Book Reviews Outtakes: Seattle’s Certified Genius Matt Briggs by Anne Elizabeth Moore excerpted from PP69
Seattle-based certified genius Matt Briggs recent collection of short stories, The Moss Gatherers (StringTown Press), relates tales of families in the Pacific Northwest gone somehow wrong. Its charming, beguiling, and slightly disturbingnot totally unlike the genius writer himself.
You’re a writer-in-Residence at the Hugo House, Seattle’s one-and-only center for reading and writing. As far as writers go, are you a "made" dude?
I sometimes think about this, that writers get made like the mafia. I would like to believe that there is some order behind the actual production of literary work. I would like to believe there is a society who confers at a spaghetti house, reads manuscripts, and then has an aspiring writer go out and whack someone. A dead poet bleeds to death in his clean, but perhaps not well-laundered, sheets. The aspiring writer gets access and need aspire no longer. She has access to the magazines, to the awards, and most importantly the readers, those desperately rare and coveted people writers keep hearing rumors about: people who read books. I mean, yeah, Im made in so far as Ive done these things. Ive whacked a few poets. But Ive found whacking poets doesnt lead anywhere. My proposals still get rejected by the Arts Commissions. My manuscripts still come back from literary magazines with rejection slips. Editors still say, nice but no thanks, to my books.
The primary financial advantage I have from writing is the amount of money I lose doing it. I have to have a day job so I can have money to lose.
I wake up at five in the morning to write before I go to work at my day job. And then after, I go to Richard Hugo House, a writers resource center in Seattle, where I meet with other writers in Seattle. Writers call up Hugo House with all kinds of writerly problems and I talk to them. There was a man with writers block who was working on a cover letter. Hed written almost nine hundred different versions of a three hundred word letter. I spent some time working with a woman with health problems who was working on the memoir of her utility dog. Sadly, the utility dog died just as she began to revise the first draft of her manuscript. These are the people who visit me at Hugo House. I enjoy talking to other writers like this because in most cases they are quiet people working on something in secret. They need to talk privately to someone else about their secret work. But all of this is happening outside of any trajectory of success in the traditional sense. The best in most cases that could happen for them, for me too, is that our books could get into print.
Publication can be pretty simple. Just put your work on top of a photocopy machine. It can get more complicated finding a business that somehow remains solvent publishing books, and even more problematic to find one that thinks that they can continue in their solvency by publishing your book.
How important is place to The Moss Gatherersboth your location and the location in which the stories are set?
I was just in a disagreement with a poet over something I said about this place, Seattle and the Pacific Coast. I said this was a No Place, in the way that Utopia means, No Place. Place is important to me, but not in the way that would be important to someone like Thomas Hardy or Wallace Stegner. I am more sympathetic to Richard Hugo who grew up in Pigeon Hill at the edge of White Center, a working class neighborhood South of Seattle that edges one of the most polluted rivers in Washington State, the Duwamish. This river starts as the Green River. The Green River Killers first bodies were found not far upriver from Hugos childhood fishing spots.
I guess to me that this place is real in so far as air and trees and stuff like that are real, but that place becomes interesting to me when I begin to think about how people take possession of it and make it into something else. What is perhaps interesting about Seattle is that it is a malleable place. Hugo describes his method of taking possession in his little book about poetry called The Triggering Town. Right now there is a billionaire, Paul Allen, who is busy taking possession of the city. Before him the city was the neglected holding of another rich man, Sam Israel. A city like Baltimore or London cannot really be shaped by a single person. But Seattle continues to transform at the whim of just about anyone who thinks about it. Paul Allen thinks of the city. It changes. When he loses interest, someone else will have some thoughts. In terms of a fiction writer, this is very handy because the city can be whatever is required of it.
Family and alienation also play strong roles in the stories in The Moss Gatherers.
Both of my parents families immigrated to Seattle from other places in the United States. My grandparents left behind proscribed social settings for what was really the Wild West and they came here not because they wanted to come to Washington State, but because they had been kicked out of their families. They were running away and ended up here because to run any further would mean getting on a boat for Asia. So my own parents grew up separated from any sense of family tradition. My mother grew up in a poorly built shack (my grandfathers handiwork) in the second-growth forest above Renton. My grandfather worked as a machinist at Boeing, but the place he built didnt have hot or cold running water. My grandmother was from Kentucky, but it wasnt like shed grown up in an outhouse. Shed grown up with hot and cold running water and electricity. My grandfather moved to the Pacific Coast and it was if shed stepped back two generations into the Ozarks. My father, too, grew up removed from his family in the East. His father would cycle between carpentry, binges, and prison. One winter my grandfather was in jail, my grandmother fed her kids potatoes that had fallen from the back of railcars.
