I met Matthew Dicks and his wife, Elysha, in R. J. Julia Booksellers one day, and we got into a wonderful conversation about novels, writing, how fun it is to buy books all the time, and the fact that he and his wife were expecting a new baby. He told me that he also was expecting a new book in August, and since I had just gotten the idea for this Books New Haven blog, I signed him up as my first true novelist-in-waiting.
August 21, 2012 at 6:00: Book release at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Blue Back Square, West Hartford, CT
September 13, 2012 at 6:30: Hartford Public Library
September 21, 2012: Clinton Bookshop, Clinton, CT
September 27, 2012 at 7:00: RJ Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT
And now, here is Matthew, to talk about imaginary friends, the art of not being too precious when you’re a writer, and how it is that he owes everything to a high school teacher who once doubted him.
Tell us about your new book.
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is a story told by Budo, the imaginary friend to a boy named Max. Max is an unusual child who is likely functioning somewhere along the autistic spectrum, and as a result, he has come to rely on his imaginary friend for many things. But Budo has his own life as well, separate from Max, in which he meets and befriends other imaginary beings, navigates the world of human persons and worries about his continued existence in the very tenuous life of an imaginary friend. When Max finds himself in great peril, only Budo can save him. In doing so, however, Budo must risk his own existence as well. It’s a story about friendship, courage, love and the power of imagination.
Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?
The idea for the book originates back in in childhood. When I was about ten years old, I was speaking to my mother about a trip that we had made to Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island. I was reminding her of an afternoon spent in the Japanese Gardens, and how Johnson Johnson and I played tag on the connecting islands in the middle pond.
“Matt,” she said. “You know Johnson Johnson wasn’t real. Right?”
“You know Johnson Johnson was your imaginary friend. Right?”
“No,” I said, thinking my mother was crazy. “Johnson Johnson. The boy who lived with us for a while.”
“Matt, there was no Johnson Johnson. He was imaginary.”
“No. Johnson Johnson. The boy who lived with us. Like Jessica.”
Jessica was a foster child who had come to live with my family for about six weeks, and she was one of several children who my parents would take in from time to time when I was young. In my mind, Johnson Johnson had been just another one of these kids. The first of them.
But it turns out that Johnson Johnson was not real. I had made him up. Even with a brother and a sister, I had somehow needed someone else to keep me company, and so I invented Johnson Johnson, who my mother had always assumed was named after Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.
I couldn’t believe it. Years later I would watch the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a story about technology that allows people to erase unwanted sections of their lives, and I instantly understood the concept and sympathized with the characters. In a single stroke, hundreds of memories of my childhood had been altered forever. The boy who I thought had accompanied me to all of my early adventures had suddenly been erased, and for weeks afterward, I would find my mind stumbling upon memories in which Johnson Johnson still existed. Memories in need of erasing.
I mentioned this to a fellow teacher a couple years ago, and she said it would make the basis for an excellent book. I thought she was crazy, but my agent and wife agreed, so I began writing. I promised to give the book an honest effort for the duration of the summer, but if August was ending and I was not happy with the result, I would shift gears.
It took me one day to realize that I had a good story in the works.
I have learned to always listen to my wife and agent.
Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?
The book came surprisingly easy to me. While I am not the best when it comes to plot, I have always found it easy in inhabit a character’s mind, so once I found my way into Budo’s mind, he told the story for me. It was the first time I have written a novel in the first person, and I thought that it would be impossible. Instead, it was easier than I could have ever imagined.
Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?
My process is simple: I write as often as I can, in any space that I can, for whatever duration of time I have. This means I will sit down for ten minutes and write three good sentences or I will sit down for eight hours and write 5,000 words. I find the need for a specific drink, a specific location, a special pen or a particular style of music to be a little silly. I am not precious when it comes to my writing time. I am simply demanding. I fear that too many writers use the excuse of time or location to avoid writing. I write at my dining room table. I write in the lunchroom at school. I write at the library and at the bookstore and in airports and in hotel rooms. If you want to write, you will not allow time, location or method to stand in your way.
