Making Weird of Sense

Chris Cotonou talks to up and coming American fiction writer Matthew Baker

In Matthew Baker’s America, you are free to use, ‘the cider press at Pete Christie’s’; to watch Stephanie Khan do, ‘breath-taking magic tricks that defy all explanation’; and to claim a ‘rocking chair on the porch of Bev Whittaker’s.’ All pleasant, normal things, but there’s just one problem. This is not America— at least, not the one we know.

The titular tale in Baker’s latest selection of short-stories, ‘Why Visit America’ (released in August) describes what would happen if an average Texas town were to secede from the United States. It’s an absurd idea until you begin reading, and then it doesn’t seem absurd at all—perhaps even justified. Baker has a knack for this: for placing us in situations that are as foreseeable as they are creative; his musical, visual storytelling swaying us on-side, eliciting, ‘ahs’ and ‘ohs’, while we devour his original ideas about modern society. Within each parable, a sense of hope. Baker depicts moments of humanity amidst the confusion, and it is this that makes his work most memorable (and with our current situation, relevant) long after reading.

Along with penning the acclaimed Hybrid Creatures, and founding The Nashville Review – he has experienced huge TV and Film interest, with seven stories, and previous projects, already optioned by the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Fox Searchlight. What makes Baker’s work so urgent for adaptation? Here, the writer speaks with PORT about life in isolation, his highly-anticipated collection of stories, and what it’s like adapting for the silver screen.

First up, tell us a little about life in isolation, and how it’s affected your daily routine

I write full-time and always write at home, so my process hasn’t changed during the pandemic. I’m still doing what I always do—wake up, heat a kettle of water for coffee or tea, and then put on a pair of headphones and write all day. We’ve been cooking and baking and video-chatting a lot with family and friends. Taking virtual tours of museums. Streaming movies at night over the projector. I’m always grateful that the internet exists, but I’m more grateful now than ever.

Our current situation resembles a concept from one of your stories. In your world, what’s the lesson to be learned by the end of all this?

There is a lesson that we could learn: that when we listen to scientists and respond to an urgent crisis with even more urgent action, we can overcome seemingly impossible challenges together, and we can avert disaster. I hope that after this pandemic is over, humanity will finally begin to respond to the climate crisis with the sense of urgency that will be required to overcome it. The United States, in particular. I am haunted by America’s response to the climate crisis thus far—by the decades of denial and cowardice. Americans like to think of our country as “the strongest country in the world”, which makes it particularly ironic that America’s response to the climate crisis thus far has been so pitiful and weak.

You’ve dedicated the book, ‘For My Country’. Considering the titular story is about seceding, and the nation as an idea, what were you describing here? 

Sometimes a love letter is also a breakup letter and is also a eulogy for something that never existed after all.

You seem to perceive the challenges of our times as opportunities. I remember reading ‘To Be Read Backwards’ and the titular story and feeling positive—not hopeless (unlike much of the fiction your work has been compared to). Where does your optimism and faith for humanity come from?

That’s probably because of my mother. My mother is a researcher whose area of focus is the role of hopelessness in heart disease, and it’s never surprised me that she’s fascinated by the subject of hopelessness, because she is an inherently hopeful person. Every obstacle in her life, no matter how terrible or daunting, she has ultimately approached with a hopeful frame of mind.

Sort of like the character of Belle in ‘Why Visit America’. Much of your work includes strong female characters. How did your upbringing influence the way you depict genders?

I could tell you stories about my mother, who raised me for five years as a single parent while working long shifts as a nurse, and who went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctoral degree while working full-time as a professor and simultaneously raising three children. I could tell you stories about my stepmother, whose tremendous work ethic brought her from a small farm in a rural community to the halls of one of the most powerful institutions in this country. I could tell you stories about the extraordinary resilience of my grandmother and my aunt and my sisters. But that, I think, would miss the point. I don’t believe there is a single person on this planet who didn’t grow up around strong women. Strength often goes unrecognised. I like that you mentioned Belle. She isn’t a flawless character, and she isn’t fearless – she has flaws and she has fears and she has doubts and she makes mistakes, but even after she fails, she continues to try to overcome the obstacles in her life. That is, I think, what strength looks like.

Your stories are set in different parts of the United States. (‘Why Visit America’ is set in conservative Texas, for example.) Are these explicit decisions based on the character of that place, and if so, why?

For each story, I considered the character of the setting to be crucial. ‘Why Visit America’ is a perfect example. My stepfather is from Texas, and we spent some time there visiting family during summers, so it’s a special place to me. Austin is liberal, Lubbock is conservative, and Houston is somewhere in-between, but something I love about Texas is that no matter where you are in Texas, regardless of the local politics, people there have an incredibly strong sense of independence. Americans in general have a strong sense of independence, but it’s exemplified by Texans. Then there’s the historical element—that for nearly a decade in the 19th century, Texas was an independent nation. ‘Why Visit America’ is a story about a town that decides to secede from the United States, and for me, I couldn’t imagine a more powerful setting to tell that story than rural Texas. It had to be there. ‘The Transition’ had to be set in New Orleans. ‘Appearance’ had to be set in Rhode Island. ‘Life Sentence’ had to be set in Kansas, among corn fields, in a town like the one where Superman was raised.

Why do you think Hollywood is so keen to adapt your work?

I think it’s thanks to films like Get Out and Arrival. Actually, I don’t even need to say ‘films like’ – I think it’s thanks to Get Out and Arrival. Get Out proved that a genre film that was making explicit social and political commentary could be fantastically commercially successful; Arrival proved that a genre film that was exploring complex scientific and philosophical ideas could be fantastically commercially successful. Arrival was released in late 2016; Get Out was released in early 2017; less than a year later, major film studios in Hollywood began launching all of these bidding wars for my stories – genre stories that are making explicit social and political commentary and at times are exploring complex scientific and philosophical ideas. I don’t know if that ever would have happened for me if not for the hard work of Jordan Peele and Ted Chiang and Denis Villeneuve.

How do you feel about your stories being likened to shows like, ‘Black Mirror’, or ‘Stranger Things’?

It’s always an honour to have the book compared to Black Mirror. ‘San Junipero’ is one of my favourite short stories of all time. Charlie Brooker is a master. The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also had a tremendous influence on the collection, along with Ursula K Le Guin.

Your writing style is rhythmic, sometimes pushing the boundaries of language, with code and music symbols present in writing (particularly in Hybrid Creatures.) Has it been difficult to adapt to the screen, and is there anything you’ve sacrificed in the process?

I’m sure that each of the stories will present its own challenges, but the screenwriters and the directors at work on the adaptations seem to be the type of artists who relish a challenge. I’m particularly excited that the great Issa López recently signed on to write and direct the film adaptation of ‘Lost Souls’ for Searchlight Pictures – I love Tigers Are Not Afraid, and can’t wait to see what she does with my story.

You are known to be a prolific ‘list maker’. What is next on the list for Matthew Baker?

I’m finishing work on an experimental graphic novel that in a certain sense is a companion piece to Why Visit America, and beginning work on a new novel, and otherwise just spending a lot of time looking out windows, waiting for the pandemic to end. Birdwatching. Yesterday on the balcony of the townhouse across the street a hawk captured a pigeon and devoured the pigeon alive, leaving behind nothing but feathers and scattered bones. An omen, or an allegory, or just something that happened once, here in 21st-century USA.