A new year is approaching and with it comes new instructors for the Writers’ Program. One of our new additions for 2010 is Matthew Specktor, a fiction writer whose work has appeared in Open City, Salon, and the Seattle Review, among many other publications. His novel, That Summertime Sound, was published this past August and he will be teaching Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way Workshop this winter quarter on the UCLA Campus.
Here, Matthew shares his thoughts on reading, writing, the value of social networking, and what his upcoming course has in store for students.
Writers’ Program: What first drew you to writing? How did you get started as a writer?
Matthew Specktor: Like most writers, I think, I was an avid reader as a kid. Really, it’s the only answer that makes sense: reading drew me to writing. Things like the Oz books, D’Aulaires Book of Greek Mythology, and Twain when I was really young. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller in high school. A predictably romantic set of models. I wrote plays in high school, short stories in college. I just started, for the love of it, and when I looked up…it suddenly seemed too late to stop.
WP: Your novel That Summertime Sound just came out this summer. It involves road trips, the pull of great music, and the uncompromising loves we have in youth. How much of you is in the novel, and are you satisfied with how readers are receiving it?
MS: Well, the book has been described as “semi-autobiographical,” and I guess I would emphasize ‘semi.’ It’s set in Columbus, Ohio, where I’ve been, and the three themes you mention above have all certainly played a role in my own life. But there’s a tremendous amount of invention, exaggeration and distortion involved. It’s not a memoir, and most of the events described in the book never happened (except in my own head, which–some would argue–counts). I’d say the book shoots to capture some of that euphoria music tends to bring us, and some of the feelings of loss which time–inevitably–does. I’d love to see the book perched atop the New York Times bestseller list, but in all honesty, the excited and personal responses I’ve received from certain readers (um, considerably fewer than it would take to come anywhere near that list) is satisfying, and how. They tell me the book can actually speak to people in their individual lives. And that’s what it’s there for.
WP: That Summertime Sound has been described as, “A love letter to music lovers.” What is your relationship with music and how does it influence your writing?
MS: I’m obsessive about music, as I am about a few other things (literature, say), but I tend not to listen to it while I’m writing. Likewise, the things I’ve been writing since don’t really have anything to do with music as a topic. So I guess I’d say, it influences my writing just as sunlight, or my child, or the movies do. Like the squirrel that’s moving around outside my window at the moment: it’s part of the atmosphere, and it weaves itself in. I do think good writing is musical, by definition. Sound is always just barely in front of sense, when I write. So there must be some relation.
WP: Your website boasts readings by such big names as James Franco, Jeremy Irons, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Morgan Freeman. How did you pull that off?
MS: I’d like to say “looks, persistence, patience, timing, charisma, and luck.” I mean, those people all have such qualities in spades, but how I persuaded them to have anything to do with me? I honestly have no idea.
WP: Aside from your website, you have a presence on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Do you think these sites are helpful to new authors? How have they helped you?
MS: I think those sites have some value in connecting readers and writers. I’m glad to hear from readers, and I think it’s nice for readers too to have access to writers they admire. That said, I think those sites invite anxiety, and a certain inclination to put promotion ahead of anything else. In all honesty, I think it’s a waste of time. Books find readers. They do it mysteriously, and not always expediently. The reader-writer relationship is an intimate one: it’s private, and it isn’t something that can be tweeted about without something very important getting diluted. So I don’t know. I’d say don’t ignore it–there are rewards–but in all honesty, the moment you start getting restless, go back to writing (and reading).
WP: In your Writers’ Program Instructor Statement, you talk about believing in “close and varied reading.” Name some of the books that have inspired you.
MS: Lord. So many! An incredibly incomplete and partial list will include Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King, James Salter’s Light Years, Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, all of Jane Austen, most of Dickens, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, Turgenev’s Spring Torrents, Moby Dick, Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in The Trees, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, Stendhal, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Wallace Stevens, The Odyssey, Keats’s Letters (and poems), Charles D’Ambrosio’s book of essays, Orphans, Geoff Dyer’s excellent and unclassifiable Out of Sheer Rage, David Shields’ forthcoming Reality Hunger…is this thing still on?
WP: As someone with an MFA, you are pretty familiar with the environment of a writing class. What’s your advice to new writers on how to make the most out of taking a course for the first time?
MS: Try, as best you can, to be brave. Absolutely everyone there (including the instructor) has the same anxieties about their writing as you do. We all secretly think it’s great, at times, and awful at others–we’re usually wrong–and the goal is to try to find encouragement, inspiration and information in the most genuine ways available. Don’t be afraid to share the work you think is most unfinished, and please, please, please read your colleagues’ work carefully. You will likely learn more from the act of close reading others than you may from any direct criticism of your own writing.
WP: In your upcoming winter course, Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way Workshop, writers learn how to take their works from the idea stage to the actual writing and planning of a novel. What’s your advice for students who are facing the daunting challenge of following through on the big task they’ve started?
MS: Any advice I can offer here will probably edge close to platitude. Don’t be discouraged…by your own discouragement. Because you probably will be discouraged at some point (writing a novel takes a long time, and absolutely requires making multiple mistakes). Be patient. Understand that throwing things away–even large passages, even (sometimes) complete drafts–is part of the job description. Finding supportive readers, in workshops and in your life, is important. And keep going, keep going, keep going.
WP: What do you want students to come away with from your class?
MS: Ideally, with an absolutely incandescent sense that this is something they can do. That writing a book is insanely challenging, but the rewards–which exist in the writing itself–are worth it, and how. I want them to feel informed about how novels operate, and are built, and I want them to feel they have the tools to do the building. Also to understand that it takes time and that writing a novel is the object (i.e. this is not a class in ‘having written’ a novel). There is often an anxious stampede towards thinking of the marketplace and agents and so on. I understand that absolutely, but hopefully the class will instill a little of the patience that’s necessary as well. That, and an impulse to read more.
Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing onsite and Screenwriting online. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WriterDaniel