An Interview with Matt Ruff
Bad Monkeys, which is being released on July 24th, is Matt Ruff’s fourth published novel. Like his others, it’s a wondrous meld of ideas and story. He, as comes up in the interview, is the kind of novelist who probably couldn’t repeat himself even if he tried. His characters ring true no matter what odd circumstances he puts them into.
Neal Stephenson blurbed Bad Monkeys as, “Fast. Wicked. Scarily clever, and equally fun for those who like thrillers and those who don't,” and he’s right. The book is twisted and makes turns without signaling, but it’s also a pageturner. It’s a comedy, an adventure and an SF-nal mindblower rolled into a lean story.
Ruff’s previous novel, Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, is about two people who have Multiple Personality Disorder, almost fall in love and instead go on a roadtrip where they face their childhood fears and traumas. It won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2003. His second book was Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. Ayn Rand is brought back from the dead by computers, it’s 2023, there are lemurs and comparisons to Thomas Pynchon abound… And his first, Fool on the Hill, is a college novel unlike most college novels. There are Gods, Muses, an army of rats and a deadly mannequin called the Rubbermaid.
Matt Ruff’s taste in music also comes up in the interview. It’s worth noting that Matt Ruff’s taste in music isn’t always questionable; he also listens to cool music like The Ramones and David Bowie. The soundtrack of music that he “listened to obsessively while writing” Bad Monkeys can be found on Matt Ruff's website.
Without giving too much away, what’s Bad Monkeys about?
It’s about a woman named Jane Charlotte who’s been arrested for murder. She admits to the crime, but she also claims to belong to a secret organization that fights evil. The way the organization keeps itself secret is by running its affairs along the lines of a schizophrenic delusion -- for example, operatives’ orders are hidden in the daily crossword, or encoded in song selections on the radio -- so if you try and tell anybody about it, they think you’re crazy.
Sure enough, this confession gets Jane sent to the psychiatric wing of the city jail. The novel is her in a room with a shrink, telling the story of how she first crossed paths with the organization, how she was recruited to work for Bad Monkeys, which is what they call their execution squad, and how it all went wrong.
In the planning stages, you called Bad Monkeys “a Philip K. Dick-style novel.” Philip K. Dick isn’t around to give his take on it -- unless he suddenly starts shooting pink beams from VALIS, which would make everything insanely complicated -- but, now that Bad Monkeys is finished and going out into the world, what do you think Phil Dick would think of your new novel?
Well, given that my protagonist is named after Dick’s twin sister, who died in infancy, and with whom Dick was obsessed even though he’d never known her, I think he might be a little peeved.
Beyond that, our sensibilities differ enough that I’m not sure he’d be into me. At heart I’m a realist: I believe there’s one universe for all of us, and if it often seems otherwise, it’s because we’re all working from incomplete information. This doesn’t stop me from embracing outrageous fantasy scenarios, but I like my outrageous fantasy to have rules, and I’m a stickler for logical coherence -- I think it’s fine if a story leaves you guessing what’s true and what’s false, but I need to believe that an answer is possible.
With Dick, I think coherence and consistency are much lower priorities. He’s more about taking you into a weird headspace and posing questions for which even hypothetical answers are not required.
Some would say that the narrative arc of Bad Monkeys bends, suddenly and surprisingly, at the end. In writing and plotting the book, did you know how it would shift or was it a process of figuring it out once you got there?
I knew where I was going from the start.
The thing about “surprise” endings is that, to anyone familiar with popular books and movies, they are very rarely surprising. Once you know a twist is coming, you can generally narrow the possibilities down to a handful, and then it’s just a question of waiting to see whether the storyteller will go for choice A, B, or C.
Because of this, I think the smart way to play the game is to assume readers will figure out what you’re up to, and concentrate on giving them a fun ride regardless. If you do manage to surprise them, that’s great, but the success of the story shouldn’t hinge on that.
