Interview with Jack Matthews 1 (Author and his Craft)
February 26, 2010 | 8:52 am
By Robert Nagle
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to learn later that he had already written an essay about the same topic or devoted a chapter to the subject in his unpublished 1994 A WORKER’S WRITEBOOK). This is Part 1 of a 5 part interview (See Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 , Part 5). 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.
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 rest and 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 whish 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.