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An Insane Process Close Enough to Nonsense: Matthew Savoca Interviews Matt Cook

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One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Matthew Savoca (author of the winning novel I Don’t Know I Said talks to Matt Cook about his collection of poetry.

Matt Cook Headshot

Where are you from? What was your childhood like?

I moved around a lot when I was growing up: Rockford, Illinois to Milwaukee, back to Rockford. Then Boulder, Ann Arbor, back to Boulder. My mother was working on various degrees at various universities. I never really bothered to make friends at school because I always kind of knew I’d be leaving soon. My friends were always just my mother’s friends. I remember my 11th birthday party. There weren’t any kids there. It was a room full of law students. My mother sometimes feels a misplaced guilt about how we (my brother & I) were raised; it’s an understandable motherly reaction, but I think I benefitted from it all. We had an amazingly rich childhood, and the instability and exposure to a lot of smart people (and the inevitable attending feelings of being an outsider, of being different, of being superior) all of these things are inseparable with my evolution as a writer.

CookCoverWhat are your poems about?

I once described my poems as a kind of autobiographical surrealism, but the more I think of it, isn’t everything autobiographical surrealism when you come right down to it? I mean, isn’t life itself essentially autobiographical surrealism? Maybe I’m getting too grand here, I don’t know, but I think I try to ground my poems in my basic quotidian existence with the hope that my imagination will then find something there that can make the experience take flight into another world. So yes, my poems are drawn from real life, but they’re not real life, they’re poems. This causes problems sometimes. My mother (in real life) for example, doesn’t have skin eruptions on her face, but a ‘mother’ in one of my poems does. Naturally my mother (in real life) wasn’t pleased. But of course the poem isn’t about her. That’s one very great thing about poetry. It’s not locked into the on/ off switch of fiction/ non-fiction. And that works fine for me because I’ve never really trusted those categories anyway. I mean, come on, why are Ann Coulter’s books filed under non-fiction? She writes books filled with fanciful distorted imaginings. So much of what is called non-fiction is really just fallacy, opinion and hot air. And it doesn’t have to be Ann Coulter. Even more respectable critics and historians and scholars are essentially doing the same thing: writing non-fiction books about how the non-fiction books of the past were wrong. Meanwhile, so much of what is called fiction is actually thinly veiled autobiography, which is essentially non-fiction! That’s the thing, I mean, truth can’t be controlled that easily. It seeps into what you think is fiction and it seeps out of what you think is non-fiction. Poets don’t pretend that this isn’t the case.

How much control do you have when you make a poem?

Yeah, that’s the thing, not much. It’s funny when you see those how-to books about, say, oil painting or something. The whole process is broken down into these clearly defined stages and the guy’s studio is very clean and well lighted, and his paints and brushes are neatly organized and so on. But of course no great paintings are made that way. In reality it’s an insane process full of mostly failure. That would be great if the book just showed the guy failing over and over again and then the book ends with him just giving up on oil painting altogether. I mean, that’s the way it goes. I start by writing in longhand in my notebook, but so little of what I write in my notebooks is any good at all. It’s just a lot of me being a great big failure. But then I move some pieces I like onto a computer file and start playing around, and the words tell me where I need to go. If that’s control, control isn’t what it used to be. Or it’s exactly what it used to be.

Are you a poet?

That’s a great and important question. Yes, I’m a poet. And it’s vital to simply be able to say that. I guess it’s like admitting you’re an alcoholic or something. It’s ridiculous when people say writing is a craft. That’s not how it works. It’s a life that you’re able to either convincingly live or not. I think you need to have more ego strength to be a poet than to be another kind of writer. I mean, there’s no commercial dimension to what we do and people are going to assume you’re crazy and so on, and if you’re not comfortable with that, even proud of that, then you can’t really proceed. And I think there are a lot of very talented writers who could be good poets, but they’re simply unable or unwilling to wear this crazy complicated outfit. Of course there are also those people who are comfortable wearing this crazy complicated outfit, but they have no talent. That can be tragic, but it can also be funny.

