Matt Ruff: The Terribleminds Interview


Mister Matt Ruff and I were like two ships passing in the night. He did an event at Mysterious Galaxy I believe the night before I did — and at that time, someone was talking to me about his new novel, Mirage, which basically flipped the events of 9/11 around in a fascinating alt-world switch-up. So, when it came time to host him here for an interview, well, uhh, hell yeah. I’ll let him tell the rest. Meanwhile, find him at bymattruff.com and on the Twittertubes @bymattruff.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I’ll tell you about the time when I was twelve and I nearly killed myself.

The neighborhood where I grew up in Queens had a freight line running through it, and if you followed the tracks and were careful not to let the cops see you, you could get onto other parts of the rail network that stretched for miles and miles all over the borough. So when we were kids, my friends and I used to go exploring on the railroad tracks.

One night after dark we were walking along a stretch of the Long Island commuter rail in Rego Park. The tracks ran along the top of a ridge; off to our right was a line of apartment buildings, and in between us and the apartments was this gulley. The bottom of the gulley was pitch dark, so we couldn’t tell how deep it was or what was at the bottom, but the slope down into it was pretty shallow.

We stayed on the tracks, and a bit further along we came to this funny little retaining wall that somebody had built along the edge of the gulley. I jumped up onto it and started walking along it with my arms stretched out, like an acrobat doing a high-wire act. I was clowning, pretending to lose my balance and then catching myself at the last second. I walked the whole length of the wall that way.

Then I came to the end and it was time to jump down, and I had to decide, which way do I jump? To the left was the track bed. To the right, all I could see was blackness—but I assumed it was that same shallow slope, so, about a foot-and-a-half drop onto slightly uneven ground.

I chose left. Later I tried to convince myself there was some sort of logic behind this decision—like, maybe I was worried about twisting my ankle on the slope in the dark—but the truth is, it was a random impulse. I could just as easily have jumped right, and if I had, I wouldn’t be here now telling you this.

About a week later I went back out there in daylight, and that’s when I found out that at that point along the LIRR, an abandoned spur of track passed underneath the main line. The retaining wall wasn’t a retaining wall, it was the top of a tunnel mouth. I’d been dancing on the edge of a 25-foot cliff.

It gets better. The residents of the apartment buildings had taken to dumping their trash in the gulley and on the abandoned track: refrigerators, stoves, stuff like that. Directly beneath the tunnel arch, right where I would have landed, there was this old black iron bedframe. The mattress had long since disintegrated, but the thing still had a full set of bedsprings, which, from above, looked more like a set of coiled, rusty daggers. So if I’d jumped right that night, I wouldn’t have just fallen and broken my neck, I’d have been impaled.

The thing that really freaked me out about this was not the fact that I’d almost died, because I’d had close calls before. What got to me was the realization of just how much could ride on a seemingly trivial decision. Jump one way, you get to grow up and maybe have that writing career you’ve been dreaming about. Jump the other, and you’re nothing but somebody else’s cautionary tale: “Don’t screw around on the railroad tracks or you’ll end up like that kid.”

Like most people who are happy with the way their lives turned out, I want to believe that my good fortune was preordained—that plus or minus a few details, things were meant to turn out this way. But there’s a hardheaded rational part of me that knows that that’s bullshit. I am where I am in large part because of a series of lucky accidents, and every time life has presented me with a chance to leap blindly off a cliff, I’ve just happened to jump the other way. So far.

“So far.” That is, unless I’m actually interviewing Matt Ruff, the ghost. Were you a specter, what would be the first thing you’d do on the other side of the veil?

A victory dance, or the spectral equivalent, to celebrate the fact that there really is something beyond this life and that I hadn’t just ceased to exist. Next would come a long series of practical questions—What did I leave undone, and can I still do any of it? Can I contact my wife somehow? Is there a way to rearrange this death scene so my corpse looks a little more dignified for the paramedics?—followed by another round of celebration: Whoo-hoo! Still here!

What happens after that would depend on whether dead people can get hungry, and if so, what sort of sandwiches are available.

Why do you tell stories?

