Uncomfortable Stories: Matthew Quick Tells Courtney C. Stevens About His New Novel

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Matthew Quick’s The Reason You’re Alive sits up front on the staff-picks shelf at Parnassus — as has every adult book he has written since The Silver Linings Playbook. In this new novel, Quick applies his trademark mix of poignancy and humor to unpack the history of an outspoken Vietnam veteran named David Granger, who’s searching for resolution to some burning questions after undergoing brain surgery. BookPage calls the story a “scorching family drama” and its narrator what you’d get “if Holden Caulfield grew up to be a reflective, even soulful, Archie Bunker.”

We hope you’ll join us on Thursday, July 20, when Quick will read from and discuss The Reason You’re Alive. In the meantime, fellow novelist Courtney C. Stevens interviewed Quick to find out more about how he envisioned Granger’s story. Here’s their conversation:

CS: David Granger is patriotic, he’s opinionated, he’s damaged. Tell me about crafting this man and bringing him to life on the page.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 11.33.43 AMMQ: I was raised by conservative Christians. When I was eighteen, my grandfather — a WWII veteran who never graduated from college — told me that I needed a college degree, but that I shouldn’t believe any of what college professors would teach me, because they were liars. At first, it was a baffling message. When everyone I met at college and grad school — professors, visiting writers, classmates, friends — turned out to be the political opposite of my grandfather, I understood what frightened him. Regardless, my worldview changed radically.

When I started sending out my fiction, in my 20s, my Uncle Pete — an outspoken Vietnam vet — emerged as an unlikely cheerleader. He was a man who owned guns, wore camouflage regularly, and frequented the VA. Other than Tim O’Brien, Uncle Pete and I seldom reached for the same reading material. And yet, Pete was the first to read my novels whenever they came out, even the young adult books. And he would often give me practical bits of advice about life and business and finances that — in roundabout ways — helped me become the fiction writer I am today.

Most of my friends and business associates are liberal-minded. But my past was highly influenced by conservative war veterans. Time and again, I find myself somewhere in between these two worlds. And, in many ways, The Reason You’re Alive is an attempt to make a bridge.

CS: The voice is exquisite and consistent and familiar, all while feeling fresh and raw. I’m guessing every reader of The Reason You’re Alive will point to someone we’ve met who has opinions akin to David Granger’s. Those opinions can sometimes feel radical — they may make particular readers uncomfortable. But one of my favorite things about David Granger is his obvious humanity and humility. Will you talk about layering that humanity via his experiences with war, family, and community? 

MQ: At least one reviewer has called my latest “subversive.” And I think stories should make us uncomfortable from time to time. If we only read novels filled with characters who are exactly like us, we will never learn anything. The old writing rule of “disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed” comes to mind here. We all have radical thoughts. Much of what we think is never expressed because we are taught to self-censor. David Granger was always audacious, but after brain surgery he is even more so. His humanity emerges, in my opinion, because throughout the narrative he always tells his truth. He shows us his absolute worst, which makes us believe him when he shares the best of what is in his mind and heart. Increasingly, we live in a culture that punishes people for expressing their thoughts and telling their truths. I think we’d do well to ask why opinions exist, before we shame people into silence. David says many things that I personally don’t agree with, but it was illuminating to mine the origins of those thoughts.

No surprise: The Reason You’re Alive has already been optioned for film.

CS: I grew up among men who knew how to salute. They had flags in their front yards, never wanted to taste Spam again, and requested fresh eggs every post-war morning until they died. They were often tight-lipped about the nitty gritty of war and verbose when it came to brotherhood and patriotism. I saw their legacies in David. At one point he says, “I’ve got to thinking that maybe our protecting you from the truths we soldiers have lived for decades hasn’t really done us — or you, for that matter — many favors.” Will you talk some about the sheer bravery it takes for veterans to be vulnerable with their war stories? Especially those related to Vietnam?

MQ: I’ve listened to many people who have never been to war express opinions about it, and it’s always hard for me to weigh their words against those of family members who have actually experienced war firsthand. My grandfather’s pain contradicted what school books had to say about WWII. I remember shivering whenever he said the day the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Japan was the best day of his life, because it meant he personally didn’t have to invade Japan. Invading meant almost certain death for him, which would have meant I would not be here right now. It’s hard to weigh that against all the Japanese deaths and post-bomb horrors.

