Earlier this year, English professors Mark Neely and Matt Mullins each released brand new books, Beasts of the Hill and Three Ways of the Saw, respectively. In honor of this wonderful achievement, we sat down with them to discuss various aspects of their new books as well as publishing, academia, and their writing inspirations. See the interview below.
Tyler Fields: Tell me a little bit about each of your books, Beasts of the Hill and Three Ways of the Saw.
Matt Mullins: Three Ways of the Saw is a collection of short stories divided into three sections. The first section focuses around a ne’er-do-well as he navigates the landscape of his Irish-Catholic family. The middle section is about a bunch of broken dislocated people trying to come to terms with the consequences of their choices. And the last section is more about echoes and losses and the remnants of things left behind. In terms of how the book came together, it was written over a number of years – actually, about the first half of it was written maybe even as far back as ten years ago and some of them are much more recent.
Mark Neely: Beasts of the Hill is basically split between prose poems and shorter lyric poems. There are a couple of things in there I wrote up to ten years ago, and the latest poems were from about two years ago, so I guess it took me eight years to write (though I was working on other things of course). I’d been sending out the manuscript for about five years, about two years in its current form. It was a frustrating process, but I would have had some regrets if it was published five years ago when I first started submitting it, so in the end I was happy it took a little longer to get published. If I could have hand-picked a press to publish this book, Oberlin would have been at the top of my list, so everything worked out beautifully, although while I was trying to get it out there it seemed like a struggle.
Mark, you mentioned about a three-year difference between the book you wanted in the world versus the book you might have rushed into. Do either of you have experience with this rush to publish or have advice for students or new writers beginning to send out their work?
Neely: I would say almost every writer does that; it’s really hard to avoid. There’s that old saying about keeping a piece of writing in a drawer for five years. But in the Internet age people don’t have drawers that stay closed for five years. So I think things have sped up quite a bit. I’ve certainly sent stuff out that wasn’t ready, and I think that’s part of the process. I also think that’s why these competitive literary magazines are good for authors because they say, “this isn’t ready. I reject this.” And that can be a favor. That can really make your work better. Rejection can just be a way of saying, “you haven’t worked on this long enough, you haven’t thought about this long enough.” Everyone’s probably going to publish some work that they look back on five years later and say, “I don’t love that.” So to rush into publication can actually be a waste of time. I’m getting better about that. I’m much more careful. I will actually put things away for months or a year. I got this fortune cookie once, and it said, “Patience is the key to joy.” And it’s true as a writer. This is not a business for immediate gratification. It’s the act of working hard on something for a long time until you’re proud of it.
Mullins: That’s good advice. Once you finish something, you feel this initial rush of satisfaction: “It’s done, it’s ready, there’s nothing else I can do, I need to send it out there…” So sometimes you do and especially like Mark was saying, in the age of the Internet when all you have to do is slap it on to an email and send it out, it’s a lot different than having to go through the old process. But on another level, too, it’s like when I would send something out too soon, not knowing that it was too soon, and it would go away for a while, and I wouldn’t be thinking about it, and then it would come back rejected–it would make me revise it. I think the main message is just to get away from it somehow. If it involves either sending it out or putting it in the drawer. Because once you finish it, you can’t re-see it until you’ve stepped away from it for a while. This actually relates back to my collection of short stories: I’m a notorious reviser, reviser, reviser. The stories in that collection, I’ve reworked them over and over, and I’ve worked them from the story level all the way down to the sentence level. And half those stories have been published in literary magazines, and it’s not the first draft of the early ones that got published. I think later the first draft of some stories got taken because you get a sense of what you’re doing that’s more intuitive. I think when you’ve been at it for long enough, it’s like a painter or sculptor or screenwriter in that you understand the mechanics of things in an intuitive way that allows you to get to them really quickly, whereas when you’re kind of starting out as a writer you have to really hack away at it and find the shape of it and once you understand what the shape of it is you can grab it more quickly. Though every story is sometimes still a struggle, you’ve got to carve away at the block and see what’s there.
Matt, you’ve gained a bit of a reputation for “nontraditional” creative work. Can you talk a bit about how this new publication qualifies or differs from this definition?
