Matt, welcome to my world.
Thank you, Multicultural Icon.
I’d love to find out more about your writing and what drove you to create your series. Here is Matt’s brief bio:
I’m from Miami, Florida originally, married to Julie and settled in Queens, New York since 1999. I teach high school English in Brooklyn, focusing on special education students. My parents are classical musicians. I’m an avid reader and active in avant-garde music with my band The Exploration Project.
I was driven to create this series because … well, because it interested me. I had written about magicians and apprentices on the small scale before, and I decided to expand it to a larger scale. I was working in a yeshiva high school and I had the idea to use the Orthodox Jewish culture in a novel, to reveal some of its intricacies, and blending that into a magic school struck me as a fascinating idea. I have put more emphasis on Chasidism than Mishnaic Judaism (Orthodoxy) because that works for me in a storyline sense, but the culture clash was one thing I was after from the beginning.
Another thing I was after was to redeem the reputation of magic as a belief system, to set it apart from the negative cultural associations that were layered upon it in Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern era, and to establish that it is a source of wisdom that is related to God. One reviewer recently complained about my mentioning God all the time in The Ghost in the Crystal; and yet any magician has to believe in God. I’m not a religious man at all, but I can’t be an atheist either. Atheism is a misfire that results from personal unhappiness, or from a misinterpretation of the implications of science (many theoretical physicists and mathematicians today, excluding Stephen Hawking, believe strongly in God), or from some specific organized religion’s failure to inspire in a certain place in a certain time — but really any sensible person should believe in God in some way. Life is unliveable if you don’t.
I agree with you whole-heartedly, Matt. I was brought up as an atheist, as everyone else under the Communist rule, and it did not work. As human beings, we need faith, one kind or another. Without a belief system, life itself is lack in purpose.
Anyway, Matt, how much does your day job, teaching, inform you about your own writing? Having been working with kids at school, are any of your characters inspired by what you see and experience on a daily basis?
Oddly enough, I think my kids are mostly inspired by my own childhood. They are more like me and my friends than they are like kids today. Perhaps I romanticize some, but I think my generation was a little more focused than the current generation, the “Digital Natives” as some call them. I worry about them in a lot of ways — they are very distracted and not terribly curious, living in an amazing age of information but not desiring to access very much of that information. This is largely a difference in priorities — they just value different things than my generation does — and I would hardly be the first person to lament the younger generation only to have them prove me wrong when they grow up. Plato and Julius Caesar also came from rebellious generations, and I won’t even start on those who survived the 1960s.
I do plan to write about the current generation, that of my students, in future projects, but I need some distance first.
Oh yes, I share your concern about today’s generation. I think there is something sorely missing in the ‘Digital World’ we now live in, despite the amazing advancement of information access and sharing.
During my previous interview with you about my own background and my writing, I learnt that you are married to a wonderful woman from India and you ‘write about global culture through the lens of magical traditions’ . Tell us more about how different cultures enrich your understanding of the world and the kind of impact on your writing.
The magic in my books is rooted in three traditions.
The first is the tradition of European hermeticism, which goes back to ancient times and is the source of a lot of magical folklore, including informing Harry Potter, which I know you’re going to ask me about a little later. The name “hermetic’ comes from the mythic founder, Hermes Trismegistus, who is sometimes equated with the Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth. Most European magicians fall into this tradition — I listed them off in my second book, Level Three’s Dream, where they appear as statues in a Paris artifact museum.
The second is Cabala, Jewish mysticism. It derives from some ancient texts, the Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah, and it deals with a view of the universe quite different from the traditional text in the Torah. Cabala does in fact overlap a lot with hermeticism, but I am treating them separately for dramatic purposes. Cabalistic magic has to do with the power of names and numbers. I introduce this magic in the first book and develop it a lot more in the volumes to come; readers will get a pretty strong overview if they stick with me. Yakov Mermelstein, a troubled and aggressive young Chasid, will have threads in all five books dealing with his struggle to embrace Jewish mysticism, and Simon will learn some Cabala as well.
The third tradition at School of the Ages is Indian magic. You might think of this as more like the special abilities of yogis, rooted in meditation, which all the magicians from the school must master. Again, there is only a little of this in the first book, but there is a lot more to come.