What do you think of this quote from Bob Dylan: ‘If we’re going to call Robert Frost a poet, then we have to call my friend who works down at the gas station a poet too.’?

Ha, it’s hard to tell whether he’s running down Robert Frost or perhaps just complimenting his friend at the gas station, or perhaps heroically drawing our attention to the unrecognized genius of his gas station friend, which makes me feel good for a minute, but then it makes me wonder if Bob still to this day talks to his old gas station friend, and if not that makes me think that Bob’s maybe a bad friend, and I don’t want to think that about Bob.

Does everybody have fifteen minutes of poetry in them somewhere?

I think everyone probably encounters a lot more poetry than that. The problem is they don’t notice it, or it’s not useful for them to notice it because their life doesn’t require it. It’s probably a good thing that pilots and surgeons and first responders so on are not more absorbed by poetic distractions. It’s probably good that I’m not working in those professions. I mean, I’m glad those people exist, but I can’t believe anyone would seek out a career where they’re just surrounded by reality like that. I guess that’s what I’m wondering: I’m wondering if I have fifteen minutes of reality in me somewhere.

Do you hope your poems will be around forever?

That’s something I honestly don’t worry about. I mean ‘forever’ is a long time, but even if you had asked, ‘Do you hope your poems will be around fifty years after you’re dead?’ I still don’t think I’m worried too much about that. I know that’s classically what this is supposed to be all about: to achieve some sort of immortality, but I never really think of it that way. It seems kind of greedy. I think if a poet can have a small following in his own lifetime he should just be happy with that, and not get all grabby and start worrying about posterity.

If you could pick one poem to go into one of those space capsules they send out into the universe for other civilizations to find, what would it be?

Haha, I see several problems ahead! First, poems barely translate from one earthly language to another. Second, poems don’t travel through time particularly well. For best results, try to be as close to the poem’s cultural milieu and moment as possible. A writer, of course, has an audience that he writes for known only to him. It’s usually a profoundly important person from his intimate circle. Poems are not written for distant civilizations and we should be cool with that. Poetry is already close enough to nonsense as it is, even for an intelligent native speaker keenly aware of his culture. Still, that’s not to say the reader in the distant civilization may not experience a pleasant misunderstanding.

How do you feel about the name Matthew? Is there a story behind how it became your name?

My mother liked the name Matt because she liked her friend Matt, who was a Minneapolis travel agent who lost his sense of smell in a bizarre figure skating accident. It’s true. I guess Matthew is in the Bible, or something, but I’ve never read the Bible.

If you weren’t Matt Cook, who would you be?

I hope that I would be a pigeon living in Milwaukee.

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IDKIS Trip Giveaway

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Going on a trip? Where to? Want some reading material for the car or the layover?

We’re going to send a copy of Matthew Savoca’s road novel, I Don’t Know I Said, to three winners with trips planned. Are you going to a conference for work? Spelunking? Baseball Hall of Fame? A visit to Grandma’s before she clocks out? Just want to get away?

But wait, there’s more! We’ll also send you a mix CD of some great road songs, AND best of all: Matthew will write a list for you of what to pack.

To enter, give us some details about what you’re doing. Where are you going? What will you see? How long’s the trip? Tell us whatever cool stuff you want, but make sure you include your final destination.

Any trip you’re going to take is eligible.

You can leave a comment on this post, or Tweet an answer with the hashtag #IDKIS, or send an email to trips at publishinggenius dot com — we’ll pull all the responses together and throw some darts at a map and if one lands close to your destination, we’ll send you a book. We’ll send one to the first three destinations we hit within 100 miles. That seems like fun.

The game ends next Wednesday, May 22, at noon. We’ll announce the winners shortly after that.

Here’s a map of one of the getaways from Matthew’s book:

View “I Don’t Know,” I Said in a larger map

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I love the streetlamp deeply: Megan McShea Interviews Matthew Savoca

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One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Megan McShea talks to Matthew Savoca about his new book.

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MEGAN: To start in an obvious place, I love the title of your book. I loved it more when I was reading it. It seemed like a kind of home-base for the narrator. Somewhere in there he muses that it’s his fallback position. Did you know the title from the start? Or did that come later?

