The Foundry is our literary reading series, and the next show is Saturday, June 10th at 7 PM at Public Square Coffee House in La Mesa, featuring readings from Steph Cha, Hari Alluri, Elizabeth Marro, Kali Wallace, and today’s interviewee, Matt Young.
Matt Young, who we first got to know when we published his story in Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home last year, and is the author of the forthcoming memoir Eat The Apple“Fractured Flashes: Writing The Very Short Narrative Essay.” (Enroll now!) (Bloomsbury, 2018). He’s a college writing instructor in Washington State and will join us to read on June 10th, as well as teach a master class on flash narrative non-fiction writing.
So Say We All’s production director and Foundry host Julia Dixon Evans recently had a chance to ask Matt a few questions.
JULIA DIXON EVANS: Hi Matt! Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. And thanks for agreeing to come out to San Diego to read and teach.
MATT YOUNG: Hey Julia, of course. I’m a bit nervous coming back to Southern California. It’s a bit like returning to the scene of a crime.
JDE: So when’s the last time you’ve been here? The subtext there is WHAT DID YOU DO?
MY: I think the last time I was there was 2011 to visit my old battalion after they got back from Afghanistan? It’s hard to remember if that tells you anything. I do remember getting sunburned so badly that one of my friends had to give me prescription painkillers.
JDE: You have recently put out some fantastic short narrative nonfiction, but you also have a book-length memoir on the way (Eat The Apple, Bloomsbury, 2018). What is gained in going short when writing narrative nonfiction? What is lost?
MY: I found flash because I was trying to figure out a way to tell a huge story with a lot of different narrative threads. Flash gave me a way to explore those threads without worrying too much about narrative continuity. The whole thing is held together thematically and chronologically with some recurring characters sprinkled throughout, but ultimately the stories are fairly disconnected and most of them can stand alone. They each pack an emotional little jab to the solar plexus in some way, which I think is common to the flash genre. You often give up context for lyricism in flash, but that’s the kind of writing I love, so I guess I don’t see it as giving up much. Brian Oliu has said, “I write to devastate.” I love that. I think that’s what you gain from the flash form, a tiny drop of devastation.
JDE: One of my favorite pieces of your recent work is “Fata Morgana,” which is a stunning, unexpected look at death, family, nostalgia, and creepy medical stuff. I love the way this is fragmented into headed sections, but has an incredibly strong narrative. I equally love and am baffled by the section headings. Tell us about those?
MY: Thank you, that’s really kind. I don’t know what I can say about those. I guess when I started the piece it was called “Ichthyology” (which later became a section title) and it wasn’t a modular story at all. I started writing it right after my wife and I returned home from the memorial and I was still feeling really raw, and I remember having a thought while I was trying to work and instead of pulling out a notebook or opening a new document I just wrote that thought directly in the document where I was working on “Ichthyology” and it ended up becoming the “Oversight” section. The form just kind of chose itself.
A placard on the interpretive center wall reads, Beware! Deserts might look empty, but they’re full of things that kill! More placards on the wall below show gila monsters and mountain lions and coyotes—which can kill in packs when they’re desperate. In the foreground of the placards is a poster board covered in pictures of my grandfather. Next to the poster board is a computer monitor playing a slideshow of photographs of him and our family on a loop. There is no placard on the wall of the interpretive center showing the pancreatic cancer that killed him—though neither is there a placard of a rattlesnake.
(excerpted from Matt Young’s “Fata Morgana, appearing in Split Lip Magazine, 2017)
JDE: “Fata Morgana” is a relatively short piece — 1700 words (I counted) — but this is your thing, the very short essay, often referred to as flash nonfiction. I know I have a default, a word count that I always seem to end up near, and I assume most other writers are the same. But I also have a dream word count, an aim. I’m wondering if pieces like “Fata Morgana” and your other short works fall into either of those categories: short because you seem to have no choice, the length chooses you, or short because you work at it and try to get a story to be particularly short?
