What have you heard about Stephanie M Matthews?
Welcome to my interview with Stephanie M Matthews! We’ll talk about books and her awesome writing experiences.
Stephanie M Matthews
Hi Stephanie M Matthews! Please introduce yourself and share five fun facts!
Hi, and thank you for having me! I’m an East Coast girl who has found herself in Ottawa just trying not to let life pass me by! I’ve always enjoyed writing, though mostly of fine, unfinished literature of a rather questionable quality.
- I’ve never eaten a Big Mac, and at this point, I’m not sure if I want to break the ongoing record.
- I’m mildly obsessed with ancient history and I love sneaking bits of it into my writing.
- A good cookie is my Achilles’ heel.
- I lived in Rome for two months and ate Italian cookies for supper more times than I will ever publicly admit. #noregrets
- The first career I wanted when I was a kid was a horse jockey. Riding horses everyday sounded like a dream job, but then I learnt the average weight and height of jockeys and I quickly changed my prospects.
What inspired you to write The Gift?
A couple of years ago I had this idea to write four short stories about each of the four seasons for a creative writing blog I used to keep. I wanted to start with winter because Christmas was in winter, and Christmas is my jam. When it comes to Christmas stories there’s an expectation that they will be light-hearted, a bit cheesy, and follow a set formula, but what I wanted was a Christmas story that was just as thrilling, just as gripping as any other story set at any other time of the year.
I wanted a story that shook people out of the commercialism and Hallmark ideals into a story that made them stop and think. When I was a young teenager, I had a petty unique dream, and it was dark, and it was desperate, but there was hope in it, and I knew I had to use that dream as the base of my Christmas story. So, The Gift was born and it clearly became much more than a short story!
Can you share what this book is about?
It’s about a young woman named Fae Peeters who is doing her Master’s of Architecture in Belgium. Her immigrated grandparents are from there. When her grandmother writes to Fae telling her that this year’s Christmas gift is in the village of her birth, Fae happily takes her Christmas break to visit her grandmother’s village, meet some extended family, and to see what kind of present could be awaiting her there.
When Fae arrives, however, the quaint little village starts to show its cracks and Fae is quickly given more cause for concern than for Christmas merriment. Other than her extended family, no one really wants her there. She starts to experience symptoms of what she can only imagine is her losing her mind. She feels obliged to stick out the worst of it for the sake of her grandmother though. When night falls on Christmas Eve, so falls every assumption Fae had ever built about her understanding of the world.
She finds herself introduced to a stranger who promises to help her understand what’s going on, but even he might not be everything he seems to be. What should’ve been a nice Christmas Eve turns into an endurance game of survival as Fae learns what her grandmother’s gift really is!
What were the challenges you faced while writing?
Being so close to your story it’s hard to see the trees for the forest and the forest for the trees. While writing I may completely forget to explain something because I know it in my head and not realize I haven’t actually explained it on the page! Or, I may have beat the readers over the head with something that should be dialed back by about 200%.
Another challenge I struggled with is that I have a cat who believes every laptop on a lap is competition for head scratches. It was a real issue trying to stretch my arms over a fuzzy, purring ball of orange fur to get work done.
What were the greatest victories?
Being able to write “The End” as The Gift was the first full length novel I’d ever finished writing. I’ve always been a writer even as a kid, but growing up to be an author wasn’t something I particularly aspired to. I just liked writing to keep myself entertained. To write a full length novel that was actually pretty good (subjective, I know) was an accomplishment I never really expected but was a huge confidence builder.
What’s your favourite part about writing supernatural thrillers?
It allows me to write through my own fears and to engage with my readers in a discussion that would be much harder to do otherwise. I have very little ability to watch anything remotely scary. I write about what I know scares me, and that gives me a safe avenue to explore those fears in a neutralized way. Including the supernatural opens up so many avenues of opportunity. Not only as a story teller, but as someone who enjoys exploring ideas.
Supernatural and religion go hand in hand, and religion touches on every avenue of life just like philosophy does. Introspective discussions, debates on the cosmos and our place in it, social injustices and everything in between. These large themes can be questioned and explored without the reader being aware of the discussion taking place because they’re so scared about turning off the lights! But at the end of the book, if I’ve done my job well, they’re left with something to mentally chew on long after the last page.
How did you prepare to write its sequel?
In writing the sequel I had to be a bit more mindful of the story as a whole. I knew how I wanted the story to end, but not so much how to get there. With a sequel there’s a lot of elements that need to be considered. Continuity, originality- readers can’t feel like they’re reading the same book twice, growth of characters, etc. I really had to take more time to re-immerse myself in this world. To get to know these characters better, and find out all their secrets that hadn’t been exposed yet. I spent a lot of time daydreaming, as it were, through the eyes of someone else.
What did you do differently when working on the sequel that you learned from the experience of writing the first one?
Having gone through the full editing process with The Gift with professional editors, I learnt a lot about what developing a good story looks like. I had a better idea of how to look for weak spots in the narrative and I’d sharpened that red pen of refinement. The result was that the process of taking the first draft through the beta-reader stage resulted in a much stronger story than The Gift was at the same stage.
What is your favourite part about The Gift?
I love that there are Christmas carols woven into it! With The Gift I wanted to explore the Christmas holiday away from the commercialized cash cow that it is. Part of that process involved approaching some of these old carols- which we’ve kind of become immune to from over exposure, with new ears.
These carols have really incredible lyrics, strong messages, and beautiful, even haunting, music, and they are such a big part of the Christmas experience. There are certain places in The Gift where the lyrics really complement the plot. I brought the story and the music together; it’s kind of like a built-in soundtrack. I’ve even built a YouTube play list with some of the songs as I’d imagine them being played to help you get into your holiday mood. You can find it here.
What do you like about the characters you’ve written?
I like that they’re all flawed in some way which makes them all relatable. A character you might expect to be flawless has a habit someone else finds annoying. Or two characters just have a clash of personality for no particular reason other than they simply don’t like each other. These are things we’ve all personally experienced before. Some people have secret pasts, others wear their heart on their sleeves. These are real people with real problems and they interact with each other in real ways. It makes them really enjoyable to write and, hopefully, to read as well.
What should readers expect from this book and the sequel?
Some late nights with the lights on! Seriously though, readers should expect a well written story. I know Indies have a mixed reputation for their quality. I was fortunate enough to work with an editor for both books who has New York Times Bestsellers to his editing resume. You should expect an appropriately high quality story experience. My writing style is a bit old school with vivid descriptions so be prepared for the unexpected. Both stories will take you to dark places but trust me- I’m an excellent guide for the journey.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers in this genre?
You should write through your own experiences. What are you going through, or have gone through, emotionally, physically, philosophically, that you can write about? When you have questions, or have found answers for something you’ve gone through, you have emotion attached to it. You can tap into that emotion and transfer it onto the page. Now, instead of just having a plot, you have an emotional connection with your writing that your reader will pick-up on. They might not be able to identify what that is, but your writing will stand out.
What are your goals for your writing in the future?
Obviously, I would like to continue to improve my writing skills and become a better story teller. Within that, I want to challenge myself to write with substance beyond just having fictional entertainment. Words have power, let us put that power to a good use that is larger than ourselves.
Any last thoughts that your readers should know about you and your books?
You can follow me on Instagram @stephaniem.matthews and Facebook @Stephanie M. Matthews for all sorts of writing tips and fun stuff from my writing. And like any good thriller, there’s more to The Gift than meets the eye! Hidden in the chapter numbers is a letter which will combine to make a secret phrase. Make sure to look for the same hidden secret in the sequel!
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