This episode of the Crime Cafe podcast features my interview with crime writer Matt Witten.
Check out our discussion of the writing life and writing for television. Not to mention his latest book, Killer Story.
Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two eBooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy inks for both on my website, debbimack.com under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
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Download a copy of the transcript here.
Debbi: Hi everyone. My guest for this episode has written for a variety of media. Along with writing for television on shows like House, Law & Order, Pretty Little Liars, CSI: Miami and Homicide to name a few, he’s a playwright. He started out as a poet in Grade One, and he’s a novelist as well as a person who has produced a film. I believe it’s like 83 minutes long called—what was it—Drone?
Debbi: Great. Along with his series of Jacob Burns Mysteries, he’s published two novels that are thrillers. The first of those is The Necklace, which has been published in English as well as seven other languages, and has been optioned for adaptation to film by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Production Company. His latest book is Killer Story. I’ve started it, and I have to tell you, once you start the book, it is really hard to put down. It is literally almost unputdownable. I would’ve been here holding it in my hands if it wasn’t by my reading chair right now waiting for me and I’m anxiously waiting to get back to it. Anyway, it is my pleasure to have today a talented multi-hyphenate Matt Witten. Hi, Matt. How are you doing?
Matt: Very good, thank you, Debbi. Thanks for having me.
Debbi: Sure thing. It’s my pleasure. I just want to start out by saying you have the most impressive website that I’ve seen lately. It is so awesome just reading it. Go there. I would suggest everybody go there to mattwittenwriter.com. Do I have that right?
Matt: You do. Yeah.
Debbi: Excellent. There’s so much there about you, about your books that I just thought was really interesting reading. When I looked at your About page, I was wondering what to ask you about first, because I noticed that you became very determined about becoming a writer after a health crisis. Can you talk about what spurred that determination in you?
Matt: Sure. I was 18 years old and I got an undiagnosed illness, and I promised myself that if I ever got well again, that I would remember that writing was at the core of my being and I would stick to writing. And after about two and a half months, I did get well again, and I’ve stuck to that determination or decision to stick to writing. You know, throughout my life, despite the ups and downs of the writer’s life, which has certainly had its downs, I have stuck to writing throughout. I would say there was one exception when I weakened when I was in my late 30s or about 40 years old, when I said I’m not having any luck and I applied to law school, and I got in and I got a good scholarship. It cost $20,000, but I got a scholarship for $17,500 per year, and I was thinking about going, and then the week after I got into law school, my first book was accepted for publication. And a week after that, I got the call from Law & Order to come out to Los Angeles to write for Law & Order.
I was 18 years old and I got an undiagnosed illness, and I promised myself that if I ever got well again, that I would remember that writing was at the core of my being and I would stick to writing.
Debbi: Oh my gosh!
Matt: So I just decided to stick with the writing. So other than that brief flirtation with law school, I’ve remembered the decision that I made when I was 18, that this really is who I am and I should stick with it, no matter what.
Debbi: I can just hear the screams of 10,000 lawyers who don’t like their jobs going aaahhh! Yeah. I stuck with law school, practiced law even, and ended up becoming a writer anyway.
Matt: That’s wonderful. I do sort of have a theory that sometimes the decisions we think are really important aren’t that important. It’s conceivable that I would actually, to be honest, have been equally happy perhaps if I had gone to law school and become a lawyer and done some kind of law that interested me. So even though I say this, and I did stick with what was at the core of my being, who knows? I mean, who knows really? Life is a mystery. I know when we moved from … at the time that I’m speaking of, that crossroads of my life, we were living in Saratoga Springs, New York, a small town in New York, and I could have kept writing the novels, which is where … my novels were set there. I could have kept doing that, but I felt like oh, this is a chance to go to L.A. and write for TV, the big leagues, and I mean, we’ve had a good life, lives, my family and I, but honestly, I think looking back on it, I probably would’ve been equally happy if Law & Order had never come up, TV had never come up, and I’d just been in Saratoga writing novels. Even that would’ve been a good path. Anyway, that’s my theory as I get older, that the things we think are truly important in our lives may be are not so key as we think.
Debbi: I think there’s something to that. Really, I do. There’s a lot to be said for simply being content with what you have. Not that you can’t excel and do better at it, but just understanding what it is, who you are, what you like, and what you want to do, regardless of what the world tells you you’re supposed to do, you know?
Matt: Yes. Yes. And whatever you need to work out in your personality, your character, you’re going to work out one way or another, no matter what you do. It’s an exaggeration, of course. I mean, if you’re facing tremendous poverty, that’s a whole other kind of a thing, but to some extent, life just goes how it goes.
Debbi: Precisely. Yeah. Let’s see. You also have written plays. Was that how you started with playwriting?
