I had the fortune of meeting Matthew Neill Null at the Jentel Foundation’s residency a couple autumns ago. Looking back, it’s a delight to realize that I was watching him go into his cabin to churn out the pages that would be become this fantastic novel, Honey from the Lion. We couldn’t lure him to movie night. He was as warm as anyone could be, but there was a little blue flame over his head, a spark in his eye. Dude was touched.
Reading it now, you see how the book was a loving and easy commitment. Every page is vital and vivid and rich with history, character, and conflict. A lot of books require the reader’s tacit commitment to the artifice—you push too hard on some and you realize that they are gossamer, that all books might be made of pretty frail stuff. But when you encounter a book like Honey from the Lion, you know you’re knocking on something hard and real.
Which is another way of saying, I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to have this novel pour out of Matt’s head. It’s a beautiful craft. It’s an achieved thing.
Smith Henderson: Some of my admiration surely stems from the overlap of our preoccupations and backgrounds. My father is a logger, so your book is right in my wheelhouse. We’re both from the same kind of calloused-nearly-from-birth stock—yours in West Virginia, mine in Montana. That plaid-collar upbringing makes for a very self-suspicious writer. You always feel like you might be trying to dodge real work with this art crap.
But I’m curious about how your pedigree plays into your work.
Matthew Neill Null: Smith, we get along well because we’re from unloved redneck America, where the best birthday present someone can give you is a chainsaw, followed close behind by a generator. The other day, I saw on the news that a woman from Grafton, West Virginia, shot her husband in the stomach because “she was tired of looking at him.” When the other people in the room got all het up for gun control, I said, “Well, marriage is hard, and marriage in Grafton is even harder. There’s not much to do.”
You’re in Los Angeles, I’m on Cape Cod. In places like Montana and West Virginia, the population loss has been staggering as people have left for cities and suburbs and the military. This is the great story of social change in the last one hundred years of American (and global) life, but it is not discussed. My family has been in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania from the colonies on, and our fortunes have basically shared the boom and bust of extractive industry. We’ve lived in the big shining house, and we’ve been broke. It’s sometimes pointed out that my work wants to comprehend long expanses of time and character, using an omniscience that can go anywhere and see anything, and that comes from a desire to comprehend a longer history than a single human life can provide. A shifting vantage is important to me.
Honey from the Lion takes place circa 1904, when ten million acres of virgin forest were clear-cut in West Virginia in a brutally short span of time, and explores how it challenged and changed the people. The leveling of the old forest upended our social order and created a new political-industrial class. I’m interested in communities, not individual lives. I could never write a Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m allergic to solipsism, my generation’s presiding spirit. I was lucky—in a small place, there’s porosity between classes. I had blue-collar grandparents, but my dad was a small-town lawyer and my mom was a nurse. We socialized with miners and doctors, mechanics and judges, foresters and teachers, old and young, teetotalers and drunks. A great education. The best was the talk. Everyone could hold court. If you stopped at the gas station, it didn’t matter if the line was five customers deep—the clerk wanted to know where you came from, what year you graduated high school, who you’re going to see, etc. In Ireland, I saw the same social dynamic. (Ireland and West Virginia also share the august literary genre of the sheep joke.) The population is thin, and the houses are widely spaced, so when you do meet someone on the road, you share your gossip, news, and jokes in one long gush. Then you move on, still alone.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t live there anymore?” I’m asked from time to time. In some quarters, places like West Virginia are viewed with suspicion, if not contempt, for political and cultural reasons. Personally I’ve found fiction writing to be corrosive to political belief. Ambiguity is the novel’s lifeblood. We have too narrow a conception of what literature should be and how life should be lived. The artist should be a resister of consensus, the last one yelling, “Stop!” Instead, we keep our work between the buoys, offend no one, and choose to be relentlessly middlebrow in our art and palatable in our social lives. “To be everyone’s friend is to be no one’s friend”—one of my characters wonders this before he is killed. Let’s give literature back to the cranks.
When I consider my pedigree, the division between the city and the country comes to mind. Besides a few college towns, the literary culture is New York City, that provinciality on steroids. Anything outside of the I-95 corridor is regionalism, as quaint as grandma’s quilt. Why do we cede American Letters to a handful of corporations that exist on a single concrete patch? In college, I thought I’d be a scholar and write an epic on this urban/rural tension; my touchstones were Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, and Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark. It was meant to be a rock cheerily thrown at our conceptions of land use, power, and control; I’d thread Faulkner and the Army Corps of Engineers, Haussmann and Robert Moses, lending libraries and Methodism, turnpikes and slums, Huey Long and the Huguenots, the New Deal Coalition and LBJ. But then I realized I’d have to give twenty years of my life to it, and that like most academic works it would die unread. If I was going to sink that much time into writing, I might as well do novels and have some fun. (I overestimated the fun involved.)
