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Island profile: Matthew Quinn Martin, bookish man with a penchant for horror

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Shelter Island continues to amaze and surprise Matthew Quinn Martin.
Shelter Island continues to amaze and surprise Matthew Quinn Martin.

When Matthew Quinn Martin was very young, he was terrified by an odd pattern in the grain of the wood paneling in his house.

In his 4-year-old imagination, the grain formed the face of Frankenstein. Although his mother taped an envelope over the face, it spooked him for years.

Matthew’s childhood fears became a kind of inspiration for the horror and crime works he later wrote. In 2003 he wrote a screenplay that became the 2005 movie “Slingshot,” a gritty crime drama about two grifters in Connecticut. In 2013, his horror novel, “Nightlife” was published, followed by a novella, “Nightlife: Hazardous Duty” in 2015. His second full novel, “Nightlife: The Worm Will Turn,” was also published in 2015 and is now part of an omnibus edition of Matthew’s work called, “Nightlife: Night Terrors.”

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut at 8, when his parents divorced. He called New Haven a difficult place to live, with sharp divisions between prosperous and poor people, and a lot of crime. He went to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, and the city became the fictionalized location of his Nightlife books.

Matthew didn’t know he wanted to be a writer until he was 28, and before he figured it out he had a variety of jobs. As a teenager he worked one summer doing maintenance at the Lyman gun reloading factory in Middlefield, Connecticut. He cleaned, painted, climbed inside dangerous machinery and was exposed to toxic waste. On a hot August day, Matthew and another worker were sent to the roof of the 19th century factory to put a coat of reflective aluminum paint over black tarpaper, a task akin to painting a giant, sizzling, cast iron griddle.

His coworker went to get them some water and the next thing Matthew heard was “Dude, are you OK?” He had passed out, painted over parts of his shoes and pants and collapsed with his head hanging off the edge of the three-story roof.

Career-wise, it was low point.

A high point came when he met Jennifer Frank while they were students at Albertus Magnus. They married a few years later. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life, he said. “Luckily she was the smartest and most interesting girl as well.”

Jennifer had grown up on Shelter Island. Soon 19-year old Matthew was crossing Long Island Sound from Connecticut to visit her family, an event made more memorable because the rough winter weather and the small size of the off-season ferry left the young suitor seasick. One of his first impressions of the Island was the darkness of the sky at night, which amazed and frightened him.

During and after college, Matthew bartended and worked as an actor in community theater. He got enough “extremely small parts” at Yale Repertory Theatre, Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theatre to have steady work, and co-founded the New Haven Theater Company, where he acted and directed. He continued to get acting work that he described as unspectacular but steady, and in 2002 he and Jennifer made the move to New York.

He continued acting and tending bar in New York, but he had also started writing. When two filmmakers walked into his bar, he told them about a screenplay he’d written and was happy when they asked to take a look. “I thought they were being polite, but they called the next day and asked me to come to their office,” he recalled. “It became the movie ‘Slingshot,’ and it’s never been that easy for me to sell my work again.”

With acting experience and a screenplay in production, Matthew was qualified to teach English and arts courses, adding teacher to his resume of maintenance man, bartender, actor and writer.

The making of “Slingshot” demonstrated a troubling fact, that a company could buy his screenplay, and make it into a movie that barely resembled what he wrote, or not produce it at all. He began to focus on writing novels.

“I thought, they can decide not to make a movie after buying my script, but they can’t stop me from writing a novel, because even if it’s never published it is still a novel,” he said.

Matthew’s first novel, “Nightlife” is a gripping tale of Beth and Jack, a dog named Blood, and a world full of the worst vampires ever. He wrote it in nine months and pitched it to Barbara Poelle, an agent. She rejected it; he revised, and sent it again.

Matthew is a strong believer in books, rejecting the notion that they will die along with so many other things vying for readers’ attention. “There were other things fighting for your attention as a reader 80 years ago,” Matthew said. “They were called horseshoes and bridge and whittling and trying not to die of cholera.”

By 2010, Jennifer had enough of city life, and they moved to the Island. Matthew teaches writing at Western Connecticut State College, commuting across the Sound by ferry. He’s is a member of the Ferry Writers, a group of Islanders organized by writer JoAnn Kirkland and librarian Jocelyn Ozolins, who meet every few weeks to share their work, suggest rewrites and offer encouragement. Matthew also supports National Novel Writing Month (a k a NaNoWriMo), a project to get writers started on a draft novel by providing advice and support. Getting closer to other writers and to readers is an important part of why he writes.

“A lot of writers think writing is their ticket to immortality” he said. “I think it’s a ticket to being a good member of the community you live in now.”

In the decades since Matthew first visited the Island, the place has continued to amaze and surprise him. When visitors tell him, “I could never live here, it’s so remote.” Or, “I would love to live here, it’s so quiet,” he remembers how little he understood the place he now finds extremely layered and complex.

“Whatever your initial feeling about this place is, you are wrong,” he said. “It can be amazing, but not for the reason you are thinking of.”

Matthew said he hears a spirit on the Island that says, “‘It gets dark and the darkness is terrifying,’ but it says, ‘get together, stay together,’” he said. “We’ve all missed the last boat at some point and gotten trapped on the other side.”