Sunday, February 1, 2015

Interview with Matt Hilton, Author of the Joe Hunter Thrillers

You may have heard of Matt Hilton; if not, you should check him out. He's written, as of this interview, nine thrillers featuring action hero Joe Hunter with another on the way. I know Matt through Facebook; he accepted a short story of mine for his anthology Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 2, which I wrote under my Dean Breckenridge pen name. I've followed his work ever since, and now a U.S. publisher is bringing his work to the colonies.

I've sampled two of the Hunter stories so far, and Hilton reminds me of an early Jack Higgins in that the storytelling is crisp and to the point and carries you along all the way to the end. He's been compared to Lee Child, but don't let that dissuade you. Better to take the recommendation from Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who read one of Hilton's books while having his teeth whitened. He said of Dead Men's Dust: "Taut, thrilling, tense and sometimes scary - it's hard to talk about Dead Men's Dust without sounding like a caricature. But it delivers all those things. And clearly was written with passion and backed up by real experience of some of the darker sides of life. Loved it."

But enough of that....

Brian Drake: Hi, Matt, thanks for taking the time.

Matt Hilton: Thanks for having me and allowing me to talk a bit about my writing.

BD: Tell us about Joe Hunter.

MH: Joe Hunter is the lead character in a series of thrillers I’ve written, and to date nine of his adventures have been published in all formats, as well as a collection of short stories, and two standalone short stories available in ebook. The tenth in the series is already written and due to be published in June this year. Hunter is British, an ex spec ops soldier, once part of an experimental assassination squad codenamed ‘Arrowsake’ who targeted terrorist groups and organised crime gangs etc. Now retired from the military he makes his way in the world by trying to help out others caught in a tight pinch. He works for his pal, Rink (Jared Rington) from their office based in Tampa, Florida, but his adventures tend to take him all over the USA and sometimes further afield. Although he works as a private investigator, his skills tend to lean more to that of a protector, and he’s more inclined to take jobs where he must protect a person in danger, or to find missing people and such. Because of his background he has a high skill set, but also a lot of baggage, so in some respects he’s a damaged individual who is trying to atone for what he has done in the past. He can be violent, and sometimes to an uncompromising level, but at heart he is a good, loyal man who sees himself as standing up for the downtrodden. He is sometimes called a vigilante – and I guess he is – but Hunter doesn’t describe himself as one. I tend to think of Hunter as being a man out of his time: he should have been born in a previous century where he would have been a knight errant riding off on dangerous quests, or a Wild West marshal bringing law and order to a violent town at the end of his six-guns. The books are fast-moving action thrillers, slightly different to what you’d expect from crime fiction novels.

BD: Since you've spent your career in law enforcement, how much of that gets into the Hunter books and how much is made up? Do you mix people you've worked with into your characters?

MH: Yeah, I worked in private security then in the police force in the UK for more than 22 years. But I can’t really say that my careers influenced my writing in the way you might assume. I don’t write police procedurals, preferring instead to write action thrillers as I said, so I don’t use much from my law enforcement background to flavour my books. Saying that, I’ve experienced some pretty scary situations and have been caught up in violent conflict on a number of occasions and do use the heightened emotions and reactions of those situations when putting myself into the mind of a victim, or in Hunter’s head during stressful of violent encounters. I also use some of the grim humour that I experienced over the years to add comedy to lighten the darker moments – as a cop I was often laughing, but that was to stop myself resorting to anger or violence, or from crumbling in the face of horrible situations. For as many years I was involved in the martial arts, and I probably use more from my MA background in the books than I do my law enforcement one.

BD: Many series authors seem to plateau at some point. They write the same books over and over and really don't improve their style or technique much from Book One. After ten Hunter novels and a now-familiar formula, how do you keep improving yourself? Do editorial guidelines keep you from experimenting?

