Matthew Landis is not only an author, but he is also a teacher! With a love and passion for history, Matthew has found inspiration from his very own students. Besides writing and teaching, one of Matthew’s greatest strengths is also his humor which is something he uses both in his writing, as well as while he is teaching.
We were able to get our hands on a copy of Matthew’s latest novel, The Not-so-Boring Letters of Private Nobody. You can check out our review of it below:
Review of The Not-so-Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis
I love a book that brings kids together. Even more than that, I love it when a novel celebrates “weirdness” because I truly believe that we are all weird when it comes down to it.
In The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody, written by Matthew Landis, readers follow Oliver, a lover of history, specifically that of the Civil War. For this, Oliver is labeled as the weird kid by his classmates, but his love of history benefits him when it comes time to work on a school project.
Matthew Landis’s successes within this novel not only comes from his love of history and his spectacular writing, but from his sense of humor. For someone to be able to show humor through history is a unique skill. When we think of history, we don’t necessarily always think of it as fun, but Matthew does. And from there, his protagonist, Oliver, is able to reflect that within the novel.
Beyond that, the idea of celebrating “weirdos” and awkwardness is something that I think makes this book beautifully special. Kids can be cruel is you allow them to be. However, kids can be kind, self-aware, and insanely creative if guided in the right direction. Matthew’s novel shows that kids, when put in the right situation, can learn a lot about each other and that the things that make us “weird” are actually the things that make us special.
The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody is not your average novel. It’s incredibly unique. That being said, it’s truths are something that anybody can relate to and for that, it needs to be immediately read by both kids and adults alike. Share it with your neighbor, your niece or nephew, or anyone who might just need a laugh. This novel is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt like the odd-one out… which is basically all of us when you think about it.
Q&A with Matthew Landis
After reading The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody, we were able to sit down and talk to the incredible Matthew Landis! We learned more about his ideas, his love for teaching, and his biggest struggles as a writer. Check it out here:
To begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
My primary mission as a middle school teacher is to be the educational equivalent of epinephrine: jolt the bored-to-death student awake. Shock the system. In the 8th grade social studies classroom, this can be quite a challenge; with many kids, it’s about the long game. But my daily approach is simple: inject my weirdness, humor, and genuine passion for American history into every single lesson. That’s it.
When did you realize you had a talent and a passion for writing? What inspired you to be a writer?
During high school (10th grade, I think), there was this teacher that we all thought to be a ruthless dictator, ruling over us with unjust power. To fight the system, I wrote this thinly veiled satirical essay called “President Dolt” modeled on Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a piece we’d just finished in English. I can still remember the rush I felt while typing, the vindication of each zinger, and the joy when friends enjoyed it. It was incredible. While my passion was clearly misdirected (Mr. Dolt was probably just doing his job), the event alerted me for the first time that I had something here. I. Was. Hooked.
Can you tell us a bit about The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody and why you were inspired to write it?
Twelve-year-old Oliver loves the Civil War in a way that sets him apart as weird (this is part autobiographical, you see), so he’s deeply excited to research a famous soldier during a Social Studies project. But instead of getting a well-known general, the teacher assigns him a Union private from their hometown—a total unknown. Worse, Oliver is partnered with Ella, a disheveled loner who’s rumored to be failing 7th grade. Danger, Will Robinson.
But the more Oliver digs into the past and the present, he realizes there is more to the story. Aided by his friend Kevin, the trio unearth a secret history about Private Nobody, while discovering some overlooked truths about each other too.
This book is a literal page from my daily life: awkward kids doing social studies. My agent, Lauren Galit, suggested I write this after I’d thrown yet another horrible book idea at her; I believe it went something like, “You live in that world. Just tell that story.” Genius. Spending eight hours a day with hilarious, weird, and drama-filled teens gave me more than enough material to authentically tell the story I wanted. While the first draft had problems, it was stream of conscious, and it was an absolute joy to write.
You have another book too! Can you tell us about what you like to write in general and why you are inspired to write about the things you write about, including League of American Traitors?
I mainly love telling contemporary, realistic stories; something like the movie Kings of Summer in book form. Stories with heart and a ton of humor. Must have humor. I want to walk that razor edge of making you snort and tear up.
Oddly enough, my debut was a thriller with historical bents. I envisioned this world in which the descendants of the American Revolution in 2018 were still punishing anybody who stood in the way of Independence—specifically the offspring of traitors like Benedict Arnold—as sort of a distortion of perpetuated “honor culture.” Seventeen-year-old Jasper learns he’s related to Arnold, and that he’s being hunted for the treason his ancestor committed. Whisked off to a dilapidated boarding school for the ancestral losers of American history, he has to prove Arnold was coerced into treason, or face a pistol duel on his eighteenth birthday (yes, there’s dueling!)
Why did you decide to write for younger generations versus adults?
: I chose to write for kids because I find them so hilarious and inspiring. My students say/do/think the most random, absurd, and funny things. They also endure life events, big and small, in ways that awe me; my third book (spoilers!) coming next year celebrates this in a hopefully poignant way. To summarize: I write for kids because I think they are awesome. Teaching them brings me great joy.
