Interview with Matt Briggs
March 11, 2009
I met Matt Briggs about eight years ago and knew then that he was someone who would be a writer for a long time. Not a guy who dabbled, published a few things, and then politely faded into some other kind of responsible adult life, but a guy who was in it for the long haul, a guy with range and stamina and a serious devotion to literature. His first novel, The Remains of River Names, came out ten years ago. Since then he has published four other books, including the epic novel, Shoot the Buffalo, and the dynamic new story collection, The End is the Beginning.
Kevin Sampsell: I’m curious about your work with various small presses. Have you been happy with the presses you’ve worked with?
Matt Briggs: I have published books with Black Heron Press run by Jerome Gold, StringTown Press run by Polly Buckingham, and Clear Cut Press run by Rich Jensen. I enjoyed working with each of them. These are people who don’t have to run a press or publish writers like me, but they do because they like books, and I get the sense they can’t help themselves.
Starting a small press isn’t exactly the wisest business decision. I don’t know how these presses are doing financially, but it’s not as though they all run offices from office parks with editorial assistants reading the slush pile. They are labor-intensive projects that require their various proprietors to deal with everyone from aspiring authors who don’t know what they are getting themselves into, to jaded and overworked book distributors dealing with warehouses full of books.
And yet, these presses have managed to get a couple of my books published and distributed, and so I’m happy about that. The only thing I’m unhappy about is the lack of continuity between presses. I would like to have stayed with a single press, but each of these presses has its own business model, and its own way of releasing books. For one reason or another, only StringTown Press published more than one book by me.
MB: They were a subscription model, so had their upcoming season of books blocked out since 2005 or so. I liked being part of a bundle of books with the subscription thing, but would have liked the chance to continue working with them on different books.
MB: It looks like reprints might be moot at some point in the future. A book is easily discoverable used online. It would be nice to republish Shoot the Buffalo in a slightly different format. My first book, The Remains of River Names, published by Black Heron Press, has also never been released in paper. It came out nearly ten years ago, which is a weird kind of thing when I think about it.
I looked into getting the books reprinted. There is a press in Portland that has a great reprint series, but they said they are rethinking the series altogether because they find that bookstores just aren’t into selling reprinted books. And the series hasn’t done well enough for them to keep it going. The only places that seem to do reprints in a general way of fiction are Bison Books, who reprinted Brian Evenson’s great book Altmann’s Tongue, or Dalkey Archives, who reprint contemporary experimental fiction. I don’t think there’s any illusion that they are going to be making money on reprinting contemporary experimental fiction. Dalkey reprinted The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus.
For a book like Shoot the Buffalo or The Remains of River Names, I don’t know. I’m not an “experimental writer” really or a mainstream or literary fiction guy. I have no idea where my work fits into these various interest groups, which I guess is a problem.
In fact, there have been a number of books that have come and gone that I feel an affinity with, but they are now out of print. For instance, After Nirvana by Lee Williams and Well by Matthew McIntosh are two books about the Pacific Northwest that are really great, but have just kind of slid away. So if someone is cracked enough to start a small press focusing on contemporary Pacific Northwest fiction, there is a line up to start with: After Nirvana and Well. It could be a book club or something.
MB: Most of my writing comes from something I experienced, I guess. It can be difficult to pin down though because sometimes, particularly with short stories, these things come around from free writing or just horsing around. I start to write something, and then I realize it is a thing. My last two books, The Moss Gatherers and The End is the Beginning both have a lot of stories where I wanted to write down not something that had really happened to me, but some of the stories that were in the back of my mind. For instance, I wrote a story when I was thinking about how similar all of the “The End of the World,” stories are. There is a certain sequence that is expected. You find it in stories such as The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. And when that sequence is tinkered with, it can feel really weird, as it is in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It goes Stage 1: Warning, Stage 2: Remission, Stage 3: Spread, Stage 4: Collapse, Stage 5: Rebirth. So The Road by Cormac McCarthy doesn’t really need to tell us all of the stuff that Stephen King spends hundreds of pages writing down in The Stand. We know the story already. I think there are a lot of stories like this and I tried to write a few down since they were rattling around. I try, for example, to re-lift The Life of Pi’s story since Yann Martel had lifted it from someone else. I have a half dozen stories about a boy and a wild cat in a lifeboat. And I even made a blog about it.
MB: I wish the article itself had elicited more conversation (of course, since I wrote it), but in Seattle it is a bad idea, I guess, to say things about a professor at the University of Washington, so no one really said anything. I did run into David Shields a year or so ago, and he wouldn’t talk to me. I tried to sit next to him, but he moved across the room, which made me feel like a dweeb, which I guess, is the intent.
