Saturday 24 September 2011


What is your name, where were you born, and where do you live now?

My name is Matt Posner. I was born in Glens Falls, NY, near Lake George. I consider my home state to be Florida, where I lived for most of my youth, but I've been in New York since 2000, so I also feel like a New Yorker. My actual home is in Queens Village, NY, and I have ties to North Carolina as well.

Your latest book in twenty words or less and details about the series.

School of the Ages:  Level Three's dream is book two of my series. What if fourteen-year-old magicians entered the Alice in Wonderland world to help an autistic classmate? This is a five-book series. I am ahead of publication in this series as the third book is close to done, the fourth about halfway done. With some lead time, I have also started writing the first book of another series, but unless I finish that book, I won't announce more.

The history of how you became a writer please.

I think there were indications in my childhood play that I was suited to writing fiction. I used my toys to create complex narratives, cartoon episodes  and movies. I had a typewriter as far back as elementary school and would write in my spare time. I made the choice when I was twelve to start writing novels, and started then. I sent one to Del Rey books when I was sixteen. My academic background is in fiction writing also. If I could go back in time, I would choose a moneymaking college major, like finance or something, because diversifying skills is better in the contemporary world -- but here I am. I teach full-time and write part-time. If I could write full-time, I would be putting out three novels a year.

Do you gift books to readers to do reviews?

I gift books to readers who have book review blogs, yes.

Discuss your book covers and illustrations.

My book covers were made by my cousin, Mike Cohen, who is a videographer by trade. They are beautiful covers assembled using stock photos. Mike has a great sense of how to blend colors and manage typography. He uses that professionally and he helps me out as a hobby activity. My second book has interior illustrations also, by Jeniffer Filipiak, a former student of mine from when I was an English instructor at a Miami art college. I'm very proud of Jeniffer because she did her art while undergoing experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis. I was pleased to give her her first book illustration credit, along with her daughter, Alex, age 13, who did some drawings with her mom.

Discuss your titles.

I was a fan of a painting by Raphael, the original at the Vatican, a copy of which I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and I wanted to use its name for my series, because I thought it was called School of the Ages. So I did that. Then I looked up the painting title and found that it is actually School of Athens (less suitable). So I was wondering for a few years where exactly I got my title from. Then I discovered that it is the tail end of the subtitle of a book by Harold Bloom (The Western Canon:  The Books and School of the Ages) which has the Raphael painting on the cover. I seriously doubt Mr. Bloom, who is the leading literary scholar of his generation, would deign to object. That's the story behind my series title.

As for the titles of individual books, they come to me fairly quickly.  If you like the titles, then you can consider that I am talented at writing them. The Ghost in the Crystal is very much what that book is about, although it has a double meaning. Level Three's Dream likewise. You won't wonder where they came from after you read the books. In books three and four I explain the titles, and I have also started using the older book titles as chapters. There's a chapter in book three called The Ghost in the Crystal.

Have you ever based characters on people you know or based events in your books on things that happened to you?

I take characteristics from people I know, but all my characters are aspects of my own personality. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. As far as taking events from life is concerned, of course I do that. We all have to search past experiences to come up with ideas for how our characters' experiences might shake out.

Is there a certain author that influenced you in writing?

As a kid I wanted to be Tolkien. I don't write heroic fantasy like that anymore, although I have adapted some of his sentence writing styles and I use a softer version of his elevated diction for characters it suits. In terms of narrative structure, I think I am most influenced by comics of the 70s. I also cite Jane Austen as a major influence in terms of how I construct plots and also how I write the romantic components of my books. (A male Jane Austen fan -- romance AND lots of fights. Wow.) My sense of wonder, a key component of fantasy in my opinion, comes to me from many authors, ranging from Norton Juster to Neil Gaiman. My humor, which is minimized in The Ghost in the Crystal but strongly featured in Level Three's Dream, is mostly Monty Python with dollops of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen, and early Neil Simon. Unquestionably the best writer on the paranormal is Colin Wilson. Some of his books are old now, and the sources in them have been supplanted by newer material, but he writes skillfully, cogently, and with consistent interest, and, to be candid, he has a superb writing style where most other writers on these subjects are merely functional.

