Thursday, January 06, 2005


An Interview with Author Matt St. Amand

(Originally published in The Quarterly Staple)

Q: I read somewhere that as a child you once said to your mother, “We’d know by now if I was retarded, wouldn’t we?”

A: Yeah, I was seven. She and I were in the car, and I blurted that out.

Q: What did she say?

A: I don’t remember.

Q: Did your interest in ventriloquism as a child have anything to do with you becoming a writer later in life?

A: (Laughs) You may as well ask a firefighter if pissing the bed as a kid had anything to do with him taking up his profession. I have no idea.

Q: Right. Well, then, what was your first exposure to literature?

A: When I was about three years old my dad found some older kids in the neighborhood writing swear words in the dirt in front of me.

Q: How has your father reacted to your writing over the years?

A: A story appeared in a magazine called JetSet. My wife warned my parents away from the story—a throwaway piece about a drunken party—saying it shocked my mother-in-law. So, my dad asked me if I’ve begun writing pornography.

Q: Really?

A: He asked if I write about orgies. I was floored. I offered him a copy of JetSet so he could see for himself, but he didn’t want it.

Q: How did your mother react to your novel, The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing?

A: She hated it.

Q: How do you mean?

A: As in not finishing it, not enjoying it, generally finding what she did read unenjoyable.

Q: Does it contain descriptions of your drinking?

A: Yes.

Q: Is the novel autobiographical?

A: It’s still in-progress, but it’s like the rest of my work: loosely based on events I’ve lived or heard about, and fictionalized from there.

Q: You’re author of the short story collection, As My Sparks Fly Upward, and a volume of poetry, Forever & a Day. Is it true you spent nine years writing Forever & a Day?

A: Yeah, but it’s not your garden-variety candy-ass poetry. I’m more inspired by Lou Reed, Bono, and Pete Townsend than Shakespeare or Shelley.

Have you ever heard the classic recording of Sam Cooke live at the Harlem Club in Miami in 1963?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, you know how Side Two begins with the music of the previous song (“Somebody Have Mercy”) still rolling along, and Cooke says, “I think it’s time I told you about my baby...”? How he takes the audience through five minutes of spontaneous combustion, talking about how he and his baby “fuss and fight, and sometimes my baby leaves home ‘cause things ain’t right...” culminating in a rendition of “You Send Me” that is absolutely pyrotechnic. The audience responds, applauding, crying out, and when the moment has reached its emotional apex, Sam Cooke explodes into a heart-shattering version of “Bring It On Home To Me.” That’s Forever & a Day.

Q: Whom were you writing about—?

A: Christ, does everything have to revolve around autobiography?

Q: Well, it’s obvious that you’re—

A: Writing poetry! Why does it have to be—

Q: But it’s clearly written with one person in mind.

A: Then buy the goddamned thing and figure it out yourself!

Q: I have… You seem unusually rattled by routine questions. Why?

A: (Sighs) General anxiety, I guess.

Q: Were you shy growing up?

A: Painfully, paralyzingly shy.

Q: What triggers this anxiety? Is it simply “social phobia”?

A: There’s nothing simple about it. Going outside triggers it. I’m the Great Canadian Indoorsman. I only enjoy lousy weather. Sunny days are fine, but only when viewed through a window while I’m standing inside a structure.

Q: Uh, right…

A: It’s just when I get outside, my eyes getting beaten up by the sunlight, my ears cringing from traffic, squawking voices, shrill laughs. And at any time somebody could jump in front of me and demand that I account for myself. But I can’t. I have no plan for myself, my life. I’m not cost effective. I’m not fuel efficient—

Q: So, you remain indoors for the most part?

A: Not really. My friend Bob Stewart—author of the wonderful novel-in-progress, Set & Setting—often joins me at Chapters bookstore to drink coffee and Hold Forth.

Q: Do you prefer the company of writers?

A: No, just friends.

