Matthew Gallaway lives in Washington Heights with his three internet famous cats, Dante, Zephyr, and Elektra, his partner, Stephen, and the George Washington Bridge. Melissa and I have fallen in love with the bits of his life he shares with us on Tumblr, but lucky for us, and the world, he has written a novel, called The Metropolis Case, which will be published by Crown in 2011. Even luckier for us, he agreed to contribute to Coming and Crying, with a story that made me cry in a coffee shop. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.
We emailed yesterday about the book, scratching on the surface of sex and storytelling and what it all means:
Q: So I have heard you, or read you, say that the world would be a better place if everyone who was behooved to write a book wrote one. What are some of the benefits, do you think, to sitting with yourself and sort of daring to do that? What did you learn— or what does writing do for you, on an individual level, on a capital-S Self level?
A: For me, I think the major benefit of writing — to put in psychoanalytical terms (I’m a big Jungian!) — is that it offers the opportunity to connect with and interpret one’s ‘unconscious,’ to have greater insight into why we act the way we do (because let’s face it: it’s often a mystery, particularly when we’re young!), with the hope that by doing so, we become more ‘human’ and perhaps even more rational, i.e., less reactive. Of course I’m not saying that to write a book is the ONLY way to do this, but I think it would be very difficult on some level to write one (or at least a novel) without some understanding of who we are at a very fundamental level, which can also be important in terms of developing a sense of empathy both for ourselves and others. In my case, I grew up as something of a bookworm and always had urges to write — I kept diaries and notebooks and things — but it was not until I ‘came out’ (to give one obvious example) that I developed the patience to write anything cohesive, to really tell stories, so to speak, and I think that’s probably because I was better able to decipher my own, if that makes sense. So when I talk about the world being a better place if more people wrote books, it refers to the idea that if more of us could afford the luxury (and unfortunately, it often is a luxury, given the demands — often painful — of daily life) of introspection and creation, I think it would lead to a more rational and considerate society.
Q: Now, we found each other on Tumblr. I started following you a few months ago and the little bits from your life you share almost always put me in a better mood. I think it’s very real, the way inviting people into our lives like that can affect us. So what about community? with this book, the community aspect is pretty vital. I know that reading my friends writing, or someone i admire, when they open up, helps me feel okay about doing the same. With all of the internet feedback, you can literally be encouraged to share when you wouldn’t otherwise. (and clearly this goes both ways). Does it help you, reading other people’s writing online (and off), to open up, too?
A: I should start by saying that ‘community’ is one of my least favorite words, because I think it’s too often used to pigeonhole people into groups in which they may not belong, or only on the most superficial or stereotypical level, e.g., I almost always cringe when I hear someone say ‘the gay community believes that ____’ or the ‘international community is upset that ____.’ That said, I understand what you’re saying and I would probably frame it terms of empathy or — to use the terminology of the literary critic/philosopher Richard Rorty, who is one of my heroes — ‘solidarity.’ To read others’ words and stories, I think, is one of the best ways we can not only develop our own language, but also to understand why we should recognize the fundamental humanity of another person or group of people; in Rorty’s view, the novel has been one of the great means by which our society has learned both to empathize with those who in the past would have been considered ‘outsiders’ (or even less than human) for whatever reason (gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity the most obvious), but also to understand humanity’s capacity for cruelty to one another (Nabokov and Orwell are two examples of this kind of writer). So in short, yes, I think reading (and respecting) the work of others (whether it’s a novel or an essay or a lolcat tumblr post) is absolutely essential in terms of ‘opening’ myself up to the viewpoint of others, and perhaps — as a second step — to incorporate their story/vocabulary into my own. (Rorty classifies those of us who are always searching for language like this as ‘ironists.’)
Q: A lot of our philosophy re: the book is grounded in the belief that storytelling eradicates shame and fosters compassion (to risk sounding utterly newnice), and that we dare each other on, so to speak, support each other, so that things have historically been not-so-easy to talk about, don’t hold so much discursive power, and can be seen more as they are— tough, wonderful, funny, sweet, scared— etc. have you felt that way? does that inform any of your writing?
A: OMG I think I just answered that, but yes — compassion is absolutely an element in all of this. I think this ‘newnice’ debate is interesting, and I happen to hate the term ‘nice’ because of course it’s rooted in a naivete or ignorance; I would rather think of it as the new-don’t-be-an-asshole movement, because I think such terminology is less likely to provoke people in the way ‘nice’ does (i.e., just to be labeled ‘nice’ makes me want to be an asshole on some level?) Now, I’m not a believer in any kind of fundamental ‘truth’ — at least in the German Romantic sense of the term (although I have been tempted many times, because I love Schopenhauer) — but I do believe that we as a society are capable of being less cruel, and part of this is rooted in the kind of compassion that I think you’re referring to, a sense of encouraging ALL people to tell their stories and to feel secure in doing so. This has been the fundamental arc of western civilization, I think — unless you want to be completely pessimistic about it, which is DEPRESSING — but we still have a long way to go. With regard to my own writing, I think that this has been a major theme, with the most obvious example presenting myself (or some of my characters) as non-heterosexuals, but with a thought to get beneath it to their fundamental humanity, a capacity to love or hate or grieve or whatever else it is that makes us human. I personally believe that this view of compassion will eventually extend to other species as well, whether this means cats or trees or whatever else will ensure a more ‘balanced’ and ‘humane’ way of life going forward. (I think I probably just WAY out ‘newniced’ you, lol, but I can be a bit of a sentimental hippie at times!)
Q: What do you think about writing about sex? you do it in your novel, right? have any philosophy about it or The State of Sex in Literature?
A: Writing about sex is difficult for me personally, but I’ve gotten better at it and I absolutely believe that it’s important in terms of developing a sense of compassion or empathy for those who don’t share our inclinations. One of my own goals in writing about sex is not to ‘turn on’ anyone in an erotic sense (that’s what porn is for) but to basically demonstrate to readers that the character is fundamentally human and that their desires, as such, should not be mocked any more or less than anyone else’s. I think this is really where literary craft can play an essential role, because a good writer can pull this off with great passion or humor or whatever else, so that (again) we as readers lose sight of the fact that it’s a gay/straight/man/woman/whatever and is just a person, like the reader. In terms of the State of Sex in literature, it’s difficult for me to separate the question from the State of Gay Literature, which I think with a few exceptions is frankly abysmal in the modern era. I don’t believe that the ‘gay voice’ has been adequately recognized as a component of the post-war American literary canon, and needs to be taught in the same way that the works of ethic minorities and women are (although there remain great strides to be taken here as well, obv); what’s particularly ironic about this state of affairs is that so many of the early titans of the form (Melville, Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, to name a few) were all non-heterosexuals, and this tradition was largely eradicated in the post-war era and frankly has yet to recover (Alan Hollinghurst, Michael Cunningham, Jeanette Winterson, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White and other post-war heroes of mine notwithstanding). But I don’t want to be TOO NEGATIVE because I myself wrote a novel with several gay characters at its core (oh, and cats!) and it was sold to a major publishing house, and not once did anyone say: ‘oh, you’d better turn down the gay, ok?’ One of the reasons I wanted to contribute to your project is that you — like many younger folks in my experience, which gives me hope! — are clearly looking for the ‘human’ dimension in all of this, and are NOT getting hung up on straight/gay/etc. So thanks again for asking me to participate — I’m honored that you asked and look forward to reading everyone else who submitted! (And of course the reactions of those who are generous enough to read.)