Saturday, December 10, 2011
Interview with Matt Rader
I read a really amazing piece in the most recent issue of The Malahat Review called "At The Lake", and decided I had to remember the author's name–Matt Rader.
When I interviewed author Michael V. Smith around that time, he mentioned touring recently with a poet from Vancouver Island with the same name.
Then I found another short story Rader wrote called "Toast" in a back-issue of PRISM international, which I really loved, so I decided to track this guy down and let him know how much I appreciate his work.
I found Rader's website and asked him if he would be willing to do an interview with me.
I'm always a little surprised how easy it is to track down Canadian writers, especially through Twitter these days. And writers are always eager to share their thoughts on writing, and on their work.
I was stoked to find out Rader likes a lot of the same writers I do, like Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver. But he also named some new authors I'll have to read, like Chekhov. (He seems to come up a lot lately...)
Rader was kind enough to answer some questions for me. He's got a lot of interesting insights into the writing process, and some really cool quotes from other writers. I've posted our interview below:
#1. I found your piece "At The Lake" in the most recent issue of The Malahat Review really disturbing, but strangely beautiful. Can you tell me a little about what you were trying to accomplish with it?
Terror and beauty are old lovers.
When I’m writing I don’t think about what the story will accomplish. I only really think about describing the characters as fully as I am capable of imagining them.
The characters in “At The Lake” don’t know what is happening between them or within themselves, they can’t name it, but they are aware that they don’t know and that they may never know. I tried to write from the same kind of awareness.
A colleague and distant acquaintance wrote me recently about this story saying that it was “an example of something true that is rarely, if ever, spoken of.” I think this is what I’m most proud of with this story: it feels true to me and rare.
Chekhov once wrote that he lacked “a political, religious, and philosophical world view.” It’s a passage that Carver quotes directly in his luminous story “Errand.” “I change it every month,” Chekhov wrote of his world view, “so I’ll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.”
#2. One of the things that impressed me about "On The Lake" was the direct language. The opening line "Billy held the girl's wrists against the black rock and Jonathan shuffled her underwear down her thighs" is terrifying because of its emotionless simplicity. It kind of reminds me of Cormac McCarthy. Can you speak to that style? Do you have a similar style in your poetry? And how do you think your poetry helps you create a voice and style with your fiction?
I’d been reading a lot of Hemingway stories at the time I wrote “At the Lake.” It’s a very short story and it all came out more or less exactly as it is in one sitting. I’m a bit of a magpie with style.
I wouldn’t describe the opening sentence as emotionless though. Or to put it in a positive statement, I think the opening line engenders considerable emotion but because the emotion is not prescribed by the authorial voice, it is a wild emotion native to each reader.
#3. I also read "Toast" in a recent issue of PRISM international. It seems you're drawn to the darker side of human nature (alcoholism, violence). Can you speak to that a little bit?
Yes, I am interested in the less-than-good, less-than-graceful moments of our lives. In a simple way, this is because such moments are moments of flux and change or the potential for change and change is the currency of all stories. There’s darkness in everything, though. I also write about joy and grace and beauty and I am equally attracted to the violence of those conditions.
#4. You're primarily a poet, but you're clearly comfortable in different genres. Can you tell me a little about what it's like to work in a number of different styles and genres?
I guess if one counts the number of poems I’ve published or written and the number of stories I’ve published or written, then yes, I am primarily a poet. But that doesn’t really seem like a fair or accurate way to go about making this assessment does it?
From a compositional level the most difficult thing is traversing the different expectations readers of fiction have from readers of poetry. It’s not so much that there are things poetry can do that fiction can’t do or the other way around, but rather that it is less reasonable for me to expect fiction readers to attend to the possible figurative quality of my punctuation, for example. Of course, there are those who would argue it is never reasonable to expect readers to attend to such things...
“All stories are about battles,” John Berger says. “Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.” He says that poems, “even when narrative, do not resemble stories.” For Berger, “poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefield.” Poems are more like prayer, he says, but without anyone or anything being prayed to. There’s only the language and its acknowledgement of experience. This is really, I think, an argument about time and the way a story occupies time and the way a poem occupies time.
I might make the case, as Berger implies when he mentions narrative poems, that story and poetry are not opposing kinds at all. And that the differences are really only a matter of expectations.
#5. Who are the writers you admire and emulate?
I’ve mentioned Hemingway and Berger, both of whom I admire hugely. Hemingway’s stories have been influential. Chekhov has been an enormous influence in the last few years. Perhaps the most influential contemporary writers have been Andre Dubus and Michael Longley. In Dubus I can feel the influence of Chekhov and Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. Just as it is impossible to read Carver and not feel Chekhov. So influences get mixed up. I love Tobias Wolff’s stories as well and I think if you lined up Wolff and Dubus and Carver you could make a strong case that they’re all writing stories in the style of Hemingway possessed by Chekhov, that they are each direct descendants.
But then there’s Faulkner who I cannot deny. John Cheever. Alice Munro. Likewise, I have been most influenced by Longley in my poetry the last few years but Heaney was a huge influence earlier and as well and Larkin and Yeats and Thomas Hardy and Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and Paul Muldoon and Larry Levis and Keats and Wordsworth and lately Homer and Virgil. Try to disentangle that web of influences. When you read Larkin how much are you reading Hardy? When you read Heaney how much are you reading Yeats? I emulate and admire them all. And of course, the list of writers I love and admire but do
not consciously emulate is much much longer.
#6. You did a tour with Michael V. Smith recently. Can you tell me about your relationship? Which book were you promoting at the time?
I was promoting A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno which was published by House of Anansi this past spring (2011). Michael and I have been friends for ten years. I met him the summer I really decided to give being a writer a shot. His first novel hadn’t yet been published but he was obviously already much more accomplished than I was. He came to a reading series I organized in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. My brothers and I took him out into the woods in the dark and smoked him up at the top of a huge maple tree.
He came to that reading with our mutual friend, Trish Kelly, and he came in place of Elizabeth Bachinsky. Now, I’ve just named three of the most influential people in my adult life. Anyway, a few years later, Michael and I worked together at UBC Robson Square where he’d started the Robson Reading Series with Treena Chambers (the best read person I know and another hugely influential person in my life). We became close and we’ve remained close. There’s no one I have more
#7. What genre is The Land Beyond? Can you tell me about it, and where I can find it? Do you have any more books on the way?
The Land Beyond is a fine press book of poems that greenboathouse put out the year before my first full-length collection, Miraculous Hours, came out. All but one of the poems appear in Miraculous Hours. The Land Beyond has been sold out basically since it was printed. Which has more to do with the exceptional bookmaking craftsmanship of Jason Dewinetz (greenboathouse designer) than anything else.
#8. Now that you've moved into teaching, is there any insight you can offer readers about the writing process? What advice do you have for aspiring writers early in their career?
Write what you want to write. Read what you want to read. Be ruthless in these pursuits. But be humble. Ask all of the most obvious and most basic questions about words and literature and people and life and the things around you. Take up apprenticeships with masters, living or dead, in person and in books, and submit yourself to the rigorousness of their craft.
Publish when you want and need to publish. Do not publish if you have hesitations. But do not be afraid. Follow your gut. Be serious and be generous. Be gracious. Don’t let the poem or the story come too fully into you until you are able to sit down and write it. Don’t sit down and write until the poem or the story is on the brink of filling you up. When you are reading your favourite author and you cannot go on because you are clouded with your own words put down the book and make your own. When you have doubt and when you do not now how to proceed give up your doubt to your characters and look to the words on your page for the way forward.