By Dan Haney and Stef Spanfeller
Matthew Neill Null is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a winner of the O. Henry Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction. He has received writing fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the University of Iowa, the Jentel Foundation, and the Michener-Copernicus Society of America. His debut novel, Honey from the Lion, is forthcoming from Lookout Books in 2015. His story collection, Allegheny Front, which includes "Gauley Season," is forthcoming from Sarabande in 2016.
West Branch: Setting is central to your work. You're a writer of place, portraying your home state, West Virginia, in all its flawed beauty. Could you talk about the importance of place and heritage in your work?
Matthew Neill Null: My family has been there a long time — before it was a state, before this was a country — so I like to think that heritage has helped give my work an expansive sense of time, of change. We own a good piece of land there, which, combined with that passage of years, makes an indifferent landscape personal. So it is central. I live on Cape Cod right now — I've never felt a desire to write about it. Probably never will. Though I live here eight months out of the year, I have the sense that "real life" is happening elsewhere.
We're lucky to have a million acres of public land in West Virginia, so anyone can access the landscape. Most feel a deep connection to the land, which is a rare thing in a country where more and more are swarming to dense urban centers. Our way of life won't disappear, but it will become an oddity.
West Virginia is a place of deep ambiguity. It compels me to write. If I had lived in a softer place, maybe I wouldn't feel that compulsion. People there live close to the bone, and that's forever interesting. And I just like them. They're good talkers. Talk is their talent.
Then again, I've lived there enough that I harbor few sentimental feelings for the place. The state is what it is: a wreck. I don't get misty-eyed thinking of it. Sentimentality is the flaw of its people.
An awful lot of bad fiction (and nonfiction) has been written about West Virginia. Usually along the lines of, "Look how these evil business interests came in and took advantage of these poor, ignorant people." That's repellent to me, because it denies people agency, the most basic aspect of humanity. Contemporary American culture celebrates victimhood, and you're supposed to grovel and roll in it. Especially our literary culture. I reject that. In my work, I want to find a truer reflection of life. There are no innocents.
WB: "Gauley Season" (West Branch 73) is narrated by a communal entity. "Telemetry" (Ploughshares, Winter 2012-13) is written from the perspective of a woman, which is often considered risky for a male author. "Natural Resources," (Baltimore Review, Spring 2013) which tracks a population of bears, has no identifiable narrator or characters. Does your search for "a truer reflection of life" push you towards unconventional perspective and narrative choices?
MNN: That's an extremely perceptive question. The short answer is yes. The choice of a narrative mode is crucial. It's the first thing I must find. It's the ghost in the flesh. Otherwise the flesh will not quicken. But I ask you why these narrative choices are considered "unconventional"? Look at the omniscience of the great Russian novels or the King James Bible. Look at the opening of Madame Bovary. I'm writing in a long tradition. A better term would be "unfashionable."
The rise of Carver-esque minimalism in the '80s changed the course of American letters. It was a correction to certain excesses, but it gave rise to an over-correction. It's become de rigeur to narrate from the first-person point-of-view or a very tight third that hangs with a single character. If you walk into any MFA workshop in America, that's the mode the vast majority are writing in and that's what most teachers encourage. Okay. That's fine, if it suits the particular story you're trying to write, but I'm skeptical of fallback modes. Choosing the correct perspective is crucial. It can't be a knee-jerk decision or, worse, an unconscious approach. In prose fiction each sentence, each word, is a choice. That's daunting. So I can see why certain modes are encouraged over others. If the choices available to a young writer are cut down, it makes it easier to grapple with the material. Few variables. Easy math. But you risk bogging in a single style. What's worse, you might not even realize you're there. When I teach, I try to show my students that the short story is an expansive form. You may approach it from many roads.
I remember someone saying in all seriousness, "The elevator only goes so high anymore." Meaning, omniscience is anathema. That's a bit of intellectual laziness.
