Matthew James Babcock lives in Rexburg, Idaho with his wife and five children. He holds a PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In 2008, he received the Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Poetry Award. His book Private Fire: The Ecopoetry and Prose of Robert Francis is available from the University of Delaware Press. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in various print and online journals, including Spoon River Poetry Review, Bateau, Alehouse and The Rejected Quarterly.
Matthew's short story, "We Value Your Feedback," appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of The Battered Suitcase.
Matt, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Second grade. Mrs. Miller’s class at Jefferson Elementary. For creative writing, we used to write on these monstrous folio-sized sheets of newspaper-grade paper, the kind in which your pencil eraser would bore holes if you pushed too hard. It was something about the paper, I think. So sprawling, so grand. The way the Spinnaker-sized sheets would spill over the sides of your desk, the dotted highways running east and west to channel your slapdash upper-case and lower-case cursive. The endeavor of writing seemed so epic, so all-encompassing. I was hooked.
Why do you write?
I can’t help it. But I also teach writing, so I feel I should do it to validate my license. I’d still write if I didn’t teach, though, somehow. Technically, I’m an academic, but I think I’ve just grown curious over the years, having studied literature for so long. A few years back I read Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark,” and I found that I identified with her autobiographical passages about becoming a “writer reading.”
Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?
No. Harder. More discouraging. More difficult. Far less romantic. But far more satisfying. It’s tough when you realize how many other writers are competing with you, especially when you read their books and see they’re light years beyond you and half your age. But nothing else I’ve done provides a greater sense of holistic completeness than having something printed in even the most obscure journal. Somehow, the role of the obscure writers suits me.
What do you think makes a good story?
Details. A vivid dreamscape. Complicated situations that don’t turn out the way you think they will. I have to laugh and cry multiple times in the same story, or else it falls flat with me. If I do only one or the other, I put it down. Pacing, too. It’s got to clip along. Also, the language can’t be ordinary.
What's your favorite genre to read?
Anything and everything. I like a good book of contemporary poetry. I like a good novel, a collection of short stories. I read children’s books to my kids all the time. I’ve read young adult novels with my kids, too. I like to read plays, non-fiction. This is mostly due to my eclectic appetite and academic profession, which are always spilling over into my personal writing.
Who is your favorite author or poet?
Anthony Doerr! Followed by Karl Iagnemma and Bret Anthony Johnston. Tony Hoagland is the great American poet.
What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?
Hard to say. I’m sure they all have. I went on an extended, breathless John Cheever binge in college. I still think Cheever is the great American short story writer. Not sure what everyone’s fascination with Updike is. Then, there was Tim O’Brien. “Going After Cacciato” (also in college) left me amazed, unmoored, changed forever. Virginia Woolf, too. “To the Lighthouse” rocked my cradle. I think it was in college that I saw how high the bar had been raised, and sometimes how far it had been moved right or left, sometimes removed completely. I’m still seeing that with some of my current favorites.
What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?
Going back, Taro Yashima’s “Crow Boy.” It still tough for me to read. Also, Katherine Paterson: “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Great Gilly Hopkins.” I think I actually cried at school after reading these books, and everyone kept asking me what was wrong. Later, Thomas Rockwell’s “The Portmanteau Book” saved my life in 7th grade. Steinbeck saved 9th grade. After that, it was like standing in a huge wind tunnel of geniuses, trying to hold on.
Where/how do you find the most inspiration?
Reading. Invariably, I’ll read something, and it will trigger an idea, title, paragraph, line.
What does your family think of your writing?
Don’t know. I don’t think they’ve ever said anything about it. My wife has laughed at a few essays and poems of mine. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. To my knowledge, she’s never fallen asleep while reading something I’ve written . . . My kids think my children’s books are funny—they just don’t like the fact that I’m not an artist and therefore can’t provide pictures to go with the funny stories.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
No schedule. I cram it in when I can.
Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?
Carry my bag. Always, everywhere I go. Inside: something to read, something to write. That way, whenever I find a fifteen-minute lull in a trip to the grocery store or a diaper-changing melee, I can sneak in a line or two.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Time. It doesn’t exist.
What are your current projects?
A screenplay. A series of children’s books. Five unfinished novellas. One unpublished novel, and another just started. Poems, essays, articles. A big morass of scraps and language heaped on my office floor. My hope is that something will grow from it.
What are you planning for future projects?
Same as “current.”
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I have a hard enough time following my own. I think it’s a fabulous thing to do, though, in the age of information. More so now than ever, in my opinion, writers are trying to save a generation of humans being savaged by a vampire network of mindless culture and media.
Where can we find your work?
In my office, in a big heap on the floor. Um, just search online, I guess. Wild Child published some of my fiction. Press 53 (North Carolina) chose my novella as a winner and put it in their latest anthology. Mostly online and print journals. Still chippin’ away . . .