The first time I saw Matt was on a poster, an advertisement for his upcoming book signing of Dumbfounded at Urban Think!. I was drawn to his picture because he seemed youthful and—do I dare say it?—cool, which are two stereotypes that I never associate with authors. Not that I think all authors are old geezers who swaddle in rocking chairs next to cozy fireplaces, because there are known bad asses like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut and Augusten Burroughs (It’s a shameless plug, but you’d know I’d have to put my favorite author in here). It’s more that being a writer, at least it seems like it to me, sounds a lot cooler than it actually is.
Truth be told, to be a writer you must spend a lot of time by yourself. This is a characteristic that my personality did not come equipped with. But yet, it’s necessary. You must accumulate ideas and story plots, you must attempt to put these thoughts into words, then there is the actual process of writing, and finally there is the re-writing of most of the work you’ve already done, only after it’s been completely slandered by the world’s toughest critic—yourself. As you can see, there is no room in this process for someone else; and unfortunately, I happen to pride myself on being a people person. I love “someone elses,” in fact I need them. So writing for me is often a struggle. What it feels like to be a writer, at least what is what it feels like to me, is to be a recluse that only emerges out of their dark cave for more caffeine and eating affairs. It certainly does not feel “cool.” In fact, it’s the opposite of what most of us have attempted to justify through our entire trek of education—that we are not loners, and that everyone loves us, see, just look how many people voted for me to make homecoming court? This is why when I saw Matt, or at least his picture, I felt a need to meet him. He seemed to have figured out a way to mesh these two very different worlds together.
So there I was, a blind woman at my first book signing. (For reasons unknown, I didn’t bother taking the time to research what Matt’s book was about. I suppose I was more preoccupied with the idea of actually meeting him.) The fact that Matt stood in a sea of admirers and it consisted mostly of men, was a clue that he was gay and so I figured that his memoir must be about that (and it is, but it’s hardly the focal point). But what I couldn’t figure out was why he was here in Orlando? And how he could get published from such a place? After all, he was from New York, the Mecca and euphemism of all things publishing. The answer was Rollins College he told me; he had moved to Orlando so that he could attend college there. Poor Matt, he didn’t even see it coming. As soon as he coughed up this tid bit of information, I upchucked my Rollins grad school status all over him. Damn straight, I did it. I name dropped and everything. And to this day, I don’t know if that was necessary or why he agreed to let me interview him. But he did. And since our interview, I’ve spent the past three days locked up writing … and I seem to be OK with it. So thank you Matt, for your time but mostly for breaking all the stereotypes. Perhaps there is hope for me yet. I mean, I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Did I mention that I was name dropping in a book store?
To learn more about this book before reading the interview, go to www.mattrothschild.com.
Jana: What are your first impressions of people in general?
Matt: I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. One of the reasons I like strangers is A) most people are clearly dull and so I think I can shine by nature with my personality. And I’m a pretty good listener too. I have a fairly astute judge of character, and so you get to realizing what people need for conversations and you don’t give them anymore than they need. I know so many people who consider themselves to be regular, run of the mill, regular people—you know your ordinary “Joe”—and I just can’t think of anything duller than someone who calls themselves an average person.
Why the title Dumbfounded for your first memoir?
That was the first title that my agent and I could agree on. Initially, it was titled the Upper East Side Syndrome. I don’t know if you have had a chance to read a whole lot of the book …
Yeah, I’ve read the whole thing.
Oh, well the “Upper East Side Syndrome” is the metaphor that kept working its way into the book to describe the people who lived on the Upper East Side. It was an inside joke in my house, at least between my grandmother and me. There’s a section in the final chapter when I go back to New York and I’m looking around and I have that scene in the museum and all that? Well, initially, this was a much larger story. It was the focal point of the whole book. Anyhow, when I got my agent, he only agreed to represent me if I made some editorial changes or adapt to his editorial suggestions.
He didn’t like any of the titles I suggested; and I didn’t much like the ones he suggested. We kept going back and forth and I became so sick of it. So when he sent me the title Dumbfounded, I was at the point that I didn’t think much was going to happen—I have to tell you, I didn’t think the book was going to get published—I thought [the title] didn’t suck, so I was like, “OK whatever, nothing is ever going to happen, so I don’t know why I’m being so fussy about this.”
Anyways, the book was called Dumbfounded and two weeks later it sold. I started—it was really funny—I started working behind the scenes to see how I could get that title changed. I didn’t want to tell my agent that I didn’t like the title. [Laughs] Since then, the title has grown on me. But who wants to have their whole life summed up in the word dumbfounded? It’s so terribly unflattering. But then I thought about it, and it’s fitting. I’m looking around at the adults dumbfounded; they’re looking at me the same way. It took some persuading, but it fits.
How many book signings have you had thus far for Dumbfounded?
I think six.
How would you rate your overall experience of them?
Some are better than others. You were at my first one which was—let me think—at Urban Think!. That was an extremely nerve-racking experience for me because I didn’t know what to expect, and I was really really nervous. It went really well, they sold like 70 books, which is fine.
What do you think people expect from you at those signings?