SH: Amen. I think you’re spot on about the narrowing of literature. I always had the sense that I didn’t belong in the world of letters. In retrospect, I was damn lucky that my folks were so working class, but as I was coming up, it sure felt like nothing I had to say was relevant. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given less and less of a damn.
Speaking of which, we’re also around the same age, and have that same sadness that the world has begun to rapidly disappear. No, I didn’t say “change”—what is here now isn’t the world, but some reduction of it, and I feel the same kind of outrage and astonishment in Honey from the Lion that I know in my bones. That said, the book has a sort of sad inevitability to it, but not resignation. This is all good for art (lucky for us) but you’re a new father, so I wonder about the evolution of your thinking around the deteriorations that will be permanent—if that’s not too depressing to think about.
MNN: My novel is a shout and a warning, but it’s like shouting into a well—will anyone hear it? No. But let’s shout. My characters are culpable; they realize what they’re doing; they will live on in the wake, in that white oblivion of aftermath, but not before trying. Seldomridge the pastor is troubled but brave. Zala sacrifices her own hard-won security. The union men are willing to give up their lives, let the walls catch their blood, be the grease on history’s wheel. It is easy to resign yourself, especially those of us with an ingrained country fatalism, but for my characters, the fever breaks. They try to take the world in hand and bend it like a hoop of iron. Everyone fails in his or her own way, but they have found the will to choose their own destruction. Could you call it a Pyrrhic loss? Better than sad, slow dissolution. The world that produced me is unquestionably gone, and was on its last legs when I was a child. Adults spoke openly of this. At least I was prepared. It’s strange to come of age in a dying place. It was local, rural, pre-internet, politically moderate, and personally austere, informed by a tolerant mainline Protestantism that is being outflanked by the so-called Evangelical impulse. The level of pragmatism would shock tender hearts. The kid and I will probably regard one another with mutual incomprehension, but that’s in the grand tradition of parenting, as you know.
As the novel makes clear, we have a pattern of boom and bust—logging out the forest in the early days, then oil and coal, and now Marcellus shale fracturing for natural gas—and though we have a pattern, there’s no goal, no endgame. By the time I’m dead, the state will either be a blasted moonscape without drinkable water, or a playground for the wealthy who want to take part in fetishized outdoor “adventure.” The end of coal is the dagger.
Change could come. It would take a visionary leader, a Nehru or an LBJ, someone canny who can bend discourse and policy in a unique direction, but knowing our bench of politicians and industrialists, I don’t think we’re in any danger of that. Marcellus shale fracturing will not end, no matter what the blast e-mails from environmental groups tell you. At best we could put a heavy severance tax on its extraction, as we did for coal (decades after we should have), then funnel the money back into the state. That’s cold comfort, but it’s better than nothing, which is what we have now, along with torn-up roads and bridges from all those Schlumberger trucks. The political will isn’t there, though privately the thinking legislators will tell you they agree.
As long as the world demands cheap energy and building materials, places like Montana and West Virginia and Nigeria will bear the burden. We are blessed and cursed with natural resources.
SH: Quite a few of my early mentors were hippie enviros who’d moved to Montana in the 1970s and became dentists and professors and lawyers, but would hand me dog-eared copies of Edward Abbey and Ken Kesey and Wendell Berry. Seems like I always had at hand some important and dissenting voices to listen to. Sometimes it feels like you can’t stop a train, but other times, you realize there is a ferocious anti-determinist strain in the American character, which sometimes finds artist expression, and even meaningful political changes.
One thing I knew pretty quickly after our first conversations was that we had a similar fascination with the places that are blessed with a natural beauty that tends be their undoing. But the beauty can sometimes save them too. In Montana, copper barons bought and cored the state like an apple. But then in the 1970s, Montana quietly changed its state’s constitution, making money not the sole determinant of election outcomes—only to have the most strident campaign finance laws in the nation undone by the Bush court in the 2000s. Anyway, I don’t look at this as a done deal, as disappointed as I am. In fact, the decisions just seems like yet another example of the push-and-pull, good-and-bad struggle of capitalism and democracy, which brings me around to Honey from the Lion: what part of its creation was a desire to explore those ironies of human nature, whereby we embrace the pristine and sublime, but just as often cut, burn, and ruin it?
