Conversations with the Bookless: Matthew Funk

On a personal note Matthew Funk is one of my favorite writers out there on the short fiction scene. There is a select group of writers that I will drop everything to go read something new of and his name is among them. More broadly he is one of the premier stylists working in crime short fiction right now.

A recent story of his, She Took in Silence, puts an updated crime fiction twist on Shirley Jackson’s classic the story “The Lottery” and also, arguably, shares thematic territory with the story “Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford. Like Ford’s story there is an interesting moment in the story when the readers experiences and expectations get flipped and those that we thought were victims actually have more power than the reader previously realized.

Clearly, based off of the answers below, Funk puts the entirety of his being and a lot of thought into every sentence that he constructs and what I love is that it shows in the final product.

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?

I’m on the concrete patio of Starbucks on Seventeenth Street and Grand in Santa Ana, CA. It’s where I’ve written almost every work in the last three years. Stuck in a seamy neighborhood and central to the city’s concentration of halfway houses, homeless dives and drug dens, it’s a good office for my kind of work. There’s a robust diet of isolation and inspiration here, not to mention some of the strongest caffeine in Creation.

Who are your influences and what is your unlikeliest influence?

The writers who influenced my style and philosophy most would be Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahnuik and Jack Kerouac. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard also deserve a nod, because they’ve done more than anyone to force feed my vocabulary. I also aspire to be as successful at disassembled narrative as Burroughs and at dismal narrative as Hubert Selby Jr. I’ve been enthralled to the ideal of the outlaw writer since I first discovered the cadre above. They challenge my skills, set the standard for themes in my work and inform my code of personal conduct.

As for the unlikeliest influence, a pair of authors comes to mind—Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who wrote the Dragonlance series. I read them at an early age and have never shaken the passion and potential for world-building that they stoked in me. The cosmos their books crafted was both ornate in detail and immediately accessible. That inspires me to shape a universe for my fiction that goes beyond the borders of a single story. I view my stories as facets of a far larger whole.

Why do you write?

I write to illuminate the darkness.

If there’s a better way of putting it, it doesn’t come to mind—that encapsulates all my motives. I write because there’s a part of me that craves control over the void of existence and wants to give shape to it. I write to educate. I write to inspire an emotional effect in the undefined other of the reader. I write so that people can see inside the shunned, the sad and the monstrous so that they’ll realize it’s not so different from them after all. I write out of a sense of duty to the darker forms of human experience.

So in sum, I write because night comes over everyone, and thought is the best torch we have to give shape to the dark.

What issues or ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?

The heroic cycle—what Joseph Campbell calls “The Hero’s Journey”—and how people identify with it. Protagonists in any good story undergo a transformation of character and much of a story’s appeal to a readership is based on how successful the story is at making the reader connect with this transformation. My objective is to write a story with a wide appeal that still satisfies the artistic sentiments and deeper themes that I want to convey. This has made me think on what parts of a hero and his or her journey would be identifiable and what parts would be too foreign.

Without rambling too long about my thoughts on the Hero’s Journey, I’ll note that some of my past work loses readership because its heroes are too horrid for most people to connect with. There’s a magnetism to monstrosity, but there’s a limit to how many readers can be drawn close to it. I now want many readers to be very close to my characters, and so I’ve been investigating common themes in the most popular hero types throughout storytelling’s history to see what it is that has both dramatic significance and broad appeal.

My conclusion so far is that a lot of the heroic model boils down to adolescent power fantasy with just enough maturity to make people feel they’re not being complete geeks. I doubt I’ll be writing an undiluted devotional to the formula of “let’s fuck hot babes and kill aliens to save the world” we see in 24, Avatar and many popular thrillers. I will be writing a commentary on that kind of hero, though.

When did you start writing and what prompted you to do so?

I wrote my first story at around the age of eight. It was about a lighthouse keeper whose home was plagued by nightly visits from a destructive beast. In the end of the story, it was revealed that the lighthouse keeper was the beast—an unwitting werewolf.

As for what prompted me to do so, I don’t really recall. Probably just adoration of storytelling and a desire to externalize some of the hidden darkness I felt was pervading my days at the time. Much of my fiction is inspired by hearing a story and reflexively imagining a way that I could apply it to something else I’m inspired by. I think as much is true for most writers. Put in those terms, it sounds like we’re all fan fiction writers: We come up with our ideas by combining ideas we’ve absorbed. The old adage that states “there are no new ideas” is true to an extent, but only in that all methods of evolution work on the same basic principle—two existing things combine and produce a slightly different thing or a mutant. Biology, technology, society—they all evolve the same way. My aim is to produce as many mutants as possible.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?

