An Interview with Matt Burgess
Later this month, Doubleday will publish Dogfight, A Love Story, the first novel by Matt Burgess. Dogfight follows a drug dealer through a difficult weekend, involving Russian gangsters, dog-napping, pill-popping, beat cops, arcade games, and numerous instances of gunfire, theft, and murder. More importantly, though, Dogfight explores the complex inner lives of an entire community -- Jackson Heights, Queens -- as distilled through the experiences of its protagonist, Alfredo Batista.
Over e-mail, Bookslut discussed Dogfight with Matt Burgess, who I have known for many years, and whose work, believe me, deserves the highest praise. No wonder Barnes & Noble chose him for their “Discover Great New Writers” program. Matt and I talked about a number of academic matters, including Big Trouble in Little China, fake moustaches, Kevin Costner, Mario and Luigi, Burt Reynolds, submarines, and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Often I find it more revealing when an author describes the plot of their book rather than when a publicist or copywriter summarizes it. So what would you say your novel is about?
I’m going to adapt the synopsis from my agent query letter if that’s okay with you. The book tells the story of Alfredo Batista, a street-corner weed peddler living in a cramped Queens apartment with his parents and his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend. When the book opens, he is looking for a package of drugs, a welcome-back present for his brother, who’s returning home from prison after an absence of over two years. But the more moves Alfredo makes -- he also needs to find a pit bull somehow -- the more trouble he gets himself into. The book covers roughly 48 hours in the lives of its characters. It’s sort of structured like a plot-driven suspense novel -- there are armed robberies and dead bodies and double crossings -- but the book is equally interested in rendering the interior lives of its characters, the kind of working class people consistently underrepresented in American fiction. How’s that?
Perfecto. The best fiction writers, one could argue, are able to inhabit the mindset of their protagonists, thereby believably portraying imaginary emotions and thoughts. In Dogfight, you, a reasonably clean-cut white boy and Ivy League graduate who I think has never been to jail, inhabit the personas and voices -- very successfully and very beautifully -- of a small-time drug dealer, his girlfriend, and a recently released convict. That said, what are some of the wildest costumes you’ve worn for Halloween?
For whatever reason, I went through a phase where I felt compelled to dress up like people with awesome mustaches: Freddie Mercury, Burt Reynolds, Keith Hernandez, my undergrad creative writing teacher Ernest Hebert, Luigi from Mario Bros. Who did you dress up as? I don’t remember a single costume you ever wore, except for the Jack “Pork Chop Express” Burton outfit.
Due to an unhealthy obsession with the homicidal haunter of dreams, I dressed up as Freddy Krueger in ’86, ’87, ’88, and ’03. But moving on. What methods did you use to get into the mindsets of characters so disparate not only from each other but also from yourself?
That is a very nice, flattering question I’m going to do my best not to answer. That part of the fictional process is very mysterious to me, and I’m reluctant to look too much into it for fear of… well, I don’t know… for fear of ruining it somehow. I will say though that I have a lot of affection for my characters, a lot of empathy, and that empathy muscle is in turn developed by reading fiction, which presents multiple points-of-view and consistently pushes us into gray zones, into ambiguities. I’m not explaining myself very well. I don’t think I want to explain myself very well.
How does it feel to be a published author at the young age of 28?
Amazing. I feel very, very lucky. I am very, very lucky.
Given your luck, as you put it, with Dogfight, is this your first novel, or have there been “learning experiences” along the road to publication?
As in like unfinished novels duct-taped in a drawer? No, this was my first try. Although of course this first try took three years and enough drafts to fill a filing cabinet. And as you know before this I was writing short stories, all of which are unpublished.
Setting plays a significant role in your novel. I was reminded of Richard Price’s North Jersey, George Pelecanos’s D.C., and Elmore Leonard’s Detroit, not to mention the Baltimore portrayed on The Wire. What influence does where you grew up have on your work?
Price, Pelecanos, and Leonard are all heroes of mine, and I find the comparison dizzying. I was born and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world. Lots of Russians, lots of Latinos, lots of Indians, lots of everything. When I was growing up, I spent an awful lot of time hanging out and bullshitting, and many of the book’s incidents are based on things that I saw or stories I heard. So yeah, Queens is the prime influence on my work. I daydream Queens.
So then is it daunting to have your book called “the great Queens novel”?