It’s the way I came wired from the factory. I’ve wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember. Anytime I’m alone, or when I’m with other people but there’s a lull in the conversation, my brain flips into this default daydreaming mode that my wife calls “bookhead.” That’s where I do all my first drafts, in bookhead.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

One of the most important lessons to learn is that you’re allowed to get things wrong. Fiction, even the stuff that’s categorized as “realism,” is, by definition, make-believe. The characters don’t exist. The dialogue is invented. Cause and effect is an illusion: Everything that happens in a story happens for the same reason, because the storyteller says it does.

So if it suits your purposes to have the sun go around the earth, or to put the March of Dimes secretly in league with the American Nazi Party, you can do that. Your readers may not all love you for it, but you can do it.

The key is to make deliberate decisions and know what your reasons are. When I wrote Set This House in Order, which is about a relationship between two people with multiple personality disorder, I knew I was stepping into a controversy. There are a lot of skeptics who think MPD isn’t real, and among those psychiatrists who do believe in it, opinions vary as to the exact nature of the condition, how common it is, and how it ought to be treated. I decided up front not to worry about who was right. I picked a model of MPD that made sense to me and focused on telling a believable, engaging story using that model. The end result may or may not be true to life, but I think it’s a really good novel, and that’s what matters.

With my most recent novel, The Mirage, I set different standards of accuracy for different elements of the story. In dealing with theology, especially Islamic theology, I tried to be careful to get things right. With the action sequences, on the other hand, I opted for Hollywood physics—so long as the car chase is cool and exciting, I’m OK with it not being entirely realistic.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You should be more practical.”

Actually I’m not sure if that’s the worst advice or just the most futile. I’ve been getting different versions of it for my entire life, and even when I agree, I can never seem to follow it.

When I was a kid, my parents were very supportive of my ambition to be a writer, but occasionally some other well-meaning adult would try to talk me into considering a more sensible career goal. They never got anywhere. I knew I was going to be a writer, and even if you could have gotten me to admit that I might fail, I’d have argued that it was better to proceed on the assumption that I wouldn’t.

Later, after I’d been published, I started getting advice on how to more practically manage my career: How I should stick to this or that genre, or at least make my next novel enough like my last novel so that marketers and reviewers would know what to do with me. The trouble is, the way I write, in order to successfully finish a book, I have to be obsessed with finishing it—to feel like I need to finish it. And while I’m trying to become more flexible in my obsessions, it seems as though at any given time, there’s only one novel that really fills that sense of need, and it’s rarely the novel a practical author would choose to work on.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

I’m not sure I can articulate exactly how I go about it, but my goal in character creation is to get enough of a sense of the character’s psychology that I can easily intuit how they would behave in a wide variety of situations.

Present the character with a problem—let’s say they need to get across town in a hurry, but they’ve got no ride and no money. What do they do?

Using myself as an example, in an emergency I’d be perfectly willing to steal a car, but it’d have to be an unoccupied car with the keys in it. I don’t know how to hotwire an ignition, and as for carjacking, even if I convinced myself it was morally justified—which I might or might not be able to do, depending on the circumstances—I suck at threatening people. Even if I had a gun, there’s a good chance the driver would laugh in my face and go “Screw you! You’re not going to shoot anybody!” (At which point I’d lower the gun and say, “Yeah, you’re right, and I’m really, really sorry, but if I don’t get to Tenth and Main in fifteen minutes, this whole city is going to be engulfed in a nuclear fireball. Can you please help me?”)

That’s the mark of a strong character, when you not only know what they will do and won’t do, you know what they think they’re capable of—and how they react when they find out they’re wrong.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’m generally unimpressed by the storytelling in videogames, in part because the game and the narrative are so often at odds with one another. If I’m having fun playing, I don’t want to stop and watch a cutscene—or, God help me, read a wall of text—and if I’m really into a story, I don’t want to have to pass a hand-eye coordination test to find out what happens next.

One of the rare exceptions is Valve’s Portal series, which integrates the story into the play in a way that is seamless, so I never get the sense of being pulled in two directions at once. And the writing is fantastic! GLaDOS is one of the best villains ever, and the supporting characters in Portal 2 are hilarious.

You’re a man of many books — which, of the novels you’ve penned, is your favorite?

It’s a toss-up between Set This House in Order and The Mirage.

There’s a line John Crowley uses in describing his novel Little, Big, where he says it’s the book in which he discovered the extent of his powers as a writer. For me, Set This House is that book: my first fully mature work, and one that really raised the bar on what I thought that I could do.

