The first novel by Matthew McIntosh
[ winter 2003 . McIntosh sits down with Spencer Brown:
SPENCER BROWN (SB): "Matthew McIntosh’s first novel is called Well and is published by Grove Press. The skinny on you is you don’t like to do publicity for the most part. Why is that?"
MATTHEW MCINTOSH (MM): It's not that I mind publicity I’d like everyone to have heard of Well. I just don't want my self to be a factor in the reception of the book. The media often like to focus on the personality behind the work, instead of the work, itself—and so writers trying to sell their books are expected now to sell themselves. If they’re unique in any pseudo-glamourous way—if they’ve had some sort of tragedy in their life—or drug use—drug use is a big one—they get talked about and people hear about the book and the book sells. If they’ve created a strong enough persona, there’s a better chance they’ll be successful. So and so used to be a junkie so and so was homeless for a month so and so is a drunk and punched out a reporter. The persona also—if successful—establishes the Cool Factor, and so they get attention that way. Everyone’s trying for the Cool Factor. I don’t want to create a persona, cool or uncool, and I don’t want one put on me—I’d prefer to let the book speak for itself.
SB: They say if Hemingway didn’t kill a lion on safari, he’d stand over someone else’s and have them take his picture for Life magazine.
MM: I’ve heard that.
SB: A lot of what we see these days from young writers is autobiographical memoir. Or autobiographical fiction. Or creative nonfiction. Or whatever you want to call it.
MM: Right. They should pass a law where you’re not allowed to write a memoir before you’re sixty.
SB: These sorts of books seem to be pretty popular these days.
MM: And people are free to enjoy them.
SB: But they wouldn’t be if you were president. Because you’d pass the law banning them.
MM: That’s right. I’d also pass a law banning my book because banned books tend to sell very well.
SB: Critics have said Well doesn’t seem to be as biographical as most first novels. Is that true?
MM: I went in to it with the idea of looking at other people to find truth, instead of spilling my guts all over every page or turning everyone in the book into different versions of myself. I didn’t want to approach it like: What would I feel like if I were a woman? Or: What would I feel like if I were a black fisherman or a Vietnam vet or a gay bartender? I wanted to write about what it’s like for a variety of people living today in this time, in this country, and in order to do that I had to forget about myself and look around at other people to tell those stories. How do they feel? Great literature—my favorite books, the ones I always liked—these books record history on the level of the individual. History books show us the big picture, and literature—true literature—shows us what it was like for the people who lived within that history. And you often get a much different story that way. You mentioned Hemingway. Look at In Our Time for example.
SB: A great book.
MM: Yeah. An amazing book. And his motivation for writing it is right there on the cover. He wanted to reveal his time and those who lived in it. Books like that show you that while the world is always changing, people don’t really change that much.
SB: The woman who opens your book talks about how at the grocery store one day she begins to think about that very thing, about how the world changes. And she gets sort of stunned there thinking about it, and she sort of freaks out the cashier. What’s my point? I don’t know. But change seems to be a major theme in the book.
MM: Yeah. We constantly leave old worlds behind. Change is so rapid today—people are struggling to keep up, searching for some sort of Order to chain them to the ground. What’s that song? “I feel the earth moving under my feet.”
SB: Leo Sayer?
MM: Is that Leo Sayer? I think it was a woman singing.
SB: We had a Leo Sayer record when I was a kid. His Greatest Hits was a family favorite.
MM: I think we had that album.
SB: Do you dislike giving interviews?
MM: The thing about giving interviews is you usually don’t know what’s going to make it in and what they’ll leave out. Unless they publish a transcript. But, personally, I never like reading interviews I’ve done. You kind of hold your breath when you first read them. You think: I don’t think that’s what I said, was it? Sometimes they turn out well. The worst is when they try to summarize for you. Actually the worst is when they decide they don’t like you. There was a woman in England at a newspaper who took me all out of context to make me look bad. Fortunately it wasn’t posted on the web. The web is an interesting thing. Talk about recording history. The web will outlast the earth.
SB: What else will outlast the earth?
MM: What else will outlast the earth? Student loan payments.