I’m staring at the computer, trying to think of a way to answer this without embarrassing myself. I don’t know, Snowden. That’s all publicity stuff, you know? But it’s very nice. I was happy when I saw that. Don’t ask me questions like this!
Where do you live now?
I live in Minneapolis. I was doing so much hanging out in Queens that I wasn’t getting any writing done. So I left New York. And I get so homesick now that I write Monday through Friday. Writing fiction about Queens has really become the only affordable way for me to visit my friends.
You studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Dartmouth and received your MFA in fiction from the University of Minnesota. What are some of the most scathing criticisms you’ve gotten from professors and fellow students over the years?
“Ugh,” “cliché,” and “if I wasn’t paid to finish reading this I’d stop right here.” That was all from the same professor. Can you imagine? I remember reading the comments at home and my face was pulsing with heat. The Mets and Cardinals were playing in the NLCS that night and the game was just completely ruined for me.
Any other writer or books that have been a major influence -- on this novel in particular or on your work in general?
If I started listing novels and short stories and writers who are important to me I’d go on forever. But with this novel, as opposed to the fiction I wrote in college, I was much more interested in language, in mixing registers and being precise and seeing closely and working with English’s lovely elasticity, and so the two books that were most important to Dogfight were probably my father’s American Heritage Second College Edition Dictionary and my fine-smelling Roget’s International Fourth Edition Thesaurus. That’s kind of a ridiculous answer, I know. But it’s the truth. Those books were right next to my chair every day, and they always will be. I remember when we were in college you used to rant about writers who didn’t pay enough attention to sentences, comparing them to carpenters who showed up to work without their toolbox. I’m a late convert to that way of thinking, but a convert I am.
I think what I said was it’s like someone trying to build a house when they don’t even know how to hammer a nail. Can you tell us any more about the importance of language? For example, do you read much poetry and been influenced by it?
The attention to language in poetry is always going to be instructive, but I get just as much out of the way certain poets pay such close attention to things. Elizabeth Bishop sees that fish so closely and renders that image with such glass-cutting precision, and I find that kind of scrutiny very exciting, not only as a writer but as a person too (not that they’re separate, of course). Bishop and Larkin and those long lists of Whitman’s help me keep my eyes open when I’m walking down the street.
In his 2003 speech for receiving a medal from the National Book Foundation, Stephen King said, “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding.” Other authors, particularly Michael Chabon, have also been vocal about bridging the gap between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. With that in mind, do you consider Dogfight a literary novel or a crime novel?
Oh man, these are such slippery words. Your boy Stephen King escorts them into his speech with “so-called,” and you’ve got quote marks around them, and so I’m a little unwilling to shelve Dogfight into one of these semantic categories when none of us can even agree on the definitions. If I tell someone it’s a crime novel, and if they have different expectations for what a crime novel should be, then they’re probably going to be disappointed. Is the Chabon essay you’re referring to “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” the lead essay in Maps and Legends? That’s an important essay for me, a manifesto I’m more than happy to sign off on, but I don’t read it so much as an argument for bridging gaps between genre and literary fiction, but rather as an attempt to resuscitate the good name of entertainment. I think Chabon is calling for fiction that’s exciting, that tells stories, and hybridizing genre and literary models is one of many possible ways to get there.
Do you feel there’s a lack of exciting storytelling in the contemporary literary scene, particularly with up and coming writers?
Not at all. I’m consistently blown away by contemporary writers. A friend of mine, Ethan Rutherford, is publishing these wild, interesting, thought-provoking short stories about militaristic summer camps and Civil War submarine adventures and barbarians with swords. But that’s not to say that stories need to have, I don’t know, like severed heads or something in order to be exciting. CE Morgan’s recent story in The New Yorker was relatively plot-less and it destroyed me. That little boy reaching out for his mama, saying, “Up, up, up.” I loved that. Anyone who can think of something so random and beautiful is an exciting storyteller. By the way, while we’re on this Bookslut soapbox, can we petition The New Yorker people to let us know when their fiction is a short story and when it’s a novel excerpt? That drives me crazy.
What other novels do you think straddle the line of genres?
