A quick interview with Queens native Matt Burgess (MFA 2009) about his upcoming book with Doubleday, writing superstitions, and the wonderful effect of staying in Minnesota.
Matt Burgess (MFA 2009) celebrated graduation by selling his novel Dogfight to Doubleday in a significant deal. The book, a character-driven crime novel set in Queens in the vein of cable television show The Wire, is set for publication in fall 2010. Meanwhile, English@Minnesota interrogated the native New Yorker in Minneapolis, where he remains for the mysterious reason uncovered below.
Did you come to Minnesota with a chunk of the novel finished or generate the entire thing here?
After I was accepted into the University of Minnesota, I quit my job at a New York City textbook company and moved to the Florida/Alabama border where I worked at a bicycle shop. It was a perfect pre-graduate school summer. Every day after work I'd bike to the beach and write. I probably left with about 60 pages, very little of which ended up in the final manuscript--but I think it was useful to have a project going, to come into the MFA program with a sense of momentum.
What drew you to the subject matter?
The idea was to write a book about Queens that my friends back home would want to read. And so the book is structured like a plot-driven crime novel--there are armed robberies and dead bodies and double crossings and undercover cops--but it's equally interested in rendering the interior lives of its characters, the kind of working class people consistently underrepresented in American fiction. I have an enormous amount of affection for Queens and for the people who live there, and I wanted that to come across in the book.
Were you raised in Queens?
Yeah, I was born and raised in Jackson Heights, and I miss it every day. Which is why I'm staying in Minneapolis: the cold keeps me in my office, and I get so homesick that I have to write about Queens. Besides, I'm intensely superstitious. I write first drafts longhand in black-and-white notebooks, second drafts in yellow legal pads; I sit in the same chair at the same time every morning facing the same blank wall with a NY Rangers blanket on my lap; and whenever I finish a chapter I listen to "Sunshine of Your Love." And that's not the half of it. I wrote my first book in Minnesota, and I've convinced myself that if I don't stay here, I'll never finish a second one.
What's the next project?
I'm working on another novel, but I'm too superstitious to talk about it.
What did you appreciate most about your Minnesota MFA program experience?
The people, which is probably what everyone says, but I had wonderfully generous teachers like Charlie Baxter and Julie Schumacher, and my peers in the program were all encouraging and talented and very serious about books. We didn't have to compete for funding, which freed us up to root for one another and to support one another's projects. I think it also helped that we were all doing such different things: short stories about Conan the Barbarian and babies falling into wells and differential equations; young adult novels, meta-romance novels, coming-of-age novels in India and Turkey and Egypt and Los Angeles and Pennsylvania and upstate New York. And that doesn't even take into account the exciting work people were doing in nonfiction and poetry.
What was the most challenging part of that experience?
I was a nervous about workshopping a novel-in-progress. I worried that if I let the book out of the house I'd be exposing it to all sorts of dangers--specifically soul-crushing criticism. But Charlie Baxter's workshops were structured so that comments needed to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. We'd say, "I noticed the narrator's tone changes on this page," as opposed to, "The narration is inconsistent and needs to be fixed by changing the point-of-view." It seems like a small distinction, but when you're the one getting workshopped it make an enormous difference. No one's trying to write your book for you. They're just reading it and telling you what they noticed.
What did you take as your outside-of-the-English-department course requirement?
I took Alexs Pate's Poetry of Rap course in the Afro-American Department. My characters listen to rap, and so I figured I better familiarize myself with the lyrics. I also audited a criminal justice course, which gave me the confidence to write the book's prison scenes.
Did a particular teacher facilitate your learning?
Charlie Baxter and Julie Schumacher obviously, both of whom are terrific teachers. But my big watershed moment came in my first year, when Stephen Polansky (a visiting professor) wrote "Ugh" in the margin of my manuscript, and "Awful" and "Cliché" and "If I wasn't paid to finish this I'd stop right here." While I was reading these comments, my face pulsed with heat. I was so miserable. The Mets were playing the Cardinals that night in the playoffs and I was looking forward to it, and Polansky just ruined it for me. I remember thinking: "Well, I've really got to impress him with the next batch of manuscript. I've got to make him proud of me." Like a whipped dog, you know? And so I committed myself much more seriously to fiction. No shortcuts. No tricks. Be precise. Be honest. Respect the reader. I'd go around chanting these things to myself like a monk.
An excerpt from Dogfight:
[Vladimir Shifrin, a high school student, has just kissed a girl for the very first time. He's riding the train home, from Queens to Manhattan.]
By any objective criteria, it wasn't the world's greatest kiss. But don't tell Vladimir that. Or do. Tell him that kissing, like most things, only gets better with practice. Tell him that and see what happens. Because as the E express lurched towards Manhattan, he could barely keep his feet on the ground. If he was to jump--just a little hop, that's all--he would've smashed through the ceiling of the train car, through the tunnels, past the rats, past the mole men and Morlocks, up and into the East River that separates Queens from Manhattan, and once in that murky blackgreen water, he would've whooped it up, scissor-kicking his legs, using his hands to high-five the steroidal fins of radioactive fish.