Q & A: Finding the Right Words

Fiction writer Matthew Sharpe joined the Wesleyan faculty in fall 2004 as assistant professor of English. He teaches creative writing and literature courses to undergraduates and has published three works of fiction. In his latest novel, The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull Press, 2003), Bernard Schwartz, a divorced copywriter living in Connecticut, accidentally takes a combination of two different antidepressants and falls into a coma. He eventually emerges from the coma with impaired speech but his sense of humor intact. The novel explores how the father’s condition affects the lives of his highly dysfunctional family members, particularly his teenage son and daughter, and a number of other eccentric characters. The book has its share of painful, even tragic moments but it is often very funny because of the writer’s ironic viewpoint.


Sharpe’s novel was rejected by more than 20 major publishers before it found a home at a small press based in Brooklyn, New York, which had little money for advertising or marketing. However, the book received positive reviews in such publications as the New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice, and in February 2004, novelist Susan Isaacs chose it for The Today Show’s book club, which led to an interview with host Katie Couric and an increase in recognition and sales of Sharpe’s work.


Q: When did you start writing fiction?


MATTHEW SHARPE: When I was 10, I wrote a story about a bulldog who was a construction worker. I thought it was pretty good and I liked having written it, but I didn’t like writing it. I decided I would be a writer only if the actual writing part got easier. It hasn’t, but there’s still hope.


Q: Writing fiction can be an unpredictable career. Was there a time you considered a less risky profession?


MS: I gave up writing when I was 11?too much trouble, and even then I understood that an aura of disreputability could cling to a writer, particularly one who thought he was better than he actually was, which, given my 11 years of experience as a human, seemed likely in my case. So I took up electrical engineering, though I didn’t know what an engineer was and didn’t really know what electricity was, and still don’t. I can’t remember when I decided to be a writer again. Maybe around age 20. Since then I’ve often asked myself, “If you knew then how hard it would be to write, if you knew about the years of penury, the rejections, the marginal life of a person whose self-appointed task is to sit around and fantasize in sweatpants, would you have decided to do something else?” The answer generally is, “Since you do not have Supermanlike control over time and space and therefore cannot return to the year 1982, when the decision to be a writer gave birth to itself in your head, might you not better use the energy it took to ask the question for, say, writing another story, sweetheart?” (I tend to use endearments in these regret-fueled Q&A sessions to mitigate the self-recrimination.)


Q: Would you talk a bit about the books you wrote before The Sleeping Father?


MS: The first was a book of 10 short stories called Stories from the Tube. Each story in it is based on a TV advertisement. I tried to imagine what the characters’ lives would be like beyond the 30 seconds of existence they were allotted; I tried to unshackle them from the products in whose image they were created. My first novel was Nothing Is Terrible. It’s loosely based on Jane Eyre, only it’s set in the late 20th century in New York City and environs. Nothing Is Terrible is not as good as Jane Eyre, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in impoliteness. A reader may notice a “based on” theme in my work. I’m interested in running my mind over stories that have already taken hold in the public imagination, to see what they might have to tell us that they haven’t already said. If a story is a time-release knowledge delivery system, I go on the assumption that at any given moment a story still contains unreleased knowledge; one way to release it would be to write criticism about the story; another way is to write a story about the story. I did write a novel before Nothing Is Terrible, by the way. It remains unpublished.


Q: What prompted you to write The Sleeping Father?


MS: Well, causality is easier to trace in fiction than in life, but here’s an idea: I wanted to investigate the paradigm shift in American mental healthcare away from a psychodynamic model of the self and toward a biochemical one; i.e., if you are suffering from an emotional ailment these days, you’re a lot less likely to talk to a therapist about it and a lot more likely to take a pill. So, speaking of causality, the biochemical model of what a self is seemed to me a lot more narrowly deterministic than the psychodynamic one. I was troubled by it, and one of the ways I have of coping with being troubled by something is to write a story about it. To the extent that The Sleeping Father is about a guy who inadvertently combines incompatible antidepressants and goes into a coma, it does investigate the issue of the biochemical self. But it ends up being about a whole mess of other things, too. I don’t know how that happened. By the way, I don’t think antidepressants are bad. I know they are immensely helpful to a lot of people. But the New York Times reported that in 2002, 120 million Americans took them. So I believe it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say they’re overprescribed.


Q: In this novel and some of your other fiction, you’ve written about dysfunctional middle-class American families. Why do you find this subject so fascinating?


MS: Tolstoy said functional families are all alike but each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional after its own fashion. And anyway how many functional families do you know? Being the smallest social unit besides the individual, the family is a kind of miniature nation, with its own method of governance, its own system of justice, its own religion or religions, its own education policies, its own modes of communication, its unique ways of loving.


