Grizzly Wrestling: Matthew P. Mayo on the Writing Life
Matthew P. Mayo is a master of starting as irresistibly close to the action as possible. In his fiction and his non-fiction, he opens with just enough that the reader cares and then he hits the character (and the reader) hard. Mayo’s sentences are lean, tough and graceful. His writing has a powerful sense of moment and of scene, of gesture and of other human subtleties.
Mayo is a freelance writer living in Maine. His recent books, Cowboys, Mountain Men, & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West and Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England, tell fifty tales each of some of the most harrowing moments in their respective regions. These aren’t dry recountings or glossy propaganda.
These are gritty stories – stories, as he says in the introduction of Bootleggers, of “showing courage, resolve, and pluck in one’s daily life, of being tough and uncompromising in the face of adversity.” Indeed, both of Mayo’s Grittiest Moments books read like Loren D. Estleman and Jim Thompson got together to re-write a Stephen Ambrose history book.
Soon after the release of Bootleggers, Mayo and I talked about writing, freelancing, and other forms of grizzly wrestling.
What are some of the grittiest moments in your professional writing career?
Matthew P. Mayo: Gritty moments, not so much. Mostly it’s a question of sitting my can in the chair and piling up words on a daily basis. However, if “gritty” can be defined as having a negative connotation, then I’ve had an honest dose–disappointments at having stories rejected, at having novels turned down, etc. But I try to learn from each of those moments, figure out a stronger approach, hunker down and rewrite. Unless I feel strongly enough that the rejector was off the mark … or just full of beans. Then I fire it out there again before moss can grow on it.
If the “gritty” moments can be defined as positive experiences, then I’ve had a few of those as well: When proposals and books and stories are accepted or earn accolades (good reviews, or in the case of one of my short stories, a WWA Spur Award nomination). Plus, there’s that satisfying feeling of paying bills with money earned from writing. And as Martha Stewart says, that’s a good thing.
What do you enjoy about writing? What do you not enjoy about it?
Matthew P. Mayo: I like the freedom to write in all sorts of genres, though I have had most success so far with Westerns and Old West history. And I like mixing it up a bit, blending elements and blurring definitions a bit. One of my stories, “Scourge of the Spoils,” was recently published in a DAW Books anthology Steampunk’D (Nov. 2010). In it, I worked at making a seemingly traditional Western story bristle with bits and bobs of Victorian-era technology. It was fun futzing with tropes, and making up new modes of transport and types of weaponry.
As a full-time writer, I also like the freedom of working in my own home office all day, taking walks with the dogs at 3 p.m. if I feel like it. Or working outdoors when most folks are indoors. The downside is that most of the time the pay’s not great, insurance is a laugh, and since my personal rule is to try to never say no to a job, I frequently find myself with lots of commitments and only so many hours in a day. But it could be worse–I could be back in a cubicle. Egads!
Can you offer up any specific anecdotes about not ever saying no to a job — incidents that turned out for the good or the bad?
Matthew P. Mayo: Funny you should ask that, as due to a difficulty-filled autumn, my schedule became compressed enough that I had to let down a friend who had kindly asked me to participate in an exciting writing project. I felt terrible about it. But as someone once said, when one door closes, another opens. That same friend offered a different opportunity, which promises to be a lot of fun, too.
How do you manage traffic flow? What strategies do you use to juggle and stay on deadline?
Matthew P. Mayo: I am in a fortunate situation right now–that of having book work well into 2011, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Having said that, if another fiction projects sells, there’s always room for more! Right now, I just force myself to divide my day into blocks of time for various elements that need moving forward: research, fiction writing, non-fiction writing, business, dog walking, grizzly wrestling. Winter’s a good time to gain ground with writing because I don’t have to work on the house. Well, I guess I could, but….
What was the original spark for Cowboys, Mountain Men, & Grizzly Bears?
Matthew P. Mayo: One of the editors at TwoDot, Globe Pequot’s Western imprint, was looking for a writer with strong narrative experience. They wanted a non-fiction book that read like fiction. I gave him a few sample chapters from some of my Western novels, and he liked them. Then we got together and hashed out the book’s structure. It was a fun book to put together.
Can you walk me through the process of writing Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks? Where’d you start? What criteria did you have for selecting the 50 moments? Were there any that got away, that you wish you’d included? What strategies did you use for compressing these events into tight, concise stories? What were the challenges?
Matthew P. Mayo: The process for putting together Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks is the same process I used for Cowboys, Mountain Men, & Grizzly Bears (and now with Sourdoughs, Claim Jumpers & Dry Gulchers). I research, research, research using books, visits when possible, historical societies, museums, etc. I begin by cobbling together an unwieldy rough list of possible “gritty moments” and I keep shaping it from there. Then I write the moments, pack-ratting away all the extraneous fascinating facts that will help to spice up the book as I go. I’m sure there are more efficient methods of operating, but I haven’t figured them out just yet. Which means I’m probably stuck with my own ramshackle process.
There are always bits of information, gritty moments, fascinating characters, and the like that I wish I had the space to include, but that’s what subsequent volumes are for! As far as challenges go, the biggest is probably to hit the deadlines with work that I’m pleased with. So far, so good.
The forewords to both of the Grittiest books suggest that writing and place are inextricably linked for you. You speak of being rooted in a region and a way of life. How does that rootedness feed your creativity and, conversely, how does it interfere with you creativity?
Matthew P. Mayo: The forewords of the books are themed around place because the West, as with New England, are important locales to me. I find them endlessly inspiring and challenging, too. And since I know them and they still engage me, I hope that comes across in the writing in a way that makes it richer than if I had been writing about some place I have no connection with.
Speaking of New England, my wife and I are in the middle of putting together three coffee-table books for Globe Pequot Press. The first, Maine Icons, is completed and due out in May, 2011. Right now we’re putting together Vermont Icons and New Hampshire Icons. My wife, Jennifer Smith-Mayo is a fantastic documentary photographer whose work has appeared in a ton of magazines and books including National Geographic and the New York Times, so I feel like I really have to work extra hard to make the words match her stunning photography of these beautiful Northern New England states.
Do you feel more comfortable writing non-fiction or fiction? And is comfort a good thing or a bad thing for a writer?
Matthew P. Mayo: I don’t know if “comfortable” is the right word. I like writing fiction and non-fiction equally, though for different reasons. As a magazine editor and writer, I’ve written non-fiction for years, primarily in the form of magazine features, book reviews, news blurbs, etc., but I’ve also published lots of poetry and short fiction. Mostly I like them both very much when they pay bills.
I don’t think comfort is a bad thing for a writer, but not being able to recognize when comfort’s slumped into routine and routine into laziness and lack of care–that’s an easy trap and one I try every day to avoid.
In the introduction to Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks you talk about the “irrepressible frontier spirit” and the “Yankee urge to go it alone.” In what ways do you apply these to your professional creative life?
Matthew P. Mayo: In my head I’m a mountain man and an intrepid Yukon explorer. I love the idea of being self-reliant. As full-time freelancers, my wife and I run our own businesses and know that if we don’t treat them as such, we won’t be in business for long. So we try to be as professional as possible in all our dealings with agents, editors, publishers, interviewers, and the like. It must be working, because we’re busy!
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.