As for the actual process, I never know the full story when I begin writing. I find a character and begin, and I eventually manage to find the plot. This means that much of my revision is centered on focusing my story and eliminating some of the meandering that took place while searching for it. Learning that I could eventually find the story as well as its conclusion was an important lesson that I learned far too late in life.
Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?
I’m a pantser. In the beginning, I wrote in constant fear that I would never find the end to my story, but I’ve learned to trust my characters and my instincts. There’s always a story in those pages. I just have to press on until I reach it.
I would much rather be a meticulous outliner. It strikes me as less precarious. That just isn’t me.
How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?
It will sound terribly annoying to writers who suffer from writer’s block, but I have never been uninspired to write. Keeping multiple projects going at one time may assist in this a bit, but even if I had the one story, I suspect that I would always be excited to return to it.
When did you first know you were a writer?
In the acknowledgements of SOMETHING MISSING, I thank Mark Compopiano, my high school English teacher, for teaching me that “words can change minds.”
When I entered Mr. Compo’s English class, I thought of myself of a good writer. Though I couldn’t type or spell to save my life and nothing that I submitted was ever on time, the words and sentences came easily to me, and I had a lot to say. I wrote for the school newspaper and kept a diary off and on during my high school career, and I wrote I lot of notes and letters to girls.
Though I never thought that writing could become a career for me, I also managed to make a little money with my ability. For a short period of time, I went into the business of writing and selling term papers for my fellow students. Charging between $25-$100 depending on the topic and length of the term paper, I managed to buy my first car, a 1978 Chevy Malibu, with the profits of this covert operation.
The day that changed life as a writer was November 29, 1988. On that day, I handed in an assignment in which I was asked to write a satirical piece that expressed humor. I wrote a piece on how America claims to be the land of the free, yet young men can be forcibly sent to foreign countries in order to kill strangers. I also noted that it is illegal to engage in prostitution and commit suicide, both seemingly personal decisions, and that many states restricted the rights of homosexuals.
In reading this piece today, I cringe. It is not well written. It is not funny. And it is barely satirical. But on that day in November, I was certain that I was handing in a gem, so three days later, December 2, 1988, when Mr. Compo handed back the assignment with a grade of B-, I was confounded. Scrawled across the paper were the words Not satire (as well as Many spelling errors!). At the top of the page, Mr. Compo had written:
Some of this is not satire. It’s too obvious.
I disagreed. Despite his years of experience, I had decided in that moment that Mr. Compo was wrong. He had no clue what satire was and had missed the whole point of my piece. Emboldened by overconfidence, I approached his desk and protested my grade. We debated the merits of my piece for a while, and finally, he offered a solution:
Read the piece to the class. If a majority believes that it is satire, I will increase the score on your paper by one letter grade. But if a majority agrees with me, we decrease your score by one letter grade.
Basking in self-assurance and unable to refuse a challenge, I agreed. Though this was a serious English class, and I knew that my classmates would be fair and objective, I was also certain that I was right and that they would side with me.
By a unanimous vote, the class declared my work as satire and my B- was instantly transformed into an A-. I still have the assignment upon which the change in score is noted.
After reading the piece, Mr. Compo admitted that the tone in which I read the piece helped in delineating the satire quite a bit, and what initially sounded dry and rhetorical came to life as I spoke the words.
Some of David Sedaris’s work can be like this. Read it and you think, “That was amusing.” Listen to him read it and you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter.
Don’t get me wrong. I was no David Sedaris, nor am I anywhere in his league today. My piece, which was entitled Welcome to America, is amateurish, silly, and somewhat embarrassing as I read it today, but on that December morning, I learned that my words can change minds. On that morning, I had changed the mind of a man I respected a great deal, perhaps the man who I respected the most at that time, and from then on, I knew that I wanted to write.
