Matt Carney, courtesy of the artist

Matt Carney on Reaching for the Handshake with the Void

An interview with Matt Carney, from The Write Stuff series:

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?


If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Don’t. No, I’m kidding. Well, sort of.

I work 50 hours a week at ‘real job,’ and I am ‘an artist’ in my off time. Even when I was doing the MA and MFA, I worked full time but still produced hordes of prose and poetry, did readings—I wrote two novels in 4 years, nursed the rise and fall of a reasonably intense drug addiction, got divorced, moved on, moved up, made more friends than I’ve ever had, met someone new, and hardly slept a full night. But I spend most my time doing what I have to in order to survive in San Francisco, and less time doing what I want to in order to survive as an artist.

So I would advise someone thus: be less decadent than I am, live simply and cheaply, and do the bare minimum of things you must so you may work your craft for as many hours a week as possible; be honest to the point of oversharing—at least initially; love and develop your idiosyncrasies; work for an audience of one, or maybe two if you fear god or fear death or worship a muse; accept that success and failure are illusions of ego; hold on to nothing; work as quickly as possible; accept that nobody will react very well for ten years.

I told all this advice and the lessons from grad school to a 14 year old I tutored, and now she’s a fucking boss and thrice published, recently in Rookie Magazine, so obviously my advice is not as completely as warped as I am. Look her up. She’s Angela Savage, and she’ll be greater than Zadie Smith in ten years.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I mull over this. I know I’m vain. But my honest response is that I do not consider myself successful. I’m the best writer I’ve ever been relative to myself in terms of my ability to express emotion and ride plot into the wind and that sort of shit. On the other hand, I have hundreds of pages almost nobody has ever read—not purposely, but unplaced work. I’ve demoed lots of songs I’ve yet to produce. I’ve traveled the world.

That’s not the thing though. I can’t see myself ever being satisfied—as an existential thing more than a craft thing. I finished draft one of my first novel and cried tears of relief, printed the manuscript, strutted through town, drank, then needed more. It’s the same with everything in life. So I suppose even after I have my ball rolling like an avalanche, I’ll still be reaching for the handshake with the void.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

Hell yeah. I like my family history. My mom’s folks came from El Salvador when my grandma was pregnant with her, and their great-grandfolks were Basque. Some of my dad’s people fled the potato famine, others fled the sarcasm in England. Few Hernandez or Carney have been anything other than laborers, mechanics, soldiers, charlatan doctors, drug dealers, musicians, writers, though I heard that Urioste from Basque fared better and may have even been fencing aristocrats.

But my favorite ancestor is Carney. He was just called Carney—he was actually born Rufus Carney sometime in the 1890s, but knew immediately it was a shit given name and continued in life as only Carney.

My favorite story about Carney is from his time in the army before he left to fight in Europe. He was stationed at a fort in Texas. He was asked one day to deliver an urgent cable by horseback—the telegraph lines were down, and so he needed to ride hard for 20 hours to another fort. You’ve surely visited Texas in the summer; by the evening, the insects were eating both Carney and his horse alive, and riding through the bush and swamps, it was getting worse and he was feeling faint. He found a livery—nobody was there, so he broke in, opened a barrel of axle grease, and doused both himself and the horse.

The soldiers drew rifles on him for a moment only before Carney rode into the fort and they recognized he was a soldier and horse covered completely in a skin of axel grease and thousands of dead insects. Then he dismounted, delivered the letter from his satchel, and washed his hands in the well to roll and very carefully smoke a cigarette.

So that was Carney. He fought afterwards in the Battle of Somme, but never told my grandpa, or anyone, how he survived. He died in San Francisco in his late 30s of alcohol.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I believe I wanted to be a deposed and mad cybernetic rock star aristocrat marooned on Earth. A few years later, I realized what that meant all along is I actually wanted to be ’76 and ’77 David Bowie.

And truth be told, even as a life long reader of proper writers, I’ve learned more about process and how to be an artist and how to be a man from studying Bowie than from studying anyone else—most of the ethos behind my craft and my work ethic comes from his. It truly broke my heart when he passed. Like losing a mentor or some figure like that. I hadn’t written a thing until this month.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Do I count the cash in my hollowed out books or not? I’m not even kidding about that. At the moment I have more money than I know what to do with, yet refuse to pay off my student debt.

What’s wrong with society today?

Too much ego and not enough empathy, especially for perceived enemies. Each tribe is the center of the universe and we’re fucking slaughtering each other.

What is your fondest memory?

