On Thursday, February 16th, 2017, Miami University Master’s in Creative Writing graduate Matt Young sat down with students in TaraShea Nesbit’s Intermediate Nonfiction Writing course (ENG 323), to talk about his forthcoming memoir, Eat the Apple (Bloomsbury, 2018). The memoir explores the time in his life when he made a rash decision to join the military and the subsequent events that befell him. In this interview, Young discusses how he wrote the memoir, his use of unexpected point of views and images in the memoir, the ethics of writing about living people and real events, and the publishing process from query letters to working with a publisher. This interview was edited for cohesion and conciseness.
Q: (TaraShea) When we first met, you were writing fiction and resistant to writing about your time in the military. How did you overcome that?
A: (Young) There was a lot of resistance, mostly because I didn’t want to be a cliché. I didn’t want to be the type of person that experienced something traumatic and then writes to capitalize on that traumatic experience and doesn’t do it in a thoughtful way. I was super-worried about it because I started writing about it as an undergrad at Oregon State and the stories I wrote were just bad. The fiction I tried to write was bad, the nonfiction I tried to write was worse. I put it aside for a while, and then I got into Miami as a grad student in fiction. I was going to write speculative fiction stories about the Midwest because I grew up in Indiana and I thought alright, I can make the Midwest weird—that can be my gimmick, that can be cool.
Then, halfway through the year Oxford Student Magazine had a grad student reading, and the people in charge at that time asked me to do a reading like all the other grad students. I wanted to do something different than what I had already written because all of the fiction I’d already written was crap. I wrote a couple nonfiction pieces. I sat down over the course of a day and a half—I gave myself a super short timeframe—I had a super short time constraint, so I pumped them out. It ended up being okay, I got a good response, people laughed. People thought they were funny and sad, and people were quiet—concerned about me, and then I put them aside again because I said that’s not a thing, I’m here to write fiction, that’s what I came here to do. And then over the summer, I locked myself in my office. I realized that this was the time I had to write this thesis because it’s due at the end of next year, and I’m not going to have time to write it next year because of coursework and all this other stuff, and so I had to get the bulk of it done over the summer, so I sat down and tried to write fiction, but it didn’t come.
And then these stories just started pouring forth, which were bar stories that I used to tell people to get a laugh a lot of the time, and then I moved them into a space that wasn’t just bar stories. These were things I would do to just entertain people. That turned into well what’s the actual story, why did I use them to entertain people? Is it really a funny story? Can it maintain humor and also keep the seriousness and keep a conversation about any one of the other things I write about with trauma, or love, or sexuality—can I do something with that? Then they just started pouring forth—I wrote 75 to 100 pages over the summer, which felt good to me at that time. And then I just kept going and writing from there.
Q: (TaraShea) I was just listening to a podcast this morning, of an interview with George Saunders from about 10 years ago and he was similarly talking about how he feels that people reject the thing that is actually most clear, the closest to them. He kept trying to get rid of his funny, and that was his real voice so when he stopped trying to do that, it was more natural. The writing was better.
A: (Young) Absolutely, it’s like, this is my personality, I’m sick of writing about it. Why would I write about myself if I’m sick of myself? I realized that I had to take a different approach in how to apply that, or how to apply that part of me to something that is different. It’s kind of where the weird genre switching came from.
Q: (John) When writing in nonfiction, do you find that there are things you just cannot talk about?
A: (Young) Yeah, if you’re writing nonfiction it’s important to find that line that you’re not willing to cross, because if you write nonfiction about yourself, then people are going to know it’s about you, and if you’re not comfortable with people knowing that about you, then you shouldn’t write about it.
Q: (TaraShea) It also seems like one strategy you use it to anonymize the speaker—
A: (Young) Absolutely—
Q: (TaraShea) The story gets to happen but it’s “one of us did this,” or it’s blurry. Many people in the class talked about the way things get blurry at times which feels like a strategy of telling and not telling.
A: (Young) It was a strategy of me being a complete coward.
Q: (David) What was the purpose of the POV shifts between sections?