MY: Yeah, like I mentioned “Fata Morgana” started out as something totally different. It was going to be longer. It was going to be more about my grandfather, his life, fly fishing, our relationship, grief. And then I think my grief got in the way of that and I let it. Sometimes though I do try to work into flash, I think it’s a good way to sharpen your prose.
At the memorial service, held in a regional park interpretive center, I read a placard that informs me the Sonoran Desert is the most biodiverse desert in the world. I think about how the night before, my family gathered in the middle of that desert at a sushi restaurant in a strip mall. Another placard tells me there are thirty species of fish endemic to the Sonoran—suckers, shiners, pupfish, chub, trout, catfish, more. I wonder if my grandfather ever caught any of those native fish with the fly gear he gave me two years ago. I wonder if he tied any of the flies himself. Then I wonder if I’ve already lost some to poorly tied knots or overhead foliage. I think of a large trout that broke my line a month back swimming somewhere in tributary river in Eastern Washington with a piece of my grandfather stuck in its jaw. I tell myself that’s where he’d rather be anyway. Don’t handle them too much, Grandson, catch and release, he wrote in a note that came with the gear. In his younger years he would’ve built a throne from their skeletons and not thought twice. He wrote, I haven’t trusted my legs against the river for a long time. None of the fish we ate at the restaurant were native—they were all caught, bashed over the head with a club, gutted, filleted, and shipped to what used to be a primordial ocean to be unceremoniously masticated in a mix of saliva and cheap beer.
(excerpted from Matt Young’s “Fata Morgana, appearing in Split Lip Magazine, 2017)
JDE: Your upcoming class with us on June 10th, “Fractured Flashes: Writing The Very Short Narrative Essay,” seems to focus on the idea of fracture. Structure, content. What draws you to this concept? What sort of things does fractured writing challenge? Or what kind of things do writers or readers alike need to be untaught to swallow something fragmented?
MY: I write a lot about memory and I also blur the line significantly between fiction and nonfiction in my writing, which I think—or at least hope—gets the reader to consider the subjective nature of memory and truth. I was really nervous when I started writing about my experience. I thought, What will the guys I served with think? Do they remember this the same way? Will they call me a liar if they don’t? I even started questioning my own recollections. Fractured narratives tend to have this effect—they obfuscate and gray the black and white, they make us question everything. That tends to upset what we’ve been taught about truth. But I think it’s important to remember that truth and fact are very different. Truth is subjective. I think that’s something we’re all getting a pretty rough lesson in right about now.
JDE: You’re a veteran, and an active contributor to the newest bloom of veteran literature finally making its way into the hands of readers. Though “Fata Morgana” makes no mention of it. Do you feel a responsibility to have your work periodically check back in, and re-establish your place as a veteran writer?
MY: No, I don’t. I don’t know that I want to be defined in that way. Is that pretentious? Should I just give in to that designation? Anyway, I read very little veteran or war writing while writing the book. Dispatches by Michael Herr, In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff, and Jarhead by Anthony Swofford—nothing from the Forever Wars. I do think war has leached into our cultural groundwater, but I think to continually look inward at that thing you lose what’s going on in the periphery, forget that life is happening outside of those other places. It makes us look into a mirror instead of out a window. Measuring ourselves against already published narratives can be really damaging, can make us feel like our experiences aren’t worth writing about because we see them as different or less than those that have been published. They of course can be useful in some ways, but I say look outward as much as you can. Expand horizons. Go read speculative fiction or poetry. Maybe it will help you create something different, you know?
JDE: What does it mean to you to be a veteran writer not explicitly writing about the things the civilian world accepts in a piece of veteran writing?
MY: I guess it means I’m just another writer, but I’m okay with that.
