Discussing Literature In A Time Like This With Matt Runkle


Conversation with Matt Runkle always brings out the best in me. This has been true for all the years I have known him. When I have the opportunity to engage with Matt the artist in me feels inspired to make worthy objects, to write worthy stories. I’m not making this up–it is one-hundred percent true.

Photo: Barry Phipps

Photo: Barry Phipps

(Click Here to read a story about how I met Matt’s work for the first time.)

Matt Runkle is a man whom it seems, at least to me, to have acquired the patient brilliance to allow his curiosity to trump any need to stand in judgement. He could be faking this, of course. But, I don’t have any reason to think that he is. He always manages to make me think of myself in the best possible terms and this happens with such little effort on his part I am inclined to think of it as genuine.

Matt Runkle will make you want your own masterpiece to exist in the world. This feeling will be both intense and relaxed–as if it is a self-evident fact that your masterpiece will exist in the world. Why wouldn’t it? What sort of world would that be? No world at all, really, if you think about it.

As someone much wiser and famous-er once said: “The greatest achievement in any life is to inspire others.”

I doubt a truer or more important thing has ever been said. And so, Matt, my celebration of your achievement in this regard is as follows:

For all of you reading this: Your masterpiece will exist in the world because it should. Because it must, because we need it whatever it may be. We Need It. Your masterpiece? Yes. That. We need it. We need the artifact of it to map our presence here. We need it to make sense of what has happened. We need it to see where we go from here. We need your masterpiece. Period. And Thank You.

To understand more on why the above is an objective fact please refer yourselves to: The Story of How All Animals Are Equal and Other Tales By Matt Runkle.


Michelle Embree: Congratulations on the book! Are you doing readings from it? Are you touring with it?

MATT RUNKLE: Thank you! Unfortunately I’m in the middle of my final year of an MFA program, so haven’t had a ton of time or energy to put into promoting it. I read at a release party here in Iowa City, and there are some rumors about possibly reading with my press mates either at Prairie Lights or Mission Creek Festival in the spring. We’ll see!

ME: This collection is striking. I am taken with the use of language– it is almost as if any word could have a double meaning in these stories and that expands to the sentences and the characters. There is a simple eloquence in this book that juxtaposes at times with the strangeness of the stories. This work has an openness that is timely.

The first sentence in the book: “Where you are right now is in a gift shop.” I admire the choice of second person and it worked for me– I thought: “okay. I’m in a gift shop.” I went with you immediately. It set me up to flow through the book. Did you write this story first? How did you decide on the ordering of the stories?

MR: I actually wrote this story later than a lot of the other ones in the collection. It was included at the last minute, as it replaced a story that got cut, and the editor, Joe Pan, decided to put it first. I had nothing to do with the ordering of the stories, but am pleased with the way Joe decided to put it together. I wrote these stories probably over the course of 8 years or so, so the idea of making them all cohere was overwhelming to me. I was happy to have someone else step in.

As far as the opening’s immediacy goes, physical spaces are really important to me — as a Taurus, you can probably relate. I’m very territorial and sensitive to my surroundings. And because I’m often asking the reader to make some pretty big leaps, I figure the least I can do is physically situate them as soon as possible.

ME: Joe did a great job with this order.

The physical spaces in these stories–even when you have characters moving from place to place–the physical spaces where the stories take place are vivid and you did this with efficiency.

Time is a somewhat different issue. In this collection time is– how do I even word it– it feels sparse and like I could fall through it. The way this book comes together captures a number of feelings in relationship to time– I get this sense of loss that history turns out not to be linear and a sense of excitement that so much expanding reality is ahead of us and then I get this awful frustration for all the squandering–all the waste.

Like–I found this thing once, in a box of someone else’s junk I found this thing– you plug it in and it sits on your desk keeps your coffee cup warm and I just felt rage, complete fucking rage. As I read your stories that object was stuck in my head–the waste of it.

Tell me a little bit about your sense of time in the contents of the stories. Just riff on that a little bit for us.

MR: Oooo time. Wow, ok, here we go.

So yes, we are at a point in time where everyone pretty much agrees that it’s the end of the world. Like it felt that way a little bit in the 1990s, but I think there wasn’t a sincere belief in it. It was kind of a pose.

In this decade and the last, things suddenly became much more bleak. And now that this approaching end is pretty much common knowledge, the absurdity of — and resultant rage around — that coffee warmer is way too much to process. I want to be hopeful, but is that possible at this point without a heavy dose of denial? And now I’m wondering, is it actually possible for denial to be healthy and productive?

