I trudged through a shallow tidepool caked over with coppery surf that popped and sputtered as I moved through it. I saw a gutted aluminum trailer home erupting from a pinkish slurry, vomiting glow-in-the-dark windshield dice from its open front door. On a hill beyond there was a jagged pyramid of a hundred or so white Chinese hardhats piled up like the skulls of monks, topped by a Tekken 9 arcade game cabinet, the composite frame of which was swollen and separated, rimed with a sick yellow crust. I passed a vinyl lawn ornament in the shape of a snowglobe that was partially inflated from the heat. The team of reindeer trapped inside were furry with black fungus. Hundreds of Nerf darts littered my path like grapeshot cast on the battlefields at Gettysburg, and in the distance a fiberglass restaurant chain mascot lay with its braincase smashed. I marveled at how the things had gotten to Dokken, and how it had come to be an inhabitable surface at all. When my father ran United Polymer the garbage patch was little more than a speculation. It couldn’t be seen by satellite or by the naked eye, and the threat it posed was so remote that nobody paid much attention. Suddenly, though, there was a small, rainbow-colored island spinning at the center of the gyre. I remember the photograph that my father tried to hide from me of a group of scientists balanced on its surface in T-shirts and running shorts, staring ruefully into the distance. He was ashamed of the picture but I found it fascinating. The objects collected in the gyre told a story that no single human hand could author.
Beyond the mascot, which was a muscular cheeseburger dressed as a ninja, there was an oblong depression lined with a patchwork underlayment of parched tarps and wrappers, lengths of tattered plastic woven together and shot through with tangled bits of safety orange fencing and drag nets. The dyes and colorants used to brand the various materials had faded and bled to create a variegated tapestry. Little fronds of torn poly whipped in the breeze. There was a slick pool at the bottom of the depression and I could see even from far away the dorsal fin of something that still lived.
—from “Dokken” (Unstuck #1)
Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times: Stories. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Fence, The Believer, The Anchor Book of New American Stories, and The Apocalypse Reader.
Interview by Molly Laich
UNSTUCK: A story always has to take place at some time. This is just one of those decisions a writer has to make. If not now, then when? I've noticed that your stories tend to happen either in a hypothetical future—as in "Dokken" and Super Flat Times—or in the 1980s—as in "Full Metal Jhacket" and "January and December." Can you say a little about how the time period works in your stories? What is it about the future? What specifically about the 1980s appeals to you? And finally, what may or may not be unappealing to you about setting your stories in the present day?
MATTHEW DERBY: Well, some of the stories in Super Flat Times started out as stories set in modern times, which meant, at that point, the late 90s. Then I wrote “The Sound Gun,” which was based on some very real nonlethal weapons technology that was being developed at the time. But as I wrote the story, I realized that I could get away with more if I cut it loose from the present. That's really when Super Flat Times started to take shape. By setting things in the future, I could prop up these outrageous predicaments for my characters and watch how they struggled to overcome them. And I never really knew, at the outset, how they would deal with these challenges. That sounds precious, I know. But I really don't have any idea how a story will end when I start it. Or I should say that I can only finish a story if I don't know how it's supposed to end. I'm just not interested enough, otherwise, to make it through.
Those stories about the 80s were mainly nostalgia pieces. John Lennon's murder had a big impact on me (even though I was seven at the time), and I felt like it was something I just had to write about. “Full Metal Jhacket” was a sort of tribute to my friends from Junior High—we were always making super 8 movies: super-pretentious stuff, really ham-fisted ripoffs of Kubrick films. And we had this feeling that somehow Kubrick would actually see the films and collaborate with us or fund a feature or something. We actually thought this. I ache for that kind of naiveté, and that story was my attempt to reach back through time and sort of caress it one last time. By the time those came out, though, I was already typecast as the “meat future guy,” so people would read the stories and struggle to figure out how they were futuristic. Like, they thought maybe the main character in “January in December” came from the future or something. So I may be stuck writing future stories whether I like it or not.
The only thing that's lame to me about writing something set in contemporary America is that I'd almost certainly have to write things like, “Starbucks,” “Applebee's,” and “Spotify.” I can't really articulate why I don't want to write about those brands. But it bums me out. But I don't have a rule about it. Someday, if I'm still writing, I'm sure I'll end up setting a story in “modern times.” But there are so many people already doing it way better than me. So I may just stick to the future, actually. There are only a couple people writing about how boring the future will be. So I feel like it's easier for me to stand out in a crowd if I become a subject matter expert in that arena.
UNSTUCK: I was particularly touched by the narrator's relationship with the dolphin in "Dokken.” Says your narrator: "I felt comfortable talking to the dolphin, who seemed to really get me." For me, the dolphin is a much needed source of warmth and "humanity" in an otherwise bleak scenario.
MATTHEW DERBY: You're right—I wanted to give the guy in “Dokken” a task that would briefly ennoble him. He sees this creature suffering the worst kind of humiliation—floundering out of the water with a surgically implanted human voice box that can only make menu recommendations—and he acts. And for a moment the reader thinks, “Hey, that guy's great. That's exactly what I would do.” At least I hope that's what they think.
UNSTUCK: On the flipside, you've invented this terrible "Meat Tower," where in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of plants, the people are resigned to eating an all-animal diet.
MATTHEW DERBY: The funny thing about “The Meat Tower” is that—I swear this is true—I had no idea it would be perceived as a screed against meat eating. When the book came out all of my friends were like, "Oh, I see you tried to push your vegetarian agenda once again." And I looked at the story and saw what they were talking about, but it was a true shocker to me.
I wrote that story for some literary journal—something that doesn't even exist anymore. One of the editors solicited a piece from me and I told her, on the spot, that I was going to write a story about a kid in a snowmobile suit sliding down a massive column of frozen meat. And I went and wrote the story, and it had the kid sliding down the tower of meat. But not once did I think about the perceived symbolism, you know, of the horror of a world made of meat. I just thought it would be a funny image.
The editor then rejected the story. I'm not bitter about it.
UNSTUCK: We were talking, before the interview, about the TV show Animal Hoarders. I don't know about you, but personally, while I love and am fascinated by them, I'm a little annoyed at all of these in-depth documentary-style shows for mining all the very meaty human tragedies, such as hoarding, weird addictions to eating tape or plastic surgery, salmon fishing, duck entrepreneurs and on and on, leaving less and less for us writers. How does media influence your writing? How does IRL influence your writing?
MATTHEW DERBY: I don't know. I feel like those shows—even the best of them—can only go so far in revealing the depths of the human condition. But Gary Lutz could write a story about a woman who compulsively licks dustings of Comet and it would just barely resemble the source material (My Strange Addiction, Season One, Episode Three). In other words, the material is all out there already. It's the lens through which the artist translates the raw material that matters.
UNSTUCK: What are some themes and ideas you're particularly interested in these days?
MATTHEW DERBY: I've been working on this project for the past year that explores the notion that language is a hardwired faculty. We, as humans, didn't sit around a campfire in a cave and invent language. It's part of our physiological makeup. We have areas in our brain that are specifically designed for producing and comprehending language. So in a very real sense, humans didn't make language; language made humans. That's totally fascinating to me.
UNSTUCK: About your writing. I find it to be clear and precise, but not particularly "minimalist." What I mean is that at times, you allow yourself to pack a lot of details and insight into your sentences. The prose is allowed to meander on the characters' reflections and ideas in a way that is sometimes absent from a lot of current writing—particularly stories published on the web. And finally, your stories are not particularly short. Have you ever felt pressure to produce shorter work? Do you find it difficult to find venues willing to publish work that takes time and care to unpack?
MATTHEW DERBY: So, you're saying my stories are too long?
I started out writing really short, “prose poem-y” stuff. “Micro fiction.” But I could never really find my footing. I don't really send my stuff out that much so I'm not getting the sense that it's being rejected based on length.
But this project I'm working on will be published exclusively online, and my collaborators and I sort of arbitrarily agreed that none of the pieces we wrote for it would be longer than 1,500 words. Our goal is to give readers the sense that they can read an entire piece on a single subway ride. We've sort of designed the project so that it can be read “out in the world.” So that's certainly forced me to compress and condense, and I think for the better.
UNSTUCK: Finally, could you share some writers or books that you currently find particularly exciting?
MATTHEW DERBY: I've just read two related graphic novels by Alison Bechdel--Fun Home, about her father, who inherited his father's funeral home, struggled with his sexual identity, and eventually committed suicide, and Are You My Mother?, which is, spoiler alert, about her relationship with her mother. To say that they're “about” her parents really underserves their incredible scope. The way she uses the comic form to tell these stories is really astounding. I don't read a ton of graphic novels, so maybe my saying that is equivalent to a guy who's never heard a rock song thinking that Papa Roach is the greatest band ever. But I don't see how Bechdel could have told these stories in any other medium. Her transitions are super deft and exhilarating and she manages to convey raw emotional content with precision and an utter lack of sentimentality that blows me away. They're definitely the best books I've read in a while.
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Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.