Thursday, December 6, 2007

Interview with Matt Ellsworth

I first "met" Matt several months ago right after we had put up the new Phoebe blog - he left us a nice comment on some post or another and invited us to have a look around his own blog, EditWrite. So I did, and found this great essay called "My Annie Dillard Story." But don't read it yet - first scroll down and read his bio and then the interview, which took place over email from late October to late November. Only after that should you head over to his site.

A bio:

Matt Ellsworth graduated from Mason in 2004 with a concentration in fiction. While he was at Mason, he taught freshman composition and a few creative writing classes. He also served as the fiction editor of Phoebe. Since leaving Mason, he has worked with numerous non-profit organizations and spent a brief stint reading slush for Zoetrope: All-Story; he now lives in Arizona with his wife and daughter, and he produces a variety of web and print projects as part of the communications team at a philanthropic foundation, which seeks to support the state's biosciences field. He blogs at EditWrite.

And now, the interview:

On your blog, EditWrite, you've said "though I write to make a living, I love reading more." As I understand it, you're a writer for a non-profit organization in Arizona, and you freelance on the side. Have these responsibilities changed your writing and reading habits since you studied at Mason? If so, how?

Half the time, I think I'm one of those alums who make Bill Miller cringe. I'm definitely screwing up the average for Mason writers who have won the National Book Award for fiction.

I've barely picked up my lucky fiction-writing pencil at all since finishing the MFA, and I certainly haven't read as much as I did in the program. A sense of regret doesn't eat away at the core of my being, but I do miss it and I more fully understand the statement various people have made about the main benefit of the MFA being space and time--the space and time to step outside of a daily slog and learn something about The Writing Life.

Today's excuses for not working on a story or finishing that book gathering dust on my nightstand are pretty good--wife with the flu, two year-old daughter pooping in the shower, big deadline at work, construction crew ripping out the street beneath our bedroom window at 5:30 am. But they're still excuses.

From a more psychological standpoint, I've found over the past couple of years that I don't have a bottomless well of writerly energy. Not that anyone has ever accused me of being Philip Roth, but I'm not. In fact, at times when my writing in the workplace has been most intense, I even have to bail on the simplest, no-imagination-required freelance editing jobs.

The good side of that, to be sure, is that I am writing in the workplace every day. That's enormously gratifying. The work I do now, drafting articles about proteomics and biosurfactants and God knows what else, requires its own skill set, as was the case in my last job as a grant writer for a child-welfare agency. And the skill set I'm honing now does share an ancestor with that of a fiction writer.

But I think what you're saying about this ancestral relationship between fiction writing and professional writing is interesting, and it might be one of those connections MFA students miss in the scramble for fellowships and teaching jobs. Would you care to talk more about the similarities between the two skill sets? How the writing program at Mason prepared you for that transition (if at all)?

Or, if you'd rather a more concrete question, how did you get into grant-writing/non-profit work?

I have one real regret about my time in Mason's program--I made no serious effort to try out professional writing, despite all the opportunities for that in the DC metro area. Probably the most useful action I could have taken as a student would have been to find an internship or part-time job that would have yielded clips. I got a sense of how interesting that writing could be in Alan's literary journalism course (which I think should be required every semester), but by then I was nearly out of the program.

We moved to Berkeley after I finished, where I might have found a job teaching, but I said I wanted to write for a living. For four months, the closest I got was slush-pile reading for Zoetrope, a great experience that did nothing for the checkbook. Eventually, while futilely applying for jobs at grocery stores and REI, and working a few hours a week for an after-school tutoring program, I got my "break." The director of the tutoring program left, and the overarching nonprofit hired me as the replacement. The curse and blessing of such a tiny nonprofit--it had four full-time staff--is how little institutional infrastructure exists to support or restrict you. I was able to build out the tutoring program, get some experience recruiting and managing staff, and when the development director was "released," I started helping out with grant-proposal and report writing, plus some agency print and web publications.

That experience got me a grant-writing position for a much bigger operation, and there training as a fiction writer began to pay off. Richard Ford said something about fiction writing being a kind of impersonation, and my task felt like that: to represent for funders, as if it were mine, the expertise of really talented clinicians and administrators. Essentially, I had to attend to voice and audience. And having spent some time in workshops, it didn't bother me when a program director asked me to include something in a proposal and the chief executive officer told me to take it out. My colleagues apparently found that as impressive as any writing I did.