Good question. You know, I never really know. I think they want to be captivated; they want to be entertained; they want to laugh. Actually, with all that said, they want to look at me. Of course they’ve read some of my articles, articles that have to do with me or my family. And so it’s a bit of an oddity. They want to come and take a look at the guy who walked away from it all … and see what that looks like I suppose.
I get asked a lot of questions—but there are always two questions, two questions that I get asked … [first] I’ve come to realize that there are two types of audiences: one that is very polite, and so they’ll ask cursory questions about the meaning of my life before they dive straight in to the family drama. And then, there is the other audience who wants to know right off the bat. Either way we move on to the “What is the relationship like with your mother now?” That is the first question. And then the other one I get invariably is, people looking at me and saying, “You are so different now, in the way that we expected you to be after reading the book. You’re not awkward, you’re poise, you dress well, you’re good looking, blah, blah, blah. How did that happen? How did you have this transformation?”
And what are the answers to either of those questions?
In the beginning, I never wanted to talk about my mother. But I learned early on that everyone is going to want to know, and when you write a book like mine you have no business keeping anything private. It’s just the way it is. Often times with memoirs, you’ll hear someone say, “I wrote about this so I don’t have to think about it anymore, blah, blah, blah … and now that it’s out there, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Of course, that always seems like bullshit to me. The fact of the matter is if you didn’t want to talk about it, you shouldn’t have written about it. It’s just the way it goes. The conversation that I described in my book was the last conversation I had with my mother—and that was 10 years ago.
Why write a memoir and not fiction?
A) I think there is strength in knowing something is true. Not to negate the truth in fiction or the creativity in memoir, but still, there is strength in knowing its truth. The other thing is if I were to fictionalize my story, how much would I have to fictionalize it in order for it to be purely fiction? I think that enough people know me that if I wrote a novel and called it Dumbfounded, it would have to say that I drew heavily from my real life. And if that’s the only thing that you’re going to change, then that’s nothing.
I’m working on another memoir and I’m having some internal conflict about the book. I know that it’s going to potentially ruin a relationship—a relationship that I care quite a bit about.
Do you have a “personal line” that you don’t cross?
No. I wish I could tell you yes, but the fact of the matter is to be a writer … to be a writer is a weird thing. To be a writer you are always looking and examining life and weighing its peculiarities against its story potential. Often what happens to me—and I don’t think every writer is like this, nor do I think I am special for being able to do this—but I’ll be talking to someone and they’ll tell me about a story. In my mind, involuntarily, I’ll be thinking is there a story here? I frequently have to stop myself from writing it off, like, “Eh. There’s nothing here.” Because obviously whatever they’re telling me is important to them, but in my mind I’m thinking, “That won’t sell.”
Do people approach you to write their stories?
What is your writing routine? Or don’t you have one?
I used to have a great one, way back when I was writing. [Laughs] I would wake up in the morning, really early too—I used to be an insomniac actually—so I’d be up by 4 a.m. and that’d be late. I’d start by brewing coffee and then I’d start writing. My book was done in chapters, obviously, so I’d start at the beginning of a chapter and re-read until I’d get the flavor of the words and then I’d get into it. Before that, often what I would do is read an example of good writing like [David] Sedaris, or such and such, just so I had a mental model to shoot for. Then I’d read my own work and compare the two.
I know what you mean. I do the same thing with Augusten Burroughs. And actually I did it with your work just the other day. It’s like …
It’s the “Emotional Pathos,” at least that’s what I keep reading.
It’s the ability to say what most people won’t, and then to put that on paper. I think that is an amazing task, I really do.
Yeah … well, thank you. The problem is when you can’t write. It’s a terrible impotence. This feeling just takes over … and to not be able to do the thing that you’re known for … well, before I sold the book, I didn’t tell people I wrote because I taught. So when I sold the book and people started finding out, they’d be like, “Huh?”
And then there came great expectations?
What happened was my writing took over my life, in terms of my income. People ask me all the time, “What do you do? That international question …
… and also how we define ourselves.
Right. So they ask, “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer.” Then they say, “Well, where can I find your stuff?” Now, I can say, “Anywhere, you can get it anywhere.”
But before, I never told people this because I knew what the second question was and I never had an answer, except “I’m not published.” Then they’d immediately move onto, “Well, what do you do for a living?” We so have this notion of the starving artist, right?
But once you get past that, the next question is, “What are you working on now?” And at one point, I was like, “I’m not working on anything.”
To which they’d say, “So. You’re a writer that doesn’t write?”
Exactly. And then they’d say, “It’s pretty expensive to be a writer that isn’t writing you know.” I got to a point this summer that I told myself, “Matt, you’re going to have to start working on something or you’re going to have to get a job.” I had a stern talk with myself in the mirror. I said, “We’re not going to support your laissez-faire ass so you can sit around and do nothing.”
So you’re not teaching at this time?
No, uh-huh. But I said to myself, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Part of it is that the story I’m working on right now nested itself into my brain, and I tried really hard not to write it. Everyday I’d come up with reason after reason to let it go. But when a story is really compelling, and it takes a hold of you, there is really very little that you can do. It’s like a drug.
