Monthly Archives: July 2014

Matthew Quick Interview


I had the privilege to speak with Matthew Quick a few weeks ago, through my gig at School Library Journal. I wrote up the interview over there, but due to space constraints I had to cut out a lot of really interesting things that we discussed. SLJ has graciously allowed me to post the rest of my interview with Quick here. I was particularly anxious to publish his answer to my first question, as it’s something that you and I have talked a lot about.

I think I’ve edited this so that it makes sense by itself, but you (and our readers) should probably read the original SLJ piece first anyway.

Me: I’ve been furiously rereading some of your older stuff over the last couple of days – actually I had never read Sorta Like a Rock Star and I just read that in I think about 3 hours last night and really enjoyed it. One of the things I noticed and it’s present in Silver Linings too is the role of Catholicism and religion. It’s really rare to find a YA book that takes religion really seriously when it isn’t a “Christian” novel. I wonder what you think about that in terms of YA literature or in terms of how it works in that book.

MQ: I did an event in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Free Library, and I remember a nun showed up in the audience and during my talk she was looking at me and beaming and afterwards she came up to me and said I am Amber Appleton [from Sorta Like a Rock Star], I am your character, and she said “tell me that you’re Catholic.” And I said “I’m not.” And she said “noooo” but I quickly told her that I married into a Catholic family and my wife’s great-great uncle was Br. Andre Bessette of Montreal who was just canonized so it’s kind of like having Catholic Rock Star Royalty in your family. But I was raised protestant in a Methodist Church and my parents were pretty serious about that. And my grandfather was a big church guy and he had me pegged very early on as a minister.

But growing up I was always at church – that’s where I learned about stories. Religion, particularly protestant religion, was ingrained in me from a very early age. And I went to college and I studied the religions of the world. I’ve always been one to ponder the big questions and the religious background that my parents gave me was a starting point for me so I return to it often in my work. I think also I’m intrigued by Catholicism because I can were that mask and it’s a little less personal. I haven’t written a Protestant character I felt like maybe I would have the temptation to be autobiographical.

I’ve had religious kids write me about Forgive Me Leonard Peacock [about] Lauren who’s the Christian girl –  a lot of that stuff is taken from things I experienced in my youth: the passing out of tracts and I think there’s a little bit of a wild story about what happens if your let your friends go to hell. And that was all stuff that was very real to me in my early teens. I don’t attend church now but I consider myself to be a pretty spiritual person and those big questions are still really important to me.

I had one girl write me who said “I love Leonard Peacock but it’s obvious you haven’t spent a lot of time around Christian people” I wrote her back and said “that was my entire childhood.”

Me: I think that segment of fundamentalists is kind of obscure to a lot of people and it maybe seems like a caricature when you write it in a book like that, and you think “people don’t really believe that, do they?”

MQ: But they do. In fact many of my family members do. I think if you know, you know. I say that a lot when I write about mental health too: if you know, you know. There are some characters that are very authentic to some members of the mental health community that others don’t see because they don’t know those characters in real life, they have a hard time engaging with them. And I think it’s true whenever you write honestly about something – not everybody’s going to be able to make that equivalent with someone in their life. But I think that’s why we read so we can learn about different people and look at it from different points of view.

Me: That’s something as a critic I can get into trouble with, where I say “I don’t know these people, I haven’t had this experience so it must not be very realistic. Matthew Quick must not have done a very good job of it”.

MQ: It’s always frustrating, especially when you write about marginalized people but it’s even more frustrating for me, especially when I hear teachers saying things like that because those kids are in your classroom, and if you’re going to make dismissive comments about my characters that means you’re also making dismissive comments about people your interact with.

But I saw that again and again when I was teaching. There are just some teachers who didn’t believe that there were Leonard Peacocks in the building.

I found as a high school English teacher as soon as you gave a kid permission to tell the truth, they always told the truth. As long as they felt comfortable and you gave them permission. I just think that we tell kids “don’t be who you are, conform, and be somebody else.” And then we’re surprised when they explode.

Me: The Good Luck of Right Now is told in the form of letters written to Richard Gere. Letters seem to play a prominent role in a lot of your books–the Haikus in Sorta Like a Rock Star, the letters from Tiffany in Silver Linings–is there anything there or am I pulling out a random coincidence.

MQ: I was always writing, even at a young age. I had a penpal when I was in my early teens, through college. I’ve always found –I’m kind of a secret introvert—I’m most comfortable alone in a room. I also feel a lot more comfortable in letters than in conversations. And I think a letter is so interesting because you can take the time to say what you really mean.

And reading someone else’s letters—a letter that you did not write and that wasn’t addressed to you—is a really great window into somebody’s psyche. It’s a kind of “emotional pornography”– it’s very intense, it’s voyeuristic, but you can get to know someone very well.

I also think, you know, we live in an age of email and text messages and twitter and it’s increasingly hard for us to interact with each other face-to-face. I think when we write letters, it’s a time to slow down, maybe a time to correspond in way that we don’t usually do in real life. And I think it’s a little more intense too.

Me: [I asked Quick for his thoughts on the movie of Silver Linings Playbook]

MQ: David O Russell’s motivation for the film was his son. He wanted to make a movie that would give his son hope. His son had dealt with some pretty serious depression. He was coming at it from the opposite end. Robert De Niro too, as fathers—I was writing it as a son and they were coming at it as fathers. So they kind of flipped it around a little.

