Matt Mendez Q/A

Matt Mendez: I’d first like to thank Spencer Hyde for inviting
me to come over here. I’m so excited to be here. We’re going to do a
Q&A first and talk a little bit about MFA programs and short stories
and YA novels. We’ve got YA novelists and future YA novelists in here,
short story writers, correct? I do both, and I love both equally. I started
writing in 2004 with short stories, and that’s essentially the form that
I first starting doing and will always be, I think, my first love. I love
writing short stories, I love reading short stories. And even though I do
YA now and consider myself a YA novelist and just a novelist essentially,
I think short story writing forms a lot of what I do, and I think that,
without writing short stories, I wouldn’t be able to be a novelist or a YA
novelist. I think reading the form and writing the form teaches you such
precision, and it teaches you to concentrate on characterization and the
moment of clarity; it teaches you to focus on the character, on timing,
and just really creating surprise in such a way that it helps me to clarify
what i’m doing in the novel. It also teaches you economy. It has taught
me economy because I know when I’m reading a short story collection,
when I’m reading a short story, there are these moments of surprise
that are in short stories that are so powerful that when I’m reading a
novel, especially if it’s not the best novel, that they’re hard to come by.
Sometimes I find myself just kind of like, treading through a novel,
waiting for that kind of moment that I get in short stories all the time.
So, when I sit down to write, especially a novel, I find myself reading
more short stories because those moments of impact are on every page,
almost in every paragraph, even at the sentence level. I know that if I go
back to an MFA program, I would probably want to write a novel as part
of my thesis, but I would probably concentrate on reading short stories
and look at how short story writers are putting their work together to
kind of help me get ready to write a novel, which I think is important
for this time, for what you guys are doing, because this moment you’re
in now is a very special time for writers because you’re never going to
get this kind of opportunity again where you get to take your work
very seriously, and then other people are going to take your work very
seriously. You’re never going to get this opportunity again where you’re
going to have this group of people to read your work as thoughtfully,
as carefully, again. Because once you graduate and you move out to
the world, you’ll you have a couple of really close friends that will get
to read your work, but they’ll have jobs, they’ll have their own work,
they’ll have families and all sorts of other commitments. They’ll read
your short story, but they won’t read it with the same level of scrutiny
you would. So, right now is a really special time to concentrate on what
you’re doing. So, take that time you need while you’re working on all
your stuff now to read widely, read short stories. If you’re a poet, read
short stories. If you’re not a poet, read tons of poetry. Read creative
nonfiction. Read all sorts of stuff that you would never imagine reading.
Now is the time to do that. And also, read genre work. Read sci-fi, read
horror, read mystery, because there are all sorts of writers doing all sorts
of brilliant things that you could learn from. Now is the time to soak
up all that stuff to help you write the kind of stories you want to write
because there’s all sorts of writers doing really interesting work and all
sorts of wide genres and all, that’ll teach you, that you can learn from.

Spencer Hyde: Who wants to open up the Q&A?

Student: I have a question.

MM: Sure thing.

Student: So, I like hearing you talk about how short stories have
taught you so much about learning how to write novels because I’ve
heard a lot of people—well, sometimes I feel like in the MFA we have
people who are like, “I do short stories,” and other people say, “I do
novels.” It sounds mutually exclusive, but the real issue comes up in
workshop, that sometimes people don’t know how to give, like, short
stories aren’t sure how to give novelists feedback. If that makes sense,
I would love to hear some input on how to cross those genres because
they are different. They have a lot of similarities, but in workshop, that
looks a little bit different. I don’t know if that makes sense.

