Matthew Bayan is the only person in the world to die and be brought back to life 72 times. He is best known for his book, Eat Fat Be Healthy that describes this experience. Bayan however also had a very adventurous childhood and felt inspired to write down some of those memories after a high school reunion. This formed the backdrop for his coming-of-age mystery, The Firecracker King. As our Author of the Day, Bayan tells us all about it
Please give us a short introduction to what The Firecracker King is about.
Set in 1965, The Firecracker King depicts a quiet lakeside community that's shocked by the brutal murder of a beautiful teenage girl.
Finding the girl's corpse turns sixteen-year-old Jake Johnson's idyllic summer vacation into a fight for survival. His innocence is battered by hatred and betrayal as he tries to bring a killer to justice. The breakneck pace rises to a shattering decision as Jake is forced to abandon boyhood in order to save himself.
What inspired you to write The Firecracker King?
A high school reunion. I was standing with a bunch of guys at the bar telling stories about crazy things that happened when we were in high school. Some of the incidents, which I had totally forgotten, involved me. When I got home, I decided to write down the stories so I wouldn’t forget them. Then over the course of the next few years, whenever something jogged my memory of that time, I added it to the collection. At some point, I had dozens of incidents documented and realized that they involved the same people in the same places over and over. I began to see these stories as chapters and worked to create an over-arching narrative that would bring the chapters together. Result: The Firecracker King.
Which audience did you have in mind while writing this book?
I wrote The Firecracker King as an adult book, a look back at a very different time to grow up in. Something to give older readers a sense of nostalgia. Weirdly, it picked up a young adult audience as teens identified with the main character, Jake. His personal crises regarding identity, handling bullies, and learning how to navigate the world, are similar to what many teens face, though in a different context.
How did you manage to create such believable action scenes?
I’ve had an adventurous life. And I have a great critique group that I read these scenes to in order to make sure they “see” what I have in my mind. Then it’s about rewriting, rewriting, focusing, and re-testing with my critique group. I focus on action to keep readers interested and because my own personal taste gravitates toward action and mystery and intrigue. I love films such as Die Hard, Lord of The Rings, Spiderman, because we can watch an internal struggle of the main characters also enacted by the external struggles they confront.
Your book is set in the 60s - why did you pick this time period?
For this story to work, it has to mainly occur outside the supervision of adults, as Jake depends on himself to work out both the mystery and the conflicts. In the 1960s, we didn’t have cell phones, GPS, internet, Instagram, and all the other intrusive elements which identify who and where we are. Today’s kids have an enormous amount of adult oversight. Parents are paranoid that their children will be kidnapped by some drooling pervert, so they schedule the poor lads and lasses up the wazoo: After school football practice, band practice, play dates, sleepovers, therapy, “be here…be there” almost every minute of the day. If a kid is late to show up where he or she is supposed to be, look out for an Amber Alert.
Not so in the 60s. You could leave your house in the morning and be gone until after sunset and nobody panicked. My twentysomething beta readers often told me how curious they were about the 60s and they commented that they really enjoyed the historical perspective because teens lived so much more freely than they do today.
Your book portrays humanity with a wry humor - why did you take this approach?
I find humor in everything. It’s part of the way I look at the world. Without humor, we’d all go crazy. Since I wrote the book in first-person from Jake’s perspective, many of my personal thoughts and feelings bleed through to Jake. In my experience, times of crisis frequently result in humor to break the tension. Sometimes it’s called gallows humor. Sometimes it’s the result of absurdity at a high level. Just about everything I write has some humorous element, no matter how dire the situation.
You might be best known for your non-fiction book "Eat Fat, Be Healthy". What got you into fiction?
Actually, I was writing fiction before I wrote Eat Fat, Be Healthy. After I had a massive heart attack, was declared dead, and was then revived 72 times by an insane cardiologist, my wife urged me to write about how researchers reversed my heart disease. Because at the core of the events, there’s a dramatic story, I wrote Eat Fat, Be Healthy like a novel. My favorite review of the book was by a writer at the Dallas Morning News who wrote, “Reads like a thriller.” Narrative non-fiction worked, because the book was a bestseller.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I have no secret skills. Any skills I have I display, tout, and exaggerate so I can get the maximum ego-stroking possible.
In which way is this a coming of age story?
Jake starts the book as an innocent. He has a mischievous side, but at his core, he’s good. Then he’s confronted by such evil that he has to outgrow childhood or die. A reviewer told me that the following passage embodies Jake’s coming of age process and is the soul of the book:
I felt my childhood shatter like a statue dropped from a great height. I no longer believed in innocence. Years would go by before my body caught up, but the damage inside was complete. That’s how I saw it. Damage. Once you sustain enough damage – once ugly truths claw at your insides long enough – you become an adult.
I suddenly realized another key ingredient of adulthood. Hate. I’d never truly hated anything, but now I did. Hate lodged deep inside me like a hard nugget of pain. It changed me.
Readers report that they were totally immersed in the story. What are some tricks you use to keep them hooked throughout?
Tricks? We don’t need no stinkin’ tricks.
Seriously, it goes back to basics. First-person draws readers in, but by being inside the head of the main character, readers need to feel the personality of the character rather than just being told what is happening. Maybe that’s where the wry humor you mentioned earlier comes into play. I worked to make Jake’s observations not ordinary. He doesn’t think like the people around him.
Another unseen key is to use an absolute minimum of passive verbs. Example: There was a rowboat out on the lake. vs. The rowboat streaked across the calm water so quickly it left a wake. Passive verbs are about “telling” while action verbs are about “showing.”
And I think dialogue is key. Normal speech is bland. Speech in a novel needs to contain wit, energy, and to move the story along as quickly as possible.
If you could have a drink with anybody, dead or alive, who would it be, what would you have and what would the discussion be about?
Since your question assumes the existence of time travel, I’d want to sit down with William Shakespeare. Being in England, I’m sure we’d have access to scotch whiskey, so I’d buy a bottle of the most expensive single-malt I could find and ply Willy with it.
The conversation? I’d try to persuade Shakespeare to write his autobiography and consign it to Westminster Abbey for safekeeping so that today’s scholars would stop speculating that “William Shakespeare” was actually Christopher Marlowe’s secret pen name.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? Favorite writing spot, best time of day to write?
I write anywhere, anytime. And (perish forbid) I don’t write every day! I know this is sacrilege, but I only sit down to write when I have something to write about. That’s how I avoid writer’s block.
What are you working on right now?
Something totally different. A complex international techno-thriller reminiscent of Tom Clancy. It’s titled, Blast Radius. Think international criminals, a hot war in the Middle East, secret weapons, US Government corruption, and a disgruntled ex-FBI agent, turned private detective, who gets dropped into the middle with no idea what he’s gotten himself into.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Easiest is to keep up with my projects at matthewbayan.com. To interact, I suggest Facebook: search for author, matthew bayan. I’m working on updating my blog, but it’s not ready for re-launch yet. I’ll be posting a series of radio shows I’ve done regarding how writers can develop characters, create effective dialogue, and self-edit their work. (Yes, I’m also a professional editor.)
As a TV director would say at the end of a show, “And…out!”