Matt: I did start as a playwright. I had a crush on my 10th grade drama teacher, and so I wrote a play in 10th grade. It got done at the local Methodist church at the women’s group, I got paid $10, and I got hooked. And yeah, for sure, I wrote plays until I was about in my mid-30s. That’s my first thing.
Debbi: And some of those plays have been published so they can be read.
Matt: Yep, yep. They’ve been published by Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service. I haven’t written a play for a long time, I think for about 20, 25 years, but they still get produced sometimes. One of them got produced a few months ago at a prep school in Massachusetts, which I enjoyed a great deal, and another one got produced in Japan last year. So it’s fun to see these plays living on, for sure.
I haven’t written a play for a long time, I think for about 20, 25 years, but they still get produced sometimes.
Debbi: That’s fantastic. It’s wonderful. Your first fiction were the Jacob Burns Mysteries, correct?
Debbi: Are you still working on those novels? Are you continuing the series?
Matt: The short answer is no. I wrote four of them back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then that’s about when I got the call to come work for television. So I wrote one or two of them my first one or two years of TV, but then I got too busy writing TV and I couldn’t write those anymore. So I will say that now 20 years later, I have gotten the itch to write another one. I thought it would be funny. The Jacob Burns novels are about a guy who’s like me at that time, an aspiring writer living in Saratoga without that much money, which was me at the time. And I thought it would be fun to take that same character 25 years down the line after he’s been writing for television for 20 years as I have and is getting back into novel writing like I am, and just to take that same character and pick him up 25 years later.
The Jacob Burns novels are about a guy who’s like me at that time, an aspiring writer living in Saratoga without that much money, which was me at the time.
I just thought that would be kind of a hilarious thing to do. So I actually do have two plots in mind, and I’m planning to ask my agent how he would feel about my writing books that are cozy-ish again after writing these thrillers. I don’t want to confuse my readers too much. I mean, I’ve got these thrillers and that’s kind of my brand right now so I’m a little hesitant, but anyway, I am feeling a little bit of an itch so I may talk to my agent about that.
Debbi: Yeah. Well, you have to kind of follow your gut a little bit on these things, I think.
Debbi: Write what suits you at that time and hope that your readers enjoy your style enough to kind of follow along, I think. That’s my thought.
Matt: I completely agree with you. I completely agree. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. That’s what I tell aspiring writers. Write what you love. Don’t try to follow trends. Don’t try to do something. So for me, it’s a little bit of a new thing to think of really getting an agent’s advice and so on at the beginning part of the stage, but I might try the new thing. I might try it. I would only write something that I love, but I also might try to find out from the beginning if it seems to make commercial sense to my agent. So if I can combine the two, then I’ll do that.
That’s what I tell aspiring writers. Write what you love. Don’t try to follow trends.
Debbi: That’s an excellent approach. Yeah, definitely run it by somebody else who has their finger on the pulse. Let’s see. When people think of thrillers, they so often think of “end of the world” stakes on a global scale, but yours seem to be very personal “end of the world” stakes in your thrillers. Can you talk about how you picked your protagonist, say for Killer Story, and why you chose to write about a podcaster?
Matt: Sure. I think that there’s all kinds of ways you can write thrillers, and as a reader, I tend to enjoy the psychological thrillers or the domestic thrillers, and I tend to not really like spy thrillers that much. I tend to find them, for me, not that believable, and some of the big international political thrillers or huge things I just don’t like as much. So really what I’m writing is the kind of book I like to read, and so that’s why I write what I do.
In terms of specifically Killer Story, there were a lot of things motivating me to write it. One of them is the protagonist is a journalist, and I’m just fascinated. She’s 28 years old, and I’m fascinated by journalists, by young people that get into the field of journalism today, which is in some ways such a crazy field to get into because jobs are disappearing, newspapers are dying, journalists are making less money, but these young people have so much idealism and desire to tell the stories in a way that journalism tells these stories best so they go for it, and they do that. And I admire that in the same way that I admire my own foolishness in becoming a playwright in my twenties when it was sort of a crazy thing to do. So I wanted to write a book about these folks and about the obstacles that they face, both the moral and the financial obstacles that they face as they’re trying to start a new career as journalists and as podcasters, and in the case of this novel, a podcaster.
I’m fascinated by journalists, by young people that get into the field of journalism today, which is in some ways such a crazy field to get into …
I was interested in podcasts, partly because I listen to true crime podcasts all the time. I love them. And I’m interested in, you know, imagine if you were doing a podcast and you wanted to get a lot of viewers, you wanted to be successful, make a lot of money, you might feel a little bit of a temptation to maybe futz with the truth just a little bit if it got you more viewers, and if maybe somebody got a little bit hurt along the way, because they were unfairly viewed as a suspect, or other kinds of things that might come up in a podcast, you might just be willing to be a little bit morally questionable in order to get more clicks. So that’s what I was interested in. An idealistic young person who faces some things that kind of challenge them morally and financially.