MNN: Not part, but all. This paradox is at the heart of the novel. West Virginians love the natural world; their blood is in the ground; yet all of us have been involved in extractive industry and the piecemeal deconstruction of the landscape in order to earn our daily bread, in order to simply live there and remain. Nearly all jobs there hinge upon extractive industry or providing services to those who work in it. The characters in the novel are grappling with this paradox for the first time, without the benefit of hindsight or experience.
There’s this tired narrative that the evil corporations came in and took advantage of the ignorant savages. No. We knew and know what we’re doing. What else would we have done? It ain’t exactly America’s bread basket. It has all the makings of agricultural disaster. The land is poor. A farm in a place like that is forever on the edge of ruin. From what I can tell, my family members leapt at the chance to do something besides farming despite extensive holdings—they had hundreds of years of disappointment behind them. You go to the family cemetery, and it’s dense with infants. Here’s the oldest direct story my family has. One year there was snow in July—probably “the year without a summer,” 1816, when Tambora threw ash in the sky—and it killed the crops. The only thing they could get into the ground in time for harvest was buckwheat. They got by on buckwheat flour through the winter but nearly starved, and none of them could ever stomach it again.
Our experience of the landscape was intimate but not fetishized; everyone hunted and fished and gardened, but it was merely your life, a thread to get through the seasons and the ever-present boredom of country life. It was no affectation. It’s amazing that things like canning are fashionable now. The people I knew did that because they had to. The organic craze is especially hilarious as it’s heralded as a return to “the way it used to be”—my ancestors were overjoyed by the advent of pesticides. Anything to make it easier. Those were brutal lives. Fuck a bald eagle, you know? With seven or eight kids, you wanted food on the table. But one can never go broke betting on sentimentality.
Places likes West Virginia and Montana pivot on such issues, as the land is dear but money is scarce. Now unions are in retreat, which is a shame, because the miners in small places like this brought about the most progressive labor and social laws that, until recently, the country had ever seen on the state level. With quiet bravery, Montana crafted ground-breaking legislation about campaign finance and public access to waterways; West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965, and the union miners tended to be outdoorsmen, so they helped push for the creation of wilderness areas to protect places like Dolly Sods and the Cranberry Wilderness. In West Virginia, the United Mine Workers integrated African-American miners in the state very early, and they were represented in the leadership even in the 1890s; this gave a degree of political clout to African-Americans in the southern part of the state and smoothed the path to integration. The tobacco-worker unions of Wheeling were the first to welcome women and African-Americans to their ranks. (I had a great-aunt who rolled cigars at the Marsh-Wheeling Stogie Factory.) But this legacy is being dismantled by the courts and current legislatures.
Yet my novel concerns an attempt at unionization that is completely disastrous, even deadly. Well, failure is interesting, and so is political disenchantment. The losers are the ones. Give me Henry de Montherlant, not Malraux; give me Carter and Nixon, and keep the tepid Clintons and Eisenhowers. They have nothing to tell us.
SH: I also know that you’re quite the ranger. Nothing lights you up quite like plotting an excursion. I remember you coming back from a hike at Jentel with a dead baby rattlesnake that you’d found and putting it on an anthill so the ants would clean it down the skeleton, and for a minute I was nine years old again. “Cool! Snake!” Your love of nature is infectious, personally and also artistically.
MNN: Okay, first off, Jentel is the snakiest place in America. Don’t go barefoot out there. You’ll ruin your credit score with a $150,000 antivenin bill. Yes, I did skin a snake in the sink there. Like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. I remember you saw that bull moose in the creek—I was poleaxed by jealousy.
The lives of animals are mysterious, and mystery is the lifeblood of fiction. We overvalue human life and prize the “lesser” forms not enough. There are animals in my work, and they are characters, not props; there are landscapes in my work, and they are not stages. The landscape is my Greek Chorus: distant, implacable, but indispensable, providing both commentary and silent witness on the sad little tragedies of man—but imagine a Greek Chorus at gunpoint.
My people were hunters and fishermen, and we spent so much time thinking about what the animals were doing, how the seasons affected them. Their sudden appearance was a heightened reality, a shimmering moment—in a thinly populated place, the animals become your silent companions. At night I would wake and wonder where the deer were—the ruined orchard, the cemetery. Their presence gives corners to your world.