"Natural Resources" does have a narrator; otherwise, it wouldn't be a story. There is a consciousness behind it that culls, provokes, dampens, remembers. To me, omniscience is, ultimately, the most mature narrative approach. That story has no individual human characters and that's a decision I made in order to explore this issue of narrative and swim against contemporary form. It is pure language, pure voice, pure time. Also, why do we cherish the experience of human beings over animals? I wanted to access their mysteries directly, without a human interlocutor. In "Something You Can't Live Without," there's also an omniscient narrator — has to be, because the story goes on after the main character is killed off. Indeed, the story continues for decades, and into infinity. I want the freedom to access all parts of the world I create. Perhaps it's because I like to work with longer expanses of time, even those beyond the experience of a single human life. The choice of an omniscient narrator helps me do that. Though it's easier to botch a story. All your soft spots are exposed. You can get away with an awul lot in first-person.
That said, I recently published a story in Mississippi Review, "Destinations," which is narrated in the first-person, a departure. But you have to find the perspective that suits the story and respects the material. I tried the story from various perspectives with radically different structures and spans of time, but it was necessary labor. First-person proved best. A writer I know read it and said, "This is quite a good story," and I said, "I hope so, I worked on it for eight years." She wasn't so impressed after that! I should have told her I wrote it in a week, just shook it out of my sleeve. It's still not as good as it could be.
WB: You mentioned Carver. Your prose style is in many ways the antithesis of Carver's, which is famously spare and stripped of embellishment. Your style, on the other hand, is lyrical, expansive, and seems to revel in the physical pleasure of words. Here, for instance, is the first sentence of "Destinations": "Black smudge on boulders wind-scoured the color of bone." The texture — rhythm, alliteration, diction — is reminiscent of English poetry. Could you talk about your prose style, and the authors that have influenced it?
MNN: That is a rather Briggflatts line, now that you mention it. It's hard to speak of one's own style because in many ways it's subconscious. I suppose my language demands care, draws attention to itself as language. When I look back, many of the editors who chose to publish my work, like your own great G.C. Waldrep, are poets. They're willing to slow down, examine the sentences, always prepared to follow the writer into unmarked territory. Then there's the matter of my pacing.
Yes, I do like to explore the textures of English, because it's reminiscent of the textures of the physical world. There's much to find. It's been pointed out to me that, whereas the world is described in great detail, the characters' emotions are subsumed like an underground river, only to resurface at certain charged points. Maybe. Might just be Protestant reserve.
For the most part, my stories are first inspired by images rather than situations. I knit the paragraphs and situations about them. That said, I prefer thorny moral questions to drive the stories on. Our institutions — the churches, the press, the schools, the law courts — have failed us, and fiction is one of the last places in which you can make a nuanced, adult exploration of ethics and morality.
To me, fiction is artifice. Why pretend it's real? That said, I like language that teeters on the knife-edge of artifice and verisimilitude. It's funny, writers like Pynchon and David Foster Wallace have never appealed to me. They create these zany worlds that I can't quite give myself over to. I'm not convinced. (Though Barthelme and Abish are wonderful.) I'm guilty of wanting it both ways. I sense this quality in the writers I most admire.
Here are some I return to again and again: Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Eudora Welty, Bruce Chatwin, Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, Patrick White's Voss, and Tomasi de Lampedusa's The Leopard have all been important books. Cheever and Evan S. Connell, Don Delillo, James Salter and Isaac Babel, Henry de Montherlant and Muriel Spark. When I was an undergraduate I thought I'd be a traditional scholar and I read lots of Joyce and Yeats. Lately I'm reading Mavis Gallant. "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street" and "The Moslem Wife" are spectacular.
