In March of this year, Matthew Baker published his debut novel, If You Find This, with the imprint Little, Brown. He began the novel as a student in Vanderbilt’s Creative Writing MFA program, a three-year tenure during which he also founded this magazine. The faculty now use his name to goad students toward success—as both carrot and stick.
Baker returned to the Vanderbilt campus in April to participate in the program’s first-ever alumni reading. He read from a portion of his novel, and to capture the feeling of the musical notations written into the text, he asked two seated audience members to raise, at his prompting, the signs he had made (forte and piano), orchestrating them like a conductor as he read. The audience was alternately rapt in silence and bursting with laughter. This performance perfectly illustrated Baker’s particular gifts: wit, strangeness and innovation in the service of great storytelling.
The following conversation took place over the course of a month, mostly via email, and was finished while Baker was attending the 2015 Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. He lives in Michigan.
Interviewer: You seem interested in fitting together disparate parts to create your work, drawing from all sorts of influences, from music to computer programming. How do you go about the work of stitching them together? Is there a lot of planning?
Matthew Baker: I do plan a lot. For me it’s the same as traveling. I love to travel, but as much as I enjoy actually being out there traveling, in a way my favorite part of a trip is planning everything beforehand—just sitting around my apartment late at night eating chocolate and checking train routes and estimating hike times and scouring travel guides and scheming how to fit as many amazing things as possible into a single trip. Planning for a story is a lot like that for me. That initial stage, just sitting around scheming how to fit as many amazing things into the story as possible, might be my favorite part of the process.
The other way that writing is like traveling, for me, is that, no matter how much planning I do beforehand, there are always details that emerge once I’m actually there that I’d never anticipated that prompt or even force me to deviate from my plans. The experience that I plan is never quite the experience that I end up having.
The traveling metaphor is great, it really captures the sense of discovery that’s so important to writing. Do you ever encounter unexpected or strangely insightful characters when writing fiction, the way one does when traveling? Maybe you have a specific example or two.
All of the time. I was writing this story called “Goods,” for instance, and along the way a character named Henri appeared. I hadn’t planned on this character being in the story—I initially added Henri in as just a backdrop detail about an orphanage where the narrator was living—but, although the story still ended exactly where and how I had expected the story to end, Henri wound up playing a pivotal role in the ending. So that was surprising.
But there are also characters I’ve met while writing who have affected me personally. It was a character in a story called “Proof Of The Monsters” who convinced me to turn vegan. And it was a character in a story called “Html” who got me into making street art. (Those characters didn’t even have names.)
You’ve mentioned before that you keep a running list of heroes. Who’s on that list now? What other kinds of lists do you keep?
The current list: Satoshi Nakamoto, Claire Boucher, Rodney Mullen, José Mujica, Megan Rice, Mary Beard, Lawrence Lessig, Elon Musk, Daniel Suelo, Laura Poitras, and Jiro Ono. (Although, I don’t know if he’ll ever make the official list, my Hero Of The Month is definitely Anthony Kennedy.) Only living people go on the list. I like reading it in the morning and remembering, “All of these people exist on this planet right now.” It helps motivate me. Like, “Jiro already spent twelve hours making sushi today, so I’d better get to work too.”
I also keep a list of words. I started collecting words my first year in college, about ten years ago. Currently, single-spaced with a ten-point font and one-inch margins, the list runs just over twenty-four pages long. (The latest entry is hibernaculum: “a shelter occupied during the winter by a dormant animal.”)
I also keep lists of places I’d like to go (latest entry: Cát Bà), books I’d like to read (latest entry: Unflattening), movies I’d like to see (latest entry: Voyage Of Time), games I’d like to play (latest entry: Gone Home), and things I need to do (latest entry: figure out how to sprout beans).
Unflattening is a scholarly work presented as a comic. It’s described as “an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint” and “an experiment in visual thinking.” Your own work explores constrictions in form, experiments with modes of thinking, and often feels like an insurrection against something. Where does that come from? Is it about boundaries?
To be honest, I’d probably answer this question completely differently if you asked me on a different day. But today you’ve got me thinking about traveling. My family traveled a lot when I was younger. All over the country. And wherever we went, I always wandered off. I was constantly getting lost. Some days I’d be missing for so long that my family would notice that I had vanished; other days I’d find my way back before my family had caught on, and I would just pretend that nothing had happened. I was really close to my grandfather (the grandfather that If You Find This is dedicated to), and that’s the only time I can remember him ever getting angry at me—when I was in middle school, he once took me and my cousin to this national park out in the desert, and I convinced my cousin to wander off. (We were looking for cave drawings.) I guess we were gone for quite a while, and when my grandfather finally found us, he was furious. He had never been truly mad at me before, so seeing him like that was terrifying. He was just livid. He was only angry because he was scared, of course. He’d probably thought that we’d been carried off by coyotes or something.
