Matthew Klam was named one of the twenty best fiction writers in America under 40 by The New Yorker. He is a recipient of a Robert Bingham/PEN Award, a National Endowment of the Arts, a Whiting Writer's Award, and an O. Henry Award. His first book, Sam The Cat, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, was published in 2001 by Random House and selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, Esquire Magazine, The Kansas City Star, and by Borders for their New Voices series. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, where he is a contributing writer. He is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and Hollins College, and has taught creative writing in many places, including St. Albans School, American University, and Stockholm University in Sweden.
(Photo courtesy of Marion Ettlinger)

Interviewer: Nathan Leslie

NL: Sam the Cat is a funny book. For starters, it touches upon a lot of gender differences–I know that really brought a lot of attention to the collection. How would you describe a typical Matt Klam protagonist?

MK: I should have some snappy way to respond to that. It´s been awhile but for the first time in five years I´ve finished a short story again, and I´ve been thinking a little bit about who I am and what the quality of my heart is, and why I leave in the stuff I leave in, why I choose to paint the picture that I do. My immediate reaction [to this question] is to recoil in defense because I feel like the version of reality that comes out in my short stories isn´t one that I´m recommending, you know? I mean if I cared about somebody I wouldn´t say my fiction is how they should see the world.

My first goal [in writing] is to make it hard for somebody to put the story down. If I´m doing that, then questions about who the protagonist is emerges through all these other contingencies that have to be taken into account. And what I´ve always been left with is a little bit more difficult than I would ever want for somebody going through the world. There´s a much smaller amount of patience for, you know, human frailties. My protagonists are usually cursed with…good health, which makes for a certain kind of arrogance. There are these classic things you could look at from a psychoanalytic perspective–someone who feels deeply threatened and undone by the presence of an intimate connection, or something like that.

NL: Most of the stories in Sam the Cat are written in the first person, and to me the voice is so rich and observant–and maybe that´s what makes the stories amusing for me. In your view, what makes a story, in general, effectively humorous? Also, what drives your humor?

MK: It´s a couple of things. One is, it´s having enough fluency with some phenomenon or event that you know what you are talking about. You leave out almost everything but the most ridiculous parts and you know if you set them against each other they are going to look absurd together in a sentence or a paragraph.

I´ve been looking at this memoir that this rock critic wrote, and it´s got these really funny sections in it of her talking about all the things you have to do when you approach the band, depending on how famous the band is. She can talk about these very specific things like: never mention the hit if they have one hit (because that will immediately turn them off); never mention (if the band has been around for more than eight years) that you loved listening to them when they were in high school (because then they´ll feel old); never talk to the lead singer or look at the lead singer or say hi to any of them or smile because the first thing you have to do is name the album that was only published in Germany that had just drums that they think is the deepest thing in the world–you´ll immediately garner their respect. The reason she´s able to get away with that is that she´s been down that road so many times.

NL: So should I have dug up your obscure German stories?

(Both laugh)

MK: You´ve got the whole obscure package right there.

NL: Back to voice for a second. Another thing I really admire about your fiction is your use of a very particular voice, and obviously you craft that around the characters that drive a given story. Many of your narrators have similar tics, to some degree. They love lists; they have these off-kilter metaphors; they use profanity; they harbor weird fetishes. What do you think draws you to the first person?

MK: You know, it´s weird. I was talking to Elizabeth McCracken recently. I said, “I don´t know how to write anymore." She said, “Nobody knows how to write. People who are working on their first books think they know how to write, but they have different problems." The first story in the book I wrote in late 1992. I have no idea what I was thinking back then. I know the voice was obvious to me. I think first person is really good for sounding an alarm. The first person can do that better than a third person maybe. I don´t know, it´s better at raising the volume.

You know, you can do first person voice stuff in third person. It just depends on the kind of voice the narrator has: I mean, the narrator can have a voice too. The author makes certain decisions–you can get away with a lot of voice in third person, too.

NL: Flannery O´Connor was one of the masters of that.

MK: Totally. Charles D´Ambrosio also. I guess Tobias Wolff is a great example of a guy who writes in third person who is so voicey. The way he describes a person´s experience let´s you know that even though that person–Joe–isn´t talking, Joe´s influencing what the author is leaving in or taking out. And so there´s a strong voice, you know, and he doesn´t feel trapped or stuck in the rules of what we all believe should be spoken about when one is describing the interior of somebody´s car.

Instead he [Wolff] can make decisions to omit a whole bunch of stuff and focus on one or two things, and all of a sudden you realize that the guy is really obsessed with the crack in the windshield, and don´t know why. And he´s not giving us a legitimate description at all of what the inside of a Pontiac looks like, and yet it stands for the description of a car because the author refuses to bow to the standard descriptions. Instead Wolff is like, I´m going to give you all this voice in my story, even without resorting to the first person.

