This is part 4 of a 5 part interview with 84 year old Ohio author Jack Matthews. See also: Part 1 ,Part 2 , Part 3. Also: Jack Matthews (an introduction), Jack Matthews: The Art and Sport of Book Collecting and On Choosing the Right Name for a story character by Jack Matthews.
I just finished HANGER STOUT, AWAKE (which you published in 1967, to some acclaim). This simple naive voice plus the subject matter (cars, girls, and an unusual contest) makes me wonder if the ideal reader should be an 8th grade boy. Did you write this with the intention of attracting a younger audience?
In a way, an 8th grader could respond to it. Years ago I bought the plates from Harcourt and paid to have 3000 copies printed, which I sold out easily. Most of them sold to colleges and high schools, and I remember doing a phone interview with students at a high school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In another sense, however, I think someone like Hanger (i.e., any young person) would be far less privileged in understanding the novel. The distance of age is required to understand much of his innocence and brave integrity (cf. McLuhan’s "I don’t know who discovered the ocean, but I know it wasn’t a fish.’) It’s all a matter of perspective.
I regard Hanger as more character-driven than plot-driven. But as I read, I had no idea what details were important or what was going to happen next! You finished Hanger at an interesting place — with many things left unresolved. Were you tempted to ratchet up the melodrama or continue the novel past where it ends?
Good. I toyed with the idea of doing a sequel, but decided against it. In my privately printed edition, published a decade or so after the novel came out, I wrote that I didn’t know what Hanger was then doing or how he was getting along, but I figured he’d be all right. In short, he is a survivor, to use the fashionable term.
Hanger revolves around a strange idea for a spectator sport — seeing how long a person could hang by his hands. Where did you get the idea for this imaginary sport? From real life? Also, wouldn’t this kind of sport be very dangerous? (It seems to cause hallucinations).
I like the idea of hanging as simple dumb, though intelligent, endurance. "Hang in there" — which I seem to remember someone saying tomb somewhere in the novel.
Can you talk about the titles for your story collections and how they relate to the stories inside them?
This could be a long essay. A title should function significally (a thing representing a thing) and symbolically (a thing representing a non-thing — an abstraction, or feeling, something that can’t be experienced directly through the senses). It’s a moment of truth when it’s a statement a writer has to make about what s/he has written. Insofar as a title both exemplifies and resists the book it labels it is interestingly ambiguous, ironic and oblique.
TALES OF THE OHIO LAND (1978) uses legends and historical facts as a springboard for short stories. What was your goal for these stories?
I love legends and love rural, small-town Ohio. I like Frost’s statement that he likes a man who savors of the land he comes from.
The Ohio stories seem more like folklore and geared towards a general audience. In "Lucinda Hill is Born Again", the Johnny Appleseed character even has a wonderful cameo as a sage. Do you regard Johnny Appleseed as vital to that particular story, or was it just a delicious bit of historical frosting?
I find Johnny Appleseed very interesting, as all legends are by definition. I have an early 19th century book inscribed by Nathaniel Chapman, his brother who crossed the Alleghenies into Ohio with Johnny. The two were Swedenborgians, and I used to teach at Urbana College, in Ohio, a Swedenborgian school.
One of my favorite Matthews stories, "Poison" is about a supermarket manager who has to mediate a conflict between his workers. The story has lovely touches (lyricism, great dialogue and characters). But it would also be a great story to use for a business management class. When you are playing around with a story idea, do you spend a lot of time imagining what kind of reader might want to read a particular story (and why this person would want to read it)?
No, I don’t think about the reader; I think about my characters and the theme and the adventure that emerge literally under my hands. I dedicate READING MATTER, my most recent book about books, to "my imagined readers, most of whom are dead." Sadly true — which is one reason I so very much appreciate your interest.
Last night I finished "Betrayal of the Fives", a whimsical short story about a man who is admitted to a secret society with an unknown purpose and membership. Perhaps it is not a typical Matthews story, but it is definitely one of the funniest. Where do you get your sense of humor?
Humor is intrinsic to language itself, for every word denotes a type, no two tokens of which are alike. So when we hear of a librarian, we get something of an image in our minds, & then find out that he’s a biker with a beard, tattoos on his forearms & a missing ear . . . well, the disparity between image & reality is the essence of irony, and it is possessed of the energy of humor.
(Later Matthews attached a poem from his verse book, SCHOPENHAUER AGONISTES, saying that it "articulates my theory far better than my original answer).
Schopenhauer’s Reflections Upon Humor
In effect, he argued that every word denotes a class, But the members of that class are all unique, tellingly different from one another--no two beetles are alike, no shoes or sneezes--and when we speak of justice, liberty, love or similar abstractions, who can clearly understand what then is meant? "Liberty" can signify mere selfishness and greed, And yet, the word remains the same, indifferent To the use it's been corrupted to promote. And the word "love" will never literally apply To more than one such passion that enflames The loins and lays the heart to siege. It's in this theory that one begins to sense The principle which signifies that there is irony Inherent simply in the way words work, For nothing ever named can fit the name, And in the soberest speech there is some quirk Of comical discrepancy. That irony is intrinsic To the very language that defines our world Is a proud discovery. And so it is that ever after, In every word we speak, the intellect hears laughter.
Can you talk about your most recent projects?
My most recent story collection "Abruptions" is still seeking a publisher. (I’ve sent out queries a few times, but without success; and now I’m not even sure whom I’ve approached. I’m not good at marketing my work.) While the word “abruptions” is an archaism, I define the word for my purposes here as “very short stories that end abruptly”; and I suggest that they can be thought of as constituting something of a new sub-genre, with the limitations and genius that all genres possess by simply being what they are. Although these stories are widely miscellaneous, there are a few secret nuances I’ve programmed into the score: in addition to certain recurring themes and motifs, I’ve chosen 88 stories, to correspond to the number of keys on the piano, taking whimsical pleasure in its reflecting the kinship of music and literature as temporal arts, and more substantively, designing the “book-end” character of the collection, with the first and last stories sharing the ancient theme of something in the way of revelation falling from the sky, pretty much like story ideas. To be sure, these nuances may seem a bit recherché, but readers can, of course, find nourishment in the stories as stories without an awareness of the food chemistry. My most recent published book is SCHOPENHAUEROVA VULE, a Czech language translation of SCHOPENHAUER’S WILL, brought out by H&H Publishers in Prague. This is something of an anomaly because it has yet to be published in English (one editor rejected it, saying it was "too experimental and too cerebral" — the latter reason a rather odd one, perhaps, for rejecting a novel about a philosopher; but that’s what she said, and I have no reason to doubt her good will). Perhaps a more cogent reason, however, is the fact that the book is somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in). I’ve been told that my next novel, THE GAMBLER’S NEPHEW, will be published by The Etruscan Press in 2011.
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