Interview with Jack Matthews
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.
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?
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.
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.
Can you talk about authors who have influenced you during various stages of your life? What was the first literary work that really made an impression on you?
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 character in 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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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 ca
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.
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.
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Books by This Author
Second Death of E.A. Poe and Other Stories
by Jack Matthews
Did Edgar Allen Poe fake his death? That’s what a Baltimore doctor needs to figure out in the title tale for this 11th story collection by Jack Matthews. As one critic wrote, “Matthews stories are like friends from small towns: They are honest, warm, occasionally lyrical and as strange and idiosyncratic as the rest of us.”
A Worker's Writebook: How Language Makes Stories
by Jack Matthews
This quirky writing guide by Jack Matthews (author of 20 literary works) offers insight about how successful writers mold raw experiences into a story and how language helps you to do that. Erudite, witty, idiosyncratic, serendipitous, mischievous, sesquipedalian, entertaining, introspective and colorful: these are adjectives which come to mind when reading this book.
Hanger Stout, Awake! (50th Anniversary Edition)
by Jack Matthews
Clyde Stout is a high school graduate in a small Ohio town; he loves tinkering with cars and dreaming about his girlfriend. He is coasting ... until he discovers he has a new talent: the ability to hang from a metal bar longer than anybody! 50 years ago, TIME MAGAZINE described this coming-of-age novella as a “gentle first novel told with a fine ear for adolescent patois.”
Soldier Boys: Tales of the Civil War
by Jack Matthews
Philosophical author Jack Matthews takes snapshots of Civil War soldiers as they cheat death and mess around between battles. Without dwelling on the war's tragic dimension, these old-fashioned (and historically accurate) yarns are infused with irony and a youthful sense of adventure. They also ask you to ponder the human condition as people of that time might have done.
Interview with the Sphinx
by Jack Matthews
This witty philosophical comedy imagines the ancient Sphinx being interviewed today -- as though she were another pop celebrity. She is a talkative, flirty & mysterious person who likes to talk about anything -- except the question being asked! Part Tom Stoppard, part Monty Python, part Oscar Wilde, this play by Jack Matthews combines philosophical paradoxes with fast-paced verbal pyrotechnics.
Three Times Time
by Jack Matthews
A year before he died, Jack Matthews (author of 10 story collections and over 30 books) was asked to suggest his 3 favorite stories from all his books for this story sampler. "Matthews stories are like friends from small towns: They are honest, warm, occasionally lyrical and as strange and idiosyncratic as the rest of us." (Arthur Sabatini)