A Quasi-Religious Experience: PW Talks with John H. Matthews
We caught up with the indie author to talk about short fiction, self-publishing, and the writing process.John H. Matthews’s self-published story collection, This is Where it Gets Interesting, gathers published and unpublished stories from the last 25 years. The book received a positive review from PW, with our reviewer calling it an "entertaining collection" with some stories "imbued with dark humor" and others that "are heartwarming examinations of humanity." We caught up with Matthews to talk about short fiction and the writing process.
Most of these stories have been published in various literary journals. Did this influence your decision to put them into one volume and release it on your own rather than via a traditional publisher?
Only three of the 28 in the collection (“Help Wanted,” “The Actor,” and “All This And More”) were not previously published. The stories were selected in part because they were road-tested by these literary journals. It was not an easy or quick decision, but having been assured by many agents over the years that while they loved the collection, short story collections are nearly impossible to sell, I wasn’t left with many options.
If it’s true that the publicity authors often receive from traditional publishers is as horrible as is often reported, then there’s one less roadblock. The decision for me became: put this out or let it linger in a file cabinet. To me, that is no decision at all.
Is the collection a good reflection of how your style has changed over the past 25 years?As far as any other notable changes over time, I would say my early approach to short stories was a lot like the punk music pioneers of the early 1980s. There was definitely a “no frills” attitude I admired in that music and I think my fiction mirrors that somewhat. It was short, nervy, and went for the body slam. I wanted a lot of exhilaration packed in a very short form. If a short story could punch you, I wanted mine to punch you. As time has gone on, I’ve let things get longer, deeper, and sometimes more psychedelic, a trend that will probably continue.
How do you start your stories, and how do you decide when you’ve finished one?
The ways I’ve started stories vary so much I would never be able to apply a single answer to the question. I’ve started stories based on a dream I’ve had, on a bit of overheard conversation, from an idea that occurred to me when watching TV, riding the train, reading a newspaper or magazine article. “The Blue Pig,” for example, was written as a challenge for a spoken word show called “The Dollar Store” where you are given a cheap dollar store item and told to create a story based on or inspired by the item. I was handed a blue plastic piggy bank by the show’s host. Ten days later, I had my story. In some cases I have total amnesia about how I came up with a story idea which makes the whole thing seem somewhat magical, but really I think ideas just come to any artist if they’re able to maintain an open, playful attitude when approaching their work and not get worried about something working out or not.
Knowing when the story is over for me has never been a problem. I don’t plot things ahead of time, ever. I may get a general idea of where I want a story to end up...but it’s never a good idea to force that idea to take place. I liken it to following a raindrop down a piece of glass. Try to predict its next move. You can’t. Moreover, you shouldn’t. In the end gravity will prevail, it will reach its destination without you trying to navigate its course. Just follow where it goes.
Are there any authors you particularly admire who work well with the short short format? What have you learned from them?
I’ve always admired lean writing that says a lot in a little space, though I don’t think I’ve really sought out writers of short shorts specifically. An agent who’d read and enjoyed my collection once recommended Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You and I enjoyed that quite a bit.
I like the brevity and force that can be found in Hemingway and in certain novels like Fight Club and Leaving Las Vegas, and in some of Raymond Carver’s work. I also remember being really excited by what Renata Adler did in her novel Speedboat, which is comprised of a bunch of boiled down journal entries.
More importantly though, there were a few stories that really had an impact on me when I read them in high school: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The Phoenix” by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury. I remember feeling like I was levitating in my seat when I finished those stories. I thought it was incredible how evocative they were in such a short amount of space. That’s when I understood a well-written short story could be a quasi-religious experience.