Matthew Derby has an MFA in writing from Brown University. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, 5 Trope, Pindeldyboz, and Failbetter, and he is Associate Fiction Editor at 3rd Bed. He also contributed to the debut issue of The Believer. His first book, a collection of stories entitled Super Flat Times, has recently been released. He and his wife live in Providence, Rhode Island.
Super Flat Times has been characterized as "an incredibly post-modern and Orwellian sci-fi novel" that is "almost impossible to describe." Perhaps we could start this off by having you describe the book and give some thoughts on being compared to Orwell.
it’s a collection of short stories, all set during an historical period that has not yet occurred, one in which a great many people are killed off in secret by the government. Each story represents the final thoughts of a victim of this genocide, and the stories themselves have been collected and archived by a translator some years after the end of the super flat times.
i think that the book has been compared with orwell because…wait, i actually have no idea. it’s sort of a demented comparison, isn’t it? i think the publishers just wanted to contextualize the book a little, to prepare it for a potential readership. because i feel (or perhaps ‘hope’ is the more accurate term) that it’s actually closer in spirit and form to a lydia davis collection, but maybe there is not so much crossover in terms of audience. or maybe the comparison has more to do with the fact that, just as 1984 was actually a book about post-war britain, i think that super flat times is a book about the present, but with the navigational parameters tweaked a bit. i read and was taken by 1984 when i was in junior high, but i didn’t look at it again until after i was done with SFT. i was surprised to find a lot of thematic similarities, but i can’t claim that these were intentional.
i did look at the film Logan’s Run a great deal while writing the book, and not enough people are comparing SFT to that (hint: more people should do this). I tried to study some depictions of the future that seem dated and outmoded from a contemporary perspective, because i wanted to investigate the space in which our idea of the future (which is a thing that, by definition, doesn’t actually exist – it is nothing more than a conceptual repository for the narrative arcs we make for ourselves) comes up against our actual experience of the future as it crystallizes into the present. i think we deal with the relentless disappointment we experience as the illusion of the future becomes the reality of the present by guffawing at our past illusions, when in fact those depictions are the only real-world evidence we have of our past aspirations. there’s something very heartbreaking and true about these artifacts.
You have an MFA from Brown, where you’ve also taught creative writing. How did you end up there? What would you tell someone who is considering going into debt for an advanced degree in creative writing?
i applied to brown after finding out that carole maso taught there – i think she was director of the program at the time. anyway, i had just discovered her book The Art Lover and had been pretty blown away – stylistically, it was such a radical departure from anything i’d previously come to know as literature. at that point, i had never seen anything like it. i’d read some barthelme, but i wasn’t really aware of the full spectrum of narrative possibility, so that book had a really destabilizing effect. i felt i really needed to work with her. i don’t know how i actually got into the program, though, because my writing sample was really weak. i guess i was just tremendously lucky.
i wouldn’t apply to a grad program unless it offered funding of some sort – it’s a great resource for writers to have a few years to write and get paid, but i think it would be pretty risky to chuck a whole lot of money into a program that has very little to offer in terms of financial rewards afterward. you’re much better off taking a stupid, meaningless job and writing frantically for two years. you’ll probably learn more about what it means to write, especially if you work in an ugly, dingy city in the midwest. or utica, ny.
How long ago did you start writing these stories? Were they affected by your teaching?
i started writing them just before i graduated from brown, in 1999. i don’t think they were affected by my teaching – why, do they look like that?
The website for Super Flat Times is quite compelling and unique. (I especially like the "deleted scenes" feature.) What was your involvement, if any, in making that site?
thanks! i built the whole thing myself, except for the audio portion of the deleted scenes, which were recorded by my friends tim heidecker and eric wareheim. i spent a ridiculous amount of time working on the site, and i’m not really sure why. maybe it was a way of dealing with the terribly anxious period between the completion of the book and the printing – a period in which i don’t think i was able to write a single useful line of prose. i guess i also enjoy working with flash – i can’t play video games in my free time – i keep dying. i’ve died so many times in a single afternoon…anyway, working with multimedia stuff is i guess what i do with my free time instead of playing video games. looking back, i probably shouldn’t have invested so much time in it – i mean, it’s a website.
Some of your stories have appeared in online journals such as failbetter.com. You used to run a literary site called Impossible Object. Has the world of digital publishing had a significant effect on your writing style? How do you see the evolution of web literature unfolding over the next decade or so in relation to traditional publishing outlets?
i don’t think that the internet has changed the way i write, necessarily, but it certainly has opened up a new set of possibilities for myself and other writers in terms of finding an audience, and i think that has had a pretty profound impact. when i started writing, there were very few feasible options in terms of publishing work, and even then, the feasibility was questionable. there was also a predictability – i wasn’t aware, then, of journals like conjunctions or grand street, and everything else was just too…agrarian. every lit journal i was exposed to was named after a tree, or an antique milliner’s tool, or something having to do with the ocean. i would have been a little embarrassed to place my work in one of those journals. i’m going to get misty eye’d and very sentimental here, but the internet, even early on, facilitated a much broader, more engaging and complex discourse. my work would never have been published anywhere ten years ago (although maybe that would have been a good thing), but it found a readership in a group of similarly disgruntled, displaced readers who wanted something else.
Your book is most prominently blurbed by Heidi Julavits, who is co-edits The Believer, a new magazine from Dave Eggers which has been a topic of much discussion on Identity Theory and other literary websites. You happen to have a story in The Believer‘s debut issue. What are your impressions of that magazine’s ideals, and, more broadly, of this whole Eggers phenomenon?
heidi julavits is an immortal. she, vendela vida, and ed park are all working their asses off on the believer. i was visiting ben and heidi recently and there were proofs of the magazine all over the place – their apartment looked like…a place with a lot of papers everywhere. we’d be having a conversation and she’d fire off these brilliant, lucid observations while proofreading a piece she’d just picked up off the floor. her devotion to the project is really stirring. i think the believer is an astounding piece of work – it’s the sort of magazine i’ve always wished i could get my hands on. i don’t read most magazines, so i don’t know what else is out there, but i don’t think the believer really has a peer, does it? except, perhaps, for mcsweeney’s?
i don’t know much about dave eggers, just that a.) he’s written two books that i’ve enjoyed immensely; b.) he edits a phenomenal journal; and c.) he gets a lot of people really riled up, some in a good way, some in a bad way, about literature and our relationship to it. i think that, in itself, is an accomplishment. i don’t want to come off as an apologist, as i know it’s a highly charged topic of debate, but one can’t really deny that he’s out there, doing this shit every day. all i do is collect ebay feedback.
What are you reading these days?
i just read Salvador by Joan Didion, and now i am reading White Teeth.
It seems to be commonplace for young writers to release a collection of stories and then follow it up with a novel. Is this the case for you, and if so, when can we expect the novel? (If not, what the heck are you working on?)
i don’t think i’ll be able to write anything else. i am really heavily in debt and in order to get something substantial written i’d need at least a few months of uninterrupted time. so this is likely the last thing i’ll do, at least for a long time.
Bonus Question: As a former Austinite, my eyebrows were raised when I saw that you’re doing a reading at Emo’s in Austin on May 15th. This is not a typical literary venue. What’s going on there? Are you sure you can handle the pressure of performing on the same stage once used by the great Wesley Willis?
i am shitting my pants. neal pollack is running a reading series there, and he invited me. i have never been farther south than virginia. i’m certain i’ll be killed.