Q: Do they share your fears?

A: We’ve all got our quirks. It’s fun comparing notes, hearing about my friends’ botched holiday afternoons with their in-laws—kicking troublesome in-law pets, making mothers-in-law cry. Profanity at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.

Q: Do you have contact with friends from your drinking days?

A: No. As I pulled my life together from the slovenly intoxicated mess it had become, my drinking buddies seemed disappointed that I was climbing out of the muck.

Q: Does this account for your exclusion from the Windsor Festival of the Book in the last two years?

A: I don’t know.

Q: What happened with that?

A: It’s a local book festival run by a former drinking buddy. I wasn’t invited to the first event in 2002, even though Sparks just came out and it would have been a wonderful formal launch of the book in Windsor. And I was left out last year, too.

Q: Why?

A: “Das Kommittee” I’m told. Some Star Chamber of bitter, rarified local literati that voted against my inclusion.

Q: They felt your work wasn’t up to par?

A: Yeah. However, there was a “mini-event” for local artists. Reminded me of that scene from the beginning of Animal House when Larry “Pinto” Kroger and Flounder pledge that uppity fraternity, and are stranded in the room with the losers.

Q: Have you read for audiences elsewhere?

A: This summer I’ve read in Windsor, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Sarnia, Toronto, and Columbus, Ohio.

Q: I’d like to shift gears and talk about your involvement with Xavier Lipshitz.

A: That’s a long story.

Q: We’ve got time.

A: I’ve signed confidentiality agreements.

Q: I’m not asking you to reveal state secrets, but for only a few observations about the legendary reclusive CEO of ZemhepCo Group.

A: Well, I was living in— I can’t tell you where—

Q: Dublin, Ireland?

A: Yeah. And I was— I can’t tell you where I was working—

Q: You were a technical writer with global leviathan OHS/HIT.

A: Uh, yeah. I received— I was summoned to Dublin Airport, right onto the tarmac.

Q: To Xavier Lipshitz’s famous magenta supersonic jet?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: He was searching for a biographer.

Q: And he called you!? He could hire anyone— Pynchon, Rushdie, Stephen King.

A: Well, he wanted me, someone unknown.

Q: To write what? Xavier’s correspondence with spam/scammers, applying to the Roman Catholic Church to be Pope, even his communiqué to American Admiral John Poindexter are a matter of public record.

A: There’s much more to Xavier and ZemhepCo Group than that.

Q: Is Xavier Lipshitz actually 108 years old?

A: Yes.

Q: What sort of condition is he in, physically?

A: He’s a patchwork of two dozen human beings, having undergone countless organ transplants. However he’s remarkably mobile in his plutonium-powered wheelchair.

Q: I’ve read that he hasn’t eaten food in decades.

A: Correct. He has a regimen of nutritional drinks and… enemas… to keep him together.

Q: Can you explain?

A: Well, he uses the STUMICOL food replacement shake, which isn’t available to the public. It’s not only a nourishing drink, it can be used as suntan lotion, aftershave, and it makes a hell of a sexual lubricant.

Q: You’re kidding?

A: No. The other half of the regimen involves RECTOL Colon Enhancer. It’s— well, it’s still being perfected in the laboratory.

Q: How long have you worked as Xavier’s biographer?

A: I can’t reveal that.

Q: What is your strangest experience with him?

A: Uh, well— (long pause) We landed in Uzbekistan eighteen months ago—dropping someone off, or picking someone up, I forget. Normally, customs officials do not bother us, but this time a full army battalion surrounded the jet. I was grouped with Xavier’s Lycra-clad Amazonian attendants, and taken to a bunker-like building, and waited outside a room I assumed was used for strip searches. We knew it was all a set up when Xavier was led into the room, not one of his attendants. He had bought off the government before this, but there had been some glitch moving the money.

