Brooklyn-born Frank C. Matthews had many dreams coming up, but early on the street savvy entrepreneur didn’t necessarily have visions of a mainstream lifestyle. A natural leader, Matthews found himself at the forefront of a lot of activities, which eventually led him to a stint in the big house. While there, he studied and re-focused to create a legacy he and his children could be proud of.
In 2006, Matthews published his first novel Respect The Jux, which sold 20,000 copies independently before monster publishing house Simon & Schuster swooped in to sign him to a deal. They re-released the book in 2010, and it became a New York Times Best Seller.
These days, Matthews and his team are putting the final touches on the film Respect The Jux, slated for release in Spring 2015. He is also preparing for the January release of his next novel The American Dream, and building his film company to prepare future endeavors.
In this UrbLife.com exclusive, Frank Matthews breaks down his thoughts on work ethic, maintaining aspirations despite challenges, and taking on stereotypes in the movie industry.
It’s going on a decade since Respect The Jux was actually written and self published, to the point of making a film. What would you say was the most difficult thing about the process of waiting for things to develop?
Frank C. Matthews: I think the most difficult thing is knowing you have a quality project that you want to put out there for the public, but at the same token being patient enough to put yourself in a position where you become the business, as opposed to someone else taking over your project – doing it how they want and getting all the credit for your hard work. Just wanting yourself out there, wanting your work out there, wanting people to see what you’re capable of, judging your talent and so forth… waiting for that right opportunity in order for you to do it, but at the same token reap the benefits.
How did you sell 20,000 copies of your book without the help of a major publisher?
Frank: it wasn’t easy. I mean, after being rejected by so many publishers, especially the smaller publishers at that, and mainly the Black publishers – which is ironic that no Black publishers would take me on. It was said that they don’t publish “that type” of work. Once I found a company that would allow me to self-publish through them, I was able to go after the fan base that I know actually exists.
In other words, I had a captive audience. I marketed to the prison system, and on the streets. Going to street vendors, giving them books on consignment, going to stores and giving them books on consignment, setting up an online marketing situation where people would know the book exists.
It just caught on like wildfire, and next thing you know… 50 Cent was actually one of my helpers, because he made a song along with Lloyd Banks titled “Hands Up”. “If you wanna party with crooks, you gotta learn to Respect the Jux”. I put all that stuff together and just launched it to the public, and that’s how I ended up selling so many books.
Simon & Schuster picked you up and you made The New York times Best Seller List. How did you find out that you hit that list? Do you remember that day and how that felt?
Frank: When I hit the list, it was a phone call from Karen Hunter saying, “You’re on the list!” and I’m like “On the list for what? [laughs]to go to a party? To go to a club? What is it?” Then she told me, “You’re selling books! You’re doing numbers!”
It was exciting. I didn’t even consider being on any type of best seller list or anything of that nature. My objective was simply to sell books and continue to get published and put more books out there for the sake of business, making money, feeding my family, taking care of my friends and creating opportunity. It was really exciting.
What kind of pressure did you feel after you hit that list?
Frank: I was pretty calm about it. I was wasn’t shooting at hitting the list so making it was like, “Ok that’s cool. Things are just that much better”, and that pretty much confirmed the fact that there is a huge audience for the content that I have. I realized that I need to put myself in a better position and not only to sell a book but to also capitalize off the profits that are coming in.
What a lot of people don’t know is the book industry, music industry, film industry…they all have one thing in common; that if you’re not in a good position, you can sell a million books and still not see any money. I pretty much decided that at the point in time that I need to figure how I’m going to put myself in a great position, so the next time I do publish a book, not only will my audience be satisfied with my work, but also I will be satisfied with my business.
Do you put that pressure on yourself to come up with the next great book or film, or do you feel that the publisher puts that on you now that they know that you can produce?
Frank: Of course the publisher’s objective is to keep content in the market, so they do apply that pressure, but I move at my own pace. I’m not just going to put something out there and tarnish my brand. I take my time working on what I feel I need to do, and making sure when I do put something out my audience is satisfied and if I don’t meet the same mark I definitely score above it.
I can’t put something out that’s less that Respect the Jux. It has to be on the same level or it has to be better. There is no going back for me. I’ve got something coming for them. I have The American Dream, which I will be publishing sometime in January, first quarter. We currently happen to have that going through the editing phase right now. Once it’s done, we’re gonna hit em hard with it, and they are going to love it.