My work now is different, somewhere between journalism and public relations, but as elsewhere, I'm relying heavily on training as a writer attentive to structure at the narrative and sentence level. I'm amazed at how structurally complex well-written journalism can be, and I'm newly impressed by the art of general-audience science-writing. I've got a long way to go before I'm good at it.

I'd like to quickly talk about Zoetrope, and then move back to your writing, if that's okay.

I don't know the numbers of submissions
Zoetrope gets a quarter or whatever, but I somehow have this picture in my head of a walk-in closet kind of room full of boxes of slush-pile stories.

In your experience reading for them, how often did a story make it out of that "room" and into the editors' office? How is that process set up (aside from the agented work, I mean)?

Your image is pretty accurate. The magazine's offices are above the appropriately named Cafe Zoetrope, a wine bar in North Beach, around the corner from City Lights Bookstore and Caffe Trieste--where Coppola supposedly wrote the screenplay for The Godfather.

At least during my short time there, slush-pile reading happened in a small room with a couch, a table, a computer for logging submissions, a big window with a nice cross-breeze, and a wall of metal shelving, filled with cardboard boxes of submissions.

Stories rarely made it out of that room. There wasn't a specific rule, as I recall, but I think it took a second recommendation from a reader to get a story to an assistant editor. I'd estimate I advanced one of every twenty I read. Once in a while, a slush-pile story made it all the way to the magazine.

Still, I took more hope from the process than you might at first think. For one thing, they had an application for would-be readers that included substantive written evaluation of some sample stories, followed by a little interview. So I think they had readers who knew something about reading. Second, because it was hard to place a story in the magazine sans agent, I at least was excited at the prospect, and read carefully and generously, hunting for a gem.

It's nice to hear that Zoetrope had generous readers like you working their submission piles. And hopefully they still do.

Earlier you mentioned missing the kind of writing life that an MFA program creates for its students. Do you have any plans to eventually return to some of those creative projects such a life made possible? I'm thinking of fiction or non-fiction work, even something like a non-fiction project in the manner of that general-audience science-writing you admire?

The last thing I want to do is say I plan to start writing again--I already know plenty of people who say they're going to write but don't. I'd rather be He-Who-Doesn't-Write than He-Who-Intends-to-Write. And yet, I would be deeply disappointed if I never returned to writing fiction. So let me contradict myself: Yes, I'm going to get back to it; I think it will be sooner rather than later. But until I actually do, I probably shouldn't say much.

One thing I will say is that I'm literally where I want to be to write--in the Southwest. I remember Alan asking a question at the second or third meeting of Forms, something along the lines of, what writer serves as your model? The two names that first came to mind for me were Wallace Stegner and Rick Bass. When I first read them, I didn't know how to learn from the technical skills they were employing, but I was enthralled with their intertwining of character and plot with landscape. Emulating them seemed as great a reason to write as any I'd found.

I've only been back in Arizona for a few months, but already I feel myself reconnecting to the landscape, and to the tensions that come from growing hordes of people living in such a fragile, sometimes inhospitable place. I know that "a sense of place" isn't essential for all writers, and probably won't be for me forever, but for now, it's marvelously energizing. If that means Mr. A. A. Knopf in New York City can't make sense of what I write, so be it.

Right, I feel as though I can sort of understand the contradiction there - for me, it grows from a hesitancy to tell people certain things for fear of either those things not working out or, even worse, my then having to actually do those things. In both cases, I'm often faced with the question - "Hey, whatever happened to such and such?" It's a hard question to answer, especially when I'm the one asking it of myself. If that makes sense.

It sounds as though you'll be settled in Arizona for a while then. Are you originally from there?

I'm not an Arizona native, but I grew up and did undergrad studies here, and one branch of my family arrived in the 1860s, looking for gold and building cabins and stealing land from the native population.

Outside of the tribal communities, that kind of longevity in the state is pretty unusual, and it has contributed to my sense of being a "Westerner," though as the population of the Southwest continues to metastisize, that's an increasingly empty designation. (While we're still talking about imaginary writing I haven't done) I do get the sense that the tensions produced by the region's transition and ever-more blurred history might ultimately provide the backlighting for my fiction.

1 comment:

  1. This is great reading. I'm impressed both with the sense of calm that Matt conveys (despite the hazards of "real life") as well as his willingness to do even more writing by responding to the interview questions! Lucky for us, he did.