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"They Go For a Walk": An Interview with Matt Dojny

Matt Dojny’s debut novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights, was published by Dzanc Books in June 2012 and is now available in paperback. Dojny’s work has recently appeared in Electric LiteratureA Public SpaceThe CollagistBetter Magazine, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Visit him at mattdojny.com, or at hiphopisthefuture.com, where he (sometimes) posts a drawing a day.

His story, "Introduction of Tongue," appeared in Issue of Sixty-One The Collagist.

Here he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about demon-cats, spoilers, and Raymonds.

What first inspired you to write “Introduction of Tongue”?

Well, it was a while ago, I—it’s hard to say how a story, you know, gestates. […] I guess it was somewhat inspired by, do you know that scene in Anna Karenina ... there’s some guy, some kind of shy scholar type, and there’s this girl he likes. They go for a walk—I think they’re mushroom hunting, or truffles?—I read the book so long ago, this is literally the only part I remember of it. Apart from when she throws herself onto the train tracks—spoiler alert. Anyways, so, this shy guy goes for a walk with this girl, and they both clearly like each other, and it becomes obvious that he’s going to propose to her. And she’s into it. And it’s building up, building up, and then—he just can’t bring himself to say the words. The moment passes, and they both relax, and start speaking of normal boring things, knowing now it’s never going to happen, that was the one chance. I’m not describing it well, but it’s a great little scene, and always stuck with me. I think that moment of, um, inarticulateness, or muteness, was the germ of “Tongue.” I guess the story is about being afraid to speak, or ... not having anything to say.

I’m interested in the language of this story. It’s at times formal and old-fashioned; I think this is the first story I’ve read that uses the word “milquetoast” (a word that I love, by the way). How characteristic is this story of your writing style? 

Basically totally uncharacteristic. One of the things that I enjoy about writing short stories is that, for me, they’re a place to mess around, experiment, do weird stuff. My novel—The Festival of Earthly Delights, if I can plug myself—was much more traditional. Or, at least, its weirdness resided more in its content, not in its style or approach. With the stories I’ve been writing, each one is a, I guess an opportunity to flex a new muscle. With “Tongue,” I started writing it in a standard contemporary style, it was about a woman who had a crush on some mysterious quiet coworker—oh, actually, if I can go back to your first question, now I remember the other inspiration for this story. The real inspiration. One day I was sitting on a bench at a playground with my wife, and she was talking to me about something, I was kind of zoning out a bit. And when she was done speaking, she was waiting for me to respond, and I had this very distinct sensation of not only having nothing whatsoever to say, but of being actually physically unable to speak. And as she was looking at me, waiting for me to say something, I had a sort of vision: the clear sky filled with dark clouds, and there was this skinny black cat perched on my shoulder, a sort of demon-cat, and—as I’m saying this, I realize this sounds ridiculous. But the cat was holding my squirming tongue in its mouth. Like a little writhing fish. And I opened my mouth to speak, and there was just a dark gaping hole where my tongue should be. I mean, this was all in my imagination, just a quick split-second fantasy that my brain coughed up. So, in the original version of the story, it was about this woman who liked this cute quiet guy in her office, and they go on a date one afternoon, and the story ends with her trying to get him to talk and then the sky goes dark and the cat appears on his shoulder holding his tongue, et cetera. But the story wasn’t really working, the cat-got-your-tongue thing was too on-the-nose, and my contemporary-young-woman voice was lame, with, you know, a lot of up-speak and that kind of thing. […] I’m not sure what made me—I think, I was reading Portrait of a Lady, that was it—a book I never quite finished reading—and that seemed like it might be a fun kind of style to do the story in. I enjoy that kind of stuff, Henry James, Jane Austen. I think I have a strong affinity for primness, and, like... milquetoast-ness... it just feels natural to channel that voice. […] In terms of the language—I usually don’t use the Thesaurus, I know it’s frowned upon, but with this story I did cheat and use it to try to find fun old-timey ways of saying things. I kind of love my Thesaurus. It’s shameful, I know.

