Interviews

There Are More Than Six Ways to Tell a Story

Matthew Baker on his debut collection of short stories, 'Hybrid Creatures.'

We’re told there are only so many ways to tell a story. A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. An AI once argued stories rely on six major emotional trajectories. Yet in Matthew Baker’s debut collection of short stories, Hybrid Creatures, traditional narratives are made fresh by expanding their lexicons. Baker develops layered meaning by implementing hybrid languages; in doing so, he also expands the emotional spectrum of his characters. His short fiction is well balanced with meticulous planning and noticeable passion for language.

I was lucky enough to connect with Baker at the recent AWP conference in Tampa and interviewed him after leaving Florida. The following conversation has been edited.

* * *

Aram Mrjoian

In this collection, you use HTML, mathematics, musical notations, and propositional logic throughout the text. These aesthetic decisions seem to not only expand the lexicon of each story but also add depth to the characters that inhabit them. I’m curious; how much familiarity did you need to have with these hybrid languages? What fluency was required to bring these elements into your work?

Matthew Baker

I completely immersed myself. Not just in the artificial languages but in their respective fields, too. I was living in Michigan at the time, writing full-time, which meant living below the poverty line. I didn’t have a car, and walking to the nearest branch of the public library would take me almost an hour. There was a bus that went there, but I couldn’t afford the fare. I could barely even afford food. I was subsisting primarily on oatmeal, bananas, rice, and lentils. So, I would just walk. I started writing the formal logic story, “Proof of the Century”, in the middle of the winter, and I remember walking to the library, hiking through the city during a whiteout blizzard, slipping on patches of black ice, trudging through massive drifts of snow, carrying an empty duffel bag, having to walk backward when the wind blew so hard that it’d cut straight through my coat. By the time I got to the library, my hands were numb; my feet were numb, and my eyebrows and eyelashes were crusted with frost. I checked out a couple dozen classic philosophy texts—Symposium, Metaphysics, Ethics, Tao Te Ching, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, etcetera—packed the books into the duffel bag, and then had to hike back home, this time carrying a load of like forty pounds. It was exhausting. It was freezing. In retrospect, though, there was something satisfying about that—having to struggle. Taking those books out of the duffel bag back at my apartment, I felt like a miner unloading these giant nuggets of gold. And for a month, those books were my entire world. I read about philosophy in bed in the morning; I wrote about philosophy all day; I read about philosophy in bed again at night, and I thought about philosophy falling asleep. I had studied formal logic in college. I had never been completely immersed though. That January, one hundred percent of my brain was occupied by the rules of formal logic. I had nightmares about disjunctive syllogisms and constructive dilemmas. All of the stories were like that.

Aram Mrjoian

Bouncing off the first question, I imagine bringing these elements into short fiction creates a unique set of challenges in the revision process. How did you go about lining up the multiple layers of logic that go into these stories? 

Matthew Baker

That work was done in the prewriting, rather than the rewriting. I didn’t want the experiments to feel random or gimmicky—for there to be a disconnect between these linguistic and structural elements and the actual narratives of the stories. I wanted each experiment to feel absolutely crucial to the story being told, which meant having to do a lot of planning. Take “Movements”, for example. For that story, first, I decided on the artificial language that I wanted to use—sheet music, music notations. I made a list of all of the music dynamics that I was going to include in the story, “forte” and “piano” and “staccato” and etcetera, along with a list of sound verbs to include, words like “creak” and “wail” and “crash” and “echo,” and a list of related jargon to include, too, terms like “chromatic” and “signature” and “cadence” and “gamut.” Then, I decided on the corresponding structure that I wanted to use—that the story would be structured like a traditional symphony with four movements: an allegro, an adagio, a minuet and a rondo, which would each follow the unique conventions of that particular musical form. And then, I spent a lot of time thinking about the different types of stories that could be told through this specific language, with this specific structure, and designed a character whose story would have a reason, a narrative justification, to be told in this experimental fashion, a character whose story might have an enhanced emotional effect on the reader if told in this unusual way. That was the prewriting. I would do all of that before actually sitting down to write the story.

Aram Mrjoian

Thematically, one thing that strikes me about Hybrid Creatures is the sense that these underlying ways of thinking create dissonance between your characters and the people around them. Whether a technological, mathematical, or musical proclivity, your characters often feel isolated by their esoteric interpretation of the outside world. With that said, how are your stories hinting at larger ideas about language and communication? What are you trying to convey through your characters?

