This interview was conducted via email in Summer, 2009 just after Jack Matthews’ 84th birthday. Throughout the process, Matthews had a lot of fun with it: answers were sometimes full of deliberate misspellings and archaic contractions. After I assembled his answers into a rough draft (where I replaced ampersands in his answers with the spelled out word “and”), Matthews protested; punctuation was for him a religious matter; I later learned he had once published an essay “Philosophy of the Comma” to explore (among other things) the question of whether the “frequency of semi-colons in a prose text is a clear and accurate measure of the author’s intelligence.” Sometimes I would be disconcerted by the superficiality of an answer (only to learn later that he had already written an essay about the same topic or devoted a chapter to the subject in his unpublished 1994 A WORKER’S WRITEBOOK). See also: Jack Matthews: An Introduction, Jack Matthews: The Art and Sport of Book Collecting), and On Choosing the Right Name for a Story Character. Also, some of my superficial ramblings about what makes a Jack Matthews short story so special. (Aug 2011 Update: www.ghostlypopulations.com contains news, updates & criticism about Jack Matthews.
The Author and his craft
How long does it take a serious writer to learn brevity? Mastery of form? The ability to produce a deep aesthetic enjoyment?
This is an interesting question — like the others, indeed, but not as answerable as they. I think one strives to generate meaning as energy; it’s like a demonstration in classical mechanics in physics: we say we are “moved” by a story, for example. So if there is a quantum of meaning expressible in 20 words and you express it in 10, you’ve doubled the power of the sentence. (This quantification is very crude, of course, and doesn’t do justice to the beautiful complexity of a good sentence).
You once said, “most stories fail through under-invention.” Under-invention of what? Isn’t there a role for cliches and general banality in good writing? Do you ever worry about making your style too dense or inventive?
I think most feckless writing, like most superficial thinking generally, bops along the surface of the dense and subtle realities that make life real and interesting. Most writing is too vague and abstract — which is to say, it’s under-invented; it doesn’t dig down to the blood and meat. Do I worry about making my style too dense or inventive? Not really — if the world doesn’t like it, the world can just go fish. (Such an Olympian stance is, of course, only part of the truth.) But in my darker, less charitable moments, I wonder if much of it will not be lost on the editors who read my stuff, not to mention the readers. Is this snobbery? Of course it is; on the other hand . . .
Most authors start out with short stories and progress to novels, but in your case, you did the reverse (more or less). Do you think that novel writing and short story writing attract different personality types?
Heckshully, I started out this way. My first book was BITTER KNOWLEDGE (1964), a short story collection with Scribners; then I published a book of poems AN ALMANAC FOR TWILIGHT(1966), then HANGER STOUT, AWAKE! and four more novels in fairly quick succession. I don’t think you write short stories out of a different head from that of writing novels. Chapters are somewhat like short stories, but with a novel, there’s always the looming sense of architectonics, the Great Design. Is one genre more difficult than the other? Yes and No, of course – basically, however, I would come down on No.
You’ve written plays, poetry, essays, short stories and novels. Is the writing process generally the same for all these genres? Is the way you write poetry substantially different from the way you write a short story?
Yes, no and maybe. I think a good poem and a good play both tell stories– and I think an essay tells a story. A story is seeing how one thing leads to another and — radical juxtaposition to the contrary — this beat is always happening. The word “tell” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that meant to “count”; we still speak of “an account of something” or “recounting an old tale.” A most telling etymology.
Have you ever fallen in love with one of your characters?
No, I can’t say I’ve ever “fallen in love” with a character, but I think there is something like love in feeling a character coming alive. But this is “love” as a sort of blessing, if that makes sense; or even if it doesn’t.
After you finish a story or book, do you essentially regard its characters as dead?
No, I don’t think of them as dead; I think of them as living in another realm — the world of fiction.
Suppose a film director like Martin Scorcese or John Sayles telephoned and wanted some stories to adapt into movies. Which would you suggest? What would be the greatest difficulty for the screenplay adapter ?
I wouldn’t know what to suggest; I think that by its very nature fiction is sufficiently visual for some sort of translation into film. A lot depends upon how a director personally sees the cinematic possibilities in a story, and I suspect that there is often little agreement among the choices of different directors. The greatest difficulty? Their use of language, of course — my “idiom”. An example would be HANGER STOUT, AWAKE!, which has had 6 film scripts written about it. One guy said it was too “literary” for a film; I think, however, that it could be done with Hanger’s somewhat adenoidal voice-over, conveying his wonderful character & idiom. I think of him as a comical saint. I’ve thought of other novels as good films: especially SASSAFRAS (1983) and maybe BEYOND THE BRIDGE (teeming with surreal effects). Short stories? A lot of them, too many to list. The thing is, of course, that movies have had an enormous effect on all modern writing, so that it’s easy to see a scene in a novel as “cinematic”.
One reason for the declining popularity of the short story may have to do with lack of a dramatic equivalent in TV/cinema. We have the 23 minute serial sitcom, the 46 minute serial drama, the 90 minute Hollywood blockbuster and (now) the 5 minute comic sketch on YouTube. Actually, something like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone is probably the only video equivalent we have to the short story anthology. Could such a TV concept work for short stories which are not science fiction or fantasy?