MH: I just try to write a story that’s thrilling and engaging, and hopefully one that will please Hunter’s readers. There is a formula I suppose, but it’s also about reader expectation. My readers want a fast, action-filled adventure, so that’s what I try to deliver. Editorial guidelines do get in the way at times, but only with my imagination. I kind of know now what my publishers expect so avoid going too crazy with my writing. I tend to leave my wilder ideas to other standalone books and short stories I write. But, saying that, I have tried to stretch my books at times, and I don’t think the Hunter books are too typical of the genre. In the UK my books tend to be found on the crime fiction shelves (and I’m happy with that) but I tend to think of them more as action thrillers, so don’t usually stay within the normal parameters of crime novels. I wasn’t inspired to write by crime novelists, but by pulp horror and sword and sorcery writers, (HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Edgar Allan Poe to name a few), by ‘Men’s Adventure’ writers (Don Pendleton, Warren Murphy, Richard Sapir, David Morrell) and by the British western writer George G Gilman (AKA Terry Harknett), so my ‘crime’ novels tend to be slightly different than those from my peers. I’m not sure that Hunter (or I) would get away with doing the stuff Hunter does if I was writing regular crime fiction books.

BD: Which writers, and not necessarily thriller writers, do you follow and what are one or two things you like about them?

MH: I read a lot, and sometimes across various genres, but like most people I do have my favourite authors, and I usually grab their latest offerings as soon as they come available. In this ‘must have immediately’ group I’d include John Connolly (his spooky Charlie Parker detective/supernatural novels are terrific), J.A. (Jack) Kerley (Carson Ryder novels), Robert Crais (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels), Stephen Leather (Jack Nightingale novels), Tom Wood (Victor the assassin), Sean Black (Ryan Lock thrillers), Adrian Magson (Marc Portman thrillers, and Harry Tate thrillers), and Dean Koontz. There’s a bunch of other writers that I follow and enjoy very much, but the authors and their books that I’ve mentioned are the ones that get my pulse up when I see a new offering is available. I think that says all that needs to be said about why I just have to pick them up.

BD: You've also done some one-off books. Would you prefer to do a mix of Hunter and other stories, or just stick with Hunter and do a one-off when the mood strikes? Have readers expressed a preference?

MH: You’ve pretty much hit it on the head. My preference would be to do a Hunter then a standalone or second series, then back to Hunter again. You’ve probably spotted that my favourite reads tend to be between thriller and horror books, and I also enjoy writing in both those genres. What I tend to do is write a Hunter book, then on my downtime between contracts, I’ll exercise my other creative cells with something outside that action thriller genre, and the books I’ve published have tended along the lines of ghost, horror and supernatural. I’ve offered these books to my publishers in the past, but they’ve always been reticent to publish them under my name for fear of causing some sort of reader confusion. Their words not mine. I’m certain that my readers are intelligent enough to form a considered opinion on whether or not they’d read them with my name attached to them, but apparently that’s not how marketing works. I’ve self-published those books under my own imprint name, and generally they’ve been well received. In fact I’ve readers in the horror genre now who might not otherwise have picked up a Joe Hunter book, but have ‘found’ them after reading my other works, and are now fans. My out and out Hunter fans prefer Hunter, but in general they all also enjoy my other weirder stuff too. I’ve been getting some rave reviews for my latest ghost novel, ‘The Shadows Call’, from readers who would not normally have picked up a ghost story, so it goes both ways I’m happy to say.

BD: How has your publisher reacted to that? Have they tried to dissuade you or give you a sense that they don't want you eliminating the middle-man?
MH: They haven't really expressed an opinion one way or another. Once over that might have been different, but publishing as a whole is very different these days, and there are a lot of authors who follow the traditional publishing route who are also self-publishing their other works, sometimes their own back-lists or stand-alones. It has become very common to write 'taster' short stories to publish in ebook format alongside the books, used as hooks to grab readers who might not take a punt on a full novel. As most traditionally published authors do, I have a non-competitive clause in my contracts, so it stops me from self-publishing any Hunter books, or even books that might be described as 'Hunter-in-disguise' so I do steer well clear of doing anything like that. The books I've self-published have been primarily horror novels, so these don't directly compete with my action thrillers. Saying that - and maybe sounding a bit of a rebel - I've offered the horror novels to my publisher and they've passed on them, so does that mean I should simply put them away in a drawer someplace? Though I haven't sold massive numbers of my self-pubs, they've done okay, meaning that there is a readership for them, and it would be probably much higher if they were traditionally published and had a marketing budget behind them (or maybe not), but at least all my hard work is being partly repaid when I hear that my readers have enjoyed the books.

