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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Matt Sumell Q&A: Novel Talks at Neon Tommy

Madeleine Remi |
February 17, 2015 | 11:16 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter


After publishing short stories in The Paris Review, Esquire, Electric Literature, and Noon, Matt Sumell has released his first novel.

"Making Nice" follows Alby as he tries to escape the anguish of his mother's death by any means possible. A wickedly funny anti-hero for the millenial generation, Alby's stories will have you crying from laughter to heartbreak in a page.

Releasing on Feb. 17, "Making Nice" has already been raved about by The BBC, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and Publishers WeeklyWe sat down with the author to discuss how he conceived such an unforgettable voice, and what it's like to be behind the book everyone is talking about. 

How did "Making Nice" start? Did you write a few stories from Alby’s perspective and decide to expand? 

I always preferred voice-driven stuff, and when I arrived at UC Irvine I had that voice. But, in the way Geoffrey Wolff put it,"you’ve got great aim; now, you need targets worth blowing away." I also had Mark Ricard, a great teacher and friend, who said, “It’s easy, Matt, you just have to make them laugh and break their fucking hearts.” I had to do the breaking hearts thing, because my stories really couldn’t be taken seriously given that they were about nail salons and whatever else (they all have ridiculous names, like Angel Tips). 

What were some of the first stories in the book? 

There are a lot of stories that I wrote at Irvine that are still in the book, but my earlier works were really short. I was overwhelmed; I didn’t have an ease with language. It doesn’t come easy to me. I had friends in my MFA program who could, the night before, write 30 pages and most of it was brilliant. That’s never been the case for me. I’m what Geoffrey Wolff would call a bleeder. I eked it out, and I would sweat every word and edit as I went.

It wasn’t sustainable... it was so painful. My brain worked like an auto-immune disease, one thought attacked another. You write one thing and then attack it, because 'this isn’t good enough!’ Oh my God, it’s so much self-aggression.

Which one was the easiest to tackle?

"Rape in the Animal Kingdom" was just so absurd to me. And I had a little bit of fun being that absurd and letting some ridiculousness fly. It wasn’t horrible to go to work every morning. And so after a few months, maybe three or four, I had a draft that I was happy with. 

The stories aren’t presented in chronological order, so what was the process like to decide how they flowed into one another? 

It was a tough decision, and one that me and my editor went back and forth on. Rightfully so, as some of these Amazon reviews say, “Alby is the worst person, he’s a monster, he’s despicable,” and I think possibly my editor was worried about that. Maybe wanted to present him early on as a more fully fleshed out, sympathetic version of himself. But I said fuck that, because in a book called "Making Nice," he shouldn’t start out nice. Let’s start with some force. Let’s clobber people. It was moving stories around like a mosaic to find the overall narrative arch that I was looking for. 

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Alby? 

I am a writer who uses real experiences to fictionalize. Some of these stories are complete inventions, some of it is selecting things from “real life” and then leaving things out. And then on top of that, you’re making shit up for the story’s sake. Therefore it’s a fiction. So [I] let Alby do things I wouldn’t do and say things I wouldn’t say.

It makes sense psychologically to me that he would become impulsive when suffering. You’ll do anything to get out; you become reckless. "I’m in so much pain right now, give me that pill, give me that fucking drink, oh there’s a girl over there? Let’s go mix it up with her, whatever will get me out of my miserable present reality."

I allowed Alby to be a jerk. I’m somewhat surprised at the reaction to him. There’s a lot of judgement coming his way. But I’m always like, “Can’t you see? He’s a guy who is suffering and deserves a little bit of empathy?” It’s interesting to watch people finger point at him. 


The collection features many stories about the disheartening kind of work that Alby often found himself involved in. Why were those experiences so important to talk about for you?

I think work experiences use Geoffrey Wolff’s idea, “use the good luck in bad luck.” I got laid off teaching the same week I got published in the Paris Review. I thought they were calling me in to say "good job," and then they’re saying, “we’re letting you go”. It was a corporate policy; I was the last full time hire, so I was the first to go. When I graduated from UNC Williamgton I was working at Home Depot - because it qualified me for that - and I was sweeping floors for 39.5 hours a week. So I was considered part time with no benefits. There’s something about that that really disgusts me.

Sandy Elkin said, “writing can be revenge against your bullies.” So, what are my bullies? Loss, cancer and grief. But also making a livable wage and having to hustle to pay my rent. Being a 35 year old guy who can’t pay his bills is so frustrating. I wanted to speak to that. 

You attended UC Irvine for your MFA. What was the most valuable thing you took away from that program?

I had a great experience. I know a lot people bash MFA programs for homogenizing work or being over competitive. Irvine was not the case; it was the best thing that could happen to my writing. I was around like-minded, talented people. I had amazing teachers, who didn't teach like Iowa with this minimalist approach.

And I’m speaking out of complete ignorance, but I do know Irvine is different at least, from what I’ve heard, in that you take the best thing and you say to just do more of it. That led to different voices being championed.

Were there other writers or texts that served as inspiration for Alby’s unique narrative voice? 

The question of influence is always so hard because I think it's more complicated than it initially seems. I could parade out the “here are my favorite writers” list. I’m not sure it works that way. I’m probably more influenced by people I would be ashamed to be influenced by. I was never a big reader... I think my sister would give me things like, “here is the mutant message down under” and I’d be like “oh that’s so great” when I was like 13 years old. Maybe in some way that got me into reading in the back of my brain, eventually?

I don’t know what directly influenced me, but if there is one book, it would be Dennis Johnson’s "Jesus’ Son." It sort of exploded my ideas about what literature could be.

How did you fall into writing if you didn’t find yourself reading much when you were younger? 

This is a little embarrassing, but I was an environmental science major. I was always book smart, but never career oriented. One of the electives I could take was an introduction to fiction class, and I took it with Rebecca Lee. She is super funny, lovely, talented and gorgeous. I had the hugest crush, and I worked so hard in that class because I wanted to impress her. And then I took more of her classes, like a total stalker weirdo, and I ended up a double major. Pretty, talented, funny ladies making things worthwhile turned me into a writer. 

Where do you enjoy writing? Do you have any specifications on your writing environment? 

Well, my brain shuts down at what I say is 2 p.m., but is probably more like noon. So when I want to get things done, I wake up early. I’m still sleepy, but I’m fresh and my brain can function. Aimee Bender and Maile Malloy said to write two hours a day: just put in your hours and then you don’t have writer’s guilt all day. You don’t have to be inspired... just sit down and write something. 

Do you feel any pressure to write a novel next?

I just feel pressure, period. But I’m totally fine just writing short stories. People ask what I’m working on now, and I tell them my mental health. I’m working on a non-fiction piece for Esquire. I took my old manto Manilla to try and find a movie that he was in 50 years ago. It’s difficult to do much right now because I’m in press mode and about to start a book tour. 

Contact Staff Reporter Madeleine Remi here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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