I most value courage. That can be the bravery to demolish the conventions of storytelling and to craft a narrative in a fresh way that provokes new ways of thinking. It can also be the courage to write about notions that readers would otherwise avoid.

I like my fiction viral: Infectious, mutated and diseased.

How would you describe your style?

My current style aims to be spare and potent. I am highly selective about the words I use and the shape on the page that they take. The often-overlooked potential of paragraph formatting and punctuation fascinates me. I am also in an enduring affair with the fertility of verbs. Ambiguity in a descriptive term for an action can convey more than a whole string of modifiers. I think a great deal about what a word might say to a reader without directly defining it. That’s why I tend to binge on a wide spectrum of poetry before writing a large project.

My style used to be effusive and grotesque. I wanted to submerge people in an ocean of prose. It took awhile for me to stop flexing my muscular vocabulary, settle down and give people more impact per line. Less is definitely more when it comes to storytelling.

What’s your favorite story written by someone else?

Does The Iliad count? Given that its authorship has a controversial identity, I’m not sure if it qualifies as a “someone.” It has all the themes and elements I enjoy most, though: A grand metaphysical awareness coupled with a gritty realism founded in human routine; a spectrum of human intentions at war with an overriding sense of doom; anguish on every mortal level; heroes who are hideously monstrous; social commentary and lurid gore.

If not, then my favorite would be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. My reason being that it has all of the elements I attributed to The Iliad above—the gruesome deeds, the metaphysics, the war of identity against nothingness, the cultural criticism—and it has a tremendous degree of courage. It takes its time exploring an extremely deranged psyche and doesn’t flinch away from staring hard at the places that kind of mind takes you, both benign and malevolent. All of the works I admire have guts when it comes to displaying the human grotesque. American Psycho has them in spades.

What is the value and purpose of short fiction in mystery/crime fiction for you personally and overall for the form and genre?

Overall, the value of short mystery fiction to the genre and form would be to try to bring a sense of order out of chaos. A mystery is quintessentially an exercise in resolving and defining the unresolved and messy: You take an absence of facts and gradually construct a reasoned structure of events. You answer questions. People like questions to be answered, especially when it comes to acts of transgression, crimes, which are usually at the heart of a mystery narrative. When you accomplish this in the short fiction form, you’re crafting an even neater vision of order to a disordered event.

I think that’s one reason people enjoy mystery fiction so much—it gives them a sense that they really can paint a picture on a whirlwind; that they can figure things out. Considering how chaotic life is, that has a real appeal.

As for its value to me, I exploit that appeal in order to introduce readers to deeds and motives that are horrible. The reasoning I depict with the answers I provide is usually some warped condition of the human intellect. If I’m successful, I establish a link between the reader’s mind and the derangement of the character, one that shows they are not so distant from one another. This is why many of my short stories feature central characters who take logic to a horrible extreme or who have been driven mad by the order they’ve discerned in the world through their experiences. In the latter case, many of my protagonists have undergone devastating trauma that twists their craving for compassion and security into cruelty. It allows me to show that decency and barbarism are closer cousins than they may seem at a glance.

I also exploit short mystery fiction’s form by transgressing its fundamental expectation of order—I sometimes make my narrators or their conclusions unreliable. When readers expect a discrete solution, but are ultimately left with a feeling that they may have placed their trust in a very untrustworthy story, it makes a satisfying statement: That the ability to order we possess and entrust in others may, in the end, prove flawed or insufficient.

Who is the best short story writer that people haven’t gotten hip to yet?

Considering that I spend most of my time soaking in the fiction soup out on the net, my selection has to be an internet writer—Jimmy Callaway. Short fiction by Callaway hits all of my most-valued elements. It has that courage to stare down the void; it has amazing concision and cleverness, and it displays mastery of narrative form. He can deliver a 100-word story or a 5,000-word story, and each will be perfectly suited to the length.

I wish I could rattle off a host of other authors—authors who transgress the form beautifully; authors of literary genius; authors with raw, original voices—but given that I have only one choice, it’s got to be Callaway.

What do you like most about short fiction?

Short is convenient. I’m a busy guy among busy people.

Of your stories, which is your favorite; the one that showcases best your abilities?

Clean Hands and Tipped Scales is my personal favorite. It showcases my abilities particularly well—though I feel there are other examples I’d present to display my breadth, especially Times Past, nominated for the Spinetingler Award—and it has my favorite protagonist, Jari Jurgis. It also inspired the series of events that secured me an agent, the visionary Stacia Decker. Jari Jurgis first saw print in Clean Hands and Tipped Scales; ThugLit picking it up inaugurated my career as an author who can build a world from interconnected online stories. In that sense, it’s the core of my narrative universe.

