September 2010

Evan Karp


An Interview with Matt Stewart

In July, Matt Stewart celebrated the release of his first novel, The French Revolution, from Soft Skull Press. Stewart spent between almost five years writing the book, which chronicles the fictional family saga of a modern San Francisco family in a sprawling narrative that captures the city’s whimsical nature and abundant sensory stimulations -- from its diehard experimental foodies to the less couth alleyway musicians and even, quite seriously, the intersection of crime and local politics -- all within the framework of the actual French Revolution. It's a fantastical satire of epic proportion, and what makes it unique is its ability to capture a family at once skewed by its fictional fast-paced pivots and yet human, sympathetic and real.

Each chapter begins with a title such as “The Tennis Court Oath” or “Reign of Terror” and a quotation either from someone involved in the eighteenth-century upheaval or else a leading historian thereon. But other than twin characters who are born on Bastille Day and named Marat and Robespierre, the novel has seemingly little to do with the actual revolution. On the surface.

While many publishers were interested in The French Revolution, and spoke of deals and returns, in the end they each declined, calling the book “too risky” and “not for us.” This is where Stewart’s experience as a marketing director takes control of the story. On Bastille Day 2009 -- exactly one year before the book was published in print form by Soft Skull -- Stewart began tweeting the novel in short bursts (140 characters at a time), becoming the first person to release an entire novel through the then (and now) burgeoning platform.

In the months that followed, Stewart received press coverage from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal and CNN, NBC, ABC, TechCrunch and Publishers Weekly (to name but a few). Quick to say he didn’t expect anyone to read the whole book on Twitter, Stewart saw the potential to direct the book’s fate with his own hands. In conversation with The Wall Street Journal: “This was like giving someone a few minutes of a TV show before going to Netflix and renting the whole season,” he said. “If you get a punchy 140-character message their way, that’s more likely to get their attention.”

It worked. Stewart not only found a publisher, but he got so much press for his decision to publish through Twitter that to talk about the book itself must have seemed like a novel idea; so well, that it threatened to overshadow the simple fact that Matt Stewart wrote one very impressive debut novel.

I had the opportunity to spend a recent morning with Matt and his wife Karla Zens in their Bernal Heights home and we spoke about the campaign’s success and about some of the ways his novel parallels the actual French Revolution.

I know that you want to impress on people that you actually wrote a good book, right, so what’s the challenge of overcoming all the press you got for the Twitter thing?

I think it’s just sticking around, honestly. It’s talking about the book and the story and letting people decide for themselves. For a while people were like, Wow, gimmick: Twitter guy. I’m proud of that. I mean I think it’s part of the story. I want all authors to be ballsier… Authors are usually more introspective -- I think San Francisco might be an exception to that, but a lot of them are quieter thinkers, and their disposition is not necessarily to go out and ring the bell. And I would just say, you know, try new things. This is a time when publishing hasn’t really evolved like other industries. And I think the book is a terrific art form. But I think we’re looking at a generation that expects more bells and whistles.

Yeah, I think so too. And I think in The French Revolution the language that you use is very… I know that you didn’t write it tweet for tweet, right, but your sentences are crafted in a way that they seem to have more poetry per line than I usually find in a novel, and I wonder how much of that is a result of social media and corresponding changes in the culture now.

Well, that’s interesting, because Twitter definitely celebrates the quippable, so even if you’re a great thinker you still gotta have a line that people can remember. One of the great truths of marketing is that shorter is better. People read at text message length. They read in the length that by the time they’re done looking at it they’ve already read it. So that’s one of the strengths of Twitter. You look at a tweet, you already got it -- you don’t have to press on. And I think that’s definitely true in communication. That said, for a book: I worked for years to just make this a great book. And I hope I succeeded on some level. I didn’t really get into Twitter until a year and a half ago so I don’t think that really shaped much of it. So it was more like I want to make every word memorable. And Twitter is that way. I think if you want to be interesting on Twitter you can’t [waste words]… You gotta make it interesting. And I think that’s a good way to think about it: You have a limited attention span, so use your time wisely. Don’t dither. But these are classic rules of writing. These are not Twitter-imposed. It’s just when you have a chance to make your point, make it well.

I think that’s probably where a lot of the raunch came from, in my opinion. Right? You give details that form a very distinct impression. I have this sense of, you know, with Esmerelda I have the smells and I have the images, right, and then with Marat I have also the smell, I have just a sense of each one of their auras -- they come through really clearly.

Well, thank you, first thing. That’s -- I don’t know if that’s Twitter-based or...

No, I wouldn’t make that argument. But I feel like not all novels are written in a way that keep reinforcing these impressions. Sometimes they’re more thought-based, or… I want to say "to the point" without being offensive. Actually, The French Revolution is way more geared toward my style of writing -- what I appreciate more, which is language and impression…

That’s fair. It’s definitely a mood. It’s a mindset. And it feels... you know, this book is very much about San Francisco -- I wrote it almost entirely in San Francisco, I love San Francisco and I think that shines. And part of what I love about SF is the sense of magic, and that’s really what propels me, or propels the story, is this sense of wonder. And the actual French Revolution I wouldn’t say was wonderful, but it was incredible.

Anything can happen. I think that sense shines through, and I like that. When I think of the French Revolution I have this fairy tale idea. It feels like a fairy tale in a way on multiple levels, but I like that it comes back around, and sometimes I feel like an element of unbelievability is not only legit but preferable in fiction, to some degree. But also it feels very American. This family and the fact that they get rich and powerful but they’re still this weird horde of individuals who will betray one another without thinking about it, and will forgive one another for doing it, right, because they would have done the same thing.

I think the French Revolution is an excellent example of a society lurching its way into identity. You go from one extreme to another: Napoleon comes along, you go on this mad adventure to Russia, Waterloo happens… and then you’re France. Then you’ve got this set of experiences that shape you. And a lot of French values today came out of the thinking then. You can’t run from that. It’s Hegelian. I think of the dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I think we all go through that as people, you know. You just kind of lurch around until you find the way. The only way to get there is by lurching. You gotta lurch. [Laughter.] To be effective, you gotta lurch. It’s the same thing with Twitter -- you gotta experiment. You’ve gotta find new ways, and you probably won’t nail it, but it will push you in a direction that will help make you you. And I think that works in the city of San Francisco and I think that works on a personal level. Ultimately, it’s about identity.

Yeah. I like that idea that identity doesn’t come until after the story has happened. You struggle for one thing, whether it’s a war in Russia, right, or… I don’t know, with a family it’s strange to think because you feel like when you’re growing up that your family is such a defined thing you don’t question it -- this is the thing that you know -- but now having grown up and moved out of my house it’s like, Oh, this has happened to me, this happened to my brother, this is happening to my parents… The story of my family is only now becoming clear in the aftermath of what we’ve experienced.

And things aren’t always as smooth as you think they are when you’re a kid. I felt like, growing up, everyone knew what was going on, it was under control, and when you grow up your parents tell you about their decision-making, and you’re like, they were just winging it. They were just doing the best they could under the circumstances. And I think that’s important to remember. It is the ride, you know, that gets you to where you’re gonna be… I had something interesting to say, but I forgot what it was.

Yeah, that’s the story of my life. Do you have a feeling that you’re open to understanding meanings of the book that you didn’t recognize [when you start to get feedback]?

Oh, I look forward to it. Totally. The thing about fiction is no one has it totally figured out. I absolutely want to hear what people have to say. I welcome that -- I can’t wait to hear what people have to say… Actually I encourage anybody to ping me with any ideas ever. There’s this wall up between readers and authors that doesn’t need to be there.