Honestly, much of my love for the land came out of sheer boredom, which has been the prevailing force in my life. When you live way out, unblessed by commerce, you have to make your own fun. It’s hard to convey to people how empty places like West Virginia are when you get beyond town limits, as well as the utter silences that characterized my childhood. In the first place I lived—a log house way out Groves Road in Nicholas County—we had no neighbors in sight, just the field, the creek, the forest, the old cemetery on the hill. In the morning, deer and turkeys would appear out of the fog. Later, we moved to town, but that isolation had already made me a natural solitary, one of Melville’s isolatoes, never comfortable in rallies and crowds, ever on the edge of things. I was the first-born and alone for a long time.
We didn’t have a bookstore or a mall or cable; you couldn’t even find a decent restaurant. For years we didn’t even have a cinema. Many poured their lives into sports, but I had no taste for it and no skill. But the National Forest made me rich. So yes, the landscape of the novel is the landscape of my childhood, where everything shines in exaggerated light.
SH: The bull moose! That old boy just wandered up out of the brush by my patio. He was ten yards away from me and could give a single damn that I was there. I love how irrelevant you feel in moments like that.
My first hometown was a little place called Happy’s Inn, which you can blow through without even noticing. I spent the better part of my childhood in the woods, in the National Forests, and even today, if I’m in a city, I get the heebies until I find the empty spaces. I can stand Los Angeles only because I live in the east and can be in the desert in a few hours. I wonder if you can elucidate why it is I psychically need a whole Wyoming somewhere proximate just to feel okay.
MNN: Because deserts and mountains are the home of death. They attract and repel just as one is by death, offering all the comfort and hemlock a body could drink. You look at them and consider disappearing there forever. Tear up your map, bury your wallet, vanish. That empty quarter implies an available escape. People who have come of age in that place will understand. “If my life doesn’t pan out, I can always go there…” It’s a whisper in the blood.
A million acres is about right. That familiar emptiness tells you when you’re safe, when you’re in your country, where you understand the rhythms and seasons and the ritual of birth and death. You’re able to quit trying. A stranger in a strange land is always on edge. If you’ve come up in empty rural space, you’ll never be comfortable on a teeming pavement. Every time I ride the subway, something awful and embarrassing happens. I have a good sense of direction in the mountains or on the river or even out in the dunes here, but New York defies me. I get lost every time. But it’s just a grid! It’s a mental block. So stupid. But so many adore the place, and it’s created incredible writers, like Seymour Krim, Vivian Gornick, Leonard Michaels—or Frank O’Hara, who said that a walk in Central Park was all the nature a human being ever had call for. So maybe I’m wrong. Or weak. Vivian Gornick spoke of how much she hated Iowa City, how silent and empty it was. I thought it was a fairly stimulating college town—if a bit crowded.
SH: Ha! “Crowded” Iowa City. I’ve never been, so maybe it is. All I know about Iowa City is that I didn’t get into their MFA program the first couple times I tried and decided the program was the problem instead of my lackluster application materials. It’s funny, but I feel now like having a few years of uniform rejections from MFA programs and journals forced me to double- and triple-down on the commitment to writing. At some point, after a few years drinking bourbon and reading everything in Kentucky, I’d published a couple stories and realized I was going to get into the grad schools I’d applied to on this, the third try, and wound up going to Texas. The urge to go to school was unexamined. I had this inherited sense that once I got into a grad program, I’d really learn some things about writing. But as it turned out, all the most important learning (about writing) preceded my acceptance. I discovered my enthusiasms, my “voice” (insofar as I believe in such a thing), and most of all, the things I didn’t really care about artistically.
I bring all this up to get your answer on a question that always comes up: how do you write? A good portion of our audience, people who read closely, who are reading our conversation, who are deeply interested in craft and story and language are writers at various stages of their careers. I know I’m interested in your process anyway.
MNN: Well, you couldn’t get into Iowa, and I couldn’t get into the Michener Center, so I guess we’re even! Elizabeth McCracken, a fabulous former teacher of mine, runs the program now at Texas.
For me, the story begins with images, with sensory perception, with stray shards of sentence. These go handwritten into the notebook. My narrative arc is a way of knitting these disparate pieces; they must, like dreams, have some cryptic import. Character always comes last. I saw a man who frivolously threw a stone and killed the beautiful heron, but I didn’t know the man was Cur. Who would’ve done that? I had to invent him. I saw a mountain lion tearing into a team of horses, the blood on the snow, the chains snapping and shooting links. Then the nameless Italian workers, the metal tabs affixed to their collars flashing like minnows in the lantern light. The rotten corks so thick in the alley by a tavern they’re slippery to walk on. The denuded mountains. The woman getting her eye checked with a buttonhook for trachoma. The angel food torn apart by dirty fingers. Or a vision of a peddler killing the rattlesnake with his staff, driving it down to split the skull against a railroad tie. The building of character is the connective tissue that binds image and gesture. Who will live these lives and do these things? There, character begins. I don’t really think about voice, besides ensuring some level of consistency throughout a particular work.
