Matt Leibel on Reading Eclectically, Recklessly, Idiosyncratically
An interview with Matt Leibel from The Write Stuff series:
Matt Leibel’s short fiction has been published in Electric Literature, Portland Review, Carolina Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Wigleaf, and Sparkle & Blink. He also has work forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2020. He lives in San Francisco where he works as a copywriter. He has performed his writing in backyards, bars, yoga studios, sporting goods stores, cosmetics stores, and at a police station, and he misses live reading events very much.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I usually tell them I’m a writer, which is followed by a somewhat labored explanation of my bifurcated writerly existence, between the marketing copy I write for money and the weird little stories about dreams and stuff I write for…not-money.
But maybe next time I’ll feed them this food-for-thought from Alain de Botton: “It turns out that being asked what we do, we’re being asked what we are worth—and more precisely, whether we are worth knowing.”
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Staying focused on…wait, what was the question?
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I’m listening to a biography of Bruce Lee right now, and I must admit the idea of having disciples like he did sounds extremely cool. Unfortunately I lack quick reflexes or Fists of Fury or other generalized ass-kicking skills, so I would have to rely on my ability to jab and parry with words to impress potential acolytes. To whatever extent I have writing ability, it’s because I love to read eclectically, recklessly, idiosyncratically. So I’d probably start by suggesting a pile of weird books that they could read, or smash with their fists, depending on preference.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
I do have a decent amount of formalized writing education, but I’m not convinced education and “the real world” are mortal opposites that need to go up against each other in some Godzilla vs The Smog Monster or MFA vs. NYC sort of way. I got my MFA in St. Louis, and I definitely got a lot of real world education in the time I was there in a city that complicated, fraught, and full of contradictions. Also an amazing town for hot wings and frozen custard, but feel like we’re getting off topic now.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
In 35 years, the founder of a literary series you will have participated in will ask you a series of interview questions. I’m going to Slack them back in time to you, younger me, so you’ll have 35 years to prepare and make your answers really, really awesome. Just crushingly good. Look, I don’t have time to explain Slack to you, or how I created a “past selves” channel on the app so I could chat with my earlier incarnations, or even how the hell you’re supposed to own an internet-enabled mobile device in 1985. Just imagine this is some kind of Back To The Future time warp and get on with it.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
As Paul Westerberg once sang, “God what a mess, on the ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.” By the standards of the elaborate series of imagined accomplishments I mapped out for myself at 25, which I cringe at now, maybe not. But I’ve learned—no, let’s be real, I’m still learning—to prize small victories. To give them outsized importance and blow them up huge enough to make the failures—which are of course super-useful in their own right—seem minor by comparison.
Why do you get up every morning?
Because hibernation is not an option.
What’s wrong with society today?
The loudest voices tend to drown out the wisest ones.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
Mostly to places I can’t easily go right now. Meantime, to this YouTube video of Japanese mascots playing tennis.
What is your fondest memory?
So many are travel-related: I seem to need distance to hoard memories. Randomly appearing on a flood relief telethon in China. Early morning roosters and prayer calls in Bangladesh. Bouncing from motel to motel across the midwest with a friend on a tour of Major League baseball stadiums—remembering the comfort of the continental breakfasts the motel chain we stayed at would leave outside our door each morning, as well as drunkenly heckling an outfielder in Detroit. A long-ago day in Sydney spent with a stranger I asked to take my picture in front of the Opera House—exploring aimlessly, sitting in a beached rowboat, then crashing a fancy beach wedding. Having the bonkers opportunity to walk on sea-ice in the Antarctic on maybe one of the last cruises ever, and to be able to share that experience with my mom. An alleyway of amazing graffiti art in Reykjavik, the most underrated street art town in the world.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Everything seems so provisional right now and time itself has become such a weird shape-shifty animal that I’m regarding each day as its own self-contained mini-lifetime. And in this lifetime, I’d love to finish writing these responses in a way that makes me happy and which makes readers think they’re not wasting their time (too much).
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
For me, art is a lot about permission. Permission to be transgressive or just plain weird that I don’t always give myself (for both good and not-good reasons) in the rest of my life. I also think the permission piece can, hopefully, empower artists in a way they aren’t always empowered by society. In that way I find it pretty much base-level necessary, breathing’s trusty cerebral companion. I tend to like work that messes with form, that radically tweaks perspective, and makes me think “Damn, I didn’t know you could do that.”
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
Not to get all 2009 Nancy Meyers rom-com on you here, but: It’s Complicated.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I think a lot about the quote from one of Donald Barthelme’s narrators that “fragments are the only form I trust.” I thought of this line again recently reading Jenny Offill’s new book Weather. (From which I thought a lot about this quote: “Young person: What if nothing I do matters? Old person: What if everything I do does?”)
I’ve been writing 420-character microstories since 2012. I have nearly 1100 of these, have published about 30, and have a manuscript (or two) of them. Also, an ongoing series of imagined airline pilot announcements called “The Cockpit Monologues.” Plus other assorted stories of varying lengths, and presumably, quality.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Everyone who needs a roof over their head should have a roof over their head.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
I do miss readings. I miss live music. I miss experiences that feel alive, like theater or not-too-crowded dive bars. I even miss sitting in movie theaters and seething at the person in front of me who keeps checking their phone. I miss the feeling of going out, and the feeling of coming back from going out. I miss deciding not to go out, rather than having it decided for me.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
A quick search reminds me that there was a character on Scooby-Doo named “Vincent Van Ghoul”, and I now have no idea why a ghost would choose any other name. Also, sticking with Scooby-Doo for a sec: Scooby’s catchphrase is “Scooby-Dooby-Doo!” Which is weirdly self-referential, but somehow doesn’t grate in the way that other speaking-of-themselves-in-third-person offenders, such as politicians and athletes we all could easily name, tend to. (Did you know there’s a term for people doing this? It’s called illeism. This is the sort of thing Matt finds interesting.)
The strangest thing I’ve seen is Lenin’s Tomb. It really feels like he’s going to rise up at any moment and break through the glass, like he did on The Simpsons.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
When I was a kid, nobody told me I was good looking. I wish they had. I would have had a better time. (Oh, no wait—sorry, that’s not actually my life lesson, it’s Robert Redford’s from the “What I’ve Learned” column in Esquire from 2010!)
What are some of your favorite smells?
There’s this company in Portugal called Viarco that makes scented pencils that are “perfumed with the nostalgic scents of the Portuguese landscape.” I have some in Flor de Laranjeira (Orange Blossom) because I love citrusy smells (especially combined with cedar) but they also have Fig, Jasmine, Peony, and Lirio de Campo (Lily of the Valley).
I also enjoy the smell of pencil shavings.