I made my protagonist, Simon, partly Indian so that I could incorporate Indian culture. In The Ghost in the Crystal, he and Goldberry go to Balaram’s house to celebrate Vasant Panchami, the festival of Saraswati (sort of the Hindu patroness of the arts). In the fourth book, they will actually be in India quite a bit, visiting his family and meeting some crucial figures from Hindu culture.
The third book, The War Against Love, which will be published in 2012, brings the kids to Europe, and introduces some major players from several European countries who will be both allies and enemies.
That is great to hear, Matt. Exciting stuff!
I have not read any of the Harry Potter series, but I am not oblivious of its huge popularity and impact. Your books have been compared to that of Harry Potter. What do you think are the reasons for the Harry Potter mania?
I don’t know. Timing, I guess. If I could put J.K. Rowling’s birth information in front of an Indian astrologer, then I could tell you. I have devoured all her books, read them all many times, so I won’t pretend I don’t like them, but the truth is, she’s a second-rate writer, just edging out the mediocre C.S. Lewis as an overrated fantasist. From the first page of the Harry Potter series to the last, I have always thought, “Wow, I’m very interested, but she could have done better here and here and here and here.” I know people will continue to compare School of the Ages to Harry Potter, sometimes unfavorably, but I promise that I know my way around novels just fine, and if you look past the magic school setting, you will find big differences, and you’ll forget about Harry by the end of book II.
Do you think that your books can be translated onto the big screen? If so, who would you like to cast as your leads, especially Simon Magnus?
Just to clarify, because it comes up fairly often: my protagonist calls himself Simon Magus (no N). It just means “Simon the Magician.” Simon Magnus means “Simon the Great” and he would never take that name for himself.
My books can be translated to the big screen — absolutely, and in fact, I can suggest soundtrack options. Casting Simon isn’t realistic given that he starts at 13 and I don’t know who the 13-year-old actors are, so I’ll give you a few casting options for the adult characters. For Dr. Archer, who is the kids’ mentor, I would like to cast Chris Cooper; and for the villain of the first book, Yeishu ben Pandeira, I would like to cast Edward Norton, who could also direct.
When you are not teaching or writing, what do you do? How do you balance writing with your demanding full-time job?
If I’m not working or writing, I spend leisure time with Julie. We are into movies, TV, and family events. Also, we like to travel, especially to Europe, where we have been to several countries, including your adopted homeland, England.
I am in an avant-garde musical group, The Exploration Project, where I work with poetry and percussion. We have a painter, Eric Henty (http://erichenty.com) who makes original canvases while we make the sounds, and we have several musicians, including the founder, Scott Rifkin, who plays a custom-made James DeCava double-neck six-string guitar, and our newest member, Peter Dragotta, a woodwind specialist.
Wonderful. I admire your talents, Matt.
Having been married to someone of an Indian origin, I would expect that you have travelled to that part of the world. Can you please share with us one or two of your experiences which are particularly fascinating?
Julie and I went to India in February for a wedding. It was my first time in India and her first time in Mumbai. Mumbai traffic is unbelievable. Traffic jams are astounding — merging is essentially a matter of bravado. The car horn is used for nearly every purpose. Because there are no crosswalks, people just walk into traffic and ignore horns being blown at them. Residents of Mumbai love this experience, but I am bloody well glad I don’t have to drive there. We are pretty nice to each other on the roads in New York. (Be careful driving in Miami, though.)
While in Mumbai we enjoyed dickering for bargains in Colaba Market, and we had a great time eating street food in a pavilion of such items at the calm and quiet Chowpati Beach. Mumbai has great wedding venues — huge hotels and catering halls with lots of luxuries. I did however get tired of seeing Shah Rukh Khan’s face everywhere.
How Interesting! My husband is going to Mumbai and two other cities in India at the end of this month, and I’m sure he’ll confirm what you have just told me. He’s categorically told me that he’s on business so I can’t go with him this time. India will have to wait
What are you working on right now? What else are under your magician’s sleeves?
I am working on short story anthology contributions, including Kindle All-Stars and four others; on School of the Ages 4: Simon Geeta; and on another novel project the details of which I am keeping under wraps in case I can’t advance it well enough.
Matt, thank you so much for talking to me and my readers, some of whom I know would love nothing better than diving into a magical world and going to an adventure with your Simon Magus.
Here are the links for ‘School of the Ages’ series:
Go to Matt’s Website for full list of books and for other platforms such as Nook