Matthew V. Clemens Interviewed
Matthew V. Clemens is the USA Today bestselling co-author of twenty-three novels with Max Allan Collins, including the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series and the TV novelizations of Criminal Minds, Bones, Dark Angel, and CSI: Miami. The pair’s thriller YOU CAN’T STOP ME was nominated for Best Original Thriller by International Thriller Writers, and their Criminal Minds series was nominated for the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers Scribe Award.
Clemens’ fiction and non-fiction work includes the regional true crime book, DEAD WATER, as well as contributions to HOW TO WRITE AND SELL YOUR NOVEL…A HANDBOOK for BEGINNING NOVELISTS and EFFECTIVE BUSINESS WRITING.
He’s won numerous honors for his contribution to the craft, including the Dorothy Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, and he is a two-time recipient of the John D. Locher Memorial Award. He is president of Robin Vincent Publishing, sits on the board of directors of the Mississippi Valley Writers Colony, and is a recurring faculty member of the Midwest Writers Workshop. His bi-weekly blog updates contain interactive mini-workshops to improve the skills of novice authors. Pre-orders for his most recent fiction collaboration, FATE OF THE UNION (November 2015), the sequel to SUPREME JUSTICE, propelled the novel onto multiple Amazon bestseller lists months before its release.
Ava: Most writers don’t collaborate, but you do. Why, and how does that work?
Matthew: Early on in my career, my friend Pat Gipple and I were both trying to fictionalize a local crime and when Pat got the chance to tell the real story, he invited me along for the ride. That book became the non-fiction book Dead Water: The Klindt Affair. I found out I enjoyed collaboration. Not long after that, my friend and mentor Max Allan Collins and I started talking about finding something we could do together. In 2000, CSI approached Max about writing novels using the characters from the show, and he decided that my access to investigators from Dead Water could be an asset. That was twenty-three novels ago.
Our collaboration generally involves us spit-balling ideas that end up becoming the plot of the next novel. I do some research, write a draft that ends up being about 60% of the finished book and Max layers on top of that. At least that’s the short version of how it works. You learn each other’s strengths over two dozen books and it becomes a little like playing jazz. You know where to leave room for the other guy to solo.
In your upcoming novel, FATE OF THE UNION, ex-Secret Service Agent Joe Reeder returns to investigate the supposed suicide of a close friend that he suspects was murdered. Like its prequel, Supreme Justice, this novel unravels government conspiracies, but it also gives readers fresh investigation methods and criminal elements as well as new motives. How did your research and planning for this new book differ?
For Max and I, FATE OF THE UNION seemed the logical next step not only in upping the stakes from SUPREME JUSTICE, but also seemed like the next level for Reeder and FBI agent Patti Rogers in the growth of their relationship. Writing books set fifteen years in the future can be a little tricky. Max and I decided early on that we would rather risk being anachronistic than to get bogged down in the science fiction aspects of writing in the semi-near future. Consequently, things in 2030 are not that much different than they are now, especially in terms of geography of Washington, D.C. and the weapons used. In SUPREME JUSTICE, we did change certain parts of the Constitution. We brought in Supreme Court decisions and potential Constitutional amendment changes that didn’t seem that outlandish to us. In Fate of the Union, a few of those things are still in place. The repeal of parts of the fourth amendment, which we set up in the previous book, allows for investigative techniques that aren’t legal now. It also can be a point of contention between old school Reeder and new school Rogers. Anything that adds tension and suspense is our friend.
The biggest research difference between the two books, however, was that I got to spend a few days in D.C. this time. That gave me a much better picture of the lay of the land, so to speak. Arlington National Cemetery serves as Reeder’s “fortress of solitude,” to borrow a phrase from Superman. Spending a day there gave me enough material to write half a dozen books. It is an amazing place, one I recommend every American visit.
Ava: Joe Reeder has many regrets, including a broken family and taking a bullet for a U.S. president he despises. How do his continuing inner conflicts affect his personal and professional decision in Fate of the Union?
It can be hard being Joe Reeder. He is famous for something he hates (taking the bullet), he’s rich beyond his wildest dreams (also due in part to that event), but his relationships with the people that matter to him most, his ex-wife and their daughter, are always somewhat tenuous.
The one thing he still has going for him is that he’s good at his job and with the task force now led by Patti Rogers he has at least one good friend in his life.
Ava: Patti Rogers, a small-town girl turned FBI agent, is an unlikely partner for the hard-boiled Reeder, yet the pairing is dynamic. Do you plan to use Reeder and Rogers in upcoming novels?
Originally, we thought we were going to write Joe Reeder novels, but Patti just stood up and demanded equal footing. She just jumped off the page. Now we’re writing Reeder and Rogers thrillers and couldn’t be happier. They will appear in a third book (the one we’re working on now tentatively titled Executive Order), and if readers like them, we certainly have more ideas we would like to pursue.
Ava: Supreme Justice sparked political controversy among critics and readers. Do you think Fate of the Union will do the same?
