In Spring 2012, The Paris Review published Matt Sumell’s short story “Toast,” in which the narrator, Alby, humiliates his girlfriend so creatively, and so often, that she ends the relationship. “Over the next few years,” Alby says in a typical passage, “I changed from a mostly passive prick to a mostly aggressive one, sexing a lot of girls and I’m pretty sure contracting HPV in my throat.”
“Toast” appears in Making Nice, Sumell’s first book, a collection of linked stories all told from Alby’s perspective. He’s a thirty-year-old having a hell of a time navigating the world since his mother died from cancer. Sumell’s stories are pugnacious, figuratively and literally. In “Punching Jackie,” Alby spars with his sister; in “OK,” he pushes his one-legged father over the side of a boat. Even when he isn’t taking anyone to task, the stories are full of fighting words: bitterness at the world, anger with fate, and misunderstanding of circumstance. Alby is lost. His outlets for self-discovery and definition are few and far between. Making Nice is hilarious in its prose, but painful in its nakedness.
Sumell and I met up to talk fighting, writing, and being named Matt on a freezing January afternoon. We ended up in Chelsea, at Barcade, a bar lined with arcade games where the tater tots are shaped like Tetris pieces. When we walked through the door, Sumell took a quick survey of the room and jetted from my side, making a beeline directly to Punch Out!! Nothing could seem more apropos.
You just returned from a trip to Manila with your father, Albert, to whom your book is dedicated. Your main character is also named Alby—which doesn’t strike me as a coincidence. What’s your relationship with your dad?
Oh, we’re going straight there, are we? Well, the funny thing about my father having that name—I’m the first born, but my great-grandfather’s name is Alby, and my grandfather’s name is Alby, and my father’s name is Albert.
But you’re Matt.
I’m Matt. But my younger brother’s name is Albert. I got fucking skipped, man. I think when I was a baby, I looked like Uncle Fester—I was fat and bald and ugly—and they skipped me. I have no idea why. My middle name is Albert, though.
My relationship with my dad is great. He’s a sweet guy, he means well—he’s old school, and he really did lose his leg on a Harley when he was eighteen years old, and there may be some arrested development there. He’s always been generous, and he’s important to me. I love him a lot, so I wanted to dedicate this book to him. Obviously, the book has a lot to do with my mother dying, but it’s really just about suffering and grieving, and I know my father suffered with that really hard. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that.
When you were creating a father character, was it hard to keep your real father and the father you’d constructed separate in any way? Could you detach your own father from the narrative?
People are always asking, How autobiographical is this? That’s such a difficult question. When I was in graduate school, the idea was that you use what hurts. I had a funny voice that seemed to be working, and at one point, Geoffrey Wolff—who, I love his work, and he’s an amazing teacher—said, You’ve got great aim, you’ve just got to figure out some targets that are worth blowing away. I’d been writing these ridiculous stories about nail-care salons, and it was almost like stand-up. It wasn’t story-worthy.
There’s Stanley Elkin’s idea of writing being revenge against your bullies. They don’t have to be actual bullies. Sometimes, in the book, I do go after actual bullies of mine—but there are bullies like cancer and death. So, I started using what hurt, and seeing my dad suffer—that hurt. I would use that, but then you fictionalize. You exaggerate. People often wonder if I’m Alby. And the answer is no. Alby does things that I wouldn’t do. Alby is more impulsive, and I allow him to make those bad choices because bad choices make for good stories.
Making Nice has been described as a “gut-punch,” and in “Little Things,” you write, “It feels good to be punched in the face, to punch someone in the face.” What’s your own experience with fighting?
Ugh. I recently self-diagnosed myself with having intermittent explosive disorder. Sometimes there’s an inordinate amount of aggression that comes out of me. The book is called Making Nice because, in a way, I don’t think I’ve ever been good at that. I think I’m a very nice person, but I lose it. I get extremely frustrated, and I’m very protective of my sister—I’ve gotten into a few fights because of her.
