Matthew Arnold Stern began his writing career in high school, graduating to technical writing, journalism, public relations and author of several books, including The Remainders and Amiga. In his interview with Eat Like a Writer, he shares why writers should stop calling themselves "aspiring writers," how food helps readers connect with a book's characters, and the ways writing can be therapeutic for the reader and writer.
Tell us a little about how you got started writing.
It started at Reseda High School in Reseda, California.
I was going through typical teenage drama, and I turned to writing to deal with it.
My English teacher, Darlene Loiler, read my writing, told me I have talent, and encouraged me to develop it. I got involved with the school’s creative writing magazine and newspaper. I gained a love for writing that I’ve been developing ever since.
Your bio says you’re a technical writer, publicist, and journalist. How do you juggle all of those and which is your favorite?
I see technical writing, book writing, publicity, and journalism as aspects of my writing life that all fit together. Technical writing pays the bills. It’s a career I started in the 80s at the start of the personal computer industry. Those early experiences were the inspiration for my novel Amiga.
To write accurate documentation and quality fiction, I call upon my journalism skills. From journalism, I learned to dig for sources, verify facts, and put information together quickly.
As for publicity, it is an essential skill for publishing.
Why did you want to write a book?
That’s the dream for every writer, isn’t it? To create something tangible you can put on a bookshelf and tell everyone, “Look what I made!”
That was my dream when I started writing in high school. But it took years of education, false starts, and a few attempts at writing a screenplay before I created my first novel, Offline.
I started Offline in the spring of 2001 and worked on it during every free moment I had. I would bring my laptop to my daughter’s swim practices and write in any spot that had enough shade.
The first draft was finished in 2003. I submitted it to several publishers and agents. When I didn’t find any takers, I decided to self-publish it through Lulu in 2005.
Having something I created that I could hold in my hand was a tremendous achievement for me.
"If you change the life of only one person with your words, you’ve succeeded as a writer."
Why did you continue to write books after the first one?
When you’ve done it once, you want to see if you can push it further.
My goal was to write something that gets picked up by a publisher. I achieved that in 2019 when Black Rose Writing published Amiga.
Now, my focus is building an audience. I look for opportunities to connect with readers and gain new ones. This is where my experience in public relations kicks in.
It also motivates me to write more novels. The best way to build readership is to create more books. If one doesn’t connect with readers, the next one might. And if readers like my newer books, they’ll check out the older ones.
It reminds me of when I binge-read Kurt Vonnegut in high school and college. It started with Slaughterhouse Five that I read in a high school AP English class. I loved that book so much that I read his earlier works. The first new hardcover novel I ever bought was Jailbird in 1979. I hope I can connect with readers in the same way.
"If you want to achieve a goal, claim it. Don’t say you’re an aspiring writer. Say you are a writer and write."
Tell us about your latest book The Remainders?
It tells the story about the broken relationship between a father and son.
The son, Dylan Glass, is an 18-year-old high school dropout who was kicked out of his mother and stepdad’s palatial house. Now homeless, he sleeps in his SUV behind an abandoned movie theater in Reseda.
Although he has a job at a dollar store and support from the people he meets, he finds himself challenged by old temptations and a new woman, the alluring and enigmatic Pearl.
His estranged father, Dr. Oliver Glass, struggles with demons of his own. A private practice and a beautiful girlfriend with children of her own can't make up for a past of tragedy and abuse.
Memories of long-ago terrors constantly haunt Oliver.
Oliver seeks to reconnect with his son. Dylan seeks love and acceptance. Both father and son must overcome their self-destructive urges and painful histories before it’s too late.
You’ve mentioned that you incorporate food into your books. Can you be more specific?
I’ll give you two examples: Sutter Home White Zinfandel and zlikrofi.
When I visited my dad in Marin County in 1986, we drove to the wineries in Napa and Sonoma.
One winery was Sutter Home, where I bought several bottles of White Zinfandel. This was back when the only wines I knew about were white, red, and Boone’s Farm, so White Zinfandel was something new and enjoyable. This also turned out to be the last time I visited my dad before he died.
When I set Amiga in San Rafael, the town where my dad grew up, the association with Sutter Home White Zinfandel was strong for me. I had to include it in the book.
As for zlikrofi, I have a character in The Remainders who came from Slovenia.
I wanted to add a distinctively Slovenian dish, and Zlikrofi is so distinctively Slovenian that it is protected by the European Union as traditional specialties guaranteed (TSG).
The dish consists of dumplings filled with potatoes, onions, and bacon. It can be served by itself or topped with breadcrumbs, gravy, and beef.
I haven’t made it because it requires more time and culinary skill than I have. But it reminds me of similar dishes I’ve enjoyed like gnocchi and beef stroganoff. It’s making my mouth water as I think about it.
"By saving your unfinished work in a boneyard, your writing is never wasted. You can use it to find the fix for a broken story or use pieces to make a healthy story stronger."
Why do you feel food is important in a book?
Food tells us a lot about a character. It’s something all of us do, and watching characters eat helps a reader connect with them.
In The Remainders, food plays an important role. It tells us where characters are at certain points in their lives.