Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He was recently selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” writers to watch. His story “Sexton” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I wrote this story over the course of about two years. It began as thirty-five pages of single-spaced sentences where I hit the enter key after each sentence as a kind of built in line break. It began with a long section about what the world was like when this character was born, things like, Chevy outsold Ford that year, Wal-Mart was in its infancy, the war in Vietnam was ending.
I was reading my Chekhov this summer when I happened across “Gusev” for the first time in a few years and was taken again by the ending. I liked that character in the water. Then I realized the best thing someone could receive after an education-by-fire would be a rebirth.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned that it takes work. It takes time. It takes consistency. If someone would have told me that I’d still be working on my second novel at this point, after a relatively painful process with my first novel, The Farther Shore, I would have thought they were crazy. It takes time and work. Don’t let your heart go adrift.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I really like Pleiades (where I just happen to be a fiction editor), Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly (when they publish fiction), Mid-American Review, Tin House, Zoetrope, A Public Space, and on and on. And The New Yorker (usually when they go outside the comfort zone).
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
Hmmm. Wow. The question seems to trump any answer I could give at this time. I actually try most days not to think of the writing process. I just hope I make it to a desk before I go crazy.
I like to think of an opening paragraph or a sequence of ideas and then let the characters introduce themselves.
I try to listen throughout the day as well.
These days I like this principle as outlined by Frankl: “When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.”
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Give yourself permission to write.
Write 2-4 hours a day or from 500-1000 words.
Then get out of your head and your ego. Do something for someone else if you possibly can.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I used to meet James Crumley at Charlie B’s in Missoula, Montana most afternoons when I lived there and we would talk about writing and life. Of course we drank more than we should have, but he had great advice about writing and life; and some notably bad advice about writing and life; but he was as big as a bear and one of the kindest souls I ever met.
I recently worked with a group of women in New York City as part of the Wounded Warriors Project. They were all primary care givers to husbands wounded in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was there to help them try and generate writing. They reminded me of a Philo of Alexandria quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Those women were brave and courageous in ways I couldn’t even grasp. They made me feel like a coward in my own life in comparison to the choices that they’ve had to make and are constantly surrounded by. They taught me that if you only have 15 minutes to write today, take it and be grateful.
Every professor I had at the University of Montana was wonderful. Every professor I had at Wichita State was wonderful as well.
I tend to look for people these days who don’t want to give me advice.
My advice, keep at it. Give yourself permission and keep at it.
That, and know that I love you.