MATTHEW: I don’t know.

Hah. Just kidding. I say “I don’t know” too much, but it’s even worse with this narrator guy. Don’t you want to just kick him sometimes? Yeah, I knew the title from very early on. It was just sitting there. Most of the time I start with a title. Like I start every day with the name Matthew. And then I go from there.

MEGAN: The only times I really wanted to strangle the guy were times when he was overly accommodating, like when Carolina’s in the bank and he’s waiting outside but he won’t go get a soda because he’s afraid she’ll come out and wonder where he is. What kind of magical leash does she have him on?! But really, it only bothers me because it reminds me of myself at my most servile in relationships. I have to say, your novel had a real squirm-factor in terms of remembering some of the more pathetic moments of past relationships.

MATTHEW: He’s just afraid of being a bad guy. He doesn’t want to do anything that could put him in the wrong, and that’s messed up. Because it’s fake goodness. The kind thing to do for another person is let yourself be the fuck up half the time.

Jean Rhys always talked about wanting to “get things right” and that’s what I had in mind with this book, which is maybe what that squirm-factor is all about. But I figure if I can make you squirm a little this time around, then I know you’ll be back next time.

MEGAN: Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of art that makes me squirm. I figure it’s doing something right if I’m a little uncomfortable. Your story manages to do that in this really quiet way, without resorting to the grotesque or melodrama. It just follows the thoughts of the narrator into all these places he hits his own walls. At which point he generally says, “I don’t know.” It’s very honest.

Despite lack of melodrama, there’s some vivid, memorable scenes in this book. Did you start with a collection of scenes and then map them out into a story?

MATTHEW: That’s a great description of the book. I like that. Most of the stuff I wrote down in order, while it was fresh in my mind. Scott McClanahan talks about how when he sits down to write, it’s game time. There’s no exercises or practices. It’s just sit down and go. I didn’t start with a collection of scenes or even anything in my mind, really. I try not to think about it too much. I just start telling it and then fuss with it a little bit later, but not too much. I used to play ice hockey when I was in high school and most of the time when you’re out there on the ice you’re just going on your nerve. You grab the puck and race down and score and then you think to yourself, Who just did that? That’s how I feel about writing things down. Frank O’Hara said the thing about going on your nerve. He said when someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run. You don’t turn around and yell, “Give it up, I was a track star for Mineola Prep!” (from “Personism: A Manifesto”)

MEGAN: I love that piece. My favorite line is the one about form: “if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.”

I like this idea of Rhys, getting things right. I can see how it worked its way into this book. The way the interactions and thought processes of the characters are spelled out so plainly, nakedly. There were so many moments that felt true to me, with all your detail about those spaces in between the big things that happen or get said between two people. The body language and the talking about nothing. And there are flourishes in there, too, but they aren’t grand. They’re very small, but beautiful little payoffs the readers gets for following the nuances.

My favorite scene, though, is when he encounters the streetlamp in the rain. It sort of seems like a moment of enlightenment. Elsewhere you mention Zen. Am I imposing something on the book, or is there a path to enlightenment story in there that you meant to tell?

MATTHEW: For a while there, back around 2007-2008, I was pretty into Zen so I’m sure it made its way into the book, and I think Arthur probably views himself as some kind of Siddhartha, but I never meant it that way. I mean, I never meant to tell anything. I just sat down and wrote the things out that were in my head. I think most of the time I saw it as scenes in my head, like in a movie, and all I had to do was describe what I was seeing. It must have worked too because I don’t have any of those things in my head anymore. But, yeah, the streetlamp is my favorite character in the whole book. I love the streetlamp deeply, like that lady who married the Berlin Wall.

MEGAN: Yes, the streetlamp is a great character! Especially when it returns later like some lost love.

I’ve been assuming this is at least partly memoir, although I’m never clear why that matters. Am I right? And if so, do you think it matters?