Do you have any short story publications forthcoming?

A few, yes. NEEDLE magazine is going to be running “Dodgeball”, another Jari Jurgis story that tries to capture the cyclical, relentless nature of violence in New Orleans. I’ve been looking forward to getting that one in print for some time. Flash Fiction Offensive will have Choppers up by then—a story of how the means to catastrophic violence are sometimes sufficient motive to cause it. An audio horror story site, Psuedopod, will be producing a short tale, “Pieces”, about abusive relationships. And Crimefactory will be running a two-part story, “Durham Mahoney’s Last Call”, which is probably my most nihilistic piece to date. I read an article recently about how society is just a succession of people making ill-informed choices until they die and are followed by the next misbegotten batch, and that fact is pretty much the soul of “Durham Mahoney’s Last Call”.

Where can readers check out some of your work?

The best index would be on my Web site. I link to all my published works, online or in print.

What are you working on now?

Stagger Lee’s novel. It’s a crime fiction piece that seeks to exploit and comment on the heroic traditions, classical and American. I want to hit a heap of the themes I’ve discovered in my attempt to discern the essence of those traditions.

For instance, the hero is going to be a young man. Most of our American and classical heroes are. He’s going to be an outlaw, because we all feel confined by society to some extent. He’ll be virtuous in a very self-centered way, because most people want to identify with some moral code. His aims will be inspired by love and family, because those forces have a powerful resonance for many of us. And he will suffer horribly for all of these things, because real heroes have to suffer—especially my heroes. Besides, it makes for a more interesting story.

It’ll be a crisp, mean story of our American Hercules—a talented reject who rages and stumbles his way toward a great and tragic destiny.

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?

I’ll continue writing and leave much of the rest to my agents—Stacia Decker for the literary angle and Shari Smiley of Creative Artists Agency for film. My only additional effort to find the spotlight would be basic search engine optimization of my Web properties. Without getting too deep in the technical drudgery of my day job’s talents, this means that I’ll be looking to put Web sites up that direct search engine results back to my Web site’s fiction more effectively. Being easy to find never hurts when it comes to finding an audience to tell a story to.

Do you have a completed manuscript floating around? Care to tell us about it and maybe share a paragraph or two.

City of NO is my completed manuscript. I have a few other semi-edited manuscripts—you can find mention of them on my Web site as well—but the real polished jewel is City of NO. Jari Jurgis is the protagonist in this piece, as its core theme is recovering from devastation. Jari’s a broken person in a broken city, who only understands how to order her life by shattering others. When she’s confronted with a mystery that strikes the core of her trauma, she has to struggle with the agony of past and present, and with the disturbing cost of recovery.

Here’s a brief visit to the City of NO:

The Gulf’s delta is one of the few places that can deliver an irresistible sense of peace just by breathing in. Just roll down the window. Look at the blue ceramic shine of the water lacquering the prehistoric land. Imagine a time when the worst monsters that roamed the Earth were just dinosaurs.

Then the refineries bite down on the shore, the road ahead scabs over with the gray tangle of buildings, and New Orleans’ strange little skyline—the lonely skyscrapers, the mothership of the SuperDome—slides up, and it’s here we go again. The air you breathe is thick with propellant.

Here’s hoping you can enjoy an extended stay soon, Funk fans. Best wishes ‘til then.

***

Matthew C. Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a staff writer for FangirlTastic and Spinetingler Magazine. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, Funk’s online work is featured at sites such as Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Twist of Noir; Pulp Metal Magazine; Six Sentences and his Web domain.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

5 Replies to “Conversations with the Bookless: Matthew Funk”

  1. Matty is too kind. But since there are few writers I respect more than Funk, I can assure all of you out there it is a great honor to be singled out in this way by this guy.

    So eat your hearts out, suckers!

  2. Nice.
    Mr Funk, I’ve gotta swing by Big O Tires in a bit and was gonna hit the Denny’s for some lunch. Come on over for some dessert.

  3. I told Matthew the other day that he’s is going to be the guy who writes the book that deposes James Lee Burke as the poet/bard of NOLA. I stand by that. Thanks for the thoughts Matthew. Hey man, did you know that a couple of blocks from Starbucks, at the end of the parking lot of what was the Sixpence Inn, on I think, Tustin Bvd there is a municipal sign that reads:”Santa Ana is a bird sanctuary.” Try waking up to that sonuvabitch when you’re five days on the road, strung out and hungover someday. Good call on Callaway. He’s a darlin’ boy.

  4. Fantastic stuff. Mr. Funk gives a very thoughtful interview. I’m with AJ–Matt’s fiction defines New Orleans.