Monday 17 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: MATTHEW FUNK interviews MATTHEW FUNK

There have been 16 entries over at Things I’d Rather Be Doing in the Fairy Tale contest. If you haven't been there, I think that you possibly should - there are some excellent entries that need to be seen.

Today's interview also needs to be seen.

Here's Matthew Funk:

SCENE: Starbucks at the corner of 17th and Grand — Matt Funk’s Starbucks. Under the brown slat awning, his unpublished characters have gathered on the wicker chairs and concrete to interview him.

Reaver, a browned behemoth in Grecian breeches, plays his curved flaying knife through his fingernails and glares at Funk with blood-colored eyes. Lia, blond pigtails pluming from under her Scythian cap, curls sullen and scantily clad in Reaver’s lap.

Off to the side, Stagger Lee leans, smoking in flagrant violation of the Starbucks ban. Jari Jurgis, all slender intensity and crossed arms, keeps her distance from him and her eyes on him.

Everybody keeps their distance from Ava Delacroix. She sits on a metal chair, prim and perilous as a China doll about to slip from a high shelf.

In the corner, Siegfried and Sigrid sit with identical insouciance, pale as the ice-cream suits they wear.

Funk waves invitingly.

Stagger saunters up.

Stagger Q: Alright, son, what’s been itching at me is how in Creation you think you know what it is to be country? You’re about as Los Angeles as a $10 hamburger, valley boy.

A: I don’t lay any claim to understanding what it is to be, as you put it, “country.” But what I am is a very effective listener. I have a knack for listening to what people say, how they say it and why. I reckon I couldn’t be a writer without it.

Being a writer isn’t so much a matter of being good at talking as it is being good at listening. You need to have the kind of mind that picks up all the little details around you, especially the details of other people. You absorb it like muscle memory. Then it comes out naturally.

Creativity is as much about observation as it is about expression. I would even say, it’s more about that. Case in point, I don’t know a whole lot of writers who are entirely comfortable in social situations. We tend to be more of an introspective breed than otherwise. Even the hustlers among us have sensitive cores.

So the question is, how is it that excellence of written expression is found in these anxious, introverted types? My answer would be that something about writers that has them fascinated with people—be it respect, love, fear—creates in the writer a hunger to pay attention to those around them.

Lia pounces off Reaver’s lap and storms up to shove her head under Funk’s chin.

Lia Q: You stuck me in a crystal. I don’t care if it was supposed to be a paradise-on-Earth kind of trance. Paradise, my ass! Did you really think I’d go for that? Hypnotized in a cave for years while the man I loved went on his merry way? And what was he so bloody merry about anyway?

A: I had to find a way to avoid a happy ending. That’s the worst thing that a writer looking to serialize a novel can do—end the story in a way that resolves every conflict.

At the end of Reaver, I had to make it so that Reaver kept going. If he settled down happily with you, raiding the Roman trade lines in and out of Judea, it would have defeated the whole purpose of the novel: To suggest that when it comes to living in civilization, the only peace we can hope to attain comes from letting go. We need to accept our limitations.

Reaver, representing the Greek mythic hero struggling with his world’s culture shifting from the individual being valued above the Roman ideal of the state, can’t accept that he’s achieved paradise. He has to constantly crave more, conquer more, seek more. He’s man at the most animal state—like a dog who will eat until his stomach bursts.

That’s the point I was making with Reaver. Man, an as individual, has the means and lust to devour the entire world. But when other people—family or lovers or society—enter into the picture, we have to either accept we can’t have all we want or sacrifice our attachments to get it. This isn’t just about the shift in the classical hero types—from the never-satisfied, ever-ruthless personages of Jason, Hercules and Achilles, to the state-centered Aeneas. It was about how being a social creature demands that we make choices that limit us.

Reaver leans forward, snatching up Lia by the flank and growling from under his thicket of a mane.

Reaver Q: Who do you think you are, deciding what kind of ending I’m going to have? I take what I want. And I got no questions to ask of you.

A: No, I’d imagine you don’t think you do. That’s another critical part of your character. You’re man at his most selfish—the Nietzsche superman taken to the most antisocial degree.

And, like I said, you exist in all of us.

We all come to a point similar, figuratively, to where you, Reaver, started your life and where you’ve never really left: In a dark cave, alone, hungry and desperate.