MATTHEW: You know what I think is funny? Adam never once asked me that. I heard this great joke the other day: Why’d the chicken cross the road? Because the road crossed the chicken. Never cross a chicken, man.

I don’t even know what memoir is. I guess it’s someone saying here’s a true story about a thing that happened to me. I don’t think I ever tell the truth. I’m always trying to make myself look better. But, here we go, here’s a true story of something that happened to me the other day: I was on the New Jersey turnpike and I stopped off to get gas, which you’re not allowed to pump yourself in Jersey, and this guy in front of me at the pump didn’t want to wait for an attendant, so he just started pumping the gas himself and then an attendant yelled Sir you can’t pump your own gas here, Sir! SIR! And the guy just ignored him and went right on pumping his gas and the attendant eventually came over but just stood there and told the guy he wasn’t allowed to do what he was doing. Over and over again just telling him until the guy was finished and then drove off up the highway scott free. And I sat there the entire time just watching this scene and thinking about the guy and I went from hating him for being a total jerk to almost admiring him for seeing it all the way through, even though he was still a jerk. I mean, what crazy hurry was this guy in? And then just a few minutes later, I passed by him on the highway and he was parked on the shoulder, just laying on the hood of his car with his arms crossed behind his head staring up at the sky.

But, see, that’s not even true. I just made that story up right now.

Actually, it is true. That really did happen. Didn’t it?

MEGAN: I really want that to be a true story. In fact, I look forward to a time when I’ve sort of gotten dislodged from the source of that story by the passage of time and can adopt it as my own, telling someone who I think might appreciate it that it happened to me.

I think that dispenses with the whole memoir question very nicely.

The verse from Ecclesiastes at the end is pretty spot on. At what point did you come across it? Or did you just happen to know it?

MATTHEW: Yeah, I know a lot of Ecclesiastes by heart. It’s such a great damn book. I have been reading it for a real long time, so it’s always kind of been in my head, but it was a real late addition to this book. I think Adam and I added it in there like a month or two ago. I wrote him an email one day after listening to an audio recording of Ecclesiastes in my car, and I said what do you think about putting this at the end of the book. And he liked the idea. I love Adam.

MEGAN: Tell me more about what it was like to work on the book with Adam.

MATTHEW: Adam is so goddamn great. I feel like he made I Don’t Know I Said ten times better. I really mean that. He must have read it through a dozen times from a dozen different perspectives and he continually offered his suggestions, 99% of which I took. All kinds of things from cutting unnecessary sections, to just clearing up parts that were unclear, to making sure grammatical and dialogue issues were consistent, to rewording parts. Adam is the one who came up with the idea to divide the book into three sort of sections to help make the book’s timeline a bit more clear, since there are so many starts and stops and restarts to this story. Adam came up with the titles to the three sections as well: The United States. The Ski Lodge. I Don’t Know. Just that little addition right there made the book instantly a lot better and have such a better flow to it. Adam is really thoughtful and also just damn good at putting out books the way he wants to. We had a lot of fun with it. That’s one of the best things about Adam is that things are always really fun. At one point he was staying at my place and we sat at the kitchen table at two in the morning, drunk, and talked for a long time about whether or not we should change the book to have Arthur kill Carolina at the end by poisoning her drink, and what that would do to the story. I could go on and on. I can’t say enough good things about Adam Robinson. I just love the guy all around.

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Drawing a Book Cover for the Esteemed Adam Robinstein

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craigI’ve known and been friends with Adam Robinson for going on fifteen years now. Though I’ve been drawing all my life, I cut my indie art teeth with him drawing fliers promoting various college parties we hosted, or t-shirts advertising our basement speakeasy, long before I ever had designs on making a full-time gig of sketching and coloring. We go back a long way. And ever since Publishing Genius sprang from his head, I’ve hoped I’d one day get a call to design a cover for one of his books. Be careful what you wish for.

[Before you read on, here’s a DISCLAIMER: Though I’m close friends with Adam and he counts as one of my near-and-dearest, parts of what’s to come might paint him as overly critical or vacillating. I hold his eye for detail and his vision for the final product in the highest regard. I learned a lot throughout, and am more than thankful to have worked with him on this cover. Maybe I just get to be droll because I love him so much and know he won’t be sore. Don’t you try it. Or, if you do, watch your back.]