Well, there was a similar incident later on. When I was in college, we drove out to the desert again, to a different area this time, a remote location. There were a bunch of us along this time—my mom’s family, my uncle’s family, my grandfather’s wife, and my grandfather. And, as usual, I wandered off. Everybody else was hanging around this picnic table setting up for lunch, but there were some canyons nearby that looked pretty interesting. I decided to investigate. I scrambled up onto a bluff and walked along these ridges and hiked deeper into the canyons. Eventually I found a gigantic cave. I love caves. I had to go in. Just beyond the entrance of the cave there was a drop down to a narrow ledge. I climbed down onto the ledge. Beyond the ledge there was a dark pit. Maybe it was a six-foot drop; maybe it was a sixty-foot drop; maybe it was bottomless. I didn’t have a flashlight, so there was no way to tell. The cave was eerily quiet. I stood there at the edge of the ledge, staring into the hole, trying to decide whether to keep going. Then I thought, “If I don’t turn around now, I will die.” So I turned around and climbed back out.
When I got back toward the picnic table, I heard everybody calling for me. “Matthew!” “Matthew!” “Matthew!” My cousins, my mother, my sisters, my uncle. Sounding very alarmed. I guess I had been gone for so long that everybody thought I had fallen into a ravine. I was high up on the bluff; I could see everybody down below. Everybody was marching off in different directions shouting my name—everybody, that is, except my grandfather. He was sitting at the picnic table, looking perfectly calm, just gazing at the clouds. I loved that moment so much. He wasn’t even fazed. I realized, “He gets it. That he doesn’t need to be upset. That, no matter how long I’m gone, eventually I’m coming back.”
Anyway, I think that’s probably what motivates me to do experiments like that in my writing. I can understand how the stories might have a sense of “insurrection”—you usually have to hop a few fences marked “No Trespassing” if you want to discover anything worthwhile—but it’s not breaking rules just for the sake of breaking rules. It’s about exploring. Trying to find something new.
Glad you brought up your grandfather. In If You Find This, Grandpa Rose is in many ways the stranger who comes to town, in the sense of Tolstoy’s maxim. But he’s also family, and so, literally, familiar. It’s a great tension. How did you arrive at that particular relationship, that tension? Was it part of the inception of the novel?
When I first sat down to plan out the book, there were three things that I knew: that the story would be about a dying grandfather, that the story would be about a dead brother, and that the narration would use music notations and math concepts linguistically.
At the time, my grandfather had recently died. The first few years of my life I was raised by a single mother, and so in some ways he was always like a father to me. He was a retired police officer, he had worked as a police officer his entire life, but his true love was film: he owned hundreds of movies, had amassed a staggering collection of film memorabilia, and acted in low-budget productions locally. That was how we bonded on summer nights, was over ice cream from the convenience store, watching space operas and spy thrillers. His house was crammed with replicas of falcon statuettes, ruby slippers, a certain named sled. In the low-budget affairs that he acted in, he always got cast in the larger-than-life roles: the caped villain, the masked outlaw. Those were the roles he loved to play.
Anyway, after he died, I wanted to write a book for him. I decided against trying to tell the story of his life, though. He’d lived it—that story had been told already. Instead, I decided to write the type of story that he had loved to act in. An adventure story, with betrayals and heroics and ruins and treasure. A story about a mysterious old man. That’s how I’ve always thought of the book: as one last role for him to play.
Although, it isn’t entirely honest to say simply that writing the book was something I did for him. Writing the book was also something I did for myself. The summer that he died, I was working as a painter. And after I got the call, I biked home to my apartment, and I sat on my chair, and I cried, for maybe a minute. And that was it. I ate my lunch, and I went back to work. I didn’t cry at his visitation or at his funeral or at his burial or anything. And I remember at one point my mother got a bit concerned—about, I guess, how stoic I seemed—and she said, “You need to let it out; it’s not healthy to bottle it all up.” But my process was just different. I couldn’t get it out in a two-hour memorial service. There wasn’t any point in even trying. Instead, it ultimately took me four years, and about three hundred pages, to grieve. And after completing the book, I did finally have a sense of closure. It was therapeutic for me.
It sounds like bottling it up was exactly the right thing to do, for you, in that instance. But obviously that can’t be a prescription for future books, or future griefs. Not every death begets a life. How will you set about finding the inspiration for your next big projects?
