On 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’re chatting with Matt Sumell, author of One Story Issue #201 “All Lateral” and the debut story collection Making Nice, available now from Henry Holt. Thanks to Matt for taking time out to talk with us about publishing his first book, memory, first-person, and jolly ranchers.
Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I got the call while I was in the middle of a writer’s group thing with my great and talented friends Marisa Matarazzo, Michael Andreasen, and—One Story Debutante herself—Ramona Ausubel. We still had a few stories to go through, but after finishing up we walked down the block to a bar called The Hudson where I popped a jolly rancher in my mouth and washed it down with five vodka sodas before I pedaled home and made my first purchase: a bigger Brita. Pretty sure I’ve been dehydrated for decades.
It was only about six stories in that I realized Alby was the narrator for all of the stories in Making Nice. That isn’t because he’s an inconsistent narrator, it’s that the world in each story is so fully developed that they seem like stand alone pieces. Reflecting on it, though, the structure of Making Nice definitely suites its story. Could you elaborate more on the form and the way Making Nice developed?
As Barry Hannah put it: “I like the first person—just a guy blasting through with the little he knows.” Me too. And when you have a narrator blasting through the wreckage of his life—taking inventory, trying to sense-make it a little bit, salvage what he can—it makes some sense that it’s not going to track chronologically. You don’t start at point A and move in a hard straight line to point whatever. Memory meanders, circles, loops. It gets tangled. Pull one string and something else comes with it. One memory makes you think of another, and whether that thing happened ten years or three weeks ago is beside the point. Consider your mother. Does it run like a movie reel: your earliest memory to your last? If it does you’re fuckin’ weird.
From the moment Alby punched his sister in the boob, I loved him, and it was interesting to me that, as a woman, I could still relate to a character who expresses some form of misogyny at so many points. Were you surprised that women responded positively to the novel? How did you take gender into account when writing?
I didn’t really consider my potential audience much, if at all, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to please people. Not sure you can read this book and think I was even trying to come out of the gate clean. I’m not interested in that. I just wanted to present a guy honestly struggling with grief in a way that people can believe in–flaws and all—because bad choices—and bad behavior—make for good stories.
As for women responding positively—let’s be honest: some have and some haven’t. That’s fine, and I’m not sure it comes down to gender so much as the ability to read well. All that “misogyny” is surface level. Read a little deeper and it’s pretty clear that beneath all the flawed thinking—the temper, the bad choices, the drinking and drugging, the violence and the girl chasing—there’s an underlying sense of awe and appreciation when it comes to the people—especially the women—in Alby’s life. That he loved his mother. That his sister is important to him. That even at his worst—and there’s plenty of that—he looks back at past girlfriends with the understanding that the ladies who love you, and even a few who don’t, have a way of making things better, and worthwhile, and sometimes even nice.
Alby is decidedly a dog person, something that appealed to me, but I wonder if cat lovers sympathized with Whatsherface in “All Lateral.” Any plans to give cats a starring role in a future novel and gain access to a whole new world of feline-loving readership?
Alby the dog lover is really—when you think about it—Alby the animal lover. Working from shoddy memory here: over the course of the book he sympathizes with a bird, turtles, an almost drowned grasshopper, gazelles, a wolf that eats gazelles, an elephant, a slug named Cherokee Bob, ducks, bulls, dogs, and—as much as I hate to admit it—even his father’s cat Steve.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
What I always look forward to: celebrating with friends.