I’m a huge David O Russell fan. I said to myself “you’re going to learn a lot from this”. When I sold the film rights, I had been living with my in-laws for three years and I hadn’t received a paycheck in all that time. When I got that option movie it allowed me to buy some dignity. My wife and I were able to live for the first time as fiction writers and pay our own rent. To me it was all about being grateful that my book got a lot of exposure and remembering that I’m a novelist and not a moviemaker.

I’m eternally grateful to David and to Harvey Weinstein. And you start to realize how lucky you are. I have a lot of friends who are writers some of them are 10, 15, 20 years older than I am who have never had a break like this. And that is not lost on me. Because they are fantastic writers, they’re good people, they’re people who’ve helped me out tremendously, and I can’t answer why did I get picked. It’s important to remain humble and grateful and to realize as a fiction writer it’s an almost impossible task to make your living and so when these things come along, you just have to be grateful.

Me: Did you get to meet Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence?

MQ: I met everyone except Jennifer Lawrence. I met Robert De Niro he was incredibly humble. Bradley Cooper – I met with him several times, and he plugged my book everywhere and that was not lost on me. He said “why wouldn’t I?” It was really classy, because it wasn’t his job to plug that. I was very appreciative of that.

I got to do a lot of interviews with David. I spent more time with David than any of the actors.

But I’m much happier getting an email like I did today from some kid who’s heard me and my story’s helped them out [see the SLJ interview] than I am going to the Oscars.


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Zusak Redux


As you noted, I really did love this book. When I read it the first time, the ending didn’t bother me at all. I admit that I have a tendency to pretty much take writers where they are and not ask too much on a first read–I’m willing to go along for the ride. In this case, I think my reaction was sort of a shrug–perhaps I, too, had been reading enough metafiction that I didn’t give it much thought.

I gave it so little thought, in fact, that when I read it the second time a few years later, in preparation for a reading group, it came as a surprise to me for the second time.

I think what that means is that I was so involved in the story, and in Ed’s life, that I didn’t really care how Zusak got him out of it. I loved the humor in the book, and the genuineness of Ed, and I kind of liked the fact that this had all been brought about by authorial fiat, and that we were being told that. And it was really just a way to end the book, because at this point he had moved Ed along to the point that the book needed to end.

In retrospect, after hearing Zusak’s own regrets, and Beth’s well-reasoned comments above, I can see that it could be seen as rather a cop-out. I know that it made some of my book-group readers uncomfortable, although at the time I more or less dismissed their discomfort as a lack of imagination.

As I write this, however, I find that I can’t really condemn Zusak for it, or even regret it, as he apparently does. One of the things I liked about the ending was that it took a risk, and I like that in a book. I like to have something to think about, and I like to be surprised. I like to close a book and think to myself, “Huh. THAT was certainly interesting.”  So I have more tolerance for a risk that maybe doesn’t quite succeed than I do for a too-predictable ending. (Not that there weren’t other ways he could have ended this book and still maintained the surprise and interest. And not that I can imagine what a too-predictable ending would have been for this book!)

So there you have it–my own not-very-definitive answer to your question!

Two more comments about Markus Zusak, though:

1) I was so happy that YALSA President Shannon Peterson gave a shout-out to Getting the Girl at the Edwards Brunch (she mentioned that it had been a treasured book for a teen boy she had worked with). Getting the Girl is, in my opinion, Zusak’s overlooked and underrated book (although happily, the Edwards Committee cited it).

2) When is Zusak going to write another book? It has been seven years since The Book Thief!





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ALA Debrief: Markus Zusak


i am the messengerWell, we’re back from ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. I seem to have been the only librarian there who kind of enjoyed Vegas, although the heat was truly terrible, but I’m glad to be home nonetheless. You and I went to several programs together and a whole bunch separately, so hopefully we’ll have a few thoughts to post to this blog, but the very first thing I wanted to get up is about Markus Zusak’s speech at the Margaret A. Edwards Award brunch.

Since I write and work for School Library Journal (which sponsors the Edwards Award), I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to the brunch and an invitation to meet Markus beforehand. He was incredibly kind and gracious and I thought his speech was lovely, discussing his development as a writer and his desire to write books that “only [he] could have written.” But the piece I want to discuss today was a brief digression that I might have missed had I not been discussing the very same issue with a friend. Zusak was talking about I Am the Messenger (or The Messenger as it’s known in Australia and as he referred to it), and he said, “I think I really screwed up the ending.” That’s a direct quote, the following is a paraphrase: “some people really got it, some people didn’t get it at all, and some people thought they got it but didn’t.”

The_Messenger_Au_CoverI’m sure you remember, but for our readers’ benefit, the ending of I Am the Messenger has Ed, our narrator, encounter an unnamed character who, it quickly becomes clear is Markus Zusak himself, who explains to Ed that he has written Ed’s story. It’s one of the more purely metafictional moments in YA fiction–it lays the ground for the final lines of the book, “I’m not the messenger at all./ I’m the message”.  And it is undoubtedly strange since nothing has really prepared us for this moment of stepping out of the story this way. At the time I read the novel the first time I was reading heavy doses of metafiction so it didn’t really even phase me. So I was surprised when a friend of mine read this for the first time and reacted negatively to it. And then I was even more surprised when Zusak got up at an awards ceremony and admitted to screwing it up!

I don’t know if this post is of interest to anyone other than myself and my unnamed friend (if he/she wants to reveal him/herself in the comments, feel free!), but I thought it was worth writing about since I don’t often hear authors so blatantly admit to faults in their writing. I know you’re a bigger Zusak fan than I am, especially of I Am the Messenger. What did you make of the ending at the time? What do you make of it now?

– Mark


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