Matt Potter – Conversation No. 6

© Matt Potter

© Matt Potter

Last year, I submitted a short piece about my parents to Pure Slush. Matt Potter responded to my submission in record time. If you are a writer (or poet, artist, performer), you are accustomed to the Wait. So when an editor (or other gatekeeper) answers to a submission quickly, you’re grateful. If the response is an acceptance, you wanna shout down the halls of the New York Public Library. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Matt Potter on two more projects since then. Like most children of immigrant parents, I value hard-working people and Matt is not only an incredibly generous and talented writer/editor, he brings It, and does it with a smile on his face.

Matt lives in Adelaide, South Australia. Sometimes he works as a social worker, usually in community services, but more recently, he has also worked as an English as a Second Language teacher, a job he loves, and one that dovetails nicely with his work as editor and writer.

You can find Matt’s website here: http://mattcpotter.webs.com/

I could enumerate the various things you do for the writing community, but I think it’s more interesting to have you describe what you do and how you are able to accomplish so many projects.

POTTER

Ha! Oh, I guess the big thing is I hate being bored. That’s the big one.

My partner says things like, “I’m happy when Matt has a project,” and when I am depressed and frustrated (and bored!), “Maybe you need a new project.” I have a lot of energy too, and tend to push myself. (“Come on, there’s still another hill to climb. Don’t give up now! It’s just another ten minutes.”) I’m quite tenacious (I have a hard time walking away from things I love, or obsess me, or want to make work) so in some ways, I am incredibly disciplined. Yet in others, I am all over the place. So they come together … a lot of work (disciplined), and a lot of different projects (undisciplined). When I was a teenager, before I ever entered the job market, I used to say, “I want a job where I work really hard for two or three months, and then have some time off, and then move on to the next job.” But my whole life is like that really, a conveyor belt. Though a big question is, when to get off the conveyor belt.

So (now to the disciplined part) what I do is, edit Pure Slush (online and in print), and sometimes write. I don’t get enough time for my own writing, and certainly not enough time for my own reading. I miss reading for pleasure, and lately, the few books I have read for pleasure, I thought were a bit silly, unfortunately: readable, but annoying.

Plus, I don’t have an iPhone nor do I watch much TV.

But there is an expression we have in Australia, and perhaps in other parts of the English-speaking world too: Head down, bum up. Meaning, get down and do the work and see it through and come up for air when it’s finished.

Luckily, I have an understanding partner who listens to me raving on and supports me in what I do. I talk fast but distinctly, and I think that’s a big key to understanding the way I work and what I do. It’s short and quick and meaningful … I hope.


Pure Slush is, among other things, a collaborative forum where writers from different parts of the world get to riff off each other’s work. I imagine there’s a whole choreography taking place behind each collaborative project Pure Slush publishes. Can you give us examples of a good day and a bad day as an editor slash publisher?

POTTER

Ha! (again). Choreographer / social director / acting coach / disciplinarian / den mother is what it feels like at times, definitely. And collaborator, yes, that’s all the time.

So … a good day is when people do what I want (!) … or get the joke … or say “yes” … or have a brilliant idea … or understand where I am coming from … or convince me my idea has less merit than their own idea.

A bad day is when a writer vents his / her spleen on Facebook re a decision I have made and spews a lot of falsehoods. (Yet two days later erases it all because he / she sounds completely unhinged in the posts and realises this and well, the world is a small place.)

A good day is when I get a story and it’s done, complete, no edits or other ideas needed: it’s all there on the page. A big kiss to you!

A bad day is when a writer says, hey, I have a novel I’m shopping around but I need some online publishing cred and I heard from _______ you work wonders with stories so here’s my story … and the submitted story is bum.

A good day is when writers involved in Pure Slush projects respond to emails and private Facebook messages. A bad day is when they don’t.

A good day is when a writer realises the reason I’ve sent their story back again is because I value their talent and want it to be just right … otherwise, I’d stop working with them.

A bad day is when a writer doesn’t get what I’m talking about when I respond, ‘use simpler, stronger, more accurate verbs’, and ‘don’t tell the reader what to think, let the reader decide for him or herself’, and ‘your actions are confusing, they’re not in chronological order’, and ‘using words like (insert trendy, fashionable, stupid words here) only makes you look desperate to be seen by the reader as trendy and fashionable and actually, only makes you as a writer look stupid which is precisely what you’re desperately seeking to avoid’, and ‘YES, less really IS more’, and ‘your story actually starts (or ends) halfway through your text’, or ‘physicalise this as an action: you write she hates him, so show us how she hates him by giving her an action that physically shows this – she slaps his face or kicks his shin or spits in his food or crosses his name out of her address book and then rips the page out and feeds it to her dog’, and ‘give him the dialogue! It’s his best line, the crux of your whole story and you’ve thrown it away by using reported / indirect speech’.

