking to the future, what are you writing now that “Interdiction” is done?
I’m currently working on two books.
At the same time? That is something I am really no good at. How do you keep them straight, or are they at really different stages of development?
It helps that the books are different genres. Keeping the stories separate is difficult, but I manage to make it work…usually by not working on them on the same day.
The first book is the sequel to Interdiction. It takes place about a year after the events in Interdiction and deals with Russian aggression in the Black Sea and threats of insurrection in the United States.
I am definitely interested in reading that!
The second book is actually an extension of my thesis for Johns Hopkins University. The centerpiece of the thesis was a short story called Lost and Found. It is about a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacres named Jusuf Ahmetovic. In the story, Jusuf has returned to Srebrenica to search the forests near his home for the remains of his family, all of whom were victims of the genocides in July of 1995.
That’s a really interesting setting. I served in Bosnia, and the events you are writing about there are absolutely heart wrenching. What got you interested in writing about Srebrenica?
I saw a segment on television about a gentleman in Srebrenica named Ramiz Nukic who has been searching for remains for the past 25 years. The story, what this gentleman has been through, stuck with me and I spent a few days during my first term at Hopkins crafting a fictional version of that struggle.
What are you reading or have you just read that you would recommend?
I just re-read Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coonts. I think that my writing style for Interdiction is closer to this book than to any Clancy novel. Flight of the Intruder is a similar combination of technical knowledge (Coonts wrote about what he knew) and human interest. Jake Grafton experiences a wide range of human emotion and conflict and that’s something I tried to model Brian Thompson and Mike Nixon after.
Target Acquired by Don Bentley is a continuation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan/The Campus series. It’s what we’ve come to expect and love from the Jack Ryan universe, but in a style that’s more reflective of the modern-day style. Bentley’s addition to Clancy’s creation is fast-paced and tight and retains that undercurrent of technical accuracy that was Clancy’s trademark.
Army Blue by Lucian K. Truscott IV is another book in the same vein as Flight of the Intruder. Rather than a high-octane, shoot-em-up rodeo ride, Army Blue focuses on the human side of the Vietnam War. It deals with the high cost of war at the physical and mental level and attempts to communicate a tale with main characters who’ve grown out of—or never were—the action-flick type portrayed in popular culture.
I might just re-read Flight of the Intruder myself – I loved it when I first read it. And so for all those Stephen Coonts fans out there, check out Interdiction, coming out on 18 February, 2022.