Self Interview: The Next Big Thing
Big thanks to uber-essayist and all around Normal dude, Aaron Gilbreath for tagging me in this “Next Big Thing” blog-chain-thing. Next up is Matthew Gavin Frank, poet, essayist, and nonfiction editor for Passages North, as well as a contributor to our Fall 2013 issue of The Normal School.
What is the working title of your book?
I’m working on one book about Parkfield, California, the Earthquake Capital of the World, and I’ve published a couple of pieces from it in The Rumpus (here and here) but it’s a book that is still very much in-progress and harder to talk about. So for the sake of this self-interview thing, I’ll talk about the other book project that is foremost in my consciousness right now, Ultrasonic: Essays.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wrote a series of essays that all spawned from one essay, “Ultrasonic,” an essay published in Fourth Genre 2009 that I think of as a “constrained essay,” or an “assignment essay.” I rarely know where I’m going with a particular essay and sometimes I have to give myself a direction. Sometimes I have to limit that direction. So I basically gave myself an assignment with constraints. Every time I sat down I was going to write about either “blue” or “noise.” This idea came, I think, from my interest in trying to understand a rekindled love of racquetball. Or it came from beer. I’m not sure. I was trying to write about the “blue noise” of racquetball but do it in a way that allowed me to explore some of the emotional territory of being a father to a daughter. I don’t think that makes much sense, honestly, but I don’t really care. That’s how it started. And I can’t explain it any better than that. So from that spawned the first three essays (“Auscultation,” “All of a Dither,” and “Ultrasonic,” and a short piece, “Lag Time,” that was published in Brevity and a later piece “Speaking of Ears and Savagery,” that was in the Fall 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. The book sort of took on sound as subject, source, and form, operating to create connections through what I think of as echolocation, where the book is unified by the pings or echoes of recurring ideas that resonate throughout the book.
What genre does your book fall under?
Well, I suppose the genre is nonfiction and the form is a collection of essays. I tried for a while to make the book into something more like a unified, linear memoir, but it didn’t work. I ruined the pieces as essays and made a half-assed attempt at memoir. It sucked. And I pretty much scrapped that idea. So I’m happy to call them essays because I like them as such. I think these are some of the best things I’ve written and to tear them down and rework them into something else just seemed wrong. It killed their charmingly unruly essay personalities.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Puppets or chimpanzees in diapers and funny hats with voice-over narration done by Bob Edwards, former host of NPR’s Morning Edition.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
"Ultrasonic: Essays is an idiosyncratic meditation on fatherhood, fear, and violence through the lens of sound.”
Either that, or just, “Ultrasonic: Essays is a book about you.”
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It often takes me 2-3 years to write one essay that I feel really happy about sending out. It takes a while for the ideas to develop and find their focus. Most of the pieces in Ultrasonic were written between about 2007 and 2010, and I’ve spent the last three years or so trying to get them into something resembling the shape of a book.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m going to combine these two questions because I think they’re sort of asking the same thing. Two writers, Bernard Cooper and Lia Purpura, and their books, Maps to Anywhere and On Looking, were very influential in the style and form of Ultrasonic, but I’m not sure I would have the audacity to compare my book to their books. Those are brilliant and beautiful books that mean a great deal to a lot of people.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
In the book I have an essay about the music our government uses to torture people and another very long and strange essay that was in the Fall, 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction wherein I basically defend Mike Tyson for biting off a large portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear. I also talk about Travis the psychotic chimpanzee and my infant daughter. There are trapped miners, endurance runners, racquetball, Elvis, a drowning, Blue Velvet, metal music, and lots of dark stuff—all in a book ostensibly about fatherhood.
When and how will it be published?