We’ve all been in that dark cave with no one to turn to and no promise of survival. In those moments, we are most ourselves. And the scary thing is, we know it. We know that, ultimately, we are alone, and that we live and die that way. We may hang our hopes and opinions on others, but we live scratched on the neck by the knowledge that all we claim around us as part of our world might be stripped away. Only we will be left, and even that may end.

It’s a terrifying place, which is why I made you such a terrifying person. Sure, people may read your story and think you’re the paragon of the ruthless bad ass, but I know what really drives you. I know you’re really just a scared child, orphaned before you ever knew what a family was and forced to feed on what you could rip from the wilderness.

You’re man’s nature state for me, Reaver. You ask for nothing because you fear asking would make you seem subservient—make you seem weak. But the dirty secret is that all strength is forged from fear.

Ava raises her hand. She is as quick as she is neat, and Ava is immaculate. Funk calls on her.

Ava Q: I know I was afraid. I can admit it. I was afraid of not being perfect. I tried so hard to save the world from the Disassembling Angels by doing all those horrible, horrible things to people. Was I right in doing that?

A: Were you right that butchering innocent people prevented the end of the world? I can’t answer that, any more than I can answer whether my going to work at TK Carsites prevented the large hadron collider from blowing everything up, or whether doing your best to raise a child makes a positive difference, or whether anything leads to anything else.

You were both right and wrong. Ava. That’s the closest I can come to the truth, because I believe that any “plan” we see to the working of the universe is what our own minds impose on it. We can’t truly know the consequences of our actions.

I know I’m running the risk of sounding as crazy as you are, but hear me out. It all comes down to Baby Hitler.

How many times have you heard people fantasize that, if they had a time machine, they’d go back and kill Hitler as a kid? I’ve heard it about a dozen. And yeah, Hitler was about as bad as they come in his effect on people’s lives. But can we really say what a world without him would have been like? No. I could certainly conjecture that the Holocaust might not have happened. It might have anyway, though. I could hypothesize that without Nazi Germany, Stalin would have invaded Europe, and that millions more would have died than in World War 2. Maybe that would have even led to a nuclear war with the USA. Maybe it wouldn’t have. We can’t say. We can only impose the rationales that we understand. And the further we get from personal judgment and personal decision, the less able we are to comprehend the ultimate result of our actions.

Ray Bradbury posits this with his short story, The Sound of Thunder, which tells of how crushing a butterfly in the age of the dinosaurs leads to the future being warped on even a basic evolutionary level. Bradbury’s choice of a butterfly isn’t coincidental—he’s alluding to the “butterfly effect,” how a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a chain of cause and effect that creates a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s the world we live in, whether we like it or not—meaning, whether we believe in a sentient being, God or Gods or Karma, consciously controlling elements of our lives or not. Even people who believe that God has a plan, and is dispatching angels or casting miracles as a result of our prayers or bad deeds, have to admit they don’t really know what His plan is. Yes, I’ve heard my fair share of how prayer achieves miracles—not just from Christians, but from Buddhists and Hindus and Wiccans. But I’ve yet to see the empirical evidence that in all cases, “A” leads to “B”. Causes do not always lead to the same effect. Life sometimes forces in directions that look bad, but end up better than we ever could have imagined. Conversely, we sometimes work very hard to do good, only to end up doing incredible harm.

How many Hitlers and Ted Bundys are we creating by helping others survive? And how many Einsteins and Picassos are we destroying by not giving someone a chance at professional success, or giving them enough to eat, or giving them a good upbringing? And what, even, would the overall effect of these people being absent from humanity’s development be?

We create the order we see in the world. We can attribute it to something else, but it comes from us. We are our own cause and effect.

Jari’s fingers are crushing creaks from her leather sleeves.

Jari Q: Don’t play yourself off as a pop-physicist. You write stories about bad things getting worse. Why’s the cause and effect so horrible?

A: Conflict drives a story. The more that’s at stake, the more powerful the story. For me, the most fascinating power in storytelling is fear.

I want my reader to see the light in the monsters I write about. But I also want them to feel that if those monsters let their antagonists get their way, worlds are going to end.

Siegfried arches an eyebrow and lets smoke leak from a corpselike smile. It glistens, sharp as the lines of his suit.

Siegfried Q: So when do I get my story told, Matty? For nine years, my sister and I and all our little friends have waited up at the Baronage. Do you think you’ll ever get around to telling the story of Germany’s happy monsters during our War on Terror?

