Books In Conversation
Matthew Sharpe with Erinne Dobson
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Stories From the Tube, a short-story collection, and Nothing Is Terrible, a novel, both published by Villard. His breakout novel, The Sleeping Father, was published last winter by Soft Skull Press and quickly won him accolades, including being made a Today Show selection. The Sleeping Father chronicles the lives of the dysfunctional Schwartz family, whose two teenage children must come to terms with adulthood when their father accidentally puts himself into a coma.
Sharpe will begin teaching at Wesleyan in the fall. He has taught MFA students at Bard College, undergraduate students at Columbia University, and high school students in New York City public schools through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Erinne Dobson (Rail): So, I’ve read all three of your books—
Matthew Sharpe: But I’ve written five books.
Rail: Oh—you have?
Sharpe: No. Sorry, bad joke. I apologize—I’ve written three.
Rail: The fact that we can see the internal thought processes of everyone in The Sleeping Father gives the reader an almost uncomfortable proximity to your characters. I don’t really know the term for this, so I guess I’ll call it “close omniscient.” What made you choose this voice?
Sharpe: I wanted a voice that could be authoritative and intimate and could know more than any single character knows, but also sometimes know only what they know. While I was starting to write The Sleeping Father for maybe the fourth or fifth time, I was also reading Middlemarch by George Eliot; this is very much the technique she uses. It’s almost at one with the thoughts of the characters, and then at other times she stands back and has this almost maternal, slightly mocking tone towards the characters. It was very inspiring to me. I happened to be reading that novel at just the right time in my life to be able to make use of that point of view.
Rail: Do most of your influences come from the mid-19th century?
Sharpe: I don’t know. The early 17th was pretty hot. There are lots of 20th-century writers I admire and count as influences too. But yeah, Austen and Stendhal and Eliot, sometimes even Charles Dickens.
Rail: You draw a lot of parallels between midlife and adolescence. Did your experience teaching creative writing in public school come into play?
Sharpe: Sure. I think if you continue to hang around with teenagers long after you yourself are a teenager, it keeps the experience fresher in your mind than it might otherwise be. I do remember when I was about seventeen, my mother saying to me that when she was seventeen she would tell herself that she would never forget what it was like to be seventeen. And I thought, “Well, how can one possibly forget this?” since that’s all there was for me. But of course one does forget it, so I think teaching teenagers, reading their writing, talking to them every day is a way of reminding yourself what that’s like. Over the course of five minutes, a fourteen-year-old I was teaching this year might be weeping one minute, then hugging you and joyful the next minute, then enraged the next minute, then placid the next minute, then asleep the next minute. It’s like perpetual intoxication, adolescence.
I guess they’re both moments of transition. When you’re an adolescent you’re on your way from childhood to adulthood, and that’s really confusing. In middle age I guess you’re starting to experience that deterioration of the body, which is kind of terrifying and is a reminder of mortality. So I suppose there are some similarities.
Rail: The Sleeping Father was chosen to be the Today Book Club’s February selection. How has the publicity affected your career?
Sharpe: I’ve sold a lot more books since then than I did before then. The film rights have been optioned by Warner Brothers, and it’s just been published in England and will be published in a number of other countries. Part of me is happy that there are TV programs promoting literacy—the part of me that is the beneficiary career-wise is definitely happy—and then part of me wishes that people would turn to books to find out what TV shows to watch.
Rail: Stories From the Tube and Nothing Is Terrible, your first two books, were published by Villard (Random House), and The Sleeping Father was published by Soft Skull, a smaller press that has gotten a lot of attention lately. Can you talk a little about why you chose to switch, and how the two experiences compare?
Sharpe: Quite honestly, I chose to switch because none of the mainstream, corporate-owned publishers would have me. Nothing Is Terrible did not do terribly well in the marketplace. Editors are acquirers of property, and those properties have to earn a certain amount for the company, and this was not the case with my first two books. It used to be that an editor had the leeway to nurture a writer’s career—to have the writer publish several books that didn’t have a wide readership. But that’s much harder to do now, unless the editor has a tremendous amount of power within the company, and very few editors do. My experience at Random House was the experience of a lot of literary novelists; they throw a little money at you to start with, and then they just throw you out there in the world of publishing. I was lucky enough to have a great publicist who worked really hard to get the word out about my first two books, but he had very little budget to operate on, and if it came to a choice between publicizing the Matt Sharpe novel or the Aretha Franklin memoir, it was pretty clear what his marching orders were. So, I had good individual relationships at Villard, but my relationship with the company as a whole was quite a separate thing.
The experience I had at Soft Skull was that the guy I was talking to on the phone was the guy who was running the company. It’s all just on a much more human scale. The survival of the company depends on each book doing a certain amount of business, which means that they have to work really hard to support each book, so I benefited by that small-business model.
Pretty unequivocally, I’ve had a better experience with Soft Skull than I did with Villard. And again, I want to emphasize that despite this fact, the guys I worked with at Villard were great and wonderful guys, and very intelligent.
Rail: Earlier this year there was heated discussion about The New York Times Book Review's new focus on nonfiction and potboilers—in the words of Bill Keller, “somebody’s got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.” Do you feel the trend towards nonfiction is simply a point in a cycle that alternates every few decades, or do you think nonfiction is more relevant given the state of the world?
Sharpe: I’m not very good at watching those kinds of market cycles. I’d like to think that good investigative journalism is very important now and always and that stories that are “not useful” are also always useful. Fantasizing is a bodily function, and I think people will always crave stories, crave the imaginary.
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