Amy: Mattox, thank you for chatting with me about your new (and first) novel, Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same. You've had great press (Publisher's Weekly, New York Times Sunday Book Review, etc.) and a book tour. Not bad for a first novel. I understand, though, that touring isn't the life of glamour that beginning writers might expect. Care to share?
Mattox: Touring has been a great experience, but since I've been mostly hiding out in campgrounds and in my car (alone) for the past two weeks, I've been slightly disconnected from the world. I've felt like some type of political/social rogue. I don't know much about the Unabomber, but I imagine that he (Ted Kaczynski) felt a similar disconnect. A disconnect, as in, living in a reality that has been shifted to not include typical life. One chilly night in an Oregon campground, I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood up, and I had sunglasses on, and I felt all sorts of suspicious glances from the other campers. "Tenting alone?" "Sitting in his car, on a computer, until midnight?" "What are those small paper rectangles he carries around and occasionally opens?" Yes, I was plotting something, but not a great anti-capitalist statement, just my next novel. (Interestingly, Ted's brother has gone on to become an advocate for mental illness awareness. I believe Ted suffered from Schizophrenia. In a way, Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same was my attempt at mental illness awareness — to put a face on one particular experience with Bi-polar Disorder.)
Amy: Your book revolves around two characters — Cesar and his cousin, Go-Boy — struggling with identity, kinship, and the thrills and boredom of adolescence in a remote, rural village in Alaska. Setting becomes a character immediately. In this village, Unalakleet, Alaska, the familiar becomes strange. You successfuly engage the reader with this familiar/not familiar landscape in the opening scene of the novel in which Go-Boy gives his newly-arrived cousin Cesar (who narrates the book) a tour of Unalakleet:
"In the village," [Go-Boy] says, waving to a group of kids, " everybody's sure always waiting for their shipment." He lists things like house paint, mattresses, rubber boots, even food.
"There's no stores?"
"Well," he says, "there is. But . . ."
He rides me around and we coast over washboard ripples and potholes on the gravel road. The sun is strong. Everything is dry and chalky. The colors, even—dusty beiges and light blues. The dashboard is dirty. An AM station buzzes, and Go waves at everyone he sees. He points out cousins of ours, aunts, family members who weren't at the airport.
"That's your mom's uncle," he says. "Our grandpa lived over there."
He shows me the post office, AC Store, Native Store, Igloo, the lodge, and a bunch of other plywood buildings with tin roofs. There are no signs or advertisements, no trees or grass lawns, and the houses are crowded under empty grids of telephone poles. It's the ugliest place I've ever seen.
Go calls it the real Alaska.
Go says, "In the village, there's no such thing as a family reunion."
And later (and I have to say my favorite among these many introductions to rural Alaska), Go-Boy dismisses Alaska's strategic strength during the Cold War:
"Nukes," Go says. "Nukes don't work up here, man. We're too close to the magnetic pole. It messes with the fission or something."
I say, "No way, those bombs work anywhere. They could blow up the moon."
"Yeah, because the moon doesn't have a magnetic pole," Go says. "They don't work in Alaska, though. Lots of stuff doesn't work here. Cold medicine. Airbags. Condoms."
"Yeah, man. Why do you think people are always getting sick?"
These are selectively detailed immersions in landscape, vocabulary, and culture — all of which you initially collected by visiting Unalakleet on a travel grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Now, like Cesar's fear when he first arrived, you have settled there yourself. Before Unalakleet was your home, what role did the travel play in your creative process? Most writers don't have the luxury of travel, but it clearly paid off in this book, particularly because your narrator is an outsider. How much of the book was written before you traveled, and how much changed as a result?
Mattox: The setting of rural Alaska was the impetus for this project. The place informed how I approached Cesar and Go-boy and Kiana's experiences. And within the story, the place shoulders a lot of responsibility in creating and raising tension. Cesar, the first-person narrator, doesn't explicitly express many of his anxieties and worries and even desires. But by showing the setting and its limitations and its quirks, it reveals the Cesar that he is unaware of. For example, he wants to leave Unalakleet, which is only accessible by plane, so every time he sees a cargo plane, and anytime there is an act of God — like forest fires — that stop the planes from flying, the images recapitulate his isolation and distance from where he thinks he needs to be. This is key for telling the story in the first-person. How can Cesar narrate his tensions without knowing or identifying many of them explicitly? The setting, along with the other characters, can and should do some of this.
