May 5, 2014

Out of the Gutter and Into the Fire: an interview with Matthew Louis, author of "The Wrong Man"

Matthew Louis is a self-taught writer, editor, publisher, graphic artist and jack-of-all-trades. He founded Out of the Gutter and Gutter Books as a way to deliver the brand of intelligent yet high-impact pulp fiction that he favors but finds rare. Matthew lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family. Visit to learn about upcoming publications and events. (Bio and photo via

THE WRONG MAN is a newly released piece of crime fiction described as "A thrilling re-imagining of classic hard-boiled themes, updated and streamlined for a new generation."

I had the chance to ask Matt a few questions about the book and his writing. Enjoy!

Gef: The Wrong Man is a crime novel that has been building steam, garnering praise from obscenely talented writers like Les Edgerton and Anthony Neil Smith, and about to see a film adaptation come to light. How long a road has it been for you and this novel?

Matt: A long road, not so much with this particular novel, but with the entire process. I had to produce a couple of dud novels first, and launch Out of the Gutter, which allowed me to get my feet wet and connect with people with common interests--and which, most importantly, put me in a position to analyze and come up with a working knowledge of story mechanics. A lot of groundwork had to be laid before I could write a decent longer work, and before I could reach out to people who might care.

Gef: The Wrong Man starts with a classic setup of a man lured into one last job, this time by an old friend with a bad drug habit, and from there goes madly off into modern territory. Are the winks and nods to what's come before something you purposefully included or autonomic responses to your reading tastes?

Matt: Both of those. I want to believe what I'm writing so I had to transfer some classic crime fiction premises to settings and people that felt real to me. Sam is a pretty boring guy, a little smarter than average, who shouldn't be a lead character in any crime novel. He's conscious of the crossroads he's reached, where he can become a loser like everyone else around him, or he can focus and build a decent life. That he's forced to travel among the losers again obviously parallels the "reformed criminal on one last heist" device, but in The Wrong Man that dynamic is applied not to actual criminals but to the drug addicts and fools who waste their lives in seedy towns. Once the conflict is established, the rest of the story is just calculating the logic of certain circumstances and personalities out to extreme conclusions.

Gef: When it comes to learning the craft of writing, your method seems to have been a sink-or-swim style. Are there any authors who have influenced your approach to writing, or do the influences come from outside the field?

Matt: Anyone who's discussed writing with me is probably aware of my reverence for John D. MacDonald. He learned the craft by throwing himself into the endeavor headlong, setting a goal and sitting at his typewriter nearly every waking moment, for months, until his stories began to work brilliantly, and editors began buying them. I haven't deliberately gone that route. Like John D., I guess my imagination was fired and I was moved to try my hand at this, whatever the challenges. Circumstances have put me in a little more of a sink-or-swim situation than others might be in. I have a lot of outside responsibilities, and I'm awful at public relations, so I have to keep grinding away, creating new things and experimenting with new approaches, in order to see results.

Gef: Along with writing, you also have editing and publishing experience, through Out of the Gutter Magazine and eventually Gutter Books. How has that side of things affected your own writing?

Matt: On the positive side, the publishing and editing have made me better than average from a technical standpoint. On the negative side, now that I have a pretty good set of tools and strategies, it's a real challenge finding the time to put them to good use--at least in my own work.

Gef: You also have a collection of short fiction, Collision Cocktail, so how much of a gear shift is it to write short stories as opposed to a longer work?

Matt: Collision Cocktail is all the not-embarrassing short work I've accumulated since I began pursuing the writing thing. While the stories tend to have the snap and payoff of crime yarns, the collection covers a broad range of topics and writing styles that have grabbed my attention over the last eight years or so. I don't regularly write short fiction anymore because, outside of Internet venues, I don't think there's much of a market for it. As far as short vs long work, I think of short fiction as a form of poetry or joke-telling. You're not creating a new world, you're relating a sensation, a quick, striking impression. I think, in a way, it's more work for both the writer and the reader. The writer has to hook the reader and take them somewhere and make it all feel worthwhile in a very short time. The reader has to work to get oriented and then digest a fairly dense concoction of clues and nuances. Writing longer work is like planning a war. You will sacrifice immediate impact in order to maximize impact later on. You will accept some casualties now in order to get all your men in place for an ultimate, decisive victory. Short fiction is like a bar fight. It's happening and it's going to be over soon so do everything to the limit NOW.

Gef: You originally put out The Wrong Man under a pen name a couple years ago. What prompted you to go with the pen name originally, and why bring it back under your own?

Nothing very interesting, unfortunately. We had just launched Gutter Books and I didn't want it to seem like a vanity project so I tried to give the impression this was an author we had discovered.

Gef: One thing I've noticed with noir fiction is that the setting can play a prominent role, even becoming a character itself, whether it be in southern gothic tales or Philly noir or whatever city or smalltown in which a story is set. How important is setting for you when writing? Does it feel like its own character to you?

Matt: This is probably explained by Darwinian logic. Setting precedes life and determines its particulars. Since all novels must be, in essence, examinations of psyches, and psyches don't occur in vacuums, an author has to grasp his or her setting in order to root his or her characters in some kind of reality. This might be more true with crime fiction, or any action-oriented fiction, because a lot of motivation is pushed off onto the setting rather than explained through multi-layered descriptions, as in so-called literature. The author is saying: This is where these people live, this is their culture and these are its rules and standards, therefore it's natural that these people are quick to use violence. All genre fiction is arguably fiction from setting, with all the characters, even the hero, being somewhat incidental. You have westerns, sword and sorcery, sci-fi, detective, etc. These are all instances in which the author is first selling you a prefabricated set of standards that allow for extraordinary conduct and events. In that context the characters can be archetypes, features of the setting, rather than people with odd or unique traits.

All that said, the best crime or genre novels, in my opinion, demonstrate both the setting that makes extraordinary events possible, and the element of "meeting" seemingly real people. The most obvious example might be Stephen King's work. At first glance he's writing silly horror stories. He's offering a universe in which various spooks and monsters are real. But his characters nearly always exist as individuals with odd or unique traits, and his depictions of these people would be compelling whether the people were dealing with possessed cars or vampires, or relatively mundane human drama.

But I just realized the question is how important is it for me. Sorry. I would say it's vital to the extent that it makes the characters real for me. I'm leery of cliches and formulas, and I don't generally want to have the setting do the heavy lifting for character development. But the characters have to come from somewhere and interact with their environment, so in my mind the setting has to be fleshed out for the characters to be fleshed out.

Gef: What else is on the horizon for you? I see there is another novel mentioned on your site called Jacob's Fall that sounds delightfully Hitchcockian.

Matt: There is some serious Highsmith/Hitchcock influence--at least in the general concept--with Jacob's Fall. I'm currently working out the kinks with that one. It was previously written as a merely grim story about run-of-the-mill folks in a very fucked up situation, without any real heroes in the story, and with the shrewdest--rather than most sympathetic--character being the one to walk away. I repeatedly ran into walls when I tried to get it into circulation, being told that nobody wants to spend too much time with people lacking redeeming qualities. So I've granted the central character a little more basic decency, which required addressing all the ways that ripples out through the rest of the work. I do, incidentally, like the novel a lot better now, and I'm excited about seeing what I can do with it.

Well, a big thanks to Matt for stopping by the blog, and for the rest of you, keep up to date on what's happening with Matt's work in all its forms over at

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