I recently had a chance to speak with novelist and writer Matt Baker about his recent novel Drag the Darkness Down, one of my favorite novels of recent years.
Me: Drag the Darkness Down was your debut novel. Can you describe the genesis of the book—what drew you to this story?
Matt: I had the main character’s name – Odom Shiloh – already in mind when I sat down to write it. I constructed the name from two signs off interstate 40, advertising their businesses, Odom-something and Shiloh-something. I’d see it every morning on my commute to work. And one day it hit me, Odom Shiloh. I wrote about forty pages, which is largely the same as it appears in the book, in a quick burst. And I knew I had something. The story really just evolved as I was writing it. The only deliberate choice I made was the decision to make it steer into darker territory.
Me: A recurring theme in your work seems to be hidden organizations and secret lives. What draws you to this idea?
Matt: Well, secret lives are where it’s at for characters and people in real life. Public lives are often boring, superficial, and safe. I think the hidden organization idea is less conspiratorial and more the fact that our lives are managed and influenced and infiltrated, and to some degree manipulated, by unseen entities, and that we’re largely okay with it and don’t give it much thought. So, it creates some fertile ground for creatively exploring what these organizations could be doing, are doing, and what they’ve done in the past.
Me: What has your experience with No Records Press been like?
Matt: It was wonderful. Miles Newbold Clark, my editor, is an engaged and passionate editor, and truly gifted at what he does. He convinced me to keep a few of the very dark scenes in the book - there were a few that I considered watering down or deleting altogether. He tightened the story, shaved off some of the fat for me. No Record just released a new book a month ago, Time Crumbling Like a Wet Cracker by Ryan Dilbert. I read an early version and it's a really good book, a wild, wild story with time traveling and other hijinks.
Me: Who are your biggest literary influences? & how have they influenced you?
Matt: The first book that I really fell in love with was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m a Charles Portis fan. When it comes to understated comic writing, I don’t who is better. I think I learned more about how to write a story by reading George Singleton stories more than any other writer. Stephen King’s The Shining was influential. King is so fearless. He’ll go anywhere, do anything; supernatural, historical, realism, all with loyal devotion to the story. James Whorton, Jr’s Frankland and Approximately Heaven. Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ and anything by Donald Harington. Reading The Dixie Association, as a nineteen year old college dropout, reinvigorated my outlook that you can be a smartass and get by okay. The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell perfectly mixes comedy and tragedy, which is something I tried to do in DTDD.
Me: You mentioned Skip Hays' The Dixie Association. Were you able to study under Hays at the University of Arkansas? Did he have any good advice for you?
Matt: I took two undergraduate workshops with him. He encouraged me, and I learned a lot of the mandatory basics in those classes. He's a gifted teacher and a very nice guy. He once drove down to Monticello (about 300 miles) for a reading that I'd organized for The Oxford American, and all I could offer was a bed to sleep in and a pack of Camel Lights and he said, 'What time do you need me?'
Me: What have you read recently that knocked you on your ass?
Matt: I really love Jeffrey Rotter’s The Unknown Knowns. It came out a few years ago. Tom Williams The Mimic’s Own Voice knocked me on my ass. Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field. I re-read all of Daniel Woodrell’s novels earlier this year and so that would be a few more ass whooping’s. Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower swept me up really good. Lambs of Men by Charles Dodd White, a tough and terse book that walloped me a bit.
Me: DtDD was set in Arkansas and had a very Arkansas feel reminiscent of Charles Portis, Skip Hays, John Fergus Ryan, etc. Do you consider it a Southern novel? Are you a Southern Writer?
Matt: I’m not a Southern writer. I grew up in Kansas. My family is from Indiana, with a few distant relatives from Kentucky, but there’s nothing bona fide southern in our pedigree. It’s set in Arkansas because I really like Arkansas, and, too, I lived there for about ten years. It’s a very unique place. Aside from its physical beauty, its residents are some of the warmest, strangest, fiercest and funniest people I’ve ever known.
Me: Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?
Matt: My rule is five evenings a week for two hours. This is writing new material, not re-writing or editing. I cranked out a lot of stories and several novels that way in just a few years. I’ve tried to stick to that the best I can and still believe in it.
Me: What are you working on?
Matt: Right now I’m finishing a sequel of sorts to DTDD. Birdshit narrates this time and it’s part crime caper and part literary gothic, I suppose. It’s got the usual twists and turns, and Blakey Flake shows back up, so you know it’s going to be a fun ride. It’s got them hidden organizations you mentioned earlier, and secrets that need to be revealed, and all of that goodness.
Me: If you were to be remembered for one work, which would it be?
Matt: Geez, that’s tough. I have an unpublished novel that I’d love to publish someday that I think wouldn’t be terrible to be remembered by. DTDD would be fine as well. And I’ve written some short stories that not many people have read because they were published in print journals, but I think they stand up pretty well.
Me: You recently published a novel under a pseudonym. What drew you to use the nom de plume? It seems to tie in with your theme of secrets nicely…
Matt: Right, secrets. Well, it’s a ghost story, basically. And I wrote it about four or five years ago and didn’t know what to do with it. I’m a fan of horror novels and films, but I know there’s some discord between literary fiction and genre fiction in the publishing industry. So, I just used a pseudonym. But, now that I think more about it, publishing is changing so drastically and is much more nimble than it used to be, so maybe the rigid categorizing, which mostly served as a guide to where books belonged on the sales floor, probably isn’t as necessary anymore.
Me: Have you hit your stride as a writer? How do you know?
Matt: I don’t know if there are a lot of strides in the writing gig. But I do know there’s a lot of luck, huge mountains to traverse, windy roads to navigate, and plenty of inevitable crashes, too. Just keep driving, is what I say.