Welcome to Terspischore’s Atrium, where the Hermeneutic Chaos editors find delight in the elfin task of confronting some amazing writers with some really tough questions.
Today, our Interviews editor Aaron Wiegert interviews Matthew Guerruckey, the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys, and a brilliant fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Harrison and Lennon. He is working on his first novel. We request you to read his works, available all over the internet, and then come back to enjoy the interview. We promise that you won’t regret it.
1. As founder and Editor-in-Chief at Drunk Monkeys, how do your interactions with the magazine affect your writing?
It’s a mixed bag. When I actually get time to sit down and read submissions, it’s always really stimulating to see what other writers are doing out there. Reading a great submission will inspire me to look at my work in a different way, and reading a terrible submission will, at the very least, give me an example of what doesn’t work. A lot of times I’ll get about three paragraphs into a work and want to give up, because the writer’s front-loaded the story with unnecessary detail or backstory, and that’s an instinct I’ve had to fight in my own work. By reading those stories, I get to think of my own work in the way that another editor would, someone who’s placed no emotional investment in the work, and just wants to know what the story is already. So now, I try to keep that unseen editor in mind when I’m writing.
But running the website involves so much of my time that it can also be an easy excuse for me not to write. This past year, a combination of the website being busier than ever, me having a few (thankfully, resolved) health issues, and the ensuing anxiety from everything happening at once led to my most severe case of writer’s block ever. In 2013, which was my first year as a full-time writer, I finished 20 short stories, wrote dozens of articles and reviews for the website, and managed to finish a rough draft of a novel during the NaNoWriMo. This year I’ve not been able to finish a single story–though I have been able to revise and find a home for several stories left hanging last year.
I’m finally facing this block as a block, and I’m coming out of it, but it’s definitely difficult. Last year I could sit for hours on end, but this month it’s a small victory to sit for ten minutes or hit a mark of 1,000 words for the day. But small victories are still victories.
2. What or who inspired you to work in fiction as your genre of choice?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories, the question was which medium I would tell them in. When I was ten years old I had a comic strip in our town newspaper (this was a town of about 500 people). And for most of my childhood, that was what I wanted to do. I think if you’d asked most of the people I went to high school [with] what I would end up doing, that would have been their guess: cartoonist or comic book artist. Then when Pulp Fiction came out all that I wanted to do was make movies.
I think if I was a more extroverted person I probably would have done something like that, but I’m not. Fiction allows me to call all the shots, so it appeals to my introversion and my OCD. I’m still definitely more inspired by film than I am by other literature, probably because all of the first “writing instruction” books I ever read were on screenplay structure. When I think about a scene I’m going to write, I think about how I would stage it, what emotion I want to get from my “actors”.
I think if I’d never read Kurt Vonnegut I’d still be scribbling notes for screenplays that I never finished. When I read Breakfast of Champions, I said, “Wait–you can do all of that?” Then I went through pretty much every novel he’d ever written in the space of a year. Later I had a similar reaction to Raymond Carver. Finding these works that I really resonated with helped me get a clearer picture of what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to write it, and helped me see the advantages of the medium. “Cathedral” doesn’t work on film. And “Breakfast of Champions” sure didn’t work on film–just ask Bruce Willis.
3. The end of the story “Find Finnian” published by Dr. T.J. Eckleberg Review, is tense to put it mildly. Where did the idea for this finale come from?
Well, the contest that I describe in the story is a real thing that used to happen at my previous office job. Every year at Christmas, there was a hunt to find a Where’s Waldo doll that was hidden somewhere around the building. It was one of those gross corporate “morale” exercises, probably. With those sort of things–dress up days, or whatever–I always felt like they were just trying to distract us from the fact that we hated what we were doing. So we get five minutes out of our day to chase down this toy, and then we go back to getting screamed at because a shipment was late. Thanks a lot.
What always fascinated me, and made me sad, actually, were the people who got really into the contest. And if you knew them well enough, you knew that they really just needed a distraction from all of the terrible, oppressive bullshit in their lives. Because in a job like that you’re surrounded at all times by people who are all just ready to snap. And then, if that did happen, if someone really did lose it, you’re only ever getting half of the story. Because it’s rare that anybody takes the time to get the full story on a public meltdown like that, because they, the company, and the person who flipped out, all want to just get back to normal (assuming that person actually keeps their job).
And that’s a sad thought, because it just shows how much we’re all denying our humanity in the name of just getting by. Okay, so someone has a meltdown–what are they saying? “I can’t fucking take it anymore. I’m a real person, and I have real feelings, and right now I can’t control them.” And the real reason we avoid those stories, or we vilify those people, is that we don’t want to admit how close we are to having our own meltdown, to becoming that person screaming in traffic or crying on the subway.