I didn't mean to dismiss Carver completely. (Though I'm suspicious of his popularity, because the work represents how certain people think poor whites "should be" — befuddled, blank, deracinated.) Those Gordon Lish-inspired writers are fascinating. The 'minimalist' stories have this great use of white space that creates a visual echo on the page. The rhythms — in the best stories — are incantatory. Barry Hannah's Airships is my favorite of the Lish books, which is interesting, because Hannah was a maximalist at heart and Lish helped rein his style just enough. When I read Airships, it reminds me to loosen up and have fun.
Some readers experience a visceral dislike of my work, almost to the point of hatred, which surprised me at first. It tends to elicit strong reactions for or against. I'm okay with that. Let's avoid the tepid middle at all costs.
WB: Your stories often invoke a duality between locals and outsiders; your narrators and characters often embody this complexity. In "Gauley Season" you write:
"Kelly moved between the two worlds, sleek as an otter. He knew us. He knew the rafters. Their names, their faces. He had everything you could want."
Similarly, "Destinations" (Mississippi Review, 41.3) centers around the relationship between the narrator, who left for college, and his step-brother, who knows "nothing of the world outside the county." How does this duality shape your work? Why is Kelly's duality "everything you could want?"
MNN. It's a simple problem. There's no money. Do you stay and struggle, or do you leave for a softer life? Many who leave feel a sense of guilt, as if they've given up too soon, and those who remain look askance at those who have done the leaving, who have rendered final judgment. A push and pull. There are degrees, of course. And you have affluent outsiders who come to see, who may buy land and entitlement and build houses, but have an easy derision for the locals, have a shallow understanding of the place. They are the first to nail up "Posted" signs. It's a shame we don't have a legal principle of allemansrätten as they do in Nordic countries.
A friend of my dad's used to say what a good idea the Eisenhower Interstate System was — people can blow on through without bothering the locals too much.
When I look back on many my age who remain or don't have the means to go, it's a dreary scene: the drugs, the government dole, the sclerotic political class, the occasional boom that's supposed to be the Gilead balm. Most talent leaves to find success elsewhere, but it would be a different place if they could or would remain. You go to college, you work hard, then come to find you've educated yourself out of the running. Time to go to Dallas or Phoenix or Charlotte or wherever people go to wear the white collar. Likely a growing city or its apron of suburbs. But people have always left. In the fifties, you went north to work for The Big Three.
Wetzel County is the center of the Marcellus Shale boom, but when you're on the road, the trucks have plates from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana. The gas outfits bring in their own people. Locals will get a few jobs, maybe some hotel money, but it's hind-tit. The money doesn't stay. You walk by the Western Union counter and the line's ten deep. And some dude from Baton Rouge doesn't care if he screws up the water-table — he'll be gone in two years and never set eyes on the place again. Yes, land-owners can get big lease money if they own their mineral rights and find a good lawyer, but it's like lottery money: it's not real, it takes one wayward child to piss it all away on toys and bail-bondsmen. That said, no sane landowner would say no to a lease — it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance in a lean, lean place. A morally ambiguous situation. Most of the criticism of the lease-signers comes from those ensconced in distant, comfortable places that suck up most of our power. The landowners are caught. You thought your parcel was worth so much, then a man knocks on your door offering Powerball money. And if you don't sign, they say, they'll get the gas under you anyway.
I was lucky enough to come from that place's small, upper-middle-class segment. The world that produced me is dying away and the country will be worse for it. It was local, rural, pre-internet, politically moderate, and personally austere, informed by a tolerant, mainline Protestantism that is being outflanked by the so-called Evangelical impulse. William Trevor spoke of feeling that he belongs to "a withering class," as a middle-class Protestant in gloomy, de Valera Ireland. It's hard for me not to feel the same. Can I pause for a moment to say that Trevor is the best living short story writer? He's uncanny.
But it's home and the only place I feel comfortable.
WB: We understand that you are working on a novel. Your short stories already feature many novelistic elements: large webs of family conflict, multigenerational timeframes, and plots that seem to strain against the boundary of the shorter form. Could you speak about the challenges of writing in the longer form? How is writing a novel different?