Q: When Bernard, the “sleeping father” in the title, emerges from a coma, he must learn to speak again and sometimes his sentences don’t make any sense. Would you comment on the role of words and language in your book


MS: Communication is very, very hard, even for people without brain damage, if such people exist. One way that I as a storyteller have of examining a given phenomenon?like the difficulty of communicating with words?is to exaggerate the phenomenon, hypothesize an extreme instance of it: What if, when a guy tries to talk, the words come out all wrong? The results, in my novel, are various. The fact of Bernie’s brain damage is disastrous, but his speech impediment brings about certain revelations?causes, at some moments, deep connections of one soul to another. The linguist Roman Jakobson said that poetic language is that which does violence to ordinary language. So I also wanted to mess around with the possibility that there is poetic potential within aphasia, that the breaking of ordinary speech can cause new and unexpected meanings to arise.


Q: Chris, the cynical and self-loathing teenage protagonist, has an almost mystical connection with his ailing father. Would you talk about their relationship?


MS: These people are often so miserable and alone, I couldn’t leave all of them totally stranded, so I gave them this. I also wanted to suggest that although people do sometimes succeed in connecting with each other through the tricky medium of language, they have nonlinguistic avenues open to them, too, like looking up at the sky and seeing one’s dad in a cloud and communing with one’s cloud-dad.


Q: Cathy, Chris’s 16-year-old Jewish sister, becomes obsessed with God and Catholicism to deal with her life. What role do faith and religion play in your novel?


MS: I guess faith is one of the kinds of transcendent, extra-linguistic communion I was talking about. I wanted to describe at least several of the different competing or maybe not-so-competing belief systems?each with its own jargon, speaking of the role language plays in the novel?that people turn to when things get bad. Catholicism is one of them. Having grown up in an atheistic household, and being temperamentally a non-joiner, I have had to approach questions of faith without parental guidance and without the benefit of a congregation in which I feel at home. Just as writing has become a way of coping with things that trouble me, so it has become a way to find out more about aspects of the world I’m curious about. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking, as Don DeLillo says. It was terribly convenient for me to invent a 16-year-old going on a spiritual quest: her 16-year-old-ness is a kind of fictional equivalence of my own beginner status vis-a-vis questions of faith.


Q: Chris, who is white, has a close friend, Frank, who is black and becomes involved with Cathy. Do you often write about racial issues in your work?


MS: Yes. All three books of mine have addressed the problem of race in America. Until the age of 13, I attended integrated schools in Hartsdale, New York. After that I attended an unintegrated high school in New Canaan, Connecticut. Either way you slice it, there was a race problem in those schools and those communities. There was and is conflict and massive disparity of power between blacks and whites, as, of course, there is in the country at large. And, of course, racism in this country is not limited to black and white. I remember someone once asked Spike Lee if he was a racist. He said something like, “No, I’m not. White people invented that shit.” By which I imagine he meant not that black people cannot be prejudiced, but that being racist means being prejudiced plus being on the winning side of institutionalized political and economic inequality. Who among us does not participate in racism? No one. Racism is to Americans as water is to fish. So, as with psychology, as with religion, I try to use storytelling as an opportunity to think about race. I do not think being white absolves me of the responsibility to consider what W.E.B. DuBois called “the strange meaning of being black” here in the dawning of the 21st century.


Q: What was your reaction when you heard your book was going to be featured on The Today Show? What was it like to be interviewed by Katie Couric?


MS:My reaction was approximately, “Yippeeeeeee!” It is especially gratifying to have had this kind of success with a book that was published by a small, independent press, after The Sleeping Father was rejected by around 25 corporate-owned publishers. I’m aware that NBC is owned by the General Electric company, and there’s some irony in that, and in Bizarro Matt World people turn to books to find out what TV shows to watch. But since we’re not in Bizarro Matt World, I’m very happy to have been on The Today Show. Katie Couric was very kind and gracious to me, and, sitting three feet away from her, I found her intensely sexy.


Q: What are you working on now?


MS: A giant stack of scribbled-on cocktail napkins and takeout menus that I hope will become a novel one day.


Q: Are there writers who have influenced your work


MS: Yes. Too many to enumerate here. I like Marlon Brando. I know he’s not a writer but now that he’s dead, don’t you think we all have a duty to fill the Brando-shaped hole in the universe by being a little more Brando in whatever endeavor we undertake, be it acting, writing, teaching, magazine editing, healing the sick, selling shoes?


Q: What inspires you to write?


MS: I listen to music. Lately I’ve been listening to Violeta Parra sing “Gracias a la Vida,” a song my sister turned me on to. My sister is Wesleyan alum Susanna Sharpe ’83. She has a band called Catavento with an album, Music from the Heart. Right now Violeta Parra and Catavento are my favorite musicians.


Q: What do you hope to share with your students in your writing classes?


MS: The long answer to this question takes at least four semesters to say. One possible short answer is that not only is writing fiction a mode of self-expression and self-invention, it is also a mode of inquiry. Fantasy is scrutiny.


Q: Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview?


MS: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?



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David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: dlow@wesleyan.edu