A Conversation with Matthew M. Quick
Matthew M. Quick: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Roland. Many writers struggle to produce fiction in their spare time, trying to balance the need to write with everyday life. Choosing to become a fiction writer is definitely not the most viable financial plan for a family. So why, and how, did you finally commit to spending months and years writing fiction?
Roland Merullo: Starting in 1978, when I was 25 and just home from an abbreviated Peace Corps stint in Micronesia, I made some kind of big internal commitment to writing. The way I did it, which I think is a fairly good way, was to work only part-time and spend most of the rest of the week writing. That way I had some income—from cab driving, at first, then a series of odd jobs, and then eventually, from carpentry—but still enough time to make progress in writing. A few years later, about 1985, my little carpentry business took off, so for a while my only writing time was nights and weekends.
But even after the first book was published, in 1991, and I was able to get some teaching work, I kept to the rule of working part-time, one semester of teaching when I could have done two. It always made things financially precarious, but if I hadn't done that I don't think I would have finished a book, or it would have taken me even longer. I say this, though, realizing that everyone's situation is different. People have different degrees of tolerance for financial insecurity, different skills, different domestic situations. The key is, in all of these situations, to carve out some 'sacred time' just for writing.
Quick: Your novel, In Revere, In Those Days, outlines a boy's struggle to leave behind his family and the traditional Italian-American backdrop of his hometown, taking the first steps toward becoming a painter. Does this at all reflect your experience as you journeyed toward becoming a novelist? Is a sense of separation and sacrifice necessary to create art?
Merullo: It does very closely reflect my own path, but I never offer cut-in-stone suggestions for anyone else. There are many paths to writing success, however one defines success. For many people, some sort of stepping aside is essential; but others thrive on the hurly-burly of an active social life. The word sacrifice rings true, though. Whether it's sacrificing financial security or party time, or the approval of one's parents or peers, or societal status, it's often true that some sacrifice has to be made when one devotes oneself to an art form. I'd add that, while I did leave behind the city of Revere, my family, and the Italian-American neighborhood, I left it behind only physically. I wouldn't use the word transcend, except in transcending the general expectations and assumptions of that time and place. Even after I left Revere, I went back frequently to be with those people and see that place. Again, it varies: some people need to make a clean cut with a place and people, others stay right in the fire of it, others find a mix.
Quick: What necessary sacrifices have you made? How are your sacrifices indicative of what all fiction writers must sacrifice?
Merullo: The sacrifices have been mainly financial. I was speaking to a friend recently and telling him I was going to Italy this summer with my family to work on a book there and he said, "Tell me, sometime, how one gets a lifestyle like that." I wanted to tell him that what you have to do is write for ten or twelve years not knowing if anyone else in the world will ever want to read it, and then be fortunate enough to get a book published, and have a good wife who understands your need to do that, and then be able to deal with the fact that you have about five thousand dollars' worth of bills in the in-basket, and about three thousand dollars in the bank, and you have no idea when the next dollar is coming, or where it's coming from, and you go upstairs with that worry swirling in your mind, and you sit down at a desk that has pictures of your kids on it, and you make up stories that you think will move other people… But it didn't sound right somehow, so I just shrugged and made a joke. For other people it's not going to a party on Saturday night and staying home and writing. For others it's looking your mom or dad in the eyes and saying you know they put you through college, and you appreciate it, but instead of going on to pharmacy school, which was their dream for you, you've decided to live in a crappy apartment someplace with your girlfriend and write a book. For others it's facing all the little madhouses inside themselves and writing about that, all the self-doubt and negative voices, all your other failures and half-successes, all the comments of the practical-minded folks you love. Or all of the above.
Quick: In the acknowledgements section of A Little Love Story you credit Michael Miller as your 'former mentor.' What's the best writing advice you learned from him and/or others?
Merullo: Michael was incredibly, incredibly generous with me, and wise. He used to X out whole pages of my manuscript and scrawl Bullshit! across the top, and then, on another page, You have a gift. This is wonderful! He used to recommend books to read, movies to see, and he was unfailingly optimistic and encouraging. The best advice is just to focus on the writing, and not think too much about money, or status, or fame, or what others think. Just work, and have the right people as readers—not too complimentary (except in the beginning when you need that) and not too critical. People who understand why it means as much to you as it does, who read the kinds of things you are writing, who have a good balance of tact and bluntness, who aren't jealous of you or what you are trying to do, who aren't afraid of you.
Quick: Can you briefly describe how you approach your craft—how you take an idea and turn it into a novel? Have your writing habits changed over the years? And has success helped or hindered your ability to write?
Merullo: I never start with an outline. That just does not work for me. I write novels by the seat of my pants, starting with a 'vision,' by which I mean a very clear sense of an opening moment. In Revere Beach Boulevard, it was the scene where Vito is sitting in his backyard on a warm summer night waiting for the full moon to appear over the horizon. I could see and feel that moment, viscerally, but had no idea where it would lead until I wrote it. I tend to write fairly fast, and just pour everything out, trusting that I will fix it later. That way I don't get stranded.
I wrote Revere Beach Boulevard in four weeks in Venice and Croatia, then spent a year or two fixing it up. A Little Love Story took six weeks plus a year and a half, with time for setting it aside. I like to write with a fountain pen my wife gave me, on yellow lined paper, and then type it into the computer. I don't like to work in front of a screen very much, but always work on it a little there then print it out and do the rest in a quieter location, with pen in hand. Many, many, many drafts. I used to have a lot of people read one of these drafts, but not anymore. Just one or two readers now, sometimes nobody until it gets to an editor.
