The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.
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“Matt Cahill is a Toronto writer. His debut novel, The Society of Experience, was released in 2015 and was picked as a must-read by Harper’s Bazaar magazine. His short stories have appeared with Found Press, Fusion Fragment and The Rusty Toque. His nonfiction has appeared in The Best Canadian Essays 2017, Ryeberg, the Humber Literary Review and Torontoist. His second novel, Radioland, is available now.”
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was very young – probably around the age of nine – my older brother showed me something: he had written on two whole pages of lined paper a story, speculative, involving a plane with survivors of an apocalypse, landing on a lonely outpost somewhere distant. It was less the story itself than the ability to take a blank page and do anything you wanted with words upon it that set itself in my head with a burning fascination. It was miraculous and approachable at the same time – you mean you can just write whatever you want? I subsequently went through a lot of paper.
Fast-forward: I’m in my early 20s and I came at a crossroads – working in film/TV or pursuing writing professionally? Coming from a lower middle-class background I chose the one that paid the bills and I have no regrets. Once I’d established myself in another industry I came back to writing, devoting my evenings to seeing what I could do with a novel (which I went on to abandon, rightfully). Even though it requires effort and time, writing can be a source of comfort, so it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever abandon, whether or not I’m chasing a goal.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
I don’t, as there were some false starts, and in the beginning I was primarily looking for my brother’s approval, but he was busy with his own life, so I began to write for my amusement. They were primarily horror stories with Hitchcockian twist endings.
How did you develop your skills?
It helps to fall in love with the escapism of writing, because then it’s easier for you to learn an important lesson: sitting your butt down and getting the work done. I had a good number of English teachers who would read my efforts and they would give feedback when they could, which I soaked in like a greedy sponge. I think much of my development comes as a result of reading other writers’ works; to be honest, I don’t see how there’s any way around this part. I couldn’t imagine someone wanting to paint a sunset and scoffing at someone’s suggestion that perhaps they might look at something by J. M. W. Turner. Why wouldn’t you want to see how others are looking at the world, to appreciate differing approaches? I suspect people who call themselves writers, who adamantly insist reading other authors isn’t necessary, are speaking from insecurity.
After attending a summer writing intensive at Humber College in my 30s I shifted gears; this is where I met several writers who would go on to join a writers’ group I co-founded with one of my classmates. We met monthly for about nine years, exchanging work when possible – poetry and prose. Getting feedback from people who are at a similar level and just as invested in their development as you are is as great a way to grow as I can imagine.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?
I find I gravitate to authors from the former Soviet Union, not just for their style but the sorts of questions and philosophical dispositions that underpin their writing. Seeking connection with the unknown (while in real life getting by under repressive circumstances) stands out as a theme that appeals to me, which is why authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Mikhail Bulgakov, and the Strugatsky brothers will always have great appeal. A Canadian influence, without question, is Timothy Findley – Famous Last Words is such a tremendous piece of literature that I feel shares common territory with the authors I’ve just mentioned.
I don’t have a favourite book or author, but I will share that I broke down crying in a Greek diner while reading A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin.
How would you describe your work?
I like to call my novels “metaphysical social realism,” whereas my short fiction is a little more eclectic, leaning more towards genre, and yet even then I’m often driven to elevate things to a philosophical level – not philosophical in an academic or didactic sense. I’m not interested in pushing any particular train of thought so much as encouraging the reader to interrogate their reality. More recently, beginning with my short story Second World (Found Press) I’ve been interested in representations of anxiety and depression – a natural step given that my profession for the past decade has been as a Registered Psychotherapist — and RADIOLAND certainly shares a direct lineage from this experiment.
What’s your writing process like?
I dedicate time mainly on weekends since writing, for the vast majority of authors, doesn’t pay bills (see: music industry); if you’re going to hold a full-time job and have a creative writing practice then you have to be a good time thief, grabbing an hour here or there when no one is looking. I’m not hard and fast on any particular approach (outlining, writing chronologically, etc); sometimes the story you’re telling has its own needs. RADIOLAND is a narratively shifting book, and I discovered where it was going while I was in the process of unearthing Jill and Kris’ stories. That said, in the first year of the pandemic I wrote a manuscript for a new novel using a completely chronological approach – starting from Chapter One and ending with The End – trying to complete a chapter in each sitting, aiming for 1,000 words per weekend – and it worked out nicely (you’ll have to read it when it finds a home).
Tell us about your most recent book.
RADIOLAND is a psychological thriller told from the inside out, about two very different people and how their lives weave around each other. There’s Kris, a rock musician who, just as his band is starting to gain traction, is having a nervous breakdown. And there’s Jill, who has a very powerful form what we might call “magic” but who is running away from her past. And circling around them is a trail of disturbed corpses and whispers of a serial killer who…may be one of them. I say “inside out” as it’s a very intimate book; the reader inhabits the characters’ thoughts and feelings. We see the world from Kris’ viewpoint, and from Jill’s…and from the killer’s. It’s unorthodox this way.
What are you working on now/next?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a novel that’s nearly through revision and I’m loving it. I haven’t written anything in such a structured, disciplined style, and so quickly. It’s propulsive, interrogative, caring and – most refreshingly – funny.