Mark Matthews impressed me with his book ON THE LIPS OF CHILDREN.
Then I read MILK-BLOOD and became a fan. This story has as many layers as the author who penned it. Mark Matthews is an author, a runner, a recovering addict who has been sober for 22 years and a therapist living in Detroit.
I have never read a book like MILK-BLOOD. Yes, I would consider it a horror but for reasons that goes beyond the supernatural.
I wanted to talk to the man who created the urban supernatural horror story and the disturbing characters it contains.
Mark, it is an honor. Thank you for dropping in.
LF: This is certainly a unique story. First, let me ask how did the idea for the story come about?
MM: My hope was to create a novel with flash-fiction like chapters that struck down like lightning bolts. All of them would revolve around a Detroit street where the dead played a role among the living, and the poverty and drugs were as much of a protagonist as any ‘monster’ out there. The concept of “milk-blood” —the act of injecting yourself with blood of other doped-up heroin addicts —became a natural fit.
Trying to piece it all together drove me crazy and became an obsession. The plot kept me up nights. I would scribble outlines of the novel bedside. I had so many potential versions of the story, most of which were much more safe than the published version. The ‘meta-fictional’ nature of it especially drove me crazy, and every time I thought of dropping it, something deeper said to let it fly. I worked on this part hard with the beta-readers and the editor, Richard Thomas.
LF: How long did it take to pen? And how soon after you wrote it did you release?
MM: It took about 8 months to write, but I would binge write for days and obsess and then leave it alone for a week or more at a time, usually when the plot was driving me crazy and messing with my digestive track. After I thought it done, I waited, did more edits, waited some more, edited. Impatience kills, and I wanted to do it right. I wanted to hire some of the best people in order to do the independent publishing thing with some credibility. I consulted with Joe Hart, who I consider a model of how to do it right. (thanks Joe!) I hired Kealan Patrick Burke’s company, Elderlemon Design, to do the cover, and then Richard Thomas, Editor in Chief of Dark House Press.
Finally, and this is something I learned from James Roy Daley from Books of the Dead Press who published On the Lips of Children, I didn’t want to release anything until I had a handful of reviews and blurbs ready to go. I gave out advance review copies to friends and strangers alike, and now some strangers are friends and grace me with interviews such as this.
LF: Where did you pull the characters of this book from?
MM: I always try to create characters with very real fears already stuck to their insides before the conflict of the plot even begins. In the movie Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis feared the world even before Michael Meyers shows up. I think the best horror works this way.
Lilly, from MILK-BLOOD, wasn’t the first character I thought of, but she certainly is the main character with the most internal terror and fragility. She is fathered by the worst of the streets, is shunned by her mother while she was even in the womb, and can’t fully rely on anybody. She feels alone in trying to navigate through a scary world. I saw her as a Detroit version of James from James and the Giant Peach, and actually tried to model my story after the children’s book. As you know, a paperback copy of “James and the Giant Peach” makes a guest appearance in MILK-BLOOD. And like the children’s story, Milk-Blood reflects onto itself as a written story same way the Roald Dahl Classic did at the end.
The character of Jervis first appears in the short story, “The Damage Done’, that is now available as a free download on amazon. Later, I wrote another piece of flash fiction, “My Infection,” which is chapter 1 of Milk-Blood. Jervis fit perfectly in this world, and “My Infection” became Lilly’s birth story.
LF: This story incited so many emotions in me. Was it emotionally draining writing it?
MM: It is so hard to tell while writing it if you are able to evoke the emotion you are going for. I wanted the bleakness to have its own heart-beat and thump from the page. I wrote the story while listening to the song “In A Gadda Da Vida”, again and again and again… As the reviews have come in, I am pretty happy with the response.
As a writer yourself Latashia, you have probably experienced your characters becoming a part of your whole life, not just your writing life. They live off the page in your head and have hopes, dreams, pains, sorrows all their own. When I had Lilly start using heroin, I felt a rush of sorrow through my veins like I was destroying her. As I wrote about how Heroin made her feel like she was ‘normal’ for the first time, that God had been put into a tiny hole into her arm, in the back of my head I felt guilty for penning her demise.
Despite some of the reviews on amazon about the extreme nature of the bleakness of this novel, I don’t find this novel ‘sensationalized’ at all. The truth is actually much harsher, and if anything, Milk-Blood is understated to what I’ve witnessed.