My experience with Unalakleet began years before I ever set foot onto the gravel tarmac. In college I met my wife, Tera, along with some of her friends from Unalakleet. Five years later, when Tera and I began dating, I started to realize how important this place was in her life. Without sounding too corny, I'll just say that her home explicitly affected the way she experienced the world. And so, in the way that most couples assimilate into each other's life, I was beginning to assimilate into her village and esoteric Unalakleet culture. When I finally visited, I arrived with some good chunks knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of western Alaskan life, but I had very few expectations (like the narrator). Although, unlike the narrator, I fell in love with the place right away. And since I was coming into the village and my (future) wife's family as an outsider — but not as a total outsider — my experience was: "Here's the river," and "That hill is called Nusluk," and then "Okay, pick up that ulu and get to work, because it's August and there's a lot to do." This was three years before I went to Unalakleet on a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. So my initial experiences with Unalakleet are what got the ball rolling for this novel and I wrote about half of it based on month-long visits. But the time afforded by the travel grant from the MN arts board helped me begin to become a part of the community. I finished the novel in the fall of 2006, and returned to MN for a year, editing the novel, while missing Unalakleet life. I think it was that time away from the village, after being submerged in it for a few months, when I was really able to breathe life into the novel. I could still feel the summer sun circling overheard, I could still taste gravel dust, I could still smell the sun-baked tundra and the pine trees, and I could still hear the voices of the community from church and from the playground and from the riverbanks. Inevitably, I had to put all those feelings somewhere, and I so began the two year period of revisions and edits and additions and rewrites. Without the travel grant I would still have finished the novel, but it probably would've been very lifeless and even banal.
Amy: Let me grab that craft thread you threw out there: The Trouble With First Person Narration, or How to Narrate Tension without Identifying It. (There's a craft book in there somewhere.) One event in the book that impressed me was Cesar's run-in with a Maluksuk, an pus-covered enormous zombie salmon, while he's counting salmon with Go-Boy. In this scene, aside from learning intracacies of Alaskan salmon tracking, Go-Boy instructs Cesar about things nameable and unnameable. The suspended state between life and death, like the Maluksuk, is a common part of rural Alaskan culture. The novel is full of moments where Cesar and Go-Boy instruct the reader or each other about naming inside this suspended state. (For example, Cesar is named after his dad's dead friend, so Go-Boy (whose real name is Joe) strains to find Cesar's Eskimo name but can't think of it.) Was that an intentional device to mediate tension your first person narrator? Even so, I'm stealing it.
Mattox: I think I'll split that wonderfully brilliant question into two parts (dumb it down for myself!). The trouble with first-person narration, I think, is its greatest blessing. David Haynes [an instructor at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College] claims that all first-person narrators are unreliable, that they all have agendas, some being more explicit than others. Cesar, the narrator of Same-Same, is unreliable to both the reader and himself, even though he tries to be completely forthright. For example, he believes that he's not sorry for ____, yet, he keeps bringing the story back to _____. His actions contradict his beliefs, and the reader is able to see and feel this from the intimate inside view, rather than being told it from the outside. Showing these paradoxical characteristics through a first-person narrator is so awesome and relevant because this is how I experience my own life — my own paradoxes — and I don't think I'm alone in this. I think most of us carry a satchel full of paradoxes.
The other part of the question makes me think of metaphor and symbols and that whole palette of writerly tools. There is tension with Cesar's name, but I can't try to sit on a high horse and say I planned it that way with pages of notes and character sketches. I try to write through symbols. I try to let my subconscious do the interpretive work. And, crap, that's almost more pretentious than saying "I planned it that way," or "I knew that," but I have to believe it's true. Think of little kids and how they play. A six-year-old might pick up a rusty bike chain that's lying in a puddle, and within seconds, that chain is the occasion for a game. With stories, the scene and characters and situation are that bike chain. A writer's job is to become a kid — pick up the rusty junk and let the subconscious take over. I think we have to trust our ideas less and less.
Amy: Alright, straight question: tell me about your inspiration for that Maluksuk. Was that a rusty bike chain you found in Unk one day?
Mattox: Totally a rusty bike chain. It's the kind of detail that intrigued me when I started learning about salmon. My wife and I were canoeing on one of my first visits to Unalakleet, and when we paddled into this small slough I swear jaws came right past the gunwales of the canoe. It was a dying king salmon that was right at the surface and it paid no attention to us. It was a little gross to Tera, but she wasn't as intrigued as me. I had never heard of a half-dead fish. I thought it was the total anti-nature, anti-survival, punk rock creature that didn't give a fuck about me or a bear or anything. I was fascinated to see a natural creature in this anthropomorphic way. So I followed that image. I started the whole novel with the chapter "Maluksuks." And it took a while for me to realize that I had to write about the half-dead fish, and not about the connection I consciously made. I had to let the story come naturally.
