Interview by David G. Thorne
Matt Dunn is the author of 6 romantic comedy novels, including the bestselling The Ex-Boyfriend’s Handbook, which was short listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
- Matt, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The Ink Pantry Publishing team are delighted that you’ve taken the time to answer our questions.
‘Thank you for having me.’
- You’re quite unusual in that your books are often considered part of the ‘chick-lit’ genre, even though you write mainly about men. What made you decide to write romantic comedies, and do you think being a man helped you stand out from the crowd, or did it make things more difficult when it came to finding a publisher?
‘I don’t really think I ‘decided’ to write romantic comedies. It just happens to be what I write (or rather, how I wrote when I first sat down to write), which I guess developed from what I loved to read/watch. First and foremost, I see myself as a comedy novelist – the fact that the books are also about relationships is probably simply because everything’s about relationships. And the mismatch in expectations, lack of understanding, and (let’s face it) general incompatibility between men and women are an endless source of material. And yes, being a man does help you stand out from the crowd, though perhaps not always in a good way – I think publishers can struggle to know how to package and market you if you’re not the ‘norm’ (for example, my last novel, The Accidental Proposal, sported a crocheted bride and groom on the front. I had several emails from male readers expressing their relief that they could order in in ebook form so as not to be embarrassed reading it on the train). Having said that, I think it’s always good to stand out from the crowd, particularly if you’re writing in a crowded marketplace, though ultimately, every author should aspire to get noticed because they’ve written a good book.’
- You’ve written for a wide variety of publications, including The Times, The Guardian and Cosmopolitan, but when did you decide you wanted to turn your hand to being a novelist, and why?
‘I knew I wanted to be a writer – though I’m not sure I knew exactly what that meant – back when I was fourteen, and had to write something to read out at a school assembly. I thought I’d put a joke or two in, and I got a few laughs, which was pretty addictive. Twenty years later, I finally felt ready to sit down and have a go at writing my first novel, Best Man, though that actually came about through a combination of having some time on my hands (thanks to the dot com bubble bursting, giving me an enforced sabbatical) and reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (and realising, finally, that was the kind of thing I wanted to write). Six novels later I’m still trying. In retrospect, I realise I was lucky in that I had the opportunity to take a year out, sit down and devote myself full time to writing. I’m in absolute awe of those people who manage to write a novel in their spare time – I’m not sure I’d have had the determination and dedication.’
- Are there any books or authors that influenced you as a writer?
‘High Fidelity was the book that made me want to start writing – as I mentioned before, I had a ‘eureka’ moment reading it – plus if ever there was a book where every sentence is perfect, that’s the one, and I’ve returned to it so many times now, particularly if I think my own writing’s getting sloppy. John O’Farrell’s The Best A Man Can Get almost made me want to stop writing, it was so funny. In truth, I’ve been influenced by too many authors to mention – the best piece of advice I was ever given (by one of the many agents who rejected me) was ‘read the best-sellers in your genre, and see how they achieve their page-turning quality’, and while those two were prime examples of that, reading as much as I could in my genre was also very valuable because whereas I knew I’d never be able to write as well as Nick Hornby, there were also several books I read where I thought, ‘hang on, I can definitely write better than this‘, and if they’d got published… I recommend reading bad books as a motivational tool. And no, I’m not going to name them.’
- Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to writing a novel? How long does it usually take, and do you do a lot of re-drafting?
‘Up until last year, I delivered a novel a year, and yes, I do a LOT of re-drafting. It’s where it all comes together for me, where most of the jokes get added (or at least, made funny), and where all the waffle/introspection/dead wood gets cut. My approach is generally to go hell-for-leather and just keep chucking stuff down on paper until I’ve got a first draft of, say, 70,000 words, which might take me four to five months. That then gives me enough ‘meat’ to work with, and I’ll re-draft and re-draft until I’m happy (or I run out of time). I really believe in the old adage ‘you never finish writing a book, you just decide to stop working on it’. It’s one of the reasons I dislike reading my old stuff – I’m always thinking I could have made it better, or that joke funnier… Personally, I’ve tried both planning and not planning, and haven’t noticed much of a difference in either approach. I quite like just starting and seeing where the story/characters take me, though generally, I need to know my beginning and ending before I can really get going. Oh, and coming up with the title first really helps me, for some reason – even though it might not be the title the book ends up with.’