Perhaps the best day is when a proof copy arrives and the cover is beautiful and the font works well and the story inside leaps off the page from the opening sentence and there are no typos or spacing difficulties and it can hold its own against previous PS publications. Those moments, Gessy, are gorgeous.


In the February 2013 fiction web edition of Pure Slush, you published a four-part story (“The Never Far From Home Café, Friday, 1.57pm;” Earlier;” Earlier Again;” Even Earlier Still“), which is presented in reverse order and written from four different points-of-view. The overall story is action-packed and has some punchy dialogue, but at the heart of the story is a religious woman who has to choose between her faith and her son. When you wrote this story, you began with a theme, ‘the office’ but how did this story develop from that theme?

POTTER

Well, the theme or prompt is covered because some of the action takes place in the office of a funeral home. And then you can extrapolate from there and think, well office can mean workplace. And the café is a workplace too. (But to be honest, the online themes for Pure Slush are actually very broad. You could take almost any story and with some slight tweaking – if any – make it fit a theme / prompt.)

But the story came together through a few strands. The crux of the stories – the tea being poured over another customer’s head in a café – was a real incident. In Blackwood, a Hills suburb of Adelaide (the city where I live) an older woman in a café poured a lunchtime cup of tea over a younger man’s head. She went to court and paid a fine or was released on a good behaviour bond or something … but it was a minor, quirky story on television and on radio and in Adelaide newspapers, when the incident happened and again when it went to court. And I thought, how plucky of her, but also, well, it must have been awful for the younger man too: apparently he was shocked but not hurt. But the reason she poured the tea over his head was that she was annoyed with him because she didn’t like what he was saying to his mate / work colleague / lunch buddy about the Transport Department! In her court appearance, her main concern was, would a conviction affect her being able to travel overseas re visas and a criminal record!

But nowhere in the media was the issue of just what the younger man was saying about the Transport Department actually addressed or answered. And I really wanted to know just what was it he said that set her off. Did the woman have relatives who work or worked for the Transport Department? Was he swearing a lot and she found that offensive? Did she have a history of mental illness? Was she simply having a bad day and a noisy neighbour in a café tipped her over the edge?

I searched online for the answer but found nothing … so I decided, well, I’ll invent a real reason.

Another strand was, I really like playing around with the sequence of stories and the truths behind them. One person’s “A” is another person’s “Z”. And I had been thinking of a reverse story for some time … or rather, a story sequence where the sequence is backwards, so the first story is actually the last story in real time (and the last story is the first story in real time), so that you know the consequences but then you discover why these things happened. (I am always asking, “Why?” And if not “Why?” then “How?” And a lot of people never ask “Why?” They just accept things and move on, which makes life easier but less interesting. Some people also find my Whys annoying.)

I like that playing around with fate. It’s a very noir concept … here is the awful thing that happened – a man was murdered (for example) – and now you know the awful end, we’re going to show you what led up to that murder. So there’s a sense of all-prevailing doom. You know the outcome, and here’s how you as a viewer / reader can’t stop it.

I love film noir, though I don’t write noir or really read it. And there’s a lot of bad noir out there … or stuff that passes for noir.

My sister’s truth is radically different from everyone else’s in my family – she invents our shared history to suit her own viewpoint – but while that is incredibly frustrating I find alternate truths fascinating. The same story told from different viewpoints. And how one fact or anecdote or small something can completely change your view of the truth.

I also wanted to write in different voices – something I can find challenging – so each story is narrated by a different person in the drama: the waitress in the café; the man in the café who did not have the tea poured over his head; his colleague at the funeral home (who in the previous / later story, did have the tea poured over his head); and lastly the tea-pourer herself. And there are tensions within their relationships too, all of them.

The last story was the most challenging, as I felt by then I’d told a lot of the story and wondered, what else is there to tell? Though I had already decided why she would have done it, so a big task was plotting the actions and thoughts and ideas so it all came together. And each of the four stories overlap, so some though not all of the actions, are repeated across more than one story: the slamming window in #3 and #4; the upturned teacup in #1 and #2. It’s a bit like having parts of a film sequence in split screen.

But the final strand was pragmatic: none of the writers I asked to be Featured Authors for the months / themes for 2013 wanted to take ‘the office’ and I really liked the theme and thought it had a lot of potential but still no one wanted to take it on … so I took it on.

And that’s basically how it all came together.

