The Rumpus Interview with Matthew Baker

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Hayden’s Ferry Review wasn’t the first journal to discover Matthew Baker’s writing, or even the second, but finding one of his stories in our slush pile felt like a significant occasion. Baker’s writing is taut yet lyrical, and brims with sensitivity towards the pitfalls of human experience. During my three years at Hayden’s Ferry Review, the journal published two of Baker’s stories. His work has also appeared in Conjunctions, New England Review, and One Story, among many other journals. Baker’s biography, however, includes numerous projects. Take his impossible-sounding translations of “the randomized novella Kaleidoscope,” as well as “the intentionally posthumous Afterthought.” Baker has also conducted a series of potentially fictionalized interviews with author Michael Martone, for which he offered a perplexing explanation in one such interview in Hobart. “In 2010,” he writes, “Michael Martone began conducting a series of interviews. Each of these interviews was written under the pen name Matthew Baker, each of these interviews was titled ‘An Interview with Michael Martone,’ and each of these interviews was with himself, Michael Martone. For each interview, Martone wrote Matthew Baker’s questions, then wrote Michael Martone’s answers to those questions.”

Such a premise is recursive, implausible. With respect to many of his endeavors, one wonders whether Baker—master fictioneer—is playing some kind of prank. Always one step ahead, Baker has again proven surprising with the recent publication of a middle grade novel, If You Find This. Though written for young readers, the book pushes boundaries of form and language.

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The Rumpus: You seem interested in the artist as trickster. What draws you to this role?

Matthew Baker: I love scientist-artists. Not like Randall Munroe, who’s both a scientist and an artist—although I do really love xkcd—but people who approach art with the mindset of a scientist. I love books that experiment with what books can do. And I honestly don’t care all that much whether an experiment is successful. If the beakers explode, I don’t care. If the rats escape, I don’t care. As long as somebody is experimenting with something, I’m happy—because there’s that possibility of discovering something new.

So I think “a trickster” is a great way of describing that role, but I also think of it as “a scientist”—scientific discoveries often require breaking a lot of rules.

(Randall Munroe is actually a scientist-artist, too, along with being a scientist and an artist—I didn’t mean to imply that he wasn’t.)

Rumpus: Have you experienced any recent explosions or escaped rats?

Baker: Not literally, but metaphorically, yeah. I’m dealing with exploding beakers and escaping rats all of the time. Most of my experiments are total disasters. But they’re also fun.

Rumpus: Was your new book, If You Find This, an experiment? I am thinking about the unusual—and perhaps unprecedented—way you underscore the story with musical terminology like “piano” and “fortissimo” to guide readers towards new ways of reading the text. Then there is the mathematical language woven throughout the book as well.

Baker: If You Find This was definitely an experiment. It was a struggle—a long and at some points seemingly hopeless struggle—to find a publisher who would be willing to print a book written in a hybrid of English, music dynamics, and math symbols. Nobody was really quite sure what to make of it. The general response was, “We’ve never seen anything like this before, and we don’t know if anybody will buy it.” Which was sometimes followed by, “If you’d just cut all of that math and music stuff, maybe we’d be interested?”

Rumpus: What made you decide to commit this project?

Baker: Writing children’s books was my original dream. I decided that was what I wanted to do when I was in fourth grade. And that never really wavered. If you would have asked me in eighth grade, “What do you want to do with your life?” I would have said, “Write children’s books.” If you would have asked me in twelfth grade, “What do you want to do with your life?” I would have said, “Write children’s books.” Short stories, novels for adults, my Internet projects—those are a guilty habit I picked up later in college.

Rumpus: Do you consider all your writing to be part of a larger project, whether it appears in a literary journal or in a children’s book? I’m wondering because If You Find This, like many of your stories, is immersed in the lives of young boys. I’m curious what draws you to their world in particular?

Baker: I think there are a number of things about children that make for fascinating protagonists. Children are intelligent enough to think about and grapple with complex issues, but are still capable of believing in impossible things, which allows you (as a writer) to take a story in directions you never could with an adult protagonist. Children also occupy a really fascinating niche in our society. In some ways, they’re venerated—”childhood” is seen as this almost sacred phase of life that ought to be made as perfect as possible—but they’re also second-class citizens. They aren’t allowed to vote. They aren’t allowed to drive. They aren’t allowed to work. They aren’t allowed to see certain movies or read certain books. That makes for a fascinating subject, I think—a character who’s simultaneously both idolized and subjugated.

Another reason I’m drawn to writing about children is because of the types of stories that I consume. I’ve always been fascinated by comics. And in that medium, the masterpieces of the past century were all about children. Little Nemo in SlumberlandPeanutsCalvin and Hobbes. Those comic strips did things artistically that other cartoonists still haven’t caught up with. Anyway, so when I look around, that’s what all of my role models are doing—making art about kids.

Rumpus: I admire the way If You Find This teaches us to read the music dynamics and math symbols in a way that feels organic to the story. And once we get it, we’re rewarded with this whole new reading experience.

Baker: That “teaching” element was one of my goals for the novel. In the same way a reader becomes fluent in Nadsat through the process of reading A Clockwork Orange, I wanted readers to become fluent in music notations over the course of my book. And that was another reason why a children’s book seemed perfect for the project. There seems to be this attitude (I’ve encountered this in both adult and children’s publishing) that children aren’t as intelligent as adults are. But there are different types of intelligence. It’s true that adults, in general, are more knowledgeable than children—adults know more information. But children are superior learners—and in studies about language acquisition, children always obliterate adults. So for a book that’s written partly in a “new language”—music notations—a child is the ideal reader, because a child will pick up the language much faster than an adult ever could.

