Matt Debenham writes short stories for people who think they hate short stories–and then fall in love with them

Matt DebenhamMatt Debenham of Westport is the author of the story collection The Book of Right and Wrong, published in 2010 by the Ohio State University Press, having won the 2009 OSU Press Prize for Fiction. In 2007 (nothing happened in 2008) he was awarded a fiction fellowship by the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism, and was Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His stories have been published in The Battered Suitcase, Roanoke Review, The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Dogwood, and North Atlantic Review, and have been reprinted in Weston Magazine. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a BA from Fitchburg State College. (Author photo by Lisa Jane Persky.)

The Book of Right and Wrong

His stories are said to be for people who think they don’t like short stories. At once heartbreaking and hilarious, the eleven stories in The Book of Right and Wrong capture their characters at the defining moments of their lives. A mother finds herself defending her son’s biggest bully from a tormentor of his own; a young man watches as his cape-wearing former high-school classmate proves himself more adept at making friends; a social worker gambles everything on expediting an adoption—and causes unforeseen consequences for every person in her life; a boy standing in for Jimmy Carter in his elementary school’s mock-election inadvertently starts a bloody playground war; an ex-con single father finds himself on the inside of his town’s social circle, with no clue as to how the game is played.

Matt will be reading from his book at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, at Best Video, 1842 Whitney Ave. in Hamden. He joins JoeAnn Hart, of Massachusetts, author of the novel Float.

Welcome, Matt. Tell us about your new collection.

My collection is called The Book of Right and Wrong. It won the 2009 Ohio State University Press Prize for Fiction*, and was published in 2010. It’s a nice, short book featuring eleven stories. The publishing tagline is “stories for people who think they hate short stories.” Five of them are related, so there’s also a little thread running through the book.

(*I usually have to tell people this was a national prize, because otherwise they think it’s some sort of alumni book award.)

Are there stories in there that called to you more strenuously than others?

“Called to you strenuously.” I like that phrase! Yes. The last piece, “Kate the Destroyer,” started out with me trying to write about an incident that I had when I was a kid. I was really stuck, and then I had the idea to write from the mother’s perspective. That just shook the whole thing loose, and I ended up writing a completely different story than what I’d intended, yet it also better encapsulated what I’d wanted to get across about the mother in the first place. That one, as soon as I made that little jump in perspective, really kind of flew out of me in one night. (The first draft did, anyway. There are always many other drafts!)

Oh the other hand, “Failure to Thrive” had started years earlier as a story about a woman with two sons, one a meth addict and one a cop, vying for control of their mother’s house. I could never get it right, so I left it alone. Then, when I was getting ready to send the book to OSU Press for consideration, I realized what I wanted to do with the story. So I rewrote it for what must’ve been the 12th time and added it to the collection the day before the deadline. And it’s the story that most seems to grab people. If someone emails me or tweets me about my book, that almost-lost story is the one they most reference.

As a novelist, I feel that years pass while I’m working on just one plot. It’s unimaginable to me to have so many plots to untangle and figure out. Do they come to you one at a time, or are you often working on different ones at once?

Yes! By which I mean yes to both, at one time or another. Sometimes I’ll have a few stories going, sometimes it’s only one. There’s a magical thing that happens where I forget, every damn time, what makes a really good story for me – which is, there’s a question I HAVE to find the answer to. For example, I get an image of a guy telling his son to do a terrible thing on a playground. Now I HAVE to know how that came about. Those are the stories that eventually see the light of day. There are other stories that I’ll spend weeks on (or far worse), only to realize too late that, um, there was no fascination or question for me, just a premise I thought was cool. I may never learn that premises, by themselves, are not my friends.

Also, I spent way too long writing a novel. By the end, it was impressively big, and I hated everything about it, especially the characters. It was, go figure, a very premise-heavy book. You really need to love your characters and find them endlessly entertaining and fascinating. One day soon I’ll go back to that novel and rewrite it, but I’m going to need to go in there with a sledgehammer and maybe some dynamite.

Any recurring characters or character types in your stories? Or specific themes you feel drawn to?

