I manage to catch Matthew Reilly for an interview on one of his sojourns to his native Australia that he completes every year or so. The forty-four-year-old best-selling author is in town to do the promotional leg of his writerly duties, set to appear at several bookshops the nation over, giving his legions of fanatical fans the opportunity to get a signed copy of the latest instalment in the Jack West Jnr series, The Three Secret Cities and maybe even a photo with the big man himself.
He has no qualms with granting photos to fans, for Reilly has a well-founded reputation of being a remarkably accommodating and affable guy, subverting the grumpy, brooding writer stereotype perpetuated in the literary scene. It’s the second time I’ve interviewed Matthew Reilly, and though it’s been years between, he still remembers my name as he greets me in the sun-dappled foyer of the Pier One hotel in Sydney’s upscale Woolloomooloo.
Knowing full well that I’m chatting with a fellow Star Wars enthusiast, I start with making a comparison between Reilly’s Three Secret Cities and Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back, buttressing my belief by drawing various similarities, such as the darkness that pervades throughout both, in the form of multiple “goody” characters downfalls, or demises, occurring and the entire tale largely playing out in the favour of the “baddies”.
‘It wasn’t on my mind,’ he says. ‘But I am at the point in the series where it was always going to be the ascendency of the bad guys. So, Three Secret Cities was always going to be definitely darker, definitely much more bad guy victories and the bad guys are set up for the final two. Yeah, actually, I could see it as The Empire Strikes Back.’
Penning another instalment in the Jack West Jnr series immediately after the predecessor marks an unprecedented venture for Matthew Reilly, the author had hitherto taken years-long hiatus between each in order to focus on other projects. Though a huge undertaking, he downplays the scale of it. ‘With the Jack West books, more than the others, you get on a roll,’ he says. ‘You get on a roll with the historical research, you find things, new things.’
At mentioning his research process, we delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of how he goes about it. Admittedly unique, Matthew Reilly exhaustively researches the historical basis for his stories and then completely maps out said stories before penning a word of what will ultimately become the novel. This style sets him at odds with a large portion of his contemporaries, who predominately tend to charge into a new project, head-first, with no notion of where the story will eventually end up. Furthermore, Reilly reveals that he never definitively concludes the research aspect.
‘Even once I start, research is continuous throughout,’ he says, revealing that the eponymous three cities setting for the new novel’s climax proved to be the most testing. ‘That turned out to be extraordinarily hard to write. In my planning, I just knew there would be this triple-whammy finish…but that finish was actually much harder to execute than I envisioned.’
Aside from actualising the epic finish he had pictured in his head, Reilly also presented himself with a plethora of other difficulties to overcome, high among them being the inclusion of a veritable ensemble of characters. Reilly addresses how he went about producing a page-turner, while evenly distributing page-time between so many fan-favourite characters.
‘It’s funny, once you’ve written enough of these books, you do get a cast of characters that people know and love,’ he says. ‘I actually felt it was time to get a bit darker and some characters had to die. Now, that’s just got to be tough and pretty brutal.’
As for how to adequately include them all, Reilly again cites properly planning to achieve this. ‘I mapped out the cast and allocated to make sure everybody gets their moment.’ He mentions the latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, as a fine example of what he was setting out to achieve. ‘What a great job of corralling twenty-five speaking roles.’
Such an endeavour could only ever be considered a taxing juggling act, particularly because characters and a fondness, or dislike, of them all, boils down to subjectivity. One reader might adore one character, and another might find them unbearable, thus the notion of fan service might be a romantic one, but probably impossible to universally realise. Reilly comments on a quagmire inherent in producing such novels.
‘Fortunately,’ he explains. ‘What I want to happen and with which characters and what my fans want are usually one and the same thing.’
A prime example of both writer and fan finding themselves in perfect agreement arose in The Three Secret Cities, with Matthew Reilly bringing back a minor, but nevertheless memorable, character with a bona fide bang after some fifteen-year gap between their appearances. The identity of the character has been redacted by me, purely for the sake of spoiler prevention, but Reilly offers some tantalising details, so as to whet the reading appetites of those that are yet to get stuck into reading Three Secret Cities.
‘Fans have asked for him to have his own book for a long time,’ Reilly says. ‘But I actually thought, story-wise, I wanted him to be part of this novel and he does get a big entrance. I look at my collection of books, like the Marvel world. If you can join them together – why not do it? It’s just really fun.’
With his writing now spanning in excess of twenty years and encompassing almost as many books, Reilly has afforded himself an immense world to play with and, as such, can now intertextually reference himself. Having such a range and depth of material to do this with makes Reilly count himself among other prolific authors like Stephen King, which allows for his characters to mention events from other, seemingly unrelated, stories. It also provides him with a wealth of opportunities to create new stories through minor, supposedly throw-away details threaded in older ones.
‘There’s actually an example in Three Secret Cities,’ he says. ‘I have several Jack West Junior books at home as reference copies, and they are covered in post-it notes and scribble marks. In particular, I went back to Seven Wonders and found something, a point there, that then became integral in this new novel. Sometimes little things you leave hanging, you can come back later and it makes me look much smarter than I am.’
