Arts & Culture

Author Matt Briggs: "I am Completely Entrenched in Seattle Manners."

By Heidi Broadhead February 2, 2010

Matt Briggs is one of my literary heroes. He can be quietly ruthless and scarily accurate, both in his fictional depictions of Northwest characters and in his criticism on Reading Local Seattle (where he's the managing editor).

At the same time, he is a good book citizen: He truly loves books and the Seattle literary community. He has a terrific sense of scene, a curmudgeonly humor, and his writing (fiction and nonfiction) totally gets the overwhelming wildness (plant-wise) and strained personality quirks of the Pacific Northwest.

Shoot the Buffalo, his melancholy, yet somehow hopeful, novel of a 1970s counterculture coming-of-age (one of my favorite books set in the Puget Sound... maybe my favorite), is now available again through Publication Studio (online, or here in Seattle at Pilot Books, last time I checked).

I interviewed him recently—starting out with some of the questions from the Vanity Fair back page questionnaire, but kept going with the things I really wanted to ask.

ArtsNerd: What is the principal aspect of your personality?

Matt Briggs: I make a system out of everything. This making patterns out of things to me feels right now like madness. For a long time I thought it was a good thing because I believed it conferred on me an ability to synthesize different things into a new thing. You know how a simile takes two things that aren’t alike and finds a point of connection between them? A lot of clichés are similes that are so familiar we don’t even think about them. “As dry as a bone,” is one. There is nothing about a bone that is inherently dry, really. A bone isn’t a wet sponge. Once I make this connection between two unlike things, I lose sight of the two original things. So I’m beginning to see that this aspect of how I see things is a blindness to actual things, people, or whatever.

AN: What is your most irrational fear?

MB: I think my most irrational fear is that if I was stuck somehow other people would be too busy or disinterested to pull me out. My uncle, who is a junk collector and works various odd jobs, once discovered an old man who’d fallen into a hole. The old man had a sunken well lined with stones where his water spigot and lawn hose attached to his house. The old man had fallen into that. In telling the story my uncle says he asked the old man how long he’d been down there. The old man said he’d been there a day maybe longer. My uncle pretended to walk away. He said the old man didn’t even cry out. My uncle did pull him out. But there is that thought of being that old man and then someone like my uncle finding me stuck in a pit and they turning away.

AN: What do you think is the most overrated virtue or talent?

MB: I find charm, prettiness, and attractiveness in general incredibly distracting and essentially a kind of endlessly empty loop. I suppose ugliness and repulsiveness can be the other side of the same coin, but usually a person gets tired of the needlessly ugly. Few people seem to complain much about the needlessly attractive.

AN: What is the most underrated?

MB: Calm or patience is underrated except by people who are usually saying other platitudes that come wrapped in a package of peace, love, understanding, and so on. Right now I feel an enormous pressure to move as quickly as possible, to write as quickly as possible, to fix things that are broken as quickly as possible. This is partly because I am aware of certain limits that digital technology make all the more apparent. I will only read 5,000 more books before I die. I will see maybe 10,000 more movies. tracks what I have already read. Technically, I could also calculate the number of footsteps I have taken in my life and the number I have left. and Powell’s World of Books are vast and essentially infinite compared to what I can actually read much less understand and remember. This fills me with anxiety and a sense I need to do more, read more, or write more, so that I can somehow find a space in this vastness. The treadmills of FaceBook, Twitter, a daily journal, eating, walking are hopelessly mired in my daily habits. The whole thing strikes me as completely ADD. Ritalin isn’t the answer nor is unplugging. No email? Why not get a lobotomy? The answer instead to me seems to calm down and be patient and do one thing at a time. At least that is what I’m trying to do. I think there is a book The Tyranny of E-Mail by John Freeman. Maybe I should get that.

AN: What's the last sentence you read and fell in love with?

MB: I’m reading City of Quartz by Mike Davis and tried to find an example of a sentence there with the syntactical charge you kind of look for in an example of a great sentence, and there isn’t one there that I can find. While reading City of Quartz I was struck with how clearly he was talking about really abstract ideas of what has happened to the idea of the city at the end of the 20th century, and is going on now. He uses very specific adjectives to add color to mostly declarative sentences. In this way he reminds me of George Orwell, who I also admire as a writer. Orwell is a great writer, but he doesn’t write great sentences. A writing teacher and editor of a Web lit mag (Necessary Fiction) Steve Himmer tweeted yesterday, “Don't tell anyone I said so, but I like stories more than sentences.” And I agree with this, but share his sense that it is kind of forbidden to express this sentiment. Right now it seems that writers cling to the idea that the beginning and end of a well-written story is the sentence. To admire a sentence is like admiring a comma or period. Actually there is that Isaac Babel line, “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place,” which is sometimes used to admire the minute anatomy of a story. A period piercing the heart depends on its context in a sentence within a story, and so on. A period by itself is a dot. A sentence is just a line. So right now I am in love with Mike Davis’s kind of plodding, clear, declarative sentences. They are calm and patient rather than needlessly attractive, I guess.

AN: What's the last book you bought?

MB: I buy them in batches! I bought Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Tin House: Fantastic Women, Vol. 9, Autobiography of Red: a Novel in Verse by Anne Carson, and On the Winding Star by Joanna Howard.

AN: What's the last book you read?

MB: I’m just finishing Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture by Kaya Oaks.

AN: What is your favorite place in Seattle?

MB: The green house at Volunteer Park in the winter during a workday.

AN: What is your favorite place in the world?

MB: My home.

AN: What about Seattle do you like the most?

