The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Matthew Cheney. The Plymouth author's debut collection of stories, Blood, contains some of the most disturbing fiction I’ve read in a long time. Picture a future in which people sell their bodies to companies that can harvest a kind of renewable power from them. Or a past where vulnerable men are severely beaten for the amusement of others. Imagine if you could hear the dead speaking through an old record player. These scenarios make up just some of the worlds created with vivid and creepy detail in Cheney’s fiction. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Cheney's bookshelf, listen to his conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.
Matthew Cheney's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman. "Aickman’s stories can seem quiet, and they take their time beginning, but just as you let your guard down, just as you think the careful prose is getting just a bit, well, dull … just then, you discover he has been messing with your mind, and by then it’s too late, and what had seemed dull now seems strange and then something more than strange, and you finish the story without quite knowing what you’ve read, and it haunts you, and will continue to haunt you. All of Aickman’s collections are excellent; Cold Hand in Mine is a good starting place."
2. Mandarins by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, trans. Charles De Wolf. "There are other collections that include Akutagawa’s most famous stories (“Rashomon”, “In a Bamboo Grove”, “Hell Screen”), but I’m fond of this one because it’s the first one I read. Akutagawa has been described as a symbolist, he’s said to write macabre stories, and that’s true for some of his work, but this collection shows real breadth, with the stories united by sensitivity, ambiguity, anguish, and grace."
3. The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson. "If you want to see the wide possibilities of the short story form, read this book. It is a treasure-trove and a toolbox to help jettison received ideas about what stories can be and do."
4. House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera. "I don’t know how to describe this collection of linked stories by the brilliant, troubled, and sadly short-lived Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera. His words are razor blades."
5. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. " As a writer, Woolf was better and more important as a novelist and essayist, but her stories should not be neglected. She was not a devoted short story writer; she used stories to try out techniques, to experiment, to play around in ways she couldn’t when working on longer and/or more serious work. That makes for a lot of variety in her short fiction. She was among the greatest writers in the English language, and with this book we can see the range of her intellect and lyricism."
I should mention that this collection won the Hudson Prize from your publisher, Black Lawrence Press. Congratulations.
The characters in your stories are often normal people who come across something extraordinary, and one of my favorite examples of this is the story, “Lonesome Road.” That’s the story of Shelly, who loses her son in the war, and she loses her husband because her husband can’t stand the grief. So she moves in with her mother, and across the street, there’s this guy Rick, whose old Victrola can allow you to listen to the dead calling out to the living. What was your inspiration for this story?
I think it goes back to my fascination with recorded music. One of the things I noticed putting the book together is there are a lot of record players and Victrolas in it. That’s not by design at all. It’s just something that’s interested me. I like old American music, early recordings, and it feels like listening to the voices of the past.
I was thinking about some of my friends I had grown up with, gone to elementary school with, who didn’t make it through the Iraq war, or who were wounded in the Iraq war. And I was thinking of their parents. These were people of my parents’ age. I wondered how they carried on. Because it seems to me that one of the great losses in life is losing a child. Children should outlive their parents. And I don’t know how people carry that weight and that burden. So if I don’t know something, particularly something emotional, I try to work it out through fiction. This was one way to do that. So instead of writing a straightforward story about grief, I came back to the questions of recorded voices. What are these voices? And what do they do to us? And what would it be to really, really want to hear a voice you had lost and to be given the opportunity to do so. Would you take that opportunity?
Some of your stories occur in the shadow of some kind of apocalypse, or in a world where the world we know does not exist anymore. What is it about these stories that appeals to you?
I think the idea of your world suddenly changing and one day everything is normal, and the next day, everything is different. It’s a terror I have. We all experience moments of heightened emotion, if someone close to you dies, or if you lose your job or something like that—your world changes very suddenly. It’s not what it was the day before, and I’m always drawn to that kind of emotion, that way of thinking through a story, because it gives the story a kind of propulsion.
I’m also sort of worried about the future, and I think that, if you worry about the future a lot, then apocalyptic scenarios are appealing to you.
Your fiction has such a strong sense of character, but the kind of things we’ve been talking about tend to appear in science fiction. One of the most common critiques of science fiction is that it’s not strong on character development. It’s often written for folks who really like the technology, and that’s totally fine. Would you call this book Blood science fiction?
Some of the stories in it are aspiring science fiction. I’ve been a science fiction reader most of my life, and I have a great sense of what science fiction is and can do and I really respect that, but I’m generally not much of a science fiction writer. Even the story that’s most science fictional, “Expositions,” by the end it falls apart in its science fictionality, because a lot of science fiction is about a particular idea or speculations about technology, and I’m not really all that interested in speculations about technology. I like other people’s, but I don’t feel like that’s where my brain goes. So I probably draw on the motifs or themes of science fiction simply because I’ve read tons of it, but it’s not where my mind as a fiction writer necessarily goes.