We read that you’re working with F. Gary Gray on the film version of your book and you’ve been filming for quite a while now and editing and getting ready for the actual release of the movie. What has been the most challenging process of turning a book into a screenplay and making it come to life?
Frank: Let me make a correction. I was signed to F. Gary Gray to do an HBO series on Respect the Jux. However, it came to a point where option agreement actually expired before we could even start writing the script for HBO. With the politics involved and the slow pace that it takes in order for someone to actually get to that stage of getting something done, I decided to move on and pretty much do the thing myself.
F. Gary Gray is a great guy, but there were some changes being made to my story that I didn’t really want or appreciate. In order to tell my story my way I have to get out there and do it myself. So we went forth and I wrote the script, worked along with a script doctor, got it tight, raised the money, pretty much had my own production company and we shot the movie.
How do you as a creative discipline yourself to come up with the storyline and characters, etc. What’s your process of developing that story?
Frank: What works for me is that I have to actually be able to tell that story without putting one letter on a piece of paper. In other words, I formulate the entire story in my head that I can actually sit down and tell you what the next book is going to be about before I even start writing. So once I’m done with that process of conjuring the whole story in my head, then I go forth to write a skeleton. In other words I’m looking for the beginning, the middle, and the ending.
After that I continue to rewrite the story, something like a building block, and I build the story entirely out until we have a full story. I may write one story about 10 times before I actually deliver it to the public. It’s a tedious process, but I take about an hour out of every day to write. If you can do that, you can complete a book.
Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines are two of your inspirations. What would you want people to take away from your style of writing?
Frank: what I want people to walk away with is being true to one’s self. When I write, there’s nothing more than three degrees of separation. Whatever I write, there is actually truth to it, that’s why I like to consider my category as “True Fiction”. No, I’m not going to mention someone’s name that did something and put you in a particular place, time and so on and dry snitch on someone to get them locked up. What I will do is change things around, change the story but there’s someone actually reading that story and saying, “Yo, he is talking about me”.
So I want everyone, in reference to other writers, to walk away with that what you write, you should know it, understand it, and lived it. You should be close to someone who’s actually living that story. What I’m writing is not necessarily fiction. What Donald Goines wrote wasn’t fiction. It was what I considered to be true fiction, because he actually lived that life. He went through his drug habit, Vietnam, being a dope fiend and experienced all these things and he was able to write it. That’s what made it so real and that’s what made you feel it. That’s what I’m actually bringing to the public in my writing.
What are the steps you feel anyone would need to take to bring a book to either an editor to review it or publisher? What are the key things to have in place?
Frank: One of the first things I tell a person that comes up to me with a book is complete the book. A lot of times people will approach you, however they want to have an idea, or they just started writing it… it doesn’t make sense. You can’t tell them you have a hit record that you just started recording. We need to hear the record, we need to read the book. To be honest, you mailing in your manuscript gets you nowhere.
I’m at the big publisher, I’ve been to the small publishers…there’s thousands of books coming in every day. If you can’t get yourself a literary agent to actually deliver that or somebody that knows somebody that’s in position to actually review the bookm you are wasting your time. You’re simply going to end up in the rest of the pile until it’s time for us to recycle. More than likely, you have to get out there to create a buzz. Put something out there, whether it be a short story if you don’t want to put your entire book out there, do a short story first.
Put it out there, build your buzz, and then with a track record you can step to a publisher and say, “Listen, this is what I’ve done, these are the numbers that I’ve put on the board. How can I go about getting published by you guys?”. More than likely if they’ve seen that you made a dollar, they want in. They want some of that money. My recommendation is self-publish first, build your name, build your brand, build your buzz, especially if you want to do good business. Otherwise, you’re gonna get a shitty contract, and that’s how the game goes.
Now you were as some may call a “late bloomer” because you did a majority of this work in your 30’s and now into your 40’s. What’s some advice you would give people about being patient and not beating yourself up too much about the length of time it takes to get the right project done?
Frank: I’m a firm believer that whatever you have, it’s because God wants you to have it. If you don’t have it, it’s because God doesn’t want you to have it. There is no waiver between one or the other. You just simply go ahead, do your work, and put it out there. If that doesn’t catch, put something else out there. Just keep putting it out there, but don’t let it get you down and don’t let it stress you out, because sometimes it takes time for people to actually appreciate your work. The audience might not be ready for you today, but they may be ready for you tomorrow based on the temperament of what you’re putting out there, and what the people are feeling during that current time and moment.