I also think (hope?) there’s an adult book in me; we’ll see. Actually, if you know anyone interested in a vampire space opera, let me know. (Currently no takers on the YA/MG market.)
Your education has been focused on history. How did you transition from history to writing? How are you able to make the two go hand-in-hand with each other?
In 2011, I was finishing my graduate degree in history and teaching full time. I’d just written this big nerdy research paper on Benedict Arnold and I was like, “Hey! You could make kids not hate history by writing not-boring YA/MG books instead of super boring papers! Do that!” That night, I wrote the opening chapter to League of American Traitors.
The two easily complement each other because they share the same mission: passionately tell a story using humor, weirdness, and heart. It was and continues to be a natural fit. I cannot imagine one without the other.
You seem to have a great sense of humor! How do kids react to your humor and how does your humor reflect in your writing?
At first, they’re not sure what to do (Did he just…say that? He’s weird.) But then they loosen up—which is the point. I’ve learned that being myself lets them do the same and that humor can unite a room. After all, to laugh with others, sometimes at your own/their mistakes, requires trust. Basically: the class who laughs together, learns together (trademark that, Matthew Landis, April 30, 2018).
In writing, I find humor can make plot-necessary-but-potentially-boring scenes infinitely better. Character quirks, situational hijinks, and unexpected dialogue suck me in as a reader, so that’s what I aim for in my books. Generally, if it’s not that funny, I’m bored.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process and how you create your novels?
An idea strikes me randomly (maybe one or two good ones a year) and I’ll run it by Lauren, my agent. Is this viable? Is this being done? Is this mildly interesting? This is really the agent’s expertise, so I trust the feedback. If the idea—let’s call it “Vampire Space Opera”—is solid, I then develop a one-sentence summary, followed by a four-page synopsis. This I run by my wife, Kristy, who is Queen of Truth Telling (you need many people like this in your writing life). All this beginning stuff has one purpose: let people find all the potential problems with the idea/story because it will save you triage time later.
If Vampire Space Opera idea survives, then I write the opening chapters—really get a feel for the voice, characters, etc. This is what I love the most, but I’ve learned that without planning, it’s a total waste. Plan! You must. I beg of you. Plan. Not planning likely cost me three years of plot-black-hole syndrome.
Which writer has inspired you the most and why?
This is always hard to answer because so many writers at so many points have impacted. I’ll whittle it down to one: Tana French, who inspired me through sheer brilliance. I fell for her Dublin Murder Squad series in a way I haven’t until Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy: hard and fast and permanent. Her second novel in that series, The Likeness, remains the best conceived, plotted, and executed novel I’ve ever read. I can’t say enough about Tana French’s work. Huge for me.
What has been the biggest struggle for you as a writer?
The biggest struggle was/is to remember that it’s just a book. The natural lie of any great pursuit is as simple as it is believable: Achievement here will bring lasting fulfillment, joy, and meaning. That’s hard for writers to avoid in the daily trenches when we’re grinding out that first novel. Somewhere during my journey, being a published author became preeminent, supplanting other (and far more meaningful) realities: my primary job, my community I’m called to serve, and to my great shame, even my wife and kids. This struggle continues in different ways, but I can report that balance has been achieved through a truckload of mistakes, prayer, and grace from my wife. (Also, annually deleting your social media accounts helps.)
What advice would you give to struggling writers out there who are trying to accomplish their dreams?
Don’t make writing the center of your life. Weird, right? I spoke at WriteOnCon about this, expecting eye rolling or pushback; instead, emerging writers agreed. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but my experience has been that writing was never meant to support the totality of my identity—it wasn’t made for that. Rather than fulfill me, chasing publishing above all else made me insecure, angsty, and jealous of other writers’ success. I was downright miserable. So my advice is this: chase your writing dream—you can do it!—but don’t give yourself to it completely.
Is there a fun fact about yourself that might surprise our readers if you were to share it with them?
I once caught a squirrel, in the snow, using my sweatshirt like a blanket. The squirrel was terrified, which is probably why it bit this girl who tried to cuddle it like a puppy. I take NO responsibility for that injury. She and the squirrel were both fine. I think.
What do you want kids to learn most from your novels?
For these first two books, I definitely want readers to see that the past is not, nor has ever been, BORING. Instead, it’s infinitely complex, funny, tragic, and at often, just like the present. (Also: I want them to learn that Cheez-Its are the best after school snack, which most of my characters eat.)
Your career seems boundless. Where do you see yourself going from here?
I certainly hope it’s boundless! My plan is to keep doing the same: teaching and writing. I’m often asked if I’ll leave the classroom to write full-time, and I immediately start laughing. “Let me tell you about health insurance monthly premiums,” I say. I also think there is no substitute for doing life with the crowd I’m writing for and about. So for now, I’d love to get out a book a year, and keep making history not boring (though if fame strikes, I’m definitely getting a yacht—nothing too showy or ridiculous, but big enough for a couple jet skis and my helicopter).
Do you have any final words of wisdom that you would like to share with our readers?
Audiobooks rule; don’t hesitate to abandon a book if you don’t like it (except mine); be wary of your Social Media investment; and above all else, do not assume that squirrels want to be cuddled like puppies.