Until Democracy Falls: Talking with Matthew Baker

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The first story I read by Matthew Baker was “The President’s Double” first published in Booth during the year 2016—a discomforting year to be reading about American presidents. Like much of Baker’s work, it was simultaneously unnerving and remarkable in the pure thrust of its language. I couldn’t help but want to push it into the hands of everyone I knew at the time, and considering its timing, it feels nothing if not appropriate that I would have the pleasure to speak with him about a larger collection of his work four long years later.

Why Visit America is Baker’s second short story collection after his shorter, but equally striking, Hybrid Creatures. Why Visit America presents itself as a series of thirteen speculative short fictions—one story for each stripe in the flag—that offer an alternate, yet all too familiar, portrait of America: one where a citizen is every bit as likely to attempt to secede from the country as they are to commit an unnamed crime and have their entire existence wiped from their memory.

It feels too obvious to say there is something quintessentially American about Baker’s writing, but I feel compelled to mention it all the same. In Baker’s stories we see an aspirational America: a country wrought with anger and longing and fear and hate but also one where you can’t let go of the feeling that we are hurtling toward some greater reconciliation. I frequently mention that I am a sucker for catharsis in stories, and in that sense, Baker’s writing is beyond satisfying: Why Visit America is a space where narratives resolve themselves one way or another and, by the end, let us breathe.

I spoke with Baker about his second collection during the week of the Fourth of July. In our conversation, he sheds new light on his work, answering questions about masculinity, sincerity, and writing science fiction.

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The Rumpus: “Fighting Words” is such an intriguing place for this collection to begin, because it almost felt like it picks up where your last collection, Hybrid Creatures, left off. Like the four stories in that prior collection, this narrator’s language begins to shape his and the reader’s experience. What draws you to the relationship between the language and consciousness in a text?

Matthew Baker: I’m delighted that you noticed that connection. I did think of “Fighting Words” as a bridge between the collections. I also loved the idea of opening a collection of speculative fiction with a story in which the speculative element is extremely minimal—the narrator having a job that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a story that wouldn’t seem much out of place in a collection of literary realism. Secretly, though, “Fighting Words” is a blueprint for the rest of the book. Over the course of the story, the narrator provides you with a series of fictional words with fictional definitions, which ultimately are what make possible a full understanding of the story. And you can think of the rest of the stories in the book as a series of “neologisms”—over the course of the collection, you’re being shown fictional versions of America, which provide a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking about this country.

Rumpus: I think a “bridge” between stories is the perfect way to think of it. It raises questions for me about how you consider your work as a whole. Do you consider your writings to be part of one larger project or is each book a singular project unto itself?

Baker: For me, each book is a separate project with a unique objective. I do think of some of the books as being companion pieces, though.

Rumpus: While we’re still on “Fighting Words,” the narrator has a quote so poignant that it nearly knocked me over: “A boy who is afraid to hurt other boys cannot grow into a man; he becomes something else, something neither boy nor man, something we have no word for.” The failures of American masculinity loom large throughout these stories. Are they failures of language? Or is that simply one aspect?

Baker: The failures of American masculinity are failures of language, are failures of gesture, are failures of expression, are failures of imagination, are failures of empathy, are failures of sincerity, are failures of vulnerability, are failures of habit, are failures of attention, are failures of presence, are failures of silence, are written into the Declaration of Independence, and are the greatest weakness of this country, bar none.

Rumpus: A failure of sincerity—such an elegant way of phrasing it. In fact, I’ve always found your willingness to embrace sincerity as a compelling feature in your writing. I was hoping you might say more about whether you do consider it an emotional register in your stories, and if so, the role it plays.

Baker: That’s probably thanks to Japan. I’ve always loved anime and manga, and I think what initially attracted me is that anime and manga are so breathtakingly sincere. Makoto Shinkai’s films, to me, are the quintessential example. Studio Ghibli, Sword Art Online, Tokyo Godfathers, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time… Growing up in the United States at the turn of the millennium, in a culture that was fundamentally artificial and sarcastic and “cool,” I might have never had the courage to embrace sincerity if those stories hadn’t shown me how powerful that sincerity can be. Some of the greatest storytelling jutsu are only possible with limitless sincerity.

Rumpus: Several of the stories throughout Why Visit America might be classified as science fiction but they often contain an absurdist bent. What is your intention in writing science fiction that comes across as more imaginative than it does predictive?

Baker: Landmark sci-fi stories are often described as prescient. With this book, though, I wasn’t at all interested in trying to write prescient fiction. I was writing about the present. In a country as radically polarized as the twenty-first-century United States, having a genuine conversation about an issue as sensitive as climate change or gun control is impossible. Immediately these walls come up, psychological barriers as thick as brick, preventing any actual exchange of ideas. In an environment like that, the only way to talk about what you want to talk about is to disguise the issue. Cloak the issue in another form.

Rumpus: What you’re describing to me makes me think that these are functioning as fables dipped in the tropes of other speculative genres. With the addendum that your characters are drawn in a far more complex way than we might expect from the fairy tale or fable, does that form influence your storytelling?

Baker: I hadn’t thought of the collection in those terms, but the idea that the stories might be sci-fi fairy tales delights me. The only story in the book that was consciously modeled after another story is “The Transition,” which was modeled on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—and that’s a story that to me very much does seem to have the quality of a fairy tale. I first read The Metamorphosis hours after getting my wisdom teeth pulled, high on Vicodin, delirious from Versed, holding bags of frozen peas to both sides of my face with the taste of fresh blood in my mouth, which was a wonderfully surreal way to experience that story for the first time. I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Rumpus: How much of a role does research play in your writing process? So much of this work is imaginative, but for a story like “To Be Read Backward” I’d be amazed if research wasn’t involved even just to shape the language of the story conceptually.