What convinced me Bad Monkeys was worth doing was the character of Jane Charlotte. As soon as I found her voice, I knew this was a novel I wanted to write. And what’s cool about Jane is that, yeah, she’s got secrets piled on top of secrets, but she’s also got this immense charisma that remains even after all her secrets have been blown.
Before winning the James Tiptree Jr. Award for Set the House in Order: A Romance of Souls, how familiar were you with Alice Sheldon’s writing and the Tiptree Award?
I was vaguely familiar with the story of “James Tiptree,” and I’d heard of the award, but I’d never read any of Sheldon’s writing. Still haven’t, actually -- I have a bias towards long fiction, and of course she was almost exclusively a short-story writer. One of these days I’ll tackle her omnibus collection, and probably end up kicking myself for waiting.
A semi-lucid argument could be made that your book helped itself win the Tiptree with one stunning gender-bending sentence. When you wrote the book and that sentence, did you expect so many people would take notice?
No, that was a real surprise. Which it probably had to be: the reason that sentence works, I think, is that it’s handled so matter-of-factly within the larger story. If I’d been trying to be sensational, it would have rung false or fallen flat.
This is hard to ask, because it seems flattering or confusing. None of your books match. Each novel seems like a completely different endeavor, even though there are cohesive themes and elements. Is it hard for you to write books that way or does it come naturally? Do you intentionally avoid repeating yourself?
It’s not something I planned at the outset. In deciding what to write next, I’ve always followed my interests, and it just so happened that they’ve led me to a different place each time. The effect may also be heightened by the fact that I work very slowly, and your writer’s voice at forty is naturally going to be different than it is at thirty, or twenty.
By this point, enough people have pointed out the “different genre every time” thing that I’ve gotten a little more self-conscious about it. I think it’s kind of cool, and I’d like to see how long I can keep it up. But ultimately, interest is still key, and if tomorrow I come up with a neat idea that sounds a bit like Fool on the Hill or Sewer, Gas & Electric, I’ll still do it.
As a follow-up to the last questions, do you run into problems as a harder-than-some-to-categorize writer? You know, certain writers write an epic series, telling similar stories, and others follow a similar milieu (like legal thrillers or serial killers) and you, erm, don’t do that. Have you run into people, especially in the book biz, who don’t “get” what you’re trying to do? (In the past, you said, “One of my visions of author hell is being forced to go back and write a sequel to a story about which I have nothing more to say…”)
It really hasn’t been a problem for me so far. More through luck than design, I got tagged as a literary/mainstream writer early on, which means I’ve always had much more latitude in terms of publisher expectation than, say, people whose first novel had a unicorn on the cover.
And again, I work very slowly. When your last novel came out five years ago, the trick isn’t so much convincing readers to follow you in a new direction as reminding them that you had an old direction: “Matt Ruff has written other books? When did that happen?”
A decade ago, in an interview with Jim Gladstone, you talked about the success of the German translation of your first novel, Fool on the Hill. You said that being an author in America is like being “a salesman with a product.” Does it still strike you as being that way?
I don’t remember that interview, so I’m not sure where I was coming from when I said that, but if you asked me today, I’d say of course I’m a salesman with a product. That’s not all I am, but among other things, writing is a business.
I get that some people are troubled by this. Part of it is a romantic idea that art shouldn’t be sullied by commerce, and part of it is concern that good art may be lost simply because it’s not commercially viable. But when I listen to debates about the future of publishing, I usually find myself coming down on the side of the entrepreneurs -- authors who see the Internet and e-books as a marketing opportunity rather than a threat to artistic tradition.
What’s Seattle’s literary scene like?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because I’ve always viewed writing as a solitary activity: just me sitting in a room alone for hours on end, talking to myself. To the extent that I have a literary scene, it’s in that same room, in the books on my shelves, whatever I happen to be reading at the time.
Certainly Seattle has a lot of venues if you want to give readings, or go to them. And there are lots of great writers living in the area, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know. But hanging out talking shop isn’t writing -- it’s what you do when you should be writing.
