Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work with publishers who let me follow my inspiration wherever it leads. As a result, my novels are all over the map in terms of genre and subject matter. While this is great fun for me, it can be confusing for new readers who don’t know where to start, or who’ve liked one of my books but aren’t sure what to try next. Below is a brief overview of my published novels, arranged in chronological order:
Fool on the Hill — A comic fantasy set at Cornell University circa 1987. The story concerns a “retired Greek God,” Mr. Sunshine, who descends on the Cornell campus to make mischief and ends up in a contest of wills with a lovesick writer-in-residence named Stephen Titus George. This framing tale weaves together a number of subplots that include such characters as a dog and cat in search of heaven, a group of bohemian students who style themselves as modern-day knights, a race of magical sprites at war with an army of sword-wielding rats, and a giant wood-and-canvas dragon that comes to life in the novel’s climax.
I think the book holds up pretty well, especially as a time capsule of the era and the place in which it was written. If you’re a Cornell alumnus, a nostalgic adult of a certain age, a current college student who doesn’t mind dated cultural references, or a Matt Ruff fan curious about how I got my start, this could be for you.
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy — A science-fiction satire of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, written in the 1990s and set in the distant future year of 2023.
Rather than try to summarize the plot of this novel, I will direct you to the description of how I came to write it. If you find this origin story intriguing, then Sewer, Gas & Electric may be your cup of tea; if you are puzzled or appalled, you should probably read something else.
Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls — The story of a relationship between two people who both have multiple personalities. Andrew Gage manages his unusual condition by means of an imaginary house in his head where his various “souls” all live together in relative harmony. He meets Penny Driver, an undiagnosed multiple who still struggles with periods of lost time; when some of Penny’s more self-aware souls ask Andrew for help, they end up destabilizing his house and force him to confront personal demons from the past.
I regard this as my first fully mature novel, and I still think it’s one of my best. Despite the wild-sounding premise, it’s a grounded narrative that strives to draw a sympathetic and psychologically realistic portrait of the characters, while leavening the heavier subject matter with a dose of humor.
Bad Monkeys — Murder suspect Jane Charlotte claims to belong to a mysterious organization that fights evil. Her division, the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—Bad Monkeys for short—is an execution squad, though the man she’s accused of killing wasn’t on the official target list. The jailhouse psychiatrist assigned to Jane’s case gets her to tell the story of her career in Bad Monkeys: how she was recruited, what she did for the organization, and how it all went wrong.
I call this my Philip K. Dick novel. It’s a short, fast-moving mind-bender. Jane is the ultimate unreliable narrator: catch her in an apparent lie or contradiction and she just throws another twist into the story, ratcheting up the weirdness while continuing to insist that it’s all true. If you like paranoid thrillers, you’ll probably like Bad Monkeys.
In terms of commercial success, Bad Monkeys proved to be my breakthrough novel. It sold better than anything I’d written previously and was the first of my books ever to be optioned by Hollywood. It also led to a fateful meeting with some TV people who invited me to pitch them ideas for original series. I ended up pitching three shows—The Mirage, Lovecraft Country, and 88 Names—all of which they (politely) rejected. Undiscouraged, I went back to my word processor and spent the next decade reimagining all three story ideas as novels.
The Mirage — A post-9/11 political and religious thriller, set in an alternate reality where the U.S. and the Middle East have traded places. The United Arab States is the world’s last superpower, and the “11/9 attacks” involve Christian fundamentalists flying planes into towers in downtown Baghdad. It’s not just the geopolitical situation that’s turned on its head; so is the sense of who matters. The novel’s protagonists—a trio of Arab Homeland Security agents—and the principal villains—the gangster Saddam Hussein, and a corrupt senator named Osama bin Laden—are all Arab Muslims. The Americans in the story are mostly nameless third-worlders, with the exception of a few high-profile terrorists like Donald Rumsfeld.
This mirror-world set-up draws frequent comparisons to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, but I’ve always felt that The Mirage is more akin to Robert Harris’s Fatherland, which describes a topsy-turvy post-WWII world from the point of view of a victorious Germany. Of my own novels, The Mirage‘s mix of history, genre tropes, and moral/social commentary puts it closest in tone and style to the book that followed it. If you like Lovecraft Country, you’ll probably like The Mirage, and vice-versa.
Lovecraft Country — A supernatural horror drama about a black family in 1950s Chicago who own a travel agency and publish a fictional version of The Negro Motorist Green Book called The Safe Negro Travel Guide. George Berry, who runs the travel agency, and his nephew Atticus, who works as a field researcher for the Guide, are both big genre fiction fans, and the novel recounts how they and their friends get drawn into a series of real-life weird tales, while simultaneously dealing with the more mundane horrors of life in the Jim Crow era.
In many ways, this is the quintessential Matt Ruff novel. As much as my books may vary in terms of subject matter, one constant in my work is that I love using the power of fiction to explore lives and worldviews that are different from my own. I also love taking disparate subplots—story threads that you wouldn’t expect to go together—and finding ways to combine them into a larger, cohesive narrative. Lovecraft Country has all of that, and more. If you only read one of my novels, it should probably be this one.
88 Names — A near-future cyberthriller/twisted romantic comedy. The protagonist, John Chu, is a paid guide to online role-playing games who suspects his latest client may be North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The first two-thirds of the novel are set entirely in virtual reality, and most of the characters Chu interacts with, including his coworkers and his ex-girlfriend, are people he’s never met in the flesh, so he’s constantly forced to question how well he really knows them.
Because it originated from the same TV pitch session, I tend to think of 88 Names as forming a loose trilogy with The Mirage and Lovecraft Country, but despite the North Korea angle, it’s much lighter in tone than either of those books. If you’re up for a fun masquerade with video games and cybersex, this could be your ticket.