Cathartic Experience: A Conversation with Crime Writer Matt Fitzpatrick
I was thrilled to talk with Cape Cod author Matt Fitzpatrick about his new crime novel, Matriarch Game (the second in his Justin McGee series), as well as family, autobiographical writing, the state of the world, and giving up everything to become a writer. Full-disclosure, I’ve been working with Fitzpatrick to craft these books and support his efforts to get them out to the public. Also, I love writers and books, though what I really love is passion, and Fitzpatrick wants it all so bad: becoming the writer he wants to be, ensuring his words will have an impact on the people he reaches and celebrating his life on the page. It’s a grand exercise in finding one’s voice and it will always be an honor to find myself in the middle of that process. It’s also an honor to share this dialogue with you.
Your new novel Matriarch Game is part of an ongoing series. What do we need to know as we begin this one?
Wow, what a great opening question. Hitting at the soul of the book right out of the gate. My protagonist, Justin McGee, spent years as a high paid assassin within the Boston underworld. Through a horrible deed, he finds himself on the lam on a barrier island in Georgia (not a cliche destination like Florida or Mexico). Through recollections and nightmares, he recalls his past and how constantly “empty” he felt. It’s not until an abused orphan comes into his life that he begins to slowly try to reclaim some semblance of humanity. He’s not going to be leading the local Eagle Scout troop, but is slowly trying to pull back from his own world and construct what will hopefully be a soul. The book focuses on his striving for a sense of “reinvention”, although he still possesses plenty of criminal tendencies. They don’t shake loose overnight. The proverbial clouds do not part for Justin one day. The novel also is a “coming of age” story for a little girl who has been thrown just about every obstacle that life can toss one’s way. She arrives in Justin’s life as a beaten down, weary, and hopeless ragamuffin. It’s through her interaction with Justin and Marlene (Justin’s love interest) that she quickly grows and evolves. The novel really focuses on the “reinvention” of those two characters’ lives.
My first book ended up (unintentionally) being autobiographical, and went places that I had no idea they'd go. At first I thought that Matriarch Game was in no way going to be autobiographical, but in the end, through introspection I realize that there’s no way to get around it. I still look in the mirror and see remnants of Justin and his desire for reinvention. Also, Michonne, the little girl character in the book, I realize is the personification of my two daughters. In many ways, Matriarch Game is a letter from me to my daughters about growing up and being strong women with tenacity and the ability to overcome any obstacle, so matter what’s thrown at you.
So many places to go next with this, though let's start with this idea of "reinvention." I know you've been engaged in an effort to reinvent yourself as an author, and I'd love you to comment on that process, as well as talk about what reinvention means to you as a human being and an author.
Man, you’re pushing introspection on this one. When I left the stockbroker/finance world after 25 years in order to become an author, I left a very social environment. It’s not a world quite as cliche as in the 80s movies like Wall Street, but it’s a world of “scotch & sirloin.” It’s a world of who can be the loudest at the table. In becoming an author, I had to learn to verbally and physically retract. To reinvent my life, I had to learn to embrace solitude and constant cogitation. Being an author can often be a lonely existence. I needed to learn to become one within my own skin and within my own thoughts. There was no more meeting the office crew for a drink at 5:30 every Thursday. It’s more about waking up and taking that extra thirty seconds to stare at the sun rising over the bay.
Reinventing as a human being, for me, really was about wrapping my arms around humility, an often quiet environment, and thoughts that are a lot more stark. In my previous world, the mechanics moved so fast, so I really never got to marry and parse a proper thought. As an author, the thoughts float by you like plankton, and I have the honor and luxury to be able to analyze each one. I guess overall, the biggest component to the reinvention is all about slowing down my thought process, my glances at the world around me, and the conversations that I get to have. In my old world, conversations were just mechanisms to get to the next angle that one sought. Now, conversations are actually “experiences.” Overall, it’s a slowing down of every aspect of your life, and letting each breath draw and end slower and deeper.
It's so interesting to hear you describe how you're experiencing your old life as a finance guy and this new one as a writer. I'm also struck that you've lived a lot of lives and knowing you, I'm hoping you will talk about your childhood and how it uniquely qualifies you to write about the worlds you do.
I had a unique childhood in that I was an only child for ten years until my kid sister came along. While I certainly had many friends at school (I was not an outcast in any way), inherently I had a lot of “alone” time. This is important in how my mind developed because the isolation forces much more introspection and reflection than if I had six siblings and was constantly surrounded by noise and chaos.
Also, I came from a hardcore political family with strong connections to the Kennedys, Tip O’Neill, and all the other usual suspects in the Greater Boston Irish political world. My maternal grandfather was the strong patriarch of the family. He was my world. He was part of the “Greatest Generation” in that he went off to fight Hitler at age 19, landed in Normandy and received two purple hearts, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, etc. When he came back, he entered politics and ended up being Mayor of Lowell, MA for two terms, and served on the City Council for almost forty years. He was especially lucky in that he was Mayor during JFK’s Senate run in Massachusetts, and Lowell was an important voting block for Kennedy. Thus, a friendship ensued.