Until I went to grad school, I had worked in isolation and didn’t realize that this was a tad unorthodox for a fiction writer. For many, character is where you begin, or you find a voice/consciousness and inhabit it like a method actor. That doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t hold my interest.
My process involves a quick first draft, then years of exhaustively going over the sentences and paragraphs till I can bite on them like coins. I throw out an embarrassing amount of work. Honey from the Lion easily shed three hundred pages before I found its final form. Hell, it’s only two hundred fifty pages! I don’t have a regimen, really. I get up in the morning, go downstairs, and try to do something before work. I run the writing fellowship program at the Fine Arts Work Center. Lovely institution that it is—a champion for emerging writers and artists—I get most mornings off to write.
Unlike you, I think I hit grad school at the perfect time. I was muddling through my twenties with marginal jobs—I built log cabins in West Virginia, I wrote grants, I did social work—but at day’s end, I was usually too tired to write. If I ever had a life-changing moment, it was getting accepted into an MFA program. It gave me three years to write, and I buckled down and finished the lion’s share of my first two books. I had this huge land-grant library at my disposal and encountered so many incredible voices for the first time, like Isaac Babel, James Salter, Eudora Welty, Tomasi de Lampedusa, Patrick White, and Shirley Hazzard—writers with whom I consider my work to be in conversation. I got to study with Charles D’Ambrosio, a demanding teacher and a first-rate mind.
In hindsight I’m surprised Iowa took me, because I was writing in a different mode (a sort of classical, high-vantage omniscience) that was out of fashion among my cohort. Anthony Marra was the only other one there going for that. Also, my language tended to be more lush and lyrical. Most were writing in that spare tradition of realism (Carver, Tobias Wolff), then with some George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, and Jesus’ Son thrown in for spice. My wiring was Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The slender domestic tale well told has never been my love; I want an epic, an entire, thrashing society. I remember an instructor saying, “The elevator only goes up so high anymore.” Meaning, the age of Tolstoy is over. And yet, I’m a true contrarian, and it was ultimately powerful for me, a true forge, because I had to articulate my beliefs to a skeptical audience and locate my soft spots where the barb could enter. What’s the point in being endlessly patted on the head? So I have a lot of gratitude to the place. I was treated exceedingly well by many there, and they admitted me as this dude with rough talent and zero pedigree, a total outsider to the literary world. I was kind of broke, and the program provided a TA gig, then a post-grad year to teach and work on my book. In my final semester, I had the great fortune of working with Allan Gurganus, an incredible writer and tent preacher for art. Later on through the Work Center, I met Jaimy Gordon, who has become a mentor. We discussed every page of this novel. I adore her work and her candor.
SH: Well, I’d like to say lastly that this is a deeply compassionate book. It’s so full of life and true humans. Cur and Neversummer are never less that fully real to me, almost recognizable, which makes their struggles all the more devastating. We’ve talked a lot about what humanity has done to nature, but the book also trades in man’s inhumanity to man. But the book’s triumph is that I never really come to a place of pure judgment about the characters, in some sense because the forces of history seem stronger than even the men (mostly men) who would seek to harness them. Even my reading of the epigraph from Judges withholds any commentary or even much indication of how we are to feel about such a strange, even fortuitous turn of events. There’s a sense that a transgression has occurred and gone unpunished, and then nothing more. It’s so great. How did this wonderful, mysterious passage become significant to you?
MNN: Yes, that dynamic of transgression and lack of punishment is exactly what’s so interesting to me. I have a Methodist background, which means I had a religious education that was concerned with justice and charity in the Wesleyan mode. Yet so many stories from the Old Testament are cryptic, amoral; they have the logic of myth, not of parable. Heinous acts are committed, the narrative rolls on, nothing meted out, and no lesson can be drawn except for God’s inscrutability. These stories defied the conception of morality taught to me, but they were taught just the same. Adults are strange. Protestantism (not Evangelicalism, which is merely a political gesture) is a bit of antimatter sent into the world. Seldomridge embodies this motion—in its questioning of authority, its cherishing of private judgment, Protestantism carries the seed of its own destruction. I’ve known a couple ministers like this, deeply troubled people, forever questioning themselves, serious thinkers and gentle in their judgments. The rest were hucksters, bereft of thought.
