We are delighted to bring you a STORGY exclusive interview with Matthew Baker the author of ‘Why Visit America’ which is being published by Bloomsbury Books. Matthew is a stunning author and this collection is something quite urgent, that speaks to the here and now – and it is our belief that this book will be picking up a few awards next year.
So when the opportunity arose for us to chew the fat with Matthew about Why Visit America and his writing, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
You can read our review here – and you can also purchase a copy of ‘Why Visit America’ here.
S – Why Visit America is a stunning collection, for those who don’t know about the book would you be able to describe in your own words what the reader should expect?
MB- The book contains thirteen parallel-universe stories—one for every stripe in the American flag—that span all fifty states of the country. Read together, these parallel-universe stories are meant to create a composite portrait of the real United States: a Through The Looking-Glass reflection of who we are as a country.
S – How did you conceive the idea of Why Visit America, where did the original seed come from and what was your first story you had for the collection?
MB- The first story written for the collection was “To Be Read Backward”—I wrote that story in 2009. But the concept for the book didn’t actually occur to me until 2012. At the time, I was living in Ireland, renting a studio in a townhouse that was so drafty that the wind would audibly whistle through. I had never lived in another country before, and the subtle cultural differences between the United States and Ireland illuminated certain characteristics of the United States for me with sudden clarity. I had also recently read both Justin Torres’ We The Animals and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which had gotten me interested in the first person plural perspective, and I had been trying to dream up a premise for a story that would have a reason to be written in it. And then one night the premise for “Why Visit America” came to me. I didn’t actually write the story until years later, but to me that title seemed like the perfect organizing principle for the book. I realized that the collection itself could function as a guidebook.
S – In an interview with STORGY, Chuck Palahniuk said ‘Nothing springs from a vacuum. Every phrasing and action is inspired by the real’. Your collection is a strange blend of science fiction, weird fiction and the peculiar but grounded with fully realised characters and thematic elements which are urgent and relatable – were any of these stories, characters or themes grounded or inspired by the real world, or conversations you had (if so please give us some insight)?
MB – Absolutely. For these stories, the real-world inspiration was the social and political systems of the United States. Through the book, I wanted to examine the fundamental assumptions underlying the structures of American society.
S – When reading your collection one can’t help but compare your work to great writers such as Donald Ray Pollock, Philip K Dick, Arthur Miller, Albert Camus and Cormac McCarthy – who are the writers that influence your writing of Why Visit America?
MB – Thanks, that means a lot to me. There are three writers who had a tremendous influence on the book: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ursula K Le Guin. And then there are the writers whose work influenced a particular story. “To Be Read Backward,” for instance, was profoundly influenced by Haruki Murakami. I was obsessed with Murakami in 2009.
S – The sense of belonging, isolation and grief are prominent themes in your collection, how integral were these themes in your work and how does it affect your character and plot and story development?
MB – I love that you noticed those themes in the book. To be honest, though, I didn’t consciously work to develop those themes. In conceptual terms, I was writing stories about nationhood, about emigration and immigration and citizenship in a community, and about the recurring conflict between individualism and the individual’s duty to society. Given that, maybe broader themes like “belonging” and “isolation” developing was inevitable.
S – Congratulations should also be given with the reception the book has had with film / TV industries, with the rights being bought for a great many of the stories within the collection. Is there a particular story that you are looking to see developed into these formats, if so which one and why?
MB – I’d be immensely excited to see any of the stories adapted for the screen. At the moment, though, I’m especially excited about “Lost Souls”—the brilliant Issa López recently signed on to write and direct a film adaptation of that story for Searchlight Pictures. I loved her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, and can’t wait to see what she does with “Lost Souls.”S – What is your favourite story within the collection, the one that means the most to you and why is this one so important?
MB – “Why Visit America,” because that’s the story that gave me the title and the concept for the collection as a whole. And because ultimately that one was the most fun to write. I have a deep nostalgia for those weeks when I was working on that story.
S – Many of your stories take the normal and skew it sideways – dealing with some heavy themes along the way (unhappiness with the state of America in Why Visit America, Lost Souls where the rich can obtain life and the homeless are used and seen as disposable, Appearance dealing with immigration, The Sponsor & Testimony of Your Majesty which deals with consumerism and the acquirement of stuff, A Bad Day in Utopia that deals with the role of men / women and population control and Life Sentence that deals with the failing prison system ) Is this a commentary on the state of play today? How does it relate to modern existence?