Last note: The story about the social worker’s home visit, where the mother tells her child she should have aborted him during a counseling session, is 100% true and I remember it vividly. (Of course, the rest of the story is true too, even if it never happened.)
LF: The story was told from multiple POVs which is generally a rule breaker when writing. And yet it worked so well with this story. What made you break the rules and were you hesitant to do so?
MM: One thing I did was repeat some phrases in successive chapters. The character who owned one chapter would say something, and in the next I would begin with the character being spoken too hearing this same phrase, and overlap the time. They reflect on each other enough that it kept the timeline not so difficult to discern. Each chapter has a title which I think helps to guide the reader.
LF: Did you believe the reader would get it?
MM: My fear was that if readers do not pay attention to the initial author introduction closely enough, the ending does not make sense. That is why I needed to have the author interject a bit, lest his voice would have been completely forgotten. This part I kept tweaking, and am not fully satisfied with how it is now, but I had to accept that it was close enough and let it go. If I had not, I would at this moment be in a straight-jacket inside a rubber room still thinking up ways to make it just exactly perfect.
LF: Okay, Mark. You knew the question was coming, so here we go.
I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood and have witnessed what addiction can do to people of different races, not just African- American. As a Caucasian why did you choose to make these characters African American?
MM: Certainly, and I’m glad you brought that up. I have worked in substance abuse treatment centers much of my life, and most of the heroin addicts were your 19 year old suburban Caucasian kids who got started on Oxycontin at 16 years old, then, when they were detoxing, found that heroin was cheaper to inject. Next, they were stealing their little brothers xbox games to pawn them off for dope money. They’d show up at the treatment center with legal charges and with chicken pocks up and down their sludgey white arms. My novel STRAY is a full of these type of characters.
Milk-Blood, however, needed truth of setting as its backbone, and to not have the characters be primarily black would have hurt the verity of it and been an anomaly on this street. It takes place on a true Detroit street (google “Brentwood and Robinwood, Detroit” and look at the images) but I made sure to pick an address number that does not exist.
Race is a factor in the novel, but just a small factor. It is about economics, definitely, but also about despair and isolation. Lilly may be African American, but she also has a different hue to her skin because she has serious cyanosis, and ultimately feels a minority in her own family. She can’t rely on her dad, and is always on guard. The safe mom in the neighborhood is on one side, Jervis, the mentally ill squatter, is on the other. Both have invited her inside their house.
LF: Did you fear and do you still, that there could be potential controversy with that decision (making the characters African American)?
MM: I feared that to not have a character rise above it all and to not have enough redeeming qualities would perhaps reflect poorly on me if someone were to assume the worst of what I am about. But to have a character escape in a traditional way would throw a huge wrench in the ‘Blight of Detroit Matrix.’ As you know, one character does ‘escape’ in the end in an odd way. Part of my social worker empathy I use is to remind myself that, given the life circumstance of those I work with, chances are, I would be doing much worse and making poorer choices than they are.
Writing any piece of fiction is to take on a persona other than our own and requires a certain amount of empathy. I have written from the perspective of a Chinese Woman in The Jade Rabbit and Hispanic immigrants on the Tijauna border in On the Lips of Children. The reader must decide if this is done with honesty and integrity.
LF: Being African American, let me just say, I did not find the story offensive at all. Given your background I believe you have a lot of experience with this subject. I saw honesty and compassion in the story.
MM:Thanks Latashia The setting is fairly homogenous and enclosed society where Caucasians are the minority and are made to be a bit over-idealistic (such as the school counselor.)
Last thing I wanted to add is that Detroit is a wonderful place. It has the best theater district outside of Broadway, great summer nights downtown, pockets of amazing artist communities and ethnic diversity with rich heritage. Portions of the proceeds of Milk-Blood will benefit a Detroit area non-profit called “Write A House” that renovates abandoned houses and gives them away to writers, creating a unique writer residency program.
LF: Well Mark, what’s next? How do you top Milk-Blood, or do you even try?
MM: I promised my daughter, age 10, that I would write something she can read. We just read the Hunger Games trilogy together, so I have that to compete with. The odds are not in my favor. I have this budding idea for YA story about DoppleGoblins living in the back yard of a family inside tunnels, taking over the family’s identify one at a time. (DoppleGoblins are what you get when a Doppelganger marries into the Goblin family, but we all knew that already, right?)
LF: Thank you for dropping by, Mark. We will have to do it again.