What about J.K. Rowling? Reviewers often seem to mention Harry Potter when talking about your books.

I enjoy all her books, but I find them flawed, and I have felt that way from the first moment I read them. She's a good writer but not a great writer. I am writing magic school books, as she used to, but there the similarity ends. I'm not interested in whimsy, alchemy, Christ figures, good vs. evil, or belaboring spineless British pols. Nor do I think that the only definition of courage is to risk your life. That's very simplistic. Kids who read my books will get a more nuanced, mystical, and multicultural, cosmopolitan perspective. It might actually be applicable to their lives. Telling kids to make principled stands is not that meaningful because the world we experience doesn't have dark lords in it. They need ideas about how to cope with daily challenges and inevitable loss. I give this information as part of my job as a teacher. I want to give it in my writing as well.

What format of book do you prefer?

The kind where I get readers and make money, whatever that is. (lol)

Discuss your favorite book.

I've reread The Lord of the Rings too many times to count -- or at least, reread my favorite parts of it. Lord of the Rings tells the story of people whose heroism comes from great inner dignity that is expressed outwardly with both action and language. The dialogue moves me. I love, for example, the confrontation between Gandalf and Theoden when Theoden is being influenced by Wormtongue and Gandalf needs to snap him out of it. That's the kind of thing I'd like to recite as a stage play.

I also love Lewis Carroll's Alice books for the familiar grace of their style and the consistency of their wordplay. I wrote a 100-odd-page paean to that in Level Three's Dream in which I had my teenage magicians enter the Alice world and contend with those characters and their style of talk. It's risky, perhaps, to pin the success of a book on whether readers will like a pastiche of Alice materials, but I wanted to write my own wonderland for many years, and finally I did.

You even wrote Lewis Carroll-style poetry?

Yes, I did. There are sequels to some of Carroll's greatest poems (a new You Are Old, Father William, a continuation of The Walrus and the Carpenter). I have a youtube video of me reading that one at a bookstore. I have original rhymed and metered comic poetry also, and three parodies of classic songs. A lot of people who write poetry don't know what they're doing, but I do.

I like to ask writers I interview for their thoughts about how books transfer to movies. What do you have to say on this topic?

When a book is made into a movie, lots of plot and character detail are traded for visual detail. Whole subplots, scenes, dialogue must be sacrificed in exchange for telling a story that fits the potential running time. Some books, because of their complexity or their storytelling techniques, do not fit very well. Great sacrifices have to be made to bring them to the screen. If I had to cite one book that was brought to the screen well, I would go with Goldman's The Princess Bride. The movie is significantly better than the book. The Lord of the Rings, since I mentioned it above, translated fairly well once Peter Jackson got creative control, but he made certain choices for cinematic purposes that I don't like. His decision to have Faramir bring the hobbits back to Osgiliath is a pet peeve of mine. Having the Elves show up to fight at Helm's Deep is another.  Having Aragorn vanish before Helm's Deep and then show up again creates thematic redundancy. He does that when he walks the Paths of the Dead  -- why telegraph the more significant event created by Tolkien by having Aragorn do it twice?  But on their own terms, all three movies definitely work well.

My own books present one minor problem for filming:  the magic is done through visualization, in the mind's eye as Shakespeare wrote, and it will be necessary to show on screen not only what is happening, but what Simon is visualizing. This might require a split screen, or some other bit of cinematic trickery.  In other ways, they are very suitable to adaptation, and may not even be that expensive compared to other fantasy films,  because they will use fewer special effects and focus more on acting and dialogue.

What are you currently reading? In what format?