I think The Mirage may be another milestone book, but I’m still too close to it to say for sure. There’s a sense in which my most recent novel is always my favorite, because it’s the one I’ve been thinking about nonstop for the last few years. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel once I’ve had time to get some distance from it.

Where did The Mirage come from? How is it a book only Matt Ruff could’ve written?

The Mirage grew out of a desire to tell a 9/11 story that wasn’t like other 9/11 stories. I’d noticed that American novelists and screenwriters were focusing almost exclusively on what 9/11 had done to us, while ignoring the people who were bearing the brunt of the War on Terror—the innocents on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought it might be interesting to give those folks a turn in the spotlight, so I hit on this idea of taking a 9/11 thriller and setting it in an alternate reality where the U.S. and the Middle East had traded places. In The Mirage, the world superpower is a liberal democracy called the United Arab States and the terrorists are Christian fundamentalists from a fragmented North America. The heroes of the story are a trio of Iraqi Muslims who work for Arab Homeland Security.

The basic concept of The Mirage is one I think other authors might have come up with, but I’m probably one of the few crazy enough to actually try to write it, especially while the Iraq War was still going on. I also think most authors would have opted for either a purely plot-driven story or something with a heavy-handed Message. I’m a fan of tight plotting, but plot without character is hollow, and much of my storytelling effort is devoted to making sure I’ve got well-developed protagonists you care about. As for Messages, I’m very wary of them, because they tend to force both the characters and the plot to go in unnatural—and uninteresting—directions.

The other distinctly Ruffian touch is that I have knack for handling dark subject matter in a way that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists. The Mirage is about terrorism and war and religiously inspired mass murder, and it takes those things seriously, but at the same time it’s a funny and ultimately hopeful story.

The Mirage turns the events of 9/11 into an alt-reality parable — did you intend for this to be politically subversive, or is this just the tale that came to be told? What is the value of subversion?

Well, given the basic setup, I knew it would be politically subversive, but I wouldn’t say that was the sole or the main objective. The point of creating a looking-glass world is to get a reverse-angle perspective on everything—politics, yes, but also history and society and religion and morality. The value comes from how that novel vantage point allows you to see things, even very obvious things, that you somehow never noticed before. One of the great powers of fiction is that it lets you try out different perspectives, different sets of eyes, and be entertained while you’re doing it.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

“Uranus,” with the American pronunciation. And “cocksucker.”

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Kahlúa. Alcohol, caffeine, and extra sugar: Yes, please!

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Like a lot of lateral-thinking creative types, I have the power of the non sequitur. While the robots’ logic circuits are paralyzed, trying to figure out how the hell I got from topic A to topic B, I’ll be pulling wires and yanking batteries.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Unless some other object of obsession presents itself soon, my next project will probably be a novel called Lovecraft Country. It’s set in the Jim Crow era, and the protagonist is an African-American named Atticus Turner. Atticus is a field researcher for The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a publication that reviews hotels and restaurants that accept black customers. He’s also a pulp- and science-fiction geek, and as he drives around the country he gets caught up in a series of supernatural adventures. The joke in the novel’s title is that the biggest threat to Atticus’s safety and sanity isn’t some Lovecraftian monster, it’s America itself.

3 comments

  • I luv Matt Ruff – even since I read the “Sewer, Gas, Electric” trilogy. He has such a quirky way of world building, which is both ridiculous and over-the-top at the same time.
    Those answers here just reflect that. I admire his ability to tackle seemingly serious and complex topics as terrorism, MPD and fundamentalism and gives it a fun and almost lighthearted spin without deriding it. Such a toughghghg balance to aim for, but he pulls it off. Danke schön for that kick-ass interview, Chuck.

  • Thanks for doing this interview! I’ve been waiting to read it until I had the proper time to appreciate it.
    I’ve loved Matt Ruff since I read “Fool on the Hill.” Have to say “Set This House in Order” blew me away. One, it’s a wrenching story with characters you care about – and two, it totally blows the “write what you know” maxim away. I’m totally looking forward to reading “The Mirage.” I have to agree with Matt that I can’t imagine other American authors being brave enough to contemplate something like that, much less actually write it.

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