Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matthew Baker

If-You-Find-ThisOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of talking to Matthew Baker, author of the Middle Grade novel, If You Find This, published in March 2015 by Little, Brown. Matthew’s short story, Rites, One Story issue # 203, was also published this past March.

If You Find This follows Nicholas Funes as he struggles to save his home from being sold which would leave his brother—a tree in his backyard—alone. That is until his senile grandfather, released from prison, stays with his family and spins a story about priceless family heirlooms. He’s soon aided by two unlikely classmates, a nursing home escapee, and a rundown “haunted” house. Mixing mathematical and musical techniques, Baker tempers Nicholas’s whimsical adventure with a voice that is uniquely engaging and emotional.

You’ve published many short stories. How did publishing your first novel, If You Find This, feel different? How did you celebrate?

My family knew I’d work straight through pub day if there wasn’t some type of intervention, so my mom and my sister stepped in and threw a launch party at the local art museum. My K-12 teachers were all invited and got free copies. And that really turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate—a reunion with all of those people who had helped raise me as a child. (The best part was, after the party I learned that while I had been busy signing books for people, everybody had secretly been signing a copy of the book for me, like a yearbook.)

As writers we are told to limit adverbs. Yet you embraced them in a powerful and unique way through Nicholas’s adverbial use of musical dynamics and by incorporating musical notations into the text of the book. What’s the story behind how you developed this technique?

I was reading a lot of comics and thinking about the storytelling moves that cartoonists can do on the page that aren’t possible in any other medium. In Peanuts, Charles Schulz uses music staffs and music notes visually in a variety of different ways, with characters actually interacting with the music in certain strips. There’s a long tradition of that in comics, of course—almost half a century before, Winsor McCay was already using music in similar ways in Little Nemo in Slumberland. Anyway, reading comics in bed one night, I wondered, “Would there be a way to use music notations in prose…?”

Your previous stories were for adults. How was writing a Middle Grade piece different?

The age of the audience doesn’t change anything for me, honestly. For example, I just finished a novella about an elderly man in Arizona. And the “ideal reader” for the novella would probably be someone in the age range of 67-100. I think that’s the demographic that might relate most to the protagonist, the demographic that might best understand what the protagonist is going through. Of course, that’s not an actual marketing category—“elderly literature”—but if it was, that’s what this novella would be. The fact that it’s aimed at older readers didn’t affect how I wrote the story, though. I was still trying (and mostly failing) to achieve all of the usual things artistically. If You Find This is the same way. The “ideal reader” for the novel is someone in the age range of 7-13, but that didn’t affect how I wrote the story, and although it’s aimed at younger readers, it’s also meant to appeal to readers of any age. Ultimately, that’s my target demographic for every story: “living humans.”

March was an exciting month for you. If You Find This and “Rites,” One Story issue # 203, were both published. Could you tell us a bit about your next project(s) and when we’ll read them?

I just finished my first collection of short stories, so hopefully you’ll get to read that sometime in 2016. I’m also revising another middle-grade novel for Little Brown, which hopefully you’ll be able to read by 2017. I’m also collaborating on a comic project with the artist Nica Horvitz, but we haven’t quite figured it out yet, so you may have to wait a while to read it…

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

Getting to meet everybody in person (finally!).

 

One Story Workshop Day Four: We Map Our Stories

new-york-public-library-lions (475x347)One Story’s fifth annual workshop is starting to wind down. Our incredible workshop teachers, Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino, led us in critically analyzing each other’s work for an additional hour today. Whew! But, as usual, the feedback and guidance was well worth it.

After a lunch of falafel, in which we stuffed our bellies as much as we could, the Editor in Chief of One Story, Hannah Tinti, took us on another writing excursion: to the New York Public Library. That’s the one with the two lions in front from the opening scene in Ghostbusters (also where Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the lion in the movie version of The Wiz). By the way, the names of those lions are Patience and Fortitude, which as Hannah sagely said are, “Perhaps the two qualities that a writer needs most.”

First Hannah talked about ways we could use maps in our stories, from creating action, to filling out setting, to keeping track of our novels and longer works. She also gave us blank story maps and floor plans as tools to keep our readers grounded. Both techniques helped us to learn to navigate our worlds. Our “on-site” exercise at the NYPL was to go look through maps and atlases, find one that we liked, and use it as a jumping off point. Characters are always in a setting. And that setting always has some topology. Creating mental or even physical maps allows us, the writer, to better explore our world so that we don’t get lost. “When the writer is lost, the reader is lost,” said Hannah. “We never want to do that. It’s the quickest way to make a reader put down our book.”

For our evening panel we enjoyed a visit from author Rachel Cantor, who read a few excerpts from her new novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Think of it as a really twisted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or a fusion of Ray Bradbury and Italo Calvino. Bizarre, funny, quirky, she had us all in stitches. Then Hannah interviewed Rachel about the struggles and joys of an emerging writer, and how Rachel got this marvelous book published, from first draft on her computer to hard copies in bookstores.

We’re upset that the week is coming to an end, but tomorrow night is our big send off, with a visit to One Story’s office in Brooklyn, an open mic for students, and a grand finale dinner. Stay tuned!

One Story Workshop Day Three: Breaking the rules on Flying Bicycles

flyingbicycleIt’s the third day of One Story’s fifth annual workshop. Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino led their wonderful workshops after our students drank as much coffee as they could. Following a lunch of sandwiches, soda, chips, and more coffee, the editor of One Teen Story, the fabulous Patrick Ryan, gave a craft lecture on guidelines for writing a story.

“You cannot take risks if you strictly follow rules,” he said. “Allow room for surprise in your writing, readers read to discover and writers write to discover. Don’t spoil that for yourself or your readers. Writing should make you happy. Also, always read your work aloud.” Leaning over his lectern he joked, “Of course you don’t want to speak it in your quiet writing studio. Disturbing other writers while they’re working…bad idea.” We all laughed.

Patrick went on to explain that writers need to think of many mediocre or terrible ideas in order to find a good one. His technique is to type up any idea, even if it’s only two words, print it out, and put it in a box. The act of having a physical, separate note makes the idea stand out, rather than being in a list, where we are tempted to scan through and pick the best one.

We took a break and then did a writing exercise with Michael Pollock where we worked in groups to write a short story in about 30 minutes based on three random ideas. My group’s: a hot air balloon, a bicycle for two, and a lemon. Didn’t figure out how to put the lemon in the story, but our flying bicycle for two was like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Everyone needed a break after that. We reconvened at 6:30 for an editor panel, but not before the front legs to a beautiful leather chair suddenly gave out in our very cozy writing space. But we writers can’t sit down writing all the time, in any case; we need to get out and explore the world and be social and engaging and talk to people.

Our evening panel consisted of Maria Gigliano from Slice, Lincoln Michael from Electric Literature, Sam Nicholson of Random House, and Jonathan Lee of A Public Space, all led by our own Patrick Ryan, an editor himself. The editors were very knowledgeable, coming from big publishing houses all the way to small magazines—a nice spectrum of the industry. All agreed that the best way to stand out is to make your writing unexpected. Plot and character can always be edited, but language, style, voice, etc… really can’t. And as for debut novelists they said, “It’s a wide open future. They don’t have any history that could work against them. It’s nothing but promise!”