(aka Matthew Dicks)
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I grew up in the small town of Blackstone, Massachusetts with two siblings, two lost step-siblings, a loving mother, and an evil step-father. I was a Boy Scout, a pole-vaulter, a flautist and bassoonist, and a proud member of my school’s drum corps. I also have the distinction of having died twice by the age of eighteen before being revived by paramedics both times.
Sorry. No white light.
I left home at eighteen and worked in a variety of dead-end jobs for the next five years until I was robbed at gunpoint at the age of twenty-three. This brush with death finally convinced me to get off my ass, propelling me to college in Connecticut shortly thereafter. I worked my way through school, graduating from Manchester Community College in 1996 and Trinity College with an English degree and Saint Joseph’s College with a teaching degree in 1999.
Following graduation, I went to work as an elementary school teacher and have been teaching ever since. In 2005 I was named West Hartford’s Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year.
In addition to my teaching and writing careers, I also own and operate a DJ company that performs weddings throughout Connecticut.
In 2006 I married my wife and colleague, Elysha Green, after proposing to her in front of friends and family on the main landing of Grand Central Station in New York. We live in Newington, CT with our daughter, Clara, our Lhasa Apso, Kaleigh, and our enormous, slightly insane house cat named Owen. We are expecting our second child in June.
When not teaching or writing or squeezing Clara, I spend my time listening to music and dodging phone calls. I’m an avid, albeit awful, golfer and a much better basketball and poker player. I enjoy attending Patriot games as a season ticket holder and Yankee games whenever possible, and I would like to play more football if my frighteningly fragile friends were more willing.
I read a great deal, listen to audio books, and listen to about three dozen podcasts on a daily and weekly basis. My interests include technology, sports, and current events.
I recently completed a Master’s degree in Educational Technology at American Intercontinental University and am working on a Master’s in English at my alma mater, Trinity College.
I don’t sleep much.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I wanted to be an attorney. I spent much of my childhood arguing with my evil step-father, and as a result, I became quite adept at rapid-fire debate. I enjoyed researching an issue, preparing my argument, and delivering it in such a way as to enrage my opponent while remaining perfectly calm. I actually took the LSAT, the entrance exam for law school, a few years ago and did very well but ultimately decided that my life was already full enough without adding a legal career as well.
When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a teacher. Having grown up in an unhappy and dysfunctional household, school had always been my sanctuary, and I never wanted to leave. My teachers became my parental figures and role models, and I grew to respect and admire all that they did for me. Someday I wanted to do the same for students. I moved out of my parents’ home after graduating high school and began living with friends who were attending college but living off-campus. Without any money or support from my parents in order to attend college, my dream of becoming a teacher seemed impossible. At the age of eighteen, I was convinced that I would be managing fast food restaurants for the rest of my life.
At thirty, I had been teaching elementary school for two years and was working on starting my career as a writer, which also seemed impossible. My goal was to someday write for a living and teach for pleasure, and while I have not yet reached that goal, I am closer than I ever thought possible.
This was a difficult question to answer. I wanted to offer a change in belief that was both meaningful and profound, but I have yet to think of one worth mentioning. I suggested to my wife that perhaps this is an indication that I was fully formed at a young age, but she countered with the possibility that I still have a lot of growing up to do.
Nevertheless, when I was eighteen, my best friend and roommate began listening to audiobooks on cassette tape and suggested I do the same. I told him that listening to a book on tape was stupid. I thought that it was akin to cheating. I suspected that recorded books were meant only for morons who could not read.
Three years went by before I gave my first audiobook a try, and only then because I was on a road trip with a friend who was listening to a book.
Today I “read” more books via audiobook than I do in the traditional form, not because I don’t read often, but because I am almost always listening to something, and that something is most often an audiobook.
Not exactly profound, but a definite shift in attitude.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: It was the first book by Vonnegut that I had ever read, and it taught me that there are no rules when it comes to writing.
Want to insert yourself into the novel as a character? Go right ahead.
Want to abandon traditional conventions of plot and character? That’s your prerogative.
Vonnegut taught me that I could do whatever I damn well pleased when it came to writing, and that was very liberating indeed.
Stephen King’s On Writing: While the specific writing advice contained within the book is excellent, it is the story of King’s struggles from poverty to literary stardom that I found most appealing. King goes from submitting short stories to men’s magazines and being unable to afford basic medical necessities for his children to the publication of his first book and a slow road to literary fame and financial freedom.
It’s an inspiring story. Anytime I felt myself wanting to quit the writing business altogether, I would remind myself of King’s struggles and sometimes even reread the book, and it would reinvigorate me for another six months.
Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux: This dark and beautiful story about a non-conformist mouse and his love for the Princess Pea was written for children but could have just as well been written for adults. The story, the theme and the characters possess universal and timeless appeal. This is an exceedingly difficult aesthetic to achieve, but it is one that I attempted in Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. Though written clearly with adults in mind, my hope was that I was writing a novel that I could one day share with my children and my students as well. I did not come close to DiCamillo’s level of grace and deftness in this regard, but I was inspired by her story and hope to play with this aesthetic again in the future.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I have always loved story. I did not grow up with books in my home, but once I was old enough to register for a library card, I was never without a book. I also discovered early on that I was adept at telling stories as well. Whether they were whoppers designed to keep me out of trouble or campfire stories told to frighten the newest members of the Boy Scout troop, I have always been able to weave a good yarn. Writing novels seemed like a natural progression from this oral tradition of storytelling, though in the past year, I have begun performing at live storytelling events and competitions. Back to my roots, so to speak.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
My agent does a much better job than me. Here is her description of the book:
Budo is the imaginary friend of Max Delaney, an eight-year-old boy who is different than most kids—Max’s teacher’s can’t agree on a diagnosis, but they all agree that he’s on the spectrum. Max counts on Budo to be there for him when he needs him most. But Budo is different than most imaginary friends. For one, he’s been in existence for six years, which is ancient in imaginary friend terms, since many last only a year, or a month, or even a moment. And Budo feels his age; he constantly worries that the day when Max stops believing in him will come, and no one knows what happens to imaginary friends after they disappear….
Budo can also leave Max, and at night, when Max is sleeping, he explores the world. He watches television with Max’s parents (crime shows are a particular favorite), he pops down to the local gas station to hang out with the night staff whom he considers his friends—even though they can’t see him—and he visits other imaginary friends. But when Max finds himself in great peril at the hands of a would-be caregiver, it is up to Budo and a team of imaginary friends to save Max, risking their own existence in the process. While some are more willing to sacrifice themselves than others, it is Budo who must ultimately decide which is more important: Max’s happiness or his very existence. Narrated by Budo, a character with a unique ability to have a foot in many worlds—imaginary, real, child and adult—MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND touches on the truths of life, love, friendship and death as it races to a heartwarming…and heartbreaking conclusion.
When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend named Johnson Johnson. My mother said that I probably derived the name from Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder (since renamed to just Johnson’s baby powder).
If you haven’t had an imaginary friend, you don’t understand how real he or she can be. I have memories from my childhood that include Johnson Johnson as if he were an actual member of my family. I remember going to Roger William’s Zoo when I was four or five years old and playing with Johnson Johnson in the Japanese Gardens. I remember him swimming with me in the pool in the backyard, sleeping in a chair beside my bed and playing in the barn together.
In my mind, Johnson Johnson was as real as my brother or sister.
I don’t know when Johnson Johnson left me, but I know it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, because years later, when I was a teenager, I was talking to my mom about the past and I mentioned Johnson Johnson.
“You know he was your imaginary friend, right?”
What?” I asked in disbelief.
During the same time that Johnson Johnson had come to live with me, our family, from time to time, had been taking in children in need of a temporary homes, including one little girl who I remember well named Jessica. These were kids who would live with us for a few weeks and then return home. Temporary foster care, I think you would call it.
I thought Johnson Johnson was just another one of those kids, and for almost a decade, this assumption remained firmly in place in my mind, cementing itself amongst the rest of my memories.
“Johnson Johnson wasn’t real,” my mother said. “He was your imaginary friend.”
“No. He was like those other kids who stayed with us. Like Jessica.”
“No,” my mom said. “Jessica was real. Johnson Johnson was not.”
“But what about the Japanese Gardens? The pool? The barn? He used to eat breakfast with me when I woke up before everyone else.”
“Not real, Matt,” my mom said.
Discovering that Johnson Johnson wasn’t real rocked my world like you can’t imagine. It was like the walls of reality had come tumbling down and I could no longer trust my mind.
A thousand memories suddenly became suspect. Untrustworthy. Negotiable.
I found myself scanning my mind, attempting to erase a person who I once thought was real. It was impossible. Johnson Johnson had become insinuated into so many memories that to erase him completely meant erasing vast portions of the memory entirely. There are still times to this day when a memory from my childhood leaps to mind and I realize that Johnson Johnson is still in it, appearing alive and real and well, and I need to remind myself that he was not there.
It’s a little unnerving, as you might imagine.
But it served as the inspiration for my latest book.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that readers fall in love with the Budo and Max and their many friends as much as I have, and that these characters continue to live on in their minds long after they have closed the book. These characters mean a great deal to me, and in many ways, they have become quite real in my mind. When I begin writing a book, I start with character. Everything else flows from there, so more than plot or setting or theme, it is the characters who the readers to love the most.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire many writers, but Stephen King may be the writer I admire most. As I said before, King’s story is an inspiring one and his work ethic is unparalleled. He also values reading as much as he does writing and makes a point of reading across many genres. He truly lives the life of a professional writer, but in a humble, unpretentious way that I admire a great deal. I don’t love all of his books (nor does he), but I have always admired the purposeful, positive example that he sets for writers.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
In the next two years, I hope to complete two more novels, three children’s books, and a memoir. I am also in the revision process of a rock opera that I wrote with a friend, and we would like to see it produced by the end of 2013. I am also attempting to forge a minor career as a competitive storyteller and possible stand-up comic.
There’s more, but my wife gets angry when I overextend myself, so I’ll keep the rest to myself.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write! I meet far too many people who have plans to write their first novel when the timing is right. One woman told me that she was waiting for her husband to die before starting her book! In truth, the timing will almost never be right. Very few first novels are written by authors who are not also working second and third jobs and/or raising children. Hell, few second, third and fourth novels are written by authors who are able to make a living just by writing.
If you want to write, write. Make the time. Find the spaces in your life when you can make writing happen. People love to talk about writing, but talking has never resulted in a single word landing on a single page.
Matthew, thank you for playing…
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.