Interview #018: Matt Darst, Author of “Dead Things”

by Jay Delaney

Matt DarstAbout Today’s Subject:
Matt Darst

Creator of: Dead Things
Location: Chicago, Illinois

The Vulnerability of Sharing Your Art with the World

Matt Darst recently published his first book, Dead Things.  The picture you see here is from one of the public readings he’s done from his book.  In the interview below, Matt mentions that he felt more nervous doing his first public reading from his book than he did making motions before trial judges, testifying at city council hearings, and presenting before conferences.  You see, Matt’s not your typical author.  In addition to being a first time novelist, Matt also has a background as a lawyer and a former first deputy director at the City of Chicago.  There are few things in this world that make you feel quite as vulnerable as sharing your art with the world, but for those driven to create art, it’s what you must do.  Matt is a great example of having the guts to share your art with the world around you.

“There is no greater puzzle than a book waiting to be written.” -Matt Darst

Before we go any further, I think it’ll be helpful to share with you a brief overview of Dead Things.  Here’s a synopsis taken from the book’s website.  (Hint: It involves zombies!)

Nearly two decades have passed since the fall of the United States.  And the rise of the church to fill the void. Nearly twenty years since Ian Sumner lost his father. And the dead took to the streets to dine on the living.

Now Ian and a lost band of survivors are trapped in the wilderness, miles from safety. Pursued by madmen and monsters, they unravel the secrets of the plague…and walk the line of heresy.

Now Ian and this troop need to do more than just survive. More than ever, they must learn to live.

Dead Things has been called “an amalgam of Clerks and everything Crichton and Zombieland.”  It’s available in just about any ebook format you can imagine, including Nook, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, and the iPod.

A Few Lessons from My Conversation with Matt

  1. Surround yourself with people who encourage you. Matt advises that if you enjoy something, stick with it, no matter how long it takes.  He had the idea for this book for more than 6 years, but he worked over time to bring it to life thanks in part to family and friends encouraging him.
  2. Find your space. It took over two years from when Matt mentioned the idea of a book to his brother to when he realized he really needed to start carving out “me time” to work on making it happen.  If you care about something, then be sure you carve out time to devote to it.
  3. Look for inspiration everywhere around  you. Matt mentions that someone he shared a job and a commute with inspired one of his characters.

Our Conversation

Jay Delaney: Can you give us the cliffs notes version of your bio and tell us about something you’re working on that you’re excited about?

Matt Darst: Sure.  I grew up in a very creative environment.  My mom and dad are both artists, and I had the benefit of their encouragement.  I loved books and writing fiction as a kid.  My dad would often let me collaborate on skits or plays he was working on.  By twelve, I was begging my parents for a typewriter.  I spent countless hours hammering out stories on that thing.

Oddly enough, those experiences didn’t lead to a job in the arts.  Rather, I did the complete opposite and went to law school.

My career path and my love of writing probably seem a bit contradictory.  It is hard to reconcile because, admittedly, school and work delayed any artistic output for years.  But being an attorney also informed my writing.  Legal writing, at its core, is about conveying a clear and persuasive message.  So, from that perspective, law really helped me hone my writing.

I finished writing my first book in early 2010.  It’s called Dead Things, and it’s a mash-up of horror and science fiction.  Kind of a George Romero meets Michael Crichton.  Or Richard Matheson meets H.G. Wells.  You get the idea.  It is now an ebook and will be released as a paperback shortly.

I’m really excited to promote it.  Marketing seemed pretty daunting at first: websites, author blogs, readings, reviews, etc.  But I’m having a lot of fun with it.  Marketing is as much about creativity as writing.

I’m excited, too, about my second book.  I’m still deep in the process of writing it (and there will be rewrites), but I really like where it’s going.

Jay Delaney: Some of the creatives I know have a tough time focusing in on one specific idea to see through to completion.  What made you decide to focus your energy on writing a book?  How tough was it to settle in on that and see it through to completion?

Matt Darst: Distractions come in many forms, and the day-to-day aspects of life conspired to slow the pace of the book more than any other creative endeavor.  Before putting pen to pad I read a lot about what it takes to write a book.  It is, by all accounts, a frustratingly slow process, especially when you’re a perfectionist.  Knowing that in advance helped me stay the course.

Jay Delaney: How soon after you had the idea did you actually start working on the book?  What was the first step you took to get started?

Matt Darst: I had a rough idea for a book six or more years ago and mentioned it to my brother and sister around Christmas.  The next Christmas came and went without anything but some research to show for it.  Sometime during the next year (almost two years after I first mentioned the concept) I was blathering on about it again to my brother, and he stopped me.  “When are you going to stop talking about it and start writing it?” he asked.  Wow, the honesty of a brother!  But he was dead on the money.  That’s when I realized I needed to really commit myself to writing and carve out bits of “me time” to spend on the book.  Finding your space is critical.

Jay Delaney: How do you think your education and previous work experience has informed your writing?

Matt Darst: Looks like I preempted your question.  Sorry.  I can add something, though.  Although my education and work experience inform how I write, they also play a role in what I write.  That’s important.  Experienced writers will tell you that it’s critical to write what you know.  My characters may all seem very different, but there are pieces of me—and my school and work experiences—in each one.  I once even shared a job and a commute with one character.

Jay Delaney: What have you learned so far from publishing a book?

Matt Darst: I could write a book on self-publishing.  And someone really should.  While there are a number of good books on writing, there aren’t any truly complete discussions on publishing out there…at least that I could find.  And I scoured the net and bookstores.  So, as a first time author, you really have to incorporate a lot from various sources and be a DIYer.

But I learned something else too.  It is scary sharing your work with others.  I mean horrifying.  To add some context: I’ve made motions before trial judges, testified at council hearings, and presented before conferences. None of that compared to the nervous tension I felt before I did my first public reading.  I was literally a wreck!  But at the same time, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

Jay Delaney: How often do you get stuck creatively, and how do you get unstuck?

Matt Darst: Everyone gets stuck occasionally.  Eventually, though, the words come.  Unfortunately, it might be in the shower, walking the dog, or during a dream.  So I try to keep a notepad close.

Honestly, I’d rather collaborate on projects.  Ideas beget ideas, and brainstorming really stirs creativity.  That’s why, I think, so many bands are better than each individual contributors solo material.  But brainstorming is difficult to do with writing.  Unless you’re co-authoring something, what you put on the page really has to be yours and yours alone.  So I do the next best thing: I talk about it with my family or a friend.  Generally the answer hits me as I describe the problem.

Jay Delaney: How are you defining success with this first book?

Matt Darst: I received an advertisement in the mail the other day from a consulting group.  It said something like, “Learn the secrets of becoming a rich author,” by calling some 800 number.  I had to laugh.  If that’s how people define success when it comes to their creative pursuits, they have it all wrong.

I write because I like to write.  I like to problem solve.  And there is no greater puzzle than a book waiting to be written.  If I finish the puzzle, that’s a success.

Now I’m not going to lie and say that’s where it all ends.  I definitely don’t begrudge people who can make a living doing what they love creatively.  Truth be told, I want people to read my book.  I want them to like it.  And I want them to tell others about it.  But that’s gravy, if you will.  I’ll continue to write regardless.

Jay Delaney: What advice can you offer to people out creating their own paths and finding their own way in the world?

Matt Darst: I’m a first time author, so I can’t pretend to have all the answers.  But I do know this: if you enjoy something, stick with it, no matter how long it takes.  Find time to do it, and surround yourself with people who encourage you.  Celebrate even the smallest win as you move down your creative path.  Those victories will help you keep your eye on the prize…as you alone define it.

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