Matthew Pitt was born in St Louis. he is a graduate of Hampshire College and NYU, where he was a New York Times fellow. His work has appeared in Oxford American, The Southern Review, Colorado Review, New Letters, Best New American Voices, and elsewhere. Stories of his were cited in both the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and have earned awards from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Bronx Council on the Arts, and the St Louis Post-Dispatch. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers' Conferences, and has taught at NYU, Penn State-Altoona, and the Bronx Writers' Center. He lives with his wife Kimberley and their two young daughters.

Short Story Collections

Attention Please Now
(Autumn House Press, 2010)

reviewed by Diane Becker

Interview with Matthew Pitt

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Matthew Pitt:The oldest dates to my first year of graduate school, or ten years before the book won the Autumn House Prize. The newest made its way into the manuscript weeks before I sent it to contests. That most recent story is the only one I wrote after my first daughter’s birth…and the child in that story is deaf, doesn’t speak, and gets kidnapped. Is that a "paging Dr. Freud" moment? It’s safe to say I was riddled with anxiety about becoming a first-time father: absence of control, stark awareness that there is no instruction manual. A decent mirror for the anxieties a writer faces down with the blank page (though a blank page doesn’t require three a.m. feedings or diaper changes)! I was also anxious of how it might disrupt my work. Happy aside: it’s been good for my work, and for my perspective (in several senses of the word). Happy aside, Part Two: In what has to contend for Best Week Ever status, my book won its publication prize five days after my second daughter’s birth. Maybe I should have tried my hand at the slot machines that week, too, but I was too delirious and exhausted. Summoning the energy to make macaroni was accomplishment enough.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MP: Sure—but my conception of it kept cracking and collapsing and rebuilding itself. Over the ten years, I’d add one story, cull two, revamp another. There’s a lot of pondering and fiddling; second guesses, fifteenth drafts, for each story. It’s ad hoc architecture, really.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MP: During a meeting with my graduate thesis advisor, Chuck Wachtel, I asked about his approach to ordering a book. He made a remarkable comment about how authors should think about how the stories touch, like a chain of islands, beneath their surfaces. Curiously, the collection finally felt complete after I wrote its two most recent stories, both of which involve an imagined island nation.
   So I think it’s first a matter of instinct, and then figuring the impetus behind the instinct. In a larger sense, the characters in all of the stories seem to be living/acting out along the fringes: of society, of normal behavior. They often don’t want to exist on the margins, but it’s where they find themselves, living lives of impulse and recklessness. That may come out of my growing up in the Midwest, where keeping quiet is most people’s m.o., and what’s under the surface is kept muted. Anyway, writing about wilder characters keeps me on my toes. Who at a party tells, or wants to hear, stories about people who conduct themselves in a restrained manner? We want outbursts. We’re fascinated by passion, not politeness. We’re drawn to devils, not diplomats.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

MP: A way to present experience through the vessel of language. And I believe that each we read fiction, the imagined experience contained in it amplifies, informs, or distills our own lived experience. 

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

MP: Me: at least in the first draft. But once I’ve moved to a certain point, another reader comes into the picture: a more casual reader, the kind who might give me three or four paragraphs, tops, to take them somewhere unfamiliar, or point out light they haven’t seen.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

MP: I’m not sure. My favorite stories and story collections seem to already be suggesting questions to readers: encouraging you to wonder along with their authors from page to page.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MP: It really floors me when readers contact me out of the blue. Some have told me the newest story struck them most. That’s gratifying, since I think that story suggests what my newer work is concerned with. Besides, I didn’t have time to get that new story published in a journal, so I wondered if I was serving something raw and undercooked. Story Salmonella!
   On the flip side, other readers have reported being affected by the book’s oldest story. That’s a story that feels long in the tooth to me. So the fact that it feels fresh to others helps me see it freshly, too.

TSR: What are you working on now?

MP: A novel and a new collection. The novel continues the lives of characters from stories in the collection. A stay of execution for them. 

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

MP:  Can I expand the parameters of this question? I want to first list the last three collections that were their authors’ debut works: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black; Normal People Don’t Live Like This, by Dylan Landis; and Tunneling to the Center of Earth, by Kevin Wilson.
   Now for the last three collections I’ve read by established authors: Robert Boswell’s The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, Alice Munro’s Runaway, and Antonya Nelson’s Female Trouble.
   Finally, a collection that isn’t out yet, but one I’m looking forward to with immense anticipation: Charles Baxter’s Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. I haven’t read a single Charles Baxter story that didn’t make me want to happily re-read it…or, despondently, make me want to rewrite a story of my own.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>