JDE: The writing you do that is explicitly ensconced in being a veteran is also somewhat irreverent, though I know that word is thrown around a lot. More simply put, you tend to zoom in on one element, one scorn, one moment, one thing to cope with. What drives this sort of writing?
MY: Self-loathing? Haha. I feel like the thing I zoom in on a lot of the time are my own shortcomings. Most of the things I write that have to do with my service use the war or the Marines as forward narrative momentum—background. Otherwise I’m usually poking fun at myself or trying to figure out why I acted the way I did, which maybe might help someone else.
JDE: Your book, Eat The Apple, is forthcoming next year. First of all, tell me about that title.
MY: It’s a Marine Corps saying: Eat the apple. Fuck the Corps. It’s not exactly a term of endearment. It’s a nod to the impermanence of an enlistment.
JDE: Did you set out to write a book-length work? Or did you start writing with the intention of it being a shorter piece, and then just couldn’t stop? Or something else?
MY: I started out not wanting to write it at all. I’d tried writing fiction and nonfiction about my experience and it just wasn’t good—it felt indulgent and overly dramatic, and also like I was trying to tout this experience I thought of at the time as unique. Something that gave me specialized knowledge that elevated me above people who hadn’t served in some way. It felt wrong. So I went to my grad program selling my faculty on writing weird speculative stories set in the Midwest. I wasn’t super proud of the work I was doing, but it wasn’t that bad. Then for a graduate student reading I wanted to try something new so I sat down and popped out four really short vignettes about being in the Marines. They all had different voices, were written in different perspectives, they were funny and tragic and they got a good reception. I tried to call it a fluke for a couple months, but I kept going back to them, and then that summer they all just kind of poured out of me. I probably wrote two hundred pages and ended up with over a hundred usable pages and then kept developing those and creating new stories over the next year. I ended up with a thesis length manuscript, graduated, and then spent the next year finishing the book.
JDE: Do you draw inspiration from different sources for different end products? Who are some of your big go-to writers?
MY: I watch a lot of movies and television. I read a lot of speculative fiction and poetry. I borrowed forms from medical evaluations and diagrams, multiple choice tests, military publications. Some writers I’m really into right now are Claire Vaye Watkins, Brian Oliu, Elena Passarello, Chris McCormick, Brit Bennett, Chris Bachelder, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ben Loory, lots of others. The thing that probably inspired the book the most was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which I’d read during undergrad, but came back to and keep coming back to.
JDE: As you wrote your memoir, what other things were you doing? Not just what books you were reading, but big things like where were you in life? And also small things like if you remember a movie or an album or a friendship from that time.
MY: A lot. When I started, it was 2013 and I had just moved to Ohio from Oregon. We were listening to a lot of Wilco during the cross-country drive. My wife and I had gotten married in June of 2013 and then we moved in early August. I was working towards my MA. My wife was getting her second Master’s degree. It was my first year teaching—building syllabi, instructing, assessing. I saw Twelve Years A Slave in a snowstorm in some town in Ohio. There were eight people in the theater, one guy walked out during the scene when Patsey gets whipped. I used to meet a buddy of mine who was in the composition and rhetoric program every week to have breakfast and watch the newest episode from the first season of True Detective.
JDE: I could get behind that for breakfast.
MY: In the middle of my first year of grad school I found my biological family. Then I contacted them about a week before my wife and I went to Thailand for our delayed honeymoon. Then we drove out to Massachusetts to meet them when we got back—they had gotten back together some time after putting me up for adoption and nine years later had another kid, and another, and another. So I got to meet my biological mom, dad, two brothers, and sister. It was wild. I think those emotions made it into the book. We’re close now—me and the bio family—we stay in touch, I visit whenever I can. We’re going out there in July actually. My brother just graduated college and my sister just graduated high school. My middle brother is thinking about joining the Marines. That was one hell of a digression. Sorry—it’s hard to bring that up and not go into some kind of detail.