Another example might be the chapter Humpies (another fish detail!). The pink salmon (humpies) sometimes show up all at once. I love that. I love how the community is so connected to the natural world. Not only in a hokey way, but in a practical way. The fish are a substantial part of people's livelihood. And it's always interesting when major acts of nature collide with major acts of human beings.
But I'm sure some would say these metaphorical images are a bit too much. Too explicit. And maybe they are. The Sun (who published a story version of the chapter) wanted the maluksuk thing to be more explicit. On the other hand, some writers say to pack in the metaphors, that this is the language of fiction. Either way, what has worked best for me is to investigate the thing that compels me. Follow intuition, and write in that direction. Write around the compelling image/detail/situation and see what comes of it. Robert Frost said something to the effect that if there is no surprise for the writer, there will be no surprise for the reader. I think we find 'surprise' by getting the messy ideas into our hands and then following wherever they lead.
Amy: You can't win with metaphors — some will say "too much," some will say "not enough." I think your intuition about the maluksuk was spot on. (You can see I'm obsessed with that zombie fish!) The same goes for the landscape throughout the entire novel. This boy, Cesar, has been removed from the mean streets of L.A. and now has to make his way in a community that functions completely on the rhythmic cycles of nature. Humans are cruel, Cesar knows, but nature is frighteningly oblivious to its casualties. (In that sentence I almost assigned a gender role to "nature," — "her casualties" — but the point is that there is nothing human about nature. Compassion and mercy are for humans.)
I want to bring this coversation around to Go-Boy's mental illness, something that you don't reveal right away. We experience the revelation as Cesar does — and much like you did in the canoe with your first maluksuk — as a surprise boogeyman from the natural world. (There I go with the assigning of gender roles to nature.) Yet again, Cesar has to maneuver around natural breaches of normalcy, but now in a human being. I find it so intriguing that you chose Go-Boy as Cesar's guide to the nature's rules in Alaska, and then Cesar must negotiate Go-Boy's mental terrain in turn. Tell me about how you came to care about the "societal issue" of mental illness, and your process of avoiding the "after school special" kind of flavor that novels dealing with mentally ill people might engender if the writer is not careful.
Mattox: My technique for writing about Go's mental illness was to put all my money down on one idea: that nothing about mental illness is black and white. It's all shades of gray and all the other colors, and it's interesting, terrifying, compelling, revolting, inspiring, saddening, maddening, and on and on, all at the same time. It's a difficult thing to write about. Even to talk about it as an 'issue' seems paradoxical, because in order to do so, we have to focus on its objectivity, yet, the meat of it is in the subjectivity of each person's experience. I wasn't sure if I wanted a balance or an all-or-nothing approach, so in the end, I just followed my own experiences. Go-boy's mental illness — and Cesar's interaction with it — is the most auto-biographical part of the novel.
The book is dedicated to two guys, Jason Everhard and Gabe Towarak. Both struggled with mental illnesses, and both died from actions related to their conscious states. I lived with Jason for a number of years, and Gabe was my wife's cousin. For me, my twenties was a time of living alongside friends who struggled with mental illnesses. When I was twenty-one and twenty-two I thought it was my job to save those friends who struggled. I eventually saw the flaw in that thinking, and so it gave way to the question: As a friend, and as someone who's depressive cycles land on the "sane" side of society's line, what is my role? One experience in particular inspired this novel. My friend Jason allowed me to be a part of his struggle with mental health. He gave me a couple books by Kay Redfield Jamison. We spent many nights on the front steps of our Minneapolis house, trying to figure out life, girls, skateboarding, and the idea of sanity. He was diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. One day he asked me to help him identify his cycles, as in, if I noticed he was acting depressed or manic for a consistent amount of time, then I should call him on it, make sure he was taking his medications, make sure he was seeing a therapist, and make sure he would try to articulate what he was feeling. Of course I said yes. And of course, months later, when his mania hit an all-time high, and when he felt too untouchable for medications, he couldn't hear my concerns. It wasn't only that he feared the dulling effects of the meds, but that he now believed that he had healed himself with the true meaning of life. I was in a precarious situation, or at least I thought I was. So I made the concerted effort we had talked about months earlier, and when it failed, I couldn't help feeling as if I had failed, especially when Jason hung himself four months later. My friendship with Jason and my experience living alongside his struggle with mental health greatly shaped this novel.
Amy: And a beautiful novel it is. Thank you, Matt, for sharing your personal experiences that resulted in this book, which is rightfully receiving national praise.