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  • Nikky Lee

10 Questions with J J Mathews

10 Questions with J J Mathews image banner

James Jacob (J J) Mathews grew up with his nose stuck in books. A voracious reader in his youth, he devoured all of the science fiction and fantasy books he could find at the local library. J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Larry Niven, Voltaire and Greg Bear were some of his early influences, with many other authors added to his bookshelf as time went on. Broadening out to read more genres as an adult, J J has always held a special place for fantasy and sci-fi.

J J is married and lives in Hamilton, New Zealand with his wife and three boys, and writes in his spare time.

The Taylor Neeran Chronicles is his first venture into science fiction.

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?

I have lived in Hamilton, New Zealand, since 2008 when I moved here from Canada with my family. Well, my wife moved back to NZ as I originally met her while working in Hamilton back in 1990-1992.

I write in several genres: business (project management) and children's books (actually project management novels for children ages 9-12, a very specific global micro-niche). Those books have been translated into three other languages so far, so they are quite popular in certain circles.

On the speculative fiction side of things, I started writing science fiction novels in 2017 after self-publishing my fifth children's book. My fourth sci-fi novel was released on July 29, 2020.

What drew you to that particular genre?

If I can focus on the sci-fi side of things, I have loved sci-fi and fantasy since I was a youth. I cut my reading-teeth on The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Ray Bradbury's novels and many others over the years. While I do read other genres, I have a soft spot for sci-fi, as long as it's well-written. I had always wanted to publish a sci-fi book since my teen years but it took awhile for me to work up to it. Decades, really.

What’s your best known work?

I only have one sci-fi series so far, the Taylor Neeran Chronicles. I've published four books in the series since I started writing them in April 2017. I'm currently working on book number five, Infestation.

Illiya and Incursion were published in 2018, with Intercession fast on their heels in January 2019. I wrote the first three books one after another during a 10-month period so the series would be tightly connected as I began the editing process. Icarus took a little longer and was released in July 2020.

Illiya by J J Mathews book cover

What inspired you to write the series?

The first spark for Illiya dates back to my university years (circa 1989) when I wrote a short story (unpublished) about aliens with an exotic biology. It was a terrible story, and I left it in the bottom of my drawer for years.

After writing children's books and finally building up the confidence in my own writing skills (in particular, dialogue), I decided I was ready to start preparing to write a science fiction novel, or even a series. I spent three years working out the exotic biology and the backstory of the alien species and the planet in my head before writing a single word of the story down. For a while, I wasn't sure who the other characters would be but when I got into the writing of it, I found that I was writing a YA sci-fi with a 19-year-old female protagonist.

Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between?

When you spend three years working on the biology of a planet and the back-story of a species, it's hard to say you were a pantser.

I tend to do a bit of both, when it gets down to the actual writing. I do an outline—a high level one anyway, with a sentence or two per chapter laid out as the framework. I have an idea of where I want things to go but in the writing itself I sometimes find that isn't where the story or the characters need to go, so I'm flexible if things change for the better. I've drafted a few full endings at the start of writing a book that I've ended up discarding completely, but that's OK. Having a vision or goal post, even if it changes, is better than a long wandering ramble.

I do follow the three act process, with part one and two of the second act, so I use that as a bit of a guide for balancing the novels. I wrote the children's books without any real knowledge of "how you were supposed to do a story in three acts", so I was worried for a bit when I learned the formal structures. Fortunately, my kids books do all follow that structure, with balanced acts, so you don't necessarily have to know all of the formal structures to actually write it. With 32,000 words that's pretty easy to do. It's a lot harder when you get into full-length science fiction novels, and mine all tip over the 100K mark, so structure and balance are even more important.

So I generally plot first, and then let the gaps fill in as I go.