The constant activity and “buzz” at my grandfather’s house provided enormous opportunities for me as a kid to watch and “bear witness” to the activities and actions of some very colorful characters. To this day, I can’t say with conviction that some of them were not involved in bending the rules of the legal system here and there. My grandfather took me everywhere, and wherever we went he was treated with such deference, that I felt like a prince. And he treated me as such.
His early, tragic death left a scar on me that really has not healed even to this day. The events and people that I experienced early on forced me to be a “watcher” and “reporter” in life, which are such valuable tools in my striving to become an author.
I'm really taken with this idea of you being a "watcher" and "reporter," and the idea that these are valuable tools for being a writer. I agree and I'd like you to take another beat on this idea and share your thoughts on why you feel these are valuable tools.
The reason that the ability to “watch” and “report” regarding the people and events around one as a novelist is that although I might write “fiction,” it does allow me the opportunity to maintain a level of authenticity in my work.
Fiction is wonderful in that it gives the author so much latitude when creating plots and characters, but a story hits harder if it’s still believable. If the tale is completely off the chart and carries no believability, then I fear it becomes dull.
My favorite example is when I write dialogue. The only way I can come up with the authentic diction for my characters to use when communicating is via listening to how certain gritty, nasty people communicate in real life.
My shining example is my first novel, Crosshairs, and the character Darby McBride, who also makes a cameo in Matriarch Game.
Darby McBride is based on a two-hour interview where I had the unique pleasure of hosting for dinner a former “enforcer” for the Angiulo Family, who ran the Boston underworld for almost thirty years.
I took detailed notes during our interview on how “Tony” spoke, made hand gestures, facial expressions and mood changes as he detailed his unorthodox past life. While “Tony” in real life is 100% Italian, I had to “Irish him up” for the purposes of the story, however I never lost that authenticity in the character’s speech and reactions to happenings around him.
For me, that’s where the value is as a fiction writer in the ability to “watch” and “report."
One thread throughout this conversation is the autobiographical (and real life) nature of your work. You say you realize that there's no way to get around this, but I've also known you long enough to know that when you first realized this was an element of your work, it surprised you. Please speak to why this was, though also what it felt like to have this realization.
Yes, the autobiographical aspect of my first two books totally came as a total left field realization. I’ll never forget it. You pointed it out during a training session in Vermont, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I NEVER set out to write an autobiography. I wanted to use some life experiences in certain scenes, as I had a rather unorthodox upbringing that provided a solid amount of interesting anecdotes, but I never realized the deep subconscious thoughts that would end up shaping my characters, especially my protagonist, Justin McGee.
Just prior to starting my first novel, Crosshairs, I went through a horrible, painful divorce. It was especially painful in that we still got along for the most part. Nobody was throwing dishes. Really just two boats that slowly drifted apart in the current. Still pains me to this day, several years later. Anyway, I carried a ton of guilt and shame with the divorce, especially when it comes to how it affected my two daughters. Justin McGee is introduced in the trilogy as an assassin. I had NO idea how I came up with that, but after the realization that this was indeed an autobiography, the mental clouds parted, and it suddenly all made sense. I was an “assassin” in my own mind for what I did to our family. I was the killer. I was responsible for wrecking lives.
In my second novel, Matriarch Game, again I did not in any way come out of the gate to write anything autobiographical. I thought that I had moved beyond that.
However, I introduced a new character to the series, who is a young girl named Michonne. In the book, she had faced many hardships and horrible experiences prior to her meeting up with Justin McGee, who winds up encouraging her and training her on how to use her inner strength as a powerful tool in getting through life and dealing with the challenges that the world throws at her.
What I realized over time, is that Michonne is really a personification of my two daughters, and Matriarch Game, as dark as the novel is at times, is really a note to my girls. It’s a note of encouragement from their dad to be strong in the face of obstacles and seek the power from within to conquer any hurdle as you move on to adulthood.
With Matriarch Game, at the risk of sounding trite, I really understood the power of a writer’s cathartic experience.
In one way everything we've discussed so far speaks to why you might write about crime, but now I'd like to be more blunt, why do you write about crime, and why does it speak to you?
Wow, you saved the lay-up for toward the end.
As a kid, I always played by the rules. I was a great student and never got into trouble. Even though I was relatively gregarious, in my inner self, I remained shy. I was afraid to break any rules or get into trouble.
My grandfather (who’ve we discussed and dissected character-wise) played by his OWN rules. He was part of a generation of “tough bastards” who fought Hitler and came home and were not going to be told where to “pahk their cah.” I admired that sentiment and thought how cool would it be for ME to hold the strings one day (stole a theme from the Godfather). In the crime space, nobody tells you how to talk or how to act. My example in speeches is that doesn’t everyone at some point, want to slash the bosses’ tires with impunity?!