SB: The characters in Well in general aren’t financially well-off. I just made a pun there.
MM:I’ve noticed it’s difficult to go two minutes in a conversation without using the world well.
SB: That makes me think of all the word-play going on in the book. Words and phrases constantly appear in different contexts with different meanings.
MM: It’s always fun to find new ways to open up words. And when you do, sometimes it feels like the world opens up around them.
SB: All is well, for example.
MM: All is well.
SB: There seem to be countless refrains in the book. I could hear them, as I read, being chanted in my ear. Someone would say something—some seemingly random piece of dialogue—and then I’d hear the same thing out of another character’s mouth fifty pages later. And so I’d be forced to rethink context and associations and connections. You did this also with actions, where someone would do the exact same thing that another character had done previously.
MM: You get these words and moments echoing throughout the book, and they all call to one another.
SB: Back to my earlier thread. I was trying to go somewhere with economics. So where are all the dotcomers in the book? This is about the Seattle area, at about the turn of the millennium, right? Where are all the seventeen-year-old computer geeks with Rolexes?
MM: They’re back living with their parents now. I see your point, but the thing is, non-dotcomers, even during the Boom, outnumbered the dotcomers around here by probably 10,000 to one. For most people, the only way you could feel the Boom was that you weren’t worried about being laid off and it was easier to get a mediocre job than ever before. And harder to buy a house because real estate prices were driven up like crazy. If there’s a perception that the wealth was shared—or that everyone was well off—it’s wrong. People were doing better than they are today—what, three or four years later?—but most people weren’t reaping any rewards. I do remember being in a bar once and a kid about twenty-one or so came in and wanted to give people rides in the new Lexus SUV he’d just bought. He’d been paid—I’m sure with stock options—for some product he’d spent the past three years working on with his buddy in his parents’ basement. His credit is probably screwed now.
SB: Your book is published by Grove Press. They’ve always been considered a cool place to be for those seeking to become a hip young writer.
MM: They published a lot of the authors I grew up reading. They published Henry Miller, Hubert Selby Jr. ◹, Burroughs, Kerouac—
SB: A lot of the what kids today would call “cool writers”.
MM: Yeah. And most of them were cool and innovative and had their own voices.
SB:Who else did they publish?
MM: They put out Beckett here and Genet. I’ve never read Genet.
SB:And they’re still independent. Was it important to you in this day and age of the monster conglomerate to be with an independent press?
MM: Well, it’s incredible that they still exist. There are quite a few small-scale independent presses, but I think there are only one or two major ones left in America. It’s amazing Grove has survived as long as it has, and continues to do well.
SB: But originally you were going to publish it yourself, weren’t you?
SB: Why was that?
MM: Well, it’s such a different kind of book, and took such a long time to write and edit and shape—and other things—but it was important to get it out there without any edits and we—my wife and I—didn’t think anyone would agree to publish it that way. Especially a first novel. I imagined some publisher might buy it and then serve me with a list of what to change—how to make it more palatable, or how to make it more like something they’d already seen and charted. I don’t know if it would have really gone down like that, or if we were just a bit paranoid, but we went ahead and designed and typeset it and made galleys. We bought reams of paper and made copies at a copy shop and got them tape-bound and then—we were living in Salt Lake City then—and we took these big 8 1/2 x 11 books into the letterpress studio at the University of Utah where my wife was working and cut them down to book size on what they call the guillotine—this old-school hand cranked paper chopper. Then we put a black cover on and sent them out to writers asking for blurbs. Almost all the blurbs we ended up using two years later on the Grove jacket we got from these first galleys we sent off. Hubert Selby, Chris Offutt, David Shields, and Donald Revell. Each galley cost 20 bucks to make. They looked sharp.
SB: Did everyone you sent them to respond?
MM: No, not at all. I think we sent twelve out and got four quotes, maybe an email or two from people who said they didn’t write blurbs. The rest just ignored it.
SB: And you didn’t send to any publishers?
SB: So then?
