I know I had a review copy of Matt Sumell’s Making Nice kicking around in the basement for awhile with me, and I’d try it occasionally, and for whatever reason it didn’t quite hang, and then finally one afternoon I dipped in+the thing transformatively took off in ways I’m embarrassed I somehow missed all those weeks and weeks I’d been trying but not catching it. The give on this is fairly direct: it’s a ‘linked’ or whatever collection of stories, all of which center around Alby, an early-30s guy whose voice is fervently alive, yes, but who’s also lost his mother to cancer and who has a father with whom he has a relationship that’s somehow not very warm and somewhat combative but also so deeply full of love it makes you fucking weep, plus there’s Alby’s sister Jackie, the sort of subject of the first story, “Punching Jackie,” which story’s about the rightness of Alby’s punch of his own sister, and like most of the stuff in Making Nice, you can’t read “Punching Jackie” without thinking 1) Alby’s sort of a dick, 2) he’s also almost entirely bullshitfree, meaning his calls and choices are almost never *wrong*, just sort of brutal and exposing, and 3) you can’t help but feel for Alby: he’s a mess but he’s so authentic in aiming for his own basically legit notion or idea of good that you can see, again and again, how he’s gonna get shafted by things, but then, each time he does, you still wince and feel for him.
I don’t know how to pitch this book more highly, honestly. I fell into it through the story “I’m Your Man,” but it could’ve been any of them, plus there’s also this: you remember that feeling that comes from a book of fiction that’s actually got an emotional risk in play? Like: it’s not just language, and it’s not just ideas—you can feel a level of blood+guts? That’s Making Nice: I teared up at the end, for how desperately Sumell’s trying to get Alby where he needs to go, and for how rawly clear Sumell—in prose that’s hilarious and both tender and tough perfectly equally—paints everything. It’s a ferocious, glorious book, and the only downside is that the thing ends, and, from my vantage point, there’s not a single other writer doing stuff this alive and wild, meaning: we’re just gonna have to read the hell out of this till Mr. Sumell writes another thing.
Sumell was kind enough to answer some questions over email, the results of which are as follows.
In the broadest ways: what are your and/or the book’s ‘influences’? (At one point in the book you mention Alby being a lifelong baseball fan, and as much as this question’s obviously *about* books or whatever, if there are other things that influenced it—baseball on the radio, I suppose, or the feeling of being on boats, or whatever, I’d be excited to hear them.)
Oh man, there’s just too much to cover here, be it the bands I grew up listening to—like The Afghan Whigs, Faith No More, The Jesus Lizard, Ween—or my 30 years as a Stern fan. I take my comedy very seriously, go to shows at the Largo and Meltdown pretty regularly. Love Todd Barry, Natasha Leggero, Bill Burr, David Cross. There’s movies, or more specifically movies with a healthy amount of pointless aggression, like MacGruber, for example, like Hamlet 2. But maybe what I should speak to is the complexity of influence itself, how–when answering this question–most people tend to list off a string of favorites, like I just did, people and things they admire and hope they were influenced by. I’m not actually convinced it works like that, as I’d bet I’ve been influenced by a lot of things that are not only not my favorites, but in fact the opposite of my favorites. Check William Gass on this who, when asked why he wrote, responded: “Because I hate. A lot. Hard.”
It’s almost too obvious to put in print, but what I hate most of all is losing people. Parents. Girlfriends. Friends. Pets. I’m just the worst at it, and as a writer who tries–as Geoffrey Wolff put it–“to use the good luck of bad luck, to use what hurts,” well, that’s been a major theme for me. Loss. It’s something I circle around, as both a person in the world and as a writer. It’s certainly one of the things I have in common with Alby. We suck at grieving. And speaking of grief, I am, indeed, a Met fan. There’s a certain pain in that, too, although that’s more comedy than anything else at this point.
And you very smartly zeroed in on boats. I grew up on them, and there’s a certain lure there for me, a mysticism around which there’s a very specific culture that I can speak from. And believe me, this list could go on for pages about any one of these things…
Sorry if this is too stupid, but: how autobiographical is the book? Lots is made clear in the acknowledgements—your mom passing, a brother named AJ—but I’m just curious. Equally I’m curious about how anxious you are for how folks’ll read the book—as a young man’s working-through of sorrow, or as an actual, fictive thing. I don’t at all mean to be a dick, but in the rawest sense: how much are you Alby? Are you nervous or anxious or anything about how much the book feels like it’s exposing? (in fairness: maybe it’s exposing nada, and you’ve just made a phenomenally believable work of fiction, in which case: holy hell that’s some good tricking). I hope none of this comes across as anything other than the respectful/amazed qs of a guy who sort of can’t imagine opening up the way it sure seems as if you have.