I think the connection between film and fiction is an intimately complex one, and they interpenetrate each other in many ways. Cinema has taught us to look at things differently, emphasizing the enormous importance of the visual image. But you pay a price for everything, and the great effectiveness of the visual image has lured film makers into idiocy, so that the aesthetic, artistic value of a film is inversely proportioned to its special effects. Look at some of the black & white classics, like The Blue Angel and The Informer (I have a character refer to these in my most recent — unpublished, as yet — novel), in which he says there was promise of a Sophoclean power in film in those days; but of course, that promise was not fulfilled, consistent with the general Dumbing of America). (Screed finished.)
If I offered a small but substantial sum for you to write a short story in an unfamiliar genre (say science fiction or horror), do you think you could do it admirably?
Absolutely. I could do it. And, in fact, probably have although I can’t remember receiving much money, not even an insubstantial amount; I’m sure that there are examples of both in the approximately 150 stories I’ve published. I remember writing one story without a character in it, published in THE MALAHAT REVIEW, as I remember. And I’ve had several stories in the form of what I think of as “Existential Questionnaires” — one of these, A Questionnaire For Rudolph Gordon, has been translated into French, Japanese & Farsi.
What reaction from readers about your fiction has most surprised you? Disappointed you? I’m generally disappointed by the superficiality of reviews. When you believe that you’ve encoded all sorts of subtleties into a story and then have it read at an 8th grade level, well . . . But I’m sure many writers could make such a complaint, so how true is it? How high is high? How deep is deep?
As much as I enjoy short stories, I find it difficult to talk about short stories in a critical or evaluative way. Talking about novels seems easier. You have plot, character, ethical choices and complex structures. But with short stories, you have less to talk about: slimmer characters, less action, less time to familiarize yourself with the story world. I often have trouble keeping the stories straight in my head — even for those by favorite authors. Does the short story’s “insubstantiality” strike you as a legitimate criticism of the genre itself?
Nah, I don’t think the short story as a genre is insubstantial at all, just brief. As I say in my introduction to ABRUPTIONS (my most recent story collection), it’s the narrow instrument that penetrates deepest. (That’s part true and part not — like most truths relating to labels and judgments). Also, if you love a novel, what is it, exactly, that you love? One answer would be that you love what you remember of certain scenes in it, or perhaps a specific emblematic scene, which lasts in your memory as a short story, of sorts. And it is this way with all images, of course, for an image often functions as a symbol of the narrative’s plenary meaning. (This issue could lure me into an essay, but I’ll resist the temptation, alas). But to answer your question more directly: no, a discontent with its brevity does not constitute a legitimate argument. Ask a coral snake, which is as deadly as it is small.
What was the most unusual inspiration for a short story?
I can seldom identify something as a specific trigger for a story; but I’ve written so much that I’ve had a lot of different adventures in making them. There’s a story behind every story, after all. One specific cue I remember was a story by Nabokov (whom I admire very much), in which a man comes home and sees a strange man in his bedroom, buttoning (this is an older story) his fly, while his wife is happily singing in the shower. As I remember, Nabokov has the stranger flee, & the protagonist waits to confront his wife. I thought that was wrong, so I created a similar situation for the story “Irrelevant Ideas” in which the stranger flees, then the husband leaves. Days later, he and his wife are sunbathing on their patio, and he notices tears in her eyes. It so happens that he’s screwed around a bit in their marriage, kind of taking his wife for granted, but when he sees her this way, he’s devastated . . . and finally — too late, alas! — realizes how much he loves her now that she is lost to him. Hey, are we a tragi-comic species or what?
What short story of yours was the most difficult or time-consuming to write?
In a way, they all seem easy. Why? They’re adventures, after all. We write and read fiction because one life is not enough.
Can you talk about your usual writing routine?
No, I write irregularly and by inspiration. When I grow up, I’ll be more disciplined.
Have computers and technology significantly changed the way you work as a writer?
Yes, the computer keyboard is a wonderfully intimate and effective instrument for conveying my thoughts. The invention of the typewriter keyboard was revolutionary, enabling the mind to dance on its fingers, whether the dance floor is a violin or the keyboard of a typewriter or computer.
How messy are your initial rough drafts? Do you turn off your critical eye for the first draft?
They are variously messy, but usually not very. I fuss with them in various ways. For my novel, THE CHARISMA CAMPAIGNS (1972), I wrote a short story (the opening chapter, as it turned out) that somehow didn’t breathe like a story; it breathed like a novel, so that’s what it became. Walker Percy nominated it for the National Book Award for fiction that year, but his letter was misdirected to Harcourt’s Regional Office in Texas, where it languished for a long time, then shortly before the NBA deadline, copies were sent by special messenger to all the NBA judges. It lost out, I was informed by one of the judges, largely because of politicking (a long nasty story in this, but not needed here).
How has getting older changed the way you write (in terms of subject matter, style, process, genre). What aspects of writing are harder? Easier? Does your age offer advantages for writing?
It’s hard to calculate the changes one has undergone, because your Past is always a dimension of the Present. But I can say that I don’t find writing (getting ideas, articulating nuances, hearing the language) any harder now than it’s ever been. I’ve always enjoyed writing — for me it’s an essential human adventure. Occasionally, my imagination needs a restand seems to go to sleep — but it’s always down there, or up there, dreaming and, to change the metaphor, letting the pitcher fill up. In one way, writing is easier now than when I was a pup, for good writing teems with information, and the longer you live — If you’re living — the more information you absorb. I like what Solon (1 of the 7 wise men of ancient Greece) said: “I grow older, constantly learning.” And learning is living.