Rumpus: You seem interested in bringing alternate languages into the folds of fiction. I’m thinking of the use of HTML code, for instance, in your recent stories in Hayden’s Ferry Review and New England Review. Could you talk more about that?

Baker: Yeah, those stories are part of a larger project that I’ve been working on for a number of years. I read a lot of graphic novels, I play a lot of video games, and I watch a lot of movies, and I’m always really jealous of any “storytelling moves” that artists can do in other mediums that aren’t possible in prose. So a few years ago I set out trying to find new “storytelling moves” that are only possible in prose—things you can do with the written story that you can’t even do telling a story out loud—which was what led me to working with music notations, and math concepts, and programming languages, etcetera.

Which was interesting for If You Find This, because Little, Brown made an audio version of the book. And there really wasn’t any way to include the music notations in the audio version. The music notations had to be left out. So to have the full experience the book offers, you actually have to read it—you can’t just listen to the audio version, you can’t just see the film adaptation, you actually have to read the book.

Rumpus: I was wondering whether the person reading it would have made a point of speaking fortissimo, piano, etc.

Baker: Yeah, that’s a great question, and the actors who read the book did do that when the music notations were attached to dialogue! Otherwise, though, they were at a loss—they considered throwing in sound effects or something for the other music notations, but ultimately decided against it, and that would have been something different anyway, more of an “adaptation” than a “translation.”

Rumpus: I was just going to bring up translation! It seems like an example of translation across different mediums rather than across language—though, as you’ve already mentioned, every medium has its own “storytelling move.”

Speaking of different mediums, it says on your website that you have a film and video game project underway? I’m curious to hear what you are currently working on.

Baker: Yeah, I’m working on a few different collaborations, although collaborations are always scary. It’s like being in a band. If your vocalist suddenly drops out, where does that leave you? So I’m working on a video game with a team of programmers and designers (hopefully nobody drops out!) and a film story for my friend who’s a director (hopefully he actually makes it!) and a comic script for my friend who’s an artist (hopefully she actually makes it!), but, who knows—there’s always that chance the band will break up.

Rumpus: Do you write and create for a particular person or type of person? Or for yourself?

Baker: It’s never for me. It’s all about communication. If everybody else on Earth died, and I was alone on this planet for the next seventy years, I wouldn’t write a single story.

Rumpus: What would you do then? If you were all alone on Earth with no reason to write?

Baker: I would sail to Japan, gather the world’s reserves of matcha, move into an abandoned ryokan, and spend the rest of my life drinking tea, hiking, swimming, and napping. I don’t think I would read anything. It would make me too lonely for the rest of you.

(I don’t have much experience sailing though, so realistically I’d probably drown en route to Japan, which would be a fairly anticlimactic conclusion to our species, although not unfitting—”final organism drowns while trying to reach preferred source of caffeine.”)

Rumpus: If you’re working on a story, book, video game, comic book, are you trying to accomplish the same thing? Do you have a particular goal in mind in terms of engaging the reader/player/viewer? Do the goals become different?

Baker: I have a type of Triforce that I try to give the audience: For any story, no matter what medium, I’m trying to move the audience emotionally, affect the audience intellectually, and do something artistically innovative that the audience has never seen before. Basically, that’s what every one of my experiments is trying to achieve, in one way or another.

But, of course, usually the beakers spill and the rats run amok.

Rumpus: Well, without experiments gone wrong, we wouldn’t have Silly Putty or chocolate chip cookies.

Baker: Or anything! That’s why we don’t have interstellar flight yet. We haven’t made the right mistakes yet in the lab.

Rumpus: Have you made any mistakes that you look back upon with regret or disappointment? Perhaps with respect to time spent? Or unfruitful results?

Baker: I recently took down my Internet projects, The Numberless and Kaleidoscope and Afterthought. Each of them had been a new type of experiment for me—an “interlinked novel,” a “randomized novella,” and an “intentionally posthumous story”—and I had been really excited to write them. After toiling on them for about half a decade, though, I realized that I’d messed up. None of them worked. Their designs were irreparably flawed. All of them. So I took them down, and I started them over.

From a certain perspective maybe that seems depressing. Half a decade is a lot of time to spend working on something that ultimately proved to be a failure (The Numberless alone had over 1,100 pages). But that time wasn’t wasted. I learned a lot from building those prototypes. They were clunky, they were creaky, and they barely held together, but it was only after making them that I finally realized how to build functional versions. I never could have figured out how to do them properly without first having done them badly.

I went through a similar process with If You Find This—my earliest prototype for the project had to go through a series of radical redesigns to reach a publishable form.

Rumpus: Okay, I have one last question. What do you think your fourth grade self would say to you if he knew that you had, in fact, authored a children’s book?

Baker: Once, at this commune in the mountains in Portugal, I met someone from Finland. I knew my Finnish friend for exactly three days, and the last time I ever saw her was in a train station—we were getting on different trains headed in opposite directions—and she said something that surprised me, because before then we hadn’t talked much about writing at all. But the last thing she ever said to me was, “Promise me you’ll never stop writing.” And I thought about it for a second, and then I said, “Okay, I promise.” And then she got on her train and I never saw her again.

But I think my fourth grade self would say something similar to that. If I told him about our book, I think he would get pretty shy for a second, and then he would laugh (partly out of delight and partly because he wasn’t sure whether or not to believe me), and then he would get very, very serious, and look up at me, and say, “Don’t ever stop.”

I never break a promise though. So when I said, “Okay, I promise,” he’d know he could count on it.


Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Find her online at www.allegrahyde.com or @allegra_hyde. More from this author →