- How difficult did you find it getting your first novel published – did you already have an agent or were you sending out manuscripts to publishers ‘on spec’?
‘I followed the usual route of writing three chapters, sending them off to both agents and publishers, hoping someone would ‘bite’ while waiting for the inevitable rejections – and yes, I had a lot! But every third or fourth ‘no’ would come back with a tip or comment, so I tried to take it on board, and re-write accordingly. Eventually, I had a nibble from an agent, who asked to see the rest of the novel. I then had to explain I hadn’t written it yet, then spent the next few months frantically writing, only for them to reject the whole thing. Then I basically kept at it until I found an agent who liked it enough to take me on. I worked with them on polishing the manuscript, and then was lucky enough to get a deal. I seem to recall reading somewhere when I was still early on in the process that John Grisham had received around sixty-one rejections, so I wasn’t too disheartened whenever I heard the ‘thunk’ of my manuscript landing on my doormat, though I made sure I staggered my submissions so I could incorporate any feedback before sending it out to the next person on the list.’
- Your writing is full of witty observations about life, love and relationships. How much of this is down to personal experience?
‘Ha ha ha! All of it! My friends would tell you there’s a lot of me in many of my characters, (though my lawyer has told me to point out there’s absolutely none of my friends in any of them). It’s fair to say I’ve had my share of embarrassment over the years, my friends have all gone through various life and love situations, and I’ve also got quite an active imagination. Suffice to say though, the more excruciating situations in my books are probably more likely to have been developed from personal experience, and using the formula comedy=tragedy+time. I’m sure you’re familiar with the writer’s mantra ‘it’s all good material’. It is.’
- Ed Middleton and ‘TV’s’ Dan Davis have appeared in three novels to date, and both are terrific characters – can we expect any more stories about them? Of all your characters, Adam Bailey from your first novel Best Man is my personal favourite, but apart from a brief mention in Ex-Girlfriends United, you haven’t returned to him in your books. Is there any likelihood of him coming back? Perhaps in a crossover with Ed and Dan?
‘Thank you. I’m very fond of Ed and Dan, and loved writing the sequels to The Ex-Boyfriend’s Handbook, but I can’t see myself returning to them again – or any other characters – in the immediate future. There are too many other people/things to write about, plus it might be seen as a little lazy. After you’ve been writing for a while, you need to flex your writing muscles a bit, and new characters/situations are a great way to do that.’
- Last year CBS optioned The Ex-Boyfriend’s Handbook with a view to turning it into a sitcom. Has there been any further progress since then? Writers don’t usually get much say in these matters, but who would you like to see cast as Ed and Dan, if or when it goes into production?
‘No – these things move incredibly slowly. And if it ever gets made, I’ll be too busy choosing my Malibu beach house to worry about who they’re going to cast!’
- Do you have any advice you can give to aspiring writers and creative writing students out there?
‘Keep at it – I had something like thirty-one rejections, so don’t be disheartened when they start coming in. Often, a rejection doesn’t mean your work isn’t any good – it just means it might not be right for that particular agency at that particular time. And don’t be scared to send your work off to agents – they’re the only ones who can really tell you if it’s good enough to publish (i.e. sell), and (assuming that’s your ultimate goal) how else are you going to find that out? Edit, edit, edit. Read as much as you can in your genre, and learn from both the good and the bad ones. Write what you want to read. Show, don’t tell… No, scratch that last one. But most importantly, sit down and write, and set yourself a regular word target. It really is a numbers game, and every novelist I know does that. My personal target is a thousand a day, and I know if I hit that, then within 3-4 months, I’ll have written the first draft of a novel. And that’s when the fun starts.’
- What does the future hold for Matt Dunn, the writer?
‘I’m just finishing off book 8, which will actually be published as book 7, because the real book 7 doesn’t quite work yet (i.e. it isn’t very good – that’ll teach me to try and write two concurrently so I can have some time off!), so short term, the future will involve getting these two ready for publication in 2013 and 2014. Next? Books nine and ten, hopefully. I’ve also got aspirations to write a stage play and perhaps even a screenplay, though that might be a bridge too far. I mean, it won’t actually be A Bridge Too Far, because that’s already been written… ‘
Ink Pantry would like to thank Matt Dunn for his time, we appreciate him agreeing to be interviewed for our blog. Good luck for your upcoming novels Matt, we can’t wait to read them. Find out more about Matt at www.mattdunn.co.uk