Know your market, and understand who you’re trying to cater to. You have to identify that audience, and depending on what that audience wants is how you service them. If you want to write stories for women, then naturally you have to understand what the women want. You have to understand what they’re infatuated with, what they like, what they want to read about or what is taboo to them, what they want to read but don’t want anybody else to know what they’re reading it.
There’s so many different avenues so before you decide to even get out there with your book, that’s what they need. Here’s the time to learn who your target audience is, and once you got that down pat, then go directly after them. In other words, straight to market. Cut the chasing, go right after the people.
And don’t quit your day job if you’re trying to build that up! [laughs]
Frank: Oh hell no! Don’t quit the day job. If you want to be an author, it better be a passion. And if your passion turns into your business and you’re making money, you’re that much better off. If it doesn’t, it’s your passion, so you’re going to do it regardless. You’re still going to write, so just keep writing and put content out there. Prayerfully God will want you to be this big author and making all this money, and maybe you and I could do some work together [laughs], and that’s what it is.
What do you want people to know about what you have coming up as far as the film and your next book?
Frank: Top of the year, first quarter, let’s say February or March, we’ll be releasing the film Respect the Jux. We have some great actors in there, Tony Sirico [The Sopranos], Bobby Costanzo [Total Recall], Ciera Payton [Days of Our Lives], just to name a few. We weren’t really over the top because we’re doing this from the indie aspect, but do expect quality work. We didn’t shoot with our cell phones or with a 5-D camera, we used everything that Hollywood used. Everyone is professional on my team so we’re putting out quality work and great content.
We’re here to set the standard, so expect a lot of action in there, things blowing up, there’s gonna be sex scenes, all types of good stuff – it’s gonna be exciting. Once we drop that as well we’re actually going to announce the release date for The American Dream and we’ll be going into pre-production for the movie.
My partner and I, our intent is to feed the audience on a yearly basis. We’re going to become the antithesis to Tyler Perry. We aren’t catering to the chitlin’ circuit, we understand that. If they want to support us, great, if not, great – we are focusing on the audience that’s so neglected right now. That niche audience that needs this type of hardcore going out with a bang, and then a prayer later.
Would you say it’s the same type of audience of Belly or any of those more streetwise films?
Frank: Yeah, definitely. Our audience would consist of the Belly, the Boyz N the Hood, Menace to Society and Scarface. What we’re putting out has international appeal to it. It’s a story based on an individual who comes from Jamaica to the United States chasing the “American dream”, and realizing that it doesn’t exist and decides the dream is for the taking and goes about taking the dream his way. And, of course, all the pros and the cons with trying to get what you want by any means necessary.
This is for men and women… no children [laughs]. My audience varies. We’re looking to cross lines. One of the phrases I’m sick of hearing is “This is an urban movie”. I don’t understand what “urban” is. I’m from Urban America, and that means I’m from this metropolis with all these big buildings, these streets, very little trees and so forth. Then you have suburban America. So if I was from the suburbs and made a movie, would they have called that a suburban movie even though it has a city?
Urban and Black is something that has been put together to stifle progress, and I don’t want that being added to me. If Woody Allen made a movie about Brooklyn, they won’t call it urban because he’s Woody Allen, but if someone of a minority race did the same movie it’s an urban movie. These are the type of terms I’m actually trying to keep away from.
What I’m doing is making movies, great quality movies, that’s it. We’re making great quality movies in references to urban America, and urban cities and things of that nature. It’s not urban, and I definitely want to get away from that term.
What do you want people to know most about you at this point of your career?
Frank: One thing I want people to know and understand is that I have a vision. It consists of more than just making movies or putting books out here. I want to leave a legacy behind. I want to build something that others can actually benefit from as wells as myself. I want to actually bring what used to be called “Black Theater” back so we can stop being pegged as people that can’t sell anywhere else, when in reality every time we put something out, it goes like wild fire.
What we’re actually missing is the marketing and the distribution outlets in order for people to have access to our content. All of this is what I want to change. I want to have our own film festivals, not necessarily a Black film festival, but an independent film festival where people like myself can actually submit their work and be viewed and respected as art as well without being raped by the industry.
Watch the Respect The Jux teaser trailer