Ana: Matthew, an excerpt from your novel “Firecracker King” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. Your excerpt started out as a particularly light and whimsical tale with the character of Jake: a young boy who lives an almost idyllic life on the lake, swimming, fishing, and orchestrating elaborate firecracker wars on the night surface of the lake. Just when reviewers had your excerpt pegged as a whimsical coming-of-age drama, you then slapped the readers in the face with a haunting and utterly unexpected dead body pulled up from the river, and the excerpt ended with readers chilled and wanting to know so much more. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?
Matthew: I was glad that the twist from idyllic summer to something darker worked. One of the major themes is the contrast between childhood and adulthood. Not that adulthood necessarily becomes evil, but that the simpleness of childhood gets so much more complex and within that complexity people can make bad choices. There are many places in the novel where the reader gets to enjoy the fun of youth; but these places are often shattered by evil people. At its core "The Firecracker King" is about the choices that a boy must make to become a man and the inner strength it takes to do right when it would be so much easier to look the other way.
Ana: I really like that -- definitely as we move into adulthood the world can seem a darker place sometimes. What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?
Matthew: "The Firecracker King" started as a memoir-styled coming of age novel. Somewhere along the way I saw how I could create an overarching umbrella of a murder mystery that pulled together all the bits and pieces. The battle between good and evil inside Jake is very fertile ground for setting the murder mystery. I also like action, so it was easy to get seduced into something I call The Hardy Boys meet Fatal Attraction.
All of the references to authors within the story are actually writers I devoured in my youth. As I mentioned them I felt they were looking over my shoulder; I wanted them to feel I was doing at least a decent job.
Ana: For the first few pages of “Firecracker King”, it’s difficult to avoid comparisons to Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” - the setting and characterization seems like such a perfect mixture of the playful spirit of youth and an idyllic summer atmosphere, and it’s easy for the reader to sink into the narrative of living on a lake, swimming every day, and staging exotic firecracker battles at night. And Jake has a young ruthlessness about him as he haggles for firecrackers and supplies his friends at tremendous markups. Of course, the ideal summer gets wrecked rather badly when the dead body shows up… If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?
Matthew: I wasn’t consciously trying to emulate any particular novel or author. However, I’ve had a number of high school and college readers compare "The Firecracker King" to either "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "A Catcher In The Rye". I’m not a fan of Catcher, but To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. That’s a pretty flattering comparison. You mention Tom Sawyer, but if there is any comparison to Twain, it would be Huck Finn. Huck’s story is much darker with a lot more hanging in the balance. Huck changes over the course of the book as he realizes the evils of slavery and his own mistakes toward slavery. In some ways Jake’s character arc is similar as he ultimately must make a choice that will change his life and the lives of every other character in the book.
Ana: Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?
Matthew: I have written several other novels, but I feel that "The Firecracker King" is the best so far. I have been very successful with non-fiction, have an agent, etc. However, my agent doesn’t handle Young Adult, so I need to find a new agent for "The Firecracker King".
I’m working on a thriller that deals with nuclear weapons, the Middle East, and how political corruption in Washington DC threatens our existence.
Ana: I was first introduced to your novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?
Matthew: I had just run "The Firecracker King" through two different writing critique groups and had done major rewrites. I felt it was ready when a friend told me about the contest the night before the deadline. I just thought, “What the hell,” and uploaded my entry. I made it to the quarterfinals and was rather pleased.
I had read most of the YA entries and saw which ones made it further in the contest and which were culled out. I felt that the judges were looking for something middle of the road, not too threatening, more Miss Marple than Hannibal Lecter. The Firecracker King has violence, murder, betrayal, and a whiff of incest. I didn’t take the manuscript’s elimination as a bad mark on the writing, but more a rejection of the edginess of the material. I’ve since read some really over the top YA novels and I’m beginning to think "The Firecracker King" IS middle of the road compared to some of what’s out there.
Ana: Ha, well and it's worth repeating that what the grown-ups want to publish may not be what the kids want to actually read -- Harry Potter, Twilight, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and many more popular YA books all have their fair share of violence! Are you currently published or self-published? Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? If you’re not currently published, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when your novel does become available?
Matthew: Unfortunately, "The Firecracker King" is not in print. Yet. Three agents are currently reading the full manuscript. I don’t intend to self-publish it. It’s Vegas or bust, baby!
I had a bestseller with "Eat Fat, Be Healthy: When a Low-Fat Diet Can Kill You" which, though non-fiction, was written as “fictional non-fiction.” It got good reviews. The one I liked the best was “reads like a thriller.” Exactly what I had hoped for.
Yes, my web site is www.matthewbayan.com. As material becomes available, I’ll update the site.
Ana: Matthew, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Matthew: You asked good questions. They made me think about issues in the manuscript that I hadn’t really addressed previously.