It would be another fifteen years before I would even begin writing SOMETHING MISSING, but the short stories, the Op-Eds, the poetry, and everything else that followed can be traced back to that December morning when I read a piece of writing and changed a teacher’s mind.
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?
For a long time, I said I wanted to write for a living and teach for pleasure. While I still happily collect a paycheck as an elementary schoolteacher, I think I am as close as I can get to making this dream a reality. I have also begun doing some public speaking and life coaching and would like to do more of this in the future.
What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?
I honestly adore every aspect of the process. The creation that takes place in the first draft is thrilling, and I have always liked the precision associated with the revision process. It’s the waiting that I despise. Waiting for my wife to read a chapter. Waiting for my agent to read a manuscript. Waiting for the book to actually make it to the bookstores. The waiting kills me.
What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?
I have about ten readers who read along as I write, chapter by chapter. Having grown up with videogames, I find myself requiring and thriving on constant feedback. My readers take on a variety of roles in terms of their feedback. Some are excellent at locating typos and grammar problems in a manuscript. Some pose excellent questions. Some are vicious in their critique, rarely uttering a single positive remark. Some are skilled at locating inconsistencies in the manuscript. A few just like what I write and say lots of nice things. All these people are important to my process.
Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?
In some cases, this is true. When I draw from real life experiences, these instances often make great stories to tell at book signings and other speaking engagements. I’m quite transparent in terms of my inspiration, so I have no objection to answering these questions honestly.
Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?
In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, the character of Mrs. Gosk is actually not fictional at all. In trying to find the perfect teacher for my protagonists, I realized that I already knew the perfect teacher and had been working with her for the past fourteen years. So I simply inserted her into my story as a major character, not changing one thing about her. I didn’t tell her that I was doing this, but I knew she wouldn’t mind. Ultimately she loved the story and her role in it. If you listen to the audiobook, you can hear me and Mrs. Gosk talk about the book in an interview at the end.
The only other time I wrote a character who closely resembled a real person, that chapter was ultimately cut from the novel. Better left on the cutting room floor, too, since I had only inserted the character in an act of spite, which is probably why the chapter didn’t work in the first place.
Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?
Never. I sleep 4-5 hours a night and take my sleep very seriously.
Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?
I don’t procrastinate, but I believe in saving tedious chores like paying the bills, completing paperwork, writing reports, mowing the lawn and the like until the last minute, because I try to live each day like it is my last. And if today is going to be my last day on Earth, the last thing I want to do is spend it balancing my checkbook. Better to wait until it’s absolutely necessary.
What about being a writer has made you truly happy?
Publishing my novels has been the realization of a lifelong dream that began in childhood, and managing to achieve this goal by finding my way through the slush pile rather than through some industry contact or friend of a friend has madet the success even more gratifying.
Receiving notes and email and tweets from readers throughout the US and around the world has been an unexpected and amazing experience. To hear that my story helped someone through a difficult time in their life is something I could have never imagined when I began this career, and yet it happens more often than you would ever believe.
Thanks to my writing, my wife has been able to spend the first eighteen months of each of our children’s lives at home with them, and when she returned to work, she was able to work part-time so that should could spend more time with the kids. This has meant a great deal to her and to me (and hopefully to the kids as well).
And walking into a bookstore and seeing my books on the shelves never gets old. My heart skips a beat every time.
What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?
I tell them to write and to avoid being precious about their craft. If you spend your life waiting for the kids to go to college or for the perfect desk or a much-needed sabbatical (all excuses that I have heard), then you will not succeed. If you can only write at the coffee shop or the library or at the beach (all excuses that I have heard), you will probably never publish. If you refuse to begin your book until you have an agent or a book contract (excuses I have heard), you should quit now.
Writers suffer from the inability to not communicate in the written form. If you do not suffer from this disease, you must find a way to contract it as soon as possible.
No excuses. Sit your ass down and write.