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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#38 Matt Ruff

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Matt is a New York City born author with five novels currently out. His newest, The Mirage, was published in February and has sparked quite a discussion. He gave us a fantastic interview and I can't thank him enough for taking time to talk to the Goat! Enjoy his answers and go pick up one of his books!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"


2. I've heard of knowing that you wanted to be a writer early in life, but five years old is pretty young! What made you interested so early?

Just the way I’m wired, I guess. It’s something I always wanted to do.

3. On your site, bymattruff.com, you have a section of "Unpublished works and ephemera. I've never seen this on another site, why do you think it's important to show your fans this unpublished material? 

I don’t know if I’d call it important, I just think it’s cool to have a little archive showing some of the stuff I did while I was teaching myself how to tell stories.

4. You have a book tour of about 20 stops for your new book, Mirage, do you enjoy touring? Favorite part?

I do enjoy it. Writing is such a solitary activity, so it’s nice to go out—briefly—and see how people respond to what I’ve been working on for the past few years.

5. Mirage has some pretty touchy material in it, do you think you could have published this book five years ago?

Well, I first pitched The Mirage to HarperCollins almost 5 years ago, and they were as supportive of the idea then as they are now, so yeah, if the novel had been finished back then, I think they would have published it. I suppose the public reception of the book, at a time when the Iraq War was still going on, might have been a bit more heated.

6. Your next book Lovecraft Country, sounds epic, can you tell our readers a little bit about it?

It’s a historical horror novel set in the Jim Crow era. The protagonist is an African-American travel writer (and pulp-fiction geek) who drives around the country reviewing hotels and restaurants that accept black customers. Along the way, he has various adventures, some involving supernatural threats, others featuring more mundane dangers. 

7. I love the way you look at things from completely different angles than the rest of the world. Has this always been the way you write? 

Yeah, that’s one of my signature themes. I like finding unusual perspectives or connections that other people don’t notice, and I like looking at the world through different sets of eyes.

8. I feel like a lot of writers head to or are from the North West, what is the big pull? 

My wife and I wanted to be in a part of the country with four seasons but mild winters. And Seattle’s just a great place to live—it’s got some growing pains, but it manages to combine a lot of what you’d want from a large metropolis with the charm of a much smaller city.

9. How is music important to your writing process? I heard during Bad Monkeys you had a soundtrack?

On my website I have “soundtracks” for all my novels—lists of the songs and artists I was most obsessed with at the time I was working on each book. I do often listen to music while I’m writing, but the lists are less about process than about marking a particular cultural moment, the same way everyone associates events in their lives with songs that were popular at the time.

10. You've said in a few interviews that you may even be more popular in Germany. What's it like meeting fans that read your translated work? Do you think it reads the same way as you wrote it in English?

Since I don’t read German I can’t judge the quality of the translations, which is probably just as well—I worry enough about the original versions. But it’s always interesting to meet fans from other countries. Germans in general seem to “get” me—they share my sense of humor, they like the way I play with ideas—which I guess makes sense, since my ancestry is German.

11. After college, you said that you had to either get a job or get established as a writer, was there ever another option for you?

No, I never had a fallback plan, which seems crazy to me now. But when you’re young, it’s easy to assume that things will just work out somehow, and I was lucky that in my case it happened to be true.

12. You have a lesbian vampire book somewhere, in a drawer, will it ever see the light of day? 

Not in its current, quarter-century-old unedited manuscript form, no. It’s vaguely possible I might try resurrecting it as a screenplay someday, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

13. Your wife, Lisa, is a researcher and rare-book expert, does she ever have input on your books? 

Lisa’s the first person to read my manuscripts, though I generally don’t show them even to her until they’re done, or almost done. During editing and copyediting, I definitely do ask her opinion about stuff. And of course she’s very handy at tracking down information for me.

14. What's it like having a book optioned for a TV series?

It’s exciting, but the reason it’s called an “option” is that it’s only the first step in a long process that may or may not result in an actual TV show. So it’s kind of like buying a Powerball ticket where you know the first three numbers are a match, but the rest of the drawing stretches out over months or even years.

15. Another Mourning Goats interviewee, Christopher Moore, wrote the blurb, "Read it, memorize then destroy it. There are eyes everywhere." What involvement do you have in getting blurbs? Did you know Chris beforehand? 

Blurbs are another lottery-like activity. You make up a wish list of authors you think might like your book—and whose opinion might sway readers—and then the publishing house tries to get manuscripts to them. In most cases, you never hear back, because of course the people on your list tend to be deluged with blurb requests, but once in a while you get lucky. That happened for me with Neal Stephenson, who agreed to blurb Sewer, Gas & Electric, and it happened with Chris Moore and Bad Monkeys. I didn’t know Chris beforehand, and in fact he wasn’t even on my list, but someone at HarperCollins—my editor, probably—thought he’d be into it and sent him a copy. Fortunately for me.

