Interview with Matthew Quick

Posted by Goodreads on August 13, 2013
Matthew Quick isn't afraid to probe his characters' messy inner lives, but he manages to do so without giving up on optimism. His novels—like The Silver Linings Playbook, which was made into an Oscar-wining movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—are raw and real, and get readers right where it counts. In his third book for teenagers, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, the title character is a disturbed boy with a gun, but he's also funny and wounded, romantic and desperate.

Goodreads members sent in hundreds of questions for Matthew Quick! Read on for his writing tips, advice to his 18-year-old self, and strategies for a zombie apocalypse.

Dannie Morin: I am deeply touched by Leonard, Boy21, and Sorta Like a Rock Star. I think your writing gives voice to a lot of kids who previously haven't been able to find themselves as heroes or main characters in YA lit. What inspires you to champion these underdogs?

Matthew Quick: Growing up, I always appeared to fit in, but there was a lot going on inside that I didn't share—most of which had me spending too much time alone as a teenager. Like many artists, I've always felt most comfortable on the fringe. For much of my life I tried to hide that truth and pretended to be part of the herd. But my favorite stories were always about underdogs or people who have a harder time existing within the "normal" confines of society. Reading those stories made me feel less alone. Writing them makes me feel less alone, too. And comments like yours keep me writing, make me feel as though there are others out there who also need these types of stories. Leonard Peacock talks a lot about lighthouses and the great sweeping beam of light that can reassure and guide you to a safe place. Literature has always been a lighthouse for me.

Tayler: What would you tell your 18-year-old self? What things have forbearance and grace and the terrible moments when life kicked your ass taught you? What is sacred now that wasn't then? What is unimportant today that always used to scream to you with its essentialness? What should be released and what should be held?

MQ: I'd tell the 18-year-old me that he is ultimately going to be OK. You will survive your maturation process, which will be tough as hell at times, but what's on the other side is worth it, especially the relationship you have with your future wife. "She's more amazing than you ever dreamed possible," I'd say. "So just hold on."

I'd also tell myself to relax and take more breaks. "Don't work so hard!" But I'd never listen. Also, I'd tell the teen me not to listen to all of the people who made him feel like he'd never make it as a writer because he didn't go to the best schools or was from a blue-collar town or because his family didn't read much literature and was in no way connected to the literary world. Trust your instincts, I would tell him, because they will take you further than you ever dreamed possible.

Leap and the net will appear, they say, and in many ways it's true.

Monica Garza Bustillo: I appreciate your straight literary voice and have often wondered how an author finds that raw, straight, honest voice. Do you read your ideas and dialogue aloud to test it? Do you run it by your kids to get their reaction? Did you start out with this style and fine-tune it through trial and error?

MQ: Thank you. This is a lame answer, but the voices just sort of come to me. I hear them in my head and I record on the page. Sometimes Alicia, my wife and first reader, tones the voices down a little for me, but I always write in first person because, well, there are so many voices in my head. I'm not sure you can teach someone to be a voice-driven writer. I wouldn't know how. Also, I have a dog named Desi, but no kids.

Matthew and his dog Desi, who is formally known as Mr. Desmond.
Tara: It is natural for writers to create complex characters in order to move along plots. In The Silver Linings Playbook Pat is obsessed with getting his ex-wife back, and in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock it sounds like our protagonist will also have a major mental issue. What causes you to choose the conflicts that you then give to your characters? Is it based off a personal interaction that you choose to convey literarily?

MQ: I always start with a voice. When I first hear the voice, I don't know why my characters speak the way they do, just like when I meet someone for the first time I don't know her personal backstory. And so I listen to my protagonist and get to know him or her, just like I would listen to a real person. At some point the character will reveal him or herself through action. Their personal conflicts are what create said action, which, in turn, creates plot.

When Pat's voice came to me, I immediately learned that he was about to leave a neural health facility, that his mother was breaking him out. He was doing push-ups on the facility's gated lawn, and he saw his mother's painted toenails. Why was he in that time and place? Why was he doing push-ups? Why was his mother still managing his affairs? There were reasons, of course, which he told me as I continued to listen and record. I suppose you could psychoanalyze my stories and say they bubble up from my subconscious, and I wouldn't argue with you. One of my former Goddard MFA advisers, the wise Paul Selig, used to give a talk about how storytelling is the process of making the preconscious conscious.

John Kruger: I would like to ask about your decision to have a teacher [Leonard's German teacher, Herr Silverman] portrayed as going above and beyond his defined role.

MQ: Whenever there is a school shooting, we ask what's wrong with schools, teachers, young people, and society at large—reasonable questions in the wake of tragedy. But as a former high school teacher who once counseled troubled teens on a daily basis, I find it upsetting that we don't ask what's going right in schools whenever a student in crisis is given the help he or she needs and doesn't end up committing an act of violence, which is every single day.

