Five Questions With Matthew Zanoni Müller
Will McCarry: Your piece “Presence” appears in our most recent issue of NANO Fiction, 7.1. It’s a really great look at a day in the mundane life of an old woman who has lost her husband. I found it easy to relate to because everyone at some point in their life has known a lonely old person. Does this piece draws from someone you’ve known in real life, or if it is completely fictionalized?
Matthew Müller: I do not know the old woman in this story though I have seen her. She lives on a road near where I work during the summers. The description of her trailer and property are all relatively faithful to the actual place where she lives. I noticed her because I became interested in something I began to notice on my drives to and from work or to pick up supplies (I paint houses during the summer). It was that people would sit out in front of their houses to watch the traffic going by just to be close to the action, no matter how limited. There was a couple who set up lawn chairs in their driveway and would park themselves there with a cooler. Other times I’d see people out on their porches or front lawns, just sitting and watching. I know this seems pretty obvious and normal, but what I began to think about was how people in general still want to be connected to the life that’s going on around them outside of their home, some version of the life of their community. I think that television has to some extent taken this away from us. We watch shows about people we do not know, and our community with these people takes place on a much larger national scale. In essence, anyone, anywhere in the country can tune in and see these same people. What is more difficult nowadays, I believe, is to get closer to a sense of connectedness or relationship with the people that actually live near us and in a sense share our lives. This is something that television can’t replace, so people will still come and sit in their driveways, their front lawns, or their porches. Her little place of connection was to my mind one of the saddest ones. She was down a slight incline inside of this glassed-in porch, a mud room really, where she had to look up at the road. But this was still better than being cooped up or hidden somewhere in her kitchen or shadowy living room.
WM: As the title implies, the husband’s presence (or lack thereof) is felt throughout the piece despite his being gone, and you manage to set up a deep relationship with just a few lines such as: “She makes the coffee now, because her husband’s hands aren’t alive to hold down the grinder.” Can you give prospective flash fiction writers any advice on avoiding cliches and obviousness when setting up relationships in flash, as you have so well here?
MM: The trick to avoiding clichés is to remain truthful to the situation you are describing and to describe it in its own terms. To me, the great value in writing, the thing that makes it fun and fulfilling, is to try to imagine my way into someone else’s life. Once I’ve gotten some sense for who a person is and what their routines are like, it’s not a huge leap to describe something important to that person in the terms that this importance registers in their lives. So, when we think about loss it is often on many different levels, and in fiction, entering on any one of these levels will generally give access to all the others. The good thing about coming in on something small like the coffee grinder is that we can imagine our way up to the larger ones, which gives the reader an entrance into this feeling of loss that isn’t quite as monumental as all of the accumulated losses. It allows the reader to make more of these connections on her own, and to take her feelings as far as she’d like.
WM: The piece concludes with this sentiment: “Her shirt will turn to a flash of pink as you drive by.” Given that the perspective isn’t introduced before this one line, what drove the decision to introduce a “you” at the very end of the piece?
MM: One of my favorite things in writing is to place something within a context. Usually this can’t happen without first either explaining the context or explaining the thing. So there’s a choice to make. I made a similar one here as I did with the coffee grinder. I wanted to describe this woman, her life, her difficulties, her desires, her routines, so that the reader has something very concrete to hold on to. When the perspective shifts in the last line it takes the reader out of that trailer and puts her up on that road in a speeding car. She knows something about the woman now but also understands that what she knows couldn’t really be gained from that car driving by. That flash of pink is all she will get, but that pink shirt contains a whole life. For me, when I saw that pink shirt, I was compelled not to leave it there but to think a bit more about what I’d seen. So, essentially I’m manipulating the reader, pushing her to consider a life that might not get any consideration. I sometimes find myself wondering what kind of lives are going on behind all those doors and lit windows I drive by. All of humanity is happening there and we see so little of it.
WM: Who are the writers (flash fiction or otherwise) that you most admire, and what qualities drew you to their work?
MM: When it comes to flash fiction I’ve always admired those writers who could fit this little twisted nugget of emotion into such a small space. Jayne Anne Phillips comes to mind, for some of her short pieces in Black Tickets. And there are those incredible and terrifying little interludes throughout Hemingway’s In Our Time, which give that collection so much of its weight and power. Russell Edson, who’s really known more as a poet, writes these amazing prose poems, many featuring gorillas, that really delight in the strange, which is wonderful because to my mind there should always be more room for the strange and mysterious. It’s for similar reasons that I really love Rilke, whose poems are so engaged with the metaphysical, with all that is impermanent and beautiful in the world. Elizabeth Bishop is another favorite, especially her poem “In the Waiting Room,” because it opens the reader up to the terror of existence, the sense of being an I stuck in a specific moment in time on a specific point on this globe. I like writing that makes you aware of the state of being alive and that asks, “Okay, now what will you do with this time given to you?”
WM: What else can we look forward to from you in the future?
MM: “Presence” is from a chapbook of flash fiction I started after finishing graduate school a few years ago, and it’s still in the formative stages. I’ve just recently wrapped up revision on a memoir I wrote with my father that started when I was 23. We each wrote around thirty short pieces about our childhoods and put them together into a book. It’s called Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing up from a Father and Son. We’ve started shopping that around a bit so we’ll see what happens. I’ve been very busy writing short stories for a collection that I think will be called The Fire Lookout. I also have a novel in the works about a sixteen year old kid from a troubled family who gets invited out to Cape Cod to spend a week with his new best friend, whose family occupies a very different space in the world. It won’t be a very long novel. I’ve noticed that I’ve slowly begun working my way toward longer word counts over the past few years. It felt right to begin with really short things, to have them as a sort of foundation, and then to get into longer and longer ones. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll attempt a door stopper like War and Peace. It might be fun to spend years traveling in the company of the same characters.
Listen to Matthew’s story from issue 7.1 below or pick up a copy here.