MM: It’s true. They’re different forms, so it just depends on what the
writer’s looking for as far as critique. So, if you’re critiquing the novelist,
you’re basically just critiquing the chapter. So, the chapter should kind
of conform to what a short story is doing. It should have a purpose. Is it
part of a larger whole? So, you know, they should workshop the chapter
and what the chapter is doing. A chapter should have a beginning,
middle, and an end, sort of. You know what I mean? A chapter should
have an ending where it’s going to then lead into the next chapter, so it
should have some forward momentum going into it. I think as a short
story writer, the short story should be self-contained. And I think those
are really the only two major differences. I think a chapter should still
work at a sentence level. The sentence should be exciting. They should
be tight and compact. I think a lot of novelists feel that they have more
room to breathe—a novelist should—they should be more expansive
and that they don’t have to pay attention to as much detail as a short
story necessarily has to. And I don’t necessarily believe that. I like all
my sentences to be as tight as a short story, which is probably why it
took me ten years to write the novel that I was writing. Which could
be one of the drawbacks of my approach to writing! Keep that in mind.
But you know, I like to write my novels like I write my short stories,
where I pay attention to sentence level, and I’m very in the weeds and
in the details when I write one. So, when I sit there and draft a chapter,
I would write it like I’m writing a short story. I want to make sure that
I have the characters doing something in the short story, each chapter
has its own—Spencer and I were talking earlier about creating the
fictional plot for yourself so your characters just aren’t sitting there,
chatting away at a coffee shop where nothing’s happening. So time is
passing. In the short story, your action should start with some sort of
dramatic event. So, at the beginning of the short story, something needs
to happen that sets your plot in a short story in motion. You know, a
lot of short stories seem to start this way, you know. “The day after my
father’s funeral I went and bought a fish at the pet store.” You know what
I mean? There’s always some sort of quirky thing that happens in a short
story. That’s kind of a flip example, but you know what I mean? There’s
always something that happens in a short story and it kind of starts the
fictional plot going. So, we know there’s a problem introduced, or like
an emotional problem—the death of a parent or something. Then the
character takes an action. He buys this fish. And then this fish becomes
a metaphor or whatever in the story, but then you have this thing that’s
introduced, and then the story’s kind of moving forward. And chapters
in novels kind of work the same way. Then the novel itself should have
an overarching thing that’s going on. You know, and the novel Barely
Missing Everything that I wrote, the novel begins with two boys going
to a party, and then you know, the cops come and these boys have
to make a decision, and that starts the clock in the story, and then in
the novel their characters are making decisions and their decisions
have consequences. You know, the clock is going, but that initial clock starts with the police and these boys make decisions and then there’s court dates and
other stuff that kind of has these smaller clocks inside the novel that
keeps the story moving forward so it’s not just characters hanging out
talking, even though there is a lot of hanging out and talking, but as far
as critiquing goes, each chapter should have its own unit of time just
like short stories have their own units of time, so I don’t think there is
too much difference as far as critiquing them, so the short story writer
should understand that there is a larger unit that that novels is gonna fit
into or that chapter is gonna fit into novel wise, and then you can just
kind of explain that as part of the workshop, like this fits into the larger
novel this way and this is what I’m looking at, this is what I’m looking
for is my critique. I’m not sure how your workshops are set up, if you
let the writer talk.

SH: I don’t let them, but they can ask questions after they’ve been
workshopped.

MM: I know some workshops let the writer talk a little bit and some
don’t.

Student: I was reading Barely Missing Everything, and I was so
impressed by the use of the third person point of view because I read
so much contemporary young adult, and it’s all written in first person
cause, I think, that perspective probably gives immediacy to the text,
but, even in the first basketball scene, I felt like I really knew what Juan
was thinking and what was going on. I have a hard time writing third
person and trying to get all of that, and I was wondering if you had any
advice or thoughts on writing third person that feels as immediate and
as intimate as first person.

MM: I love using third person. It’s my favorite point of view to use,
and to me it just feels like old school storytelling, let me tell you a
story, “there was a guy,” you know what I mean, it feels like campfire
storytelling to me, so that is why I love using third person, and I think
a lot of times when people use third person, if you wanna use like a real
close third person it’s just a matter of controlling psychic distance. To
use a film metaphor, whether you’re using a medium shot or a wide
shot or a real close-up shot of characters, just vary how you’re writing
that sentence. I think when you write a first draft everybody is kind
of in a medium shot when you’re writing, so everything has this one
static distance. If you do a portrait, it’s one portrait shot, and all first
drafts tend to have that one third person distance. I think the default
is to always write in first person for immediacy because you have the
“I” voice, and the “I” voice always gives you an immediacy because you
can always just default to the “I was thinking this,” “I was feeling that”
and it’s an easier way in a first draft to get like immediacy right away.
In third person, I feel I have more flexibility because I don’t have to
filter through the “I” voice to get the wider shots, I can just immediately
cut to describing and descriptions without having to filter in through
a character. So, for me, I get to use more description, I get to describe
more, I get to use more centering stuff when I’m writing third-person
than I do in first-person, because for me, in first-person, I feel it’s always
a bit more awkward, at least for me when I’m writing, to get descriptions
in and to describe the setting. I like third-person more because I get to
pull back and use like a wide view, and I get to describe mood, I get
to describe smells and sounds and textures, and then I get to zip back
in, and then later drafts get more of an interiority of what a character’s
thinking. Especially in that opening scene where you’re talking about
with Juan, where he sees his mom come clopping down the stairs—
which is kind of a closer shot—and then immediately zoom in to what
Juan’s thinking about: his mom,and how embarrassed and mortified it
is that she’s in the gym with her new boyfriend and how he feels about
everybody eyeballing his mom and being attracted to her and how that
makes him feel. And then you immediately zoom back to the actual
basketball game. So for me, third-person, you kind of have that ability
to zip back and forth and get that immediacy, and then zoom back, get
the overview of what’s actually happening, so to me it’s a more fluid way
to do that. That’s just the way I prefer to do it, where for me, first-person
feels a bit more clunky, and that’s just cuz I haven’t been able to master
first-person that way in longer pieces.