I think we'd learn just as much, if not more, by studying the methods of teachers who successfully help young people. There are unsung heroes in every high school quietly doing amazing work. Teachers like Herr Silverman.

I think Leonard's neighbor Walt plays an equally important role in the story. Leonard gives presents to four people, and each offers our protagonist something he greatly needs. Going above and beyond seldom results in praise or rewards for teachers, but many do it anyway. If you really care about teens and are willing to do the emotional work necessary to help them through the maturation process, there is no harder job than that of a high school teacher.

Lilly W: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process, and how do you get through the difficult bits?

MQ: My favorite part is writing alone in a room before anyone else has read my work in progress. When I am working on a first draft, the characters and story are mine alone. It's a wonderful thing to create a world that exists solely in your head. When you open up the world to other real, living people, your novel will improve via the editing process, but the story will never be yours again.

Maybe it's a little like walking your five-year-old daughter to her first day of kindergarten. School is good, but you know it will change her. When the novel is published, many people rate and critique it. Even when there is much praise, it can be emotionally overwhelming. Maybe a little like strangers publicly rating your son or daughter with a five-star system. (Of course, it's always nice when someone falls entirely in love with your story and gives you the full five stars. But you can get addicted to that rush, too.) The best way to deal with the ups and downs of publishing is to create the next new world, new characters who are all yours alone until they "grow up" again.

I often tell myself this: "The writing will save you." Not publishing, the writing. The writing is my favorite part.

The mantle where Matthew and his wife, Alicia Bessette, place the first copy of each of their published novels. It's become a ritual for them.
Katie Lambert: What made you believe in silver linings?

MQ: Long answer: In 2006, I had been writing unpaid for almost two years, living with my in-laws, and dealing with depression and anxiety, mostly produced by the pressure I was putting on myself to "make it" as a fiction writer. And yet I hadn't written anything salable. I went for a run on a cold, bleak winter's day. In the middle of my jog I looked up and saw a cloud lined in electricity. It was so beautiful; I wondered if it might be a sign that I was going to make it as a fiction writer. The thought made me feel wonderful, but then I started to berate myself for magical thinking. It was just a cloud crossing paths with the sun, after all. But what if I allowed myself to believe it was an omen, just to provide myself with some much-needed hope and fuel? As I continued jogging I had a eureka moment: What if I had a character who believed in silver linings literally and metaphorically? What if this character had a delusional philosophy that kept him moving forward? Could it help? I was off then.

Short answer: My wife. She's amazing. We found each other when I was at a very low point, and my life has been much better since. Mostly because of her.

Kelly: What is your favorite book of 2013, or what book are you looking forward to the most?

MQ: I loved Wally Lamb's We Are Water, which comes out in October. Also, Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs, which I believe drops in 2014. And many more.

Sophie Atkinson: What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?

MQ: Don't blur the line between critic and writer. Support as many writers as you can. Like as much as you can. Stay positive. Look for the good in every story you come across, not the bad. Don't ever make another writer's journey harder than it has to be. Your opinions don't make you a fiction writer, your fiction writing does. So be nice and mind your manners, especially on the Internet. The publishing world is tiny.

Rachael Woohoo: Quick! It's the zombie apocalypse! What do you do?

MQ: I start searching for Bruce Campbell, who, whenever there is a zombie apocalypse, is forced to reprise his role as Ash from the original Evil Dead movies. I follow the man with a chain saw hand and an unlimited supply of gasoline. Either that or I follow Sarah Michelle Gellar. Probably Buffy, now that I think about it. Yeah, Buffy is the best when it comes to apocalypses.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Kentzeus (new)

Kentzeus Verde Great questions from the readers and great answers from Matt! Every book I've read by Quick has changed my life for the better. Just a phenomenal writer! He's currently my favorite author and his zombie apocalypse answer in this Q&A just sealed his status even more.

message 2: by Kay (new)

Kay And this high school English teacher's heart just melted....

message 3: by Sally (new)

Sally Kruger I'm planning to use Leonard Peacock in my 10th grade English class this year. I'll be pairing it with NIGHT by Elie Wiesel and OCTOBER MOURNING by Leslea Newman to discuss hate and tolerance. I can't wait to get reactions from the students!

message 4: by Fe (new)

Fe V.rodila its GreaT!

message 5: by Fe (new)

Fe V.rodila Kay wrote: "And this high school English teacher's heart just melted...."

oh are you sure???

message 6: by Fe (new)

Fe V.rodila Kentzeus wrote: "Great questions from the readers and great answers from Matt! Every book I've read by Quick has changed my life for the better. Just a phenomenal writer! He's currently my favorite author and his z..."
Regards ko sa imong picture.hmmnn

message 7: by Sally (new)

BOY 21

All of these are fantastic!

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