And then briefly, I’ll also say, the main character in the novel is someone that has been laid off through no fault of her own three times and is about to be laid off a fourth time. I can say that without it being a spoiler because it occurs early in the book, and I relate to that. Anybody that’s worked for TV gets laid off at least once, and in my case, I have been laid off three times. Sometimes it happens because your show just gets canceled, but sometimes it happens because you’re really not clicking with the head writer. You know, your visions of the show just don’t match, and so you don’t get picked up for the next season. And that can be very—or it was for me and I think for everybody—very emotionally stressful. So that’s another reason I wrote it, just to work out some of my own emotions by writing about it with this character and what she’s going through.
Debbi: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a tough business all around. It’s true in TV writing, it’s true in publishing. People with contracts get dropped. The contract ran out. Sorry, we aren’t re-upping you.
Matt: It’s a big blow. It’s an ego blow, and …
Debbi: It’s tough. Yeah.
Matt: It’s hard to view it in a positive way, even if ultimately it might be a positive in some way, it’s hard to view it that way.
Debbi: It is, yeah. But so often these setbacks will be learning experiences or opportunities for something else as you suggested.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely.
Debbi: Yeah, definitely. What is your movie Drones about?
Matt: Drones is about the guys, the US Army guys and women that will hang out in a trailer in Nevada, and they’ll push a button and they’ll kill somebody 8000 miles away. It’s an incredibly stressful job. I mean, you go out there, you possibly kill somebody, maybe you do kill somebody, and then you go out and have pizza and you’re just very emotionally—or not emotionally, you’re physically removed from the havoc that you’re wreaking, and that may seem like it might make it easier. You might think it’s easier to just push a button far away from it than if you’re an actual pilot who’s flying above a scene and then you bomb the scene. But it’s actually more psychologically difficult, according to studies by the Department of Defense, to be a drone airplane operator than a manned airplane pilot, because that disconnect is so confusing for people.
I mean, you go out there, you possibly kill somebody, maybe you do kill somebody, and then you go out and have pizza and you’re just very emotionally—or not emotionally, you’re physically removed from the havoc that you’re wreaking …
And there’s also other elements to being a drone operator of an airplane that are very difficult. For instance, in my movie and in reality, if you kill somebody, if you drop a bomb, push a button and kill somebody 8,000 feet away, part of your job is to look over the battlefield afterwards and to see who’s dead, and get it in as close as you can on the body parts that are strewn around and figure out, okay, that’s from a man, that’s from a woman, that looks like the leg of a young child. You have to see who you’ve killed. Whereas if you’re flying a plane, you drop the bomb. BOOM! You’re gone. You never see the people that you’ve killed. You never see the bodies. As a drone operator, there’s a very good chance that you will. Obviously if there’s too much burning and smoke and stuff, you won’t.
For instance, in my movie and in reality, if you kill somebody, if you drop a bomb, push a button and kill somebody 8,000 feet away, part of your job is to look over the battlefield afterwards and to see who’s dead, and get it in as close as you can on the body parts that are strewn around …
So it’s just an incredibly stressful job. And it’s a very interesting idea, drones in the sense that we try to fight these wars where none of us are ever going to die. So we have these wars that we have going on in … you know, I haven’t done the research lately, but when I was doing the research when I wrote the movie, we had about 8 different countries where we were killing people—Sudan, Pakistan, all these different countries where no Americans ever got killed. And the thing about that is it makes it easier to declare war. It makes it easier to kill others if there’s no chance you’re going to get killed. So we have these wars without consequences, and it’s very strange.
And the latest wrinkle is that AI is getting involved in running these drones, so it may become more bizarre. AI will be flying the airplanes. There won’t even be that pilot who’s doing it in Nevada. It will be even more removed from the killings that we do. And right now they’re saying that AI will never make the decision to push the button, but we’ll see if that stays the case.
It makes it easier to kill others if there’s no chance you’re going to get killed. So we have these wars without consequences, and it’s very strange.
Debbi: Yeah. Boy, that’s a whole topic there to talk about AI. Jeez! That’s frightening, what you just said. That is chilling. It reminds me of a Star Trek episode, but we won’t go into that. If you know Star Trek, you know what I’m talking about. What advice would you give to anyone interested in having a writing career?
Matt: Well, I give three pieces of advice. One is to write, and the second is to read in the genre that you’re writing in. So if you’re writing thrillers, read a lot of thrillers. If you’re writing TV dramas, watch a lot of TV dramas, whatever it is. Just watch. Read a lot or watch a lot, and really try to think as deeply as you can about what you’re reading and watching. And the third thing I would say is try to form a community of some kind. So, for instance, for myself, I have a writer’s group that meets many Fridays, and another group that meets once a month, and that gives me a sense of community. The idea being that writing can be a very—especially writing novels, not so much writing TV—but writing novels can be a very lonely business, so it’s really important for me not to be lonely.