This story’s speaker gives us frequent warnings that her story ends badly (spoiler alert!). For example she says, “I wish I could say that what followed was merely a delirious nightmare: but, if that were truly the case, then it is a nightmare I have yet to awake from.” Why did these warnings, or foreshadowings, feel important for this story?

That’s a good question. And I’m afraid I might not have an answer. I don’t know if it was—I think, a few years ago, I read some scientific study ... I’m sorry, I have a terrible brain in terms of retaining information. The gist of it was, is that they did this study where they had people read a Chekhov story and then rate how much they liked it... and then they had a second group of people read the same story, but before the second group read the book, they were told how it ended. Now, the natural assumption was that the group that knew the ending would enjoy the story less, but it turned out that it actually heightened the reader’s enjoyment. I forget the scientific reasoning, but ... I just thought that was so interesting, because my instinct is to always withhold information from the reader, you know, keep them in the dark. It made me think that maybe it’s better to give them some spoilers, to whet their appetite. I don’t honestly remember if I was consciously trying to do that when writing this particular story—but, let’s just say that I was.

I read that in addition to being a writer, you are an illustrator. Can you speak to the relationship between writing and your other artistic ventures?

I’m not sure if there is a relationship, necessarily. I made art for many years, trying to show in galleries, all of that, but I got pretty sick of that whole hustle. My apartment was overcrowded with large, unsold paintings, and I got the idea to make a book about the time I spent living in Southeast Asia—in part, I think I liked the idea because a book can be hidden in your computer, so if it doesn’t work out, at least it’s not taking up a lot of physical space. I originally conceived of it as being sort of an art book, mostly images, with a little bit of text. In the end, it mutated into a more traditional novel that had a little bit of art in it. It was nice having the illustrations, because if I ever had trouble describing something, I could just draw it. For instance, I was trying to describe the convoluted layout of this apartment complex, and spent way too much time attempt to use words, and in the end I just drew a map of the place. So much easier. With the new book I’m writing, it doesn’t make conceptual sense to have any illustrations in it, and I miss having that crutch. Now I just have to describe everything, and description is probably my least favorite part of writing. Describing a place, a room, a building, it feels like pulling teeth. Pulling my own teeth.

Are there any writers (or illustrators), you’d recommend?

All the regular people, I suppose. I like Raymond Chandler ... Raymond Carver. The usual Raymonds. I feel like lately I haven’t been able to finish reading a book. The books I’m currently enjoying and not finishing are Blood Meridian, and also The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson... and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which is a great history of hip-hop in America. I’m stuck in the middle of all three of those books. And I just started that novel by the mysterious Italian woman, the book with the really homely cover, I’m totally blanking on the name... My Little Friend? That’s not it, I know. [My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. —Ed.] It seems very good—maybe that’s the one that I’ll read the whole thing of. In terms of illustrators, I’m a fan of... all right, this was not intentional, but it’s another Raymond, Raymond Pettibon. For a few years I had a tumblr called HIPHOP IS THE FUTURE where I posted a drawing a day. They were sort of poor man’s Pettibons. And, I know you didn’t ask, but I’d also like to shout out to a great, little-seen television show called Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a hidden gem.

What projects can we anticipate from you in the future?

I have a lot of projects in the pipeline that I think will enjoy tremendous posthumous success. I’ve written a couple of screenplays that I was hoping to make some quick bucks on—Hollywood, if you’re reading this, please get in touch. I have a collection of short stories that is almost ready to be put out to pasture. No, that doesn’t sound good. Put out ... put out into the ecosystem. Into the ether. And, I have a second novel that I’m slowly but surely plugging away on, which is called [title redacted]. Or, maybe you shouldn’t print the title, I wouldn’t want someone to steal it—it’s a good title, right? The book is pretty good too, I think. I predict that the people are going to really like it. I should be finished with it sometime in the year 2525.

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