The Beatrice Interview

Matthew Klam

" You finish a book, and it's like hitting a home run. Even if it's a shitty book, it's done."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I met up with short story writer Matthew Klam for lunch at a deli not too far from his home. We ended up talking about Spartacus and Gladiator and a bunch of other Russell Crowe movies, and at one point he told me how he'd spent the weekend lying on the floor in his home listening to Garrison Keillor tapes and not writing a single word. "I'm actually a big fan of not writing too much," he confided. "People crank stuff out, and I don't know why. Maybe they don't like to garden, or to clean their house. I think you need to stop sometimes and realize what you're about all over again." His debut short story collection, Sam the Cat and Other Stories, has just been published. It includes the O. Henry award-winning "The Royal Palms" as well as the amazing "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy," which first appeared in 1999's New Yorker summer fiction issue, which held their choices for the best young fiction writers in America at the end of the 20th century.

RH: How long have you been writing fiction?

MK: Since about 1989. I was out of college, living in Japan and teaching English. After six months, my brother came over and was writing. He was a copy writer and decided he wanted to write a novel. I'd leave in the morning to go to work, then come home at the end of the day and he'd be sitting in the same place, still typing. And I thought, "What the fuck is he doing?" Then I came home and got a job at a doctor's magazine. Pretty soon after that, I started writing.

RH: Did you start with short stories?

MK: I started with a novel, a terrible novel with dinosaurs and a nun who surfed across fields of wheat...and then after that I wrote a story about a kid in high school who finds out that his French teacher isn't really French, that she went to school there fifteen years before.

RH: So which of the stories in Sam the Cat came first?

MK: "Sam the Cat" was my first story. They appear chronologically in the collection. Well, actually, there's one story in the middle that I'd written before all the others, but I had shelved it for four years because I didn't want to show it to anybody.

RH: Most of your stories have a very distinct voice. How long did it take you to find that voice?

MK: It took about a year and a half, maybe two years. I was just trying different things. Now I'm sort of afraid to leave it. The last piece in the collection is in the third person, and it was a great relief to me to write publishable fiction in the third person. It makes me feel that I can do more things I think that if you want to write a good novel, though, you have to be able to do a lot of things well. You could write a great novel just by being a virtuoso of the first person voice, but right now I want more skills.

RH: How much revision do you do?

MK: It depends. For a long time I thought that if you had to revise, it meant you'd fucked it up. "Sam the Cat," the first story I'd written, and "The Royal Palms" both came out pretty much done, and I got trapped into thinking that if a story didn't come out like that, it was bad. Then I realized that everybody revises, and you can make things better, and that it's not a sin not to write it perfect the first time around.

RH: Your protagonists are in many different situations, but they circle around some of the same dilemmas concerning love and relationships, like how you decide to spend the rest of your life with another person, and how you get through that.

MK: There's a line in the last story, "We're on the grownup train now. We don't get off until the graveyard." And you can't help but feel that way sometimes. It's hard not to. Are you cut out for monogamy? Are you cut out for the long term? Is this the person you've dreamed of having a relationship with?

I know some people who just want to get married so they can have a family. Other people don't want a single bit of sadness or down time or ugliness-- anything scrappy in their personal lives. But you can't avoid that.

RH: And when your characters hit those rough spots, at least at first, they have no idea how to cope with them.

MK: A lot of the early stories are about salvaging what you have left of your relationship at the end of the day. I think as I became more sophisticated as a writer, though, I found other ways to get through those moments, other choices to avoid the dead ends. I think I'm learning more about appreciating the positive aspects of being in love now.

RH: By the time you get to "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy," the protagonist seems to be a lot more capable of getting through the turbulence and hanging on to his relationship.

MK: Keep in mind that, in these stories, we're talking about people who aren't even 30 years old yet. When you're 29 and at a certain type of job, you can feel like it's the rest of your life and you end up talking like an old man. But most people now have seven or eight careers in their lives. The protagonist of "Issues..." is probably about to hit one of those transitions. If he isn't he's a fucking idiot.

I've lived in Washington, D.C. for seven years. And you see a lot of people like him--people who were class presidents, and really meant well when they got here. Then they realized that this city isn't about good will, it's about power. I'm not part of that world, but I can see the falseness and stupidity--it's exactly what they didn't want to do when they started out. But that can happen in New York, too. Or the film industry in LA.

RH: How did it feel to be named one of the most promising writers in the country by the New Yorker in 1999?

MK: I was psyched. The day before I got married, Bill Buford told me that he needed to have a copy of "Issues..." right away. I knew it was for the summer fiction issue, but I didn't know there was going to be a theme. So I emailed him the story, got married, went to Miami for three days, and then I'm checking my messages on my answering machine, and I find out they want me to fly up to New York for a photo shoot the next day. So it wasn't until I got to New York that I found out about the whole "20 Under 40" thing.

RH: I was guessing your reaction would either be "psyched" or "pressured." You know, "What do I do to live up to this?"

MK: But that's the kind of pressure you want to have, instead of the "nobody cares about me so I'm going to have to make a really loud noise" pressure. You finish a book, and it's like hitting a home run. Even if it's a shitty book, it's done. The bases are cleared, everybody goes out to take a piss, and now you have to figure something else out.

RH: You're working on a new novel now. How have you prepared for that?

MK: I remember hearing a story about Jim Carrey. He was asked, very early in his career, what he'd do if comedy didn't work out for him, and he said, "I've made it structurally impossible for me to do anything else." He'd burned all his other bridges, wrecked all his other opportunities. So that's what I'm doing with my novel. I'm not starting any short stories, I'm not nurturing stray ideas I get for short stories, not giving them any chance to grow or incubate. I'm focused solely on this novel. Maybe I'll make a jackass out of myself, but this is where I have to go.

RH: There's a line from a David Mamet essay that's always meant a lot to me: "Those with something to fall back on invariably fall back on it."

MK: I have a cousin who's 25, and he doesn't know what he wants to do. I don't want to tell him this, but the truth is it doesn't matter. You just have to decide and then do it. The risk is part of what makes you better.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Charles Baxter | Complete Interview Index | Deborah Eisenberg

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan