Matt Batt is the Minnesota Author in the Spotlight here on Book Snob during the frightful month of October. Read this fun interview and you learn the backstory behind Sugarhouse, Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home. You will also learn about other great Minnesota writers and get some home improvement advice.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Denver but spend most of my childhood in suburban Milwaukee. Since then I bounced around from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Salt Lake City, Utah, to Nacogdoches—that’s right—Nacogdoches, Texas, and then finally to St. Paul. The life of a grad student cum writer cum university instructor type tends to mean lots of time on the highway. Bad on the pocketbook, but good for material. There’s just no better way to get to know the world than to live in it.
2. What inspired you to write to Sugarhouse?
A deadline. Not the kind that comes from some fancy-pants publishing house either. When I started Sugarhouse I was just another grad student with no clue what I was going to write about and a deadline to turn something in for class. My wife and I had thought buying and fixing up a purported crack house was going to be a piece of cake—we even had a whole month to do so before we had to move in. Piece. Of. Cake. It ended up taking months and months and months, of course. In the meantime, school started back up and I stupidly volunteered to turn something in. I never in my life imagined that I would end up writing about home renovation or whatnot, but it’s the kind of thing that you can’t do halfway or phone in. It’s all or nothing. Tends to make for some pretty tense stuff. Which, of course, is something to write about.
3. Can you tell us why or when you decided to become a writer?
What follows is not false modesty: when I was a kid, I pretty much sucked at everything. Sports. School. Band. I even sucked at band. College felt much the same way to begin with. I thought I was going to be a doctor, then I took biology and chemistry and failed one and managed to eke out a D- (yep—a passing grade but still) in the other. Then I found myself in a creative writing class and wrote this hopelessly earnest story about a kid and his would-be girlfriend going to Door County for a vacation and, well, the story is a real tragedy for the kid, but as far as the workshop goes, it didn’t suck. The feedback of my classmates and my teacher—CJ Hribal! Bless you!—was really positive. I can safely say I’ll never know what it feels like to throw or catch a touchdown pass, but with the warmth and support of readers like that, I could care less.
4. Do you like to read? What authors or books influence you?
Everything. Poetry. Drama. Fiction. Nonfiction. Graphic novels. But the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is to read the work of my friends’ books in manuscript form as it finds its way toward print. I’m also super proud to be living and writing in a state with such a robust writing scene. I mean seriously? It’s embarrassing how many great writers are just falling all over themselves here. Peter Geye. Benjamin Percy. Frank Bures. Leslie Adrienne Miller. Kristin Naca. Matt Mauch. Louise Erdrich. Sarah Stonich. I’m leaving out three times as many as I’m mentioning—not on purpose!—there’s just so many!—Dylan Hicks. Scott Wrobel. Seriously? What a wealth. When I grew up, I didn’t know/think there were any living writers in the Midwest. It gives me such joy to know that there are so many great—and living!—writers all around us.
5. How do carve out time in your day to write when you are busy teaching college and have a child under 5 at home? Are you writing another book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
In fits and starts. When I’m being diligent, I try the old Graham Greene 500 word a day method—but that’s not very many words if you’re trying to get in any kind of groove. This summer I was blessed—and I don’t mean that metaphorically—it felt like a literal blessing—and was granted a writer-in-residence position with the Aspen (Colorado) Writers’ Foundation. For the whole month of July, I cranked out at least 5,000 words a day on a novel I’m working on about a bunch of punk kids in Milwaukee circa 1985 who have a bad run-in with some skinheads. I was able to do in that month what would have taken me otherwise in “real life” at least three or four years. I pray everyone is so fortunate at least once in his/her life.
6. Have your students read your book? What is their reaction to having a published author as a Creative Writing teacher?
For the most part, I’m guessing no. And I don’t blame them a bit. Every now and then someone will mention having read my book, and it’ll be like our little secret. There are few things as flattering as someone reading a whole book you’ve written. I mean, these days we’re lucky if we can get people to read to the end of a Facebook post. And my students’ time is so fought over. When one of them finds his/her way to my book and actually reads it, there is no greater compliment.
7. Why or when did you move to Minnesota and was it hard to leave your renovated home in Salt Lake City?
Actually, having done most of the work ourselves on our SLC home, I was terrified EVERY SINGLE MINUTE WE LIVED THERE that it would collapse and I would be responsible for my/our/its demise. Salt Lake City, of course, is situated right on top of a very active fault line (hence the mountains), and it was only a matter of time.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who just bought their first house and has plans to renovate?
Check the terms of the contract to see if you can’t still get out of it. If so, run like hell. If no, well, don’t watch a lot of HGTV. That’ll just depress you. Choose projects that are manageable in terms of time and space. Don’t do like we did, for instance, and refinish all the floors at once (leaving you with literally no place to stand for over a week). Focus and localize the damage/renovation. More importantly, listen to whomever you’re doing this nutty thing with. Remember that every single thing you do to a house you’re fixing up is connected to you and your relationship. In the same way, remember that there is no such thing as a small detail. That shower curtain? That carpet? Those drawer pulls? They might seem like little things, but the whole house is attached to all of them. Act accordingly.
9. What is the most important lesson/idea you want readers to take away from your book, Sugarhouse?
Whatever you and your sweetie are talking about when talking about fixing up your home, remember it’s never literal. That is, it’s always a metaphor for yourselves and your relationship.
11. In one sentence tell readers why they should read Sugarhouse?
One word: schadenfreude.
If you would like to win a copy of Sugarhouse click here: Sugarhouse giveaway