Local author Matthew Simmons was kind enough to agree to be bombarded with a variety of questions. Here is a concise version of the words that went flying back and forth.
I’m Matthew. I work at the bookstore. I write copy for ads, signs, and newsletters.
You say you’re Matthew and you work at a bookstore, but isn’t it also true you’re a writer of fiction? Who is Matthew Simmons: local author?
Umm. I suppose I am a writer of fiction, too. Beyond that, who knows.
Zombie virus attacks the planet. Not only are the recently dead infected, but the classically dead as well. Both Ovid and Horace are in your apartment. Who do you take down first?
Horace. It would be hard to convince myself to take out the author of Metamorphoses.
Do you go to the zoo often? I think you live near there.
Not as often now that the Nocturnal House is gone. One of the first short stories I ever finished involved that place. I think I managed to spot all the animals—even the rabbit-y thing. (Can’t remember what it was called.)
I was very sad to hear of the passing of the Pallas’s Cat. I used to go to the zoo weekly and every time I would walk by the Pallas’s Cat enclosure, the animal would be hiding or asleep. One rainy Sunday, though, I walked by, leaned on the railing and up popped its head. And then it walked out into the open, stared in my direction for a couple of minutes, and left.
How long have you had your cat, Emmett?
Seven or eight years? He’s from a kill shelter in Everett. Got there in time. Of all the cats in the shelter, he was the least interested in my arrival. I thought, well this cat isn’t into me at all. I think I'll take him home.
Scientists and politicians are asking James Cameron for advice, so now it’s your turn: how would you plug the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico?
There’s another writer named Matthew Simmons who is an oil industry guy. Apparently if you ask him, he’ll tell you to nuke the well closed.
Me, no clue.
Who is your favorite superhero and why?
Matter-Eater Lad. Because after his career as a superhero, he became a public servant, and served the planet Bismoll in some sort of planetary senate.
What was your experience like at Warren Wilson? A Jello Horse seems to be inspired, at least partially, by your time spent there. But which instructor would you say, generally speaking, influenced or inspired you the most?
My favorite advisor at Warren Wilson was Mike McNally. On his book covers, he goes by T.M. McNally. Fantastic writer, fantastic teacher.
I liked Warren Wilson. I have quipped that when I wrote A Jello Horse, I was doing all the things I was told not to do, but I’ve mostly been kidding about that. It’s not so much what I was told “can’t work in fiction,” as it was simply I was warned that there are significant tonal or structural effects of using, say, present tense or second person. Choices have consequences. And a writer needs to compensate for what is lost when a constraint is placed on a piece of writing.
What music, movies, or non-literary arts have influenced your writing the most?
Some of my earliest attempts at creating fiction were when I was in college and making music with my friends. I spent time creating an elaborate fake history for a “band” I started. I stole this idea from Negativland.
When you feel kind of lost in your work, what do you do? How do you find your way again?
Start something else, usually. Which is, I’ve come to realize, a terrible idea.
I understand you and Ryan Boudinot go way back. Where does the story of your friendship begin?
Ryan and I did a reading together a number of years ago. It was me, Ryan, and David Drury (a writer and musician—check out his band Tennis Pro). We were asked to do a Monkeybicycle reading, they,
because both had been in the very first Best Nonrequired Reading, me I think because they were desperate. My buddy Shya Scanlon set the reading up. Ryan and David were pretty amazing. I was embarrassed by my material and my performance (it was, I think, the second time I had read something I wrote in front of a crowd), and I left quickly without talking to anyone.
Ryan asked Shya how to contact me, and he and David were kind enough to include me in a three-person writer’s group. It was the first time I had been in such a thing. During that time, Ryan explained the MFA system to me and encouraged me to consider looking into low residency programs.
Ryan’s early encouragement—and continuing encouragement—has meant the world to me.
What books would you suggest someone read to be reminded of the transformative power of fiction? Or maybe just five books you view as essential? Books that you would feel naked without.
I can read the story “Strays” by Mark Richard over and over without ever getting tired of it. It’s in a really good collection called The Ice at the Bottom of the World. Same goes for “The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier.
It took me years to finally get up the nerve to read Moby-Dick. It bothers me that no one ever even suggested to me that that book can be very funny.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien? 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme? David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction or “The Suffering Channel”?
Here’s a book I love: You’re An Animal Viskovitz by Alessandro Boffa. Modern-day Ovid.
And Meet Me in the Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich. I love that book so very much.
Matthew Simmons is the author of the novella A Jello Horse, contributor to The Pacific Northwest Reader and Best of the Web 2010, regular contributor over at HTMLGiant, author of two forthcoming short story collections, and Seattle’s reigning Literary Deathmatch Champion (as well as The Man Who Couldn’t Blog).
Interviewed by Griffin