Matthew Burnside likes words. His sentences are electric eels. His work has been featured at Ninth Letter, PANK, Pear Noir!, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Sundog Lit, Necessary Fiction, and many more. He’s the author of two chaps: Escapologies and Infinity’s Jukebox out now from Passenger Side Books. Currently, Matthew is at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop figuring it out. He was kind enough to talk with Squalorly to accompany the publication of an excerpt from his novel in progress, IN SEARCH OF.

Matthew Burnside on IN SEARCH OF:

IN SEARCH OF is a [wiki]novel-in-progress that may or may not end up as my thesis here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. May not because I’m not sure if I’ll have the thing done a year from now, and I’m not about to rush it. I don’t believe in rushing. I had another project I’d been working through steadily before I came here – a collection of stories – which I more or less finished last semester, and the idea for ISO sort of came in a white-hot burst one night. Right off the bat it seemed like the pinnacle of everything I’d been working up to, not to mention the most ambitious thing I’d ever tried to pull off. Basically, there was a high probability of me fucking it up, so I knew it was the right project for me to pursue next. Anyway, it’s a fragmented narrative about communication, guilt, grief, and how technology figures into all of these things. It tells the story of the Cress family as they negotiate the loss of one of their own in the fictional town of Brownleaf, Indiana through a snapshot series of jumbled wiki entries. I envision the final version to be available online utilizing hyperlinks to connect all the characters and events in the story, even if I have no idea how to create a wiki.

You said that IN SEARCH OF was the result of an isolated burst of inspiration. What exactly sparked this burst?

Well, I say burst of inspiration but it was a project that has been slowly growing in my head for years – as in a petri dish. (Funny how much like bacteria the seed of a story can be.) I’d been wanting to write a story in the form of a wiki forever but it was just a gimmick there in the beginning, because I didn’t yet have a story big enough or disjointed enough to justify the form. I had to wait many years until that story would come along.

So, form definitely came first. I remember talking to this girl who told me she was “reading” a book. At the time, she was seated in front of a computer clicking through a wiki for the book. I said, You mean you’re cheating? She seemed confused. I realized then that maybe it was a perfectly valid way to experience a text (even if it wasn’t the way I would prefer to experience a text). I got to thinking about all the nights I had gotten lost in a wiki rabbit hole myself—making all the neurological leaps one makes when swimming from one concept to another, sort of suspended in free-floating bliss—and I wanted to create a narrative that would replicate that experience and the way in which wikis simplify (and complicate) the way we process information while also making it interactive. I also wanted to ask the question: what is lost with the type of communication that new technology and social media have created? What is sacrificed?

As I said, it would be a few years until the right story would come along. One night, I had begun a story about a father who becomes obsessed with this online game his dead son used to play, and it struck me that I knew this father: he was from a story I had previously written called Oblivion’s Fugue. That particular story had a lot to do with interiority and characters who are deprived of crucial information, told in such a way that the reader knows only those things that the characters don’t. I realized this small story was much bigger than I previously thought. Because what the story was really about was communication itself: the ways we interact or fail to interact with each other and the consequences of not even trying.

Once I realized Oblivion’s Fugue was the key, the whole story just sort of mapped itself for me. I decided right then, if I accomplished nothing else with the project, if I could make felt and express with each page the simple human yearning to not only be heard but understood by another human being, then I will have captured what I set out to capture.

In my own reading, I’ve come across more and more collections, novellas, and novels that are expressed in a fragmented, yet linked, form. With IN SEARCH OF, with the wiki entries, you’re creating a fragmented artifice to replicate another fragmented artifice. Where does that leave the reader?

Maybe it leaves the reader in a place where they feel just as isolated and frustrated as the characters they’re reading about, who have been alienated by their own communicative deficiencies, unable to see the forest for the trees because they’re only trees. Or maybe it leaves them shutting their computer off/ throwing the book across the room and picking up something that is more easily digestible. Who knows? The novel is designed to have a cumulative effect. There is a plot. Though it is a fractured map, it is still a map. I think modern readers are equipped to handle such fragmentation, at least those readers who don’t mind doing some work – who don’t require every narrative fed to them in the form of a Flintstones vitamin. The internet has drastically changed the way we process information, and because I wanted to write a novel about communication I knew it was imperative to take the full effect of technology and social media into consideration. I mean, we live in a strange world where it’s not only possible but plausible to have friends spread across the world that you haven’t even met. I have a bunch of them, and maybe that’s pitiful and pathetic to some people, but to me it feels perfectly normal. Still, I wonder if something happened to me tomorrow how many people would even know. I doubt anyone in my family would post something for the benefit of my “eFriends,” and thus none of them would probably show up to my funeral. Does this cheapen the connection I have to these wonderful strangers? Does it mean it’s all artificial? Does one have to be touched to feel touched? Anyway, for me the [wiki]form allows me to slip into every crack of the narrative, to better excavate and illuminate it. It enables me to get at something true (I hope) about the nature of communication and insularity. Sure, it’s very possible that something might get lost in translation (which is the point) but, as Salman Rushdie wrote: It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.