A: (Young) In the military if you use the first person, you are punished. The purpose was to think about the whole. In the sections that use the second person and third person, this was to emphasize the collective thought and also the idea of family. The shift between the first and third person in the last section of the book was done to demonstrate the process of returning to individual life. Returning to “I” was frightening.
Q: (Paige) At times, the tone sounds angry. Is that something you’re trying to portray and if so, is that anger more directed at yourself or at the military?
A: (Young) I’m angry at a lot of things; I was angry at everything. I’m less angry now. But, I think that I was angry a lot at myself. When I got the edits from my editor, his biggest criticisms were in the sections where I talk to my past self. In this one section I just berate my 18-year-old self which is like, who yells at an 18 year old? It’s like the jerkiest thing to do in the world. He was like you gotta back off yourself a little bit because you’re being kind of a jerk. And I was like yeah, that’s the point. I was an idiot. And he’s like, yeah, but you didn’t know that, and also you’re fine now, relatively speaking…. He said you gotta let people know that you’re okay, and you have to let yourself know that you’re going to be okay, because if you don’t show empathy to your characters you’re just gonna sound angry and ‘yelly’.
Hopefully at some points in the book that empathy comes out. You have to tell yourself ‘Alright, this happened, but you’re gonna be alright, and you’re going to move past it.’ But yes, anger was a driving force.
Q: As far as the point of view, we were on that earlier, I noticed that you split up sections of these diagrams of the body, could you explain your choice in putting them where they were and why you chose to demonstrate the physical body instead of your disembodied voice?
A: (Young) Yeah, so, the body diagrams… well, one of them is an accurate recounting of my medical record– like the “Ouch” section is from my medical record. In one of the iterations of the book they were a complete story. There were 7 of them and I was like, this is too much, it’s too busy. And so I was thinking a lot about how to separate the book. I was gonna write this book in seven sections–like basic training, deployment one, home, deployment two, home, deployment three…it was too many, it was too busy. So I had to think about how I could separate it by time, and think about how my mindset changed. Those changes in the body are representative of how my mindset was changing a lot of the time–as with the phantom knee pain one. That’s not real, but it was representative of an emotion.
Q: (Sam) We talked about the more corporate idea of target audience. We stereotyped the sort of people who would read military memoirs as more conservative and we stereotyped military memoirs as very mass-market, very American Sniper, and then we stereotyped the kind of people who would read a book of creative nonfiction essays as very liberal, Brooklyn-hipster. This book has a lot of both, so did you think about that at all and if you did, how do you reconcile these two ideas?
A: (Young) My biggest fear is being put in a niche where the only people who they send my book out to are white military men. God, the world has too many voices there. I tried to background the war. I tried to overlay these kind of human experiences on top of that thing, so the war works to move the narrative forward while I’m talking about a love story. I have these ideas about masculinity, and these ideas about sexuality, and these ideas about race that kind of criss-cross throughout that narrative and kind of ride it like a wave. I’m hoping those take the forefront. Hopefully military dudes pick up the novel and maybe that can help them.
I’m hoping that people can use it to form empathy with people they don’t know about. I have a meeting with my marketing and publicity folks next week, and I’m like, what am I going to say to them? Because that’s who they’re going to send that to. They’re going to send it to [military writers] which is fine. They’re doing great work, but I don’t want to have a ‘hot take’ about what’s happening socio-politically in the Middle East, because I’m not super smart, and I don’t have a ‘hot take’ on it. So I think that it’s a hard space to navigate and I hope that maybe that has to do with the cover. Maybe the cover art will be some part of that conversation and that maybe–trying to go after and get authors of color and women to read it who have non-military backgrounds, that would be awesome.
Q: (Chaze) What went into creating your query letter? What relationship do you have with your editor? What influence, if any, did you have on the physical format of the book?
A: (Young) The query letter was a page long word document, single spaced. It was a really uncomfortable space for me to be in because you have to sell yourself, which is super weird if you’re not comfortable with it. For me, because I have a self-deprecating sense of humor–I’m super-self conscious–[Being here] this is kind of my nightmare. But I gave it to a couple of people for edits, and it got to the point where I said, “Screw it I’m going to send it out to 10 agents and I’m going to see what happens.” A friend said, “send it to Bill Clegg, of the Clegg Agency.” She sent me a new edit, which was a better than what I wrote because it sells me more. She managed to hit my voice better than I hit my voice somehow. To have someone who knows you–knows your voice, your writing–tell you, “This is how to be natural,” I looked back on it thinking, “Would I have been more successful if I had talked to her first?”
