The Intelligent Optimist
An Introduction to the Interview
by M.M. Devoe, Fiction Reader
Matthew Sharpe is something rare: an intelligent optimist. His writing always leaks joy and hope--even in the bleakest moments, you feel that the sad, broken world (as he sees it) is NOT doomed and will somehow, against all odds, bounce right back. He has written two novels in addition to his latest, Jamestown , as well as a short story collection, Stories from the Tube , which contains one of my favorite stories of all time, "Dr. Mom." (Do yourself a favor and buy the collection, or just stand in a Borders and read any one story--you'll end up buying the collection, guaranteed, and you won't regret it.)
One of the coolest things about Matthew Sharpe, and the thing that makes him not only human, but one to emulate and admire, is that he's a sucker for the underdog--and maybe therein lurks part of his amazing success story: having been approached by a big publisher after the success of his second novel, The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull Press, 2003), he blithely said, "No thanks" and remained with the small press that had been so loyal to him when that novel (his third published work) had such a hard time finding a publisher.
I suppose it is my duty to run down his bio: he was born in the early 1960s in New York City. He graduated from Oberlin College and, after five years of 'real life,' went back for his MFA at Columbia University. He is the author of the well-received books Nothing Is Terrible and Stories from the Tube . He has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and New College of Florida, and is the writer in residence at Bronx Academy of Letters, a new writing-themed public high school. His stories and articles have appeared in Harper's, Zoetrope, BOMB, American Letters & Commentary, Southwest Review, and Teachers & Writers magazine. His new novel, Jamestown , is knocking people's socks off.
So what's the best thing about Matthew Sharpe? He's smart-smart-smart. And so are his books.
And yet, both he and his writing are accessible, filled with readably memorable lines like "You can't suck back farts." He is a master of in-your-face humanity: true, crude, and ultimately, damned funny.
The interview took place between Editor, Alexis E Santi and Matthew Sharpe in mid June.
First off, thank you for doing this interview with us, we know how busy you are with the new book, Jamestown.
I'm more non-busy than you might think.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
It's about the Jamestown settlement of 1607, the first viable English settlement in North America, the one the Disney movie Pocahontas is also about. Rather than setting my novel 400 years ago, however, I've set it in an indeterminate future, a generation or two after what various characters refer to as an annihilation. Resources like fuel, edible food, and potable water are scarce. The U.S. government has devolved into warring corporate city-states. The real Jamestown settlers arrived in the Chesapeake area of Virginia by ship from England, which was at war with Spain. Mine arrive by armored bus from Manhattan, which is at war with Brooklyn.
I was struck while reading Jamestown, that Pocahontas is a bit like a modern day teenager, full of attitude, and IMing her way into our subconscious. Can you tell us about how she bubbled up in your mind?
Of all the people in the Jamestown story, Pocahontas has probably been the most heavily mythologized down the years, that is, she has become the object of more wishes, hopes, fears, historical longings and laments than any of her Indian or English peers. I figured she'd have to be strong and feisty and subtle and wise to bear up under so many projected feelings and thoughts. And I wanted her to speak in a voice that would represent how much cultural ideation converges in her. Thus she does speak at times as an articulate MySpace denizen, but at others as an English major, as Cordelia from King Lear , as Emily Dickinson and Alfred Lord Tennyson, as Otis Redding and L'il Kim and Britney Spears.
Jamestown is not shy from using modern methods of communication to push the novel forward: IMing, emails, blogs - what do you believe this allows to push forward in the novel?
Novels are omnivores of all the ways speech and writing gets used in the world. If someone can say it or write it, it can be consumed and digested by a novel. IM's, emails, and blogs are the verbal trace of the way we live now, so I wanted them to be represented in my book, because in addition to being a book about our past, it is also a book about our present and, possibly, our future.
There are currently a number of movies that seem to metaphorically take the Bush Administration to task over the Iraq war. Children of Men comes to mind, 28 Weeks Later, 300. Jamestown, though cannot be summed up as simply a veiled attack on our sorry state of affairs--no--yet, there are currents of frustration I sense from your novel. Do you think we're a bit shy of saying what we really feel as artists these days?
If my goal had been simply to state my opinion about the Bush administration's egregious mistake of invading and occupying Iraq, I'd have written an op-ed rather than a novel. I want any novel I write to be a series of true and beautiful sentences about what it feels like to be human. In the case of Jamestown , that includes sentences that allude to what it feels like to be a human who is horrified by American foreign policy, but artmaking and political action are not the same thing.
The Sleeping Father was your break out novel, in part due to the publicity of Today Show Book Club, and it went on to become a sensation. First off can you tell us about the book, and second, can you tell us how that all went down, how your life changed?
It's about a divorced dad who inadvertently combines incompatible antidepressants, goes into a coma, emerges from it with brain damage, and is rehabilitated, sort of, by his two teenage kids. As for the Today Show Book Club, the excellent and kind-hearted writer Susan Isaacs picked my book on behalf of Katie Couric. I was on TV for five minutes. Those five minutes have made me less penurious and have brought me a melancholy-reducing amount of recognition in my chosen field of endeavor.
Should young writers "aspire" to be Oprah's book club authors?
Tell us about Soft Skull Press.
I found SoftSkull Press after having published two books with Random House, and then having my third book, The Sleeping Father, rejected by every single mainstream publisher. Soft Skull Press is an small independent publisher in Brooklyn, NY, run by a wonderful man called Richard Nash. They publish poetry, politically progressive nonfiction, and fiction that tends not to fit into the marketing plans of the major houses. Readers may find out more about Soft Skull at www.softskull.com.
How did your career develop? I understand you did your MFA at Columbia, tell us about those post MFA days, what you were doing, odd jobs, etc. . .
As Don DeLillo says, I don't have a career, I have a typewriter. I think it's worth saying that there were five years between when I graduated from college and went to Columbia. I don't recommend people go straight from undergrad to an MFA program. Try being an adult and writing on your own for a while. In my case that meant waking up really early in the morning, before I went to my art production job at Us magazine, and writing short stories. I continued working in magazine production after grad school but by then I was also a writer in residence at various New York City public schools. In 1998, when my first book was published, I began teaching at the college level too. That's what I do now.
Our Stories is committed to giving writers back something for everything they submit. We give advice to those whose work isn't ready and offer words of encouragement. I guess I'd like to know your thoughts on this submission process, and your own revision process.
Writing words of encouragement to every single writer who sends you work? That sounds very generous to me. Those kind-hearted rejection letters were important to me when I began sending out my work. As for revision: the first couple times I revise something I type every word over again rather than just moving the words around on the computer screen. I think this allows revision to be an act of composition rather than just editing.
What advice do you have for young writers?
If it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right.
In her introduction to this interview, M.M. called you an "intelligent optimist." What do you think she meant by that?
It's a nice thing of M.M. to have said. I daren't speak on her behalf but her remark reminds me of a phrase of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who spent years in prison for acting on his beliefs: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."
What's the latest word? What are you working on now?
I'm writing what I hope will be another book-length work of fiction. Thanks for the interview.
Thank you very much for your time Matthew. Anything else you'd like to add?
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown (Soft Skull, 2007), The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull, 2003, translated into nine languages) and Nothing Is Terrible (Villard, 2000) as well as the short-story collection Stories from the Tube (Villard, 1998). He teaches creative writing at Wesleyean University. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper's, Zoetrope, BOMB, McSweeney's, American Letters & Commentary, Southwest Review, and Teachers & Writers magazine. He lives in New York City.
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