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Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a sailboat. Maybe my life wasn’t so bad. More importantly, life on a sailboat was cheap, with slip fees coming in at under five hundred a month and utilities topping out around twenty, plus there was a parking lot so I didn’t have to hate myself extra when I forgot to move my car for the twice-a-week street-sweepers. Also, as long as you were topside and facing the right direction—in this case 127 degrees SSW between the super-hulls of Fah Get A Boat It and Let’s Get Naughty-Cal—you’d be hard pressed to beat the view: a shoddy bait barge in the middle of Los Angeles harbor listing heavily under the weight of a dozen or so fat, barking sea lions and some marine birds. All considered, it was a damp version of pretty okay.
Matt Sumell is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA Program in Writing, and his short fiction has since appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, Electric Literature, Noon and elsewhere. His first collection, Making Nice, will be published by Henry Holt in February 2015.
Hannah Tinti on “All Lateral”
No one works 9-5 anymore. Instead we’re always working, often at more than one job. Most people I know have at least two, sometimes three or four sources of income, pasting together enough to pay the rent and the heating bill with a little left over for groceries and maybe a drink at the bar. Writers don’t often write about work, but in our new issue, Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral,” jobs are everything. The narrator in this wild, voice-driven story pumps gas at a marina and knocks out drywall, surrounded by a decaying landscape and haunted by the death of his mother. Frustrated and lost, he chooses to float—through his emotions and his choices—living on a boat with a dog named Jason. Thank goodness for Jason! And thank goodness for Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral,” which finds hope in the darkest corners. I hope you’ll check out Matt’s Q&A with us on how he wrote this moving, man-not-on-a-mission story, and then buy his collection, Making Nice, which Publisher’s Weekly said was “even more fun than eavesdropping in a confession booth” and “demonstrates an almost painful compassion for the sinner in most of us.” In the meantime, let’s raise a glass to all those sinners working past 5, and to dogs everywhere, scratching at the door, forcing us to go outside and notice the world.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
- MS: Well, I definitely subscribe to Stanley Elkin’s idea that writing can be revenge against your bullies, whatever they are, and making a livable wage seems to be a major ass-kicker for a lot of people these days. It certainly is for me and my pals. One of the most educated, ethical, and hard working people I’ve ever met was raking leaves at 40, until he got laid off. Another—a Yale grad who’s already published an amazing collection—bartends, tutors, adjuncts at two colleges.... I mean, there are so many people way smarter, way more talented than I am that are struggling. Seems like everyone has to hustle these days. I certainly do. And there’s a tremendous frustration in that for me, an I-don’t-fucking-get-it-ness. This story was born from wanting or needing to speak to that. It was born from work. Work in that I actually did and sometimes still do things like this for money, but also work in that the writing of it was hard labor. It was a total slog. I was just mining experiences, day after day, for years, trying to exhaust them of their emotion. I guess I feel like that’s worth mentioning because sometimes it doesn’t come from inspiration. I wasn’t inspired, at all. If anything I was pissed, but writing is like any other job—you’ve got to put your hours in. In fact, as a graduation gift I gave that Yale grad from way back in paragraph 1 there an old-school time clock, with the punch cards. Put your hours in. As for the first thing I wrote, I have no idea. My memory is like a steel trap with holes in it that’s broken. But I do remember one of the last things I added: the neatly piled olive pits. It’s something I saw my girlfriend do and I just thought, Well would you look at that. Who the fuck does that?
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- MS: Same as any job—not quitting.
- HT: There’s a lot about work and jobs in this story, and how they can give or take away someone’s sense of worth. How have day jobs affected your “real” job of writing? Have you ever knocked out drywall? Or worked on a dock?
- MS: Oh sure. I’ve worked the docks, gutted houses, washed dishes, retiled bathrooms (badly), and I did live on a sailboat during grad school, which was great. It was mostly me and a bunch of bitter old dudes whose wives got their houses in the divorce so they moved onto their shitbox trawlers or whatever. I don’t think many of them were present by choice. Life drove them there, one way or another. A lot of them had pretty good stories to tell, funny ways of putting things, interesting details that are all throughout this story, my other stories, most of which are reworked recollections of some kind, edited and embellished ad nauseam to make the thing tick and blah blah blah. So—while 15 years of poverty sucked and I think I have a some kind of anxiety disorder now—all of it has informed the writing. That said, I really do think manual labor is a not-so-bad counter-balance to the writing life. I get restless when I’m still for too long. I get restless period. It’s kind of like a dog’s anxiety...the best thing you can do for them is take them for long walks, get the nervous energy out. And I really do prefer to see the tangible results of manual labor as opposed to—after a day/weeks/months of writing—some sentences, some paragraphs, a few pages if I’m lucky. But thirty minutes of swinging a sledge and that wall is gone. You see results faster. I dig that sense of accomplishment.
- HT: Jason the dog plays a major role in this story. What made you decide to hinge the story on him?
