Matthew Eck, one of the 5 under 35
The National Book Foundation will honor five young novelists in November during National Book Week -- the selection of 5 under 35 was announced today. This year's five are Matthew Eck, Keith Gessen, Sana Krasikov, Nam Le and Fiona Maazel.
Eck, author of "The Farther Shore," spoke to me last year when his book, the winner of the Milkweed National Fiction prize, was selected as a pick by the LitBlog Coop; he said that he wanted the book to be "a universal war story" an "everywar -- like 'everyman' " story. Below are excerpts from that unpublished interview.
Carolyn Kellogg: The back flap mentions that you fought in Somalia -- how do you think that affects how people read the book?
Matthew Eck: I hope they don't get back there until they're done. I think people that read it and say it takes place in Somalia are doing the book a huge disservice.... When people start talking about how it takes place in Somalia, I'm all right with that, because a lot of readers will do the research and that's where they'll set it. Yeah, it might feel a lot like Somalia to me when I wrote it, but I didn't want people to only think of Somalia.... It could be anywhere, it could be anytime.
CK: I kept finding literary parallels -- the men start out on a roof, and go down, and bad things happen to them, and I couldn't help but think of Dante and his descent. And then you've got Odysseus, soldiers on mythic journeys... were any of these in your mind?
Matthew Eck: I'm a huge fan of the classics. Most of what I do to inform my own writing is read the classics. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. It was one of the reasons I joined the army. I joined the army for all those cliches that a young writer would join for -- life experience, being able to witness stuff. But then when I came back, and I started going to college, my undergraduate degree was in English literature. I read Shakespeare and Homer and Virginia Woolf and Dante and all of that.... Early on, when I was writing that book, I took a kind of buckshot approach to it, threw a whole bunch of ideas at the page. I was reading "The Odyssey" at the same time as I was reading "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene, and it just clicked: what if it's a story about the journey home? What if it's about these guys that are lost? It's such a great metaphor, we see it all the time in literature. My little nod to the Odyssey is definitely the scene where they're racing to attack the compound and they're hiding with the sheep.
CK: You visited terrible things on this band of soldiers. You starve them, they're trying to figure out what the rules of engagement are and suddenly people shoot at them from all sides. People die slowly. As reader, it's devastating. Because it's so compressed, and the language is so tight, and terrible things happen. As a writer, living inside of that, what was that like?
Matthew Eck: My actual experiences in war, and Joshua Stantz's experience in war, started to morph. I started to feel like I owned his experience as much as he did. That poor guy! By the end I just loved that guy, when he had to make some of the choices he made, they were hard. I had to put the work down, I had to step back, ask "Do I really want this to happen to him?" -- my thought is that that helped the writing process. Because I felt so much for the boy....
I wanted the reader to feel as lost as he felt. So I had to keep creating these instances -- what is he doing out here? What is he going to do now? What's going to happen to him?
CK: Is it hard to talk about this book, which is, in places, beautifully horrific, and that you finished a while ago?
Matthew Eck: I'm working on something new -- I've been lucky, though. My editor told me, early on, when I was like "I'm trying not be distracted by this first book experience." He was like, "Your first only comes out once! You better sit back and relax and enjoy this." It's been a nice time.
-- Carolyn Kellogg