Today, I welcome American author, Matt Betts, whose debut novel, Odd Men Out, was released earlier this year. Described as a steampunk / alternate history novel, Odd Men Out follows protagonist Cyrus Joseph Spencer as he is forced to take shelter from an enemy known as ‘Chewers’. Here is the blurb:
The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.
I have to be honest, I’m not that familiar with the ‘steampunk’ genre, but I also have to confess that the amalgamation of the historic civil war and the horror genre favourite, Zombies, makes for an original concept. It sounds incredibly well-knit and I’m certain this is a novel that takes you on a complex journey. With more than a handful of 5* reviews already, I think it is fair to say that Odd Men Out is definitely one read you’ll want to check out – if not for the plot, then to see how the author has merged zombies into the framework.
Matt Betts is a former radio personality and reporter from Lima, Ohio. He attended the University of Toledo for much longer than he should have, but actually made it out alive. His fiction and poetry appears in various publications, including Kaleidotrope, eSteampunk and The Book of Tentacles anthology.
His book of speculative poetry, See No Evil, Say No Evil, is available from Alliteration Ink
Matt’s first novel, Odd men out, is available from Dog Star Books.
- Tell us a little about your novel, Odd Men Out and how the idea came about.
I’d been writing short stories and flash fiction for a while, and all of that work had speculative elements. So, I started OMO fairly soon after I became aware of steampunk. I had no concept of it until, maybe four years ago or so. I loved everything about it and read as much as I could to get a handle on it. When I was ready to come up with my own story, I felt like I had a good handle on the genre. Originally, I started writing a short story about the crew of a vehicle called a ‘Turtle’ and the zombie outbreak that occurs on it. The story got rejected a number of times, but editors suggested they wanted to see it expanded and I felt like I could move it to the larger canvas of a novel. The ideas and the possibilities were very intriguing to me and I immediately wanted to see what concepts I could marry to the zombie and steampunk genres. As a big fan of horror, I considered a number of things, but I caught the original Godzilla movie (again) one night and thought that would be a great fit for steampunk. There were a lot of other elements that ended up going into the book, but those were the building blocks-zombies, steampunk and a giant lizard. The rest worked itself out.
- Did the book just happen to fall into the ‘steampunk’ genre, or was that intended from the start?
It was intended from the start, really. I had the idea early on that I wanted to write a steampunk novel mixed with old-school horror elements, among other things.
- I’m intrigued about your version of zombies, known in your book as ‘Chewers’. The zombie market, let’s say, is extremely popular at the moment. Tell us a little about your Chewers, and how they differ from the typical zombie.
When I decided to use the chewers, I saw them as the standard George Romero creatures from the movies. I started out writing what I thought of as a zombie novel with the shambling hordes and everything, but as I wrote I realized that the real story I wanted to tell wasn’t a zombie story. It evolved into something else. I had a completely different story to focus on and the zombies were pushed to the back. As I came to grips with this change, I realized their place in the book. They were the background – the zombie or chewer outbreak was dragging on and they’d become a fact of life for this world. People knew how to deal with them, more or less, and the creatures had become a part of the landscape. I had a note in my files that just said ‘carpet’ in regards to the monsters. I made them a part of everyday life.
I was kind of floored that I’d kind of set out to write a zombie novel and failed.
Chewers attack and devour the living much like regular zombies. In movies and novels there are specifications that these things must be shot in the head, but I don’t think I made any such stipulations. Chewers just had to be destroyed by any means possible.
- What are some of the themes in Odd Men Out? Cyrus Joseph Spencer, your protagonist, sounds like a rather unlikely hero – a choice being thrust upon him; no doubt one that will test him. What is it about Cyrus to you think people will connect with?
I hope that readers connect with Cyrus on some level for the fact that he’s just a guy trying to make his way in a very difficult world. I think as we first meet him, he’s not necessarily a likable guy. He’s cranky and he’s got a tough job. As we move on through the story and learn more about the world, we see the dilemma he’s in – there aren’t too many decent ways of making a living for a man like him. He’s loyal to his friends and goes to great lengths to protect them and avoid the dangers of the world around them. So the themes of duty and honour are ones that run through the whole story, not just for Cyrus, but others.
- Is Cyrus your only hero? By taking a closer look at the cover, one could get the impression there are a few stand-out characters. How do they fit in together, and how would you describe their dynamic.
It starts out with Cyrus and his crew, notably his friend, Lucinda. In their efforts to escape disaster, they meet up with a United Nations crew that helps them out. The United Nations was formed to help keep the peace between the North and the South following the treaty that ended the Civil War. The story follows Cyrus and Lucinda as they interact with this crew consisting of half Confederate and half Federal troops. Many of this U.N. crew become important to the story. The idea of the crew being mixed as far as their loyalties and torn between keeping the peace and hanging on to old grudges makes the atmosphere a little tense to say the least. But for the most part they each believe in what they are doing.