When I think back on painful events in my life, I can feel reassured by coming loose from that linear illusion of time –by stripping things of their chronological contexts, they suddenly become easier to bear. And then time and space are so related, and thinking about the symbolic weight of a landfill full of coffee warmers, and what that says about our future — it can be so overwhelming. And I guess that’s what drives me to write these things that unfold in slightly different realities than our own. When I’m feeling good about them, I say to myself that through their otherness, they shed a sort of moonlight on whatever time and place we’re each stuck in. And when I’m feeling bad, I fear that they’re pointlessly escapist. I really appreciate a well written realist story or something that is very literal and powerful in its sincerity.

ME: I appreciate your senses in all of this.

The third story in the book– Gridlock– it really set a tone for me for the whole series. The first line is: “First, let me orient you here.” And then we are in this rather terrible place with these characters that live in a car outside a convenience store and it’s winter and everyone reads lines from a script book.

It is bleak and it did make me think of Paul Austers– “The In Country of Last Things”– but where Auster is describing an end, your stories feel more like passage. I fell madly in love with those characters in “Gridlock”, in just a few pages I found two people I miss– two people who are on my mind. It is odd the way these stories are almost realist– in the sense that I find them necessary to who we are collectively right now. We need a sense of patience for the space-time we are occupying at this cultural moment. I mean, everyday is this kind of waiting game where we see if the big fish have eaten enough to collapse everything from their own false economies to the physical reality of the biosphere.

Everyday is a look out the window and “Oh, ok, not today, maybe tomorrow.” And that isn’t wired into us, I don’t think. We are working a new muscle and you and I always get here quickly in conversation which is so interesting because I think we would both rather being doing that realist work in a different sort of world but, your work, and this is my point–makes me feel okay about where I am. What is your inspiration for ‘Gridlock’?

MR: ‘Gridlock’, I think is the oldest story in the collection, and has undergone a lot of revisions. There are a lot of different inspirations for it, but I think of it as exploring a bunch of tensions/paradoxes: That between movement and stasis, and the way our backwards car culture feels like we’re endlessly stuck in this shitty parking lot. There’s a tension between ‘criminals’ and cops, between who gets called good and who gets called evil, and the violence that is inflicted by the state because of this rhetoric, which has really — unexpectedly! — come to mainstream attention this past month. The tension around the narrator’s unrequited love for Irene and the pair’s position of having to sustain themselves on food that’s sold at the gas station — maintaining an existence just short of nourished. And — back to time again — a tension between the past and the future: the way the future keeps happening faster and faster and falls more and more quickly into the past. I set this version of the story in 2015 because I wanted it to be a future that becomes rapidly dated.

ME: Because the future keeps happening faster! Looking at my notes on that story I wrote: The impossibility of apocalypse. We will just keep going, really. The world can/will/is collapse and we will just keep going. And the sense of place in that– again as ‘floaty’ as time may feel–I am squarely in that car with the steamed windows being drawn on. Lovely and harrowing and right on time.

I love that ‘Gridlock’ was the first story you wrote for the book because it underlined the whole thing for me.
Did you know you were working toward a book when you wrote ‘Gridlock’? Were you looking for stories to fill out a book? And where do stories begin for you? A word? A phrase? Do you eavesdrop?

MR: I definitely didn’t know I was working on a book when I wrote ”Gridlock’ — I was just writing. The idea that I might be building a collection came much later. And yes, the stories can start from a word, a phrase, an image, and often a combination of two or more of these things. I enjoy the challenge of taking two seemingly disparate things and working to bring them together to make some sort of narrative sense. As far as eavesdropping goes, yes, I’m guilty, but I justify it by saying it’s fine as long as no one gets hurt.

ME: I teach eavesdropping in writing workshops. I instruct participants to write them down and then we share our best each week. Hilarious. So, no justification needed.

You do a terrific job of making these marriages. One that sticks out for me is– well there are so many juxtapositions in ‘Romantic Comedy’– but the Supervillian drinking from the plastic goblet. You open the story with this image and it just pops.

It is so very skilled for a writer to create a vivid mental picture with a minimal number of objects. This story has so much in this regard–just the coupling of a hairdresser and a Supervillian– its perfect, it’s picturesque.

