Welcome to Leeds! (And Please Ignore the Quiet Weeping in the Woods): An Interview with Matthew Bartlett

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When I asked Matthew Bartlett if he’d like to do an interview with Silent Motorist Media, I hadn’t read his work. Other writers I admire kept mentioning him, so I knew he’d be a good fit. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the binge read Gateways to Abomination would inspire. Bartlett’s work is unsettling, unique and an absolute joy to read. I can’t wait to dive into the rest of his oeuvre, and we’ll certainly be keeping tabs on him here at SMM. If you, as I was before this interview, are unfamiliar with the world of Leeds and WXXM, I encourage you change that immediately. Stop by Bartlett’s Amazon author page, pick up Gateways to Abomination, Creeping Waves, and his newest collection, The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities. You won’t regret it.

-Justin A. Burnett

“I consider myself still very much a student when I read. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy reading, I do. But part of my mind is always working in the background to try to learn how to improve.”

-Matthew Bartlett

Justin A. Burnett: For this interview, I read began by reading Gateways to Abomination. Like many other readers, I was completely blown away. I went on to read Creeping Waves because I just couldn’t get enough of Leeds. Before I began, I wondered how you would manage to follow up on such a great start. Sure enough, I was blown away again. How did the mysterious world of Leeds and the WXXM radio station begin for you?

Matthew Bartlett: A friend of mine had started a Livejournal account separate from his personal account, and the new account consisted of humorous, fictional stories about a small town and its people. I loved the idea of using Livejournal for fiction.

I was a lifelong reader of horror, and I’d recently become kind of obsessed with Joe Frank’s innovative radio shows, so the concept of mixing horror and radio occurred to me almost instantly. The first WXXT post was on my personal page–I wrote that I was driving up to Leeds (a small village that’s part of Northampton, where I live) and hearing odd radio broadcasts. In that post I linked to the WXXT page, and it went from there.

There was no reason for me to think at the time that these stories would be read by anyone other than my twenty or so Livejournal friends. I wrote them in short bursts. This was in mid-2004, I think.

Leeds itself, in my fiction, is a stand-in for Northampton, but has territories from dozens of places I’ve lived and worked. East Hartford, where I grew up. Simsbury, Connecticut, where I worked for a year. Old Saybrook. Stratford. Montague and Leominster and Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Burnett: Does any Northampton local lore play into the stories and vignettes that make up Creeping Waves and Gateways?

Bartlett: Only in the sense that I use real events and pictures to concoct stranger, darker, more demonic versions of the city’s history. There is, a little up the road from me, a sort of minimalist Victorian village of cottages in the woods, situated around a tabernacle. It started as a tent community of Methodists in the late 1800s. I’ve used that setting in several stories, but altered its roots and gussied up its history. I use a lot of old local pictures from antique stores to inspire stories as well. But most everything from my stories is the product of my imagination. I do read up on local lore, but I don’t use it directly, It’s just in my head when I write.

Burnett: There’s definitely something inherently creepy about a minimalist village of cottages which once was a tent community surrounding a tabernacle. The “tent gathering” pieces were among the most memorable, to me.

While Creeping Waves and Gateways are thematically unified, there is a noticeable difference in length and level of detail between them. Could you describe your evolution as a writer as you returned to Leeds with Creeping Waves?

Bartlett: I wrote the stories in Gateways between 2004 and 2013 or thereabouts. When I assembled the pieces I used for that book, I deliberately left some out, intending to use them in an eventual follow-up. In the months after the release of Gateways, I began to write longer, more traditional stories for the first time, wanting very much to have my stories in anthologies. I hadn’t thought myself able to write long stories, so I basically taught myself how to do it.

When it came time to assemble the stories I wanted in Creeping Waves, I had the old Livejournal stories and these new longer pieces. I felt I needed new vignettes and stories to round out the book, so I started writing new stuff specifically for the book. By that time I was writing every day, something I had not done during the ten-year span during which I wrote Gateways. It was a natural evolution.

Burnett: You have a new collection, The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities, that came out after I had done my reading for this interview. Do you want to say a few words about it? Is it more Leeds, or a venture into new territory?

Bartlett: It’s a collection of unconnected stories. Some take place in Leeds, but it’s not related to the WXXT story line. There’s a story of a supermarket meat manager with strange occult powers, a magician’s apprentice, a company whose middle management is replaced by mannequins. These are more “traditional” weird fiction stories, if that word means anything when it comes to weird fiction.

