Interview with Matthew Burnside

Photo courtesy of Matthew Burnside Matthew is the author of Escapologies, forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. He is managing editor of Mixed Fruit Magazine and attends the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he studies fiction. He keeps a list of his sins at MatthewBurnsideisawriter.tumblr.com. TellTell was lucky enough to have Matthew discuss his chapbook with us. (Psst he even drew us a picture map of his dream story! Check it out! & Pick up a copy of his chapbook!)

 What’s your “day job”

At the moment, my day job consists of fighting the urge to watch Youtube videos, which the twin devils on my shoulders often convince me is a good investment of my time; the assholes. I suppose it’s always a battle to slap yourself out of a trance of consumption to actually make something of your own. There’s a lot of weird creativity on the net and I’m a product of it. (I think we all are these days, for better or worse.) Lucky for me, I’m pretty sure Youtube is running out of videos that I haven’t seen yet.

Somehow I do still manage to write for several hours each day. A part of me is very serious, professional, and disciplined about getting words on the page. This part of me knows not to waste the gift I’ve been given here at Iowa. I owe it to myself and to those who gave me the opportunity, and especially those who would do just about anything to be in this position to focus on their writing for a few years. Therefore, I’m getting pretty good about breathing invisible lasers at those distraction devils.

Next year I'll be teaching again, though. That'll be good for me. Working with young people has a way of stirring the enthusiasm for language and narrative like nothing else.

Please tell us how you get into the “writing zone.” Any weird things you do, drink, watch, or think about?

Music often opens me up to the possibilities of language. I think because language to me is just another form of music. I’ve been known to watch clips of weird stuff beforehand as well: old cartoons, creepy commercials, propaganda, documentaries. I listen to a lot of classical music, mostly. Copland, Stravinsky, Dubussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chopin.

[Readers: in case you are interested, here is an old cartoon from 1914. Now you can get into the writing zone like Matthew Burnside! Enjoy.]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXbR9jRqiqs]

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, can you tell us about it?

Vividly. It was about a little glass man who lived in a cuckoo clock that only a little girl could see. Her mother and father were always fighting, and naturally the little girl’s only friend in the world was this glass man. The mother would never believe one word about the girl’s imaginary friend. Anyway, one day there was a vicious fight and the father stormed off and the little glass man was crushed accidentally by the barefoot mother, who then bled to death. That was the story. I had meant for it, I think, to be a sort of reverse cautionary tale for parents. It was so dark I think the fourth grade teacher worried for my mental health. I don’t think you have to be twisted inside to imagine such things – you just have to have a deep awareness of ache, of the tenderness and fragility of people. I think this is how all writers begin but I can’t prove that.

How do you know when a story is finished?

When it feels like mine. That is, when it feels like something only I could’ve written.

Do you believe that the publishing and writing industry is moving more towards internet publishing? How do you feel about self publishing?

I personally submit more to online publications these days because I like how available it is. I think more people read it online – people who aren’t necessarily writers - where for the most part only writers buy print journals. I subscribe to a number of print journals and I love them all. There’s something about having a tactile thing to hold in your hands that the internet could never replace. But yeah, I’d rather appeal to more than just writers with my work, and I believe the internet is one way to do that. I’ve never given a lot of thought to self publishing. I have nothing against it and I admire people who just go out and do it without hesitation, though I suspect there are limitations to doing it this way.

How long did it take for you to find a home for your chapbook and what was it like?

I had entered a few chapbook contests, of which Escapologies received several quick rejections and one finalist status. A few months, maybe? I got lucky stumbling across a press early on that would have me. I wrote this long email where I wrote about my belief in language and its ability to save lives. It was dramatically phrased and probably not very professional but it was something I truly believe. I think if writers are going to risk naivety, then that’s a good thing to be naïve about. Anyway. I think what I said lined up with the theme of the chapbook which is about the abuse of small things--about survival of the heart through the wilderness of childhood, and then later in adulthood, those dark echoes we encounter from early traumas.

If someone could walk into your door in the next five minutes who would you want it to be and why?

Toshiro Mifune holding hands with Humphrey Bogart holding hands with Rod Serling. (I don’t know why but it feels like if they’re holding hands they can somehow count as just one person, thereby bending your rule.) These gentlemen pop up as archetypes in my fiction more than anybody else. I think they were all geniuses. My writing dream has always been to write an episode of the Twilight Zone - not to win a Pulitzer or sell 50 gazillion copies of something or buy a yacht with a big book advance. I was born at the wrong time, I guess. Right now I’m working on a book of short shorts all under a page, “100 Teeny Tiny Tales of Terror” which is basically all 10-second episodes of the Twilight Zone.

That sounds perfect. The first episode of The Twilight Zone is my favorite! So you are locked in a box with 2 things. What are those things? None of those things will help you escape. Sorry.

That’s ok. None of us escape in the end. My two things: an MP3 player loaded up with the soundtrack of my life, including my dog growling during tug-o-war, my girlfriend’s laugh, my niece telling me I’m silly, and Copland’s “Promise of Living.” And probably a tub full of sour candy.

Can you write us a small little diddy about the following things: bird feet, long beards, girls who look like lampshades?

Steve Buscemi got bird feet

with a long beard

digs those girls lookin'

like lampshades.

