In 2004, while I was an English student at CSUN, I had the rare opportunity to interview Richard Matheson about his writing process and advice he had for aspiring writers. Always inspiring, Matheson explains the challenges of writing and the hurdles young writers may face in his generous, straightforward manner.
MR Hunter: When you first started writing, did you have any idea of the career you would have?
Richard Matheson: No. Not at all.
MH: It was a surprise?
RM: Yes. I was happy when I sold my first short story, ["Born of Man and Woman"]. I had no idea what was going to happen. I doubt any writer does when they’re first beginning.
MH: You’ve written horror, science fiction, fantasy and westerns to name a few. What interests you in so many areas?
RM: I always wrote what I felt like writing. I’ve never been one to hang onto one area of thought. I’m satisfied with the fact that I did not hang around in one genre. I always keep looking in different directions.
MH: You seem to write in first-person a lot. Is there a reason for this?
RM: Actually, in the beginning I wrote a number of first-person stories and then I shifted to third person. Later on I went back to first-person because I found it to be more satisfactory. You can get a lot more feeling and ideas if you write in first-person.
MH: Do you write what you would do in these situations? Or do you imagine what the character would do?
RM: When I write, I see it in my mind and I just describe what I’m looking at.
MH: Does music influence your writing?
RM: I love music. Once I tried playing music while I was writing and it was a fiasco. The music turned sad, then my writing turned sad. It really loused everything up.
MH: How emotionally invested are you in your work?
RM: With "Bid Time Return," most people know it as "Somewhere in Time," I actually stayed in the Coronado Hotel while I was writing it. I was very emotionally involved in that. I went around searching in bookstores all over the place for books on actresses of that time and biographies and what not, and found some interesting material. I actually had an astrologer I know do her [Elise McKenna] chart. I didn’t tell her who it was, I just gave her the dates and the facts about actress Maud Adams. It was very illuminating. It helped me a lot with the characterization.
People will ask which is your favorite book, but I think that’s my best written work.
MH: How does it feel to see your work cinematically?
RM: When it’s done the way I wrote it and conveys exactly what I want it to, then I am very happy with it. I’ve had some nice experiences. Not very many in theatrical film, but in television quite a few.
MH: What kind of research do you do for your writing?
RM: I keep saying if only computers had existed when I was doing all my early books, I could’ve saved so much time. I have cabinets loaded to the top with research books I had to buy. I could’ve gotten it off of websites and printed it up. "I Am Legend" had a lot of research. "What Dreams May Come" had tons of research. I listed it at the end of that novel about a hundred books that I had read in-depth and studied.
MH: So you don’t let the topic intimidate you?
RM: I want to know what I’m talking about. I study so nobody can say that it’s not authentic.
MH: Did the change in technology change your writing process?
RM: Ever since I got out of college, I started writing in longhand. I’ve always written in longhand. I don’t have a computer. I write my pages and then have them typed up.
MH: When you first started writing, did you have someone that you modeled your style after?
RM: I think all of us young fantasy writers were doing imitations of Ray Bradbury. Over a period of time, we worked out our own style.
MH: What’s the best way for aspiring writers to start?
RM: Words on paper.
MH: Words on paper?
RM: I say the same thing Ray Bradbury said. He said, "God bless you, write 52 stories a year." Write. You write. That’s the only way. You keep writing and if you have any talent at all, which of course is a necessity, you will get better and better as you write. But you got to keep writing. You should not go to those classes or seminars or sit around some guru and talk literature. You’ll never get anywhere that way. It’s pleasant. It’s enjoyable, but the only thing a writing class has to offer is that you have to write. You should instill that in yourself. Be persistent and constantly write in whatever field that appeals to you most. You’ve got to keep writing. That’s the only answer.
MH: You’ve got to have discipline.
RM: That is your discipline. If you have to force yourself to write every morning then maybe you’re in the wrong field. If you wake up with a song on your lips and rush to your typewriter, then you’re in the right field.
MH: Do you have a routine that sets you in the frame of mind to write?
RM: When you have a wife and four children, you can’t have a routine. You just sit down and write. I used to write almost seven, six days a week, and my wife finally said, ‘C’mon. You’re not spending any time with us.’ So now I’m very lackadaisical. I’ll write from about maybe one to five in the afternoon.
MH: So you have to work it into your life?
RM: You don’t wait for inspiration. I’ve never waited for inspiration. I don’t think that’s practical at all. I’ve never had writer’s block either.
MH: What should writers focus more on? Plot, structure or character?
RM: If you have an idea, write it down. Don’t worry about it. All those things will emerge as you write the story. I used to plot everything on file cards. I would put a red card for an action sequence, a yellow card for something else. It was just a waste of time. If you keep writing, you will pick up structure. You will pick up form.
MH: If you hadn’t become a writer, what do you think you would’ve done?
RM: Probably starve to death or become an alcoholic. I wrote a lot of songs. I might have kept pursuing that. I think probably by now I would be pretty darn good.
MH: Is there any story that you’ve always wanted to write, but haven’t?
RM: No. I’ve written everything that I’ve wanted to write.
MH: How does one get published?
RM: Just write. If you want to write short stories, write them and submit them. If you want to write a novel, write a novel and submit it. There are very few good writers around. If you’re good, then they’ll be looking for you. You don’t need an agent in the beginning.
MH: You don’t think an agent is necessary?
RM: In the beginning, you probably won’t get one. You should go into seclusion by yourself. I’ve always liked nothing better than to be in a quiet room by myself writing and that to me is a requirement for being a writer.
MH: If you were to meet yourself at age 20, what would you say to yourself knowing what you know now?
RM: I would say to myself, I know you’re going to write. You got that in you. You can’t avoid that in you. Just try being a nice person. Be nice and kind people. Be thoughtful. It will do you so much better. Write and be a nice guy.
Body of Work
Richard Matheson is an award winning novelist, screenwriter and currently a playwright. His books include "Bid Time Return (now published under "Somewhere In Time"), "The Beardless Warriors," "Hell House," "I Am Legend," "Now You See It," "Earthbound," "The Shrinking Man," "Fury on Sunday," "A Stir of Echoes" and "What Dreams May Come." His film credits include adaptations of his novels, ‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man.’ He has numerous short story collections, two metaphysical books and a children’s story. He’s currently working on the musical adaptation of ‘Somewhere In Time.’
He lives in Calabasas, CA with his wife of 55 years, Ruth Ann. He’s the proud father of four children and seven grandchildren.