Notes from a Writer: Matt Hughes

If you read F&SF you know Matthew Hughes as the author of the witty and popular Henghis Hapthorn stories. You might also know Matt for his novels Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, and Black Brillion, books that seem like a mix of Jonathan Swift, P.G. Wodehouse, and Jack Vance.

What you may not know, though, is that Matt is also a crime writer, having had a crime novel published in his home country of Canada and had short fiction in a variety of places, including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

I had no idea of Matt's background in crime until he mentioned it in passing. Always curious what draws a writer to one type of fiction or another, I asked Matt how he went from crime to SF, and I got the following response...

by Matthew Hughes

I admire those people who can make a plan and follow it. You know the kind: they proceed from high school to university to an entry job then ever onward and upward, each succeeding notch on the resume becoming a firm foothold on a ladder that leads to whatever Olympian goal they have chosen.

I admire them, but apparently I cannot emulate them. Not that I haven't tried. Oh, how I have tried. And, oh, how many times has my long suffering spouse had to roll her eyes as we stand in the ruins of some grand attempt and I deliver my perennial line: "Okay, here's the plan..."

During the many years I worked as a freelance speechwriter, my aim was always to become a crime writer -- an author of hardboiled fiction, dark tales of treachery and violence carried out in the mean streets and shadowed corners of our contemporary world. I set myself a number of successive, reachable targets then began to work "The Plan," with some initial success. I sold a crime novel to a respectable Toronto publisher, Doubleday Canada. I sold my first story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I sold several more to Blue Murder, a wonderful web-based zine that died a tragic death in the collapse. I won the Canadian equivalent of an Edgar. I graduated from a Toronto agent (largely useless) to a New York agent (moderately useless). I wrote a couple of thrillers for the agent to pitch. I ghosted a medical thriller for a prominent US heart surgeon.

But while all this was happening there was this other, parallel track. Fifteen years before, I'd entered a famous Canadian literary contest: write a novel from scratch over the Labor Day long weekend. In a burst of enthusiasm, I had written 27,000 words in 72 hours. I called it Fools Errant, an allegorical Jack Vance-cum-P.G. Wodehouse pastiche. Later, I worked it up to more than 70,000 words with a subplot about a thaumaturge and threw in a handful of Mullah Nasruddinesque stories, and eventually got it published by Maxwell Macmillan Canada just in time for the Robert Maxwell empire to collapse and tumble the book into limbo.

By 1999, Fools Errant was but a faint regret and I was chugging along as a budding crime writer. Then I saw a Writers Digest interview with Warner Aspect's senior editor, Betsy Mitchell, who was looking for out-of-the-ordinary fantasies. I sent her Fools Errant. Her then assistant, Jaime Levine, now senior editor and Betsy's successor, championed the book and not only bought it, but commissioned a sequel, Fool Me Twice.

Then over several months, the crime writing stalled. My moderately useless agent was unable to sell either of the two thrillers I'd written, an opportunity at Avon disappeared when an editor was let go, and the main market for my shorts, Blue Murder, folded. Meanwhile, I wrote Fool Me Twice and outlined a third novel, because a book deal is a book deal, after all. The two Fool titles broke even for Warner, but these days that's not good enough, so they passed on a third. I shrugged and told myself, almost convincingly, that now I could go back to "The Plan" and be the crime writer I had set out to be.

Then a chance conversation with editor David Hartwell landed me a book deal at Tor. So I wrote Black Brillion, another science fantasy in a Vancean mode. To give the book a better chance than the first two, I began writing sf short stories set in the same universe as the novels -- the Archonate -- and selling them like hotcakes to Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov's, and lately to Interzone and Postscripts. I've also written a fourth Archonate novel, Template, whose fate is hanging fire at Tor while they wait to see how Black Brillion does.

But I've been increasingly aware that none of this has any relation to "The Plan." Instead of ascending rungs on a ladder, my career as a novelist has resembled Pearl Pureheart's progress across an ice-flecked river, leaping from one passing floe to another. Now I wonder if the Black Brillion floe will bear me up long enough for the Template floe to hove into a leapable distance? Or will I sink into the cold and unforgiving waters of has-beendom? Or perhaps never-quite-wasdom. Tune in for our next episode.

One thing I have noticed: increasingly, my sf stories slide toward crime fiction. The lead characters of Black Brillion are a pair of mismatched agents of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny -- a rigid, by-the-book scroot and a semi-reformed fraudster. The hero of half a dozen of my F&SF stories is Henghis Hapthorn, a Sherlock-Holmesian "freelance discriminator" of an improbable far future Earth. And now I've started writing the adventures of Luff Imbry, the con man from Black Brillion, in the years before he was conscripted into the scroots.

Somehow, in some back room of my mind, some part of me seems to be laboring to combine the elegance of "The Plan" with the untidiness of my floe-hopping reality. Come to think of it, that's just the kind of thing I often put my characters through. Which is worrisome. I'm not terribly nice to my characters.

Matthew Hughes's website:

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