NL: What was the first story that you wrote in the book?

MK: The first one in the book [the title story].

NL: So I take it you went to a series of weddings at the end of the 90´s.

MK: It´s one of the things after college that will be a milestone–watching people close to you get married. You get closer and closer until you get to see the wiring of the little society that you are a part of, especially now that you´ve been kicked out of the small society of an academic or institutional world. So for a long time I just had that weddings-on-the brain kind of thing, thinking about how weird they were.

NL: I love the way in which your fiction satirizes the lives of the rich and spoiled. For some reason when I was rereading Sam the Cat in preparation for the interview, I was thinking of your work as in a sense, a product of a “New Gilded Age." What is it that draws you to write about this particular social set?

MK: I think it´s just envy.

(Both laugh).

You know, just total fascination. I think underneath all of it is the feeling that people who have either an easier way of making a living or becoming rich and famous, or people who were born wealthy, or people who have a greater ambition or more testosterone or whatever–that they must be different than me. The better you know somebody, the less you want to be them.

NL: One of my favorite scenes in your fiction is that great opening scene in “There Should Be a Name for It" where Lynn is preparing a chicken. This is sort of a dumb question, but what inspired you to write the scene?

MK: Actually, that was a story that sat on my shelf for three years. I was so ashamed of that story. I couldn´t do anything with it. I didn´t publish it until 1997, and I just thought that everybody would hate it. That´s a side story. I remember somebody putting a baby next to a chicken and taking photographs. I don´t remember exactly why it happened but it was that period in my life where I was living out west, so things sort of floated into the story, you know. And then there was this thing of cooking. I think there was this general feeling of we´re-too-young-to-cook-because-we´re-just-kids. That sort of very protected feeling that I think is interesting.

NL: And speaking of cooking, do you have it out for chickens?

(Both laugh)

There must be a traumatic chicken scene in your past. Your characters are always eating chicken.

MK: I probably ate too much chicken at one point in my life, and I really got sick of chicken. Poor chickens. My family had chickens in our backyard. We ate the eggs; we didn´t kill the chickens–although somebody did. If you´ve ever met a chicken, they´re not a good animal. They´re just not. There´s nothing to say that´s good about chickens. They´re stupid. There´s nothing to cuddle. They crap all over themselves. They have no personalities. And then you think: I´m surviving on this thing. I mean, what is a chicken for? That should be the real topic of your investigation here today.

(Both laugh)

Are they for decoration? Or are they just for shooting?

NL: I was going to say, “meeting" is probably too elevated of a word to describe an interaction with chicken.

MK: Right.

NL: Two of my favorite characters in your fiction are Phil Shore from “Linda´s Daddy´s Loaded" and Bob from “Issues I Dealt with in Therapy." Can you talk a little bit about the origins of those characters?

MK: I mowed lawns for a guy when I was growing up who was the CEO of this company. And he was just one of those guys who still had a buzz-cut in 1982 or something. He was the kind of person who would do and say some of the stuff in that story [“Linda´s Daddy´s Loaded"]. You´re quintessentially wired to be afraid of a wealthy, famous father-in-law, and one who is estranged and all those things–so that was cooking in the back of my head. He was the kind of guy who has those completely unreflective reflections about his daughter: “She was such a slut in high school." I think that was probably cooking in the back of my head for ten years before I found a place where I could get away with it.

The Bob character: I mean, you move to DC and you´re here for awhile and you start to meet the people who have come here for the DC reason. They´re here supposedly for good reasons, and they all meant well when they first got here. DC is a very corrupting place: there is so much power and wealth here. Bob´s not a real person, although the wedding was sort of based on a wedding of this bigwig guy whose wedding I went to, but he´s not bulimic.

NL: So what you´re saying is that there are Bobs all over the city.

MK: Yeah. It´s funny, I was at this party for Harper´s Magazine, and George Stephanopoulos was there. I was talking to him and he said he liked that story. I was like, “You´re the jackass I´m making fun of in there." That was stored in the back of my mind, you know. But he didn´t think so. I guess he´s not that guy at all. What do I know? I don´t know him. But anyway, I thought it was funny. I was thinking a young superstar like him was just the kind of guy…you hope somebody will be insulted. You hope you wound somebody with your brilliant story.

NL: Or you can take it the other way: the parody is so brilliant that the person who is the recipient of the parody doesn´t even get it.

MK: Well, there´s that whole thing, you know. The person who you wish would get injured doesn´t even care.

NL: Speaking of magazines, you often write essays and articles for magazines such as GQ and New York Times Magazine and Esquire. How does your approach to non-fiction differ from your creative work?