Well, my definition of all these genres is pretty wide-open and inclusionary, so I can happily think of Pride and Prejudice as a romance novel, and Beloved as a ghost story, and Denis Johnson’s Angels as a crime novel. But just because Crime and Punishment is a crime novel, doesn’t mean it’s not a literary novel as well. You know? Here’s some more: Hard Revolution; True Grit; Lonesome Dove, Slaughterhouse-Five; The Hound of the Baskervilles; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Blindness; Moby-Dick; Master and Commander; The Power and the Glory; Bel Canto; “Stone Animals”; “Young Lions”; “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”; Chronicle of a Death Foretold; Seven Gothic Tales; “The Nose”; The Turn of the Screw. Is Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata erotica? Why not, right?
Evelyn Waugh once advised a young writer: “Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don’t make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists... Make things happen… Don’t spoil it out of slackness or perversity but do MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Have a murder in every chapter if you like but do do something.” Later in his career, Waugh also wrote of the specific cinematic devices useful to novelists, including montage and jump-cuts, close-ups, and a more distanced narrative stance. Was film an influence on Dogfight? Did any other non-literary artistic mediums have an influence?
Like pretty much everyone else my age, I’ve seen a lot of television and a lot of movies, and so visual media is going to impact the way I approach narrative, but I went out of my way with Dogfight to try and make sure that film wasn’t an influence. Given the amount of time I’ve spent camped in front of a television, I sometimes fall into the trap of constructing a scene through, say, Martin Scorsese’s point-of-view. And then I’ve got to cross that scene out and start over and see closer, through my own point-of-view, which is a much more exciting way to write. I actually gave a version of this problem to one of the book’s characters, Isabel, who’s seen so many flicks that she consistently imagines how things might be different in the movie version of her life. That has its pluses as a coping mechanism, of course, but it’s dangerous too.
What is your writing schedule like, that is, your day-to-day routine?
I wake up a little before nine and write longhand in a black-and-white composition notebook until about four or five, with breaks for lunch and a shower. I do that Monday through Friday. It’s a job, the best one I’ve ever had.
A lot of published writers’ answer to this question can be misleading to aspiring writers -- I’m thinking of how Murakami basically trains for a marathon every time he writes a novel -- but yours seems like very sound advice for anyone, no matter their level of experience.
Well, it works for me at least. And I hope Murakami continues to train for a marathon because that certainly works for him. Simenon apparently needed to have a doctor clear him before starting a novel because he just wrote for days without stopping. And that worked for him, obviously, because he wrote like a zillion books. But I’ve got to do my Monday through Friday thing. Of course as of right now I have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have the time to do this. But it’s important to me to take advantage of that luxury and work hard; and I was compelled to work even harder when I found out that even though like Clark Kent you have a nine-to-five job, you still wake up at four a.m. every morning to write. I’m competitive that way. I don’t want to be outworked. (Although I’m not about to wake up at four anytime soon.) There’s this Michael Chabon quote that really has changed my life where he says that in order to succeed a novelist needs talent, luck, and discipline, but “discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.”
Many great writers held unusual jobs prior to making it. Faulkner was a postmaster. Steinbeck was a house painter. How about yourself?
I have worked at a textbook company, at a nursing home as an activity leader (spelling bees, reminiscence sessions), answered phone calls for my father’s fake company, jockeyed a cash-register at a bicycle shop, and taught creative writing to middle-school kids, college undergrads, and retirees. But if it’d help me write As I Lay Dying, I’d sign up to be a postmaster in a second, although I don’t really know what that is.
I think it involves roaming a post-apocalyptic countryside delivering mail to people. What have you learned from teaching creative writing?
The best thing about teaching creative writing is being with people in an environment where for X number of minutes a day fiction is the most important thing in the world. That’s good for the soul, or at least it’s good for my soul.
Do you also write short stories -- I know you used to -- and if so, how do they compare to the writing of a novel, other than it takes longer and is more difficult? What skills did you learn in writing short stories that helped you write Dogfight?
Is it more difficult? I don’t know. I think writing an excellent page in an excellent short story is as hard as writing an excellent page in an excellent novel. I love reading short stories, but I haven’t written one in a while. I’d feel like I was cheating on the project I’m working on now.
Although I understand you may be reticent to give us the details about your future projects, is there anything can you tell us, however vaguely, about what you’re currently working on?
I’m very superstitious about this kind of thing. The impulse for me to write is tied up with the impulse to tell a story, and so if I told you the story now, however vaguely, I’d lose the urgency to write it down. That’s crazy, I know. It’s a novel. I won’t say anything else.