Burnett: Excellent! I’m looking forward to reading it. I noticed you have a Patreon as well. Do you regularly post Leeds-related short pieces on that as well?

Bartlett: I occasionally post Leeds-related short pieces, along with audio clips of my reading stories or parts of stories, some not yet published, old poems and articles I wrote, and some surprises.

Burnett: It sounds like just the right place for readers who can’t get enough of your work. When I read Gateways and Creeping Waves, the thing that stuck out to me immediately was that you seemed to have fun writing them. There’s a delightful breeziness in your prose and a seamless association of vivid images that, to me, seems to indicate a level of excitement on your part. Is this accurate? Do you find yourself enveloped in these strange worlds when you sit down to write? If so, do you find that there’s a correlation between the quality of your work and the level of enjoyment you find in the writing process?

Bartlett: The stories that appeared in Gateways were written with no expectation of readers beyond a few friends. I wrote them between 2004 and 2013 or so, as Livejournal entries. They weren’t written out of obligation, and I had no deadlines. So, yes, they were written to amuse myself and some friends, and the process was a lot of fun.

When the book came out and began to receive some attention, I knew that in order to grow a career, I would have to dig in and teach myself to write longer, more structured stories. I still had fun doing them, but there was an element of hard work, too. Those longer stories did not come easily, and I read and wrote a lot in the service of growing as a writer so that I could achieve my goal of selling stories and building a viable career.

When the time came to put together Creeping Waves, the follow-up, I had some pieces from the blog that hadn’t gone into Gateways, and I had some of these longer, more structured stories that had appeared in various anthologies. But I needed more short pieces and interstitial bits.

So, what I tried to do was recreate the frame of mind I was in when I wrote those old Livejournal entries. I was a little worried that I couldn’t do it. But I liked how they came out, which was a good sign.

So in my current writing, I see a line between the hard-fought stories that require a lot of heavy work, and the pieces that just seem to roll out of my fingers onto the keyboard. I’m lucky to be able to do both, I think, and I consider myself still very much a student when I read. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy reading, I do. But part of my mind is always working in the background to try to learn how to improve.

Burnett: That you can write the “hard-fought” stories alongside the easier, “fun” pieces and still make both read effortlessly is an amazing testimony to your writing capabilities, in my opinion.

You seem to write one part horror, one part weird fiction, and one part your own unique space that I can’t think of any obvious genre comparisons to describe. I’m not crazy about thinking in terms of genre, but are there any writers out there with whom you feel a particular stylistic or thematic affinity?

Bartlett: I definitely feel a kinship with Jon Padgett. We seem to share a similar bent and a compatible aesthetic. I’d also say Scott Thomas, both in the old New England settings in many of his short fiction, as well as the strange weirdness in his masterpiece the Sea of Ash. There is also a definite affinity with Daniel Mills, Richard Gavin, a few others.

Burnett: This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a writer mention Gavin in positive terms. I definitely need to check this fellow out.

From what I can tell, you seem to be a writer who seeks to further develop your craft rather than remain in the same place. Do you have any ultimate “goals” with your work? What would it look like, to you, to have reached a place where you’ve done what you set out to do with fiction?

Bartlett: I don’t have any kind of an endgame in mind, besides producing a good body of work. I’d like to produce more experimental fiction using unexpected formats or frameworks. I’d like to improve my ability to write traditional short stories as well. I want to try a flat-out horror novel. I want to try an experimental novel and a “mature” horror novel. My goal in general is to contribute something of value to the genre I’m in love with.

Burnett: Excellent! I was just about to ask if a novel might be in the future.

Is there anything lined up in the near-future you’d like to share with readers? What can we anticipate from the Bartlett universe?

Bartlett: I’m working on a serial called “The Obsecration” for Broken Eye books. Two segments have been published so far on their Patreon. I’m currently working on the sixth and final segment, which I should have completed by the end of August. It takes place in the Leeds universe.

While working on this I’ve been writing a few short stories on the side. A story I’m very proud of will be included in Uncertainties 3, from Swan River Press this September. I’ll be announcing another acceptance soon, a story with strong ties to the serial. I’ll soon be working with Yves Tourigny on a second installment of The Witch Cult in Western Massachusetts [check out volume one here]. In 2019 I’m planning to shop around a collection.

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