A Conversation with Suzanne Matson
Elizabeth Graver is the author of the novels Unravelling and The Honey Thief. She teaches with Suzanne Matson in the English Department at Boston College.
Elizabeth Graver: What was the initial seed of this novel? Did the story surprise you in any way as it progressed?
Suzanne Matson: A few years ago my mother sent me a clipping about an incident in my old neighborhood involving some kids who were struck by lightning at football practice, one of them seriously hurt. I started thinking about the almost mythological proportions of such a freak accident--the Zeus-like incursion of the lightning bolt into the middle of something as mundane as a suburban football practice. Then I began thinking about my old neighborhood itself, a working class suburb where the public schools were decent but where sports reigned supreme. When I was a kid I couldn't wait to grow up and live in the city--as soon as I was in college I lived in a series of downtown apartments. But now, twenty years later, I'm back in the suburbs, raising my own kids. I was struck by the irony of this--how wanting a house and a lawn seems almost inevitable when you've got small kids. You want them to have freedom to run and explore, but in a protected, bordered way. So I guess the seed for the book began with the lightning, and how even in lives and places that are supposedly safe there is no guarding against the unexpected. There are no truly safe places. I guess if something surprised me during the writing it was how emphatic that notion became for me: marriages aren't safe, in the sense that you can count on them to stay the same, and the tidy suburban lot you tend on the weekend is only a symbol of your desired control over nature.
EG: Your first novel, The Hunger Moon, was narrated from the points of view of three female characters. A Trick of Nature has, at its heart, the perspective of a man. What challenges and rewards did you encounter in writing from Greg's point of view?
SM: I really liked writing from inside Greg's head. He's forthright, he wants things to be simple and clear, and when they're not he gets kind of pissed about it. At the same time, his nature is to hope for the best. The hardest part about adopting his point of view was not that he was a man--for some reason, that didn't seem difficult--but that he was largely unconscious about his limitations. I wanted his vision to grow as the novel progressed, but I didn't want him to have any unrealistic breakthroughs. He has a habit of denial that I couldn't cure him of. As a result, I had to show the readers things about Greg that Greg couldn't see himself.
EG: I remember that, as you were working on this novel, Patty's perspective was one you added fairly late in the game. What made you want to add her point of view?
SM: For one thing, I needed another angle on Greg; her understanding of him was in many ways deeper than his own. And yet, as she fell into the habit of taking control in the marriage, she stopped seeing him fully. I think that's a real danger in a long marriage, that the partners have a version of the other in mind that doesn't grow; as a result both can get stuck in their roles. It may be a comfortable trap for a while, but I wanted to show how after they were married for almost two decades there were bound to be ways in which Patty's and Greg's roles had grown static and binding. This is especially true for Patty's character. She was difficult for me to get at until I realized how much buried resentment she had. Once I understood that, she began to get more complicated for me.
EG: In many ways this is a novel about middleness. Greg and Patty are entering middle age, and they live what appear to be, at first, fairly middle-of-the-road suburban lives. And yet, as you show, their world is full of unexpected cracks, sutures--like the lightning that strikes Timothy Phelps. What drew you to this world? Are there other writers of suburbia or middle age whose work inspired you?
SM: Well, what drew me was the fact that in some ways, this is my world. I came from the kind of place Patty and Greg live in, and I wanted to document it. And, as I said, now I'm a parent in the suburbs. But yes, there are literary models for what I wanted to do. In particular I love Updike's Rabbit novels. I had only read Rabbit is Rich--and that back when I was in college--when I started writing A Trick of Nature. I knew right away that Greg Goodman was in some ways a kinsman of Harry Angstrom: they both have self-conceptions framed in terms of a sport, neither is interested in looking too deeply into his personal relationships until those relationships begin to crumble, and neither has a deeply thought out value system or a religious faith. I didn't allow myself to read the rest of the Rabbit novels until I was done writing my novel; I didn't want to feel too influenced. But when I sent the book off to the publisher I read the whole Rabbit tetrology as a reward. I was struck anew at the similar emotional blueprints that make up Greg and Harry.
EG: Fathers play an important role in A Trick of Nature. While you primarily focus on Greg's role as a father to his girls, we also see him--through his memories of his own father--as a son. How does Greg's past inform his current life as father and husband? How does it inform his reactions to Timothy Phelps and his father?
SM: I see Greg as emotionally undernourished. His father was an un-evolved, unsatisfied person who took a lot of his frustration and bitterness out on his son. Greg is a much better parent than his father was--more open, more emotionally generous. But because he's afraid of duplicating his father's harsh parenting, Greg tends to abdicate when it comes to disciplining his teenage daughters. When things get emotionally volatile, he'd rather leave the unpleasant confrontations to Patty. In Tim Phelps, Greg sees a kid who reminds him of his younger self; his impulse is to bolster him if he can, run interference with Tim's gruff father. Greg is even aware of this impulse, and it leads him to remember what it felt like to be an adolescent boy--how important the equations of power and vulnerability are then, and how sports for him became a safe place to channel anger and aggression. As Tim's football coach, Greg has the ready-made language of the pep talk to try to support Tim; he belatedly realizes how limited and one-dimensional a language it is.
EG: Lorraine Morrison is a particularly intriguing character, both in terms of her own story and in terms of what she allows Greg to explore. How do you understand her place in the book?
SM: She's the wild card. Greg needs to track her down, both out of curiosity, and for reasons he can't quite fathom himself. When he does find her, he's fascinated by her utter disregard for all that he takes so seriously--home, family, stability, reputation, and parental responsibility. As Greg begins to question the shape of his own life, the apparent freedom of hers looks alluring. She's not free though, as he begins to understand the longer he knows her.
EG: You write very convincingly about what it's like to parent teenaged twin daughters, coach football, and work at a place like the Top Hat--all experiences you've never had. Can you describe how you go about filling these fictional worlds with such rich details?
SM: For the football stuff I had to consult my husband, my brother, and some male friends. It's not a game I'm particularly interested in. What does interest me is football's power to bind men together--not all men, but certainly many of the men I grew up with and the boys I went to school with. I wanted to try to get at what that male enthusiasm was all about, see if I could understand it for myself. The same goes with the strip club. What sends a particular man there as a regular customer? I've never been to a strip club, but by asking myself questions about Greg's motivation in going there, I was better able to picture the setting, as well as his growing sense of comfort in that dark and anonymous atmosphere. It became increasingly clear to me that, for Greg at least, it wasn't as much about sex as it was about loneliness. It seemed like a place you could be attracted to if you were feeling unmoored. As for parenting teenage daughters--I just tried to remember what it was like to be one: mouthy, reckless, emotional, immoderate. I declared myself an adult at fifteen, much to my mother's horror. My own sons are still small, but I can imagine how bewildering it will feel one day when they're telling me they're grown up, and I'm still seeing kids in front of me.
EG: What are you working on now?
SM: It's a new novel--no title yet. I always have to get to the end of a book before I can find a title. This one has just one point of view instead of the multiples of The Hunger Moon and A Trick of Nature, but I follow my character through three stages of his life: when he's nine and a significant family loss occurs, to when he's in college and struggling, to the final section when he returns as an adult to his hometown in New Hampshire to try to deal with his father's Alzheimer's disease. My character has a successful life in Los Angeles and has been estranged from his father for years, but it falls to him to make his father's living arrangements. It's been fascinating to follow a character over the course of thirty years; I love how complex the layers of time and memory become, the opportunities you have as a writer to use that.