It’s everywhere. I mean, we live on the only known inhabited planet in a universe that’s so vast it’s possibly infinite. We’re a sentient, self-aware, sapient species that’s been steadily developing our civilization for over ten thousand years, and over the course of that time we’ve invented all of these elaborate systems like “stock markets” and “marriages” and “public libraries” and “prisons” that are as brilliant as they are absurd. There’s so much to write about. Our world is so interesting. Did you know that in the 16th century there was this radical sect of people called the Abecedarians who rejected all forms of human knowledge and longed for a state of pure ignorance? Who believed that even learning the first letters of the alphabet would interfere with enlightenment? Hence the name, A-B-C-D-arians? I’ll never have time to write about that, but somebody needs to.
This year is the fifth anniversary of the Nashville Review, which you founded. What inspired you to create this magazine? And why online, as opposed to print?
I was talking with the poet Andrew Rahal at a bonfire one night, my first week in Nashville, and somehow we got on the topic of how the program didn’t have a magazine, and he said something like, “We should just start one.” For grad school I’d really hoped to study somewhere that had a magazine. The fact that Vanderbilt’s program didn’t have a magazine had been my only reservation about coming. I was still a bit depressed that now I’d never have the chance. So when Rahal said that, it was revelation for me. I realized, “I could work on a lit mag after all. We could make one.” The next day I started asking some of the second-year students about the idea. They shook their heads. “It’s impossible. People try every year. The admin won’t let you.” After hearing that, I was hooked. There’s nothing that makes me want to do something more than somebody telling me, “You can’t do this.” (Of course, at that point the MFA program at Vanderbilt was only four years old, so “try every year” was really just “tried three times.”)
I actually originally planned to publish the magazine in print though. But when I went in to Mark Jarman’s office to pitch the idea, Jarman said, “Would this be in print or online?”, and when I said, “Definitely in print,” Jarman gave me the look. Do you know that look he does? When you’ve just said something truly foolish, and he’s hoping you’ll correct yourself so that he won’t have to embarrass you by correcting you himself? Well, that was the look he gave me. And then he said, “I would strongly suggest that you publish this online.” I was terrified of Jarman, so I nodded my head, and I said, “Oh, yeah, maybe we’ll do that then.”
But creating the magazine was really a collaborative effort. After Jarman gave me the initial go-ahead, I called a meeting for any MFAs who’d be interested in starting a magazine. My original concept for the magazine was so bad, I’m not even going to tell you what it was, but luckily the others talked me out of it pretty quickly. Nobody had brought any alternative concepts to the meeting though. Everybody had assumed if I was planning on starting a magazine that I must have a good or at least somewhat decent or at the very least tolerable concept. Well, I didn’t. So, after my concept got rejected, we didn’t know what to do. We were all sitting around a table eating our sack lunches (I was probably gnawing on a carrot or a tomato or something, the other MFAs were always making fun of me for bringing entire vegetables to campus), and we just started tossing around ideas. And somebody said, “Well, we’re in Nashville, so maybe we should publish music too.” I’d recently become obsessed with promoting comics as a form of literature, so I said, “If we publish music, we’re definitely publishing comics.” And the idea took off from there. “What else can we publish?” “Are there other storytelling forms that usually get left out of lit mags?” “How can we make this journal as inclusive as possible?” And that’s how the final concept for the magazine took shape. For that reason, we were quite lucky that we’d been encouraged to publish the magazine online, because it wouldn’t have been possible to publish forms like song and film and dance if we had been publishing in print. (I mean, I guess we could have mailed out CDs or floppy disks or something, but then the songs and films and dances would have seemed like an “accessory” to the magazine, just “bonus” content, when what we wanted was to publish those forms side-by-side with prose and poetry, as literary equals.)
Some Nashville Review trivia: we originally planned to name the magazine Hive. (Wouldn’t that have been the worst name?) (Again, we have Jarman to thank for talking us out of that. He gave us the look, and then he said, “That makes me think of rashes.”)
You write every day, more or less. What is that keeps you writing?
People I know sometimes get a bit concerned about the fact that my job entails sitting at a computer in my apartment eight to twelve hours a day. I’ve gotten this from family, friends, people I’m dating. They’ll say, “Don’t you get lonely in there?”, or, “I’d go crazy spending that much time alone!” But, for me, writing actually feels very social. Far more social, in fact, than standing around at a get-together talking with a group of people—in a situation like that you’re communicating with only a handful of people at once, whereas when you’re writing you’re not just potentially communicating with every single person who’s alive, but also everyone who ever will be. I spend a lot of time reading, and reading is like that too—for me, sitting down with Battleborn listening to Claire Vaye Watkins talk about the Strip feels just as social as sitting down at a café listening to my former roommate talk about astronomy. And reading something by somebody who’s dead is even more exciting—like a séance, making contact with a voice from beyond the grave.
I don’t know if other writers feel this same way, but, for me, that’s what keeps me writing. I think it’s the same urge that sends other people out to bars night after night, or to festivals, or to parties. I want to meet people. I want to learn and to share and to be moved and to hear stories. I want to keep talking.