Aren’t I funny and literary?: A conversation with Matt Batt
About my adulthood: I have too many degrees and didn’t own a toolbox until age thirty.
About my recent past: My wife, Karma, and I purchased our first home in 2012, a bungalow in outer Southeast Portland, after sharing a one-bedroom apartment with our dog, Ingrid, and saving every extra dollar.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that I immediately identified with Matthew Batt’s debut memoir, Sugarhouse. The book’s witty narrator, Batt himself, seems a lot like me: overeducated and under-skilled; a bit self-centered, but well-intentioned; at his best, a guy with modest ambitions who loves his wife, his dysfunctional family, his dog and cat, his books.
If you’ve ever engaged in the house-buying process, ever wondered what it would be like to purchase a house with “architectural integrity,” if you’ve ever feared committing yourself to a particular place, ever worried incessantly about the people you love (furry animals included), Sugarhouse is a memoir that’s most definitely for you.
Matt recently began a new semester at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches in the Department of English, but he generously made time to answer a few questions for our readers.
Paul: Sugarhouse is an entertaining book with first-rate sentences and terrific insights. Was it hard to pull that off? To be funny and literary?
Matt: God bless you and your peoples for thinking so. It feels self-congratulatory, however, to say that you’re right. I mean, aren’t I funny and literary? Of course. But saying so in public, well, verboten. What I tried to do—and a trial was involved, though testimony has been sealed—was to do what Annie Dillard invoked in her great little book, The Writing Life, which was to not save anything. I’m paraphrasing, but I recall her saying/receiving the wisdom to write every book like it’s your only book. And for me, that meant using everything I’ve got, which means too many graduate degrees in English to do anyone any good, and at least an equal amount of experience working crap retail jobs or waiting tables.
P: My favorite sentence in the book: “I didn’t know what to do then, and I don’t know what to do now, but we need to believe in something—if not our actual lives as they are lived, then at least the stories we can distill from them.” What a gem! It offers readers a way of thinking about the lives of every character in the book, a way of thinking about ourselves, and to some extent it justifies the writer’s life, I think—distilling stories from actual lives. Do you remember writing this sentence? Did it require much revision?
M: What a great question. Seriously. Nobody’s asked that and I really appreciate the careful eye. That might be the most “meta” moment of the book—there are a couple others, but they’re slightly lighter of touch than that one, and in one or two drafts I turned that knob up fairly high—to, perhaps, three or four—right now I’d say it’s barely at one, but a little meta goes a long way. And, as perhaps my responses to your questions intimate, I can be a cripplingly self-aware guy, so I tinkered with how much of that should I let into the book. I knew a lot would make it a parenthetical/footnote/em dash nightmare, and I also knew that none at all would be a kind of lie to myself, so I finally compromised on just a handful of instances where I let the writing acknowledge that the book, like the house, like our marriage, is a made thing. On that note, my friend Liz Wilkinson likes to quote Barry Lopez on this notion, that “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” Amen, is all I’ve got to say.
P: I know how difficult it is to balance storylines in a full-length book, and you do it well in Sugarhouse. Could you tell us about this progression? For example, how much page space did you devote to your relationship with your wife, Jenae, in earlier drafts, and did you always know the house would be a primary focus?
M: I went through at least twenty drafts of the book. And I don’t mean twenty glancing blows. Twenty full-draft revisions with heavy changes to most every page. As I did those revisions, I would print up a new table of contents page, and each time I tried to better articulate for myself what’s going on in each chapter and to which threads elsewhere in the book it connects. By the last few drafts, I was able to really visualize it using different color highlighter for each thread (for me it’s house, grandpa, me, and Jenae). And ultimately I wanted a balance to those three threads, not a symmetrical or predictable one, but rather one that felt intuitive and organic, more or less. I didn’t know which would be primary, to tell you the truth, and I’m not sure I know now. Ultimately I was just striving for the kind of literary Venn diagram of my life that had that house at its center.
P: Did you find representation for Sugarhouse right away? What was the query process like for you? Any advice for emerging writers?
M: Getting an agent was a surreal process for me. I was fortunate enough to have a few friends who recommended me to their agents, and one was even kind enough to say that she “would be happy to represent me.” Initially that sounded like an acceptance, but a good deal of time went by and I never heard from her and the “would be” took on an ominous conditional/rejection sense. After a couple dozen or so queries (I took my time, I wasn’t trying to rush anything), my dear friend Bruce Machart was kind enough to ask his editor if she had any agents she could recommend to me. Turned out she did, and one of them, the inestimable Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord Literistic, was fairly quickly hooked, and the first thing he wanted to know was had the editor who recommended him to me read my work. She was Adrienne Brodeur, and she hadn’t, but she would soon. And that was that. It was just plain nutty.
P: Sugarhouse was published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I know you’re enormously grateful to Adrienne Brodeur for her editorial work. Has HMH participated actively in the promotion of Sugarhouse ?
M: HMH was great, absolutely stellar. From what I gather, they’re a big company, but from what I experienced, they’re a bunch of sweethearts. Adrienne Brodeur, Hannah Harlow, Summer Smith…if French didn’t already exist, I’d need to invent it or another such romantic language to adequately express my adoration and affection and appreciation for all they did for me and my little book.
P: Your book is one of many phenomenal debuts published in 2012. Have you had time to read any debut poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction? Any titles you’d recommend to our readers?
M: Lou Beach’s 410 Characters is an astonishment—a collection of stories unlike any other I’ve ever read. It’s not poetry, but it’s as fiercely elegant and economical, and you won’t believe what he can accomplish in a story the length of a Facebook post. Scott Sparling’s Wire to Wire from Tin House books is about the best damned thing I’ve ever read. Peter Geye, who’s debut novel Safe From The Sea just came out in 2010, and his second novel, The Lighthouse Road, is also out just recently with Unbridled. He’s about the best writer of place since say John Casey or Kent Haruf. And my dear friend Bruce Machart’s debut story collection, Men in the Making, should be on the map as one of the few points of the compass now if not soon. He’s such a master of language and character you come away from every story feeling like you’ve lived whole lives in the space of any given ten or fifteen pages.
P: What are you working on now, and how far along are you in the process?
M: I’m hopefully about to wrap up a collection of essays under the title The Enthusiast. I like to say that they’re compulsive essays on obsessive subjects, and they range wide in both approach and subject matter, including pieces on both domestic and exotic topics, from baking sourdough bread and raising a toddler to cave diving in Central America and ultra long distance running. It’s in editors’ hands now, so it might be close to done, or I might get the big punt. You just never know!