Life has been colorful. There are many things I’ve really liked. I really enjoyed singing covers in bars and being hit on by strangers. But I should say I met Ray Bradbury before he died and had a conversation with him. He gave a talk at my college to a packed auditorium. After, a professor and friend called me and said, Matt, there’s a dinner at a faculty house, Bradbury is there. I can bring one person.

Full grown folks were afraid to talk to him, hovering around the dining room looking at him while not looking at him. The strongest intellects and most stalwart pedants of Whittier were hugging the walls giving me wide eyes like, holy good night fuck this is crazy what do I do hello. Bradbury lounged alone in his wheel chair nodding at the room with a self-satisfied smile. So being in my 20s, impetuous, dumb and very high, I walked up to him with nothing to say. Well, how’s it going, my name is Matt Carney, gee man I loved Fahrenheit, loved your speech, that bit about Alexandria and the Great Lighthouse, that bit about the circus and electricity, and I think we’ve got an intellectual savior fetish, and this is American Exodus… he was sort of squinting at me. Then he pointed to his ears, shrugged, and grinned. I can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying, he said. Then he shook my hand and we both laughed.

A crying freshman knelt before him with some others and confessed that he’d totally remade his world through art and such. And Bradbury kept smiling smugly and nodding until he quite suddenly put his hand on the kid’s forehead—live forever! he shouted—and he pushed the kid back and the entire dinner party cheered. I knew that kid was chosen, then, and I’d be locked up in a tower someplace years later chasing crow feathers from caps as I do.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

How many times do I jeer and glance with a smile away from death each day?

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

For humanity to discover life on another world. It’s important. It’s not just some scientific curiosity. Confirming that life exists elsewhere is of crucial importance to our consciousness as a society. See the way we ‘other?’ It’s easy to believe we have nothing in common only because our histories seem relatively disparate—they are. But only for now. The context of our existence hasn’t changed much. Identity is relative and potent. When a critical mass of folks recognize and accept that humanity is very small, but still worthy and that it’s okay, and that grander civilizations and species have already lived and died a thousand times, the way we produce identities will fundamentally change. So I believe it is a discovery crucial to actualizing a just and progressive society.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Nothing is necessary, but things happen constantly. To make art is an instinct as strong as desire. Art is the byproduct of sentient fidgeting like sex is the byproduct of biological fanaticism. But there is no inherent meaning to it I’m afraid. I don’t ask why I desire what I do, or why I make what I do—in sex, it’s the surest way to lose focus. Art is the same way. Pardon my nihilism. I guess I’m quite a hedonist these days.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

Well. It’s hard to answer that because it’s different with everyone I’ve ever slept with. It would be terribly boring if I only did one thing or one set of things, don’t you think? I do think it’s in my nature to reflect or react from what people offer. So I find it thrilling to figure out what gets someone off—if I may be forward—figure out what gets someone off, and to ease into twice as much of whatever that is than either of us expected. I’m very open-minded. I like long nights and champagne. I like to alternate between slow lingering and fever pitch. I don’t rest very much. Once I get comfortable, and usually after a few drinks, I sometimes get a little bossy. Firm, but fair. Overall I still think I’m a gentleman most of the time.

Related note, and I’m sad we even have to talk about this, but I believe consent is the only law in the world, and if you’ve got even half a fucking brain and one eye and a good heart, you will know if what you do is working or not by reading your partner’s body. And you can also just talk about it and ask. End game.

What are you working on right now?

I’m editing my two novels while searching for an agent, plus sending out short stories. One novel is called Igniograph, wherein two losers in San Francisco drift apart after one witnesses the death of his love interest by a new terrorist weapon: an exploding book. The other novel is called Descendants, a satire and alternate history which explores the aftermath of World War III, where men (Americans) are actually from Mars and women (Soviets) are actually from Venus.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?


What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

I was once on LSD with a girl I knew from the internet and known ten years but never met until then—I’m from the LiveJournal generation—and we walked to the only open seats in the back of the bus, and there she started screaming because two human molars were sitting in red and gold liquid on the seat, and the other riders smirked or looked away with sadness. Once I took acid with an astrophysicist from NASA, she was beautiful, and it was a good date, but that was different. The tooth thing is the strangest thing I’m willing to mention, I suppose. On the other hand, I grew up in the golden age of the internet, where one would use LimeWire to find music videos and porn MPEGS only to open them and discover in reality a video of someone guzzling vomit or a soldier having his throat cut. So really I have no idea. It was a bad answer. Sorry to mention those. The world is strange and cruel, I guess.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Coffee. Anise. And I realize how this sounds, but a lover’s neck smells nice too.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

To die colonizing Proxima B.

Here to read all The Write Stuff profiles; here to watch all the videos