16. What have you noticed the biggest differences between publishers has been, for you? 

The biggest difference is probably size. Grove Atlantic, which did my first two novels, is this scrappy independent publishing house. HarperCollins is part of a media empire, so it’s got more money and more muscle—plus there’s the whole blood oath to Rupert Murdoch business, which I can’t really talk about.

17. Which of your books is your favorite? Why? 

I’d say it’s a tossup between The Mirage and Set This House in Order. You’re always biased towards your most recent novel because that’s the one you’ve been focused on for the past few years, but I think those two books represent my best work so far.

18. How much are you involved in the publicity of your books?

Very involved. It’s probably the closest thing to a second job I’ll ever have, especially now, with a new book just out. I’ve got a great publicist at HarperCollins, Heather Drucker, who does the heavy lifting in terms of logistics and pitching to reviewers and interviewers. My job is to help her figure out which types of publicity events make sense, and then to go out and actually do the events and make sure her efforts pay off.

19. It usually takes you a few years to write a novel, what is your writing schedule like? Do you write every day? 

When I am writing, I try to write every day, yeah. I’m most productive in the morning, so I’ll usually get up around 4 or 5, write until breakfast, and then take a second shot afterwards. By noon, I’m pretty much done for the day.

20. What's next for Matt Ruff?

Deciding whether Lovecraft Country is really my next novel. I’m definitely going to write it, but it’s going to be a big book, so I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t try to come up with a more modest, Bad Monkeys-sized project to work on first, while I’m doing the research for Lovecraft Country. We’ll see.

Thank you!


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

#37 Nick Flynn

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Nick Flynn

When I was asking people who I should interview for the site, Monica Drake recommended Nick Flynn. After doing some research, I saw that he was friends with a lot of other Mourning Goats interviewees and his book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was being made into a movie. Here are his answers the the twenty questions.

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

I confuse it with the band, Mountain Goats.

2. What did you say when you heard about the big names that were going to be in Being Flynn, the movie adaptation of your book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City?

It was a long road to the film being made, so I was able to feel many things along the way. De Niro was the first actor attached to the film, and what I said when the idea was floated was, “perfect.”

3. Do you think that being a poet first makes you choose your words more carefully as a memoirist?

Do you mean more carefully than other memoirists or more carefully than myself? I assume all writers chose their words carefully, or else they might not be writers—they might be something else.

4. Do you still teach in Houston? What did you teach?

Poetry, creative non-fiction, collaboration…

5. You're going to be touring a good bit in 2012, do you enjoy it?

I enjoy being on airplanes, it’s just hard sometimes to get to the airport.

6. How did you get away with having Bullshit in one of your titles? Did your publishers push for another name?

Norton was 100% behind the title from the beginning, I have no idea why— maybe because it is a good title?

7. You were a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001, what did this mean to your career?

Career? It sounds like you think poets have careers.

8. Mourning Goats first interviewee, Stephen Elliott, said that Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was "a near-perfect work of literature" how do you take a compliment like that?

I made Stephen my best friend.

9. You've done poetry, a play, and memoirs, have you thought about writing any fiction?

The play is in the realm of fiction, I’d say.

10. What made you land in Brooklyn? It seems as though you've been all over the world.

You have to be based somewhere, and Brooklyn is a good base. I tried to west coast—seattle, Portland, san Francisco—but it was the wrong ocean.

11. You were on set for Being Flynn, did you get to offer any input into the film, or did you step back from it?

I saw my role on set to get the physics of life in a shelter right, and to attempt to avoid portraying the homeless in a stereotypical way—I’m actually coming to hate the word “homeless’” which has become utterly contaminated by stereotypes, perhaps irrevocably.

12. Did seeing such success with Another Bullshit Night in Suck City change anything? Time to write? How you write? Etc.?

When the book came out I had much less time to write, for a year or so. But I knew that wouldn't last.

13. What do you think an MFA does for someone's writing career? Or what do you think it should do?

Career? The day I start talking to young poets about their careers is the day I will stop teaching.

14. I heard that a piece you wrote for the New Yorker was highly edited, does it still feel like your piece or is it theirs at that point?

It becomes a collaboration of sorts.

15. What can you tell us about being in Africa for Darwin's Nightmare? Was it what you expected?

Africa is a big place, we were in one town on the shore of lake victoria, and from that tiny experience I had I’d say one learns very little of Africa from reading newspapers.

16. Has becoming a father changed the way you see things? Your writing?

Becoming a father has changed everything.

17. Was publishing through Graywolf much different than publishing through Norton? How?

Not really.

18. Do you think that social media is changing how books are sold and marketed? Have you noticed things changing since you started?

I should probably pay more attention to that.

19. What are you most proud of in your writing career at this point?

Again with the career? I'm not a fucken lawyer. I'm sorry, I just can't quite line up what I think of as writing with the word "career". No one I know chose to be a poet, it was more a process of elimination.

20. What's coming up next for Nick Flynn?

I’m working on a book about making suck city into a film, called The Reenactments, coming out in January from Norton.

Thank you!


And finally, don't forget to "like" Mourning Goats on Facebook and pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews on Amazon!