Sunday, June 12, 2016

Q&A with Matthew Neill Null

Matthew Neill Null, photo by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Matthew Neill Null is the author of the novel Honey from the Lion and the short story collection Allegheny Front. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including American Short Fiction and Ecotone.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Honey from the Lion, and for your character Cur Greathouse?

A: West Virginia was deforested circa 1900 -- 10 million acres were clearcut and burned over in a few brutally short years. We've lived in the wake of that. 

I am exploring the lives of men who cut the trees -- rough, brutal labor for little pay -- as well as the handful of absentee landowners who reaped incredible wealth from the undertaking and went on to become senators, judges, and presidents of corporations. There's such a gulf between both ways of living. 

One character, Greathouse, takes part in a disastrous attempt to unionize the timber-workers, but he's a ditherer like most of us are, unsure, unsteady, so his political confusion (and ultimate defeat) is interesting to me. An everyman. 

Though Greathouse seems a fantastical name, I knew dozens of people of that family in Wetzel County. The irony is that many of them were quite poor.

Q: Your home state is West Virginia, and that's where the novel takes place. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Tremendously so. For me, the setting is not a static stage, but is a living, breathing component of the story at hand. It gives the characters life, but also limits them. 

Most of my characters take part in extractive industry -- timber, coal, oil -- so their livelihoods are shaped entirely by geology and water, weather and topography. You don't know anything about a person unless you know what they do for a living. 

I'm amused by these novels about vague flâneurs who have endless time to wander the city and the countryside. A wandering brain is not enough. We are shaped by disappointment as much as by curiosity, and of course employment is the main deliverer of personal disappointment.  

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you change things as you wrote?

A: Oh yes. I had a clear vision of the story's arc: the story could only end in devastation and its aftermath. I write a first draft quickly, then spend years going over the sentences, revising, culling, trying to give the language maximum impact. I try for a chiseled, almost epigrammatic prose. 

That said, my writing tends to be image-rich. I wouldn't call it spare. Many of my sentences are long and unspooling.

Q: The book's title comes from the story of the biblical Samson. Why did you choose this title, and what does it signify for you?

A: Samson is one of the powerful Judges of the Old Testament, and those men -- more titan than mortal -- fascinate me in that they behave in such amoral fashion in what is supposed to be a document of moral instruction. They signify the language of myth, not of parable. 

There's an parallel between the Judges and the absentee land-owners of the novel, as all are men who are distant, unknowable, beyond punishment. 

There are so many in the Old Testament like Samson, who slays the uncircumcised men at Ashkelon for their garments to satisfy a stupid wager, who sets the foxes on fire and burns the fields, who "gives away" the Philistine woman to a friend because she displeases him. Much like corporations and financiers, the small gods of our listing republic.

My novel begins with “Absentees,” who perform mythic tasks, then vanish from the stage. Once the absentee owners leave, the mortals remain to work out their petty, workaday lives—which I hope to reexamine and raise to the level of myth and parable, to put men and women on level with their gods. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I don't want to say too much, but I'm working on a novel set in the early 1960s that explores the rise and fall of American liberalism, with Lyndon Johnson as presiding spirit.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks for asking.  I have a new story collection, Allegheny Front, recently published by Sarabande. A diverse book, tracking the last 200 years of life in West Virginia through shifting perspectives -- human, animal, and geological. I think it will appeal to readers of the novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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