JDE: No, I think this is exactly what I meant, how could you even separate the writing process from what you were going through at that time? The big, emotionally draining stuff, but also yeah, True Detective for breakfast.
MY: Oh! I spent most of that summer and fall writing to Slothrust’s album Of Course You Do—great lyrics, vocals, and guitar. The week before my thesis defense I ran my first marathon in Cincinnati—the training for the marathon really helped me tap into some weird places and also helped with memory recovery. When I graduated from my Master’s program in 2015 my wife got a job in Washington State, so we moved again. I was accepted to a couple writer’s residencies with Words After War and Carey Institute’s Logan Nonfiction Program. I worked third shift at UPS when I returned from those through the winter then started adjuncting at a couple community colleges. The writing of the book was really like a three-year process. I’m still running through final edits right now. So I guess it’s verging onto four years.
JDE: Have you always been a writer? Or is this something that you discovered after you served in the military?
MY: Like capital W Writer? I wrote a bit in high school for our literary magazine. I was a burnout and a wannabe punk and I wrote shitty articles about why pot should be legal. I didn’t really start writing with the intent to publish until after the Marines in college. Though I did write a really shitty novella during my third deployment to Iraq. I wrote it as a serial to the woman who’s now my wife to try and impress her—I can’t explain my thought process at all in that regard. But we’re married now. So I guess I did something right?
JDE: Does it even matter when people find writing? Or is it something that you notice in other writing?
MY: No. I think people come to writing at different times. I do think some people are naturally predisposed to writing (just like some people are predisposed to addiction or athleticism), but I also think it can be learned and cultivated and lost.
JDE: I like that. Where do you fall with writing?
MY: I’ve always loved to read, which piqued my interest in writing when I was young, but I don’t know if I have natural writing talent. I’ve always been happy making stuff up or imagining things, scenarios, people. I think what I have is a natural enthusiasm for writing, and a desire to get good at it — I like making people feel things. I’ve been privileged enough to work with some great teachers and mentors in the past eight years who’ve fostered that enthusiasm and desire and have helped me make that brain-to-page connection. I feel really lucky thinking about that.
JDE: What are you working on now?
MY: I just got done building some raised garden beds. I just finished a draft of an essay about John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’m going through the first pass of the memoir. I’m teaching. I just ran a half marathon, and I’m training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October. I’m hoping to do some fly fishing and work on my roll cast at some point this summer.
JDE: I had to google roll cast which I’m not afraid to admit. Thank you so much, and we can’t wait to have you read to us at The Foundry!
MY: Thank you, and me too! I’m looking forward to meeting you all in person.
For some more of Matt’s writing, check out “A New Species of Yucca,” at Tin House.
So when we find the leg, we think we might be delusional from any number of things. But the leg is there and we think we can hear one another’s thoughts about the leg: Where’d this fucking leg come from? Why’s it in the middle of the desert? Whose leg is it? It’s not mine. Is it mine? I bet whoever’s it is probably misses it. Is it wearing pants? Think there are cigarettes in the pocket? It is wearing pants. Linen, maybe silk—this could be a rich leg.
(from “A New Species of Yucca” by Matt Young. Read more at Tin House.)
Catch Matt Young, along with Hari Alluri, Kali Wallace, Elizabeth Marro, and Steph Cha, Saturday, June 10th at 7 PM at Public Square Coffee in La Mesa. And don’t forget to enroll in Matt’s class that morning!
Matt Young is a Marine Corps infantry veteran, teacher, editor, and writer. His work can be found in Incoming: Veteran Writers On Coming Home, CONSEQUENCE magazine, Split Lip, Word Riot, Tin House, River Teeth, and many others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Centralia College in Washington State. He is the author of Eat the Apple (Bloomsbury 2018), a multi-genre flash nonfiction war memoir about his three combat deployments to Iraq between 2005 and 2009. Find out more at www.mattyoungauthor.com or follow him on Twitter @young_em_see.
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