Since I got my Kindle, I read everything that I can electronically. I have hundreds of books in boxes in many different storage places and this is a distinct problem that interferes with me buying too many more books in physical form. Thus I appreciate the e-book revolution. I don't have to donate or throw away e-books, whereas when I let a paper book go, I feel like part of my memory and past is being ripped away. In physical form I will only buy graphic novels, art books, and books that have no electronic edition. The majority of my reading now is fellow indies who share books with me in order to get reviews. When I see a book that interests me I ask the author for a copy and then post a review.  This keeps me reading.

 I update what I'm reading on Goodreads, which is how I met you, Sandra, and there are a lot of indies on my list. Here is a short list of some indies I've read recently:  Jonathan Ellis, Georgiana Young-Ellis, Andre Jute, Jess C. Scott, Jeremy Rodden, Holly Hook, Simon Palmer, Zvi Zaks, Tim Ellis, Mel Comley, K.C. May, Beth and Ezra Barany, Revital Shiri-Horowitz, Chrystalla Thoma, Ey Wade, Amira Aly, James C. Wallace II, and Daniel Arenson.  If you ask me again in six months, I will be able to triple this list, because I meet new indie writers daily and they are always producing quality work. (I willsee if I can contact any of them to feature them on my blog too!)

Is there a book you will never read, or tried to read and didn't finish?

I couldn't get through Bleak House by Dickens or Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon. I can't tolerate Henry James and I abhor Virginia Woolf. Some writers have different sensibilities or styles that don't mesh with mine. Usually I like Dickens, so my reaction to Bleak House is anomalous; however I have always found Pynchon pretentious and pompous.

In general I will never read second-rate writers who have been "anointed" by the publishing business, such as Zadie Smith, simply because it bothers me when mediocrities rise because they have connections. And of course, I'll meet her some day and she'll be just lovely and I'll feel regretful for saying it. Sorry, Zadie. Sour grapes at this end. (I get what you mean sometimes i think some of the most hyped authors or books just aren't as good as they are made out to be)

What would you change in your books if you had a do-over?

I have a line in Ghost in the Crystal in which Simon says he was afraid when his battle came. Since writing that I have decided in further writing that for thematic reasons he should be, like Hal Jordan's Green Lantern, without fear, at least for a while. I wish I could change that line, but the problem is that I paid a book formatter to do Ghost in the Crystal and I don't have any files but the finished one and don't want to undo his effort. Likewise in Ghost in the Crystal I was a little sloppier about details, calling the school dining hall the cafeteria, for example, when it isn't a cafeteria, and allowing that some kids dressed up in wizardy outfits, when it has turned out that my vision has been different in the later books. I will clean up all this stuff in a fifth or tenth anniversary edition, by which time maybe my formatting skills will be up to the level of the pro I paid last year.

What do you think about book trailers?

I use them. I don't think there's any value in trying to get them to come up in search engines, but I like to have them as something I can paste in an email or social networking box so that people can find out about my book quickly. I make my own trailers -- I enjoy doing it. I have a youtube channel called "schooloftheages" where they are gathered together.

What piece of advice would you give a new writer?

How do you know that you're a writer? You write because you have to. It's part of your identity, part of being who you are on a fundamental level. If you don't feel that way, if you don't feel that you must write regardless of what comes of it, then writing is probably not your calling, even though you may be good at it.

Don't assume you will be successful due to your talent. Learn marketing and advertising. Talent is the least important factor. Business skills and connections matter more. If you want to get rich, get a degree in finance or banking and get rich like that.

Expect recognition to take a long time. Some people get recognition right away. Hooray for them. It's not the usual thing.

Don't trust media outlets like Writer's Digest that tell you how to do things. Their focus is making money, not helping, and they are outlets for publishing industry messages. Generally, be aware that many people in the publishing industry are predators. Their focus is to extract money from those whose hunger for recognition makes them vulnerable. Never pay anyone to publish your book. Never pay anyone to read and consider your book for agenting or for publication. (You can pay professional book editors with credentials and bonafides -- although I wouldn't.) Never pay anyone to help you based on a sales pitch that person made. You are talent, and talent doesn't pay for recognition. Talent gets paid. Hold out for that.

 Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview and for taking my questions and turning them into a more in-depth style interview!

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