So, while g-chatting about a play we’ve been writing together for years, I read the question I’ve longed for since I got my copy of the awesome El Greed by the even awesomer David NeSmith in the mail: “Would you be interested in doing the cover for Matthew Savoca’s book, I Don’t Know I Said?”

Though I’m new to slogging my wares, this wasn’t my first rodeo. When Adam asked me, I was finishing a t-shirt run for this great new band. In that process, I’d sketched a few ideas, the band and I discussed them, I submitted a final design, they approved and we ran with it. Ah, the simplicity of musicians. (Sweatpants was obviously a hobby for Adam.)

origbeargatorProbably the most satisfying aspect to this process was reading Savoca’s book. I’m not sure if that’s something folks designing better covers than me normally do, but it was integral for finding my starting point. Once I’d finished the book, which is about a guy and girl in their twenties trying to figure out their lives, I sketched five ideas. I drew a couple designs with a lamppost, a motel room scene, a landscape with a car and lightning striking, and as a joke, I drew a bear and an alligator dancing. Scan Adjust Click Send. The next morning I awoke to a message from Adam. He liked the motel room scene, thought the lightning was cool but maybe too intense, and sure-enough-and-shoulda-known, his favorite was the bear and the alligator. Something I’d done wrong with my saving the files to Dropbox had distorted the images, so he told me to work on some new sketches trying different positions showing more of the gator with the dancing bear and maybe throw in a more vicious version, with some teeth.  I should say that prior to this project my relationship with Dropbox had been, um, romantic in a very adolescent way. This girl I was sweet on dropped some songs in there for me to listen to. I put some in there for her. Adam’s given me a brand new appreciation for the wonder of this service. Dropbox rules. So I stuck a few drawings of bears and alligators in there and Adam chose a couple he liked. I added color to those.

thumbnailAn extended email conversation followed that can basically be boiled down to:

“Are you sure?”

“I think so.”

“But are you really sure?”

“Yeah…?”

Somewhere during that exchange Savoca’s opinion was sought, and much to my surprise, he approved. “This is really happening?” I thought. I crossed myself and sat down at my table.

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gatoreyeI pounded out an inked drawing in a night that I thought captured what Adam had liked in the sketches and with the idea. It also satisfied my high expectations for my work, so bonus. I scanned the drawing into my computer, colored it in Photoshop, adding streaks in the background that I thought brought some intensity, sat back and admired, and dropped it in the Box. I went to bed content with and proud of myself and Adam was all like, “What the hell happened to the original idea? Where are the colors? Why’d you change it?” Deflated, I reopened the file, “IDKIS Cover ART.psd” and got back to work.

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screenshot color checkWell, “IDKIS Cover Art” went through versions 2-5 before it became “IDKIS Cover ART hopeful final.” Then came “Bear Hinted Alligator,” which went through versions “a,” “b,” c,” “d,” “e,” “c2,”“abcde,” “2abcde,” “again,” “again again,” and “again with text.” Adam never saw the files titled, “If it were my cover,” and its numerous versions. All the while he was tweaking his criticism to address the sometimes-small-sometimes-very-large changes I was making to the drawing and design. Suggestions as simple as an adjustment to the gator’s color and as bold as removing the gator altogether were considered and addressed. What had started as a personal goal of completion of nine days was stretching into the third week. Finally, we reached a series of designs we thought we could approach Matthew with, but Adam rightly sought the opinions of folks in the know out east, while I showed what we’d come up with to our mutual friend and my roommate, Bill. Bill said, “That looks more like an alligator than that does.”

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The file, “Second Guessing Myself” was born. Then came “a” “b” “bAR” “bARCG.” More opinions were sought. “That looks like a croissant,” someone who was hungry said. On the font: “It looks a little haunted house.” Six versions of that file later, I think we’ve settled on a cover.

You tell me.

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Check out more C.W. Griffin at his Tumblr.