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An Interview with Matthew Burnside
by Patrick Font
by Matthew Burnside
Kernpunkt Press ($14.99)
Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, and Pear Noir! among others. He is the author of several chapbooks and numerous digital works. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives online here.
Matthew Burnside’s upcoming Postludes is filled with moments where characters face walls of grief, yet keep reading and you’ll find flashes of hilarity—one of my favorite sentences in the book is “We weren’t players on the stage of life and Shakespeare’s an asshole for saying that.”
If you’re looking for a book with energy on the page, look no further—his writing is explosive, kaleidoscopic, existing in its own dimension. On the surface, Postludes is organized as a collection of stories linked thematically by exploring the idea of what occurs after one experiences loss, and its language sporadically bends into surreal, poetic realms that propel you on adventures you’re unlikely to anticipate. The book is short, a mere one hundred and thirty pages, with page-long, experimental stories that flicker—god, I hate the word experimental—followed by longer, narrative driven stories. Hollow comparisons made by literary critics and readers alike often do nothing for me, and I am hesitant to compare anyone to Burnside as he embarks on a trajectory all his own, but I admit I was vaguely reminded of Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String while reading Postludes. Similar to Marcus, Burnside has chiseled each sentence into a memorable moment that pops even with the smallest of stories in this collection. The characters he has created yearn to connect with others, and, as a reader, the narrator’s yearning felt genuine, empathetic, never without purpose. At times the narrator finds himself in parts of Texas—sometimes rural, sometimes suburban—yet the lack of geographical description in many of the stories suggests the narrator unable to pinpoint himself within the context of reality.
Nowhere on the cover will you find the words “a collection” or “a novel” stamped below the title, and, really, does that even matter? Let’s just say it’s a book, a book maybe not for every reader out there, but a book that fulfilled my desire to read something out of the ordinary. I’m pleased to have been given the opportunity to interview Matthew Burnside, and, although I’m not one to make a sales pitch, the only other thing you need to know is that you can pre-order it here.
PF: I noticed some of the stories take place in parts of Texas, and you even mentioned Dr. Pepper in one of them—that’s how you know someone’s from Texas. Do you have any favorite authors from Texas?
MB: I learned a lot from Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories. I’m also a big fan of Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove. I actually just watched the miniseries adaptation a few weeks ago and it still holds up surprisingly well. You can’t go wrong with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones barking sass back and forth at each other. Duvall’s Gus McCrae, especially, is such a lively and spirited character. You really feel his loss when Tommy Lee Jones’ character takes over, the tone changes completely. It’s funny how much energy a good character can swing into your fictional world, and how much they hold sway over the tonal weather.
PF: Any particular reason you decided not to call this book a collection of stories or a novel? Typically, publishers stamp “a novel” or “a collection” on the cover. The way I see it, categorization can often be a silly thing, but do you find this book difficult to categorize?
MB: It is a collection of something. I’m not sure what exactly. I’m fine with that vagueness, that looseness of categorization. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have been. I used to worry myself with what to call the things I wrote. I fixated on genre. When I was about to apply for MFA programs, I almost went with poetry but ultimately decided on fiction because it proved more challenging to me. But at the time, it felt like a LIFE-ALTERING DECISION, as if I were deciding what I would be stuck writing the rest of my life, in the way some college students think choosing a major will restrict them to one career for eternity. Now that I’m older, I don’t think it matters much from the perspective of creating what label ultimately gets slapped on a thing in the end. I think it only really matters to the people in charge of selling the stuff. If anything, I think it can be creatively limiting to worry so much about what to call something. Just let the thing be the thing, you know? Sometimes an in-between, formal Frankenstein or manic fluid concoction is the only way to do a feeling, thought, or theme the nuanced justice it deserves.
PF: Character names are often represented by a letter—such as M, S, L, etc. The narrator’s hesitance to mention these characters by their full name seems to be a coping mechanism for the loss and pain he faces—or at least that’s my inference—but I’m interested in hearing from you on your choice to use letters and what effect they have on the narrator.
MB: That’s certainly a part of it (the coping mechanism thing). If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is a book about the author wrestling with the grief of his wife, you know he does a similar thing. He can only refer to her as a letter, because saying her name would be too much. It would somehow make her real again, not just the idea of her. Bring her memory flooding back, like so many moths swarming a lone bulb in a kingdom of darkness, or ringing some beautiful and terrible bell. There’s tremendous power in uttering a name or writing it down.