Have any editorial suggestions from another person substantially altered the final version of a story you’ve written?
The only thing I can think of at the moment is my editor at Putnam’s, William Targ, suggesting that I change the title of my 1977 book, A PHILOSOPHICAL GUIDE FOR INVESTING IN OLD AND RARE BOOKS, to COLLECTING RARE BOOKS FOR PLEASURE & PROFIT. Actually, I think both titles are disasters. Maybe I should have called it THE SUN ALSO RISES or LIGHT IN AUGUST.
What subjects are written about too much? What subjects are not written about enough?
I don’t read enough contemporary lit to comment upon this knowledgeably, although I am mightily miffed by celebrities knocking off “novels” (mostly ghost-written I suspect) and selling them by the ton because they’re celebrities. Disgusting. Part of the Dumbing of America — as if we need more evidence thereof. I’m also disgusted with the mindless tyranny of political correctness, which is no doubt busily at work skewing much of today’s fiction, but I seem to be sharing my disgust with a growing number of people. We can only hope.
What writing talents in other authors are you jealous of (in terms of style, complexity or imagination)?
I can’t say that I’m ever “jealous” of a writer’s gifts, or envious; but I’m happy to come upon writing that teems with realities that I suspect are beyond my abilities. (Don’t worry, I’m not being disgustingly humble; I know I’m doing things that are beyond THEIR abilities, as well, for our minds are as uniquely shaped as our bodies). It’s a big world and wonderfully complex, and to ignore or simply miss this is to “under-invent” (see above). I’ve just finished reading a legal thriller by Michael Connelly, THE BRASS VERDICT, which is wonderfully and convincingly inventive. I was surprised a half dozen times in reading it. I’ll plan to read some more of his stuff. Good fiction consists of information, and I tell my students that it’s good to simply know a lot of things for your imagination to feed upon. Connelly knows a lot about the law and police work (such knowledge is what makes “procedural detective novels” so justifiably popular). I like to learn things from the fiction I read; Solon would understand. That’s all true, and yet I think that fiction can be roughly divided into that which is entertaining and that which is interesting. Obviously, these overlap, but the division, however rough and negotiable, still holds. And for all his wonderful gifts as a story teller, Michael Connelly strikes me as writing entertainments—much to be admired, of course; but identifiably of that general sort. And how is “interesting” fiction different? This must await an essay for clarification, but it has to do with penetrating to the blood and meat, referred to elsewhere.
Do you still experience writer’s block? Do you have techniques for dealing with it? I think something of this sort happens to all of us. Just be patient, your imagination will get hungry again. Especially if you keep reading . . . and while you’re at it, living.
Origins and Inspirations
I remember having Joseph Conrad’s late novel, THE ROVER, assigned in a high school English class, but reading it anyway, & while reading it, pausing on a page to contemplate how wonderful it must be to create such realities. (When I mentioned that in a biographical essay, my editor got back to me about the word “anyway” saying that sounded like I wouldn’t normally have read it. I told her that was correct — for I was a relaxed under-achiever as a student). Earlier influences? No particular author, with perhaps the exception of Kenneth Roberts, whose historical novels I greatly enjoyed when I was a pup. Later, however, I was greatly moved/influenced by reading the novels of Balzac. Then, of course, Mark Twain (I have a pretty good Twain collection of 1st editions, ephemera, etc.). Still more recently, I’ve loved the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels (I’ve included “A Sheep In Wolfe’s Clothing” in one of my books on bibliophily; and of the 20 or 25 books I’ve re-read, a half dozen are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries). Most recently, I’ve gotten to collecting the 1st editions of Christopher Morley — a wonderful writer , woefully neglected by English Departments. I published an essay on his writing in the ANTIOCH REVIEW a year or so back, and just recently got a letter from a “kinsprit” (CM’s neologism) in the Czech Republic, sharing his own enthusiasm for CM (he’s not a native of the Czech Republic, but an American living there). Another recent book I’ve liked & admired: William Gaddis’s novel A FROLIC OF HIS OWN, a wonderful legal satire. And just now, I’m reading my 2nd Lee Child suspense novel — great fun for the 12-year-old that lives on in every man, if he’s not impoverished in pizzazz.
Can you please mention titles?
Titles I remember with special fondness: Balzac: PERE GORIOT, EUGENIE GRANDET. Old Goriot was a wonderfully obsessed characterin his love for his daughter. I tell my students that the most interesting characters are the most interested, and the extremity of being interested is obsession. EUGENIE GRANDET was also obsessed — with money — and he has one of the great melodramatic scenes in all lit, when he’s dying and a priest leans over him to administer the last rites and Grandet grabs at the priest’s golden cross swinging above him. Mark Twain? LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI is my favorite. Also some of his short stuff, his obiter dicta and his generally flamboyant personality and his great wit & sensitivity behind all the clowning. Christopher Morley? His richly autobiographical novel, JOHN MISTLETOE, and his splendid novel, KITTY FOYLE (Ginger Rogers won an Academy Award for playing the part, but the movie doesn’t come near the novel.) Also, his many books of essays — they’re all wonderful. And THE SEACOAST OF BOHEMIA, about his helping found and run a theatre in Hoboken, may be the happiest book I’ve ever read. Rex Stout? How about THE DOORBELL RANG for a start?
