Interview with Matthew Klam Colleen Curran One on One

portrait Interview with Matthew Klam

interviewed by Colleen Curran

Published in Issue No. 51 ~ August, 2001

Matthew Klam, author of the short story collection, Sam the Cat and
Other Stories
, did what every aspiring new writer hopes to do — he
published every single one of his stories in The New Yorker
before he even had a book. In 1999, Klam was named one of the Twenty
Best Writers Under Forty by The New Yorker. Raised in New York,
Klam left the Empire State to study philosophy at the University of
New Hampshire. Klam held a few odd jobs after graduation, including
writing for a doctor’s magazine and teaching English in Japan before
enrolling in the M.F.A. program at Hollins College.

Since publishing Sam the Cat, Klam has been working on a novel that
stems from the last story in his collection, European Wedding. When
he’s not working on his first novel, Klam writes essays for
and The New York Times Magazine. Klam lives with
his wife in Washington D.C. This interview took place on Valentine’s
Day 2001.

Colleen Curran: What’s the main difference between a short story and a

Matthew Klam: Short stories are like looking through a keyhole. A
novel is a 360-degree panoramic window. It’s hard to keep the novel
small. I think, now, when someone says that a novel is a “tour de
force” it really means there’s too much crap in there. It’s hard to
keep the novel small. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is right on the edge
of too much stuff. But I liked the novel.

CC: What is your writing method?

MK: I build up a head of steam before I start writing. I take a lot of
notes. I sift through the notes and it’s obvious that some are talking
about the same thing. But it’s new, every time. Writing the novel is
much worse. Totally overwhelming.

CC: Most of the stories from Sam the Cat are written from a young
male first person point of view. How about the novel?

MK: It’s in third person right now. I might switch. My third person
voice is not really third person anyway.

CC: Do you have a deadline to finish the novel?

MK: No deadlines. I had offers, but I didn’t want to show it until
it’s done.

CC: A lot of the stories in Sam the Cat are focused on relationships
between men and the women they love. On this last read I was really
struck by how women and money keep cropping up over and over again as
totemic images for your narrators. Is there a connection between women
and money?

MK: Both are markers of a person’s progress in life. If you’re in a
high-functioning relationship with someone you admire then it’s like
being successful in your work in a way. It’s a sign of success in your

CC: You write about your narrator’s love/hate relationships with
women. But the male narrators in your stories also have problems with
their male friends — there seems to be a love/hate relationship there
as well. How do you view male/male relationships? Why do you write
about them?

MK: I think there is so much more out there that’s more interesting to
write about than someone getting hold of a nuclear bomb and pointing
it at the U.S. Men compensate for their angry nature with other men.
It’s very complex. I’ve just learned how to be comfortable with other
guys and enjoy them in the way I did in 5th grade. It’s hard to trust
men because they’re untrustworthy. Men feel desperate about
themselves, about their relationships with men, because they want to
succeed, they want life to look different. It’s all about forms of
prowess, about a man’s facility within his own society. His physical,
psychological strength. Demonstrations of power. It’s devastating,
when men have problems with authority figures, they’re always seeking
ways to play that out, to demonstrate their position.

CC: Most of the twenty-something narrators in Sam the Cat are
obsessed with love, work and money. What was your biggest fear in your

MK: Not to starve. When you write stories, you displace the fears you
have onto your characters.

CC: Was Sam the Cat the first piece you ever sent to The New

MK: I sent them something years before and got a handwritten rejection
letter. And that was important to me. I was a big reader of New
stories. Alice Munro, I like her.

CC: Your narrators are often corporate guys — khaki pants,
button-down shirts, 9 to 5 types. Your essay “Some of My Best Friends
are Rich” from the New York Times portrays you as very different from
these type of corporate achievers. When I first read these stories,
the narrators were so natural I just assumed that you worked in an ad
agency or something. Why do you write about these type of men?

MK: I’m thirty-six years old. No matter how much I wanted to get away
from writing about my parents, it’s just there. My dad is a
hardworking, 9 to 5 kind of guy. He was always gritting his teeth a
lot. My friends out of college just fell right into that kind of life.
I used the method of a beret-wearing guy to get their lives across.
After seeing that in my dad and my friends, I have a lot of empathy
for people unhappy in their jobs.

They’re just who I know so they’re who I write about. I think there is
a real problem with greed and an attachment to the material world, a
strong urge among that crowd to try and live life peacefully. It’s
high art.

CC: Did you work the 9 to 5 office life?

MK: Yes. At 23, I shared an office when I wrote for a doctor’s
magazine. It was the first writing I’ve ever done. I thought I would
be a “New York City Big Cheese.” I don’t mind working. I was doing
stuff that I didn’t think mattered. Now, it’s half the time that I
think the stuff I do matters.

