Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Matt Barrett’s nonfiction piece, Still Life, Route 54

John: I love the strange tableau here, and how you bring it to life. Like the narrator, we’re instantly drawn in. Why do you think that other people’s lives exert such a pull on us?

Matt: First of all, these are such great questions, and I hope my answers do them justice because they’ve made me think about “Still Life, Route 54” in ways I hadn’t before—and I wrote the first draft about 5 years ago. So, it’s been on my mind a lot. I think other people exert such a pull on us for the same reason we watch movies and read books. We want to see what else is out there beyond our own experience. What does that other person do that I do, too? What do they do that I don’t? I think in order to become the best version of ourselves, we have to act as observers. Life doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to discover other ways we might present ourselves. Watching other people, interacting with them—that’s one of the best ways to do it.

Quantum mechanics, famously, tells us that just in the act of observing something we change it. Do you think that’s true here too—are these three people necessarily altered by the narrator’s gaze? And should we therefore be really careful in how we direct our attention?

I think they are changed, in a way. When you know you’re being observed, you automatically adjust who you are, depending on how others might see you. This family of three was always in the dark when I drove past them, so it’s possible they didn’t think I was paying attention to them. But I remember playing basketball in my front yard, and whenever a car drove past, I tried really hard not to look like a fool. I’d dribble more carefully, shoot with more precision. Alone, I’d launch threes from Steph Curry-land, and if they air-balled, it didn’t matter. But I’d never do that if a car was driving by. I couldn’t bear thinking someone watched me air ball.

I think to some extent we should be careful in how we direct out attention, but I also think it’s good to know we’re seen. There’s a fine line—we should know when someone needs their space, when we should probably look away. But if we’re sitting down in a crowded city, I think it would be a waste to look down at our phones instead of all the people going by. If we paid more attention to those around us, from loved ones to strangers, maybe we’d all gel just a little bit more.

And in such a world, is it ever really possible to know another person? Or even ourselves?

I don’t know, I really wish I did. I feel like everything I write is an attempt to get me closer to an answer, and sometimes I think we do know people. At least we can know them at a particular time—how they’re feeling at that moment, what they want, what they fear. But to know someone completely, even ourselves, I think is impossible. It’s just for that moment, when we sit down with someone and talk—if we trust each other—then we can get pretty close to knowing each other. But again, I think it’s just for that moment. It’s hard to know what that person’s going to do or think once they’re no longer standing right there with you.

I certainly don’t know the three people in this story any more than anyone else who’s driven past them. The first few times I drove by, I thought I did. Their repetitive habits just seemed so simple. But then I thought about what they did before they came outside or what they spoke about when they ate their dinner. They have complex lives beyond what I will ever see and by trying to catch a glimpse of something new, maybe I’ll learn something more about myself, too. Maybe the girl will do something I once did as a child, and it’ll recall a memory that explains some things about me.

Much is currently made of the idea of freedom, though people only seem to have a vague idea of what they mean when they say that word. What is freedom to you? What is in that parking lot on the other side of the theater exit door?

This is a question I’ve thought about asking my students on the first day of each semester. What is freedom? Especially now when our definitions seem to be so different, and the reason I haven’t asked my students is simply because I’m afraid it will morph into this big political conversation, and I’ll have lost half my class on day one. But it shouldn’t be political—freedom is really just the ability to choose. Choose where to go, what to do, what to think. I don’t think we should twist freedom with always doing what we want. What we choose and what we want are often two different things. Like wearing a mask—I mean, maybe I shouldn’t bring this up, but I think about it all the time. Some people don’t like wearing a mask, but that doesn’t mean those who do don’t have freedom. They’ve just weighed their options and considered how the benefits outweighed the minor inconveniences and chose to do this one small thing to help—that’s freedom.

As for the parking lot outside the door, I hope there’s freedom there. When I wrote the last line, I didn’t really think there was. But I’ve had a second child since then, so I’m a little bit softer, a little more hopeful than I was back then. I think there could be just about anything in that parking lot. Even if it’s not what we want, we can step out in that parking lot and choose which way to go.