Do you keep a journal?
How long did it take you to write your book?
What made you decide to write your story down?
I didn’t think too much about it. I knew I was going to write. They say write what you know and this is what I knew. While I was writing, I was teaching myself to write because I never had any formal training.
Some would say in your case that it is remarkable to be published.
It’s true. And you get that sometimes.
Is it easy to get caught up in it?
Well, your frame of reference keeps shifting. So fast—it happens so fast. One day you’re living in starving writer land, the next you have an agent, a little while later, at least in my case, you get a publisher. There’s always stuff happening and coming at me. Things happened so quickly I haven’t had time to acclimate. It’s like you almost forget where you started from.
Fortunately, I’m not a person that does a lot of complaining. I won’t complain about my work around people who aren’t published. I know I’m living the dream, even though things aren’t perfect, even though things are still difficult. It’s interesting what happens; often times, other writers will walk a fine line of being happy for me and jealous. People will say things that are pretty cutting.
I can imagine.
Most people who call themselves writers are not good. We know that, so we might as well just come out and say it. Even now the work that I do is colored in terms of publishing. Would I consciously choose to work on a project that never had a chance of being published? That’s just absurd. But people will say, “But at least you’re writing, isn’t that what you want to do?” And you’ll think to yourself, “Well yeah, but you can’t ask me to choose. I need to eat.”
We who write know what it’s like to write when you’re working full time; it’s almost impossible. You’re better off—when people ask you how you’re doing—you’re better off just saying that everything is good. As opposed to saying, A) I’m really concerned I’ll never write anything good again and B) the publisher doesn’t even care if I write again. You know? Your audience just isn’t receptive of it. If you’re talking to Stephen King, he might listen to you or be able to empathize back from his early days. I’ve talked to some authors and they know what I’m talking about, which is good because it means it’s just not me. I’m not crazy. Although sometimes you think to yourself, “Maybe I’m ungrateful. Maybe I’m just a selfish prick.”
Let’s move towards more of the details of the book, can you tell me who the tennis pro your neighbor married is?
No. You know what I will tell you, he wasn’t really a tennis player but a soccer player.
Have you talked to any of the people in your stories, like Steve your dorm mate, since the book has been published?
Yes and no. My friend, Elaine in the story actually ended up at Rollins with me coincidentally. She and I still speak, but what happened is she thinks I’ve written a novel. So she asked me somewhat recently how my novel was doing and what the name of it was, because she wanted to get it. I just pretended that I never got the e-mail. Because when she reads it, she’s gonna realize that it’s about her and she’s going to be maaaad. So I’m working really really hard to keep that away.
What do you think your grandparents—if they were alive today—would say about your book?
That’s a good question. Depending on the day, my answer will vary. Today I would say, I think my grandmother would be totally OK with it. She’d say something like, “Stick it to ‘em. Have fun.” My grandfather, however, was very concerned with what people thought. So it really concerned me to think that maybe he would be ashamed. But I also think that he couldn’t have foreseen anything that happened after he died, so I think he would have understood. And I don’t think that I treated anybody badly. I certainly wasn’t any worse on anyone than I was on myself; I feel I treated everyone evenly.
I loved you and your grandmother’s relationship in this book. And of all the discoveries in Dumbfounded, I think it was your discovering of her Alzheimer’s that touched me most. How did you cope, like really cope, with that?
As it is written in the book, I was not told she was ill. She, of course, knew. When she found out, and I mean conclusively realized that she was on the fast track to senility, she told me to leave. She said she needed her own space, but what she wanted was to protect me and to die in private. She didn’t want me, or anyone else for that matter, to see her in this way. It was fortunate at best that my mom manipulated me into reestablishing myself into her home life, because if my grandmother would have had her way, I don’t think I would have ever known.
Is there anything you would change about your childhood if you could?
I think I would have gone back and told myself to relax. Looking back at that time, I know I had really good grandparents who loved me a great deal. It was really hard though dealing with the self-doubt of being abandoned and gay, those sorts of things. It was really hard. Knowing that I’d get over it one day and that things would be OK, I could have gone a long way with that information. But it’s one of those things …
Do you think your story is best told now, at this time of reflection?
I have to tell you that if I waited too much longer, I don’t know if I would have remembered everything. And the kind of writer that I am now is different than when I was writing Dumbfounded. If I wrote Dumbfounded now, it would be a different book, a lot more serious and maybe not nearly as funny.
Why do you think that is?
I think what’s happened to me is that I’ve seen more things. I’ve seen how ugly things can be and it’s shifted me.
So, do you see yourself living in Florida forever?
Where are you going?
I don’t even see myself living in Florida past the Spring. I was suppose to move this past summer but I had so many events in the South and Southeast, I’d thought it foolish to fly back and forth. I see myself headed west, outward bound, like San Francisco, Portland or Seattle. I’ve been here for nine years, since I came for Rollins. I don’t dislike it by any means; it’s just that you know when it’s time for a change. Eventually, I know I’ll end up in New York; it’s just that before I go home, I have a lot of living to do.
* Interview Date: October 7, 2008