A: See, Siegfried, right out the gate, you’re hitting on why I’m not rushing right out to get your story in print—that “War on Terror” line. I began writing about you and your family and the whole German-Soviet experience during World War 2 at a time when the twin towers were still standing. As you know, what happened next only sped my work and stiffened my resolve. I craved to convey that much of the psychic torment and political reaction America was going through bore a terrifying resemblance to what Germany went through back then.

Truth is, people aren’t ready to read that kind of story. That kind of analogy is an insult to many, a question mark to most, and a damn sight uglier than just about everybody cares to read. Not even to account for the fact that I was clueless as to how to construct a decently paced narrative back then. The bottom line is that people don’t really want to read anything that humanizes the soldiers of Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, especially a rank band of true-believing perverts like you. That whole decade was a time of humanity’s worst evil, and society prefers to believe that it can wrap it in a neat, hermetic system of moral black-and-white, and lock it into history.

Maybe we can. I hope so. Terror and racism and factionalism have only gotten worse since I began writing about World War 2. But insisting on championing such a distasteful story at the expense of my career is folly. Realizing that was my first step in transforming from someone who writes to a professional writer.

Jari nods from above crossed arms, noting, “I wouldn’t want to read about some Nazi babykiller’s inner child either.”

Lia shoots her a glance, then slings one at Funk. Her fingers unfurl, finding the shaft of her spear. She clutches it with purpose.

Lia Q: When do I get my story told? I’m not a creepy Nazi. And I’ve waited for six years!

A: You’ve waited for about two years, but never mind. The answer is that I see a lot of trends in publishing—namely, the digital format—that is very promising for long, challenging works like Reaver.

I don’t mean e-Publishing. I’m very wary about self-publishing and especially in the electronic format. I’ve seen it work for a select few people, but in each case, I can see the reasons why. It works when an author knows who their market is and knows a simple, cost-effective way of getting their attention.

That’s not my style. However, the iTunes business model suggests that established authors can explore new ways of publishing that can give voice to texts unsuitable for traditional publishing models. Many critics look at the internet and see a death warrant for reading, but I think the contrary is true. Reading is the principal form of communication online. It’s just that people read blog post sized pieces. That’s one reason that “flash fiction”—stories told in 1,000 words or less—has experienced such a boom.

What I hope to see is a revolution in how stories get told. Yes, I love the conventional format, but I think that written works have to give a nod to how reading works is changing.

Right now, I want to sell my crime fiction in a conventional format, to establish conventional cred. But I’m looking forward to being at the forefront of the new media—the new business models and new literary art forms—that will give voice to works otherwise doomed to silence on the basis of size preventing a sales model.

Sigrid waves her brother’s smoke away.

“And he fancies himself an artist,” she says.

“Like any mercenary too cowardly to embrace his trade,” her brother adds.

“An author, no less,” Sigrid adds.

“More like a well-shorn sheep,” Siegfried lights another smoke.

“I remember a man who tried to keep himself warm in his sleep with money as his blanket.” Sigrid muses.

“Oh?” Siegfried asks, fumes rolling from his lips. “What happened to him?”

“He burned quite lovely when the bombs fell.” Sigrid says. “Those sleeping bare to the cold were only singed.”

“Lovely indeed.” Siegfried smirks.

Sigrid Q: You see, Matthew? My stories aren’t ugly. My stories are beautiful. Do you deny this?

A: Your stories are about finding the beauty in a hideous situation. Sometimes, the beauty is just in the artistry—using exquisite or lyrical language to convey the gruesome. Sometimes the beauty is elemental—it’s in the core of the characters, their passion and self-sacrifice casting light on a monstrous environment.

In either event, that’s what so attracted me to warfare as a subject. There’s an undeniable dichotomy to warfare. It’s a condition of human extremes. That means you get the extremely horrid and the extremely virtuous. There are as many stories of men and women giving their all for the sake of others as there are stories of cruelty, suffering and loss for no reason. It’s randomness at its best and worst. It’s also intention at its most glorious or most monstrous. The subject matter shines with the grotesque.

