INTERVIEWED BY NITA NOVENO
One of the most fascinating minds wrapped around science fiction today, Matt Cheney is a columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons, series editor of Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and has a few things to say about his beloved genre.
Nita Noveno: When did you first discover science fiction?
Matt Cheney: Most people for whom genre fiction becomes an obsession start out young, and I’m no exception to that rule. I was an awkward, nerdy kid who liked reading and writing, and I started with mysteries and horror stories, but then my mother’s boss decided a kid like me should read something intellectually engaging and loaned me an issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine when I was 10 or 11. He revered Asimov, and I sought out Asimov’s own books at the local college library, as well as a series of anthologies he edited of stories that had won the Hugo Award. I was hooked.
Two vitally important moments, though, shaped the reader and writer I would become. First, I met James Patrick Kelly, who when I was in 7th grade came to my school as part of a writers-in-the-schools program. I’d read a couple of Jim’s stories in Asimov’s, and having a writer for my favorite magazine show up at my school was better than having the entire cast of the “A-Team” TV show appear, which would have been the only comparable event at that time for me, I think. He gave me his address and we corresponded for a long time; I’m sure I was tremendously annoying as I sent him one breathtakingly bad story after another, but Jim is one of the nicest people on Earth, and his attention kept me going.
Second, an English professor at the local college, a Dickens specialist, took an interest in my education but was somewhat dismayed by my enthusiasm for science fiction. My mother asked him if SF was literature, and he said no. I didn’t know what literature was, but I immediately perceived a slight to my beloved genre. He gave me a copy of Laurence Perrine’s ubiquitous anthology, Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, and I tried to read as much of it as I could to figure out what literature was. I still didn’t know what literature was, but I was on a quest — I was determined to come up with an air-tight argument that science fiction was literature. This led me to literary criticism of all sorts.
At this time, also, I discovered Samuel Delany’s book The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. The college library had a copy, and I had noticed that Delany had won a bunch of Hugo Awards, so I figured he was important. I had trouble reading and understanding his fiction, and I thought his essays might help. Jewel-Hinged Jaw is a somewhat difficult book, and at 13 or 14 years old, I couldn’t make any sense of it. Though no adolescent should be expected to understand Delany’s critical writings (the idea is absurd, really), my lack of understanding bothered me as much as being told that SF wasn’t literature. The two annoyances together led to my resolve to figure it all out. Delany ended up being the key — his nonfiction, once I had learned enough to make sense of his references, made me think of literary categories in entirely different ways, and helped me realize that both “science fiction” and “literature” are terms so fraught with peril that it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.
The problem, ultimately, with conjoining the terms “literature” and “science fiction” is that most people wield the former as a term of value and the latter as a term of description; thus, “good literature” is redundant but “good science fiction” is a way to distinguish from “bad science fiction”. It’s a great tension for me — on the one hand, I am wary of anybody who would try to legislate pleasure, including aesthetic pleasure; on the other hand, I am completely stunned that anybody can find things like, oh, books by Tom Clancy pleasurable. Meanwhile, I keep writing book reviews trying to say what is and isn’t a good book, which is ultimately just me saying how a particular text hits me, what it makes me think about, and where I would have wanted to think or feel differently.
Ultimately, though, I am plagued by doubts and contradictions!
NN: Wow! It goes without saying that you’re passionate about science fiction. Who are your literary heroes?
MC: Oh dear. I don’t know. Depends on the day. “Heroes” is different from “influences”, isn’t it? Heroes suggests people who accomplish amazing feats. To some extent, I think anybody who manages to write something that deeply affects even one reader is, in that sense, a hero. Who has most deeply affected me, whether as an influence or not, then, might be my own personal pantheon. The writers who made me love reading with an overwhelming passion. In childhood, Stephen King and Isaac Asimov were the most important. In adolescence, Philip K. Dick, Franz Kafka, and the plays of Samuel Beckett and Christopher Durang. During my college years, Georg Büchner, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, and the playwrights Mac Wellman and Suzan-Lori Parks. Delany has been important to me consistently. I discovered the poetry of Paul Celan when I was in my early twenties, and it shook me as deeply as any writing ever has; it still does — I approach it with awe and humility. I abandoned genre fiction for a long time, then returned when I discovered the work of Kelly Link, China Mieville, M. John Harrison, and Jeff VanderMeer. Paul Bowles was a profound influence for a while. A few years ago I became seriously interested in fiction from or about various African countries — first Achebe, Gordimer, Soyinka, and Coetzee, but then as I began doing research and exploring more widely, I discovered Ngugi and Bessie Head and Zoe Wicomb and Zakes Mda and Marjorie Macgoye and Tsitsi Dangarembga and Helon Habila and Chris Abani and the great, great Dambudzo Marechera — that Marechera’s work is not widely available is, I think, a tremendous loss to world literature.
NN: Who influences your writing nowadays?
MC: Editors and anybody else willing to publish it! Honestly, though, I’m not sure. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have been a huge influence recently, because we’ve worked so closely together on editing Best American Fantasy, which has basically involved us throwing lots of stories at each other and saying, “Well, what do you think?” In the first round we’re all about gut reactions, no analysis, and then we look at the pile of stories to which at least one of us had a favorable immediate reaction, and we try to figure out what it is we liked, and why, and then what that reaction means. I’ve learned more about my personal prejudices when it comes to fiction over the past year than I ever had before, because when arguing passionately for a story that the other editors didn’t like as much, we have to learn how to articulate our passions, and sometimes in doing that we discover that it has less to do with anything the actual story contains than with other, ancillary elements. I think it was Ann who finally proposed a formula for how to make me completely and totally hate a story: a first-person adolescent narrator who uses short sentences to tell a story about talking animals and faeries that has, ultimately, a happy ending.
