by Matt Sumell
Issue #201 • January 19, 2015•Buy Now!
Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a sailboat. Maybe my life wasn’t so bad. More importantly, life on a sailboat was cheap, with slip fees coming in at under five hundred a month and utilities topping out around twenty, plus there was a parking lot so I didn’t have to hate myself extra when I forgot to move my car for the twice-a-week street-sweepers. Also, as long as you were topside and facing the right direction—in this case 127 degrees SSW between the super-hulls of Fah Get A Boat It and Let’s Get Naughty-Cal—you’d be hard pressed to beat the view: a shoddy bait barge in the middle of Los Angeles harbor listing heavily under the weight of a dozen or so fat, barking sea lions and some marine birds. All considered, it was a damp version of pretty okay.
Matt Sumell is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA Program in Writing, and his short fiction has since appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, Electric Literature, Noon and elsewhere. His first collection, Making Nice, will be published by Henry Holt in February 2015.
Hannah Tinti on All Lateral
No one works 9-5 anymore. Instead we’re always working, often at more than one job. Most people I know have at least two, sometimes three or four sources of income, pasting together enough to pay the rent and the heating bill with a little left over for groceries and maybe a drink at the bar. Writers don’t often write about work, but in our new issue, Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral,” jobs are everything. The narrator in this wild, voice-driven story pumps gas at a marina and knocks out drywall, surrounded by a decaying landscape and haunted by the death of his mother. Frustrated and lost, he chooses to float—through his emotions and his choices—living on a boat with a dog named Jason. Thank goodness for Jason! And thank goodness for Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral,” which finds hope in the darkest corners. I hope you’ll check out Matt’s Q&A with us on how he wrote this moving, man-not-on-a-mission story, and then buy his collection, Making Nice, which Publisher’s Weekly said was “even more fun than eavesdropping in a confession booth” and “demonstrates an almost painful compassion for the sinner in most of us.” In the meantime, let’s raise a glass to all those sinners working past 5, and to dogs everywhere, scratching at the door, forcing us to go outside and notice the world.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
Work in that I actually did and sometimes still do things like this for money, but also work in that the writing of it was hard labor. It was a total slog. I was just mining experiences, day after day, for years, trying to exhaust them of their emotion. I guess I feel like that’s worth mentioning because sometimes it doesn’t come from inspiration. I wasn’t inspired, at all. If anything I was pissed, but writing is like any other job—you’ve got to put your hours in. In fact, as a graduation gift I gave that Yale grad from way back in paragraph 1 there an old-school time clock, with the punch cards. Put your hours in.
As for the first thing I wrote, I have no idea. My memory is like a steel trap with holes in it that’s broken. But I do remember one of the last things I added: the neatly piled olive pits. It’s something I saw my girlfriend do and I just thought, Well would you look at that. Who the fuck does that?
That said, I really do think manual labor is a not-so-bad counter-balance to the writing life. I get restless when I’m still for too long. I get restless period. It’s kind of like a dog’s anxiety...the best thing you can do for them is take them for long walks, get the nervous energy out. And I really do prefer to see the tangible results of manual labor as opposed to—after a day/weeks/months of writing—some sentences, some paragraphs, a few pages if I’m lucky. But thirty minutes of swinging a sledge and that wall is gone. You see results faster. I dig that sense of accomplishment.
So, you know, maybe feeling around in the dark is how I go about finding the pulse of the story, the heart. Jason’s all heart. I’m not sure I decided that as much as I felt it. I wish it wasn’t the case. My process is so fucking inefficient.
On the other hand, we do finally see him leave the slip and sail out and luck his way into witnessing something truly special, and he’s able to appreciate it while it’s happening. That recognition and appreciation, to me, seems like an important development for Alby, something worth fostering.
Wells Tower—whose work I admire a lot—said something a few years back that’s really stuck with me: “Being a human being isn’t just all misery and despair. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy. The real struggle, I think, is getting to a place where you can be believably generous to a character, where you can show somebody fumbling for redemption in a way that’s believable and not stupid. I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.”
I love that idea, and it’s something I’ve had to work hard at. I mean at one point back at Irvine Geoffrey Wollf, in commenting on a story of mine, wrote that Alby was starting to seem like an “against-er.” A contrarian. I even remember the moment. It’s in a story called “Eat the Milk” from the collection, when Alby walks into a nursing home and asks the receptionist if she’s eating a turkey sandwich.
“No,” she said. “Ham.”
I didn’t believe her.
Well why the fuck not? In any case Geoffrey Wolff—and Wells Tower—helped me to realize that, while I may be pretty good at pointing out what’s wrong in the world, where is the joy?
I even made a list, over years, of a hundred and some things that I love, and I started writing some of them into the stories.
In any case there’s a definite satisfaction for me, the author, in being able to take a shitty fact of life—having to work, having to struggle, having to find meaning in it all—and using it to produce something that ends on a note of gratitude. Life’s a major hassle a lot of the time—if it’s not worse and even more painful than that—and ending “All Lateral” this particular way felt like a victory.
But what I do know is how incredibly lucky am...lucky to have Nicole Aragi as an agent, Sarah Bowlin as an editor, Henry Holt giving me a big push. I’m incredibly grateful.