There are so many in the Old Testament like Samson, who slays the uncircumcised men at Ashkelon for their garments to satisfy a stupid wager, who sets the foxes on fire and burns the fields (a powerful image for sure). These men are distant, unknowable, beyond punishment. There’s an obvious parallel to corporations and financiers, the small gods of our listing republic. My novel begins with “Absentees,” who perform mythic tasks, then vanish from the stage. Once the absentee owners leave, the mortals remain to work out their petty, workaday lives—which I hope to reexamine and raise to the level of myth and parable, to put men and women on level with their gods. They are the anonymous ones killed at Ashkelon; they are Jephthah’s daughter, a story that remains as disturbing as the first time I heard it. This is what fiction can do, revivify lost lives. That’s why Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is such a moving work, succeeding where so many “religious” novels fail, because it focuses on the criminal who is pardoned off the cross and his rage and embarrassment and guilt over his bit part in the epic. A man in the shadows. Barabbas’s story had not been told, but must be told.
First-rate fiction is always about third-rate people. Yes, my Absentees are “great men,” but the novel doesn’t belong to them—well, maybe to Judge Randolph, who is thwarted in the end, painfully cognizant of his smallness in the scheme. I have a soft spot for the Judge. He reminds me of the wretched politician I could’ve been. The moment he realizes he won’t be elevated to the high court is wrenching to me, that moment of reckoning that comes to all us strivers, when the work of a lifetime turns to so much wet ash.
SH: “First-rate fiction is about third-rate people.” Hot damn.
I feel like your compassion and empathy for the judge really extends to all the third-raters in your book, as they must. And yet, I know that for many people, the desire to read a character hinges on his ability to comprehend them morally. My harshest critics are usually the scolds who have, despite my best efforts, no empathy for my characters and instead judge them (or the book, or me) as undeserving. Which is typical for Americans, I suppose. Our Christianity is skosh different than the one described by the good book. This is all toward saying that my favorite fiction, like Honey from the Lion, challenges my ability to empathize, even as it urges me to do so. We can recognize that we are perhaps third-rate, but deserve first-rate treatment, all of us.
MNN: That’s perfect. I can’t improve on that.
The challenge, for me, and probably most writers, is to be empathetic while also being hard-eyed and discerning. That’s the fraught path of fiction. It’s the perfect instrument for exploring thorny moral-ethical situations and troubled people. I’m naturally empathetic, but the other side of the equation was more of a challenge. In Chekhov’s letters, there’s this incredible passage: “Write about this man who, drop by drop, squeezes the slave’s blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being—not a slave’s—coursing through his veins.” I’ve tried to squeeze the sentimentality out of my fat, wet heart. It’s taken me longer than most, I fear. There’s this odd counterbalance in my background, in a place where people are pragmatic but also deeply sentimental. They get misty-eyed talking about God, the flag, the troops, the grandparents. The past is lifted into the sun, idealized, while we molder below in the present. Deep into the twentieth century, you’d walk into a house and see three pictures on the mantel: Jesus Christ, FDR, and John L. Lewis, longtime president of the United Mine Workers. In this novel, I’ve tried to strip out idealization of the past as one strips the bloodline from a fish, to wrench it back from the tropes of historical fiction. I wanted candor and brutality, not that soft, sepia light. The final judgment, of course, is up to the reader.
Thanks for the talk, Smith. Your Fourth of July Creek stunned me with its knowledge and its beauty. Such a powerful work. It sure didn’t read like a debut novel to me. May it have a long life.
SH: Thanks again Matt, for such a fine conversation and a really masterful book.
Matthew Neill Null is a recipient of the Mary McCarthy Prize and the Michener–Copernicus Society of America Award, and his fiction appears in American Short Fiction, Ecotone, the Oxford American, Ploughshares, Tin House, The PEN /O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2014. A native of West Virginia, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he is currently the writing coordinator. Honey from the Lion (Lookout, 2015) is his first novel, and his story collection, Allegheny Front (Sarabande), is forthcoming in 2016.
Smith Henderson the author of the debut novel Fourth of July Creek (Ecco), a 2014 New York Times Notable Book. It was the 2014 Montana Book Award winner, finalist for the James Tait Black Prize, the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Ken Kesey Award for the Novel, and the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction. His fiction has been anthologized and published in Tin House, American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Los Angeles, California.