Matthew Baker

My mom tells me that when I first started learning how to read English, the language thrilled me. I was insatiably curious. If an object within reach had words on it, I’d read it. Eating breakfast at the kitchen table, I’d read the back of the cereal box—where the manufacturer would put jokes and puzzles and fun facts meant to entertain you while you ate—and then I would turn the box and read the side where all of the ingredients were listed, every single word, and then turn the box again and read all the words on the front, and then turn the box again and read the words on the other side, and then flip the box over and read the flaps on the top and the bottom. I’d read the labels on every toiletry product in the house. I’d read the text on every article of junk mail that arrived. As my mom drove me to daycare, I’d demand to know the meaning of unfamiliar words on every billboard and storefront that we passed. What’s a “governor”? What’s a “merchandise”? What’s a “tequila”? I loved learning English. I adored every new word, the look of it, the sound of it in my ears, the feel of it on my tongue, the thrill of adding it to my vocabulary, like a new tool to a workbench. To this day, there’s still nothing as exhilarating to me as learning a new language, whether it’s Japanese, Klingon, Quenya, or HTML. But at the same time, there’s also something profoundly alienating about it, because the more and more specialized that your lexicon becomes, the fewer and fewer people there are who can understand you. The only thing worse than not having the words to express yourself to another person is having the words to express yourself to a person who wouldn’t understand.

Aram Mrjoian

The stories that make up Hybrid Creatures, in particular, “Proof of the Century”, are also fairly expansive. What are the challenges of writing long, short stories? What considerations do you make when writing longer work, especially given that many literary publications currently place emphasis on brevity? 

Matthew Baker

Honestly, I don’t think about the preferences of literary journals while writing. I just make the story whatever the story needs to be. I do wish that literary journals were more welcoming to novellas though. A couple years ago, I heard Christine Schutt give a reading at the Vermont Studio Center, and during the Q&A she said something about how in prose there’s nothing better than a good novella. She said it much more articulately and intelligently than that, of course. I wish you could have heard exactly what she said, word for word, because the way that she said it was brilliant. But that was the basic gist: “In prose, the novella is the supreme form—a good novella is better than a good short and better than a good novel.” I’m not sure if this is a firm opinion she holds or if it was just some offhand remark that she made. But what she said resonated with me. For me, as a reader, there’s something intensely satisfying about a story that length. I don’t think about it often, but it does make me sad, genuinely sad, that there are so few literary journals that will even consider a story that length for publication.

Aram Mrjoian

Many writers mention that by the time something is published they’re well into the next project. Is that the case for you, and if so, what are you working on now?  

Matthew Baker

I always have to be working on something new. At the moment, it’s a new collection of stories. Like Hybrid Creatures—which is basically a concept album—the stories in the new collection were written as a group and designed to be presented together. Unlike Hybrid Creatures—which was intended to be impossible to adapt for film—the stories in this new collection seem to be well suited for adaptation. Four of the stories have already been optioned for film: one by Netflix, one by Amazon, one by Brad Weston’s new company, MakeReady, and another by a director who’s developing the project in secret and for now wants to remain anonymous. Which has been the most incredible experience. I’ve always been obsessed with film as a storytelling medium. Growing up, I was very close to my grandfather; he was like a father to me, and he’d have me over for sleepovers, babysitting me while my mom worked the night shift. He was this massive, towering, gentle man with bright blue eyes and angular facial features, a retired police captain whose greatest passion in life was film. He was a total fanatic. He owned hundreds of movies on videocassette, and that was how we bonded together—eating ice cream and microwave popcorn from the convenience store across the street, watching gangster flicks and spaghetti westerns. He introduced me to Casablanca, The Bridge on the River Kwai, North by Northwest, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And at his house, the movies weren’t just on the television. The shelves and the cabinets were filled with replicas of famous props: the Maltese falcon, the Rosebud sled, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Indiana’s dusty bullwhip. He even had film memorabilia in the bathroom. Sleeping over at his house was like getting to spend the night at a movie theater with free concessions that was simultaneously a film history museum where you were allowed to touch all of the exhibits. He acted in low-budget productions in Michigan. He even wrote a script once about these Army nurses in Nevada who get sent back in time to the Civil War. So, because of him, film has always had a special place in my heart. I wish he could have lived to have seen one of my stories adapted. He would have been so amazed. He would have been just delighted. He died a decade too soon, in a hospice bed in my mom’s living room.

Aram Mrjoian

At the time of this interview (March 13), we’ve just returned from the AWP conference in Tampa. What books did you snag while you were there, and what are you looking forward to reading?

Matthew Baker

So many. I live with my partner, the fiction writer Jenessa Abrams, and we have the most beautiful stack of new books in our apartment now. I’m especially excited to read Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s novel, Empty Set, which based on a quick flip-through appears to incorporate a lot of math concepts, different graphs and diagrams. Also, Shayla Lawson’s I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up, Melissa Cundieff’s Darling Nova, and Diana Khoi Nguyen’s new book, Ghost Of. I’m also fascinated by this new press—maybe it’s not new, it’s new to me—called Container. Container was “established to create books which aren’t, in the quotidian sense, books at all.” For instance, a story published on a Rolodex or stories published in a View-Master. As you’d probably guess after reading Hybrid Creatures, I love strange and peculiar experiments like that. That’s always been my favorite part of AWP—just walking through the bookfair, checking out what new mutations have appeared in the literary gene pool, what bizarre creatures have evolved.

9780807168868_2e8ee

FICTION
Hybrid Creatures
by Matthew Baker

LSU Press
Published February 2018

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