MM: So when we got the blurbs back and it was obvious that no more would be coming in—it had been probably eight months or so—we figured we were ready to go. We’d been researching self-publishing—everything I read said If it’s a book of fiction, don’t publish it yourself. It’ll fail. But if you have a book about hang-gliding, apparently that’s where the money is in indie publishing. There also seems to be a lot of money in publishing books independently about how to publish books independently. I’m sure if we would have gone ahead with it, it would have been difficult to get noticed—and reviewed and all that—but at least Well would have existed as it had been intended. And that was exciting and enough so that it all would have been worth it. Of course, it might have been hard to keep positive—we might have had a hundred boxes of books in our basement and nobody reading them—and 15 or 20 grand on our credit cards on top of what we already had.
SB: So then how did you finally end up with Grove?
MM: Well, we moved up to Seattle again and I was still editing the book and we were both working different jobs and looking into distribution and all like that—planning strategy—and we really didn’t have any money but we were still planning on going ahead with our press—and sometime in there we figured we might as well give the mainstream a shot—so that further down the road if it had all been a terrible failure, we could tell ourselves we’d been forced into self-publishing—so we made more galleys using the blurbs we had and sent them to nine agents along with a letter, and the letter said something like: If you think you can get this published without edits, let me know. And time went on and we didn’t hear anything positive. Out of nine agents, four, I think, turned it down, the others didn’t say anything. So a few months later we were ready to go to press, but were having a hard time getting the print rep in Canada to give us a quote—he kept being out of the office, not returning my wife’s phone calls—which turned out to be a wonderful thing because I got a call from my now-agent Susan Golomb who had been swamped with work and had just gotten to Well and liked it and wanted to represent it. And so she sent it out. In the end, Grove was the only publisher who believed in it as it was. They didn’t want to change it.
SB: And now it’s coming out all over Europe.
MM: It’s out now in the UK with Faber & Faber. And it’s coming out in January of ’04 in the Netherlands by Vassallucci. Then France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Sweden, so far.
SB: Back to the publicity topic of earlier. You’ve said before that you don’t enjoy doing publicity, and you’d like to be able to stay in your basement and write and have nothing to do with any of the other stuff. Do you see yourself like a Salinger or a Pynchon or a Delillo or what? In terms of shunning exposure, the media, etc.
MM: Well, I’ve got to admit it’s a blessing to even have it as a possibility. Because so many people struggle forever without getting noticed, and some of them really deserve to be noticed. But it’s a difficult environment these days in which to be doing something new and different. So I’m grateful that anyone would care enough to want to publicize the book, or even want to know about the writer of it. But it feels sometimes, now that it’s published, there just doesn’t seem to be much difference in terms of what a writer is expected to do to promote his book and what your average Hollywood actor does—which is to basically promote your self. A writer might get interviewed and he’ll pose in front of a car that’s not his for a photo shoot with a serious or world-weary expression on his face—or write a monthly column in some glossy about what a badass he is. Or say, Let me tell you about growing up and how difficult it was for me. It’s about building persona. That’s what fame is—when absolute strangers know these personal details about you—and whether they’re true or not doesn’t matter. You see these interviews on TV with some celebrity couple talking about a miscarriage or problems with drugs—their purpose isn’t to confess, you know, they’re not acting out some sort of public catharsis—but strictly to personalize themselves, become familiar, engrain themselves into our brains. The point is in our culture it’s more important to be recognized than to have something to offer—style trumps substance. And in order to sell their books to a nation that reads less and less all the time, writers are expected to sell themselves in much the same way.
My thing is, I don’t particularly want people to know anything about me. I don’t want to be famous. I’d like my book to be famous, but the rest, I’d prefer to stay out of, as much is possible. I don’t have the mindset that I’ll sell myself if that’s what it takes to make my book sell. I think if you give in to that kind of pressure, it’ll affect the way you write, and what you write about. You’ve got to be able to keep your distance, because it’s distance that allows you a clearer perspective on the world. The trick is finding the balance. I’m new to this, so I’m still working on these things. But I think if you get your priorities sorted out while you’re young, and you’re able to resist some of the empty temptations of the world and your own ego, you might keep improving and learning as a writer, and not peak at age 26, living a comfortable life in a nice house—and everyone loving you—and everyone calling you—but having nothing left to say.
See also: themysterybook.com ◹