As far as my editor relationship, we have very little contact. He is this ethereal creature that does his thing and sends me stuff when he needs to. I have more contact with my agent [Chris Clemans], and he is fantastic because he treats me very nicely, like a delicate flower. I can’t take criticism, and he knows I can’t take criticism, so he treads very lightly. He has this “how do you feel about this” approach. He went through the manuscript page by page with me. It was an eight-hour phone conversation over two days. He really sat down and told me, “This is the stuff you need to keep, take out, talk more about this experience.” There was a poem in it at one point in time and he told me, “You can’t do that.” I had to ask myself, “Is this adding to what I’m doing? How is it adding to it?” I asked myself that a lot.
As far as the physical aspect, they gave me a questionnaire, which is very strange, which was like “Describe your book in five sentences, who are six authors you’d like us to send the book to,” so I gave them 15 authors. They asked me what I like in terms of jacket covers, what I don’t like, what’s an image I think that would work on it. I’m like “I like abstract art covers,” which they’re thinking, “That’s probably not gonna work on a war memori…” But my fear is that they come back with an M-16 or something, or date palms, or an M-16 planted with date palms. Those were all horrifying moments of my life.
Q: (Paige) Were the other people you mentioned in your memoir, specifically your ex, included in the process and were you worried about their reactions when the book gets published?
A: (Young) Yeah, pretty constantly. I kind of have a hypocritical relationship with that because at one point in time I do care, but mostly I don’t think a lot about audience at all when I’m writing. If you try to write for everybody, you end up writing for nobody, as cliche as that sounds. The ex–she doesn’t know the book is coming out. In my defense, I have tried to contact her and she wants nothing to do with me. In her defense, fair. She isn’t mentioned by name, but she is still definitely recognizable, especially to herself and her family. If I could get ahold of her and let her know it’s happening, I would love to. As far as the Marines that are mentioned, there are four or five that don’t have their names changed: Charlie, Adam, John, Keene. The three dead don’t have their names changed. The rest of the names are changed. Some of them asked me to and some of them I couldn’t get ahold of.
Q: (Sam) If you don’t mind sharing, what five authors did you send your book to?
A: (Young) I gave them six war writers — Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Elliot Ackerman. And then for my goal writers, it was Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, and I don’t remember the rest of them. The other ones were women and writers of color because I was all like ‘no white men.’
Q: (TaraShea) When is the book coming out? When can we look for it?
A: (Young) Next year, and you all will have totally forgotten me by the time this comes out. March or February of 2018. Bloomsbury, Eat the Apple.
Q: (TaraShea) Are you working on something else or are you working on revisions?
A: (Young) I’m done with revisions, the edits are accepted. I am having so much trouble writing. So, I’ve been weirdly writing twitter assemblage poems. I’ve found myself completely inundated by the news, and I get my news from pundits that I follow on Twitter. I’m using that thing I’m addicted to and can’t put down into writing, taking those things, combining them, and I’m thinking of turning them into a chapbook. We’ll see where that goes.
Q: (TaraShea) Are you back in the West now?
A: (Young) Yeah, Olympia, Washington. I’m living that Pacific Northwest life, amongst the cougars and pine trees.
(TaraShea) Well thank you so much for coming.
(Young) Thank you so much, you guys were awesome!
Interview conducted and/or edited by: Paige Burcheit, Chaze Copeland, John Meade, Angela Day, Scout Ellam, Audrey Fanshaw, David Farley, Charlie Fordon, Jake Grace, Megan Haase, James Harris, Sam Hunter, Jenni Jenkins, Tori Levy, Ashley Losher, Kelly Murray, Maddie Passarella, Jake Pickard, Caitlin Roth, Zach Sharb, Tori Taylor, Blake Wysocki, and TaraShea Nesbit.