THE WRITING LIFE: Interview with Matthew Guerrucky
Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of Drunk Monkeys. He lives in North Hollywood, California with his wife, poet S.C. Stuckey.
RBE: What are your thoughts on style versus structure? Would you rather read a stylish story or one that is finely structured?
MG: You need both style and structure, but as a reader, I think that a story that’s poorly styled would keep me from reading beyond the first few paragraphs (I’m a notoriously impatient reader). So if there’s some brilliant, intricately designed structure, I won’t know a damn thing about it, because I couldn’t get past the first few pages, either because they were too bland or too flowery.
I think a lot of writers forget that, and there are so many of these sort of writing instruction books that will tell you that you need to focus almost solely on plot, and they do that because it’s infinitely easier to teach a writer how to structure a plot than to structure a sentence. Plots are like algebra, you just solve for “x”, and if you’re in act three, then “x” is your climax, and you use whatever information you’ve got on the left side of the equation to figure it out. But as helpful as it is to know that, your real job is to keep readers reading, and that happens on a word-by-word basis. So style is the first consideration you should have in mind when you sit down to write.
RBE: What is one of your favorite examples of style? What is one of your favorite examples of structure? Why do you appreciate these examples?
MG: My favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut, and I internalized a lot of how he structures his stories within my own work. I think part of that is because my first writing training was as a Journalism major, and so I try to just give the reader the basics of what they need to know, whether I’m writing about the scenery or my character’s emotional landscape. And Vonnegut does that, not just because of his own background as a journalist, but because most of his stories are structured with a set-up/punchline rhythm, and the key to a joke is holding something back from the reader until the very last second, so that it hits them with the right timing to cause that sort of perfect, spontaneous laughter.
But that style would be wrong for, say, Steinbeck’s florid descriptions of the American landscape in Grapes of Wrath, or the scenes in The Great Gatsby where Fitzgerald shows us, beat by beat, moment by moment, the debauchery and waste of Gatsby’s extravagant parties, and those are absolutely beautiful books.
As for structure, the best example that comes to mind is Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing”, where Carver spends so much time dragging the reader through the depths of the grief of these parents dealing with the death of their child, which Carver turns into this slow-moving inevitability. Then, in the background, there’s this annoying little buzzing of the baker calling, this responsibility that these people shouldn't have to worry about on this day, of all days. And it’s the timing that Carver uses that makes it work. If he wasn’t so detailed about the build-up, the climax wouldn’t be enough, because the climax is so small, but because you’ve been with these people every step of the way along this God-awful day, it’s extremely emotional. That’s how a writer should use structure--it should create emotion, not defuse it, which so often happens when writers get lost in plot-building.
RBE: What are you thoughts on first person versus second person versus third person? Which perspective do you prefer? And how do you decide if a perspective is working in a story or if you'd wish the story had a different perspective?
MG: Any perspective is fine, as long as it’s right for the story the writer is telling. As an editor, I’ve passed on a few stories that I felt were told in the wrong way, and that’s almost always been that they were told first-person, and should have been third-person, so that the reader had a little more perspective on the world that the character inhabits. First-person is easier, in some ways, because it’s more naturally the way that we hear stories from someone we know, but that also puts a greater burden on the author to keep things interesting. You don’t want your reader to feel like they’ve found themselves cornered by a boring person at a party (unless that’s what you’re going for).
RBE: When do you realize that a story isn't working for you?
MG: I know pretty quickly. I know as soon as it puts me in the head of its lead character, which better be soon, if not right away. If I don’t care about that character, I do not care about that story, period. If I don’t believe that character, then I don’t believe that story. Because a story is just about a person, and how they’ve dealt with or learned from their circumstances. You don’t have to like the lead character, but you need to believe what they do, and how that reflects the world that they live in. I’ll excuse some pretty outlandish shit in a plot, if I believe that this person would really do that.
RBE: Who are some of your favorite fictional characters of all time? Why?
I wish I had the nerve of Scout Finch. People talk a lot of the sort of quiet dignity of Atticus, but it’s Scout that drives that narrative, who’s constantly testing the limits of her society. I think that’s a bravery that only little girls have, and it’s sad how quickly that’s ripped from them.
I tend to be drawn to the characters who are the ones openly voicing the fact that there's something wrong within the social order. You see that a lot in Shakespeare, characters like Mercutio, who curses all of these selfish idiots on his way down, or Shylock in Merchant of Venice. Shylock is particularly interesting, because he’s a horrible racist caricature, but Shakespeare gives him these blistering monologues that put you (or me, at least) completely on his side.
Basically, I’m always drawn to the one other person in the room who’s looking around trying to figure out what’s wrong with all of the other people in the room. There’s a scene in Inside Llewyn Davis where Llewyn is rolling his eyes at a corny folk act, and then the rest of the crowd starts singing along, and he looks around at them, like “What the fuck is happening?” That’s me, most days.
RBE: When confronted with stories from outside your geographical and sociological zone, do you worry about how these stories would fit into your magazine, and whether your readers would bother to read them? What can publications do to increase diversity in setting and the types of characters?
MG: I worry about that, because I just want to publish interesting work, and what’s more interesting than learning about a world you know little or nothing about? I’m never afraid to challenge our readers, but I’d like to think that most of our readers wouldn’t be turned off by something as innocuous as reading a story from a culture that’s different than theirs. That said, it can be difficult to attract cultural stories that differ from the people on your masthead. Having diverse voices at a decision-making level probably makes the strongest statement to the world, and gives writers from diverse backgrounds a signal that their voices will be listened to.
I say that while wondering what a black, latino, or asian writer would make of the Drunk Monkeys masthead, which is filled with mostly (but not entirely) white faces? I can’t answer that, and there’s no way of tracking which writers’ perspectives we may have lost because they had to question whether they would be welcomed. We have been running a series all year from a young writer, Naima Karczmar, about racial identity, and I hope that work like that sends some sort of signal about our openness, but maybe it’s also time for us, and other publications who want to welcome more diverse work, to do the things that are a little more difficult, like putting out calls for black, latino, and asian writers and staff members. That might be awkward at first, but could reap rewards in the end.
RBE: List some of your favorite writers and/or novels.
MG: Here’s a list of of the books that have stuck with me the most, almost always because there was a really earnest expression of emotion, sometimes buried in tough prose, and sometimes in over-the-top melodrama, both of which really appeal to me. Basically, all of these works made me, at whatever age I read them, close the book and have to deal with what I’d just learned about the world.
This is a roughly chronological by the point in my life where I read them, so, yes, I read The Great Gatsby in my thirties.
RBE: If you could choose to edit The Great Gatsby or Cathedral, which would you choose and why?
MG: I can’t imagine dealing with Fitzgerald as an editor, so definitely Carver. Though who knows how that would have gone? They say that Gordon Lish took all of the sentimentality out of Carver’s early drafts, but I’m a real sentimental guy, so maybe I never have him strip the sap, and then he never becomes the great talent he did? Maybe under my guidance, Carver would have become the Thomas Kinkade of the literary world.