We certainly expected Supreme Justice to generate conversation but, among readers who wrote reviews, the debate seemed more focused on the perceived politics of the story rather than on the quality of the book itself. That won’t be as big a surprise this time. I suppose that kind of response is inevitable and that’s fine. I respect every reader’s opinion whether they like us or not. I didn’t get into this business expecting everyone to like me. If you’re shooting for that, you’re going to fail. Max and I simply write the best stories we can with the best characters we can. In the end, whether that generates conversation, or even controversy, is up to others.
Ava: WHAT DOESN’T KILLER HER, another crime novel you coauthored with Max, featured a strong female protagonist. Jordan Rivera was psychologically damaged by violent crime, yet fought to overcome this by solving her parents’ murders. Although Reeder and Rivera share certain similarities, their differences are striking. How do you develop such a wide range of characters and which are the hardest to kill?
One of the nice things about collaboration is we have two lives worth of experiences to draw from when we’re coming up with characters. I won’t say we’re old, but we have seen a certain amount of life and met a lot of people over the years. Several of my friends have shown up in our books over the years, some even by name. With Jordan, she was so damaged that I had to do some serious research. I was concerned going in because I had never written such a large portion of a manuscript from a female point of view, but Jordan just talked me through it. I know it sounds weird, but if our characters aren’t real for us, we’ll never make them real for readers.
Ava: Mickey Spillane and Carroll John Daly influenced your love of reading. Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl influenced your love of music. Which internal element, mental or spiritual, influenced your love of criminal intent?
My interest in crime fiction dates back to elementary school when I read Encyclopedia Brown. Those were the first detective stories for me. Just a kid in the neighborhood trying to make things right. I skipped the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and all those and went straight from reading Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes. It never really occurs to me to write about anything but crime. People do some pretty vile shit to each other, I can’t fix it, I probably can’t even add to the conversation, but what I can do is crawl around inside it and try to understand it.
Some real life crimes are so batshit crazy that it seems there’s no way to understand how they could have been committed, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. As fiction writers, we let our imaginations go where most people don’t want to go. We entertain, but if we write well enough, maybe we can educate a little, too. Andrew Vachss talks about monsters being made not born. That’s a theory I subscribe to also. If we can learn how monsters are made, maybe we can learn to not make them. Scientists will hopefully figure that all out someday.
In the meantime, you ask a shrink and he or she would tell you I write what I write so I can bring some modicum of control to an uncontrollable world. In our universe, justice usually prevails. Real life doesn’t always work that way.
Ava: In your August 12 blog you discussed the daunting blank page and how the fear of failure emanates from it. You said that although self-doubt inhibits you, “the artistic monster inside you needs to be fed.” What food does it crave? What food kills it?
There are actually two monsters doing battle all the time. One wants to create, the other wants to not risk being found out to be a fraud, or found out that he sucks, or even find out that he’s good and becomes successful because that brings different monsters with it.
The good monster, the artistic one only wants one thing: words. I am compelled to write. In fifty-nine years of life I have found nothing else that gives me that buzz, feeds my soul, and makes me feel as whole as writing does.
By the same token, what Stephen Pressfield refers to as “resistance” in his book THE WAR OF ART, is always there whispering in your ear that you’re a failure, that you will be found to be a fraud, that you have no talent. That’s why the white page is so daunting every day. I have found ways to fool it. Some days it works, others it doesn’t. Those are the days writing is like work.
Ava: You’re an incredibly generous author who mentors emerging writers, hosts writing workshops, and posts writing tips and exercises that allow first-time novelists to hone their craft. What drives you to pay it forward?
I’ve had a lot of mentors over the years. Not just Max, but R. Karl Largent, David Collins, David Morrell, and a host of others who helped me learn this craft. Largent was the one who actually told me, “If you’re successful, you help those who come behind you.”
I promised that I would and that is an oath I not only enjoy keeping, but one I pass on to those I help along the way. None of this stuff, the books, the writing, the teaching…none of it is a destination. It’s all a journey. I learn as much as I teach, and I will continue to help anyone who wants to take their writing seriously. I learn at least as much from them as they learn from me.
Ava: Multiple fiction and non-fiction projects, which you write simultaneously, leave you little free time. But in blog updates you’ve mentioned that golf and fantasy football are two of your hobbies. When you’re not writing, what other activities do you enjoy?
I play golf when the weather permits, and I have a couple of fantasy teams that get about a half hour a week. I try to spend time with my wife and our friends, but I spend a lot of time in the office. A. Lot.
Max and I are not getting younger. Life is finite. We have, if we’re lucky, maybe fifteen years of working together left. If the actuarial tables are right, I get maybe five more years after that, if I’m lucky. We have a lot of stories to tell and not as much time to tell them as there used to be. If I have twenty years, I would like to get out another thirty books. I get up over fifty novels, I’ll start to feel like maybe I’ve accomplished something.
When the people I work with get published, I’ll feel like maybe I’ve accomplished something. But now, it’s the work. There is nothing more important to me than telling stories. That’s how I’ll spend this life, just sitting in my office lying my ass off.