An interview with Matthew Clark Davison from The Write Stuff series:
Matthew Clark Davison‘s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, will be published in Summer 2021 by Amble Press. He is creator and teacher of The Lab :: Writing Classes with MCD, a non-academic school started in 2007 in a friend’s living room on Douglass Street.The textbook version of The Lab, co-authored by bestselling writer Alice LaPlante, will be published by Norton in 2022. His prose has been recently anthologized in Empty The Pews (Epiphany Publishing) and 580-Split; and published in or on The Advocate, Exquisite Pandemic, Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Lumina Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Per Contra, Educe, and others; and has been recognized with a Creative Work Grant, Cultural Equities Grant. Clark Gross Award for a Novel-in-Progress, and a Stonewall Alumni Award.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Teach is usually my first response. Write usually only in follow-ups because they ask what and what follows feels awkward. I lived in Italy for a couple of years and this question rarely came up first (if at all), and I dug socializing with people whose work lives remained unknown, so when I returned to The States, I started asking others: “What keeps you busy?” instead of what do you do?
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Spiritually: knowing when it is or is not my turn.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Do it! But don’t place monetary rewards or material possessions or external validation in the top ten things you value.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
Loved my MFA, but the school of hard knocks taught me to see the world as an artist must. AIDS, specifically. The period when my community was most affected taught me how vulnerable we all are and to question what’s generally asserted as general truth.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
You can say “no.”
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. Because I’m alive and because I managed some happiness long before I had any semblance of material or career success. I realize that’s really something in this nutty culture.
Why do you get up every morning?
There’s so much to read! And, of course, coffee. Oh, and I have a view of the sunrise from my place in Oakland.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
I love both my late grandmothers so much, but I’m thinking of Katherine Clark, known as Katie-Belle, my mom’s mom, because she, like me, had to drop out of school for a variety of reasons. She got through fourth grade before she left to work as a farm hand (where she met my grandfather). She was 4’11’’ but in her own ways, mighty; and had lots of struggles. She pieced together a life for herself that included a lot of gratitude. She made folks laugh. She wasn’t bitter. She also “took care of old people” at the assisted-living community in her town up until she joined the party. She was 90 when she moved in.
What’s wrong with society today?
I don’t know how to answer that one, but I can say I wish we listened to each other more. I was with my husband in Germany, where he was born and raised, and there were people on the television talking, letting the other complete their sentences. It seemed so boring. I understand a lot of German, but I really couldn’t follow the show. I asked what the hell it was: he said a political debate. I said, “Why aren’t they screaming at each other?” He said, “Because they’re trying to solve problems.”
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
The water. My husband. Family.
What is your fondest memory?
As a kid, after my family moved from a place I liked to one I didn’t, I found a giant bolder I could lie on at night and see thousands of stars. I have vivid memories of lying there and imagining a future something like now—at least when it comes to friends and family.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Happen? I’m not sure, but I’m eager to see what my brothers’ kids will do with their individual sets of skills.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is not something I’d ever try to define for someone else. It’s what I have instead of religion. It is necessary for me because it helps me accept what I cannot change and often gives me the courage to change the things I can.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
The older I get the more I question everything about how I’ve constructed my identity and personality. So much of it was survival. Now that I have found love and some acceptance and a bit of relative safety, I wonder about all the early sculpting that shaped Matthew.
Sex is a great metaphor. Queer sex still has the power to dismantle. In practice, it can be great, or it can flop, it can be with one person or many, someone you know or don’t. For me, it’s always related to the desire to know and be known, however futile that desire.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
Like many queer folks of my generation, I grew up using clothing as armor. People attacked the way my body moved and sounded, so I set out to move the target to the clothing. I escaped into the fantasies fashion magazines offer. Growing up, I chose clothing that drew a lot of attention, positive and negative, and I expected to be ridiculed, which helped keep negativity on the clothes and off my soul. Now I appreciate the artistry and craft of well-made clothing, even though the stuff that really excites me is beyond my budget. And my shoes? Shiny. I’m less extravagant in my general wardrobe these days but I’m always a party from the ankles down.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I’m working on a textbook called The Lab encouraging folks to write across genre, to experiment; a memoir about so-called failure; and a final revision of a novel I originally wrote years ago.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I share the many opinions with others who’ve chimed in on the subject, so I won’t repeat what I’ve heard and instead just add this: that it wasn’t so hard for my family and in-laws to visit.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
I go out when I travel; and love theater and lectures and readings and films all that good stuff, but when home, mostly I like having people over for RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I used to see my dead friend Richard everywhere in a very Calvino/Invisible Cities way. It wasn’t him, but he’d inhabit others, and I’d see his face in the faces of others or in others’ gestures. It stopped years ago but then happened again, once, the first time I went to Paris. My friend Chuck, also dead, has been whispering in my ear with his mothering North Carolina accent (just like when he was alive) since he died in 1991. But no. I’ve never seen a ghost and I’ve seen so many strange things I can’t decide which is strangest.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
Life lesson? Forgive.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
I could easily make a dinner for 10 on $50 that would cost $50 per person for in a restaurant in SF.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Gasoline. Bleach. Nail polish. The ones delivered by fumes. They don’t like me as much as I like them, however.
What are you unable to live without?
My friend Rick has known me for 2/3 of my life and he thinks that I get as much pleasure from quitting things as others do in indulging in them, so I’ve tested almost all the things I used to think I can’t live without. Turns out, I can. The huz would disagree. He’d say, “coffee and me.” Don’t tell him that I’ve lived without both for many years. Just agree with him.
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
To get all of my living relatives together for a big party. The location doesn’t matter, though near water is always nice and I want there to be a huge round table with a lazy susan in the middle where I can bring giant bowls of food to them.