Baker: For this book research was crucial, partly because I’d decided that along with including all fifty states of the country, I also wanted to include as many native species of flora and fauna as possible, and of course certain species are only found in certain regions of the country and might only be seen or heard in certain seasons at certain times of day. So, for “To Be Read Backward,” along with all of the conceptual research, I also had to look up various geographical details, like the exact location of the Russian & Turkish Baths in Manhattan, and to verify certain zoological details, like the behavior of the eastern chipmunk, and to verify certain botanical details, like the range of the white ash. And then because the narrator of that story is an artist, I also had to do some research into painting and sculpting, which I knew nothing about beforehand. And then of course there’s all of the research that went into the ending. I learned a lot from writing this book.

Rumpus: In the spirit of how ambitious these stories are in both their concepts and the level of research you’ve mentioned incorporating, were there any stories in this collection you worried you might not complete?

Baker: “Testimony of Your Majesty”—I struggled for so many years with that one. I started writing that story in 2014 and didn’t complete the story until 2018. I’d pick it back up, struggle with it for a couple of weeks, then set it aside again. I don’t know why the process for that story was so painful. Just looking at it made me feel like a failure. But to me conceptually that was a story that felt essential to include in the collection. I wouldn’t have published the book without it. The breakthrough finally came through writing some scenes about the narrator in the present—early drafts of the story included only scenes of the narrator in the past.

Rumpus: I love the complicated textures in your character’s politics, particularly in “The Transition.” It’s such an important part of how people read the world around them, but it’s not always directly addressed in literary fiction. What would you say is the importance for writers of knowing your character’s politics?

Baker: I think understanding your characters’ politics is essential if you’re writing political fiction—and by “political fiction” I don’t necessarily mean fiction that has a political agenda, but rather fiction that is engaged in any way whatsoever with social issues or economic issues or the political conflicts within a particular community. But many of my favorite stories are stories that are engaged in no way whatsoever with social issues or economic issues or the political conflicts within a particular community. For example, in 2009, the Paris Review published a story by Mark Slouka called “Crossing” that had a tremendous effect on me as a reader, both emotionally and intellectually. I love that story. And in that story the characters’ names aren’t even named, let alone the characters’ politics—in fact, I suspect that even a hint toward the characters’ politics would have ultimately ruined the effect of the story. In that case, maybe better for the author not to know.

Rumpus: This book is being released at a particularly fraught moment for our politics and the United States more generally. I was wondering if you would speak to what it feels like to be releasing a collection about America during the midst of this pandemic.

Baker: The circumstances feel horribly apt. I started writing the stories in this book in 2009, and never imagined that by the time the collection was published reality itself would have come to seem satirical and absurdist, and that the United States would be under the rule of a charismatic neofascist in the vein of Mussolini. Depending on the outcome of the election this fall, this may be the end of the American experiment. American democracy was strong enough to withstand four years of a would-be tyrant, but I’m not confident that American democracy could survive another four. It’s a critical moment for us.

Rumpus: As we approach the end of this conversation, I want to talk about your endings in these stories and take a moment to praise how incredibly cathartic they are. They’re so punchy that I couldn’t help but be curious about your process in terms of finding the right end to a story. Did you know where these were headed from the beginning? Did you rewrite until you found the proper stopping point?

Baker: I almost always start with the ending—with whatever feeling or idea that the story should leave the reader with. But there are exceptions to that process. Beginning work on “Lost Souls,” for instance, I had no idea how the story would end. I just started writing about the phenomenon. Then one day the idea for that facility in the desert came to me—but even then, to be honest, I expected that Naomi and her family would drive out to the desert to see the facility but wouldn’t stay. That she would insist on going back to Las Vegas. That was the plan. Then one day, on a whim, as I was sketching out the tour of the facility, I wrote a paragraph about a woman with beautiful golden hair whispering into the ears of a dying man. That was the moment. In a flash, a possible arc for the story suddenly appeared in my mind, and the possibility that I saw seemed so marvelous and terrifying that goosebumps spread down the back of my neck, and I laughed aloud. For me, most writing days are frustrating and hard, but those goosebump moments make all of the grinding worthwhile.

Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up “Lost Souls” because I’ve been meaning to ask you about this one. Without spoiling its ending to readers, it’s the type of story that demands a pretty expansive point of view. I feel like this is becoming rarer in contemporary fiction! Is there something in particular that appeals to you about this wide-reaching voice or is it borne out of necessity?

Baker: Ultimately I always choose a perspective out of necessity, based on the unique demands of that particular story. I have to admit, though, that the longer I write, the more excited I am about writing in the omniscient third person. It’s so liberating as a storyteller. You can go anywhere in the spacetime continuum. You can do anything.

Rumpus: Finally, for the reader who inevitably is rapt by these stories and wants to know what book they should read next: in what direction or directions would you push them?

Baker: If you haven’t yet read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, treat yourself. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Gabriel Mascaro’s new film Divine Love, which achieves with breathtaking grace everything that I was trying to do with the stories in Why Visit America. The episode “San Junipero” from Black Mirror. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch. Spike Jonze’s Her. Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As soon as possible, The Endless. The video games BioShock and BioShock Infinite. Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me. Maira Kalman’s illustrated diary And the Pursuit of Happiness. Thomas Hart Benton’s epic mural America Today. I could go on forever. If you want more recommendations, just send me a message. I’ll be here until democracy falls.

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Photograph of Matthew Baker courtesy of Matthew Baker.


Garrett Biggs grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing appears in literary magazines such as Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Offing, among other publications. He is managing editor of The Adroit Journal, a Tin House Workshop alumnus, and the recipient of an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Colorado Boulder. More from this author →