A Conversation with Zach
Nearly 20 years after the last Matt Jacob mystery was published, Zachary Klein decided to start writing new novels in the series….but how do you pick up your character’s story once again after such a long hiatus? Zach talks about that–and more—below.
You wrote three Matt Jacob novels in the 1990s, and each of them was successful: Still Among the Living, Two Way Toll, and No Saving Grace. Still Among the Living was a New York Times Notable book. Why did you stop writing the series?
Problem was, censorship issues blew up between my editor and me. These disagreements began early on and came close to rock bottom during No Saving Grace. After No Saving Grace was finally published I’d thought we had reached a truce. But when the same issues exploded again with the very rough draft of Ties That Blind, I’d had enough. Although Ties was the first book of a two-book deal, I negotiated my way out of the agreement and left the publishing house. I was so turned off by the constant censorship wars that I decided to stop writing altogether—though I never expected it would take this long to return.
HOW HAVE YOU KEPT YOUR CREATIVE SKILLS FLOWING WHILE YOU WEREN’T WRITING FICTION?
When I left the writing world, I began working as a trial and jury consultant. Certainly my trial work demanded a fair amount of creativity. I believe that jury selection, despite all the theories, is still more of an art than a science. But at 51, I also decided to learn music and to play the saxophone. Though I’d never taken any music lessons, I found a teacher who enjoyed working with adult beginners. And while I’ve returned to writing, I continue my lessons and play in a learning ensemble.
Tell us more about Ties that Blind.
C’mon, you want me to give the story away? Actually, although all my novels are rooted in personal introspection and relationships, Ties That Blind really makes both the centerpiece. I’d like to think that readers will be moved by what each of the main characters goes through and appreciate that mysteries aren’t simply genre or beach books. Good ones aren’t just quick reads to be tossed and forgotten. They’re stories that deal with people’s lives and their relationships in the same way that so-called “literary” novels do.
Your main character, Matt Jacob, has had a lot of tragedy in his life, serious substance abuse problems, and what some might call “anti-social” tendencies. And when your books were first published, a lot of people thought Matt Jacob was really Zachary Klein. How did you respond to that?
Usually with a chuckle. Of course there are parts of me in every character in my books, but I’m not Matt Jacob. Hell, you think I could write anything at all if I lived his lifestyle? Hunter Thompson I’m not.
You’re about to release the first three novels as e-books, and like a lot of authors these days, you’re doing it on your own, without a publisher. Why do you think this is the way to go, and what has been your biggest challenge [with self-publishing] thus far?
The learning curve. Somehow, I had a fantasy that everything would simply fall into place. Ha! You’d think by my age I’d know better. Just creating a new website took two false starts. The whole process reminds me of construction timetables—never what they’re supposed to be. Despite the challenges and setbacks, I love the idea of being able to write what I want, and I believe that through the Web and e-books I’ll have a chance to meet and talk with my readers in a way that was/is impossible through traditional publishing. Of course, I think it’s a huge task to break through the information and noise overload of the Web—but I knew that going in. We’ll see how it works coming out. Also, I’m pleased to announce that I signed on with a fresh start-up eBook oriented publishing house, Polis Books, which has treated me and my work in a wonderful way. Nothing like the old days.
Why did you decide at this point in your life to resurrect Matt Jacob?
Once I decided to leave trial and jury consulting it came down to a choice between writing plays or continuing the series. Part of the decision was age related—that is, I know how difficult it is to learn another artistic form (music). And while I certainly have a leg up when it comes to writing, I really wanted to use my experiences from the past twenty years and frame them with Matt. I look at my writing hiatus as a great opportunity to deepen my voice, create new contexts, and play with the gap in time. Ultimately it was that time-gap challenge that made me smile when I thought about actually writing Ties That Blind.
After so many years, what dID you think will be most difficult for you – about writing fiction in general, and about writing from Matt’s point of view in particular?
Everything about writing was sort of scary. Could I still turn a phrase the way I used to? How different would my humor be? What’s happened to Matt and his crew after all these years, and how well would I describe the changes? How different was my “voice” going to be? Did I still have a voice? Although those questions were daunting, I enjoyed discovering the answers.
The first THREE Matt Jacob novels were written in the 1990s. You’ll start writing the next one in the coming year. How will you manage the time difference? In other words, will you pick up where you left off with Matt’s story, or will you leap forward to the present day?
As I said above, the time gap really intrigues me so TIES and beyond will be set in the present.
Kirkus Reviews once commented about your books: “Like Phillip Marlowe, Matt seems to take every case as an invitation to look deeper inside himself.” When you start working on a new novel, what do you think about first: The plot or what’s going on personally in Matt’s life?
Neither. I think about the themes that I want to write about and stew on them until I see how they might play out in Matt’s and the other characters’ lives. Then I hope like hell I can sculpt an interesting story that will capture and hold the reader’s attention.
Michael Smith, a friend and artist, often talks about his photography in terms of what does this picture want to be? Or, if he’s decorating his house, it’s what does this room want to look like? I try to ask, what does this novel want to say?
You’ve often said that you don’t like your books to be categorized as mysteries. Why is that?
It’s not just the mystery category, I don’t like anything labeled “genre.” I suppose it’s helpful to readers when they’re buying a book, and it’s a marketing thing which I understand. It’s just that I don’t enjoy being categorized. I am okay, though, with the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Sort of.
The truth is, I have enormous respect for anyone who writes an entire book—whether I like it or not, and no matter what category publishers decide to place it into. Understanding how damn difficult and time consuming and the amount of energy it takes to complete a book always deserves a tip of a hat.