BD: I have noticed many UK thriller writers write in first-person; Doyle, Household, etc. Lee Child's first trio of Reacher books were first-person before he switched and his brother Andrew Grant writes in first-person. (Of course Forsyth and Rimmington do not so it doesn't apply to all.) Is first-person some sort of a tradition with UK thrillers? You don't see a lot of first-person thrillers in the States unless it's a mystery or crime story, and you might be surprised that quite a few "smart people" tell newbie writers not to do that. (By the way, I wrote a lot of first-person stories--until I needed glasses. I have since learned my lesson.)

MH: Funny you should say that, because most of the books I was reading and enjoying were from American writers, and a good number of those were written in first person, so when I set out to write the first Joe Hunter book I thought I was following a tried and tested formula. Some people say I have a distinct writing style, where the Hunter chapters are told in first person, while alternating chapters from other characters' point of view have been shown in third person. I had come across this style on a number of occasions before, but some people still find it odd. Interestingly, I did decide to write the fifth book - Blood and Ashes - in third person, but when I submitted it to my publisher was asked to revert the Hunter chapters back to first person, because it was what my readers recognised and expected as my style or voice. I like the urgency of first person, but it does have its drawbacks in that it is sometimes difficult to convey emotion, and can sometimes be misconstrued. I write Hunter with a kind of rueful or self-deprecating humour, but some readers interpret it as self-conceit or arrogance, but I guess that's the downfall with too many me, myself and I's that pepper a first person narrative. Another problem with first person perspective is in that you can only report on incidents your character has witnessed, and it doesn't work well when trying to show rather than tell, so I do find that switching to third person is a great help when Joe Hunter isn't in the scene. In regard first person being a tradition with UK thrillers I'd say no. To be honest I thought it was an American thing. (This is where you insert one of those smiley faces things if you didn't get that I was trying to be humorous in a self-deprecating way). I am self-taught as a writer. I've learned my craft through reading and writing, and when it came to the first Hunter book, the style just felt right to me, so I think the real message here is to trust your gut and go with what feels/sounds right as there really is no right and wrong when it comes to writing in your unique voice.

BD: What is one interview question you wish you would be asked, and what's the answer?

MH: Is it true that you were John Candy’s stunt double in Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Sadly, the answer is ‘no’, but I’d have loved to have gone along on that road trip with him and Steve Martin.

BD: What's coming up next that you'd like to mention?

MH: I’ve two or three little projects in the pipeline. Hodder and Stoughton will publish the next – and tenth – Joe Hunter book on 4th June 2015. It’s called ‘The Devil’s Anvil’ and see’s Hunter taking on a job to protect a grieving mother from some bad guys seeking her husband, and willing to do her harm to get to him. In the USA, Down and Out Books has just published book 7 – No Going Back – where Hunter goes into the Arizona badlands in search of some missing girls and runs foul of a group of crazy rednecks. Down and Out Books will also publish books 8 and 9 later this year (‘Rules of Honor’ and ‘The Lawless Kind’ respectively), so there’s plenty for US Hunter fans to look forward to. I’ve just placed another book with my agent, who is hopefully in the process of securing a publisher for it. This book is a mystery thriller, featuring new characters, but at this time I must keep a few things secret until we see if it’s a viable goer or not. Independent movie makers Third Act Montage are currently filming a movie based on one of my short stories: called ‘The Day’ it is an apocalyptic end of the world tale. I’ve seen some of the footage and it looks terrific, and I even had my own little Hitchcock/Stan Lee moment where I do my own little walk-on part. Actually I don’t do much walking, I end up as a corpse, but I guess you get what I mean. Right now, aside from answering your questions, I’m just setting out on writing Joe Hunter 11. Fingers crossed, Hunter will be around for years to come.

BD: As noted above, Richard Hammond of BBC's Top Gear (one of my favorite shows!) had some kind words for your books. Does he really whiten his teeth, and, if so, are you willing to expose the truth?

MH: You’ve heard of the Watergate scandal, right? Well if I told you the truth, then it would be the ‘Colgate’ scandal.

BD: We'll solve the mystery of Hammond's teeth another time! Thank you for a delightful interview.

You can reach Matt at a variety of places: @MHiltonauthor

The Lawless Kind - Joe Hunter 9 - available now.

The Devil's Anvil - Joe Hunter 10 - available from June 2015