Wednesday, May 30, 2007

[Interview] Matt Beam

Matt Beam is an author, a teacher and a freelance journalist.

He has taught in various capacities in Toronto, Vancouver, Guatemala, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand and has written for newspapers that include the Toronto Star, the National Post, Toronto Life, and Toro magazine in Canada.

His first young adult novel, Getting to First Base with Danalda Chase, was published in the spring of 2005. His second novel, Can You Spell Revolution? followed in the fall of 2006.

His third novel, Earth to Nathan Blue, will arrive in the spring of 2007, along with the U.S. version of Getting to First Base.

Matt Beam spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I started saying I wanted to be a writer when I was 15 years old, but apart from a few short stories in late high school, I didn't do much about it until more than ten years later, in 1998. I was a teacher in New Zealand at the time, and I had to provide a two-page piece of fiction for an assignment.

Instead of picking the story out of a collection, I decided to write my own.

The resulting two-page tale was called "Frankie and Mata," and writing it for those 5 hours felt like heaven to me.

Within 6 months, I was back in Toronto, beginning to type caffeine-inspired, made-up-things on my computer, and within a year I had started Can You Spell Revolution? It is the first novel I wrote, but because of delays and sundry publishing disasters it came out as my second book.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

That's a hard one. I'd like to say one of my heroes: Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller or Haruki Murakami. They definitely made me want to become a writer.

But the fact is I'm in a completely different genre and I'm not of that generation.

There is no one specifically in young adult fiction that I feel influenced by. Some have mentioned that my voice is similar to Gordon Korman's, which I don't totally see, but feel honored by anyway. That guy is hilarious, and he sells a lot of books.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concerns are plenty, from solvency to sales to recognition to status to fulfillment to ... well I could go on. But it all comes down to one thing: when I'm writing (which is actually editing 75% of the time) I'm generally pretty happy.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

In many ways -- my first book is about a boy obsessed with baseball, and who is beginning to become obsessed with girls. That was me in grade 7.

None of my characters fully represent a specific person in my life, but they all have shades of people I know.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Keeping level-headed about my career. One day you feel over the moon, the next you are down in the dumps -- it's hard to manage sometimes.

I'm trying to flatten things out, so that the ride is more like a little kids' roller coaster ride, gentle and smooth, as opposed to something called Hell Raiser or Death Drop.

I just try to keep things in perspective and keep on writing. Like I said, I'm happy when I'm doing just that.

What is Getting to First Base with Danalda Chase about? How long did it take you to write it?

Along with being about a baseball-obsessed boy who's suddenly interested in girls, the novel is actually about change, acceptance, and looking for the right person from the inside out.

It usually takes me about 6 months to write a first draft, and then the real work begins. After about another six months of my own editing, there is all the work one must do with their editors (see below).

The book has two editions. It came out in Canada in spring 2005, and Dutton (Penguin Putnam) will publish it next spring (2007).

Which aspects of the work that you put into the novel did you find most difficult?

Juggling two edits for two different publishers -- one in Canada, one in the U.S. -- was more challenging than I thought it would be.

While the essence of the story is the same in both books, there are many significant differences. My head was spinning a little by the end of it all.

Which did you enjoy most?

The true enjoyment in the experience came when the idea first struck me walking in downtown Toronto, and then when I proceeded to write my first draft.

There's nothing like the excitement of creating a new fictional world.

What sets the novel apart from Can You Spell Revolution?

The main subject matter in Getting to First Base with Danalda Chase is baseball and girls, and it is a more emotionally subtle book.

Can You Spell Revolution? is more direct. It is about trying to radically change things in one's junior high school life and finding out what power and revolution are all about. Check out the review and trailer for Can You Spell Revolution? linked on the website.

Both stories take place in junior high and try to approach serious issues in a lighthearted way.

How did the idea behind Earth to Nathan Blue come to you and how long did it take you to write the novel?

Since I began trading in imagination, I've been curious about young people who have inner imaginative worlds. For the most part, these worlds seem to be distortions of what is going on in their own lives.

Nathan is confused by his parents' separation and is having trouble dealing with it. So to protect himself from this painful reality, he creates an imagined language and world, based loosely on his favorite TV program, Adventureland. His mother becomes the Mothership, his step dad, the Imposter, and his brother, the Twerp.

The first go at Earth To Nathan Blue, like my other first drafts, took around 6 months, but it took much longer to come to a final draft.

By the time the book was picked up by Penguin Canada, Nathan had had several names, I had lived in several apartments, and book had been rewritten several times.

After three novels, was it easier or more difficult to write a fourth? Why do you say this?

It's strange. My first three books were all picked up around the same time, and at that point, I still had no idea what I was getting into. So the 4th book feels like my 2nd, and I feel like I've gone through (am going through) my sophomore slump.

An analogy I've used lately comes from something that happened to me in grade three. I had to have 10 teeth pulled -- 5 one Monday, 5 the next. The first time wasn't so bad as I had no idea what I was in for, but the second time around, I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the class coat cupboard.

That said, writing, at any stage, is much more enjoyable than getting your teeth yanked.

What will your next book be about?

I am currently working on two books. One for a slightly younger age and one older.

Thematically, the former feels like the 4th and last book in a fraternal series, resembling, without being identical to, the first three, and the latter is my leap into a new phase in my writing, where I am trying to marry my concerns as a adult today with a truly young adult character.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer, and, how did you get there?

My most significant achievement was believing in myself.

I just looked around one day and thought, "What am I waiting for?"

Related story:“The book that wouldn’t publish,” Matt Beam, Toronto Star, October 3, 2006.

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