You said that your intent for IN SEARCH OF was to have a building, cumulative effect. And you also mentioned to me that this excerpt of ISO was a random collection of fragments to honor the spirit of the novel. When finished, will you place the entries in a specific order to aid the cumulative effect, or, in theory, could a reader rearrange the fragments in any order they chose? And would they then be able to reach the intended conclusions?

To answer your question, I’m including a primer included with the version of the [wiki]novel I’m workshopping this semester.

 

“There are a few different ways I invite you to experience this “novel.”
1) You will notice there are no page numbers—this is intentional. As it was written first and foremost as a wiki my personal preference as the writer (which, in the end, means jack-shit I know), is for you to read it online navigating the hyperlinks built into the story, clicking around and linking to whatever entries interest you in whatever order they interest you—like walking through a field and picking up only those stones that catch your eye, leaving all others rightfully unturned.2) If you’re old school and require something tactile I invite you to print it out, scatter the pages on your living room floor until they’re thoroughly shuffled, put them back together and let the story unfold as it may.3) As you read feel free to excise any pages you wish, or customize your novel experience with one of the “Create Your Own Litventure” templates!4) Or stop reading now. Click close/clap this book shut. Wait a while. Later, look up the summary, symbolism, and themes online. It will save you the trouble of actually engaging with the text itself.”

So, it is something I’ve given a lot of thought to but I’m not sure yet how it will actually shake out as far as the finished product.

Ideally, I would love for there to be two versions–an online (more definitive) version with clickable links and a more traditional, hardcopy text.

The concept of a novel that can be read in any order isn’t really new. In 1969 there was B.S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which included several chapters each bound separately. Readers were encouraged to read the beginning first and the end last, but all others in any order they wished. German writer Francis Nenik’s 853-page monster XO is available as a PDF and the hardcopy version is composed entirely of loose-leaf pages. Again, readers are encouraged to read it in any order. Sadly it’s only available in German and I don’t know German.

Anyway, the story is the story is the story, and no matter what order the reader reads it in the story will still be the story, but the effect of it being fragmented is what interests me. As for time being out of order, my own memories have always seemed to bleed together for me, always crashing into one another, sliding, rearranging themselves. Linearity has always seemed like a bit of a lie. So, while some may see the presentation or design scheme of the novel as pretentious or overwrought, I just see it as representative of the way I experience reality.

I would also encourage readers to arrange it in a way that is pleasant or most aesthetic to them and their view of life. So, if they like happy endings they could leave out all the bummer parts. On the other hand, if they’re extremely cynical they could leave out all the happy, poignant parts. To each their own.

With each reader finding a different path and making unique connections, it’ll be interesting to learn how deep each reader wants to go, and it’ll be interesting to hear the reactions you’ll get from readers. How have the early readers of IN SEARCH OF been reacting to the form?

Actually, only one person has seen it so far. My novel workshop peers at Iowa will see about 60-80 pages of it in November, and my thesis advisor Daniel Orozco has read about 30 pages of it though I haven’t met with him yet. That will happen tomorrow. I’ll let you know how much they hate it! Anyone who’s read my story Oblivion’s Fugue, though, has seen the seed of it. (That piece is actually going to appear very soon as a reprint in Revolution House.)

But yeah: I am curious how readers will react to it. I’m sure some will hate the structure – they’ll see it as a gimmick, plain and simple. I’m sure some will be unable to get into it, finding it too difficult to enter into the narrative because they’re unable to pinpoint a primary throughline (which is sort of the point – in life, there are an infinite number of throughlines and all of them are equally valid.)

The theme of communication/anti-communication is really the thing that fastens the project together, and since narrative is very much a conspiracy to communicate with your reader I’m having fun finding ways to complicate the reader’s reading experience and expectations.

Simultaneously, my own experience and expectations as the writer are being complicated. For instance, last night I ended up writing myself into the story…and let me tell you, my fate in it is not so pretty.

Any chance this “Matthew Burnside” will be caught masturbating?

I think the me in the story is actually a manifestation of my worst fears as a writer: that I’ll just end up being obscure and my writing won’t mean anything to anyone, which I’m sure is a common fear among writers.