- MS: I’m not sure I did decide that. For me writing is more like feeling my way around in the dark than making choices. I’m not sure that makes sense though. Maybe it’ll be helpful—and this is a big maybe—to say that when I first lucked my way into UC Irvine, I was so intimidated by what people were turning in that I almost dropped out. Everybody just seemed so much smarter than me, and seemingly had an ease with language that I just didn’t. They would turn in these 25, 30 page hyper-smart submissions while I would stress out for weeks and turn in some flash fiction about the time I did a skidout on my Schwinn through a pile of dogshit and broke my arm or something. I really felt out-classed, way out of my league. But then one day someone turned in a 35 page rewrite/update of Rapunzel or something, and it just dawned on me: Ohhhhhhhh! I get it now...some writers are smart, but can’t find the pulse. This is like a writing exercise to them. So, you know, maybe feeling around in the dark is how I go about finding the pulse of the story, the heart. Jason’s all heart. I’m not sure I decided that as much as I felt it. I wish it wasn’t the case. My process is so fucking inefficient.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- MS: I started this story in 2007 or 8 and wrote it on and off for five or six years. I’d just work on it until I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore, put it on the shelf for a bit and pull it down and fuck with it until I got stuck again. Eventually it shaped up a little and I got a little momentum going, some traction. But I should probably add that nothing ever feels complete to me. I could tinker forever, and would do exactly that if I didn’t feel compelled to publish. I’m always cheered by Tobias Wolff’s intro to his Our Story Begins, where he admits that twenty whatever years after publishing “Bullet In the Brain,” he couldn’t help himself from editing Hefty bag to garbage bag for the collected stories...or something like that. Basically, he always has a continuing interest in improving his stories, in giving them their best expression. Me too.
- HT: The final moment on the boat is magical and strangely uplifting. What do you think it means for the narrator? Do you think he’ll be in a better place after this?
- MS: Yes and no. On the one hand we know that, eventually, our guy here is sailing back to that same shitty job, that same life, those same problems. I mean—not that this is what you were getting at—but I’m sorry to say there is no happily ever after, just happily ever right fucking now. But tomorrow, the next day, next week...there are more problems coming down the pipe. More pain, more suffering. On the other hand, we do finally see him leave the slip and sail out and luck his way into witnessing something truly special, and he’s able to appreciate it while it’s happening. That recognition and appreciation, to me, seems like an important development for Alby, something worth fostering. Wells Tower—whose work I admire a lot—said something a few years back that’s really stuck with me: “Being a human being isn’t just all misery and despair. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy. The real struggle, I think, is getting to a place where you can be believably generous to a character, where you can show somebody fumbling for redemption in a way that’s believable and not stupid. I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.” I love that idea, and it’s something I’ve had to work hard at. I mean at one point back at Irvine Geoffrey Wollf, in commenting on a story of mine, wrote that Alby was starting to seem like an “against-er.” A contrarian. I even remember the moment. It’s in a story called “Eat the Milk” from the collection, when Alby walks into a nursing home and asks the receptionist if she’s eating a turkey sandwich. “No,” she said. “Ham.” I didn’t believe her. Well why the fuck not? In any case Geoffrey Wolff—and Wells Tower—helped me to realize that, while I may be pretty good at pointing out what’s wrong in the world, where is the joy? I even made a list, over years, of a hundred and some things that I love, and I started writing some of them into the stories. In any case there’s a definite satisfaction for me, the author, in being able to take a shitty fact of life—having to work, having to struggle, having to find meaning in it all—and using it to produce something that ends on a note of gratitude. Life’s a major hassle a lot of the time—if it’s not worse and even more painful than that—and ending “All Lateral” this particular way felt like a victory.
- HT: “All Lateral” is a part of your collection Making Nice, which is about to be released by Henry Holt. Can you tell us what it’s been like so far to publish your first book?
- MS: Look, my brain works like an autoimmune disease most days, and so the uncertainty of it all, the my-life-kinda-hangs-in-the-balance-here, has done a number on me. At this point my standard operating procedure is like an idiot version of fight or flight. And maybe it was before all this. I don’t know any more. But what I do know is how incredibly lucky am...lucky to have Nicole Aragi as an agent, Sarah Bowlin as an editor, Henry Holt giving me a big push. I’m incredibly grateful.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- MS: My mental health?
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- MS: That’s a tough one, because I’ve gotten a lot of amazing advice from a lot of amazing people who I admire, and if I didn’t at least mention Geoffrey Wolff and Michelle Latiolais it’d be crime. They’ve both taught me so much. The thing that immediately comes to mind, though, the thing that I return to again and again, came from Mark Richard (if you haven’t read his work, you’re really missing out. Check Charity and The Ice at the Bottom of the World). When he was the visiting writer at Irvine I asked him straight-up what advice he had for me, and he said something like, “It’s easy, Matt: just make ‘em laugh and break their fuckin’ hearts. Accomplish those two things and you’re doing pretty good.” I aim for that, mostly. Then he added, “And work harder.”