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Interview: Matthew Roberson

Matthew Roberson's fiction appears in the May 2010 issue of the Collagist. He has published two novels—1998.6 and Impotent—with FC2. His short fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, mcsweeneys.net, and others.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “Do Not”? What was on your mind when you were writing this story?

I’d just finished a piece about a woman who seemed to have survived cancer, and my mind turned to what story I might have written if she hadn’t survived.  In the end, I didn’t pin down any specifics about the absent woman in “Do Not,” because I liked the idea that her character could be gone for any number of reasons; her absence was the more important part, not the why.

I think, also, the first story about the cancer survivor pointed me toward the feelings of caution and prohibition that come with trauma or tragedy, and they emerged as the primaries of the new piece.

It seems to me there’s a pretty essential difference between the command of this title versus the apparent neglect and/or refusal in the narration: All things this man didn’t do, say, think. Yet these are still painful didn’ts, still things he’s somehow barred from, and through these negations, his needs and wants are stunningly clear. Were you trying from the beginning to achieve something like that by writing strictly in the negative, or did this piece go through a life or two before getting here?

That’s a great, complicated question.  The truth of it is that I didn’t have the title until I got the piece finished.  The piece, while in process, was—as you suggest—about the main character’s more passive-aggressive impotence.  He’s barred from doing things in the positive, by circumstance, yes, but also by his own inability to move forward.  I think we can sympathize about why he can’t push himself forward, but he’s still, largely, the force holding himself back from the many things he wanted and still wants and might want in the future.  And, yes, I aimed at this impotence from the start.  I didn’t get to the imperative DO NOT, until the end, when I realized that underneath all of his passive-aggressive inaction is a more powerful, all-encompassing sense of prohibition, the character’s feeling that he MUST NOT, for whatever reasons (because he feels like his kids come first, because he’s got survivor’s guilt, and so on).

Of course, the biggest absence here is the one that does its best to avoid the man’s thought process. It creeps in, though: “He didn’t rush the kids to sleep. He didn’t say no when they wanted him to stay and sit. They didn’t ask much anymore about her. He didn’t forget to say she’d loved them.” We don’t get much; just enough to know this is not a void but a knife wound. It opens a trunkful of ‘ifs.’ How many of the answers to those ifs do you, as the author, have to know to write as spare a piece as this? And do you wish any of those things to become specifically apparent to us readers, or is the pleasure in letting us find something personal in the openness?

Here I did, originally, have many more specifics, and then I realized that, of course, they only ruined the story.  Not only do we, as readers, enjoy speculating about what’s happened, and what he’s feeling—it’s part of the pleasure of fully engaging the text—but being more specific interfered with my writing:  The whole point of the main character, I realized, is that he can’t come to terms with his situation, and his feelings.  If I were to pin them down, it would entirely undermine his condition, his character.  I got lucky realizing this, and it was a real pleasure cutting out all the extra bits that didn’t work.

You have authored two novels in addition to your short works. Does your writing process differ much when you’re working in longer forms? And could you tell, during the starting periods of your novels, that they were going to need much more space, or were they things that evolved into larger creatures as you dug into them?

Another great question.  My novels were atypical, in that they both started with clear forms.  The first book rewrites a brilliantly weird period novel by Ronald Sukenick, so I knew already what my book would look like; formally, at least, it would look a hell of a lot like his.  The second book took as its form the idea that every character’s story would emerge from the medications s/he takes (Paxil, Viagra, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and so on), and this constant threaded the book into coherence.  Once I had the larger forms, I could do anything I wanted, which often meant having lots of short pieces that made the whole, as well as some longer pieces, and footnotes, etc.  In other words, having the larger picture up front allowed me to do whatever felt worked within.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m halfway through a collection of stories about middles: middle class, middle age, the Midwest.  It’s been really enjoyable.  Lots of different stuff emerging, at least in content.  I’m doing less formal experimentation, though I guess “Do Not” suggests I’m doing some.  I plan to do more.  I want a story that literally starts and ends in the middle.  I have yet to figure out what that will involve.

What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you’re excited about?

I’ve got some awesome new colleagues here at Central, and they write the stuff I want to read.  Robert Fanning’s American Prophet, and Jeffrey Bean’s Diminished Fifth, and Darrin Doyle’s The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo.  More generally, I’d have to say I love just about everything that comes from FC2, and from presses like Starcherone and Chiasmus, and Dzanc.  Peter Markus.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next.  And Shelley Jackson.  I like Kate Bernheimer’s stuff a whole lot, too.

And, please, please, everyone buy a copy of Steve Tomasula’s digital text, TOC, which is perhaps the most brilliant “reading experience” ever.  It’s a genius piece of literary multimedia.

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