Continuing our celebration of Short Story Month, Lori Hettler sits down with short story author Matt Rowan. Matt lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and two chihuahuas. He co-edits Untoward Magazine and serves as fiction editor of ACM: Another Chicago Magazine. He’s the author of two story collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013).
Lori Hettler: Hey man, congrats on the release of your sophomore collection, Big Venerable! Other than weighing in at a hundred pages heavier than your debut, how do you think this collection compares to Why God Why?
MATT ROWAN: Story length factored in a great deal with each collection. I was writing a lot of flash fictions at the time we were collecting stories for Why God Why. It’s a great medium for storytelling and one I expect to return to, but more recently, I’ve been exploring the longer form that I first started writing in with my earliest short stories (some of which are featured in slightly modified (viz., improved) form in Big Venerable). Obviously, the big difference is what you can do in terms of character development, an increasingly important component of my stories for more or less organic reasons — I really want to get to the essence of these folks and entities I’m writing about, to whatever extent possible. My hope is Big Venerable gives breathing room to those characters and so forth I wrote of in Why God Why.
You’ve been publishing stories online now for years. When did you first get bitten by the writing bug? And when did you really begin to take yourself seriously as a writer?
That is hard to pin down. I’ve definitely dabbled in reading and writing throughout my life. When I was really young, I’d write all these incomprehensible comic book stories with various superheroes of my own creation, heroes with aberrant names and occupations, such as Birthday Boy, The Grim Reaper, and Super Guy. I still have most of those. They’re in a box in a closet somewhere. They still make no sense, but I can’t help but admire my younger self’s devotion to creating them.
In high school, some friends of mine and I created a satirical news publication we modeled after The Onion. It was called The Weekly Johnson, and the name and all its ambiguity and sexual connotation wasn’t lost on us. A few pieces I originally wrote for it in college (The WJ lasted some six or seven years, complete with columnists who had nascent personalities all their own) made it into Why God Why.
But my love of writing fiction of the “literary” bent really didn’t begin until I picked up books by Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and, sometime shortly thereafter, George Saunders. Humor is so important to me as a writer, and there are so many great writers who make use of it so admirably and effectively. Brief aside, one of the great shames of how the broader world of literary fiction folks appears to function is in so many people’s inability to appreciate the complexities of comedy, that just because something makes you laugh doesn’t mean inherently it has to be taken less seriously than its generally-regarded-as-binary-opposite, drama.
What is it about short stories that draws you to the form as a writer?
I’m going to paraphrase something I remember reading George Saunders saying in an interview: my ideas just aren’t presently big enough to facilitate a whole novel. I like to think I have a novel in me; I find that form excellent and, like a lot of people, most of my favorite books are novels. But not to entirely cop-out on my answer to your question, I really do enjoy the fleeting glimpse of the worlds that short stories bring to life. I think of them a bit like windows you look out of in a moving vehicle, an airplane or train, a momentary blur, a fragment of a memory. Uncertainty is a wonderful aspect of fiction, and I love the ways short fiction allows you to play with the concept.
As a reader, do you have a favorite short story or collection of short stories?
Several, really. Too many to list them all. But here are some that I find myself going back to often: George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy’s, The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and Trouble by Patrick Somerville.
If I’m being honest, I’m a fairly new fan of the short story collection. For most of my reading life, I had a strong preference for novels. I enjoyed the long-term commitment to the characters. I liked lingering in their worlds, and short stories had always felt too rushed and incomplete. But as I’ve matured, I find myself gravitating more often toward them and their sister forms — novellas, flash fiction, and even vignettes. What is your preferred format as a reader?
I think, in general, I enjoy short stories more generally and novels more when I’m reading a favorite author. As I say, I love the brief glimpses of worlds people contrive, but often, I’m not so interested in them that I’d want to invest the time it takes to see a story play out in a novel. You really have to bring me in to get me to read 200-plus pages of one story. And funnily enough, I get to a lot of novels by reading peoples’ short fiction first. You almost could look at it as a screening process. Reading their short work, I might ask myself, is this an author I believe could hold my attention for a novel? It’s not a perfect system, but then, what system is?
Who were your literary heroes when you were a young reader?
In high school, traditional as it may be to say, I loved John Steinbeck and J. D. Salinger. In college, finally introduced to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Herman Melville, and Joseph Heller, I found new heroes.
Who is your literary hero now?
Oh, again, too many. George Saunders is great to watch read his work live, and for me that’s really a step above writing a great story. It’s a lot tougher than it looks, and he’s one among many writers I’ve had the opportunity to watch pull it off with ease. (Others who are also awesome: Samantha Irby, Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Megan Stielstra, and Patrick Somerville).
How has the Chicago lit scene influenced you as a writer and performer?
All of the preceding question helps to kind of get at the heart of my thinking when it comes to the Chicago lit scene. It’s a really great one, from what I can tell. There’s so much talent in the world and so many people who just wow you with what they bring to the table in that regard. Several of those mentioned are or have been Chicago lit scene regulars, appearing in and/or hosting reading series throughout the city. I definitely have thought more about how I personally read my stories aloud because of their influence. I was, frankly, a lousy reader at first. Confidence is key, and I didn’t have it, and being in the limelight in general has a way of making me feel anxious. But the funny thing is, you find yourself doing it anyway, and in spite of your instincts; and the community here is, in my experience, so kind and generous and ready to embrace you when you go out on that limb. I’m a much better reader of my own work (and also a better writer, as a result) for it.
Assuming your pen is not always scratching paper, how do you kick back and relax when you aren’t writing?
My wife reminds me I need to do more of that, not writing or thinking about writing all the time. She’s as beautiful as she is intelligent and perceptive, because it’s true. I really obsess a bit much on the writing front, and I’m trying to curb it. I’ve been running a lot more lately (partly because of the improving Chicago weather), enjoying certain television shows on Netflix, and trying to take in more live shows (not just of literary ones, but music, improvisational comedy, and stage acting, too).
When you are writing, no matter how well you plan your time, what’s the one thing that is guaranteed to distract you?
The internet, which can also be a great muse to my writing, as well.
How old were you when —
You first learned how to read? Six.
You wrote your first story? Eight.
You kissed someone for the first time? Six again? It depends on how romantic the kiss we’re talking about was. Seventeen, if very romantic — bit of a late bloomer I was.
You learned Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny weren’t real? I had my doubts at a young age, but I still believe.
You learned your lesson? Ha! Next question!
Interview originally published on 5/22/15.