That’s why the narrator has to keep telling this story–it keeps Mary Ellen outside of himself, it gives him distance.
4. Both “Find Finnian” and “Bringing it all Back Home” have unlikable characters (either first or last) named Ellen. Is there something about the name that is significant to you? Was this a conscious decision?
I’d never realized that! That’s pretty funny. There’s no significance to the name that I’m consciously aware of. I can’t even think of any significant person I’ve ever known named Ellen (cut to some sad woman named Ellen who went to my high school reading this and wiping away a single tear). That in itself might be why I’ve used it–I like to avoid names that might cause me to picture someone I know, unless there’s something about that person I’m deliberately trying to channel into the character. There was something sort of lyrical about a four-syllable name that I liked for Finding Finnian, because it’s rooted in oral storytelling.
5. “Bringing it all Back Home” seems to be about escape in many aspects. Do you think the protagonist changes his mind about leaving after discovering the contents of the box?
There’s no question in my mind that he stays. The story’s all about him waking up to his own responsibility. I don’t think it had ever occurred to him before that he had a responsibility to his stepfather. He’d only thought of him as this extra piece of his mother’s life, and had been ignoring his own history with him. But when Don begs to keep the merit ribbon, the narrator realizes that Don does feel a connection to him, that he is important to him. That sort of shames him into reevaluating what he thinks of Don. So I absolutely think that he stays for an extra day or two and, in the name of cleaning things up or helping out, learns a little more about Don. I don’t know what he would actually–or could actually feel at the end of that extra time, but I think it’s important for the character to have it.
At one point, I considered having Don explain why the ribbon was so important, but I think that would have softened the impact of the moment for the narrator. The idea that there is a reason that this object matters to Don, that there is so much emotion tied up in it, but he has no idea what it is, is haunting to him. It’s one of those moments where you realize just how selfish you’ve been, and get a glimpse of how others see you. It breaks down your walls, and nothing’s quite the same after. So yeah, I think he’ll need a few days to absorb that, and I think he’ll choose to do that with Don.
The genesis of that story came from a conversation with my own stepfather a few years before he passed. This wasn’t a man I had grown up with, in the way that the narrator has grown up with Don, but someone that my mother married later in life. I had only ever spoken to Rich when my mother was around, but one night on a holiday visit, on this really wretchedly cold night in their little house in Iowa, I shared a drink with him and watched football and just talked about life. I’m really grateful for that moment, just as I’m grateful to have been in the room with him when he passed. After Rich’s funeral, I changed the bit of scripture that the narrator quotes in the opening paragraph to a line that Rich requested be read at his memorial service. Even though the specifics of the story don’t line up with my experience with my own stepfather, I’m happy to have a bit of his memory with me whenever I read it.
6. What medium do you use for composing a short story? Laptop, typewriter, pen and paper etc.?
I usually type up my stories on a laptop, just so I can get the words out as fast as possible (even though I’m a pretty lousy typist), but I usually have to then print them out to do edits. It’s hard for me to really judge things line by line on a computer screen, and it’s easier to scan on paper. So I’ll do a full edit there, with all sorts of indecipherable scribbles, and I’m always amazed at how often I have to shift whole paragraphs around, but I think that’s something I can only see because I’m working with the pen–it opens up an entirely different way of looking at the story. After that, I make those edits, and I try to print it out one more time and read it aloud to catch any lingering mistakes.
7. What is your most ambitious goal as a writer?
I’m trying to scale back my ambitions to a more reasonable place. When I first started writing, I dreamed about bestsellers and movie adaptations and money, but the business of actually writing has made me look at things in a different way. Now it’s more a matter of appreciating the story I’m telling, and trying to surprise myself each step of the way. There’s a steep learning curve to a career in writing, and if you get too far ahead of yourself, you can end up lost. Right now, my ambition is to write each day, to embrace my fear instead of running from it, to build on real expression instead of hiding behind cleverness. If I can manage all of that, then the rest may all fall in place, but for now, I’m finding joy in the work.
8. Who is the most overrated American (literary) author of all time? Why?
I mean, all of them, at some level. Once you build a legend up that high, you bring a lot of expectation into reading their work for the first time. I gave Hemingway more than a few chances, because he’s so beloved, I thought I must be missing something. I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks his work is amazing, it’s just not for me.
That’s what makes me so excited about finding a classic work that really knocks me off my feet.I’d never read The Great Gatsby until this year, but it might be the greatest novel I’ve ever read. Everything you ever needed to know about America is in that book.
Not too many other people come to mind. I thought Portnoy’s Complaint was pretty lousy. It tried reading it, in my head, in the voice of the narrator from A Christmas Story.That kept me entertained for a few chapters, but that was it.