The nice thing about having published a book is that it slays a whole battalion of the opposing army. There are always enemies of one kind or another—self-doubt, domestic duties, distractions—but knowing you have had one big acceptance gives you a kind of baseline confidence. I've also found, however, that each new level has its own demons and thrills. It used to bother me to hear published writers complain about an agent or editor. I wanted to say to them, 'You don't know how happy I'd be to have an agent to complain about.' But I think life works that way: you quickly adjust to the next level and often want more.
Quick: I've heard other writers preach that a writer must write every day. Do you subscribe to this philosophy?
Merullo: Absolutely not. I think those kinds of comments are damaging. Lots of great writers don't write every day. Everyone finds a way that works for him or her. I would agree that it is important to write regularly, though. There is the danger of saying you are a writer and then not backing it up with work, i.e., writing when you feel like it, which might be every couple of weeks. It's hard to get much done that way. For novelists it's next to impossible.
Quick: Every editor, agent, MFA professor will tell you that the current American fiction market is not in great shape. Why do you think Americans are buying and reading less fiction?
Merullo: I have pondered this, and had a lot of conversations about it with writing friends. The short answer is I don't know. Maybe it's because you can turn on the TV and have a hundred channels with stories on them. Maybe it's because people are overworked and don't feel they have the time or energy to spend with a real novel. Maybe we are being 'trained' to be shallow, i.e., to read the news in tiny bits, and we are losing the capacity for deep consideration. Maybe it's a fad or a trend and fiction will bounce back. Maybe fiction writers will go the way of poets, who were once as famous as rock stars and are now often under-appreciated and always underpaid. Maybe too many people are eager to write but not to read. Maybe the marketing arms of publishing houses have turned art into 'product,' pandered to niche markets, and turned off the better readers. I really don't know, and try hard to stay positive about the business if I can.
Quick: Your fiction seems to make good use of many autobiographical threads—living in Massachusetts as an Italian-American, or supporting a loved one who is battling cystic fibrosis, to name a few. Why do you continue to write fiction—fictionalizing aspects of your own life experiences—when today's market so heavily favors non-fiction?
Merullo: Well, I love fiction, get a pleasure from writing it that I don't really get from other things (though a nice essay can be fun), and I've spent so much time learning to do it that it would seem crazy to abandon it now. That having been said, though, I have branched out a bit—Golfing With God is a novel but it is not really 'literary fiction,' I would say. Or it's a different kind of literary fiction. I'm working on a non-fiction project right now, can't say what it is. As far as write what you know, that's another one of those rules I don't like, even though it has worked for me. Aren't there great books about war by people who have never fought in one? Or stories of death and destruction by happy suburbanites? Or stories of suburban life by offbeat artist types? I hate to keep hitting this same note, but I have to insist that the process is very personal and as unique as the individual.
Quick: Speaking of market trends, while fiction has definitely taken a hit, fiction embracing religious themes has been wildly en vogue. What led to your writing Golfing With God and Breakfast With Buddha?
Merullo: I guess I write about things that I care about—cystic fibrosis, Revere, golf—and religion, loosely defined, is high on that list. I felt there was some space there, too, between the dogmatists and the atheists. Most of my friends fall into that space, as do my wife and I, so I tried to explore it in fiction, the medium I know best. I also tried to do it with a sense of humor, something that seems to me often lacking when we talk about meaning of life issues. It's been fun to write these two books, easier than some of the other books; they've sold better, and allowed me to vent some ideas here and there.
Quick: The odds of becoming a successful novelist today are overwhelmingly dismal. And yet, MFA programs are full. What advice do you have for those of us who have taken up the call and are struggling to do what you have done?
Merullo: I've noticed that odd juxtaposition, too—all this talk about the fiction market shrinking, and all these students who show up at the conferences with that burning desire to make a novel. It's strange, and I wonder where it will lead, or if there is another America out there that I'm not seeing and that doesn't care about books at all. If you have that burning passion inside you, to write a book, to say something about life, in print, and have others read it, or to entertain or enlighten or amuse, if it's really that intense a desire, or a need, then you really have to do it or a part of you perishes.
In addition to the sacrifices we mentioned above, I'd guess you have to put on blinders, in a way, and not listen to the talk about people not reading, and not worry when you walk into a bookstore and think: There are so many books! Why does the world need one from me?—as I have done many times. You have to find a means of supporting yourself, or a way of being supported, and time. If it is really that important to you then you just have to give to it—it's like a relationship in that way; if you really care about a person, you give to them, make sacrifices for them, find ways to be with them, to nurture and feed your affection for them. The proof of your commitment lies in the time you give to it.
Quick: Finally, what writers have most influenced your work? Who are you reading right now? What's next for Roland Merullo?
Merullo: The Russians—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev especially. Other than that, it has always been more a case of individual books than writers. The list is long. I've gotten something from all of them and so many more, and also learned a lot from my friends Craig Nova, David Payne, Tony Eprile, Dan Hofstadter, Dennis Lehane, Sterling Watson, Anita Shreve, Steven Cramer, Michael Miller, and about twenty others.
What's next for me is a secret, or three secrets, but the areas are travel, memoir, and novel. My thanks to you for these fine questions, and my encouragement to anyone who enters into this great writing life.