Student: I was wondering if you could recommend a few of your
favorite short stories?

MM: Oh! My favorite short story of all time is “The Lottery”—
Shirley Jackson’s. I love Shirley Jackson. I mean, that’s the one short
story that I read when I was in high school that got me really excited.
I had breakfast with Spencer this morning, and we were talking a little
bit how as a writer, when you read, you should always read for pleasure,
but when you come across a moment in a book that surprises you, you
need to underline it and circle it, make notes to yourself, then go back
and read as a writer. And when you read as a writer, you wanna see how
this magic trick got pulled. And when I first read “The Lottery, “when I
got to the end and that last line, “and then they were upon her,” is such
a chilling line. Has everyone read “The Lottery?” Go back and reread
it. It’s amazing! When I got to that last line, “and then they were upon
her,” I was so blown away. Like even just talking about it now just gives
me the chills. It’s like oh my god, they’re gonna stone that woman to
death. It’s crazy. Even now I’m having the chills thinking about it. How
does Shirley Jackson pull off that terror? There’s a whole time—ah, I
forget the name of the lady now—she is panicking during this lotto,
and everybody is aware of this horrifying thing that’s about to go on,
and they’re all kind of wishing that it’s not them, kind of passively
going along with this awful thing that’s going on, as if it’s this normal,
everyday thing, or this once-a-year thing. And you can feel the terror
slowly building, slowly building, and when she realizes that this is
going to happen to her, she looks out to everybody in her town for help,
and nobody’s going to her. And you get this feeling like it’s this noble
thing, how people would react in this situation where they’re glad it’s
not them, and they’re gonna refuse to help or else it could be them.
And it’s terrifying. You can feel this woman’s terror, and she’s all alone.
And then, you can see as you read the story that nothing’s gonna be
done to help her, and it’s just this runaway train of fear. And you know,
Shirley Jackson just slowly builds into this whole story. So I always like
to go back and read how does Shirley Jackson create that element of
fear? How does she slowly do it? And how does she get away with that
surprise at the end? Cuz I mean, you can feel the fear building, you know
the lottery is not gonna end up going well for her. And then still, at the
end it still comes off as a surprise. And to me that’s kinda the impact
a great short story has. And some of my favorite short story writers are
Dagoberto Gilb. He’s really fantastic. There’s this Jewish writer, Etgar
Keret, Israeli writer, he’s fantastic. He writes really short flash fiction,
and his stories are so inventive and creative that they’re even hard to
describe. It’s not magical realism, it’s something else. But they’re really
smart, funny, and political, and I love his short stories, his flash fiction,
which are even shorter than short stories. He just does so much in such
a small space and they’re really remarkable.

Spencer: Yeah, you wonder which one of them was a better friend at
the end of “The Lottery;” the one that picks a small rock or the big rock?

MM: Right?

Spencer: Even then it still holds pure suspense.

MM: It does. It’s such a terrifying story.

Spencer: Yes. An adult puts a rock in the hand of one of her children.

MM: Right, yeah it’s just a terrible.

Spencer: I still remember that from seventh grade, let me tell you.

MM: That’s what I’m saying. That story has such a resonance and a
staying power to it.

Spencer: I hope I didn’t ruin it for anyone.

END OF Q/A