How did the Great Depression affect your early life? Can you think of ways it has influenced your themes or artistic perspective? Do you think writers of personal genres like poetry and fiction change their focus to social and economic issues during times of economic crises?
I had a wonderful childhood and didn’t know there was a Depression. My father was an attorney, born on a farm in Gallia County, Ohio, who studied law under a country judge, passed the bar and eventually had his own law firm in Columbus. I can remember WW1 vets selling apples on the street, but for some reason this didn’t register with me as hardship. I suspect I’m a bit deprived of the social conscience required of liberals, which is why I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican (unfortunately, he’s dead). Actually, I’m pretty much of an independent, thinking that the chief error of Republicans is the assumption that people are grownup, rational and honest; on the other hand, the chief intellectual sin of the Democrats is their assumption that people don’t have to be any of those things.
Life in the zoo — which brings up Mencken’s statement that democracy is letting the monkeys run the zoo, which isn’t too far off target. As for the Depression and its fiction and movies: I think people were both more innocent then and more mature. How can that be? I’m not sure, but I suspect I could come up with reasons if I had to.
Your biographical information shows that you’ve taught for several decades. Before that, you served in the Coast Guard for two years and worked at the Post Office for nine years. Can you talk about that time period and how it relates to your later career? What sort of people and things were you coming in contact with?
I remember reading Jack London’s THE SEA WOLF when I was a radioman on the Coast Guard Cutter Maclaine in the North Pacific, on anti-submarine patrol out of Sitka & Juneau. It was wonderful, for this was the very sea that Wolf Larsen sailed in. When I graduated from OSU in 1949, I worked at a variety of jobs: door-to-door salesman, produce warehouseman, even a part-time private detective for a few cases. Then, married & with 2 young daughters, I got a job in the Parcel Post station in Columbus, Ohio, where I worked for 9 years. Most of my fellow workers were black men, which made me a bit uncomfortable at the time (yes, I had some share in the racism of the day), but eventually I learned to like & respect them, & now, with the great social change we’ve gone through (a testament to our health as a society), I’m grateful for getting to know those guys. I only wish the blacks who are celebrated today–hot-dog athletes, rap “artists” (Rembrandt & Beethoven were artists, not those loud dolts!)) & the so-called black “leaders”–I only wish they had the better qualities I found in those black men I worked with all those years ago; those guys deserved better.
What was your family life like in the 1930s and 40s?
As I mentioned, I had a wonderful childhood. I was indulged far more than most children were. Our solid middle-class neighborhood in Clintonville (Columbus, Ohio, ) was a perfect place for a young boy growing up. (Our family also took wonderful fishing trips to Michigan, Canada, Minnesota; and my dad took me deer hunting to Michigan in 1939, then to Pennsylvania and Maine in the next 2 years). I only wish I’d known then how privileged my life was and could have manifest it to my parents and older sister (my only sibling, who died in 1975 at the age of sixty). But I guess we all have guilt — to be deprived of it is to be deprived of what it is to be human. As I tell my students, if you don’t have a guilty conscience, you don’t have a conscience at all. And why would I teach this to students in my English classes? The answer is yes.
The filmmaker George Lucas once said that he intended his 1972 film American Graffiti to be a kind of anthropological study of a California teenage fad of “cruising” in their cars to meet girls. The film was a way to document and preserve an aspect of California culture that no longer exists. Can you point to any of your works which — apart from literary merit — document aspects of American society and culture which may no longer exist?
Many of my novels and stories celebrate the time of their creation. Time and geography are always part of what we are. My novels, HANGER STOUT, AWAKE!, BEYOND THE BRIDGE, and THE CHARISMA CAMPAIGNS are a sort of trilogy, all having been inspired by an old-maid high school English teacher I invented, Miss Temple, who said that everyone should keep a diary or journal, for in sitting down to write about something, one creates the thing itself — presents it as well as represents it. (This is, of course, a writerly thought — but as true as a pipe wrench.) Anyway, these 3 novels are all very much part of the 1950s to 1970s — a time when Hanger, for example, could work at a full-time job pumping gas at a small-town Ohio/Sohio station. Such a job makes no sense today, & tomorrow it will be even more anachronistic.
When did you decide you wanted to be an author?
An interesting question, indeed; but unanswerable. Like, when did I become an old man?
What do you do or where do you go to get away from writing and literature?
I collect old and rare books. When I was younger, I jogged, but quit after a bone spur in my heel talked me into it. And I’ve always loved to drive — years ago, I calculated that at that time I had actually driven over a million miles in cars.
One of your bios mention that you and your wife used to store your book collection in an old saloon, “bought for that purpose and located in a small southeastern Ohio mining town.” What’s the story behind that? Do you still own the saloon?
We’ve just, in the past month, sold the old place on a land contract. Before that, I sold the books in the store (about 10 to 15 thousand at each sale) to Mike Riordan, a friend from Hell, Michigan (yep, that’s where he was from). He’s the retired captain of a nuclear sub who’s now crazy about the book game; the last I heard, he had accumulated over 300,000 of them. (He and his wife Janet have moved to Colorado.)
I realize that your wife is a book nut too, but has she ever suggested getting rid of half of the books in your house to free up space?
My dear wife has the typical housekeeper’s passion for cleanliness & order, so she’s occasionally exasperated by my own passion for scooping up books. Her own collecting is rather passive; but she has a special interest in children’s books & Gone with the Wind stuff. (Ed. note: He answers the question more fully in a recent radio interview (mp3)) .