The captain is Lyle Cashe, who commands the airship Leonidas Polk. Bethy Nolan is a crew member who ends up in a bigger role in Cyrus’ adventures than she planned. Lowell is a former lawman who joined up to help keep the peace between the two nations. We meet a few new people along the way.
- Your villain has acquired some great praise. How important is it to not only have a great hero, but equally a fantastically written baddie?
I really loved writing my good guys, don’t get me wrong. But once I started writing the antagonist, I had so much fun. Tom Preston was such a joy to write. I would find myself really getting into his chapters. His are the ones I tend to present when I do live readings. He’s just such a jerk, on top of being an all-around bad man.
With that in mind, I had to go back and make sure the spotlight wasn’t shining just on him. As you said, there had to be a balance. He couldn’t shuffle on stage, steal the show and then leave the good guys to look dull in the next chapter. I made sure that they had relatively equal footing. It wouldn’t do to have everyone rooting for the bad guy, would it? Eh. Maybe in another novel.
- What caught my attention upon reading about your book, was that it tells a story of alternate history. That must have been exciting, taking elements of real history and mixing it with fiction to create a world full of depth. Did you have to do much research for this book, or did you just let your mind steer the way?
I used to be a reporter and I really used to enjoy doing research. For the book, I had to dig into what happened during the Civil War on the West Coast. I need to find the locations of battles and bases and determine how, or if they impacted my story. It was also important to see what the actual technology of the time was, so I could meld it with where I wanted it to be. I looked forward in time to see what was coming up in terms of important inventions, weapons and other things, to see how I could accelerate that tech. It was great fun to dig into the internet and local libraries for ideas on how I could make it work.
- I’ve read that you are working on a sequel to Odd Men Out, indicating that it may evolve into a series. Some people say that the second book is much harder to write than the first. How are you finding it?
It’s tough. It is. For many reasons. You know, there’s the sophomore slump. You have a good first novel that’s well-received and then have to follow up and prove that wasn’t the only good story you had in you. I’m looking at what people liked about the first one and trying to stay true to that style and vision. So, it’s moving at a snail’s pace, but it’s moving. Ultimately, I’m treating it like I treated the first one: I’m writing a book that I would want to read. I can’t try to play to expectations, or trends or what specific readers might want. I have to please myself as a reader first and foremost.
- Public reaction and reviews for Odd Men Out have been favourable to say the least. What has surprised you the most about feedback?
Critics have been wildly generous in their reviews of OMO, absolutely. I’m floored by it and thrilled to hear how much people like it. What surprises me most I suppose is that it got any reaction. You know? It’s a first novel, from a new author, from a newly-launched press… it could have easily been overlooked and pushed aside for any one of those reasons.
Beyond that, I threw a lot of things into the story – horror, sci-fi, giant monsters, zombies, etc. – and most of the reviews go out of their way to mention that I mixed them well. Like I said, I wrote a story that I wanted to read, and the fact that others like how it turned out is wonderful.
- Steampunk is a rather niche genre; one that some people are a little wary of. If you were to sell the genre in order to get more people reading it, what would you say?
Steampunk is a niche, but it seems sci-fi is getting more and more specialized, or those niches are becoming more pronounced.
Steampunk spans a wide range of eras and styles. From the prototypes like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells up to Tim Powers and Cherie Priest. The early steampunk took place in the Victorian England, but there are no limits on where and when it can take place. Mine is the late 1800s in the West Coast of the United States. I have friends that write in Japan, and Persia. It can be anywhere.
- What was the last book you’ve read … did you enjoy it?
I used to read so much more, but writing and my kids take up so much time. The last book I read was The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. I did enjoy it quite a bit. His take on the steampunk genre is very lively and had me hooked from pretty early on. I’m jumping into some nonfiction next and reading Simon Pegg’s autobiography Nerd Do Well. I love Pegg and I haven’t read anything light like that for quite a while.
I also recently picked up Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine. It sounds like a great read.
- What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?
I’d like to keep working on the craft and telling new stories. I’ll certainly explore the same world as OMO, but there are other stories I’d love to tell. I have a sequel to OMO in the works and can’t wait to finish it up and get it out to readers.
The one thing that really struck me when I read Matt’s answers was how passionate he is about the steampunk genre, and his dedication to research shows that actually, whilst Odd Men Out is his first novel, it is as qualified as any to introduce the Steampunk genre if you’ve not ventured into it before. I particularly was pleased to read how he looked into inventions of the period – it’s a great and original idea.
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