Matt Hilton brings his background of policing and working in security to developing the crime thrillers that follow the adventures of Joe Hunter. With Dead Men’s Dust, Judgement and Wrath, Slash and Burn, Cut and Run, and Blood and Ashes, complete, Matt is planning further books in the series. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing methods and the American settings of his books.
BE: How much of you is in Joe Hunter? He brings your experience from working in private security, being a police officer and your training in martial arts, but do you have the same views on life? Or do you find yourself writing thoughts and principles that you personally don’t hold, but that Joe does?
MH: Joe Hunter is a younger, fitter, better-looking version of me. Though he’s not as charming. Seriously, though, he is possibly an idealized version of myself – in some, but not all respects. He is more right wing in his attitudes to how to treat the bad guys, but in the respect of hating bullying in any form, or in standing up for those weaker than himself, Joe and I are very alike. I was bullied as a child, and learned early on that the only way I could personally defeat the bullies was to fight back. I’m not advocating violence – certainly not – but I am about standing up for one’s character and rising above the insults and such that I had to endure. I took up martial arts to not only learn how to fight, but to also strengthen my confidence, in order that I did not have to fight. In one respect, Joe is a metaphor for everything that I stood for. I first got into private security work, and then the police force, through my desire to help people in need. Sounds corny, and sounds like I was viewing the world through the proverbial rose tinted spectacles, but it is true. So, yeah, at a basic level, Joe and me share the same principles; it’s just about how we put our actions into motion that we differ. For the record, I’ve never killed a bad guy.
BE: You’re a focused writer with the schedule of publishing a new title every six months. Has the discipline that you learnt from studying Kempo Ju-Jitsu given you skills that you apply to achieving this output?
MH: Definitely. With martial arts training, you’re always aiming to achieve greater skill, insight and knowledge, so you must set goals that are always slightly out of reach and then push to achieve them. I do this with my writing, and push myself constantly. By nature I love to procrastinate, and know that if I do not discipline myself and force myself to work then I will probably spend all day navel gazing, drinking coffee and smoking way too many cigarettes. None of which are conducive to getting words down on the page. So I approach writing a book with the same mentality as I once did when aiming for my next grade in Ju-Jitsu or Kempo karate. I love the challenge of pushing up-hill and I get an unrivalled buzz when I know I’m forging ahead. Even when the writing isn’t going so well, or a few knockbacks hit you along the way, you must press on, teeth gritted and fight your way back. It isn’t easy. But anything worth having is worth fighting for in my opinion.
BE: You’re British but your stories are set in the U.S. How has your feedback been from readers in the states? Do you get comments that the world you’ve created rings true to them, and that they reflect on how they see life?
MH: On the whole the feedback from the States has been very positive. I’m fortunate to have an American publisher and editor who work with me to ensure that no obvious glitches get through – particularly to the US editions. Sometimes my Brit humour doesn’t translate that well and I’m
forced to make compromises. My character, Joe Hunter, is a Brit, and I often write him in a self-deprecating or cynical manner, that doesn’t quite make sense to my American readers. I’m not sure they get ‘irony’ the way we do, or at least have a different take on it. They sometimes think Joe is a bit egotistical, but that’s not what I intend at all. Funnily enough, they sometimes tone down the four letter words, and it’s quite funny to hear Joe say things like “Damn you”. He’s an ex-squaddie and we know how those guys really speak. The things I tend to receive emails about is the technical aspects, where well-meaning readers point out that a particular model of gun is hyphenated (or not). Really this doesn’t matter too much, as you can look at a dozen different sites on weaponry and each will have a different version of the gun in questions name. I tend to go with the manufacturers website. Maybe they go off different ones. I once also had a chap explaining how a helicopter couldn’t physically do a loop. I meant it as a turn of phrase. That is the helicopter looped round and returned. He took it literally thinking I’d had the chopper do a loop-the-loop in mid-air like Airwolf. Another funny thing: My books are translated into foreign languages. I often wonder how on earth they translate some of Hunter’s pal Rink’s dialogue. He says some odd things, like calling people frog-giggers. Now, that doesn’t really translate well into UK English, let alone German, Italian or eastern European.
BE: At the Festival of Writing in York earlier this year, I asked you about the possibility of Joe Hunter facing a female villain. It’s clear what Joe thinks of people that hurt women, but how do you think he’d respond with this circumstance? Would it have to be a disarm, capture and hand over to the authorities, or do you think he could fight her, if her behaviour had been cruel enough?
MH: As an ex cop, I know there are dangerous women out there. Some are more dangerous than men. Although Joe feels bad about hurting women and children, I guess it would all come down to circumstance. In his third book – Cut and Run – he did meet a devilishly evil woman, but in some respects he could understand her hatred of him (she mistakenly believed him responsible for killing her son and for placing her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life). Luckily for Joe, her fate was taken out of his hands. He was relieved, and to be honest so was I. A similar occurrence happens in Blood and Ashes, where a woman is one of the killers attempting to murder the family Joe takes under his wing. Again, other hands resolve the problem, but Joe does not like the outcome one bit. It is a subject that I will have to look into much deeper in a future book. I suppose that if the woman were hurting others then Joe would have to do something about it – probably in his own inimitable style. I think it would make for an interesting angle. Hmmm. Watch this space.
BE: My understanding is that you form the basic idea for your stories and then begin to write, developing the plot as you progress. How do you approach the seeding of clues and red herrings? Is this something that you align after the story is in place, or does it come to you as you create your first draft?
MH: I see my writing style as being of the seat-of-the-pants variety. I usually get an idea, or picture a scene, and go with it. Usually the plot and story arch builds as the story progresses in my own mind, quite often taking directions I’d never have guessed at the outset. It’s a style that works for me, but of course is not fool proof. There is a danger of writing myself into a corner, or for leaving plot threads hanging as the story veers off in another direction. I do love the freshness and spontaneity of writing like that – pushing uphill all the time – but once the rough draft is completed, that’s when the real hard work begins. If I need to seed anything in, or in fact prune anything back, this is the stage I do it at. I have referred to my writing as an organic style, which grows from a small idea, but the last thing I want is an unwieldy mess at the finish. I have tried plotting and detailing books before, but they never seem to work out for me. I grow a little bored at the rigidity, and often lose enthusiasm, and this comes through in my writing. Thankfully my books are not intricate mysteries, so I get away with quite a lot, and usually the red herrings or plot twists come with the writing of the first draft.
BE: What’s your writing environment like? Do you have a specific place where you’re set up, or do you and your laptop roam wherever you feel inspired to be?
MH: I used to write on a laptop, and that was usually in an easy chair in front of the TV. But I recently switched back to a desktop computer, so had to set myself up in a permanent place. I write in my living room in my house, usually with my collie dog for company, and the TV playing behind me. I’ve a window directly beyond my computer screen, and look out onto a green embankment and huge fir tree. However, as does the TV sound, the view disappears when I’m in writing mode. My wife tells me I also lose the ability to hear anything, or to see anything beyond the words and images inside my head. She usually chooses these times to ask about that new expensive handbag or pair of shoes she’s planning on purchasing. Apparently I answer yes to her plan, every time. Or so she tells me when showing me her bright new acquisitions. Sometimes when I’m in full writing mode, I forget to eat and drink for many hours on end. I think they could drop THE BOMB and I wouldn’t notice. Basically I write and the real world disappears, so I guess I’d be happy writing anywhere.
Read more about Matt and his books here: www.matthiltonbooks.com
Thanks so much for your time, Matt.