Greenville pastor and new author Matt Matthews has earned high praise for his first novel, Mercy Creek, which won the South Carolina First Novel Prize, published by Hub City Press in 2011. Mercy Creek takes place in Rooksville, an imaginary small town on the Virginia Eastern Shore. The story centers on Isaac Lawson, the sixteen-year-old son of the town’s beloved pastor. Isaac is less than thrilled to spend the summer away from his girlfriend, out of town for her summer job, and separated from his friends on his old baseball team. Isaac struggles to balance a new job, girl problems, and mixed feelings over his father’s new girlfriend, all the while still mourning his mother who died a year before.
Isaac’s summer soon takes an exciting turn when a series of mysterious vandalisms sets the town on edge. At first, Isaac is interested more in the monetary reward for catching the vandals than in the vandalism itself. However, as he spends more time learning about Rooksville’s past and the eccentric characters that live there, Isaac becomes personally invested in solving the crimes. He begins to discover that there is more to these crimes than meets the eye and that people are not always what they seem. As his father says, “The written history, as you are learning, is only part of the history.”
Mercy Creek is a heartwarming tale of loss, love, and the power of forgiveness. I had the pleasure of meeting Matt last weekend at the SC Book Festival in Columbia. I also had the chance to interview him about Mercy Creek and his other interests and future endeavors, which I am including below. For more information about Mercy Creek and Matt Matthews, visit MattMatthewsCreative.com or HubCity.org/press.
Q: How much of Mercy Creek is based off or inspired by your own life and experiences?
A: All of it, in general, none of it, in particular. I grew up on the water, so my affinity for water, tides, and the coast should seem real. It is.
Q: Having grown up in a “boring” small Southern town myself, I really identified with Isaac and his feelings towards Rooksville. Did you base Rooksville off a particular town that you have visited or lived in?
A: Rooksville is based on every town I’ve lived in, and on every town I’ve ever visited. It is purely fictitious, but I hope readers recognize aspects of “their” town in this one.
Q: How did you come up with the details of the vandalism (the plumbing vandalism and painted flames)?
A: I made it up. The vandalism is purely symbolic, and hopefully the reader “gets it” by the end. Before the end, of course, the vandalisms make no sense.
Q: Most of the characters have both good sides and bad sides, but Hank Grady stands out as almost an entirely unlikable character. Was this intentional and, if so, why did you choose to write him this way?
A: Like a lot of people, Hank is a person who has little control over his life, so he over-exerts himself in the areas where he does have some control. He becomes the tyrant of the small civic group of which he is president. He also tries to boss his friends around, and more or less they tolerate it. He is blustery and brash on the outside, but small and afraid on the inside. The reader is not meant to have sympathy for him, but there’s more going on with Hank than meets the eye. Eddie understands this and points it out to Isaac when he tells Isaac that Hank sold his wife’s farm from under them. Weak people sell out. Hank sold out and, Eddie intimates, his own wife can’t stand him for it.
Q: Why did you decide to make Isaac a teenager and Mercy Creek a coming-of-age story?
A: I think teens are brave everyday. I wanted a teen to be at the center of this story.
Q: Three themes stand out in Mercy Creek: the importance of family, history, and words. Why did you choose to work with these themes?
A: These are universal themes. So is truth telling, community lies, and hypocrisy, which Mercy Creek also deals with. And redemption and hope. Isaac learns that “family” is stronger than just blood, “history” is something we all make and interpret, and “words” need to be backed up by action. I think that action, for Isaac, and later for Eddie, is friendship. I didn’t set out to deal with any themes when I began writing. From beginning to end, my main goal was simply to tell an entertaining story of characters I had begun to love.
Q: What message or moral do you want readers to take away at the end of Mercy Creek?
A: Someone told me this after reading Mercy Creek: “I liked the story, the place, the people, the writing, and the message.” I never set out to write a message. I set out to write a story. That’s not to say that people can’t draw meaning from this or any story. They can, and do. But the message—if one is ever intended—emerges from the story, and different folk make drawn different conclusions.
Q: You have written one novel, one children’s story, two musical plays, and have recorded four CDs. Which is your favorite genre to work with?
A: I like them all. Writing stories is by far the most difficult. Writing a song takes less time for me, and I get to enjoy the final product sooner. Writing and singing songs brings me joy and feeds me. Writing stories does, too, but if my only source of “food” came from them, I’d starve because I’m a slow writer. The plays are a great way to practice dialogue writing, and are a lot of fun, too. I like all forms of writing (including my professional writing: sermons, prayers, liturgy, and, yes, email!) Each form of writing enhances the other.
Q: Are you working on anything else now?
A: My new book is a memoir about my father’s WWII experience in Europe. Last summer my family and I followed his footsteps from where he was captured in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge to Glasgow where he and 10,000 other sea sick American GIs entered the war on the RMS Acquitania. The first drafts are written. I’ll probably put the manuscript through another rewrite that will be ready next year. I’m also working on a two-man act with a ministry friend that will include songs and told stories about the faith. We hope to perform that in six southern cities this October. This is a brand new endeavor and scares me to death!
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