Anyhow, Xavier motored into this room in his plutonium-powered wheelchair, followed by two surly officials. Soon after the door closed there was the sound of a commotion inside, then groaning, grunting. Suddenly the door flew open and a blurry-eyed customs officer staggered out, having vomited down the front of his shirt.

Q: What?

A: My confidentiality agreement forbids me to say another word.

Q: Uh, then maybe we’ll steer back to your book, As My Sparks Fly Upward. Are the details of the first story, “Grudgingly,” (published by FRiGG Magazine) based on your real life break-up with a girlfriend?

A: I broke up with a girl and my character, Larry Dun, broke up with a girl—that’s as far as the connection goes.

Q: In fact, didn’t your long-time girlfriend break up with you? And the same with Larry Dun?

A: Sure, if you want to make that distinction.

Q: I bring this up because taking As My Sparks Fly Upward as a whole, there’s little doubt that the narrator of the book is an alcoholic. Are you an alcoholic?

A: I haven’t had a drink in months.

Q: You’ve given it up completely?

A: It wasn’t a conscious decision.

Q: A case of “spontaneous remission,” to use AA nomenclature?

A: I suppose that’s right.

Q: Your collection of poetry, Forever & a Day, is the product of obsession, is it not?

A: I wouldn’t say—

Q: What would you say?

A: (Leaning forward in his chair) I’d say, if you interrupt me again you’re going to get struck down.

Q: You began Forever & a Day soon after the break-up with your long-time girlfriend.

A: Yes.

Q: It’s clear that your feelings for the lost girlfriend sublimated into obsession over her younger sister who resembled your lost girlfriend.

A: Sublimated—yeah. Absolutely sublimated. They were sublimational feelings. Fucking hell.

Q: Is Forever & a Day the product of obsession?

A: It’s the product of nine years of writing.

Q: How did you know when you finally completed it?

A: It was an innate process. Writing poetry, for me, is based on gut-reactions to ideas and images. I finally got where my gut told me I was finished with Forever.

Q: Even when finally published, does your work ever actually feel “finished”?

A: I always find things I’d like to change.

Q: How did The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing come about?

A: After finishing school I moved to Ireland. I had read Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, and was moved by its easy, evocative flow. I joined the Irish Writers’ Centre, and Devil is what came out when I sat down to write each day.

Q: I’m curious about the origins of your work. You claim it’s not autobiographical, yet it’s laden with details from your life.

A: (Falls back in his chair, laughing) Jesus Christ!

Q: What’s that?

A: Your interview style: get your subject to shit in public, and then withhold the toilet paper for as along as possible.

Q: Are you drunk right now?

A: Fuck you!

Q: Do you take any psychoactive drugs?

A: The last drug I took was my sixth cup of coffee this morning.

Q: What time of day do you do your writing?

A: Morning.

Q: I thought you were a nighthawk?

A: Was.

Q: What is the underlying theme of your work?

A: I’ve got this nocturnal, love-from-afar, last-day-on-earth ethic. You know, trying to capture those singular moments when a person steps outside of their routine, beyond their comfort zone, and takes a chance—standing up to a prick bully, asking a girl out, walking out on a marriage that’s no longer working.

Q: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

A: Book and magazine editors are doing a lousy job protecting you from the slush pile.

Q: How so?

A: The number of rejections my work has received vastly outnumbers the acceptances. And that’s fine. But the thing I cannot reconcile is editors’ reluctance to publish my work, and readers’ enthusiastic response to my writing.

Q: For instance?

A: The positive feedback I’ve received about Sparks. People telling me how they could relate to my experiences. All the while, editors have treated these stories like lepers. Magazines have published three of the stories in Sparks individually. There are some talented writers/artists out there right now, languishing in obscurity, and some of their voices will never be heard.

Q: You’re still languishing in obscur—

The interview is broken off when author, Matthew St. Amand, leaps from his seat, grabs interviewer by the throat, both men topple over as the interviewer’s chair capsizes.


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