My Uncle Pete started telling me horrific Vietnam war stories when I was in my early 20s. He would stop by my house, saying he wanted to check up on me, and would inevitably begin to talk about Vietnam. These were not stories I wanted to hear, especially after a long day of teaching. Pete would also corner me at weddings and Christmas parties, and while the rest of the family was dancing and laughing and opening presents, he’d be showing me weapons, or discussing what the family would do if the Russians (or later the jihadists) invaded Philadelphia. It was almost as if he didn’t think we were allowed to just celebrate and be happy. That we had to be vigilant. And yet, no one was listening. No one understood. He’d often say I would never understand, even as he was trying his best to explain it to me. And yet I listened for decades, never quite sure what I was supposed to do with the information.

Many people are only interested in stories that will confirm what they already believe, or the political narrative they have already bought. I’ve certainly wanted to be that person in the past, because it’s much easier than taking on a war veteran’s inconsolable pain.

CS: Although David never specifically related his banking experience to his life experience, there is a theme of settling accounts and living a life with a ledger in the black.  He carries guilt from the war and suspects his actions there (although deemed honorable by the Army) have led to some of the tragedies in his post-war personal life. Do you believe it is human nature to blame present consequence on past behavior (even when they appear wildly unrelated) or is it specific to combat men and women?  

MQ: I’ve heard others say that the human mind is a meaning-making machine. We like narratives. We like there to be a beginning, middle, and end. We like “if this, then that” thinking. Storytellers reinforce (and exploit) this need, of course.

A friend of mine was recently talking about karma and he said no matter what we believe, the choices we make create memories that alter the software in our brains, which, of course, impacts future decisions and behaviors. If you think about karma that way, it doesn’t take faith to see that your future will definitely be affected both positively and negatively by your present and past. Another friend of mine was recently diagnosed with PTSD, but he has never been to war. The trauma was childhood abuse, so it’s definitely not specific to combat men and women.

CS: I have to tell you, I was delighted by the arc of this book. I even found tears in my eyes at one big moment. I won’t spoil The Reason You’re Alive for a single reader, but I will ask, when you were drafting, did you know the full spectrum of redemption and atonement, failure and success, you would give to David Granger as he walked these pages? Or did some of that emerge along the way? 

MQ: This was the first book I sold without actually writing it first. I submitted a two-page pitch to HarperCollins, which required me to map out the story arc before I began writing it. I knew how it would end before I wrote word one. This is definitely not how I usually work.

Matthew Quick will discuss and sign his new book at Parnassus Books on Thursday, July 20, at 6:30 p.m. This event is open to the public and free to attend!

CS: Because writers of contemporary or literary fiction often have personal on-ramps to narrative, we are frequently mistaken for our main characters or are assumed to be writing quasi-memoirs with our novels. But I know David Granger is not you nor is he your Uncle Pete (to whom the book is dedicated). Can you talk about your on-ramp to The Reason You’re Alive and if there were places where non-fiction inspired fiction?

MQ: A reporter recently asked if this book were fiction. It’s a novel, so by definition it is. He then asked, in what I felt was a cheeky voice, “One-hundred percent fiction?” Later, I wished I had said, “Well, I didn’t make up the Vietnam War,” instead of just saying, “Yes,” because that yes is both true and not true. The narrative arc of the novel is 100 percent fiction. Much of what is in the book was informed by stories my grandfather and uncle told me, only I have no idea if those stories are true. The specific details of my uncle’s oft-repeated stories changed. And my grandfather’s stories were designed to protect me from the horrors he experienced, so I’m pretty sure they were exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. And then I fictionalized everything I used, so where does that leave us? I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of “real” in every novel, but obsessing over those bits maybe takes away from what the writer was trying to accomplish. We often need the mask of fiction to tell the truth. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried explains this much better than I can here.

CS: David says, “Long-term success usually comes from consistently hitting singles and doubles, not from hitting the occasional home run every so many games.” He’s talking about banking and business, but that’s a philosophy I carry into the authorial world. What about you? Is that relevant advice to the up-and-coming writers in our field? 

MQ: My Uncle Pete said this to me verbatim when I first started out as a writer. It’s since proven to be a powerful writing-life mantra. My grandfather used to say, “If you bat .300, they’ll find a spot in the lineup for you.” I often tell myself, Be grateful for the work, do the best you can in the time you are allotted, and then let go. I’m still working on that let go part, but I’m trying.

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Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 11.07.18 AMAuthor Courtney C. Stevens and Matthew Quick became friends when Quick visited Nashville to speak about his young adult novels. Stevens’ books include Faking Normal, The Blue-Haired Boy, and The Lies About Truth. Her upcoming book, Dress Codes for Small Towns, has already received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. School Library Journal describes it as: “An instant classic. This is The Perks of Being a Wallflower without the angst, for a new generation.” Stevens will sign and discuss the book here at Parnassus Books on August 25, 2017.