In any case, after the whole James Frey-Oprah thing, the Bush Administration, and the current fictional/real Great Recession, I feel that the difference between fact and fiction is an important one to be made instead of blurred or brushed over. Sure, I don’t think it is cut and dry, but a verifiable observation is different from a poetic observation. Any post-modernist worth their Avant Garde club membership card should be very worried that their ideas could have so effectively become Karl Rove’s playbook.
MB: I wrote that story in response to a myth among experimental writers that one of their roles is to “make it new.” This is also the role of the marketer, to make the old new and unique again. It is the role of the fashion industry. Why is this a goal? What purpose does making it new again accomplish?
I am sympathetic to George Orwell’s observations in “The Politics of the English Language,” and people like Noam Chomsky, but they are interested in exposing the way that organizations use language to conceal, corrupt, and distort verifiable observation. The current term for a country raping and murdering people is “ethnic cleansing” which made new the term “genocide.” Making it new is just a weird goal in and of itself.
Taken to the logical extreme, is it even possible that every possible combination of English could ever be exhausted?
Last year I was working as a social media analyst. One of the things I had to do was determine the content of millions of words that bloggers had written about a particular subject that might be of interest to some corporation. I looked at all of the things that people were writing about commercial juice online over a three-month period. Although they are all discussing the same thing hardly any of those bloggers discuss juice in exactly the same way.
I think any sentence written by a human being is generally a new sentence. I don’t think stale language has a long shelf life anyway because it doesn’t taste very good.
MB: I think of myself as a regional writer. This used to be a very specific and meaningful thing for me. I felt as if I wrote out of a tradition of other writers who wrote about the people and place of the Pacific Northwest. Writers such as Raymond Carver, Richard Hugo, Ken Kesey, Mary McCarthy, Tom Robbins, and Marilynne Robinson meant more to me in terms of how they wrote about it, and what they wrote about than writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in the South or Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser from the Midwest. I still feel this way, but I feel that the boundary of region is partly invented and can easily include writers who are not really associated with a region. For instance, I think Dra-- by Stacey Levine—which has no recognizable connection to Seattle aside from the fact that is where Stacey Levine lives—is also one of the best novels about Seattle. Some of the regional writers from other places that I really like are William Gay from Tennessee, Richard Lange from Los Angeles, and Donald Ray Pollock from Ohio.
MB: I’m finishing revising a novel called The Strong Man that will be published this fall. It’s about a suburban weight lifter in the Army Reserves whose unit is activated for the first Persian Gulf War. Although his father is a hippie, his grandfather served in WWII in Guam. The narrator, Ben Wallace, idolizes his grandfather. Wallace wants to experience an actual battlefield. There are a couple of problems. Wallace is in the reserves and works as a laboratory technician in a General Hospital. He’s likely not going to see anything.
I also served as a reservist in the first Gulf War, but I never saw Iraq. I was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the time of my activation, most of the command in the military had served in Vietnam. There was a mantra the whole time I served, “This will not be a Vietnam,” and the war didn’t resemble, I think, Vietnam at all. For the most part, the military was sequestered from civilian populations. There were clear margins for military engagement and a clear beginning, middle, and end to the war. The Army was protected and sealed behind layers of technology and effective logistics. And so it did not resemble the current war in Iraq at all. This book is about a soldier who is at the furthest remove trying to find the war in the middle of the war.
MB: I like going to readings to hear writers. It’s usually somewhat surprising to match up a person and whatever work you’ve read of theirs. They hardly ever seem to be the same person. Ben Marcus, when I saw him a long time ago at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, was much more concerned and careful about how he did this reading than I would’ve thought from his work. I guess I would think he would just read his stories and take questions and get on with it. But, instead he presented himself in the third person and was open about his own trepidation about how to actually do a reading.
One of the best readings I ever had was at a thing called the Stein-a-thon organized by Rebecca Brown and Nico Vassilakis. It featured a twenty-four hour festival of Gertrude Stein’s work. A lot of her works seems like a bizarre joke or pretension depending on how it has been published. Most people know The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Tender Buttons, and Three Lives, but that is just the stuff that floats easily. I know those were the only ones I knew about. In this case, a ton of writers and performers found things they liked by her and took the time to present them, and it was really interesting to begin to get a sense of how huge Gertrude Stein actually is. I heard things I never would have read in that way, parts of the Geographical History of America; Paris, France; as well as some of her plays. There was a children’s hour where some old-time musicians had turned Stein poems into country songs. Judith Roche read Lifting Belly. And all I had to do was listen.