MK: It´s always changing. Right now I sort of feel like it´s really important not to get tangled up in some big researched, reported story. So I´ve just been trying to avoid that. I wrote two very short things for GQ that took me no time at all. And really, I´m 41 and I´ve finally figured out that certain stories take a shorter time than other stories to write. The features I´ve written–some of them have taken six or seven or eight months. I mean, there´s nothing else going on. I´m just working on those. It takes a long time to learn the language–whether it´s about the military or about politics or something. It´s not a good way to make a living.

Right now I am sort of hungering for diving into…you need to get away from yourself and do one of those reporting pieces. Whereas with writing fiction, I feel that I´m much more stuck with myself. Although with this last piece I did it felt fun to take the things that had sort of scared me and alter them slightly and feel as if I was mastering them, you know?

NL: Sure. Of the essays you´ve written, which was the most memorable to you?

MK: I was looking at this piece I wrote for Harper´s Magazine recently because somebody is putting it in a book.

NL: “The Pilot´s Tale."

MK: Yeah. It was one of those things where you should feel that it´s a privilege to get near–people who might die in the name of American foreign policy decisions. I happened to have gone to college with this guy. So that was pretty memorable. I got to go on a big aircraft carrier, and stuff like that. It was larger than life. You know, when the US Navy is trying to impress foreign dignitaries about our stalwart support of their whatever-it-is, they put them on a deck of an aircraft carrier and then they shoot planes off there. And people never forget having the sound barrier broken on their head.

NL: You mentioned that you wrote a new short story recently. Are you working on a novel as well?

MK: Part of my not producing anything over the last couple of years was the complete and total disaster of trying to write a novel. I think I worked on and off on this one and then another totally different version of what I thought a novel could be, and I don´t want to say nothing came of it, but I wouldn´t wish it on anybody. I don´t think there´s a novelist in here, you know? I did a bunch of that in 2001, 2002, then some of 2003. I really worked on all this stuff, and I still don´t know what to make of it.

So I have been working on a short story recently, and so…whatever, maybe that´s good.

NL: So how is the new story different from the ones in Sam the Cat and what you did in that book?

MK: I don´t know. It´s probably the same old crap.

(Both laugh)

I´m not sure. I don´t know. You hope–without sounding too ridiculous–that, you know, you´re showing, not improvement, but some greater, whatever, maturity, awareness of stuff. But I don´t think any of that stuff is really happening. I don´t know. I think it´s just a subject I didn´t write about before.

NL: I noticed in your bio that you taught at several schools and colleges. Are you teaching these days as well?

MK: No, I visited George Mason just for three days this past semester and did a reading. I taught at The University of Michigan this past fall. George Mason is a really good program too, but Michigan to me was the best one I´ve visited. I flew in and out of Michigan all last fall. It was a pain in the ass to travel, but it was a good experience to teach there. And then I had a chance to apply–although I´m sure I wouldn´t have gotten the job. They have two jobs that they are interviewing for this fall and I just decided I´d rather…GQ wanted me to do a piece and the decision we came up with–and it wasn´t exactly my decision–but they wanted to do this special section called “We Do It So You Don´t Have To"–I think they are going to publish this stuff in the spring. So they finally came up with me getting a Mohawk. So there I was, supposed to apply for a super-legit job as a teacher, and instead the decision was to not apply and get a Mohawk. This doesn´t look good for the future.

NL: So how´s the Mohawk feeling these days?

MK: Well, I shaved it off after ten days, and now I just have very little hair.

(Both laugh)

I´m sure you notice, there are times when for whatever reason you´ve got the time to write. And other times when you just see the dust forming on your keyboard. I think everybody goes through that. That´s the basic rub. Then you have to make these decisions: how much do I want to piss off my friends? Do I want to miss Thanksgiving? Then you get entangled in all that.

NL: That´s just the writer´s life. That´s the way it is.

MK: I think it was James Michener´s wife who was quoted by Alan Cheuse or Alan Cheuse´s wife. She was saying, “I married this writer. I didn´t know. Birthday–writing. Christmas–writing. Every day–writing. New Year´s–writing. Always up there writing.

(Both laugh)

NL: That´s pretty funny.

MK: I feel sorry for people who think it´s fun to hang out with writers.

NL: Now that you´re in DC, what do you make of the so-called DC literary scene?

MK: I got this email from this woman who´s starting some literary lounge thing. She said: “You gotta come read. You gotta come hang out. It sounds like fun." I just know about the readings at Politics and Prose and the PEN/Faulkner stuff. It seems there needs to be a Dave Eggers type in Washington. Somebody who has a good enough reputation, and somebody who has that party-giving spirit

NL: Maybe that´s you.

MK: Well, I would do it if I had nothing else to do, because it would be fun. I´ve thought about it, but now I have a seven-month old kid, so forget it. Although she did just start sleeping, and so that´s big. I can go out again. I was on the night shift for the last seven months–forget it, man.