MNN: Maybe I'm a novelist masquerading as a short story writer? Anyway, they are very different forms — it's like fishing in a creek versus fishing the ocean. On a basic level, the equipment is the same but the goals and tactics are a world apart. You must respect the differences. Otherwise, you'll flail at the surf. Everyone's conscious that few writers do both of them well. James Salter comes to mind. In the best short stories, you create the illusion that the narrative arrives at a particular, inevitable point at story's end — if you succeed, the reader believes this. It is a particular effect that takes many forms. The novel does the opposite — it begins at a particular moment, then opens up.
There's commercial pressure on marrow-deep story writers to make novels, and when they try, they create short stories gussied up as novels, these narratives that plow the same narrow furrow for 300 pages. You hit page 80, you're reading happily along, then you realize that the novel's not going to open up into the full richness and scope that's the greatest thing about the form. I'll only speak of the dead because I hate to put down living writers, but you see this even in the greatest of story writers, like Flannery O'Connor or Cheever. Their novels aren't much. I have a lot of respect for the short story because it's so demanding. You have to keep the knife sharp. For each one I publish, there are eight or nine in the drawer. At the same time, I don't take its conventions too seriously, which may be why my stories seem to strain against the form.
Yes, my novel does span time and generations — about 1850-1933 — but I hope it's no baggy monster. For the most part, it concerns the clear-cutting of 10 million acres of virgin forest in the brutal span of ten years, the social and environmental shocks it created, and the way it continues to shape the place. Much of it hinges on a disastrous attempt to unionize the timber-workers. If I succeed, it will be both an elegy and a question.
Writing a novel has its particular challenges. You don't have to be as sharp, you have more room to digress, but you hit this wall about a third of the way in and think, "My God, what else can I have these people do?" But then you get over it, and find some way to compel them forward. Genre fiction is a response to — or a prevention of — this essential challenge.
WB: You mentioned earlier that "our institutions — the churches, the press, the schools, the law courts — have failed us, and fiction is one of the last places in which you can make a nuanced, adult exploration of ethics and morality." Is it this failure that compels you to write, or is it some other haunting?
MNN: Yes. That's one of the reasons. That and a mere interest in language.
To turn the question on its head a bit, I'd like to address one facet of my work. I'm asked why I write about the (sometimes distant) past. The subtext to that question is why do you write about a distant, irrelevant time? Because the past seems so in our big, busy world, obsessed as it is with the fleeting moment. But I would say that my stories are consciously about the past and the present; a story set in 1841 is also set on March 23, 2014, or whatever the date of its composition. These dates are, for me, the same continuum. The only difference is that writing about the far past makes it a bit easier for this writer to attain the sort of distance that is crucial to great fiction. But I've heard from a couple storied novelists that writing about the distant past is "cheating," that it allows an artificial distance, that it's an easy road, which surprises me. I wasn't aware that fiction-writing was a game that ought to be refereed. There is this odd American sense that fiction-writers should be seismograph social critics who are attuned to the zeitgeist. I've never felt that fiction-writers make particularly good journalists. Yes, you have the odd Uncle Tom's Cabin that captures the spirit of the age, but if you're too close to the zeitgeist you might panic when the moment seems to outrun your work. Ralph Ellison's unfinished second novel might be the most famous case — the assassinations, the riots. I once had a poet in all earnestness ask me why I wasn't working on my September 11th novel, as if you rip an event off the front page and craft a work around it. This is like a television host's idea of what an "important novel" is, or a New York publicist's. Most of our great works are about small moments. Moments that are overlooked as they occur.
I'm working on two separate pieces now — one is a complex novella that begins in 1786, the other is a novel that takes places in the late 1950s and into the early Lyndon Johnson era. But they are ways of looking at the present moment through a cracked lens. The glare of today is bright. Bright as a solar eclipse. At times it's necessary to gaze sidelong.