If he were to be caught masturbating, I think the “Matthew Burnside” in the story would just be happy to be noticed doing anything at all.

You mentioned a fear for writers: obscurity. At what levels of readership and esteem does a writer break free from obscurity? Does it matter? And have you set specific goals for your writing career?

Now I’m going to immediately eat my words: obscurity I wouldn’t mind so much, as I feel like once your name is known then it becomes a job–that is, you have to begin “being a writer” as opposed to just writing. Along come expectations (“will this book be as good as his last?”) and pressures (“hmm, he’s not publishing in the _______ Review or the ___ Yorker”) and readings (anyone who knows me knows I am dreadfully shy and have turned down every offer to do a reading) and countless responsibilities, whereas when you’re obscure it’s all just an adventure: the writing is the writing and that’s all that matters and you can experiment left and right and nobody cares because you’ve probably only got the same ten people reading your work over and over. Not that people who are famous care any less about the writing – I just think there’s a level of pressure that’s not there when you’re still obscure.

The thing is, I DO want my writing to matter to people. All my life I’ve desperately wanted to communicate with people but I couldn’t. When language came crashing along, I knew I had a way. It’s naive, but I still believe literature can save lives, even as some cynicism has crept into my personality. A book or story or poem is like a sacred kind of dialogue between a writer and their reader. Sort of like prayer, but a two-way prayer: the writer needs the reader to believe in them just as much as the reader needs the writer. The faith must be reciprocal, or God (which is the book or story or poem itself) crumbles.

Anyway, I don’t think you can do that (beyond like ten people) when you’re totally obscure. Or at least there’s a huge limit to how many people you can touch with your words.
Right now I’m starting to get my first taste of self-marketing and I feel like a colossal fake every time I post something on social media about a new project. Part of me never wants my name to be known. Part of me wants to run away and join the circus and maybe write under the alias of a clown. Part of me understands the cynical part of me that rages against making myself into a product is just afraid of being sincere about my desire to have readers. Honestly I don’t really know at what level a writer breaks free, but I’ll let you know if it ever happens to me.

Once upon a time I was a child and all the stories I wrote were written inside my head and I was perfectly fine just telling them to myself. At some point that changed. To me, it’s not a desire for fans as much as a desire for community. Telling stories to yourself can get lonely I guess.

And no, I have not set specific goals for my career. I like to float from one project to the next, riding the energy of the moment. Though I would love to write an episode of Doctor Who one day. (When I was younger it was Twilight Zone.) That’s maybe the one career goal I do have.

It’s funny that you mention writing for television. I’ve also harbored thoughts of writing for television or movies. When you watch modern television, particularly the dramas like Mad Men or The Wire, what do you think of the writing quality? Have you been watching Breaking Bad?

I’m a fiend for TV now. This wasn’t always the case.

I used to feel as though I should always be reading, that television couldn’t possibly afford me anything to rival the experience and depth and nuance that a book could afford me. That notion was incredibly fucking snobbish. Today, I don’t feel guilty when I watch certain shows because they teach me just as much about the craft of storytelling as anything else.

Actually I think we’re seeing a golden age of television, as far as writing is concerned. The Wire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones: all of these shows have a novelistic pacing that allows for depth of character and narrative that wasn’t always possible for television. Cable has really allowed shows to evolve beyond sitcoms and “reality” programming. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is the exception in that its pacing is breakneck. How it achieves (and maintains – MY GOD – episode after episode) that heightened level of urgency is remarkable.

I actually haven’t been watching the newest season of BB, though. I’m saving it as a reward for when I finish my thesis…though I could tell you some pretty big plot points solely from the spoilers I’ve seen splattered over Facebook and other forms of social media.

Even in the classes I’m teaching at Iowa this semester I’m using television to teach narrative tools. The other day I mapped out my favorite episode of Firefly (“Out of Gas”) which I’ll be showing around midterms, to help demonstrate how to frame a narrative with multiple timelines, seamless transitions, and various forms of conflict.

 

mbint

 

Recently, I read an interview with Gary Lutz from 2010. In the interview, there was a dialogue about writers being suspicious and apprehensive about the internet and what the internet could do for writers and writing. This dialogue now seems to be a thing of the past. Is that how you see it?

Once upon a time, everyone on planet earth assumed the earth was flat. I think it’s natural to be afraid of change. Personally, I’m choosing to remain open to the possibilities of the internet. I think, at best, it means transformation, innovation, and novel ways of bending a narrative through use of multimodal tools.
At worst, it will kill us all.

For more, visit Matthew’s website.

 

 

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