That said, there are all sorts of different types of science fiction out there. One of the things I used to do as a kid is get into arguments with an English teacher at Plymouth State. He declared science fiction was formula fiction. This was the thing I most deeply loved in the world. I was a subscriber to Isaac Asimov’s magazine. I just loved it, and I wanted everyone else to love it, too, and he didn’t. He frowned on it. So I spent a lot of time thinking through how I could prove to someone that science fiction has merit. And that has affected my life. Since then, I’ve become very interested in the work of Samuel R. Delaney, who writes science fiction and is also a literary theorist. He’s part of my Ph.D dissertation. So that question going back to when I was twelve years old—does it have literary merit? Is it formula fiction?—has haunted me my whole life, because it goes back to the question of what is fiction? What can it be? What should it do?
Those are the kinds of questions that fuel me not only as an intellectual but also as a writer, because you’re trying to create forms and shapes that can do new things in the reader’s mind.
So what should fiction do?
That’s a great question. I’m always asking myself that. I think that fiction should give us new ways of experiencing our lives. It puts something into our minds. It gives us imagined scenarios. It lets us see our way through a world that we didn’t otherwise know. And so, as a fiction writer, we have this ability to create these worlds through language, and so I think the responsibility we have as fiction writers is just—what we all aim for, is taking these worlds created out of language and putting them in some way in other people’s minds to see what will happen.
Seems like you’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time, especially if you’re discussing the art of fiction at twelve years old with a university professor.
I was a weird, geeky little kid. I was lucky to live in a university town and my mother worked at the college.
You grew up in Plymouth?
I did. I’ve lived in Plymouth all but a few years of my life, so yes. The Lamson Library at Plymouth State College, now Plymouth State University, was really where I learned to read. So it was something I had wanted to do from very early on> First I wanted to be an FBI agent, then a painter, and then I wanted to be a writer and pretty much stuck with that.
So you went through the same transition all children go through.
[Laughs] Yes. Well, what I liked about the FBI is they carry a briefcase. I really wanted to carry a briefcase.
What’s stopping you now?
Nothing. Writers get to carry briefcases, too, so once I figured that out, it was much easier.
Where do you find inspiration these days?
I find inspiration both from reading other people’s writing and looking out at the world. It’s very easy, if you’re a writer like me, to get stuck in text, to get lost in the words, so I do my best to look out at the world and see what’s happening, and stay friends with people who are not writers and academics and things like that. Always challenging myself, then, to think about not just what do I want to write but what do I want to write and give someone to read, because I think that’s a different responsibility. I do like to write for myself but then I’m taking this stuff and asking people to publish it, having it come out in a book, and asking people to pay money for it. If you’re going to do that, you have to figure out what you feel is worth other people’s time.
And if you follow the news, you’ll find no shortage of things to inspire the kind of apocalyptic fiction you’ve been writing.
Yes, it’s terrifying. I’ve actually pulled back on my news consumption these days because you can reach a point of hopelessness if you start thinking about all the challenges of the world.
You feel like you’ve almost reached that point?
Oh, no, I push against it as much as I can. I read a lot of history and the world is always ending, the world has always been ending. People always felt like they’re on the precipice of apocalypse throughout history, and so I take a little bit of comfort from that. We’re not the first people who thought they’re the last people.
And I hear you grew up in a gun shop in New Hampshire.
Yes, quite literally. The shop was attached to the house I grew up in. My father was a sort of stay-at-home work dad, so when I was a little kid, he’d be working in the shop and then come take care of me. He did that for about forty years until his death. I never paid a lot of attention to it, it was just there, it was not something that interested me. So when he died suddenly—I’m an only son and my parents are divorced—I inherited a gun shop about which I knew almost nothing. And so I learned a little bit about the gun shop. It took about two years to sell it all off.
You must have learned something about the guns. There’s one story in this book, “Blood,” where the father is a gun repair man. He goes crazy—I hope that didn’t happen in your family.
He goes crazy and thinks the government is out to get him. Many shots were fired—I don’t want to give it away—but it seems like you found some inspiration in that.
Yes, “Blood” is all about a very heightened version of my growing up. I’m an only child. There are four or five children in that family. It’s a very different circumstance. Living in a gun shop will develop a great amount of paranoia in you.
Yeah, I remember telling babysitters—the first thing I’d show them if they were new is where they could hide in the house without being seen from any of the windows. I just inherited this paranoia that comes with that kind of business when it’s attached to your house. And I think that the title story is really an attempt to write through that and write out of that and find a way through it.
Do you own a gun now?
I don’t, I got rid of all of them, except an old Civil War rifle, but that’s about seven feet long, but you’d never want to shoot it, because it might blow up.