As for the writing itself, I can spend hours, days, or weeks visualising a number of scenes, and they're quite happy to simmer away like that, changing a bit this way and that... but when the scene starts playing like a movie in my head, or the characters start having actual conversations, then I know it's time to start writing the words down. Sometimes it's just a scene at a time, then the characters go quiet for a while. Other times I find that there is more than one scene stacked up behind the first one, and as soon as one scene is finished, the next one is clamoring at the door. Sometimes, I can finish a scene, get up for a short walk, then the next one is ready to go. Other times it has to wait until tomorrow to be ready, it depends on how well-formed the scene is in my subconscious, I suppose. At times it feels like I'm writing a documentary of the characters acting things out in front of my mind's eye, and I'm just along for the ride, typing as fast as I can go. One torturous day when I was finishing up the first draft of Intercession, I wrote for nearly 13 hours straight and couldn't stop for more than short breaks, because the story wouldn't stop flowing. The pressure of built-up words was incredible until I got them OUT.

What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?

I spent countless hours reading about neutron stars when I was working on Icarus (Taylor Neeran Chronicles book #4). I needed to figure out how to create one (yes, really) inside of an inhabited system, without obliterating the population all at once. It needed to be a slow, lingering death tied to the orbits of the planets... unless they could be saved, of course. In doing all of that research, I also determined that the tools used to create it couldn't be used to “make things better”, so the protagonist has a big problem on her hands... and I had to write a slightly different ending.

What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?

I've written plenty of anecdotes from personal experience in my project management book and articles, and those were used to support a lesson in a chapter or an article. But I wouldn't say they were that personal.

Instead, I think that some of the most personal scenes that I have written have been through the eyes of my central protagonist—Taylor Neeran herself. She has to deal with a lot of situations as she's coming to terms with her situation on the planet in Illiya, and she's just getting to know Char, her alien companion. She's discovering her own humanity and coming of age, all at once, and those can be intense times.

Readers of the books say they feel deeply connected to Taylor and the other characters, and I think that has a lot to do with how I connect to her as the author. If I cry while I'm writing a scene (yeah, well, hey, guys can cry) I know there's something deeper going on, more visceral, and that seems to resonate with the reader as well.

What stands out for me as one of the most intimate, personal scenes for her in Illiya was when she eats a single raw Yurm, a small, furry creature about the size of your palm. The reasons behind it and the lessons she learns from it are deep, moving and significant. Yes, it was gross, but also sadly beautiful as she learns to appreciate life, upfront and personal, literally in the palm of her hand. Respect life, honour it, and waste nothing.

Who are your literary influences? In what way?

There are many great authors that I have read over the years that influenced me in different ways—opening up the imagination, exploring new ideas, visualising life on other planets. Authors over the years whose stories/series I loved and devoured: Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card, among others. I am still struck by the HeeChee series by Frederik Pohl, which I thought was amazing in terms of concepts. Imagine—inhabited star systems hidden within the super massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy? Mind-bending stuff.

What I can say is that since I started to write my own stories, my influences from present day reading are as significant if not more so than the authors in my youth. I pay a lot more attention to how the story is told, rather than just reading it and either enjoying the story or not. Now, I am able to see why certain stories work well, and why others fail, sometimes miserably.

If I had to pick out a couple of contemporary authors whose writing have impressed or influenced me in my approach to writing, I would say that Patrick Rothfus' Name of the Wind is a model of powerful, spare writing - and by that, I mean not a word is wasted. Since then I picked up Wool by Hugh Howey and was completely blown away by his handling of drip-fed detail, compelling character development and gritty realism. Hard acts to follow, but full of powerful lessons.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

On my physical bedside table, The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffery. However, I read many books as ebooks, and I'm currently reading through Year's Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, which is a collection of short stories. I've also been working my way through The Hobbit again, Gods of Blood and Bone by Azalea Ellis and I've nearly finished Untamed by Madeline Dyer. Sometimes I need to switch books, then come back to them— sometimes you're in the mood for one kind of story over another. It's certainly handy to have all of those books on your phone!

Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?

My books are available on Amazon (Kindle), and the paperback versions are widely available through online book sellers. Illiya is widely available through online booksellers in ebook form, but I currently have the rest of the Taylor Neeran Chronicles limited to Amazon for a while, so people can also access them through Kindle Unlimited. My other (non-sci-fi) books are widely available in both ebook and paperback formats through online book sellers.

Locally in New Zealand, the Taylor Neeran Chronicles paperbacks are available at Penny's Bookstore in Chartwell mall in Hamilton (so far).

You can also start at my websites, and go from there to find the books.

Follow J J’s writings on these platforms!


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