My love of the crime space is the characters’ sense of “freedom”. Granted, as you conduct interviews with some of these guys, they still were under some sort of thumb, but on the surface it was that freedom and middle finger attitude to the rest of the world that made this shy and kind of awkward kid envious.
I love your focus on freedom (and middle fingers). Given the state of the world today, COVID in particular, please talk about the importance of people being able to read about freedom (much less read at all) when our ability to experience freedom is so limited.
Very interesting question. Not sure in the capacity as an author if I’ve ever addressed this issue?
While I have talked about how one attraction to the crime genre is the freedom that these characters enjoy in being somewhat above the law, I’m interpreting your question as more broad-based and from a different angle. Yes, Covid has stripped our freedom for sure. However, I support the mandatory masks and yeah, I gotta cough up a little freedom, but one would experience much less freedom by being quarantined or God forbid, stuck in a hospital bed. The idea of reading about freedom right now is all about embracing the concept of hope, and the idea of not giving up. Human drive, perseverance and ability to adapt has been tested throughout history, and there are many examples of that sense of optimism prevailing.
Some famous examples are The Diary of Anne Frank or Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War.
The beauty of novels and literature, is that unlike movies and TV where your mind is compartmentalized by what you view, books allow the readers to grab ahold of the palette and start painting on a blank canvas in their minds.
We could have a half-dozen readers review my new book, Matriarch Game, and no two people would have the same scene descriptions in their mind after reading. That’s the ultimate mental and emotional freedoms that art, and especially books, provide. Right now, when people are so constrained and frustrated (you can see it every day at your local supermarket or gas station), that sense of openness and ability to exercise one’s mind via imagination provided by great stories, is critical to maintaining a sense of optimism and the embracement of hope.
Speaking of optimism and hope, I know the third book in the series has been accepted for publication. Congratulations on that. Can you tell us what to expect? Also, my read on this one is that it's a little more political, or pointed anyway, in terms of commenting on the state of the country. Can you comment on that as well?
Ah, a multi-level question.
Yes, I’m very excited to have the third installment in the “Justin McGee” series picked up for professional publication. It’s kinda how proud parents feel when their kid is accepted to the school or team of their choice. As you know, our books are our babies. They are born of us and we raise and cherish them.
What to expect is the third book in the trilogy, as the fourth book (in the works) will introduce a new set of flawed and depraved individuals. However, it will not be the last that you hear from Justin and the gang. I have a sneaky suspicion that they will rear their heads in the future.
In terms of the new book and the political environment? Hmmm…Not sure the work gets too political, but it definitely for my first time, takes on a real social issue.
While the third book, Demon Tide, is definitely fiction and hopefully a fun read, it examines the very real issue of the New England to Canada drug trade.
I did a lot of research for the book, and it’s amazing how much drug activity, as a New Englander, is alive and well in my backyard. The FDA released a new drug that was supposed to be used only for wounded soldiers on the battlefield, but in their infinite wisdom, they approved it for “medical use” in November of 2019. This new opiate has yet to hit the streets, but it’s only a matter of time, and when it does, it’s going to be a horror show.
A few years ago, I lost someone that I cared about very much to a Fentanyl overdose, which is the drug that’s killing all our kids, and not-so-young “kids.” Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than Morphine. This new opiate is ten times stronger than Fentanyl, and does not require a needle. It goes right under the tongue. Going to be a nightmare of catastrophic propositions.
I interviewed some interesting characters for the book who are involved in this world, and it’s not that I’m trying to capitalize on what is going to be a scourge, but as we’ve discussed at length, I bear witness as a writer. I’m trying to entertain the reader (and I think that the third book is the least self-indulgent of my novels), but I also want to bring attention to a real world issue.
Regarding the nation’s political environment, I’m not in a position to write about that just yet. I’m as concerned and fearful as the next person. All I know that between having the most un-presidential president in history, and this awful unprecedented pandemic, it’s caused the seams of the national consciousness to burst. As you know, in my bones I am the perennial optimist. We’re gonna find a Covid cure, and we’re going to re-stabilize government. However, I’m not excited about EITHER party’s selections. The country needs and deserves stronger leadership, and I’m not confident that either can deliver.
We will rise at some point and ALL “drain the swamp” in some collective manner.
I appreciate your time and your thoughtful answers, and if there is any final question it's this: what did we miss?
Thanks for this exercise. It was a pleasure to participate, and it helped me gain further insight into my own work.
Regarding Matriarch Game, I guess my final thoughts are that if the readers are finding it a bit dark in the first few chapters, I would just ask them to be patient and let the story unfold. Strap yourself in, grab some popcorn and enjoy the ride! Where the novel is a note to my daughters about embracing adulthood, while simultaneously being wary of this obstacle ridden world, it still is a story made to inspire and instill optimism. The longer the readers immerse themselves into the book, they’ll see that that ancient Greek broken circle of “comedy” is still there, and hope rises up until the very last sentence of the story.
As always, it’s been a pleasure working with you on this.
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