And for someone like me, who likes to cast that shadow—to show how relative light and dark are—war is a perfect studio. I get to show how one person’s virtue is another person’s abomination. If that sounds like a vain statement, consider that every time a soldier mustered the courage to risk life taking out an enemy in order to save his brothers in arms, some family lost a son or a husband or a father. One man rescued lives by incredible bravery, while at the same time, a home somewhere got a dreaded visit from a chaplain that devastated their lives forever.

A lot of my colleagues in crime writing talk about “what is noir?” I believe warfare is the soul of what noir is—a realm in which there are no black-and-white moral scenarios: Every hero is an accidental monster. And there is a beauty in that, as absolute as there is a sin.

Stagger snorts on behalf of the crowd. He bounces his cigarette off the glass door with a finger’s flick and lets his shoulders dance a moment. They settle like Gulf coast heat. His eyebrows climb.

Stagger Q: What’s all this talk about sin, anyhow? Son, any story about me and mine is a story about folks just getting it how they live. Why you got to cast everything in four-color comic book format?

A: I read too many comic books. Either that, or too many books on myths.

Somewhere along the line, I got hooked on the notion of Joe Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” I didn’t know the term until I was well out of my writing program, but I was a zealot for it all the same. I see life in terms of battles, puzzles and challenges, large and small, that lead a person along a quest. A quest for what, well, that’s up to the seeker. I know a lot of people who are just chasing their diseases. They don’t want to get better so much as they get off on seeing how bad off they can be. It’s a Hero’s Journey all the same. It just happens to be going in a downward direction.

It tends to make my stories into open-ended episodes. I don’t write for one novel or one short story. I cast my stories in the mold of a single link in a long chain of development. At heart, I’m a sequential story teller: A comic book writer, a classical studies scholar, a character-driven author.

I don’t much cotton to endings. I’m always thinking of what’s next—what’s going to rise from the ashes.

Jari rolls her eyes, inspiring a chuckle for Stagger. Ava’s composure becomes more polished. And the Twins, Sigrid and Siegfried, slide on a knowing grin.

But Reaver’s teeth scrape. Lia is darkening in his lap. She bounds up again, snatching her spear and sticking out her lip just as far.

She drives both at Funk’s face as the Reaver looks on with grim approval.

Lia Q: So we don’t get a happy ending, hm? Just challenges and more chapters?

A: No happy endings. There’s no such thing.

Like I said, happiness is about letting go. It’s about saying, “This is enough.” And for those of you here, and for all heroes, there’s no such thing as letting go.

Your people, Lia, the Scythians, said that the greatest kindness of the world was the power to forget. But for a story to work, there can be no forgetting. There always has to be another score to settle, another love to win, another ghost to lay to rest.

I don’t want my stories to end. I write stories to haunt. Like you all haunt me.


  1. Righteous. Absolutely righteous. I so like what Matt says about conflict, fear listening as a writer and a world of Bundy's Hitler's, and Einsteins. This man has got his shit in a sock and isn't afraid to swing it in your direction.

  2. Now that is beauty writing. MCF always shining light on the darkness.

  3. So many great characters! Funk is always surprising/terrifying me with brilliant and blazingly original original.

    Like what you said about a writer being an observer--definitely shines through in your work.

  4. Nice thought provoking piece. Hat tip
    To YOU, sir.

  5. Spot fucking on, Matthew. All of it. The meta story you're writing is colossal and epic. But your style breaks it into dripping red chunks that we all can digest and immediately howl for more. Joe Campbell is probably somewhere stroking his chin and flashing a "you got it, dude" thumbs up. Good grits, city boy, with butter yet.

  6. Salacious and salable words from one of my nearest and dearest.

  7. You're a brave man to face them all at once, even in a public place. Very edifying. Gretchen misses you.

  8. It's wonderful to hear you all enjoyed the palaver in my psyche. I'm humbled by your words of praise, even if half the psychopaths featured above think it's no less than what they have coming to them. They'll keep up the growling, whispering and gnashing of teeth, and I'll do my best to keep winning your esteem.

  9. Absolutely brilliant!

    Those voices in your head must keep you awake at night ...

  10. What a genius way to show the world who the Funk you are, and the voices that are begging you to let them out. I really like what you say upfront in this and its something that stands out in your work."I have a knack for listening to what people say, how they say it and why." You absolutely do, Matt. And isn't this one of the reasons for literature? For understanding how to live and why in an entertaining manner? I like watching you dance with yourself.

  11. "Every hero is an accidental monster." CLASSIC.