With such a detailed backstory warranting even the man who created it all to consult the previous novels for reference, this prompts the question of if he ever finds himself daunted, maybe even floored, by the sheer size of the saga that he is roughly midway through completing.
‘Occasionally, the enormity of the situation comes thundering down on you,’ he admits with a wry smile. ‘Doing it in bite-sized chunks helps make it possible and having a break, refreshed my brain and made me so excited to get back to it.’
The “break” Reilly mentions isn’t a traditional wholly restive period devoting to the pursuit of nothingness as many would term it, but rather simply focusing on other writing projects, all of them of the full-length novel kind, such as the period drama, The Tournament and the upcoming, The Secret Runners of New York – which will mark his first foray into the time-travel sub-genre.
Regardless of the work being part of a long-running series, or something completely new and intended on purely being standalone, Matthew Reilly argues that the basic structure, wherein the thrilling aspect flourishes, is straight-forward. ‘If you were to deconstruct it,’ he says. ‘It would be like a series of rolling dilemmas.’
Although he has this understanding firmly in place to go about penning his own stories, Reilly is quick to point out that he has noticed a commonly held misconception that many a fledgeling author fall victim to – that the action should be prized above all else.
‘The reason the audience reads those rolling dilemmas with an increasing sense of pace and urgency is because they care about the characters. And I work really hard to make that.’
Reilly warns all writers to refrain from jumping straight into the action, but rather focus on crafting likeable and engaging characters, also revealing that he too abides by the kill your darlings’ philosophy. ‘If I kill them off, that’s to remind the reader that no one’s safe. And if they were safe – the books wouldn’t be exciting.’
Noted for having a process that can be safely classified as well-established and finely-tuned, Reilly explains that it has remained largely unaltered since way back when, abiding by the “don’t-fix-something-that’s-not-broken” axiom.
‘I have one thing that changed, or matured over time though,’ he says, then confiding his own personal mission statement. ‘I have to make each novel better, in some way, than the last one.’
He explains that that is not quantified through raising the stakes alone, which is understandable as several of his novels, especially in this Jack West Jnr series, have already reached the zenith of stakes – the universe and all existence as we know it is in imminent peril of annihilation.
‘So – how do you stop it from getting silly?’ He says. ‘And the answer is actually, you do something different, books like The Tournament. It’s not bigger with action, it doesn’t have nuclear weapons or any earth-destroying beams from space. But what it did better than the book before it, is that it’s got a character relationship that I had never done before and I’m very, very proud of.’
Matthew Reilly has always strived to challenge himself in order to prevent a same-same feel to any new releases and, to that end, he has been largely successful. But his greatest challenge is still one that he is yet to conquer – realising his dream of seeing his works adapted into films. Having been living for some years in the thick of it in Los Angeles, Reilly divides his time between penning more novels and constantly revolving through Hollywood producers’ conference rooms, with them waxing lyrical about the myriad of film and television productions on the go, chief among them a Scarecrow adaption. He expresses a positive outlook to finally seeing an array of his stories up on screen.
‘Game of Thrones changed everything. You can now make a T.V. show with 8 parts, budget it for 10 million per part, which is an 80-million-dollar production. And that’ll work. Someone in Hollywood was telling me – we haven’t even seen the full power of Amazon, Netflix and Apple yet. So, we’ll just wait and see.’
The fact that Reilly has reached a point whereby having discussions with Hollywood heavyweights about adapting his works into lavish productions is the norm, must make for an occasional profoundly surreal feeling, akin to pinching oneself to distinguish dream from reality.
‘Every day,’ Reilly admits, looking back to his humblest of humble origins, with one formative event standing out in particular – that of his first ever book signing, way back in the day, for Temple at Castle Hill shopping centre and the sharp contrast with his current day situation. ‘Not a soul came. I sat outside the bookstore, with a table with my name on it and nobody came. So, when you get these big turnouts, it’s fantastic. Because I’ve been there, I’ve been there when I was self-published and nobody wanted me.’
Despite this bleak start and facing down a Herculean amount of adversity, it was this persistent positive attitude that prevailed and ultimately has endured into the here and now, which can only really be categorised as the loftiest of heights – particularly when you look to the staggering numbers. If you are an author that has sold at least one million books, that would place you within the top one per cent of successful authors and, to date, Reilly has sold in excess of eight million units.
But he assures that he’s just grateful to be able to do what he does. ‘To even make a living as an author, is fantastic. If you ever hear me complain about it – smack me over the head with a newspaper. I’ve got fans who love and wait for the books.’
As one of the most industrious Australian authors doing their namesake at the moment, fans of Matthew Reilly are never in shortage of his new novels to devour, nor are they ever forced to endure long waits until the next comes out (looking at you George R.R. Martin, hint, hint). Case in point, right on the back of the release of Three Secret Cities, fans have but a mere few months until his next novel, the aforementioned The Secret Runners of New York, is set to hit shelves nationwide. Ardent perennial fans and newcomers alike, be sure to stay tuned for more Reilly thrillers coming your way.
By Samuel Elliott