You extol book collecting as a kind of recreational activity, almost like gambling. Aside from the occasional wacko, are book collectors generally sane and financially responsible people?
No, I think we’re all a bit unbalanced — but happily so. It’s a passion that has no limits; who could ask for better?
Can you talk about a recent book acquisition you are proud of?
Not a specific book, but I’ve been gathering up mint 1st editions of Christopher Morley, a vastly underrated author in my opinion, so he can be collected inexpensively, which is my favorite price…
In your essay, Collecting by Chance, you say, “the psychological rewards of aleatory choice are considerable.” Explain. Many of your inspirations and literary interests come from books you’ve encountered during your book collecting in Ohio. But if you lived in Texas or Nevada, wouldn’t you end up coming across totally different books during your book treks?
I’d still find a lot of books to go through. I can’t get stopped. Earlier today, I hit some nearby thrift stores & came back with 16 books. Nothing, alas, to light up the world, but they’re books, after all. (We have a pole barn to store the little rascals in.)
Let me ask an indelicate question. You are 84 and own lots of strange and remarkable books — many of which you will never have time to read. Does this knowledge depress you?
No, I’m not depressed by the fact. I take pleasure in living amidst so many microcosms, each one of which bears witness to its own slice of the world. Without such amplitude, the spirit would wither and desiccate like a demoralized walnut.
I like to think of a personal collection as the creation of one’s own, symbolically charged environment. In one of my books I bounce off Candide’s famous conclusion, pointing out that a personal library is an intellectual’s garden. What could we cultivate that is more interesting, meaningful and telling?
In COLLECTING RARE BOOKS FOR PLEASURE AND PROFIT (1977), you wrote, “books possess individual personalities; they possess interiors much like the interiors of human beings, and every bit as varied… Multiply this inner amplitude by the thousand and more volumes that are required for the modest beginnings of a personal library, and you can see what rich cacophonies and babbles, or what splendid symphonies and chamber music can result.” With the abundance of titles being published, is there a danger of books bringing too much cacophony? When searching through stacks of quantity, isn’t it natural for people to seek well-known brands denoting quality?
No danger in cacophony. We’re pathetically one & limited & can absorb all the varieties of our environment according to what we need. Even without thinking on’t.
On the surface, BOOKING IN THE HEARTLAND (1986) is a series of yarns about the strange books you have encountered during book collecting. But you read these books as closely as scholars might read Shakespeare or Henry James. Yet, at the same time you seem to be laughing at the same books you are analyzing; is your goal in writing these essays to encourage others to read these very books?
They’re all testimonials, of a sort. I once told a reporter (doing a piece on our old defunct saloon we’d converted into a sort of “bookstore”) that I felt like a missionary to the 20th century. Now, if rumors are correct, it’s the 21st. We all bear witness, no matter who we are, or when & where & how.
As for my “laughing at them”: laughter is part of how I try to cope with the world, & it has to do with language, which is intrinsically ironic. That is, every word denotes a type, whereas no two of its tokens are alike. We gather these great heterogeneous multiplicities of tokens together into a word, but the members of the population so seldom match the image we have of the type that the disparity is almost always, & to some extent, ironic. Funny.
Given that many bibliophiles engage in the sport of book collecting, should authors make books with an eye towards their collectibility?
I’m not sure that any “should”— but it’s possible that some think this way. A beautifully designed book is a work of art, after all; but perhaps such elegance should be confined to a small percentage of highly sophisticated, “literary” works or beautifully designed illustrated books.
Apart from your essays on book collecting, you haven’t written any memoirs or autobiographical essays. Can a case be made for having more “creative fiction” and less “creative nonfiction”?
My bibliophilic essays teem with personal adventures and are in this sense, fragments of memoirs .. . And, yes, I like memoirs — notebooks, journals, diaries — all sorts of personal testimony when one isn’t consciously inventing, but inventing, anyway, for the memory is a story teller — held together in Christopher Morley’s grand phrase — by “cobweb analogies”.
Projects: Past and Present
I just finished HANGER STOUT, AWAKE (which you published in 1967, to some acclaim). This simple naive voice plus the subject matter (cars, girls, and an unusual contest) makes me wonder if the ideal reader should be an 8th grade boy. Did you write this with the intention of attracting a younger audience?
In a way, an 8th grader could respond to it. Years ago I bought the plates from Harcourt and paid to have 3000 copies printed, which I sold out easily. Most of them sold to colleges and high schools, and I remember doing a phone interview with students at a high school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In another sense, however, I think someone like Hanger (i.e., any young person) would be far less privileged in understanding the novel. The distance of age is required to understand much of his innocence and brave integrity (cf. McLuhan’s “I don’t know who discovered the ocean, but I know it wasn’t a fish.’) It’s all a matter of perspective.
I regard Hanger as more character-driven than plot-driven. But as I read, I had no idea what details were important or what was going to happen next! You finished Hanger at an interesting place — with many things left unresolved. Were you tempted to ratchet up the melodrama or continue the novel past where it ends?
Good. I toyed with the idea of doing a sequel, but decided against it. In my privately printed edition, published a decade or so after the novel came out, I wrote that I didn’t know what Hanger was then doing or how he was getting along, but I figured he’d be all right. In short, he is a survivor, to use the fashionable term.