NL: You went to Hollins. How was that?

MK: It was great in retrospect because the stuff I was working on there I was able to publish later. I don´t know if I would ever insist it was…I don´t know. I had a good time there, and I immediately got a girlfriend there, which was great.

NL: Who have you been reading these days?

MK: I looked at an old collection of Lorrie Moore´s. She just came through DC and I was psyched to meet her. I´m just looking at the stuff that´s lying around here. I read that memoir that Nick Flynn wrote, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. That was good. Beautiful book. I never read Ernest Hemingway´s short stories before, so I´ve been reading some of those. Patron Saint of Liars, which is Anne Patchett´s first novel. The opening of that is really good–wow.

NL: By the way, what did you make of the critics who remarked that some of the characters in Sam the Cat were misogynistic? Was that something that concerned you or bothered you?

MK: Oh yeah. It made me feel like I wanted to correct it–which is a terrible idea. I think you´re sort of stuck with…I was talking once to my dad about going to see a shrink and that I was not going to be myself after that. He started laughing and said, “You´re not going to get that well." He just meant that I´m old and I haven´t changed. It feels terrible, terrible for anybody to say anything bad. You might sit there bravely, feeling edgy and nasty, having your own thoughts and independent, anti-politically correct feelings, but when the reviews come you wished you had written something that pleased every person on earth, and when it doesn´t it´s just terrible.

Being reviewed is a completely deranging experience. I was talking to Curtis Sittenfeld, who´s a friend. She got universally good to great reviews, and still found reading reviews of her own work to be a miserable experience. I remember overhearing my sister defend me to somebody: “He´s not at all like that." I thought, jeez, you know?

NL: That´s so strange because obviously the characters in Sam the Cat are not supposed to be likeable.

MK: Yeah, but you pay anyway. Even if the author tips his hat…if the author is in control and aware that he´s got a jerk on his hands, it´s not enough. It´s not enough for some people. It´s enough for some people, but it´s not enough for others. Readers want…I don´t know what they want. Readers want to be taken by the hand and shown what human nature is supposed to be.

NL: They want heroes and heroines.

MK: Did you read Old School–the Tobias Wolff novel?

NL: Yeah.

MK: There´s that great moment in there where he realizes Ayn Rand is a terrible writer. A lot of people love that [kind of fiction] or else those books wouldn´t be gigantic.

NL: It´s depressing, though.

MK: Well, I remember Tom Beller saying that reading fiction about flawed people and the bad things they do is like a homeopathic remedy for life. You get a little dose of that and it cures you of some of those instincts. Just for the moment it gives you that feeling of identification so you don´t feel as rotten about yourself.

NL: You´d think people would like reading the kind of stories in Sam the Cat because then they feel superior after they read them.

MK: But instead, what´s popular? People chopping each other up into pieces. I was sitting next to this woman on a plane once and she was reading some book that had a bloody implement on the cover. I never read that stuff. I read Robert Ludlow when I was in high school. She starts telling me (in two minutes, because we´re on an airplane) about her terrible life and the conditions she´s living under. Which are: she and her husband (he works the night shift) don´t speak; they sleep in the same bed and haven´t had sex in ten years; she wants to divorce him and throw him out of the house, but she can´t because she has a thirteen year-old and a sixteen year-old, and the minute those kids go off to college (which is five years away), she´s getting a divorce. These are the conditions she´s living under. And I´m thinking, you´re so fucking miserable, no wonder you´re reading about murder: you want to murder this guy. I´m not ill enough, maybe, to read about wanting to kill somebody.

NL: Do you have any suggestions for younger or up-and-coming writers?

MK: Nothing that anybody hasn´t said before. I felt like I really learned the hard way that I should just write the thing that´s right in front of me. It took a long time for me to realize what I felt I ought to write about. They were bad things and they were pretty close to me, but not really close to me. I felt like there really wasn´t anything else I knew about, so I might as well try that.

When I first started writing, I had a much more arrogant attitude, like what I know about is important. I lost that for awhile. I feel lately, again, a little more emboldened to just say, I´m not living in Iraq but I still feel profound things happening in my life every minute and they´re worth making notes on, and if I lay it all out on the table I might see the shape of something here.

NL: To me that´s what makes Sam the Cat such an interesting collection, you know: it´s the small details. It´s not only the arc of the plot, it´s really the small details along the way that catch the reader.

MK: Thanks. It´s not a big plotty thing there at all.

NL: Last and most important question of all: Is sex really “wiggly meats"?

(Both laugh)

MK: Sometimes it is, I guess. I hope it isn´t always that way, but sometimes it is.

NL: Thanks so much for your time, Matt.

MK: Thank you, Nathan.

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