Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interview with Matthew Quick

Matthew Quick (aka Q) is the New York Times-bestselling author of several novels, including THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which was made into an Oscar-winning film, and THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has received a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, among other accolades. Q lives with his wife, novelist-pianist Alicia Bessette, in North Carolina. He’ll be reading from his latest book LOVE MAY FAIL on July 14th, at 7PM. David asked him a few questions.

Your other books involve characters with somewhat “obvious” mental disabilities. Here it’s more subtle – Portia’s mother and her hoarding, for example – but the subject of mental illness is not front and center. Thoughts about that?

MQ: Many people who struggle with mental-health-related issues function just fine and without detection, but that doesn’t diminish their struggle. When I began speaking openly about my own battles with depression and anxiety, many of my former students were surprised. I tried not to show that side of myself in the classroom. It took a lot of energy to hide my depression and anxiety, but I was a pro. There were hints, of course, and if you knew what to look for you would have seen that I was struggling. Portia struggles with depression in LOVE MAY FAIL. So does Nate Vernon, and in a pretty intense way. You don’t have to spend time locked up to be a part of the mental health community. You don’t have to be on a certain type of meds. And you don’t have to be a label either. I am not a depressed anxious person. I am a person who sometimes struggles with depression and anxiety. At almost every event I do, mental health comes up in the Q&A. There are readers who admit their struggles in front of the crowd and then there are those who simply give me a look that lets me know. The important thing is to be open to talking about our problems with someone. And, while it’s not my primary goal—I try to tell a good story, first and foremost—whenever my work helps start conversations about mental health, I’m very grateful.

A follow-up to that last question – in both this novel and the last one, THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW, you’re able to use the behavioral peculiarities of characters as a significant source of the humor in the book. To do that you have to walk a thin line between empathy and ridicule (which by the way I think you manage very skillfully) – how do you navigate that?

MQ: I try to mine the absurdity of life, not humiliate anyone. Pretty much everyone can tell the difference. There’s nothing funny about my own special brand of depression and anxiety, but both give me a unique view of the world that can often lead to surprising and sometimes hilarious revelations. I’ve heard that we laugh at what surprises us. When a movie character trips and doesn’t get hurt we laugh because the fall is unexpected. When we metaphorically trip and don’t get hurt too badly, it helps to laugh too. My wife is always telling me to laugh more. She and I laugh a lot, but it’s still good advice.

You’re writing here about the experience of publishing a novel. I think it’s always challenging for a writer to write fiction about writing. Was that always meant to be a central focus of the book? Does it pose special challenges?

MQ: I’d say it’s more about the disillusionment that occurs when my character makes the transition from "person who dreams of publishing one day" to "published author." It’s quite a step. And it’s not always a safe one. Most writers I know, whether they admit this publicly or not, struggle with the publishing part of the writing life. Everyone is grateful, everyone is hopeful. But it’s not always all fun and games. Fiction writing is—for me and many others—a private act. Publishing is anything but. You don’t really grasp the full implications of that contrast until you publish. I’m not sure writing about writing or publishing about publishing poses special challenges. Maybe there are taboos? Maybe someone somewhere says, "Thou shall not do this?" I don’t know. I write about what interests me. I create characters and try to make them authentic. Portia had an unrealized dream. I took the story where it needed to go. "Serve the story," they told me in the MFA. I always do my best.

How did your experiences as a high school teacher inform the character of Mr. Vernon, and the way he relates to his students?

MQ: Mr. Vernon’s character is 10% informed by my former teachers and 90% informed by my own experiences as a high school English teacher battling it out in the trenches of public education. Most teachers start out with grand notions about making a difference in the world and inspiring the next generation. That’s how they get young people to teach. They appeal to our youthful hearts. We’re not lured in by the money, believe me. I never worked harder for less money and I used to roof for $8.50 an hour. I had a good teaching friend who used to say, “If you’re doing it for the kids, then you’re doing the right thing.” I really believed that. Unfortunately, the people who do it for political gain or their own advancement usually end up controlling public schools. That was a spirit-crushing lesson to learn in my twenties. When I left teaching it was partly out of protest. I fought a few political battles and lost. I began to realize that the values I held up in my literature classroom were never as highly regarded as winning sporting events or SAT scores. Too many people simply want teachers to shut up and, by any means necessary, get their kids into top colleges. I felt badly beaten up by the system when I left. It grinds you down. You have to be a saint to survive it long-term. (There are saints teaching in every high school. Please thank them if they have taught you or are currently teaching your children.)

You have the good fortune, well-deserved, to have had a blockbuster movie made of your first novel (your first novel for adults, that is). Has that affected your writing since then? – in other words, do you write with a thought of how the book might translate to film?

MQ: I’m influenced by film because I watch so much of it. That was true when I was writing SILVER LININGS in obscurity, years before my trip to The Oscars. When I write a book, I try to tell the best story in novel form that I possibly can. I’m working on a screenplay for The Weinstein Company now. When I write a screenplay I try to write the best film I possibly can. Whenever people want to make films of my books, I’m grateful. But the first thing they do is write a screenplay, which is always different than the book. Just the way it is. Different forms.

Ken Humes, whom we meet in the first pages of the book, is an absolutely unsavory character who is not only personally but also socially odious. Anything in particular behind the decision to have a pornographer as a character? Did you create him solely from your imagination or did you spend time talking to people in that industry to flesh out (bad pun intended) what it’s really like?

MQ: Ha! No research was necessary. The book isn’t about pornography or Ken. Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert. Once more, spoiler alert. The idea of Ken—a pornographer—cheating on his wife with a woman half his age and then becoming more religious as a result was funny to me. I had that twist in my mind all along and the scene where Portia cries for her failed marriage on the hotel balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is one of my favorites. When Portia leaves Ken, it sparks a series of events. There is a line in the book that goes something like this: When you do nothing, nothing happens. Action creates action. I don’t admire or particularly like Ken, but I primarily see him as a mismatch for Portia. He is definitely holding her back. But could she be holding him back too? That question was/is interesting to me.

The book presents a first-person female narrator. How difficult was it for you to assume that voice, and what did you feel you needed to do to make it read as authentic?

MQ: I’m not one of those people who think that men are from one planet and women are from another. Everyone—regardless of gender—has unique quirks, thoughts, and personality traits. My job as a writer is this: climb into a skull for a while, figure out the character, and then present her/him as authentically as possible. I know many women from South Jersey. So it would be much harder for me to write about a man from, say, the Czech Republic than a woman from South Jersey. That said—several women, including my wife, edited the manuscript.

Last question - any sharks?

MQ: I haven’t seen any in Kill Devil Hills. I’m seeing a bunch on TV. It is Shark Week after all. (Did I just plug TV via a bookstore? What?)

Hear more from Matthew on July 14th, at 7PM.

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