My own parents, given the chance, became even more systemic in severing any sense of the past. When I was four years old, they moved from Seattle to an acre of land occupied by an overgrown farm in the Cascade foothills near Snoqualmie, a tiny logging town. My family spent most of the 1970s in a halfhearted back-to-the-land experiment. Of course the only useful thing we were able to grow was marijuana, and that happened in an old root cellar underground with the aid of florescent lights. My brother and were I were raised as atheists. My parents would answer as carefully as they could any question we asked them. This environment became a kind of hermetically sealed paradise and really was pretty perfect through the 70s, aside from my fathers biker friends, the PCP-fueled rages of my uncle, and the fact that we couldnt help but regard anyone outside of my immediate family as other-worldly and potentially dangerous (since the foundation of this paradise was a controlled substance.)
For a long time I thought that there werent very many people who had grown up like this. In a college class in the early 90s, a classmate said about one of my stories, but people dont live like this. But Ive since found that a lot of people did live and are still living like this. Maybe we all live these self-defined little island anyway? Everyone is freakish in some way.
You won a Stranger "genius" award in 2003. What did it do for your writing career to be able to put "genius" right there on your CV?
The first difficulty of this award, which I was pleased to receive despite the fact that it would be far more cool to shrug it off and point out the negative things about the paper that sponsored it, The Stranger (its sustained sexism being one thing) was how to handle that word. In the mid-1990s, The Stranger was pretty good and published some writers who I admire, such as Charles DAmbrosio, Rebecca Brown, and Stacey Levine. Ive noticed that other people who they received this thing have managed to call it A Stranger Genius Award, using the indefinite article to diffuse things a bit, and then allowing genius to modify award, thereby absorbing some of the oil emitted by the word. This seems much safer to me. The word genius is caustic. It implies, to me, that my work might be a symptom of a distressing illness rather than the product of labor. But the award came with enough money that I had to resolve these issues because I wanted the money. This begs the issue if I can be bought, I guess. Sadly, like most things, Im for sale.
What role do you feel your politics make in your decision to publish independently?
Pragmatically, I have little choice but to publish independently. When I first published a book this way, I didnt realize that carried with it some implications. I didnt realize that there were things I was supposed to do if I was a serious, aspiring fiction writer. Now thats all shot. I wanted to publish my stories because it was driving me crazy that they were just sitting in a pile on my desk.
In some circles an independently produced book does not count. I know a handful of writers who have made the choice not to publish at all. They are biding their time until a commercial or academic press with the appropriate pedigree decides to pick up their work. In the mean time, they are writing. Their finished manuscripts pile up. The years roll on. They are secret writers just waiting. These are serious practitioners who will not speak until they are asked to speak up. I appreciate people who write the odd memoir of their pet or uncle or whatever. They are writers, but it seems a little different to me when you have a person who is an artist, who has trained in whatever manner they find useful and has studied what they do, and who is absolutely amazing but no one will publish them. And then for this writer to just sit on their manuscripts seems kind of absurd to me. It is really censorship, but because it is censorship of the marketplace, because there are already too many books published every year (so the argument goes), no one really calls it by the right name.
But once published a book, I found the entire process to be really excellent. I enjoy filling out invoices when they are for my book. I like knowing what the glitches are in getting the book printed. At the same time, I have been lucky in that Ive been able to publish with work with presses run by good people such as Black Heron, StringTown, and Clear Cut. These presses exist because there were people who had manuscripts that they wanted to get out into the world. They are all people who love books and read widely. Business with them has been about getting books out into the world.
It is puzzling to me that so many things conspire against an author who just wants to put a story theyve worked on for three or four years into the hands of a reader. I begin to wonder if there isnt some conspiracy against this act taking place. If you werent allowed to stand in a public place and speak, youd wonder who didnt want you to make noise? And what did they want you to keep quiet about? If you think there isnt a suppression of people freely creating their own books, visit some university campus and talk to the creative writing guy they have their about the book you just published at your local Kinkos. Ask him if hed like to buy a copy. I think that might tell you a few things about the things that conspire to keep everyone silent.