Hanger revolves around a strange idea for a spectator sport — seeing how long a person could hang by his hands. Where did you get the idea for this imaginary sport? From real life? Also, wouldn’t this kind of sport be very dangerous? (It seems to cause hallucinations).
I like the idea of hanging as simple dumb, though intelligent, endurance. “Hang in there” — which I seem to remember someone saying tomb somewhere in the novel.
Can you talk about the titles for your story collections and how they relate to the stories inside them?
This could be a long essay. A title should function significally (a thing representing a thing) and symbolically (a thing representing a non-thing — an abstraction, or feeling, something that can’t be experienced directly through the senses). It’s a moment of truth when it’s a statement a writer has to make about what s/he has written. Insofar as a title both exemplifies and resists the book it labels it is interestingly ambiguous, ironic and oblique.
TALES OF THE OHIO LAND (1978) uses legends and historical facts as a springboard for short stories. What was your goal for these stories?
I love legends and love rural, small-town Ohio. I like Frost’s statement that he likes a man who savors of the land he comes from.Shirley Ann Grau wrote me a wonderful fan letter, generously praising the stories. Hey, I liked that. (She was pretty famous at one time; but, of course, all fame is of a time.
The Ohio stories seem more like folklore and geared towards a general audience. In “Lucinda Hill is Born Again“, the Johnny Appleseed character even has a wonderful cameo as a sage. Do you regard Johnny Appleseed as vital to that particular story, or was it just a delicious bit of historical frosting?
I find Johnny Appleseed very interesting, as all legends are by definition. I have an early 19th century book inscribed by Nathaniel Chapman, his brother who crossed the Alleghenies into Ohio with Johnny. The two were Swedenborgians, and I used to teach at Urbana College, in Ohio, a Swedenborgian school.
One of my favorite Matthews stories, “Poison” is about a supermarket manager who has to mediate a conflict between his workers. The story has lovely touches (lyricism, great dialogue and characters). But it would also be a great story to use for a business management class. When you are playing around with a story idea, do you spend a lot of time imagining what kind of reader might want to read a particular story (and why this person would want to read it)?
No, I don’t think about the reader; I think about my characters and the theme and the adventure that emerge literally under my hands. I dedicate READING MATTER, my most recent book about books, to “my imagined readers, most of whom are dead.” Sadly true — which is one reason I so very much appreciate your interest.
Last night I finished “Betrayal of the Fives”, a whimsical short story about a man who is admitted to a secret society with an unknown purpose and membership. Perhaps it is not a typical Matthews story, but it is definitely one of the funniest. Where do you get your sense of humor?
Humor is intrinsic to language itself, for every word denotes a type, no two tokens of which are alike. So when we hear of a librarian, we get something of an image in our minds, & then find out that he’s a biker with a beard, tattoos on his forearms & a missing ear . . . well, the disparity between image & reality is the essence of irony, and it is possessed of the energy of humor.
(Later Matthews attached a poem from his verse book, SCHOPENHAUER AGONISTES, saying that it “articulates my theory far better than my original answer).
Schopenhauer’s Reflections Upon Humor
In effect, he argued that every word denotes a class, But the members of that class are all unique, tellingly different from one another--no two beetles are alike, no shoes or sneezes--and when we speak of justice, liberty, love or similar abstractions, who can clearly understand what then is meant? "Liberty" can signify mere selfishness and greed, And yet, the word remains the same, indifferent To the use it's been corrupted to promote. And the word "love" will never literally apply To more than one such passion that enflames The loins and lays the heart to siege. It's in this theory that one begins to sense The principle which signifies that there is irony Inherent simply in the way words work, For nothing ever named can fit the name, And in the soberest speech there is some quirk Of comical discrepancy. That irony is intrinsic To the very language that defines our world Is a proud discovery. And so it is that ever after, In every word we speak, the intellect hears laughter.
Can you talk about your most recent projects?
My most recent story collection “Abruptions” is still seeking a publisher. (I’ve sent out queries a few times, but without success; and now I’m not even sure whom I’ve approached. I’m not good at marketing my work.) While the word “abruptions” is an archaism, I define the word for my purposes here as “very short stories that end abruptly”; and I suggest that they can be thought of as constituting something of a new sub-genre, with the limitations and genius that all genres possess by simply being what they are. Although these stories are widely miscellaneous, there are a few secret nuances I’ve programmed into the score: in addition to certain recurring themes and motifs, I’ve chosen 88 stories, to correspond to the number of keys on the piano, taking whimsical pleasure in its reflecting the kinship of music and literature as temporal arts, and more substantively, designing the “book-end” character of the collection, with the first and last stories sharing the ancient theme of something in the way of revelation falling from the sky, pretty much like story ideas. To be sure, these nuances may seem a bit recherché, but readers can, of course, find nourishment in the stories as stories without an awareness of the food chemistry. My most recent published book is SCHOPENHAUEROVA VULE, a Czech language translation of SCHOPENHAUER’S WILL, brought out by H&H Publishers in Prague. This is something of an anomaly because it has yet to be published in English (one editor rejected it, saying it was “too experimental and too cerebral” — the latter reason a rather odd one, perhaps, for rejecting a novel about a philosopher; but that’s what she said, and I have no reason to doubt her good will). Perhaps a more cogent reason, however, is the fact that the book is somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in). I’ve been told that my next novel, THE GAMBLER’S NEPHEW, will be published by The Etruscan Press in 2011.