I keep going back to a character named Miles LaPine, along with members of his family. They’re in those five connected stories in the book, and I’ve since released an independent story called “Challenger” that also features Miles. He’s kind of a combo platter of my own most awkward/earnest aspects, along with a couple of troubled nerds I knew as a kid. Themewise, I like exploring the gulf between a misguided and/or ill-equipped person’s best intentions and whatever reality they’re just not capable of seeing. That gulf is big enough to accommodate a lot of tragedy and comedy, so it’s a good place to play.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hoo boy. My process is one of fits and starts. I usually start really strong, writing out a first scene or two, just getting to know who and what I’m writing about. Then I back off for a bit, and I do some thinking. As in: Okay, you know who you’re writing about, now where’s it going? Which used to scare me – why am I just thinking?! — but now I understand this is writing, every bit as much as typing words on a screen. Then I usually start rewriting from scratch. Once I have a finished first draft, I put it aside for a while. When I go back to it, it no longer feels personal, so I have free license to go in and really mess with it. That’s where I’ll change genders, timelines, characters’ objectives, etc. This is usually a multi-draft process.

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 think something in-between? I usually have either an ending image or a climactic image, and I work toward that: How did we get here? Why are these people doing this? My stuff is pretty plot-oriented, so when I have my incident and my people figured out and I’ve done a bit of writing, then I do start sketching out a sequence of events and escalations. I like twists. The “gut-punch,” as my wife calls it.

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?

Coffee’s good for this. I follow the advice of Ron Carlson, who’s a writer everyone should read. In his book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, he tells you: Do not get up. Stay seated. Ignore the urge to get a drink or do some chore, and instead force yourself to sit there. A few minutes after that is usually when the words will start coming. It’s a little like breaking the will of a captive spy. Your brain finally goes, “Ugh, fine. HERE.” I feel that for a lot of writers, half the job is tricking yourself into doing things.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I came to it pretty late. I know a lot of writers say they knew when they were kids, but while I always liked to write and get reactions to my writing, I didn’t think seriously about fiction until I was in my twenties and well into a public relations career. So: 25? 26?

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I teach as well, in independent workshops as well as for the writing program at Western CT State. I love teaching and would gladly do only that for a living. (IF I could no longer write, that is.) Otherwise, I’d be a good man in a book or video store.

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 really do like all of it. I used to love first drafts, because I viewed that as the “creation” phase, and everything else was the dirty work. But it’s all creation, and it’s all editing. It’s not a linear process for me. Rather, it’s like a busy kitchen, where some people are prepping raw ingredients and others are grilling and plating. (I may have been hungry while answering these.)

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I like a little messiness, a little weirdness in my stuff. So when I revise, I make sure my words are good – am I finding the one word to do the work of a paragraph? Do my sentences vary in length and intensity, creating a kind of musical flow, etc.? But what I most work on in revision is getting the moments right. Cutting out the extra crap, while leaving in some of those ragged edges. Oh, and I always read aloud. Every draft. This is crucial.

As far as outside readers go, I have two trusted readers. I show them my stuff either when I think I’m done and I know they’ll have smart suggestions, or when I’m stuck and I can’t see my way out of the hole. I’m actually interested in finding a good writers’ group near me. I think that’d be really helpful, both in terms of having careful eyes on my stuff and in terms of having a regular deadline.

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?

Great question! I’m torn, because I’m driven to read interviews with authors who interest me, yet I’m disappointed when I find out a work I liked was drawn almost entirely from the author’s own experiences. Which is completely unfair and hypocritical of me! I think it’s human nature to want to know these things about authors. And I think there’s always something of the author in the work, whether it’s near-memoir or whether the work reflects some nagging fascination of theirs. When I do get those questions, I’m nice about it, because I completely understand where they’re coming from, and because I certainly can’t claim that there’s no “me” in the book.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I do! I read the AV Club way too much, or I’ll often find myself on AllMusic.com, reading reviews of a band’s entire discography. Or I’ll think, “Beverly Hills Buntz!” and then I’ll be on Wikipedia, looking up the production history of the failed show about a minor Hill Street Blues character. Then there’s Twitter….

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

A lot of writing for me is problem-solving. How do I get from point A to point D without it feeling contrived? Why WOULD she do that? How can I structure this so that when the big moment comes it feels like a gut-punch? I worked in marketing and communications for a long time, and that was always my favorite part of that job. So this act of realizing the implausible makes me happy. Feeling like I got at a feeling or moment that I haven’t seen done that way before makes me really happy. Externally, I love when someone tells me they were so shaken by a story they had to put the book down. I’ve been lucky enough to hear that a few times, and I think it’s a positive! And I hope I never stop getting a charge out of saying “my book.”

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them why not? I’m teaching a morning workshop in Westport right now for people who’ve never written before. And these six people have gotten to the point where they’re all producing genuinely good work. I’ve yet to meet the person who can’t write, even a little bit, with some direction and encouragement. And I don’t view this as some exclusive club. Can everyone be a Jennifer Egan or a Toni Morrison? Probably not, but I’m always shocked, pleasantly so, when I see what people are capable of doing.

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