(I apologize for my lack of creativity on this one. Just finished working on a big old project and I am without poetry at the moment.)

Fondle, Marry, Go to an Opera with: Bjork, Joanna Newsom, My mom.

Marry Joanna, Fondle your mom, go to the opera with Bjork.

What is one song that you could listen to on repeat forever?

Probably this track from the soundtrack to Henry V.

What does your writing desk look like? Pictures please!!

michael writing desk

It's literally an empty basement. I'm fine with music but as far as visual stimuli, the walls around me have to be completely bare. My laptop sits elevated on a cheap coffee table propped up with some old shoe boxes.

If we opened your body and pulled out your heart, your brain, and your stomach, and they were all filled with something, what would each be filled with?

Heart: heart

Brain:brain

Stomach:stomach

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Since I’m still a new writer, I’ll give myself some advice I wish somebody had given me.

Slow down. It isn’t a race. Say what burns out of you now and don’t save it for tomorrow. Sacrifice everything to the page. When you sit down with a great idea for a story and halfway through the story the story seems to want to go elsewhere or do something else, listen to the story. Listen to the language. Let the ghost of it haunt you. It’s right, in any case. Trust your instincts. Publication is a fun game but it’s all just practice for the better story or poem you’ll one day write. It’s ok to fail. You’ll fail a lot and sometimes you’ll win but don’t let it go to your head because you’ll still fail more than you win. Learn to love your ambitious failures, for that love will lead you to places you never imagined possible. Help people when you can. Don’t ever belittle them for being where you used to be. Remember there are people ahead of you right now showing you the same kindness. Don’t make a habit out of comparing yourself to other writers. You aren’t them and they aren’t you. You couldn’t tell their story any better than they could tell yours. Read. Read everything you can. Don’t forget that which your art symbolizes. Don’t use it to escape your own life. Believe in people. Believe that every sinner can be redeemed and every saint can fall. Believe that no villain was born that way. Pay attention to the living around you as well as the dead. Give voice to those without one, or those who’ve lost theirs due to some cruelty. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you do something: just go do it, and if someone tells you can’t do something, then do the same. Always face the light, and if there’s none to face, know at least that light exists somewhere. Know something bad can’t last forever and neither can something good, so embrace both. Don’t kill a dog in a story unless you’re willing to acknowledge the fictional pain of that creature as real as any other dog’s in the world. Make yourself write something every day, even if it’s shit. Even if it’s literally just the word ‘shit.’ Always say thank you and consider that the person on the other end of the email or phone line or piece of mail may be having the worst day of their life. Write what’s true regardless of logic. Don’t forget how to laugh. Being cynical is easy: remember that. It’s hard to be a person, so be kind to people. Be a good person above a good artist, always.

Would you rather get 10 million dollars for writing a story that sells out/talks shit about/hurts every one you’ve ever loved, or would you rather live in a box and eat green beans for the rest of your life, but be able to write about whatever you want and have everyone you’ve ever loved love your stories?

Green beans.

Velvet or cotton? Why?

Cotton. Because I used to suck my thumb as a kiddo and I had this weird tactile thing where I’d touch my chin to this cotton shirt. It was weird, but that’s why cotton is my jam.

If you could have one ridiculously expensive piece of writing equipment what would it be and why. (Monte Blanc, Deerskin notebook etc.)

I have a lot of fancy stuff that I’ve never really utilized when writing. Things I bought a long time ago to make me feel like a writer. Props, I guess. All you really need is a quiet room. Maybe a bubble pipe and a crystal decanter full of Kool-Aid?

Yes. Kool-aid...mmm. Where do you see yourself in 20 years? What are you wearing?

I’d like to think we’ll all be driving mini hovercrafts around and wearing cool futuristic fashions by then: chrome Velcro jackets with neon visors and maybe holographic capes . . . but we're probably just wearing T-shirts. In 20 years I hope I’m still writing, but it’s possible I’m stacking trees again.

If you could take one fictional character to your grandma’s house for dinner, who would you take and why. (Keep in mind, your grandma will think you two are dating and she won’t like it.)

Since my grandma has passed, I’d probably choose to take my grandma because then I’d get to see her again for at least the duration of a meal. I hope she doesn’t confuse it for a date, though.

What do you hope for out of life?

To do more good than bad while I’m alive.

How many hours did you put into your chapbook?

A lot. It’s hard to know for sure. I probably didn’t go about it the right way. I noticed I tend to write in three very different modes. Escapologies is about smallness and the abuse of small things, and represents the first mode which is more vulnerable, less cynical writing. This is the part of me that believes in the redemptive grace of language. The second mode has to do with an obsession with ghosts and being erased. These pieces are usually darker, more gothic. The third mode is the closest to my actual personality and it's more playful, as well as slightly cynical and skeptical of the limits of language and authority and the conventions of poetry. Pieces written in this last mode are the most unlikely to actually find a publisher because most of the time they're anti-poems and they're all full of piss and kittens and Steve Buscemi shout-outs.

At a certain point you start to tune in and hear what your writing wants. I think it's best to shut up and listen. I'm still learning to listen.

Can you draw us a picture-map of your dream story?

 Untitled1

There you have it folks. What more could we ask for? ^^^ Amiright?