Cultural and Literary Trends
The mobile phone is emerging as an important way for people to read; indeed, in Asian countries, authors are already writing specifically for phone owners. The challenge is writing in smaller chunks — so the reader is not required to read for extended periods on a smaller screen and can easily resume where he/she left off. For poetry, this isn’t a problem, but what about fiction? Does limiting chapter length to (for example) 400 or 500 words reduce the dramatic or literary potential for the story writer?
I don’t know — I like the rhetorical short jab (Obama mastered it by dropping his voice to briefly pause after every 5 to 15 words, suggesting conclusiveness, authority & mastery of the material, & this unfortunately got him elected). As for the technical modifications: I’m at a loss. I like to tell people that I’m still getting used to electric lights. A touch of hyperbole there, but I also collect antiquarian books.
Only in the sense that a story’s or novel’s key situation can sometimes be contracted into one or two sentences. I once wrote a condensed version of Petronius‘ Widow of Ephesus in 200 words (see below). This works beautifully for what it is; for what it is not (i.e., a fully textured narrative), it doesn’t. Sound like double talk? Yes & no.
THE WIDOW OF EPHESUS
Long ago, when the Romans ruled the earth, a rich merchant died, and his young widow was so bereaved that she accompanied him to his tomb, saying that the prospect of life without him was unendurable, and she would starve herself to death.
Near the tomb stood a soldier, guarding the corpse of a criminal that had been nailed to a cross. From where he stood, the soldier could see through the portal of the tomb, and the sight of the young widow aroused his passion, for she was beautiful.
Eventually, he took some of his food to her, asking her to eat; but she refused, saying that she was determined to join her husband in death. But the soldier persisted, until eventually the young widow accepted some of the food he offered and ate. Then the two of them began to talk of various things, until finally–even in the cold darkness of the tomb–they began to feel a mutual passion which led to their making love.
When the soldier emerged from the tomb, however, he saw that the family of the dead criminal whose body he had been guarding had stolen his corpse from the cross so that they could bury it decently. Seeing this, the soldier said to the widow, “Now it is all over for me, because according to the law, I will be executed and my corpse will be hung in his place.”
“No,” she said. “Take my dead husband’s body and put it there. I have lost one love, but I will not lose another.”
Could this story be developed into a short story of conventional length? Of course: the scenes could be boxed and extended; the pace could be slowed, the texture (diction, “style”) enriched and elaborated, the point of view could be negotiated (change in POV is often a fault, but only because it isn’t done well; it can be done with grace and elegance), a sub-plot could be introduced, and all of the materials of “pointedness” could be brought in to enrich and broaden the story–which will, of course, then be not the same story at all but a different story utilizing what is essentially the same key situation..
Also note the narrative turns that structure this little story, each turn signified by a new paragraph. Paragraphing is an art in itself, a way of designing the story the way a musical score serves as a structural device for that other temporal art of music.
Would the effort to turn Anna Karenina into bite-sized chunks for the Iphone be only an interesting-but-futile exercise?
More futile than interesting, I suspect.
Booking in the Heartland (1986) has an essay, “Library of Ignorance,” where you ask, “will any conceivable sort of electronic gadgetry prove useful in understanding the subtleties of language and custom implicated in the works of Anthony Trollope or Henry James? Could anybody seriously argue that the availability of such electronic means would have enlarged or enriched their own clear and complex vision of life? … The electronic revolution has done nothing to invalidate the old truths, just as it has not provided any new means for exposing any of the old idiocies that have permeated and probably always will permeate the human condition.” You expressed this skepticism about technology in 1986. 20+ years later, have you had any reason to revise your views? Has the internet and email substantially altered the individual’s ability to understand and appreciate literature?
I still think and feel pretty much the same way. In one of my essays, “What Should We Do With The Past?” I argue about the necessity for understanding what and who have gone before. I like Hamlet’s implied definition of humankind as “a creature large in discourse, looking before and after” (note that the “before and after” can mean their very opposites, depending upon our perspective, because from within, ”before” is the Future; from without, it’s the Past. And, hey, isn’t that fun?
How closely do you follow recent current events and popular culture? For example: Michael Jackson’s death. Global warming. Octomom. The latest Harry Potter movie. The new Iphone. The American Idol competition. H1n1. The Iranian protests. Facebook?
I find the Press terminally stupid and obnoxious. The INCREDIBLE attention given to Michael Jackson (what did he ever do but transform himself into a marionette & manage to whirl around with a microphone in his paw?)–did he walk on water? I’ve never read the Harry Potter novels, but my wife likes them. And I saw one of the movies, which struck me as a typically mindless Hollywood production with the implied audience of an 11-year-old boy, and I don’t mean a bright 11-year-old boy. The American Idol — I’ve only heard of it. The Iranian protests? Lamentable. I feel for the protesters. “Octomom” is an obscenity; the world’s worst crisis is over-population, and some air-wit like this whelps 8 of the little puppies? And the physician who presided over the blessed event is an even greater obscenity.
Some of the media attention given to figures like Michael Jackson may be driven by the music industry eager to sell more cds. However, the public still responds with intense interest to these shared narratives. Is something seriously wrong with that?
