Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Next Big Thing Interview: Matthew Gavin Frank (TNS Fall13)

Thank you, Steven Church—brilliant essayist, author of The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and editor of one of my favorite literary magazines, The Normal School—for tagging me in The Next Big Thing.  I’ll be passing the torch to the stunning fiction writer, editor, and wonderful person, Jennifer A. Howard, author of the book, How to End Up.  Okay.  Here is my self-interrogation:

What is the working title of the book?

My new poetry book, due out within the week (I’m told), is called The Morrow Plotssome crazy, murderous Midwestern poetry.  It blows the lid off Illinois, it does.  I also have a new nonfiction book coming out in 2015 called Preparing the Ghost:An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and the Man Who First Photographed It.  It’s a segmented book-length essay full of odd digressions, about Reverend Moses Harvey—the guy who, in 1874 St. John’s Newfoundland, became the first person to take a photograph of an intact specimen of the giant squid, thereby rescuing the beast from the realm of mythology, and finally proving its existence.   The photo changed the ways in which we engaged the construct of the sea monster.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The Morrow Plots: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus.  The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry.  So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois.  You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots.  The legal and social consequences for such things are dire.  The Plots are regionally revered.  Illinoisans lend the Plots this crazy holiness.  I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter).   Yes: We lived behind MazeLand. 
Upon researching old newspaper articles from the 20s and 30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, and a dumping ground for bodies.  And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.”  And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark.  So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while.  This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues.  But I was so glad to reemerge after that one.  See some light after all the murder.  But, the obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things. 

Preparing the Ghost: At the AWP Conference in Washington DC, I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and spied Harvey’s photo of the giant squid, strung over his bathtub’s curtain rack in order to stretch it out to its full size.  The caption was about two skinny lines long, and I copied it verbatim, next to the bourbon amoeba, onto the cocktail napkin I stashed in my pocket the previous night.  When I got home, I began researching Harvey and found that the story of the photograph’s conception had not been written.  I thought I was going to produce about five lean pages on the subject, until I tumbled down the cephalopod rabbit hole, to invoke an inter-special metaphor. 

What genre does your book fall under?

The Morrow Plots is some linked research-based poetry.  Preparing the Ghost is nonfiction—a book-length lyric essay, I guess.  But Preparing the Ghost is a weird one.  I really don’t know what to call it.  An editor at W.W. Norton, who rejected an earlier version of the book, said some of the nicest things about it, and sort of tried to categorize it in the (really nice) rejection.  Here’s what he said:

Preparing the Ghost is about how this photograph came to be, and how it’s lived on in the cultural imagination. But whether or not Moses himself is the photographer is actually up for dispute, as is almost every other piece of information in the book--but this is not a weakness. Quite the opposite in fact; the uncertainties, inferences, personal meditations, and historical reconstructions that comprise the book make for a fascinating discussion of what mythology is, why we cling to it, and how it ends if it ever does (after all, the giant squid retains its mythical status despite the absurdly domestic photograph). This lively piece of cultural criticism is shot through with discussions of just about anything: period fishing equipment, ice cream, politics, religious practices, and the Harvey family history that informed and contextualized the Reverend’s obsessions.
Preparing the Ghost, overall, is non-narrative, or it is the sum of three fragmented narratives: Harvey’s story, the author’s family history, and the author’s story of conducting research on Harvey and the squid in Newfoundland. Even those, however, are further fragmented by trivia, lists, scraps of poetry, or historical bullet points...

What songs would you choose for the movie rendition’s soundtrack?

Just so I’m not too long-winded here, I’ll cite the opening credit songs:
The Morrow Plots: “Where the Wild Roses Grow” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue.

Preparing the Ghost: (over footage of a giant squid twisting around in the deep) “A Gringo Like Me” – Ennio Morricone (vocals by Peter Tevis).

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s been a tentacular harvest.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your book?

The Morrow Plots: about a year.
Preparing the Ghost: about two-and-a-half years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 

When I was writing The Morrow Plots, I was teetering between reading Norman Dubie’s The Mercy Seat and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s At the Drive-In Volcano—the former for it’s fever dream surprises which planted me more firmly into the world, somehow, of an historical, bloody Midwest; the latter for its lushness, its ability to rip me out of that world so I could function and not be depressed all the time.  I don’t know if that’s a comparison, but...

For Preparing the Ghost, I’ll quote that editor from Norton again, because it’s humbling, and makes me wriggle:

The book is driven by Frank’s free associations between the fragmented narratives and the tidbits, or better stated, it is made entirely out of such connections. Here, we see that the book’s true relation to Moby Dick is not a monomaniacal fascination with capturing enormous sea creatures, but the free association that makes Melville’s work so funny, so memorable, so encyclopedic. Really, there is some truth to the agent’s pitch that this is Annie Dillard/John McPhee meets Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea/Moby Dick. With a touch of nerdy Jew. And I would add that it is as large, luminescent, many-tentacled, and elusive as its subject.
            [The book falls] somewhere between Chuck Klosterman and Nicholson Baker with a tiny bit of our own Measure of Manhattan...

Who or what inspired you to write the book?

For The Morrow Plots, I blame my homesickness for the Midwest, and the winter blues, and my misguided attempts to solve both with an obsession for historical, regional murder.

For Preparing the Ghost, I have to go back a few years to one of my favorite boyhood articles printed in the May 1983 issue of my second favorite boyhood magazine (after ZooBooks), Boy’s Life, which includes what was my single favorite sentence for the remainder of 1983, a sentence that revealed, in its simple concision, a world far larger than the one I inhabited, a sentence that evoked something beyond me—a future perhaps, or gargantuan adulthood that still then hung just out of reach, a sentence that I repeated to my grandfather, Poppa Dave, when Poppa Dave still had three years to live, lying on his hairy chest and Jewish mafia bling chai necklace on his and Grandma Ruth’s screened-in porch of their Palm Springs Phase II Margate, Florida retirement condo, the interior of which was all peach and coral and the kind of silver that reflected your face back to you in that distorted, funhouse sort of way that made your eyes look far bigger than they really were: “There are some who are convinced that species of giant squid exist that are still unknown to scientists,” after which Poppa Dave exhaled a mouthful of postdinner cigar smoke, and, lifting the lip of his white wife-beater undershirt, asked me, seven-years-old, “Did I ever tell you how I got this scar?”

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Besides giant squid and murder?  Nudity, maybe?  In The Morrow Plots, there’s a penis on page 34.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, is publishing The Morrow Plots.  Sarabande Books is publishing Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and the Man Who First Photographed It.   The squid book is represented by my wonderful agent.  Thank you Black Lawrence, and Sarabande, and Wonderful Agent!