The opening sentence of the first story, "The Laurel Whalen," goes like this: "It was the summer Sergeant Cote killed his only son by accident and we had to boil our drinking water." This strikes me as the whole book in miniature--the past inevitably reaching into the now, the dreadful forever tangling up with the mundane. To paraphrase the last story, "All This Was a Long Time Ago," history plots ambushes. These stories also ambush us (this is my partial answer to question five). They are startling, ominous, and highly assured. This man is a writer's writer--read the answers below!--who also has the ability to suck in readers. No spoilers, but some of these stories are guaranteed to haunt you. This book is Matt's first story collection, and his fourth book of poems, Desecrations, is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in spring 2016. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick What I Want to Tell Goes Like This? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
This book took shape over the course of about 10 years and it has had many identities over that time. The first title was The North American Book of the Dead. I thought maybe I was writing a book of literary ghost stories. The current title comes from a line in the opening story “The Laurel Whalen” and only auditioned for the title role maybe six months before publication. One of the themes of the collection is, ironically, the difficulty of telling a story.
A sponsoring spirit of the book was the union activist Albert “Ginger” Goodwin. Goodwin was an orator and writer. His importance historically had less to do with his organizing efforts than with the public voice he gave to the efforts of poor and working class to collectivize. He was killed by deputized manhunters near Cumberland, on Vancouver Island, in the summer of 1918. The question that still haunts me: Who tells the story once the storyteller is dead? The title refers to the attempts the book makes to articulate that question.
2. Which story did you write first? How did you decide where to place it in the collection?
The oldest story in this collection is “Brighton, Where Are You?” which was written in 2004 or 2005. It’s a story set in a truck stop in California as a trucker tries to make his way back to Vancouver Island. When I was a kid my dad was a long haul trucker and I
remember those truck stops and the strange liminal space they occupy both civically and in the personal lives of truckers. They’re not so much passageways but eddies of time and direction in which toilets, showers, coffee, and pie appear like emissaries of settlement, transformed gifts from the “real world” that stand in for the very same things that exist at “home.” The story is placed in the collection to echo in a contemporary setting the kind of liminal moments experienced in the historical stories.
3. How did you know you were finished (especially weird with story collections)?
When my publisher took the manuscript away from me. This was my fourth book and I my experience with all of these books has been less a sense of completion than a sense of needing to move on, of having hauled the cargo as far as I could.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with your book?
I was gifted a vinyl record a few years ago when I was in the midst of researching the mining history that informs the collection. The record is called Come All Ye Miners and is a collection of songs performed by miners and mining families in Virginia. Part hillbilly
blues, part Appalachian bluegrass, part Americana folk that might have been from the Smithsonian Folkways archives. One song on the record—“Black Lung Blues” makes a brief appearance in the second story in the collection. Karen Dalton’s rendition of the
Blind Lemon Jefferson “Blues Jumped the Rabbit” has much the same feeling to it. Both Dalton and the miners have a sound that feels far too old to have been recorded at the very end of the 1960s.
It’s fitting for me that this is one of your standard questions as I often think of music as analogue to my writing projects. I’m currently finishing a book of poems that will be out in the spring and I’ve had two guiding records along the way, one contemporary and one classic: Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours and John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.
5. The book has two main threads: the stories about labour unrest in early twentieth-century BC, and those set closer to the present. Fear is a thick link between them. Can you talk about this?
To be honest, I’ve never thought too much about fear as a connective force in these stories. I’d be curious to hear more about that from your point of view. Certainly, there is an overwhelming feeling of portentousness in both the historical stories and the
contemporary ones, but I think part of the grace of the characters (in so far as I was able to describe it) is that they go one living and acting despite that sense of impending doom. To me this is the essence of deep resistance.
A critic of Anton Chekhov once said that for Chekhov the true hero was the hopeless man, who, despite his hopelessness, acts. I’d amend that a bit borrowing from a distinction that Cornel West makes between optimism as the belief that things will get better and hope as the belief that a more just world is possible: the true hero for me exists in full recognition of the portentousness surrounding our lives yet remains animated by hope. That animation is as much evidenced in simple human interactions as direct
6. Many of the present-day stories are first-person. Back to the title--who is the overall "I," do you think?
This is both a simple and a complicated question. To the complicated version: one thing that I usually spend time thinking about with my first-year students is what the self is and how we constitute our ideas of the self. This is important to both how we read and how we conceive of with whom our work communicates. Lately, I’ve been researching immunology, autoimmune disease, and the concept of the self versus the non-self that is axiomatic in almost all of Western cultural construction. We have a lot invested ethically, politically, and philosophically in these distinctions between the first, second, and third person identities.
To the simple version: the “I” is the voice speaking to you when you read.
7. You seem to trust your readers, letting us figure out for ourselves what's going on historically, switching voices within stories, and giving us what feels like very private information from some of your characters. Does this come easily?
I do trust my readers. I don’t feel like I have much of a choice. I tend to distrust experiences that have few ruptures, few intimations of mystery, few sutures of the contradictory. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the well-made work of art or the well-curated experience, because that would be ridiculous and disingenuous. But for me those works of art, those experiences, take their charge from their irreducibility, the impossibility of paraphrase, from the moments of wilderness in which I am invited to find my own way. The craft is in offering the opportunities for navigation._