There’s some validity to what you say, of course. I contributed an essay to a book of writers responding to 9/11; I titled it, “Reaching For The Other Hand”–referring to what I call “the Men/De Principle” — focusing upon 2 small words in classical Greek, men/de–men meaning “on the one hand” & de meaning “on the other hand”; I like to tell my students that all of European civilization has grown out of these 2 words, which are the source of philosophy, dialectic, democracy (all Greek words), trial by jury and the 2-party system. Thus, interesting questions and the answers to implicit ones, are almost invariably subject to men/de qualifications, as are my thesis, above, and your antithesis.
Nowadays audio books, story podcasts and live storytelling events have thrust the story creator into the additional role as performer. I personally feel that some stories benefit by not being read aloud. What are your thoughts?
I think you’re right, although I don’t think language should ever lose its echo in sound. The cult of speed reading, as it flourished a few decades ago, was an egregious folly in this way. I wrote a brief poem once about a speed reader who read a sonnet in a few seconds. Implicit in this folly, I think, are the notions that reading is an escape from life and there is a mystical entity — “content” — that somehow exists independently of the language. Reading is an enlargement of life, not an escape; & the words, including their sounds, ARE the content. What else could “content” be?
As for reading in silence: I think the great power of good fiction is best released by one’s own personal voice being cast for the part of narrator.
You’ve taught several generations of writing students at Ohio University. What trends have you have noticed in the writing of your students over the last decade (in terms of subject matter, genre, style, etc)?
Hard to say. Sci Fi & Fantasy are big with them, but I’m not sure they’re bigger now than several decades back. I think one rather heartbreaking but ridiculous, problem I find so often is the naiveté of students about what’s involved in making a good story. Maybe in high school they’ve been praised as “imaginative” by an assistant basketball coach who had to take over an English course because he spoke English , and now they think they’re gifted writers and the world’s eager to read their infatuations. A lazy and benighted self-infatuation is pretty hard to work with; of course, as writers, we’re all egotists — but then, non-writers are, also. Schopenhauer understood this. What alternative is there for a human being, when all we know is what we are? Here’s a versicle I wrote on the subject:
Cosmologists have theorized or guessed that all the atoms, molecules and quarks of the universe itself were once compressed into some utter density of matter only slightly larger than a grapefruit sphere. We're used to being astonished by such patter from scientists; but still we're dazed by the utter extravagance of this strange notion-- to think that mountains, continents and trees, and stars and moons and semi-trucks and oceans could all be packed into so small a space . . . how can one conceive of such a place? I think the only vessel that might contain such enormities is the human brain-- a little larger than a grapefruit, I'll admit, but for the magnitude of worlds, a perfect fit.
It’s hard (and perhaps futile) to teach writing in a creative writing class. Can you mention a few favorite writing tips you give to your students?
First, I like to analyze the familiar question: “Can you teach Creative Writing?” Seems simple and sensible, but it contains 3 variables: 1) whom are you asking, 2) who will be taught, & 3) exactly what do you mean by “teach”? In my classes I like to emphasize the importance of absorbing great continents of information. All stories, no matter how fanciful, consist of information, and it behooves a serious young writer to simply know a hell of a lot so s/he can draw upon it for fictioning. Also, dig deep until you touch the mystery of things; as Ford Madox Ford (I think it was) said, “Upon close examination, a good literary style will consist of a lot of small surprises.” And where do those surprises come from but an ability to pluck from the riches in a mind’s lexicon?
One of my favorite assignments, however, is what I call a “piggy-back journal”—students are asked to choose sentences about the craft of writing taken from the published notebooks, diaries and journals of established writers, then write a sentence or two in response.
Blogging tools and the Internet makes it easy to publish online. Do you counsel your writing students to avoid publishing too much or too quickly on the web?
I don’t know enough about it to caution them. I’m a little antsy about the whole thing, but part of that is simply a reflection of my grumpy old age & of course one’s natural fear of the unknown.
Nanowrimo (National Writing Month) is a crazy literary activity where those who sign up resolve to write a 50,000 word novel in November. It has become very popular among young writers, if only for its community aspects. If asked, would you recommend this type of exercise for your creative writing students? Why or why not?
I don’t know. I’ve never heard of it. In many ways, I’m a dinosaur — although a happy one. Sometimes almost as dumb as “Tommy Tyrannosaurus” — a name I’ve actually come upon in the sickening, Disney-ish attempt to cute-ify everything within reach, or without. I once wrote a short story featuring Tommy T. and Trixie Triceratops. I sent it out and it was rejected as being “too silly”-but of course that’s what I INTENDED! Ah, well.
Let me rephrase that question. Is it good for a young writer to have an excuse to plunge into a project of novel length (even if it’s only for practice)?
I think anything that invites you to “plunge into a project” is good, or has the potential to be good; we have a lot of mistakes to get out of our systems before we can do justice to the high art of prose.
A related trend in Internet writing is “shared universes” (where different writers create fiction that share common settings or characters in the same literary universe). Literary collaboration has worked fairly well in drama and TV/film, but what about novels and stories? Are you comfortable with the idea of a fiction writer subsuming his own literary ideas within a shared universe for the sake of increasing exposure?
These all seem hopelessly gimmicky to me, and yet there’s obviously some vigorous imagination at work . . . and I suspect a lot of fun. So, who knows? I don’t. Although I can profess a certain distrust in literary collaboration. Writing is such a chest-pounding thing.
July 2010 Update. Jack Matthews has a Facebook fan page.