Mullins: In this book, there’s a wide variety of writing styles. There’s flash fiction, and then there’s relatively long short stories. Some are very traditional narratives, and others are syntaxically experimental. I draw inspiration from all sources: from music, from visual images, from language itself, from life experience. When I write, a certain thing happens where the world falls away and the “film” begins to roll. You’re in the scene, you’re watching the characters, things like that… And that’s all at the heart of the process. In the end, it’s all based on visual images. There’s something going on with Plato’s theory of the form, and the difference between the idea of the thing, the word itself, and what you see in your mind. There are all these layers of translation that happen, and that is the most fascinating thing for me about literature and language-based art: screenwriting, film, fiction. In digital technologies, it’s like the word becomes three dimensional. You can grab it and touch it, and its concepts can explode in your mind in different ways. And that’s at the heart of everything that I do. I think there’s something three dimensional going on that I’m wrestling with and trying to figure out.
Mark, your book is the recipient of the Field Poetry Prize. Congratulations! Can you discuss that prize and how you found out about it.
Neely: Many first books of poetry are published through the contest system. I submitted this manuscript for the Field Poetry Prize in May, along with 400-plus other people, and they called me the first week of August. Actually, I was on the disc golf course with Matt and Sean Lovelace. I got the call, and it was David Young, who is a poet I’ve been reading for 15 years, and the minute he said his name I knew this had to be some seriously good news. He told me I won and I was pretty much in shock, so I can’t really tell you a lot about what he said, but that’s how I found out. That was about the first week of August and then until about December we were working on the book, the cover, the proofs, editing poems, going back and forth, and trying to make it as good as possible.
I understand that this question comes up often, but I’m sure many readers (students especially) would love to hear about your publication process. Specifically with these books.
Neely: The publication process is actually one reason I really enjoyed working with this press. I’ve known people who have worked with bigger presses, and they had little to no say about what the book looked like. But I was basically working with three people the entire time including the book designer, and they collaborated with me through the whole process which I loved. The cover of the book is actually a painting by my father-in-law. We had gone through various images, and we couldn’t get one that looked quite right until I sent them that one [the current cover]. My father-in-law came to Muncie to visit, and he had taken a photograph of our dog which he ended up painting. And that’s nice because I also have a personal connection to the cover.
Mullins: It was almost exactly a year. My friend had gotten his book taken by Atticus, which is a relatively new press–they started in 2010–and I was talking to him about possibly being interested in a collection of short stories. So I sent them my story, “Three Ways of the Saw,” the title piece, and they really liked it and wanted to see the manuscript, so I sat down with the stories and really looked it over because it was going to be my last chance before they were out the door. It caused me to dig into them and see them in a way that allowed me to make them the best they could be. As far as the process goes, it all went very smoothly.
In general how do you draw inspiration? For these specific books, from where did you draw inspiration?
Neely: A lot of my life is in the poems. I grew up in Illinois, and that Midwestern aesthetic is definitely something I’ve always been inspired by. I think it’s an anti- aesthetic. I like the idea of the Midwest as a blank slate, a blank canvas. I’m not a confessional poet. What interests me when I’m writing the poems is really the form, the language, that’s what’s driving it for me. I’m taking cues from sounds of words, I’m trying to think of matters of craft. Much of my inspiration comes from the work of other writers and visual artists. Often before I write I’ll pick a book from one of my stacks to read and wait until a line pops into my head. As soon as I’ve got that I go to the page. One line leads to the next line. I’m discovering where the poem is going as I’m writing.
Mulins: I’m trying to say something important about the human condition, which I think any writer is trying to do. I think what inspires me is that inside the heart of despair there’s often some kind of hope. There’s some kind of truth to living that we don’t understand, that we can’t apprehend, and the only way I ever seem to be able to put my finger on it is through art, through language. I think I often feel it most powerfully in a wordless way, and I try to access it through my writing. I take inspiration from people around me and my experiences and things like that, and this is inevitable because writers are filters. There’s just something about the idea of this unexplainable facet of the human condition and these things we can’t quite seem to put our finger on that are there but we can’t fully apprehend or explain. These ideas of loss and longing and fulfillment, those things that make us feel alive. I’m trying to pin them down. That’s why I do it.
Neely: And those ideas are very complex and there really isn’t a chance to address those issues in everyday conversation. There are some things that are so complicated that it’s difficult to ever really get your mind around them. And I think that’s what writing allows. This incredible complexity that mirrors the complexity of the world.
Mullins: It kind of distills it in a way. One of the joys that the writer has is the opportunity to participate in the distillation. The writer works through that and gets to that point where you have enabled something to speak to this larger amorphous thing that is who we are and the irony of mortality. You have to embrace that. That’s what a writer does.
–Interview conducted by Tyler Fields