Totally fine, man. It’s the question folks seem most interested in, and I get why they’re interested—I’m grateful for any interest. I’m just not sure how to answer it—53% in this story? 22% in that one? How one would even begin to calculate something like that I have no idea and besides, the book is a creation regardless of what I’ve taken from “real life.” I’ve selected things to include, meaning I’ve also selected things to not include—it’s not the whole truth but a distortion of it, a misrepresentation to suit the needs of the story. A misrepresentation of truth is a fiction. Plus, a lot of this thing is complete invention… just made shit up, also to suit the needs of the story.
That said, I won’t deny that parts of it are deeply personal—that it was “emotionally expensive” for me to write. And while I certainly share some things with Alby—like being a shitty griever, for example, or being a Met fan—I’ve also allowed him to make worse choices than I would or could, simply on the idea that bad choices make for good stories.
If that’s not a satisfying answer, consider Hemingway’s take on it: “The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.” So sure, some of this book is from—as in inspired by—the wrecks of my life, and some of it inspired by things I’ve overheard or invented. I’m just not all that interested in separating out for people which is which. I prefer to be judged on the work.
As someone who fled Minnesota for Virginia (tech) for grad school: why’d or how’d you end in California from NY? I don’t even know if that’s fair to ask. Maybe not.
Long story, of course, but the abbreviated version is that I graduated with degrees in English and Environmental Science from UNC Wilmington, which qualified me for exactly nothing except a thirty-nine-and-a-half hour work week in the garden department of a Home Depot in Patchogue, Long Island. Like most jobs I’ve had, it was fucking horrible. I mean, they had mandatory pep rally’s every Sunday morning where people chanted about having orange blood. I’m not even kidding, they did that. I lasted three months, if that, before I totally lost it, hung my apron on a rake and walked out.
Next thing I knew I was at a Navy Recruiters in Sayville, got pretty far into the process of joining up—took the ASVAB, got the physical—but when I wasn’t committing fast enough they started applying the pressure. At some point someone got in my face and said I was an embarrassment to my recruiter, then he got on the phone and started yelling at me. I told him to fuck off and walked off the base. That was that.
Next was teaching English in Japan but that didn’t pan out, ended up on the road with a mobile marketing job—me and my best friend since kindergarten—setting up racing simulators in bars twice a week, all over the country. Three years later we washed up in San Diego. Been in Cali ever since.
Does this book and your writing overall have any, that you can feel, like, kinship with other writing being done at present? The book reads to me as totally 100% its own; if someone were to come to me and say she loved the book and wanted something else similar, I wouldn’t know where to point. This feels so totally of-itself it’s hard for me to even imagine anything like an artistic/literary lineage its taking part in (maybe Hannah). Do you feel it grounded in something? This might be too close to the influences question, and, of course, my apologies if so, but it’s exciting, too, that this thing’s got so little in common with what I at least see as other contemporary lit.
That’s a tough one. The comparisons have certainly been made—names like Hannah and Diaz, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—but I’m not comfortable making those comparisons, at all. I mean, while I’m tremendously flattered to even be mentioned along with writers of that caliber, have I really earned those comparisons? I’m not sure I have. Those guys are heroes of mine.
Besides, that’s for other people to decide.
Among the Great Glories of the book is of course Alby’s voice—assured and searching and elsewhering at all times: the number of times a paragraph’s start feels like it’s got almost nada to do with the para previous is astonishing (that’s me trying to say: congrats for the courage or whatever it was that allowed you to trust making such turns). I remember way far back JSFoer talking in some interview about the voice in Everything is Illuminated, how it took time to nail it down but how sure he was of it eventually. Did finding Alby’s voice take time? Was there any process to it, or did it just hit?
I think I had the voice fairly early on. And I had decent aim, too. But what I didn’t have are targets worth taking aim at—if that makes sense—and it took me a while to figure out that good writing is not standup. It’s much more than that. A lot of my early work just couldn’t be taken seriously, but luckily I had some great teachers over there at UC Irvine to put me on the right path. Geoffrey Wolff, Michelle Latiolais, and Mark Richard (who if you haven’t read, check out his collections Charity and the Ice at the Bottom of the World). At one point I straight up asked Mark what advice he had for me, and he said something like: “It’s easy Matt, just make them laugh and break their fuckin’ hearts. Do those two things and you’re doing pretty good.” I aim for that, mostly.
What’s the view out your window?
I live on the corner of Sunset and Gardner, above a horn shop, half a block from a fire department. It’s loud. All night long it’s loud. Out one window is the brick of the building directly across the alley. Out another, across the street, is a grey where they used to host poker games on the second floor. For a while I was lock-picking my way onto my roof here to drink beers and watch the cast of characters play cards. It was fun, but didn’t last. Not sure what it is now. But my favorite window to stare out is the circular one in the upper, left corner of the apartment. It’s like the porthole of a ship, but larger. Out that window is nothing but blue.