Are you able to do more–right now in our cultural era it can be both touchy and confusing to point directly at something– I am experiencing a kind of continuous vertigo in terms of my perception. The stories in this collection give succor to that feeling. Are you able to do more, be more insightful with Supervillians and their lackeys and queens and this type of alter-reality than you can with just trying to talk about ‘regular’ people and ‘regular’ life? Why is the realist story so–um–unreal right now?

MR: Oh wow, what a good question. I don’t know if it’s a matter of being able to do more with alter-realities so much as an inability to skillfully engage with ‘the real’. Of course there are so many varieties of realism, and so many of them border on the absurd — I like a story that has this sneaky kind of absurdism, like a real low-level undercurrent of the bizarre.

I have such a love for melodrama, though — I’m drawn towards a theatrical kind of flash, so everything ends up heading in that direction whether I initially intend it to or not. As far as ‘Romantic Comedy’ goes, though, it started out theatrical, obviously — its characters are all archetypes and its setting is basically a stage. I always had the feeling the characters were getting ready to burst into song. And there’s something so villainous about goblets — like, they’re just longing for claws. And making that goblet plastic seemed appropriate to the Supervillain’s tragically undignified air.

ME: It really works. I love the story. I knew he was truly a super villain when he tells his lover, the hairdresser, that she looks like she is still in beauty school. I think– yes what a villain you are, indeed. This story feels instructive both politically in culture and personally in that the reader is returned to her own perception– returned to: “You pull yourself to the edge of the bed and peer down through the medicinal haze.”

There is something emotionally instructive to the story that I can not exactly place but that I truly appreciate. It is a skillful engagement with the real. Truly.

The visual– I admire your work as a visual artist. I get the same sense from your work as a writer—which is to say there is a sparseness that allows your juxtapositions to appear picturesque in the true definition of the word. And from this I always take away that emotional instruction, I mention.

You talk about theatrics– I think– well, is the work as a visual artist really differentiated from the work of writing? For those of us who do both– and most of us do, I suppose– what is your process like? On a typical day, of having a life what is like– Making art and writing and living– the backstage of all these theatrics– because it looks like magic on the page.

MR: Well, thanks! I do differentiate the verbal from the visual, but am often working toward bringing them together. We use such different parts of our brain when we read than when we see, so it can be a lot to ask of people to switch back and forth. But then look at comics–a mode that does so very successfully. I guess I really love narrative. I think of everything I do — visually and non- — as a kind of writing. There’s a story behind everything, whether it’s a sustained series of events or a glimpse at a moment of something larger that I want the reader/viewer to fill in.

I know you also work in several different visual and literary forms, so I’m curious about what you think joins these different modes for you.

And as far as daily life goes — right now I’m a student, which is a great privilege. My program, the UI Center for the Book, is really unique in that it has allowed me to work toward bridging the visual with the verbal (as well as consider the tactile and sculptural elements of the book as a medium). I get to think about these things as an artist and as a teacher. I graduate this spring, so there will be a re-negotiation then of what my art and writing practice looks like. Striking a balance between making a living and making art, as you know, can be a real challenge.

ME: You are right, it is all narrative. At one time making small visual pieces was a way to relax from writing. It was something tangible to work with, plus the color can be exciting after all day with black words and white back ground. Also to be able to complete something felt good in the middle of a very long writing project. Right now I am working on a Tarot Deck and the writing that goes with it– the deck is actually titled “Book of Keys”— so I have rather literally joined–or confused, the two.Theater always feels like the ultimate bridge between the visual arts and the literary arts.

Your book is filled with such beautiful language. I want to share this before I let you go to enjoy your evening. This is from ‘Warmth’: “Remember now the tender pocket that forms around the moment when, on a winter’s day in a diner, someone comes and drops a ramekin of butter on your table.” Matt, this is exquisite. Again you place us and speak to us directly and it just works and feels like a waking dream, and it comforts.

What author(s) or artists(s) do you look to as a means to inform your thinking. Or scientists or philosophers?

MR: Tarot is such a great way to bridge these things we’ve been talking about! I was just reading about how Pamela Coleman-Smith was a theatrical set designer, and how the horizon line in many of the images in her deck is like the place where the scenery meets the stage. ‘Warmth’ was actually inspired by the Depeche Mode song, ‘Pipeline’. As far as other artists and writers go, there are so many, but I have been thinking a lot about Jane Bowles lately, wanting to re-read her. I haven’t read Two Serious Ladies in years, but I recall it being a book that maintained that low level of absurdity I like so much.


Read Matt’s BLOG

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About michelleembree

www.michelleembree.com michelleembree1@gmail.com
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