MB – The United States today is so radically polarized that it’s become almost impossible to talk about important issues. If you try to talk about an issue directly, immediately these walls come up, these psychological barriers as thick as brick. The only way to have a genuine conversation about an issue is to disguise the issue. Cloak the issue in another form.
S – Your story The Transition is quite remarkable – how did the seed of this story develop, and was there something more you were trying to say with this story?
MB – I’m so pleased to hear that you were struck by that story. I had been wanting to write about transhumanism for years—that was the seed—and then one day, in a sudden flash, I realized that there was the potential to use the concept as an allegory. In developing “The Transition,” I modeled the story on Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” a story that forever amazes me.
S – What are your hopes for Why Visit America with your readership?
MB – I hope that the book finds readers who love it, and I hope that readers who hate it burn the book in the street.
S – It would be remiss of me not to ask how things are right now in the US and how you feel about or have been affected by the Covid19 and the recent troubles around the riots surrounding George Floyd death and living under the rule of Donald Trump?
MB – I don’t even know where to begin. I think to answer that question in full would require a hundred-thousand-word essay. All I’ll say is that it’s truly dystopian.
S – We know that you now have two collections, what is it that you love about the short story form and are there any plans to write a novel or are you sticking with short stories?
MB – I’m working on a new novel now, an experimental project, but I’ll always write short stories too. There are three more collections that I plan to write. Like Hybrid Creatures and Why Visit America, each of those collections will be a “concept album.”
S – What do you believe makes a great short story and why?
MB – As a reader, I’ve noticed that a story will stay with me if the story accomplishes two things. First, the story needs to have a genuine impact on me emotionally. Second, the story needs to have a genuine impact on me intellectually. That’s it. That’s the formula. Make me feel something, get me thinking about something, and I’ll be devoted to the story for all time. I’ll be especially devoted if the story also manages to accomplish something innovative artistically.
S – What are some of the best short stories you’ve read?
MB – My answer to that question would have been different yesterday and will be different tomorrow, but today the three that stand out in my mind are Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness,” Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Ghosts, Cowboys,” and Rebecca Makkai’s “Suspension: April 20, 1984.” It’s possible that reading those three stories for the first time in quick succession might induce a form of enlightenment.
S – Aside from literature, which other artists or art forms might you draw inspiration from? Do you explore artistic expression in any other form?
MB – I look to every art form for inspiration, but especially look to graphic novels, films, plays, and video games. Working on Why Visit America, I spent a lot of time thinking about Spike Jonze’s film Her, along with the BioShock video games, and the episode “San Junipero” from Black Mirror.
S – How do you know when an idea is ripe for expansion as a short story? What encourages you to choose one idea above another?
MB – I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just a feeling, an instinct, like a detective’s hunch. And sometimes that hunch is wrong.
S – When developing the idea, what elements (theme/location/character/plot) do you focus on? Is one more important than the other or is each story different?
MB – For me every story always begins with a conceptual premise. From there, all of the other narrative elements—character, plot, setting, perspective, voice—are designed to complement that central concept. I’m a slow writer, and that’s probably why—to me every element is of utmost importance.
S – What is the best advice you have received regarding your writing and/or literary ambitions, and what advice would you offer our readers and other aspiring writers?
MB – Write every day, no matter what.
S – What are you presently reading and which authors would you recommend?
MB – I’m currently reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for the first time, which in many ways feel like the perfect quarantine read. I’d also enthusiastically recommend Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League and Lee Conell’s The Party Upstairs, both debut novels out this year, along with Gabriel Mascaro’s new film Divine Love, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.
STORGY wanted to thank Matthew Baker for his time in answering our questions and to Bloomsbury Books for allowing us this opportunity.
Please check back tomorrow where we will have an exclusive excerpt from ‘Transition’ one of the many masterful short stories within this collection!
Matthew Baker is the author of the story collection Hybrid Creatures. His stories have appeared in the Paris Review, American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature and Conjunctions, and in anthologies including Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission and the MacDowell Colony, among many others, he has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review. Born in Michigan, he currently lives in New York City.
You can read our review of Why Visit America here.
Interview by Ross Jeffery
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