On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Matthew Arnold Stern talks about his new book, The Remainders, and what inspired his characters.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Matthew Arnold Stern about his life and writing career, what inspired him to start writing, and the story of his latest release, The Remainders.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m Matthew Arnold Stern, an author from Southern California. I’ve been writing professionally since 1983. My works include four novels and a non-fiction book, Mastering Table Topics.
For my day job, I’m a technical writer for a software company. I’ve also worked in public relations and as a freelance magazine writer.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I’ve been wanting to write a book since I first decided to become a writer in high school. What really encouraged me was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in an AP English class.
When we’re introduced to novels in school, they’re usually classics from long-dead authors. But Vonnegut showed me that writing novels was an achievable goal, and I can write the books I want to read.
When did you take a step to start writing?
When I went to college, I thought I had to set aside my dreams of writing and choose a practical field, like accounting. I learned a lot from those classes, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I then took a creative writing class from Robert Oliphant, author of the bestselling, A Piano for Mrs. Cimino. It rekindled my love for writing. I then found a writing job for a computer software company and discovered I can make a living doing what I love. I pay tribute to Robert Oliphant by naming a character Mrs. Cimino in The Remainders.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I started Offline in Spring 2001 and finished it early in 2003. I spent a year submitting it to various publishers and amassed a fine collection of rejection notices. When I finished NaNoWriMo in 2004, I got a certificate for a free printed copy of my book if I self-published it through Lulu. I tried it, and Offline was published in January 2005.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
I started both The Remainders and Amiga in 2016, which was a tumultuous year for our family. I finished both drafts that year. Both novels were later accepted by Black Rose Writing for publication. These were my first books that were picked up by a publisher. Amiga came out in November 2019. The Remainders followed in September 2021. Guess it shows that art can come from great pain.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Remainders?
The Remainders came out of some family issues we were dealing with. It was also my first attempt to use first-person narration. My previous novels were plot-driven, and it caused my characters to act in unexpected ways so I could move the plot along. With first-person, I can get inside my characters, understand their motivations, and let them drive the story. I enjoy first-person much more.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Remainders?
My first draft of The Remainders only covered Dylan’s story, which made it half a book. One of my beta readers suggested I add a second first-person narrator. That’s when I added his father, Oliver. The story took off from there.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Both Dylan and Oliver are basically good people in bad situations. Dylan put himself in those situations because of the decisions he made, but he struggles with serious psychological problems. Same with Oliver, who suffers from childhood trauma and abuse. I wanted to create characters that readers can root for, but ones who are flawed and are forced to grow. I find those stories inspirational.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Dylan and Oliver have various people who cause them trouble, but their main antagonists are themselves. Whether it’s from addiction, self-destructive tendencies, or untreated trauma, these two men create their own stumbling blocks.
What is the inciting incident of The Remainders?
Dylan is kicked out of his mother and stepdad’s palatial Orange County home. He hops in the SUV his dad gave him for his 16th birthday and keeps driving. When he runs out of gas in Reseda, he realizes he must start a new life as a homeless person.
What is the main conflict of your book?
For Dylan, it’s trying to survive as a homeless person while tempted by addiction and dealing with a growing attraction to Pearl, a woman he works with at a dollar store.
For Oliver, it’s trying to build a relationship with his new girlfriend and her sons while struggling with the trauma he experienced growing up in an abusive home. Both father and son realize they must reconnect to deal with their problems.
Did you plot The Remainders in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I let the characters tell me their stories.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Remainders need?
I got editing support from several sources, including my beta readers, the editors at Black Rose Writing, and tools like ProWritingAid. All books need editing. You can find stuff you want to edit after the book has been published. With editing, it’s not only how much you do, but when to stop. If you keep trying to polish your book to perfection, you’ll never finish it. You must be willing to say, “I’ve done the best I can do” and let your readers enjoy it.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write the books you want to read. Don’t feel you must write for a specific genre because it’s popular. Don’t chase trends. Write a book you would buy for yourself. If you enjoy what you write, you’ll keep at it until it’s done.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I finished my beta draft of my latest novel, Christina’s Portrait. It’s inspired by a horrific tragedy that happened when I was in high school. Like Amiga and The Remainders, it uses two first-person narrators. One is Noreen, who finds herself attracted to her best friend Christina in the 1970s when such feelings were dangerous.
The other is Benicia, a high school student in 2021 who is tasked to do a video about a student who was killed at her school. To uncover the truth about that tragedy, she must cope with her mother’s death from COVID during the pandemic. The book shows how learning the truth about the past can help us in the present.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely. To hold something that came from nothing from your imagination is magic. You’ve accomplished something many people dream of doing. Sure, we would like to get on the bestseller list and have a seven-figure movie deal. But if your book makes someone’s day, even if it’s just one person, you’ve succeeded as a writer.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
The Remainders is available on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited on Amazon, and in paperback wherever books are sold. Here are my links:
Get To Know on YouTube: https://youtu.be/3V9F7FbyUMg
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