The other part of it is that I find a lot of the traditional trappings of narrative (like plot, setting, even character description) don’t interest me. Obviously some pieces are more traditional than others, but a lot of the time I find getting caught up with names is a waste of time when what I’m more interested in is capturing a feeling via the architecture of language.
So, yeah, it’s a little of both.
PF: I sense that the narrator is the same character in most of the stories, but there is a layer of ambiguity which makes me wonder whether or not that’s true. For instance, the narrator’s voice in “Cosmonauts/Nots/Knots,” “Revival,” and “Passengers”—by the way, I just love the story “Passengers”—all sound alike, but in other stories it’s difficult to tell. Is this ambiguity something you were going for when writing these stories?
MB: I think I know as the author which voice belongs to each piece, but even I’m not certain. Ambiguity can be effective if there’s a strong enough emotional or thematic logic to warrant it, but it can also be equally frustrating to readers who have to know how all the pieces connect. If all the voices swirling around in Postludes are puzzle pieces, then they’re puzzle pieces intentionally shaped to link up with more than one other piece, because the ifness of life is an important theme of the book, perhaps the most important of all, right up there with the necessity of empathy as a tool for our collective survival. But even if some of the same characters make more than one appearance, they’re still totally different characters because we’re all totally different people from one moment to the next. For instance, if “Passengers” sounds like it was written by a very young, nihilistic author with a very limited concept of how to write a story, that’s because it was. It was the first story I ever wrote, and it has the raw edges to show it. If “Oblivion’s Fugue” sounds like it was written by an older, slightly more mature but definitely more humanistic writer, that’s because it was, and it stands – I hope – as a weighty, more expansive and communal counterpoint to Passenger’s quite narrow ego and somewhat selfish conception of suffering.
PF: In the “Sunken Dreamers’ Almanac,” the prose becomes poetic: “Making art of his scars he swirls scab frescos. Full crash expressionist, dangerous as life without a helmet. All year he is curb-splendor, collision-crafting, bone-grafting: jilted juggernaut in jackknife leather jacket armor.” Is genre bending something you’re interested in as a writer and reader? Do you also write poetry?
MB: Yes and yes. I think as human beings, if we could ever just learn to be OK with uncertainty, irresolution, the discomfort of “abnormal” half-formed things, we’d be much happier. As is it, though, our attempt to make perfect sense of everything dooms us to a lifetime of always approaching satisfaction but never quite attaining it.
Poetry is one of my favorite things. The science of expressing the inexpressible through music: what could be more necessary?
PF: I came across so many striking metaphors, such as “…a crushed hat with a feather gliding out of the top that would catch the kitchen light and shiver silvery, like a fish leaping out of water tickled by the sun.” I have a feeling much of this language came natural to you, but, based on personal experience, hours of revision are necessary for even the smallest paragraphs. Can you talk about your revision process, especially once you began arranging the stories in this book?
MB: I’m the slowest writer in the world. Really. I spent most of my time in my MFA in an empty basement, sitting on the floor writing a single sentence over and over. And on my manuscripts, I spent an awful lot of time reading “This is grammatically incorrect – change this” and ignoring it because I liked the way a sentence sounded, musically, or it sounded the way I thought a character might feel, if that makes any sense.
You’ve read the book so you already know I write mostly in fragments. So, even though the book took me years to write it’s still a really short book, relative to other books. And most of the sentences aren’t even complex sentences. As a rule, the shorter the thing the longer it’ll take me to write, because I want everything boiled down to pure feeling—the grisly concentrate sapped straight and clean from the heart root.
Technically speaking, though, the revision (and ordering) process amounts to a never-ending game of Tetris in which every conceivable position is exhausted until one feels more true than all the others.
PF: OK—I have to ask this question—why do you thank Steve Buscemi at the end of the book?
MB: My infatuation with The Buscemi may have begun as ironical love, but over the years it has bloomed full force into a sincere admiration. He’s a quiet artist, a man who does his job at the peak of his craft. He doesn’t bother with the trappings of Hollywood all that much. He has no use for hipness. He is the epitome of integrity. He once told someone he wouldn’t fix his teeth to be an actor, because acting isn’t about teeth, it’s about acting. After 9/11 he reported as a volunteer firefighter and did his duty. There are no photographs or interviews about this because he declined them. He is the kind of artist I’d like to be one day, but I’m not nearly there yet. If I ever confirm he’s read my book, I’ll probably retire immediately and ascend to heaven, where I will meet him because in my heaven all the angels have the face of Steve Buscemi.