November 27, 2015

No Ordinary Killers: an interview with Matt Manochio, author of "Sentinels"

These are no ordinary killers.
They don't distinguish between good and evil. They just kill. South Carolina's a ruthless place after the Civil War. And when Sheriff's Deputy Noah Chandler finds seven Ku Klux Klansmen and two Northern soldiers massacred along a road, he cannot imagine who would murder these two diametrically opposed forces.

When a surviving Klansman babbles about wraiths, and is later murdered inside a heavily guarded jail cell, Noah realizes something sinister stalks his town. He believes a freed slave who's trying to protect his farm from a merciless land baron can help unmask the killers. Soon Noah will have to personally confront the things good men must do to protect their loved ones from evil.

Gef: What was the impetus behind Sentinels?

Matt: Sentinels began as a short story that I wrote for the fun of it years ago. Following the publication of my first book, The Dark Servant, in 2014, I wanted to have a second book available for 2015. Originally I thought Sentinels might be a novella, but my editor told me my short story (he hadn’t read it) was too short based on the word count along (maybe 4,000, if memory serves). I thought about possibly expanding Sentinels into a novella but figured why not go for the gusto and make it novel length. The general good-vs-evil theme remained throughout each work, but I developed more characters and back stories and it turned into a longer book, wordwise, than The Dark Servant.

Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from the previous titles?

Matt: It’s entirely different from my first book in that it’s historical fiction. I wanted to make sure it was as historically accurate as possible, so writing the book involved much more research. I knew relatively little about the American Civil War period, and almost nothing about the Reconstruction Era. So I found myself researching a lot of what might seem to the reader to be obscure—the price of one acre of land in 1872, for instance, or how broken bones were treated during the same era. Plaster of Paris had recently been invented and I was able to weave that into a scene. Research shaped a key part of the novel, actually. I never knew that there were five US Military Districts spread throughout the South to keep peace. Those forces, based in my South Carolina town, played a crucial role in my book, and I knew nothing about them when I sat down to write it.

Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer thus far?

Matt: I’d like to think so. I take constructive criticism seriously, and am thankful for when it points out something that the reader doesn’t like or could be done better. I tend to use internal dialogue, but am going to try to cut down on it because I’ve read a few reviews by readers who find it confusing. Certainly I don’t want that.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Matt: The humorist Dave Barry. There’s a difference between spoken jokes, and those that are written and meant to read. I enjoy weaving it in when I feel it’s appropriate. As for thriller/horror novelists. I’ve read almost all of the late Michael Crichton’s books because I enjoy the way he created and moved his stories along. Jurassic Park ranks as one of my favorite books.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Matt: Setting played essential roles in each of my books. I modeled the area in my first novel after a rural, forested town in New Jersey where I lived. I needed a place where people could hide and never be found, or be damned hard to find. As for Sentinels, the post-Civil War period, and its ruthlessness, is ever present. The KKK was in full swing. Lawmen, the people tasked with enforcing law, were in some cases lynching the very same people they were duty bound to protect. I don’t try to sugarcoat how terrible life could be for the freedmen in the South.

Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the horror genre?

Matt: This is hard to answer. It might be blasphemous for me to admit that I’m not a huge horror fan. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the genre, but I’m the last person in the world you’d want to talk to about HP Lovecraft, Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, or some of the other influential writers who might not be household names like Stephen King. I’m actually reading Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door because I’d never read him before! If I want to be a better horror writer, it’s probably a good idea to be more familiar one of its stars. And Ketchum is that (and a nice man, to boot). King’s probably most important because he’s first and foremost known as a horror writer, which isn’t entirely accurate. He’s a writer of drama, crime thrillers, supernatural thrillers, and genuine horror. But he’s probably the saving grace because people always associate horror with him, and this reflects well on the genre, and gives hope to newbies like me that perhaps one day I can appeal to a wide audience.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Matt: This is another good question because I don’t know how to answer it. One piece of advice doesn’t automatically leap to mind. One piece that’s meant to be positive, I suppose, is “Write what you know!” And that’s valuable, especially when starting out. I found myself writing about journalists (I used to be one) and New Jersey (I grew up and live here) in my first book. I lived in South Carolina for a year out of college, and my familiarity with the geographic location of Anderson, SC, the town where I lived, was the reason I set the book there. But “Write what you know!” can be bad because it can limit you as a writer. Like I said, I knew nothing about the Civil War and its aftermath. I guess I could’ve been literal and said, screw it, it’s not worth writing about this because it involves researching something I know nothing about. No! Writing about things you DON’T know improves your skills as an author. So that piece of advice can be a double-edged sword.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Matt: I love YouTube. Love it! I could scour it for hours looking for crime documentaries that you don’t normally find on cable or television.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Matt: Well, they’re in their initial stages but I’m toying with one more Krampus story (I’m iffy on that because I want it to be different from The Dark Servant, and my forthcoming novella, Twelfth Krampus Night.) I’m also intrigued by writing about a truly horrific vampire, a real monster in more ways that one. There are so many damned vampire books out there, you have to find a way to be original. I think I have an idea and it’ll be fun to explore in 2016.

Matt Manochio was born in 1975 in New Jersey and graduated from The University of Delaware in 1997 with a history/journalism degree.
He spent the majority of his 13-year newspaper career at the Daily Record in Morris County, New Jersey, where he won multiple New Jersey Press Association Awards for his reporting. He wrote about one of his passions, rock 'n' roll giants AC/DC, for USA Today and considers that the highlight of his journalism career.
He left newspapers in 2011 for safer employment, and currently lives in New Jersey with his son.

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