MB: Seattle is always new and yet there are familiar patterns that keep it together. In the past year I’ve been to two or three neighborhoods—Crown Hill, Ballard, Greenwood, South Lake Union, and Broadway—and they were all radically different. I guess I’ve been avoiding Seattle for a while. So I don’t go there much. Parts of the ground and entire city blocks were gone or replaced. Yet they were the same places.

AN: What about Seattle bugs you?

MB: Seattle is made of vastly different pockets of people. They don’t just live in separate neighborhoods, although they do, but they live in different social circles as well. The geography separates people, and then Seattle Manners enforces a code of segregation, separation, calculated distance, and social numbness. My parents grew up here, so I am completely entrenched in Seattle Manners. But this means that in Seattle, for instance, if you want to communicate to a community outside of your geographic or social circle, you’d be better served putting an ad in the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, or maybe Tao Lin or Ron Silliman will have something to say. I had hopes that social media would undermine this, but Portland, which doesn’t have this same issue of Seattle Manners or neighborhood isolated by geographical barriers, has a far more vibrant social media scene in the arts than Seattle. Instead Seattle’s media seems to enforce the already insular nature of the place.

AN: What skill would you most like to have?

MB: I wish I was more clear minded.

AN: What skill or talent do you wish you didn't have?

MB: I wish I didn’t mix things together. It’s kind of like trying to paint with cheap watercolors and all of your colors end up kind of the same, drab brown.

AN: What song gets stuck in your head?

MB: Right now the guitars in a Modest Mouse song that’s kind of new, “The Whale Song,” keep playing in the back of my head. It makes me feel like I’ve drunk a glass of cold water too quickly.

AN: What quality do you most like in a man?

MB: I like a man who is like a woman.

AN: What quality to you most like in a woman?

MB: I like a woman who is like a man.

AN: What quality do you most like in a writer?

MB: I mostly read prose and I often like writers like Gary Lutz, Doug Nufer, Willie Smith, or Michael Ives (The External Combustion Engine) who write with such a focus on the words they use that reading them can be kind of mind altering. But right now I’m kind of enjoying reading very lucid writers who are explaining things. I feel like I need things explained to me by someone who is very patient and using a comforting voice.

AN: What quality do you most like in a politician?

MB: I like politicians who do exactly what I tell them to do, more or less.

AN: What quality do you least like in a person?

MB: I dislike people who have made up their minds.

AN: Who are your fictional heroes?

MB: Characters in books that I like tend to live such miserable lives that I have a hard time wanting to emulate them. Who wants to be Stephen Dixon’s Gould? Heroes seems like someone you would want to emulate. I remember as a kid reading about heroes and deciding I had choice between Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, King Arthur, Percival, Lancelot or Galahad. I read in some reading module in third grade that heroes can provide a role model for troubled children. I’m not sure if that is exactly what I read. It seems like a strange thing to give to third graders, but that is how I took it. I guess I identified myself as “troubled.” I chose King Arthur, perhaps the most miserable of the lot.

AN: Who are your real-life heroes?

MB: I admire people who have managed to keep local culture working despite what I think of Seattle’s caustic environment for long-term cultural activity. I think people like Jerry Gold at Black Heron Press, Paul Hunter with WoodWorks Press and his long time support for the defunct Red Sky Poetry Theater, Joan Robinowitz at Jack Straw Productions, Phoebe Bosche at The Raven Chronicles, Esther Helfgott at It’s About Time which has been going now for 25 years have created an environment where writing can happen in Seattle. I’m kind of hopeful that new things will work out, too, with positive things happening through the efforts of Summer Robinson at Pilot Books and Paul Doyle at Seattle Book Fest. In a way, I suppose, it is kind of a self-serving list of heroes, since these are people who are instrumental in creating a local literary culture, and I’m a local writer.

AN: Which word or phrase do you overuse?

MB: “kind of”

AN: What writing platitude drives you insane?

MB: A lot of them do. Here is a list of ones that I find really maddening because they have a germ of truth in them, but end up completely confusing me:
1. Show don’t tell
2. First thought, best thought
3. Revision is writing
4. Writing cannot be taught
5. There are no rules in writing

AN: What book do we all need to go read right now?

MB: For grammar nerds or writers who are also grammar nerds, I read recently Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence and think it is as important to my own thoughts about writing as How to Write by Gertrude Stein. He is very down to earth and tackles some very daunting subjects, at least daunting to me. I also found a MP3 of an early talk of his that ended up as part of the book, and this was also helpful. In the audio he struggles to pronounce “Derrida,” and with each hesitate attempt, I became convinced he was in this to actually gain an understanding of something. The book is his attempt to understand this something about sentences.

AN: What's the weirdest thing anyone's said about one of your books?

MB: A reviewer, who actually grew up in Seattle, once said I lived under a bridge in Snoqualmie. She said Snoqualmie was near Aberdeen in order to support some perceived connection between my background and Kurt Cobain. At the time I was kind of confused, but also curious to see if that would result in anything, you know, like increased sales.

AN: If you were to die and come back, what would you be?

MB: If I am good, a house cat.

AN: What will people say about you when you die?

MB: I used to be worried about this for some reason, but then one day my wife explained to me that when I am dead, I will be dead. Why should I care what people say about me?

AN: Who or what is your one true love?

MB: My lovely wife has supported my wanting to write or read more than is probably tolerable. On our honeymoon I brought along a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans. I didn’t get a chance to read much of it.

AN: If you were meeting someone for the first time in a public place, how would you tell them to recognize you?

MB: I’ll tap you on your shoulder because I am horrible at describing people. Nothing is as painful to me as the question, “What did she look like?” I’ll say things like “She has hair, and two eyes.”
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