Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Matthew Batt
St. Paul, Minnesota
2010 NEA Literature Fellow Matthew Batt. Photo courtesy author
Matthew Batt?s fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, Mid-American Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among numerous other publications. Batt received a 2010 NEA Literature Fellowship and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. The author of Sugarhouse, "the harrowing story of renovating what might have been a Salt Lake City crackhouse," and The Enthusiast, "a collection of compulsive essays about obsessive subjects," Batt currently teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. We spoke with Batt about writing, teaching, and the perils of ordering an Arnold Palmer in Ohio.
NEA: What?s your version of the writing life? Do you write every day, do you write at a specific time each day, etc.?
MATTHEW BATT: My version of the writing life is a highly disciplined but massively irregular schedule. Which is to say, when I'm working on something, I work on it diligently---sometimes right through happy hour if necessary. When I'm not working on something, well, enough said. I abide pretty much by what I heard Scott Spencer say once of writers: we spend our days sitting around in our underwear trying not to smoke.
NEA: What did you do with your NEA fellowship, and how important was it to your writing life?
BATT: The NEA fellowship was tremendously helpful to me by allowing me the time, support, and funding to follow through with a book about home buying and renovation. It afforded me the opportunity and, frankly, the confidence, to continue with the work of writing about home ownership when so many dilettantes---like myself---are buying and fixing up houses they have no real business with.
NEA: How would you characterize the arts community in Minneapolis-St. Paul?
BATT: The arts community in the Twin Cities is vibrant and cosmopolitan while still being concentrated and tight-knit. They also seem to be largely able to knit. For what that's worth.
NEA: How would you characterize the literary writing community in Minneapolis-St. Paul?
BATT: As above, only significantly less able to knit.
NEA: How does teaching benefit your writing practice? (And conversely, how does it negatively affect it?)
BATT: Teaching benefits my writing by making me constantly put my pudding to the test. I can think or feel any way I want about my own writing practices, but when I urge or even demand a cohort of twenty or thirty young folks do the same, I had better have thought it through. That's good for consistency, but it's not always good for the miraculous exception. Which is to say, sometimes with writing---as with the teaching of writing---what works most of the time won't produce anything miraculous. Sometimes what you really need will only work for one person in one instance. That's not always germane to the classroom. Certainly makes syllabus design tedious.
NEA: I know you?ve lived in several different cities. How has place shaped/affected/impacted you as a writer?
BATT: Living in different cities, communities, and climates is the only real way to get to know diverse people and communities. It's the difference between someone who has served in the Peace Corps and someone who watches a lot of the Travel Channel. You can talk all you want about watching someone eat bugs. It's just not the same as doing it yourself.
NEA: How do you define creativity, and what do you think is the role of failure in the creative process?
BATT: Creativity is the deeply personal and subjective expression of something universal. Success tells you only to repeat ad infinitum that which you've already done. You only need to talk to Corey Haim or MC Hammer about that. Failure tells you it's time for something altogether different. Failure is the only teacher that really loves us. Success just wants to feel good about herself by letting us pretend she's actually taught us something.
NEA: What?s one piece of advice you might give to the beginning writer?
BATT: To as great and legally an extent as is possible given local laws and zoning restrictions, get freakishly obsessed with something. Then write about it as only you can.
NEA: Why should we read literature?
BATT: To feel less alone when we sit around in our underwear, trying not to smoke.
NEA: Any last words or anything you wish I would have asked, and how would you have answered?
BATT: If you order an Arnold Palmer in Palm Springs, you get half iced-tea, half lemonade. If you order the same thing in Columbus, Ohio, you get your head beat in with paving stones. (That's where Jack Nicklaus is from.) It might be best to just order a half iced tea, half lemonade. Or better yet, ice water.