In Vestal Aversion, you explore the nature of power and sex, infidelity, abandonment, vanity, and impending death with much relish and no artifice. You credit at the beginning of the collection a writing group in Berlin, but the book is described as “a month of stories.” What does “a month of stories” mean and how did you end up with such a rich collection?

POTTER

A month of stories … well, there are two reasons for this. The first is simply marketing … I wanted a catchy tagline and 31 stories seemed about the right length and number, so one a day for a whole month. Voila! a month of stories. (I could have included just 28 stories and tagged it a month of stories for February only but that’s a bit restrictive!)

But the second reason is just as practical. Read all 31 stories in one go – which you can do, sit down and plow through them if you want – but it’s an overload, particularly the middle section, Sharp. A lot happens in these stories and really, it’s better to pace them. Or ration them. Eke them out over time.

Most of the stories in the middle section were written for 52 / 250 a Year in Flash. Some are stories I wrote for52 / 250  but then decided not to submit. One story (“Always Vera”) is based on my partner’s mother (!) and written for another site.

The stories in both the first section Short and the third (non-fiction) section Shiny were written to submit to various sites or came from online prompts.

Many of the stories in Vestal Aversion were written while I was living in Berlin in 2010, the rest written when I was back in Adelaide from 2010 to 2012. Mid to late 2010 was a very fertile time for me, and the fruits are there on the page. The stories were pouring out of me. An idea would come on the bus from something, somewhere, and I would burst out laughing and write the idea down in my notebook … or start writing the story right there on the bus. (People sometimes forget you can actually write a story using pen and paper.) Or in the supermarket checkout queue. Or in my German class.

Those stories still make me laugh. There’s a lot of cringe-worthy behavior in my stories, people doing and saying embarrassing things and not realising it, too in their own (usually narrow) worlds and living their own (usually narrow) lives with too little self-awareness.

But quoting you now, Gessy – power and sex, infidelity, abandonment, vanity, and impending death – well, that’s the crux of everyday life. I think, all wank aside, I like to write about emotional truth: what’s the real reason this is happening? What is she really thinking here? Why is he doing this? What’s at the core of this behavior? The eternal why?

Perhaps Aperitifs would have been a better title … though I think, in essence, the biggest theme in my fiction is compromise: what deals are made by people (including with themselves) to get what they want? (And then, what’s the cost, and is it worth it?)

Much relish and no artifice? Ha! That’s my approach to everything. Be direct, don’t play games, and never bullshit a bullshitter!

And a rich collection? I had a lot to choose from. I’ll probably do another now and call it Aperitifs!

 

What are you working on and what future projections are in the works?

POTTER

Next year will be a big year for Pure Slush, especially with the 2014 project: 12 volumes, one a month, with 31 writers each taking a day of the month and writing stories across the year, in real-time. So collating them has already begun.

Work is inching forward on two anthologies, one about food and the social side of eating and the other a counterpoint collection. A flash collection from Abha Iyengar is in the works, and hopefully in the not too distant future William Henderson’s memoir Second Person, Possessive will be released too. Luisa Brenta’s The Company of Men, about a young girl and her distant grandmother, set in 1960s Italy, is not far from being done, and there are at least three other books from writers with work on the Pure Slush website whose collections PS hopes to publish in 2014 or 2015.

Susan Tepper’s The Merrill Diaries is out there to buy now, and barcode Pure Slush Vol. 8 comes out in late August.

As for me, I have a practical book on writing and editing to get down to, my novella on the bitch to shop around, and the first of two travel diaries is with a publisher at the moment with the second to follow if they like the first. I would love to get back to a children’s chapbook I have kicking around – it just needs a little rewriting, I think – and I have three English as a Second Language teacher activity books to finish too. PLUS, a fiction on psychiatrists and their private lives.

And maybe that Aperitifs book too …Thanks for taking the time to let me rave on, Gessy!

Thanks, Matt!

7 responses to “Matt Potter – Conversation No. 6

  1. Enjoyed this so much! Matt has energy and talent in bucket-loads. It’s always a pleasure to work with him. He’s smart and funny, and has been a very gentle editor for me. I look forward to reading more of his books. His Vestal Aversion is a riot and yet truthful in tone and plot.

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  2. Matt amazed me when i sent him my first story and he actually sent it back with edits and suggestions. I was shocked, overwhelmed and joined his fan club forever. Moreover, he is quick and as he says, he does not play games. So glad to have found him in this vast Universe of perhaps. Enjoyed the interview.

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  3. Pingback: 2013 Conversation Series – Favorite Answers | Digging Through the Fat·

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