Matthew Simmons’s new collection Happy Rock expertly moves from beatific realism to quietly forays into the fantastic. These glimpses of lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula focus on everything from suburban isolation to low-key superpowers; they’re alternately wistful and devastating. More impressive still is the diference in style between this collection and his earlier books, the experimental novella A Jello Horse and the black-metal-inspired The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge. I caught up with Simmons to discuss his experience as a bookseller, Michigan lit, and the permutations of some of his stories.
There’s a pretty significant shift in tone between your earlier books and Happy Rock. Do you see that as a stylistic evolution, or is it more of a case that this was the tone that fit for these particular stories?
It’s really just a story-by-story thing. There are stories in Happy Rock that have their origins in things that pre-date both A Jello Horse and the stories in The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge. “We Never Ever Went to the Moon,” for example, is based on a little first-person monologue that was published in the online version of The American Journal of Print. In fact, it was the first thing I ever had published. So any change in style is, I hope, simply me finding the right style for the story I’m telling.
What inspired you to write about the Upper Peninsula? Do you plan to return to it as a setting in future works?
I mostly wanted to write about the place I grew up. A few years back, I noticed that a bunch of the stories I was writing had settings that were similar: small towns, midwestern, cold climate. They were all Michigan. They were all, even when they weren’t specifically stated as such, set in Upper Michigan. When I realized that, I decided that I wanted to collect all those Michigan stories in one place, and maybe write a few more. I wanted to use a specific setting to explore the ways a setting can affect the way people view the world and each other. I also wanted to get a bunch of observations about where I grew up and the people I knew out into the world to see if those things haunted me less. I wanted to see if I would like the place more if I put it on a page.
Will I return to it? I honestly don’t know. The midwest certainly. Upper Michigan? Probably. No concrete plans, though.
In the acknowledgements, you talk about bookstore experience — how did this shape you as a writer?
Bookselling made a writer out of me. Before I got a job at a bookstore, I would sometimes poke around the edges of being a creative writer—I wrote little essays for zines my friends published, and I liked to come up with elaborate fake histories for bands I was associated with in college. I liked books and I liked to read. But being a bookseller moved me from a casual to a professional interest in books, so it meant I needed to read a lot more, and a lot of contemporary work. It gave me a sense of the landscape, and where I might fit into it. (And that I actually might fit into it.) It plugged me into the community of writers and readers. And it gave me access to writers who helped me evolve my writing. I learned that creative writing is a discipline that takes time and attention. (And lots of rewriting.) I learned that a voice and an idea are good things, but they aren’y necessarily stories. I spent time finding out the paths other writers took to get where they were, and got advice on how to find my own way. I’m sure I could’ve slowly found all this stuff out through trial and error and Google and Writers Markets and all that. Instead, though, I read Amy Fusselman’s book, and introduced her on her book tour, and had a long chat with her.
Was the Amy Fusselman book in question The Pharmacist’s Mate?
Out of curiosity, what was the first bookstore at which you worked?
The place I work now, University Book Store in Seattle, is the first and only bookstore to employ me.
“We Never Ever Went to the Moon” has a riff on superheroes in it, in a deconstructed kind of way. Is that genre something that still interests you?
I do sometimes still read superhero comics, though mostly I go back to collections of older stories. I think the older I get, the more I like the quaint Silver Age oddballs instead of the darker, broodier stuff I liked as a teenager in the ’80s, or the surreal, meta, or underground comics I liked in college. Because I grew up in the setting where HAPPY ROCK takes place, I think the stories were opportunities for me to connect all the things I loved as a kid to the wherever it is I am now. So, comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, skaterboarding, alt rock/punk/metal/Rush. Comics were a big part of my young reading life, so they had to find their way into my (old) writing life.
A few years ago, you wrote about Boduf Songs for HTML Giant. Have you been doing any more overt writing about music in recent years?
It’s been a little while. I wrote a few small pieces for what is now Nailed Magazine (née Small Doggies Magazine) in a column ostensibly about black metal called CLVRSKLL. I kept not writing about black metal, though. I think now when I write about music (or books, or death, or anything) I find myself wanting to write around and away from the subject until I accidentally stumble back to it.
Earlier, you talked about “We Never Ever Went to the Moon”‘s origin in a shorter piece, and in your recent interview with The Collagist, you wrote about something similar. At what point do you consider a story complete?
Except for the occasional typo, I’m happy with stories when they find their way to publication. But I feel okay re-exploring a story—especially something very short—if looking back at it inspires me to do so. “We Never Ever Went to the Moon,” began as a very short comic monologue called (I think) “Notes from the Astounding Traveler.” It was in the voice of an unremarkable small town superhero who was addressing a city council meeting, asking the townsfolk to stop laughing at him. (In order to fly, he had to wiggle his fingers and toes and because of the effort it took, he could only fly briefly over short distances.) Similar setting, same-ish power, same name. Somewhere in there, though, was a very different story. So, I looked for it, and found it in “We Never Ever Went to the Moon.”
“Rabbit Fur Coat,” (which ran on The Collagist) came from a first-person piece called “Don’t Fuck with the Dungeon Master.” I liked the original. It was a brief snapshot of anxiety. I just felt like there was another way of looking at that character. The first version was primarily autobiographical. The next version folded in some other people and other experiences I wanted to refamiliarize myself with.
A story is complete when I feel like it’s complete. But then I send it to an editor, and the editor shows me a way that it is incomplete. I do another draft or two or four, and then the story is complete again. Maybe someone publishes it. There it is, published and complete. Until a day arrives where I’m looking at it and think, “Oh, what if this was that, instead?” And then it’s incomplete. So, maybe it’s never complete, until I die and can’t tinker or fuss or rebuild entirely.
Did you read about the Vonnegut fan fiction Kindle is going to publish? Maybe even death means no story will ever be complete.