Matt Ruff - An Interview (2/13/12)

He may physically live in Seattle, but Matt Ruff's imagination is in another dimension. Talking to Matt Ruff is talking to a man with a LOT of ideas. We had the opportunity to grill him on February 13, 2012.

Slow books and inspirations

Since 1988, Matt Ruff has produced six books, unlike a lot of authors, especially in the mystery series business, who produce a book a year. As a matter of fact, Ruff stated that he had been working on the basis for his latest book, The Mirage, as far back as 2006. He originally envisioned a television show, à la "24," but nothing came of it back then. Perhaps the time is ripe now for a television deal, especially with shows like "Lost," "Heroes," "The X-Files" and "Alcatraz" having set the stage for odd and engaging premises. But unlike these shows, Ruff wants a finite storyline, not something that peters out. He says his plot line would be written while knowing how the series would end. You've got to have the answers before you can begin. One the best shows that does this, in his opinion, is "The Wire."

If it feels write ...

Practicing what he preaches, Ruff knows at least the first three chapters and the last chapter -- and sometimes even the last line -- of whatever book he's writing. He begins with a "high concept" first, then fills the characters in later. It's important to him that his characters feel real.

Accessible make-believe?

Like his popular Bad Monkeys (c2007), The Mirage twists and turns at the end. It's hard to explain that this doesn't mean his works are parodies or too outré; in fact they rely on good characterizations, pop culture references and every-man touches to ground them. Pop culture is important to him personally and as a way to make his works accessible. He wants readers "to identify and care about them."

Politics schmolotics

Although Bad Monkeys contains a reference to 9/11, that's merely a way of anchoring the book in time. For The Mirage, 9/11 is everything. Yet Ruff shied away from making it a polemical or galvanizing political work. In the final analysis, The Mirage is a book written by an optimist about what people from different backgrounds do when then meet. (See my blog review of The Miragefor more specific information on the book.)

Bad Monkeys & more inspiration

But let's back up and start with Bad Monkeys and the pre-Lizabeth Salander, kick-ass character of Jane Charlotte. (Jane works for a secret organization that disposes of evil people.) Ruff said he was inspired by visual works like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and "La Femme Nikita." He works hard to create "characters that haven't been done to death," and Jane "was a fun character to write."

Who ya gonna write for?

Telling a good story is the prime objective for Ruff. And he's got to be entertained by the story himself. He is his own target audience. He keeps in mind that the story can't "be good for everyone." He's interested in the small story and small decisions that people make that ultimately provides a turning point with large repercussions.

Let's talk more about "The Wire" and the solitary life of a writer

Three pretty famous crime fiction writers lent their writing skills to the scripts for David Simon's "The Wire": Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos. Richard Price is one of the authors whose style most impresses Ruff. He envies Price both his style -- "a cut above" -- and his involvement in "The Wire" ("I wish I had the guts to be like him"). However, for him, writing is a solitary profession. Ruff laughs at the thought that people might think the Seattle authors hang out together. At the same time, Ruff told an engaging story about learning swordplay with fellow Seattle author Neal Stephenson.

And now for a commercial

How has Ruff managed to go his own way? Has he felt pressure from his publishing company to be more commercial? He's grateful that his publisher accepts him for who he is. His books can't be lumped together under one genre and Ruff delights in experimentation.

A few last words about his new work, The Mirage

Ruff "wanted to do something exciting and engaging but that would deal with moral and political issues from a different angle." Faith, he says, means something different to everyone, so he especially wanted to show the diversity of Islam. "Part of the joy of writing is getting to world build," he concludes.

(author photo © 2006 Michael Hilliard -- ed. note: Ruff still looks like this!)