CC: You’ve said in other interviews that romance has been your
life-long obsession. Do you have any others?

MK: You could say I’m obsessed with ice hockey. You can finally exert
yourself with it. With writing and being married, you need to wait a
lot and practice restraint. I mean, you can’t sit down and always
crank out 5 pages a day. We’re just sitting there [as writers],
waiting for engines to come along. With hockey, it’s all go, go, go.
But as I get better at it, I see that there is waiting involved. You
have to wait for the puck to come to you.

CC: Why is hockey good for release?

MK: I’m not typical. I walk around with a lot of pent-up energy.
Hockey is a good way to release it. It’s the domesticated beast and
the feeling of being male in our society. Hockey really keeps your
mind and body completely accurate. I played softball for years and you
can play it with your pinkie, you don’t need your whole body.

CC: Why write about relationships?

MK: That’s all there is — it’s what’s real here on earth. The other
stuff is just to get us there.

CC: What is your writing habit?

MK: I wake up and come into the office 5-6 hours a day. I just
finished a piece for the Times on Ecstasy. I’m here 7-9 hours
for that. Then it’s more like a job.

CC: It’s weird, isn’t it? Writing for a living?

MK: It’s all weird. It’s weird staying at home. It’s weird working

Do you know the story about John Cheever? How he used to work in the
basement of his apartment building. He’d take his pants off and hang
them up on a pipe, so he wouldn’t get them wrinkled. Then he sat down
to write, got up when he was done and put his pants back on.

I just visited Norman Mailer’s apartment he kept for writing. He had
all these ladders and boards to walk across, to get to the top of the
apartment. I really think it’s all this anxiety about writing. I was a
high jumper in high school and the steps up to the jump were a big
deal. The steps had to be right. With writing, it doesn’t matter if
you’re in a good mood or not, if you saw the shrink this morning, or
got a cup of coffee — sometimes it’s just out of your control.

CC: Why do you keep an office for writing?

MK: I have a perfectly nice row house at home. I stay there sometimes
and work in the morning. I was home for 10 years [writing], I couldn’t
take it anymore. Now, I work in the basement of the Uruguay Embassy.
There’s a writer next door to me. I like to be here when people are

CC: Why are short stories important?

MK: I usually have to call somebody else up to get why writing is
important. Short stories are good because you get something that is
hard to get in a movie. It’s easier than reading a novel. I couldn’t
read novels for years. Short stories seemed more manageable.

But really, it’s whatever floats your boat. Some people think poetry
writing is useless. It’s hard right now. Film and TV is everywhere,
it’s awesome. I love TV, good films, they’re just different.

CC: Then why did you decide to write short stories instead of

MK: I came from a bookish family. My mom was never not reading. Books
get under your skin in a way that’s hard for TV and film to do.

CC: How long does it take for you to write a short story?

MK: I worked on “Issues I Dealt With in Therapy” when I was a Writer
in Residence at St. Paul’s school. It was totally concentrated. I
worked on it for two months, it still wasn’t really done though. We
did a lot of work to it for The New Yorker. I knew it was going to be
good. The truest thing anybody ever said to me was: “Revision,
revision, revision.” And that was before I even started writing

Have you read “In A Father’s Place” by Christopher Tilghman? Seven
years he worked on that story. It’s a great, great story.

As far as looking for clues from other people, sometimes you’re
reaching and wasting time. You’ll stumble across a few things and make
it better. But all of it [writing] is searching and looking.

CC: How does your wife respond to your pieces?

MK: She thinks it’s depressing. I read “The Royal Palms” in England
once and she said, “You put people to sleep.”

CC: You went to Hollins College to get your MFA. Did you start any of
the stories from Sam the Cat there?

MK: I wrote “Sam the Cat” there. I started the second story, “Not
This” but didn’t finish it until a year later.

CC: What’s the best thing you learned in graduate school?

MK: It helps to have people around who are smart. They can work in
your office or at school. It doesn’t matter as long as you have a good
reader. You need people to help shape what you write. Everything I’ve
written has gotten so much better by working with people. I learned
that flashbacks are by nature static. Don’t end a story with a dream.
You have to follow through and evolve as much as you can. You have to
make the old thing new. That’s what we do to keep people engaged. You
can do all these “No no’s” in fiction, but you have to make it new.

CC: Who are your influences? Or who are you reading right now?

MK: I’m really getting into Joan Didion’s novels, like A Book of
Common Prayer
and Democracy. I love Coetzee’s Disgrace — it’s
really short and great. I just bought some Graham Greene. I love John
O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. I want things that have good
pacing. The literary world is not interested in teaching you pacing.
No forward moving plots. I’m still young enough to think I can write a
plotted novel that won’t suck.

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Colleen Curran lives in Richmond, Virginia. She writes for the online magazine