Are the bookstores still thriving?
I don’t know about “thriving” -- I’m sure their profit margins are pretty tight -- but it’s a rare Seattle neighborhood that doesn’t have at least two independent or used bookstores in it. I haven’t had browsing this good since I lived in Boston in the early ‘90s.
What do you like to do in Seattle?
Hiking is a big thing -- when I’m wrestling with a plot point, I like to go on these five- or ten-mile rambles. Also kayaking, gardening, and the occasional field trip to one of the local volcanoes.
Frank McCourt was one of your high school teachers. Did it seem significant at the time? Did you keep in touch?
Well, of course he wasn’t famous then, but he did stand out as one of those memorable teachers. I had him for creative writing, and he used to tell us stories about his childhood in Ireland -- and they were great stories. So I wasn’t really surprised when Angela’s Ashes turned up on the bestseller lists. It was like, “Oh good, Mr. McCourt finally wrote that stuff down.”
We didn’t keep in touch, but last year he gave a lecture at Benaroya Hall downtown, and my wife and I went to see him. The room was a lot bigger than the one at Stuyvesant, but up on stage he was the same Mr. McCourt from third-period English. It was nice to see him in action again. Afterwards I had a chance to talk to him for a few minutes, and was flattered that he not only remembered me after twenty-five years, he knew about my books. But then I realized -- to the world he’s a rock star now, but in his own head he’s still a high school teacher, and a teacher’s accomplishment is measured through the accomplishments of his students. So of course he knew. He knows about all the kids he taught who went on to get published.
Is it rude to ask about your musical taste? You’ve never done a Largehearted Boy Book Notes and it will be neat if you do, but some of the music you listed as inspiration for Set This House in Order included: Avril Lavigne, Pink, Bif Naked, Cher, Aqua and Britney Spears. In short, we all have pop culture skeletons -- Thomas Pynchon is supposedly a fan of The Brady Bunch -- but, point blank, have any of your pop culture skeletons ever struck you as particularly embarrassing?
Nah. I might still joke about it, but I’m a little too old to be genuinely embarrassed by my pop culture tastes. Also, particularly with music, context is really important -- there are songs you like not just for the songs themselves but because of the circumstances under which you first heard them. The reason I like Aimee Mann as much as I do is because she provided the soundtrack -- really, the inspiration -- for Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Magnolia. Bif Naked got on my playlist because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rob Zombie? Not a singer I had much interest in -- until the Subliminal Seduction Mix of “Living Dead Girl” was used on Angel, as a backdrop for Faith starting a riot in a dance club. Now it’s like, if I want to write about a violent woman going completely out of control, what else am I going to listen to?
Earlier you mentioned a bias toward long fiction, and this seems to be true of your writing as well as your reading: you’ve only published novels. Any reason for the bias, or is it just how you’re wired?
Just last weekend I was talking with a friend about how the notion you sometimes hear in creative writing circles, that you should start out writing short stories and “work your way up” to novels, really only makes sense from a time-management perspective: short stories are, by definition, short, so if you need a completed work to present in class next Tuesday, there’s only one option.
But really, they’re different forms requiring different skill sets. My natural skill set happens to be better suited to novels, and so that’s where my reading interests tend to fall as well. When I do discover someone whose short stories I like -- Aimee Bender, Ted Chiang, Margo Lanagan, J.G. Ballard -- I go looking for their collected works, so I can read the stories in batches: long fiction by proxy.
Finally, to be obligatory, what are you working on next?
My next novel will probably be an alternate history called The Mirage. It’s based on an idea I originally pitched to Fox Studios as a possible television series -- they loved the concept, but felt it was too controversial for TV, even cable. Because I’d envisioned the story as a multi-season arc, I didn’t think it would work as a book, but now that I’ve had some more time to mull it over, I’ve decided I want to give it a shot. So that’s my next project. As for what it’s about: ask me again in a couple years.