Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Matt Reed’s fiction piece, The Lower Hillside
Sommer: Part of what makes this story so masterful is how you don’t write the connections between its seemingly disparate sections (you go from Sarah to the in-laws to the kids to the narrator losing his job to the car being supposedly burglarized, etc.). I remember a professor once saying, “You don’t need to lead us from point A to point B; just start at B.” Because you’ve written this so well, it’s clear that everything in the story is connected. What challenged you the most (if at all) when incorporating the various parts of this story into its overarching theme and mood?
Matt: Uh—I don’t think I’m supposed to say this, but there is a fair bit of autobiography in this story. Timelines are condensed, scenes are smoothed out. But I think most of the participants would recognize themselves, even if it’s heightened version of themselves. The same goes for the mood and tone, I think. It is probably a heightened version of how I feel about things. If the tone is consistent at all, I think it’s because I’m trying to figure out how I feel and working from the outside in (and hopefully getting to more honest places the further in I go). For instance, late in the story, the narrator talks about how he uses his daughter as sort of an emotional anchor. This is somewhat true in my own life, and that strange unmoored feeling is one of the things I was trying to figure out when I started the story. So whether I meant it or not, I think that floaty feeling (still unexplored) is layered into the early scenes—then pops out onto the page when the daughter comes up and ties things together a little more explicitly. Or I just got lucky.
There’s something very intriguing (and, I’d argue, very American) going on in this story regarding economics and the value we put on a human life. For instance, the narrator is currently unemployed and is struggling to find his value. He’s surrounded by people who are suspicious, unforgiving, and dogmatic. They’re perturbed by the fact that he isn’t toeing the line. He needs to remind himself that he’s still actually there. It’s an existential problem I think many people in the U.S. face (and is perhaps fueling our dire opioid crisis). How much of the narrator’s existential crisis is a product of his own choices and attitude, and how much is it a product of a society that basically thinks he’s worthless?
Ooh—I don’t know, I think in order to make the narrator a sympathetic character, there has to be some inward looking. If he’s looking out and trying to attach his listlessness to society, etc, he’ll be a much harder character to like. “I am sad because…America,” doesn’t quite stick, especially in a character of my socio-economic demographic. I think I often write and/or operate from a self-deprecating stance for that reason. I get some currency with it. Oops—I may have dipped into my own life strategies there. In a more general sense, though, I think it’s easier to see societal problems in the specifics of characters—in characters sharing spaces with other characters with whom they are not wholly comfortable.
The narrator is going through a depressive time, but his rebellious streak and observations are marvelous and hilarious. Still, I wonder how and if he’s going to make it. Do you ever wonder what will happen to your main characters off the page, in the future?
All the time. Tom Perrotta (who most recently wrote The Leftovers) wrote a series of novels and story collections early in his career tracing his time as a kid in New Jersey (Bad Haircut), to college (Joe College), to playing in a band early in his 20s (The Wishbones), and finally to fatherhood (Little Children). I feel like I have the same real-time delayed impulse. I’m just going along writing and trying to figure things out. The characters are my vehicles.
What are you working on these days? When and where can we next read your work?
I’m working on a second draft of a novel set in the ski industry—any takers? But I’ve also got stories in a few small but warmly supportive journals: The Forge Literary Magazine (Yeah!), (b)OINK, Gravel, Apt, Bad Pony, and Kleft Jaw, among others.
This is your second story with us (The Midweek Trainer was published in February 2018)—many congratulations!