Australian author Matthew Reilly.
Australian author Matthew Reilly. Peter Morris

'Book to the future' for author Matthew Reilly

WHEN Matthew Reilly sits down to write a book he is surrounded by inspiration from a golden era of blockbusters. The king of action novels, Reilly is a man who needs little introduction to Australian fiction fans. He has sold 7.5 million books to date. Not bad for a man who was initially turned down by every single major Australian publisher.

His books are non-stop, over the top action and move at a frenetic pace. With a massive and loyal fan base you'll often find him at Comic Con, Supanova or similar conventions as he himself is a sci-fi fan. He owns a rare DeLorean car (the same one from Back To The Future), and his Star Wars memorabilia collection, including a life-size Han Solo in carbonite he has mounted to his fridge door, is the envy of fans around the world.

Australian author Matthew Reilly.
Australian author Matthew Reilly. Peter Morris

Reilly's 15th and latest novel, The Four Legendary Kingdoms, has sat high on the bestseller lists for the past few weeks. It is the fourth in his Jack West series that began in 2005 with Seven Ancient Wonders, followed by Six Sacred Stones and then Five Greatest Warriors.

More than 800 people turned up to hear Reilly speak in Brisbane last month and, as usual, he stayed behind to make sure everyone got their book signed.

"I once did a book signing at a store where nobody came, absolutely nobody,” Reilly said. "So I take the attitude that if someone comes it's fantastic. I don't leave anybody waiting, never cut the line ever, in 18 years of doing this."

Reilly grew up in what he described as a "golden time” for action movies, and credits Indiana Jones' Raiders of the Lost Ark for changing his life when he saw it in 1981, when he was just seven.

"There was something in the '80s movies that was brash and out there, plus they were packed with emotion,” Reilly said. "Die Hard for example has a great emotional core. When I write a sequel the gold standards I look at in the movies are Lethal Weapon 2, Terminator 2 and Aliens. Those three movies are the benchmarks. All of those movies took a brilliant original concept and added more characters, plus you got to learn more about them. They are astonishingly good.

"You know the characters, so let's get straight into it, that's my attitude. Movie studios are really loathe to take risks now, everything has to be an established brand, but in the '80s it was all new, it hadn't been done before. I call what studios do now 'risk aversion', and a perfect example is that somebody thought it was a good idea to remake Ben Hur, Point Break and Total Recall ... I just don't know why.”

Matthew Reilly on a book tour in Brisbane.
Matthew Reilly on a book tour in Brisbane. Contributed

It wasn't all smooth sailing for the 42-year-old who grew up in Sydney. While studying law at the University of NSW, he wrote his first book, Contest, at 19 and it was quickly rejected by every major publisher in the country. Taking out a bank loan, Reilly published 1000 copies himself. He got a deal with Pan Macmillan after a commissioning editor for the company found a copy in a book store and loved it. His second book, Ice Station, was a smash hit worldwide, and Reilly then dedicated his career full-time to writing.

"I can't fake what I do (the action). I love this stuff, and I can't for example write a book about quitting sugar,” he said.

Reilly's most popular character, and the hero of his latest book, is Jack West Jr, best described as an Australian Indiana Jones. With so few Australian literary heroes around, Reilly proudly wears his heart on his sleeve with the character.

"Someone asked me once at an event why I don't have my characters say 'strewth' or 'she'll be right mate' and I wondered, how do I answer this?

"The truth is I just don't like that language. We don't say 'strewth mate'. We are an intelligent country producing smart people. That's the Australia I want to present.”

Reilly travels the world for inspiration, and often spends time looking at ancient ruins across Europe and South America.

"I recently visited some ruins in Mexico. When I'm there I can see it all for myself, you can't get that from a photo. There are little details of things you normally wouldn't see,” he said.

"More and more these days I sketch out scenes before I write them. I've always enjoyed Jack West, and you get on a roll with them. After the third book I just needed a break. I went and explored with a new bunch of stand-alone books as I don't want to be the guy who keeps writing the same series, so I wrote titles like The Great Zoo of China and The Tournament.

"In all honesty, when I wrote the first book, Seven Ancient Wonders, over a decade ago I never planned a series of seven books. So when the next one was called Six Sacred Stones I was then committed to counting all the way down to one.”

Reilly has a knack for creating great heroes and the most evil of villains, along with killing off characters in shocking and creative ways. The Four Legendary Kingdoms is no exception as the action takes place at a deadly tournament where only one winner will survive.

"I went to Cirque de Soleil recently and I thought 'why do we go to see these shows?'” Reilly said. "I guess the truth is that we go because it's death defying. Occasionally someone gets hurt, but inside us there is a little bit of a dark side that wants to see people defy death. That said, NRL, union and NFL in the US sees 100kg plus men running at full speed at each other. It's the same thing as gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, we've just taken the death part out of it. Organised sport is basically simulated battle, and there's something we all like about it.

"As for my tradition of killing villains in horrible ways, as a writer it's all about 'comeuppance'.

"For me it's always about creating the villain. I still get hate mail to this day about me killing off regular characters. But I have to create a villain who is to be feared. I set out to write a villain in this new book as someone who is not intrinsically evil. This is a man who has a job to do, and it makes him someone who can't be bargained with.”

Reilly now lives in Los Angeles, and works a four-day week of solid writing. "In my office I'm surrounded by inspiration. There's an original 1988 Die Hard poster, a Robocop poster, an Indiana Jones truck toy, an Aliens drop ship ... these are the things that inspire me.

"I'm working now on the next three Jack West books, and the response to this latest one has been fantastic. I waited seven years to tackle this one, and I legitimately wonder how I can top The Four Legendary Kingdoms, but I have a good story. I believe that each book has to be better than the one before, but you can't beat it in massive amounts.

"My rule is that I have to take what I did in this book and then make it better.”

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