Another form of community that I have is that I like to do a lot of my writing in coffee shops. So every morning I’ll get up, ride my bike to a coffee shop in Santa Monica, and there’s a bunch of other writers, about five other writers that come there every morning or most mornings. And so I see them and we have a community. We write, but we also chat before and after. My wife calls it Cheers for writers, so it’s great. Another form of community that people often have is taking a class, taking an online class or an in-person class, and they get to know each other and often they keep knowing each other after the class and may even form writing groups afterwards, and you can find the classes anywhere. UCLA extension where I’ve taught for 20 years is good, but there’s a million other places. So whatever it is. If you’re in a small town, just call up the two or three writers you know in that small town and see if you can get together for coffee. And it’s good to have people reading your work and letting you know what works and what doesn’t, and also just sharing and just being together and sharing that experience. So those are my three pieces of advice—write, read in your genre and form a community. Try not to be lonely.
[T]hose are my three pieces of advice—write, read in your genre and form a community. Try not to be lonely.
Debbi: Those are great pieces of advice. Excellent. And I will also have to ask you, on your website, it says “I never really intended to become a TV writer, but somehow or other I got hired to write a freelance episode for Homicide, and this led to other things“. Okay. That sounds just a bit glib. Somehow or other, you got an episode of Homicide written freelance. Did you submit to them? I guess for all of the aspiring screenwriters out there, I would like to ask, what’s your best tip for getting into the business of screenwriting?
Matt: Well, the tip that I would have would be to—I’m better at giving tips for getting into TV writing than into movie writing—so my tip for getting into TV writing is to write a pilot for a series that you think up. Yeah, just do that. Write a pilot, and then after you write that pilot, write another one. And then when you have one that you think is good enough, then you submit that to an agent anyway you can think of. Any kind of personal contact you can drum up, or a manager by the way, an agent or a manager, any kind of personal contact you can drum up. Look for reputable contests to enter. That can be a good way of connecting with agents and managers if you win the contest, or if you’re an honorary mention.
Write a pilot, and then after you write that pilot, write another one. And then when you have one that you think is good enough, then you submit that to an agent anyway you can think of.
I would also say another good way is, if you’re prepared to move to LA to attempt to get a job as a writing assistant or a production assistant on a show, you’ll meet lots of people. You’ll be in the mix. It’s a very helpful way. A lot of people get into it through that. So those are my biggest pieces of advice. You’re going to want to have definitely one good writing sample that should be either a pilot. Well, it should be a TV pilot. And then you’re going to want to have a second writing sample that is either another TV pilot, or else, an episode of an existing show of TV that you’ve written. Just a sample episode, or a novel or a play or a movie or short story. A second piece of writing.
And then you’re going to want to have a second writing sample that is either another TV pilot, or else, an episode of an existing show of TV that you’ve written
I forgot to say one thing, which is some people will also shoot shorts—short movies—and they’ll use that as a writing sample, and that can also be a good way to get into the business. So those are the main pieces of advice I would give.
Debbi: Well, those are all awesome. Great pieces of advice. Thank you for that. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?
Matt: Yeah, buy my book. Sacred Journey, I called it Sacred Journey. That’s funny. I had a sudden brain whatever into a play I wrote 30 years ago. I called it Sacred Journey. The name of this book is Killer Story. So anyway, buy my book, Killer Story.
Debbi: And it is a killer story, let me tell you. Talk about truth in advertising. I started this thing, I could not put it down. I had it in my hands at the conference I went to this weekend. It was just astonishing. I really could not put it down, so well done and thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.
Matt: It’s a pleasure. Nice talking with you.
Debbi: Same here. Thank you. Yes. On that note, I will just say, I want to give a brief shout out of congratulations to the organizers of that conference. It’s the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity conference. It takes place every year. This was their 10th anniversary and they celebrated big time. It’s organized by Austin and Denise Camacho, who are absolutely amazing people, and it is an absolutely awesome conference. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in becoming a writer or in promoting your work as a writer, whatever. I was on a podcasting panel with some wonderful people—Beau Lake, John DeDakis, Jenna Harte, and Matty Dalrymple, who was our moderator, who also interviewed me before the conference, which was very sweet and wonderful.
Also, I would like to say that I have a Patreon page and I am currently running a special offer on Patreon. So please check out my Patreon page to check out the special offer where I will offer a shoutout, in your name, of your favorite book. I want to hear what it is you are reading and you’re enjoying. So, do check that out. And on that note, I’ll just wrap up by saying our next guest will be Brian Lebeau. And until then, take care and happy reading.
Check us out on Patreon, where my special offer runs until Sept. 24!