“What” influences me now is actually the question I think about most frequently, particularly as a fiction writer.
NN: Hm, okay, so what influences your writing?
MC: Because I write book reviews, and have for five years, I get a lot of books sent to me by publishers and writers. Ten to twenty books a week. I’m not a prolific reviewer or a fast reader, and the volume is more than I could ever keep up with, even if I were able to read a book a day. Now with Best American Fantasy, I also get to see hundreds — even thousands — of short stories. The effect has been to make me ask myself, whenever I send a story out to be considered for publication, if I really feel that the world needs this story. Now, I would not send anything out for publication anywhere if I always had to answer that question with a yes, because I lack the arrogance to think that anything I write is really needed by the world. But the question remains strong in my mind, and it takes a lot, now, for me to foist my fiction off on anybody. If I take the time to finish a story (and I finish only a portion of the stories I begin), I have to feel that it is doing something that is … I can’t think of the right word — not worthwhile, and certainly not unique, but … different enough from the other sorts of things I see out there that I can justify (at least vaguely) to myself its existence.
This has led me to write fiction that is, I think, often difficult for readers to figure out, not because it’s particularly “difficult” (I’m no William Gaddis!), but because what captures my passion enough for me to think a story is worth finishing and then foisting on the world is not usually the stuff that people traditionally think of as the most compelling parts of fiction. For instance, plot. I don’t go to fiction for plots — I think movies and TV shows are a better vehicle for that sort of narrative. With fiction, I like there to be some sort of movement and structure, but I’m perfectly happy if it’s just movement across a landscape. This can tend to make even my most formful stories perplexing to readers who are more fond of plot than I. Rather than plot, I’m obsessed with patterns — I notice this in my teaching, too, that I keep pointing out to students the repetitions of words, phrases, motifs, structures. I just love that stuff. I love patterns that are carefully set up, then broken. I love surprises and weirdness. I am addicted to ambiguity. If I assume that my fiction is at least partly successful at living up to my aspirations for it — and that’s a big assumption! — then what I have learned is that only a small amount of the readers who encounter it are excited by the same things that excite me in it. But it’s wonderful to encounter readers who do connect with it on that same level — and I’ve been lucky with almost every story I’ve published to have heard from a few people for whom that is true. That makes the anxieties that publications causes — and publishing fiction feels, to me, like wandering around naked in bright, glaring light — worth bearing, and the publications themselves, despite the anxieties, into moments of joy.
NN: You studied theater in undergraduate school. How does your background in theater figure into your writing?
MC: For almost ten years, I wanted to be a playwright. I was a Dramatic Writing major at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for three years. Though I became frustrated with elements of the theatre world, I still think of myself, at heart, as a playwright more than anything else. I became comfortable with fiction once I felt like I could accomplish in that genre what I had wanted to accomplish in the theatre — an obsession with language, form, and identity that often has a surrealist tinge.
More specifically and concretely, one of my friends recently told me I write dialogue like a playwright, not a fiction writer. This is probably true, and inescapable. I hope it’s an asset. I am certainly more attracted to first-person narrators than I might be otherwise; I love monologues, love the intimacy of the personal voice, love the possibilities for error and misperception that all of our particular subjectivities offer.
NN: You’re originally from New Hampshire. Is there a New Hampshire sensibility in your writing?
MC: I wish there were; I’d love to be a regional writer, to write from a sense of place. Most of my life has been spent in New Hampshire, and I’ll probably be moving back there soon, so if I were to have any sense of place, it would be that one. It’s certainly a place I love, but in many ways I am too close to it to be able to see it in the way I would want to see it to be able to write specifically about it, rather than just using places and images that are familiar to me, which I do a lot.
I tend to write about the places of the mind, though, and my interests are much more to do with how people think than with where they live. This is, perhaps, New Hampshire’s fault — it’s hard to be a nerdy kid who loves writing when you live in the rural part of a small, Northeastern state, and so I delved more deeply into myself than I might have if I had grown up in, for instance, Manhattan. Growing up in New Hampshire gave me a great sense of being an outsider, too — there was absolutely no-one around who shared my interests or inclinations. Artists of all sorts learn a certain stubbornness and trust of their own vision if they have a healthy sense of outsiderhood. But I also think it’s healthy for artists not to associate only with other artists, and my oldest and in many ways closest friends are people from New Hampshire, people I went to elementary and high school with, who have quite varied backgrounds and interests.
NN: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
MC: I’m thinking of becoming a hermit, actually. I’ve always been attracted to that lifestyle. I’ve also thought of becoming a drag queen. My friend Rick Bowes (a marvelous writer, by the way, and author of one of the few truly essential 9/11 stories, “There’s a Hole in the City”) calls me Greta Garbo, because I already tend to hide myself away, but I think he’s really onto something — I aspire to become the best drag queen hermit in the Northeast. In ten years, who knows … a cabin in northern New Hampshire … just me and the moose and … high heels and Marlene Dietrich karaoke….
NN: Ha! Fascinating. Thank you Matt.