Somebody figured out I’ve been in some fights mostly when I was younger, in clubs. Clubs are obnoxious, there are a lot of people with bad taste in there, and there are a lot of people who are drinking and on drugs. It’s also hot, and I feel like heat has a direct link to aggression. I’ve been in some fights. I’m not very good at them. I often lose, even though I have a larger-than-normal amount of hatred in my heart. I was never the guy to walk away, but I’m trying to get better at that. I have gotten better at that.
Does it come with age or perspective, maybe?
I have this theory that guys go through a second puberty between twenty-eight and thirty-two.
I have a friend who can’t even watch a Kay Jewelers commercial because he has an emotional reaction to it, and that sucks. Men are hyperaggressive, and then all of a sudden—I think Thom Jones wrote really well about this in The Pugilist at Rest—you reach a point where you’re like, What is wrong with me? Why was I so angry and so violent? Why did I want to inflict injury on other people? Maybe we’re just a little late on developing that empathy for other people. That might be primitive wiring that we have. It might sound ridiculous on the page.
Have you used writing as a funneling mechanism for any of those feelings, or for coping?
Someone asked me if writing was “cathartic,” and if I wrote about cancer and death as a way of dealing with my mother’s death. Did it help? No, I don’t think so. One of the things I think I share with Alby is that I suck at grieving, and I suck at loss, and I don’t think I get better at that. I think writing helps me process things on some level, but I don’t think it makes things hurt any less. I have a lot of sadness about what happened with my mother, obviously.
What’s the first thing you remember doing after your mother died?
I probably ate some of her pain pills. That’s one of the more autobiographical parts of the book—I was with her when she died. Everyone else had kind of decamped, because they just didn’t believe it was going to happen.
Before you went to UC Irvine for your M.F.A., you worked at Home Depot, you worked as a traveling marketer, and you almost joined the Navy. During those periods, did you care at all about finding some kind of identity?
Not at all. I didn’t care what I was. I was in a lot of pain back then—I still am—and when you’re suffering like that, your time horizon shrinks, so you’re not thinking about the long-term future, so you’re just thinking about, How do I get by in the next hour, the next minute. You’re making a lot of impulsive decisions. You get reckless. It wasn’t about my identity, it was like, Why do I want to punch that fucking Ph.D. student in the face because he had an earring and he was dancing weird? I was just in a weird spot, so it wasn’t like, What am I doing?
How do you deal with identifying as a writer now?
In LA, people are like, What do you do? and I’m like, I write. They’ll go, Me too! And I’m like, Oh yeah, what do you write? and they’ll always say, Screenplays. There’s a modifier on that—“screen.” Not that there’s not an art to that, but what you and I do is very different. I can’t write a screenplay, and that’s hard, but it’s a different medium, and for some reason I want to put distance between myself and them. So that’s the identity thing that I struggle with there. Then again, there are times people ask you what you do and you mumble it, and you know people are going to ask you, What do you write? So you just want to be like, I freelance. I teach. So they won’t ask any more questions. You don’t want to explain all the time.
Did you ever aspire to be something else?
There was a time I wanted to be a fireman. After I got the M.F.A. from Irvine and was working at a gas dock and swinging sledgehammers and making no money, and you realize, This is no way to make a living. One of my great friends wrote an amazing book and made no money. That’s like five years of work, and if you break that down per hour and that’s, like, one cent an hour. It’s horrifying, and you start to have all that self-doubt. You start thinking about other ways to survive. Being a fireman—another thing I share with Alby is that I want to help.
You mention self-doubt, which writers have in spades—what do you think constitutes affirmation for a writer?
I’m not going to lie—getting published in The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and NOON all felt great. I’m tremendously proud of those things, and I do this lame thing where I frame the covers of the journals because I’m really proud of the hard work. But is that why I do it? No, but it helps me to keep doing it.
Affirmation for me is writing a story that I don’t hate. Writing is really hard, and I’m really hard on myself. I’m working on this in therapy. People ask me, What are you working on? And I say, I’m working on my mental health. I have this aggression, and my aggression also applies to myself. I’m really hard on myself, and my own work, so when I finally—after all of this self-hate—write something that I think is decent, that’s important. I guess that’s affirmation for me.