Benjamin Matvey: Why thank you!
I’m sure that many writers have had the experience of going back and reading their fiction and hear it screaming something your unconscious mind wanted you to know about your own nature, interests, foibles and strengths that you were barely aware of at the time your writing it. My first story about a couple was, really, the first story I ever wrote as an adult, called Piece of Mind (I have also republished it on Fictionaut). In it I was trying to show how bad we are at guessing what other people are thinking: while one character think she’s “crazy” for having the normal sexual desires of an 19-year-old girl, the person who is the focus of her affection is quietly truly batshit crazy. From that story, I found myself revisiting this parallel format between a man and woman. It turns out that, in retrospect, I’ve been kind of obsessed with couples. Oftentimes they are romantic couples, sometimes straight, sometimes gay. Other times they have more of a parental relationship to each other, but ultimately, in my experience, the drama and comedy that I find the most compelling takes place in context of a focus on the relationship between a particular couple. But, I wasn’t really aware that I was almost exclusively writing about couples until one of my writer friends pointed out several years ago. As someone who did his best to remain single most of his life, I think it was revealing that I was constantly writing about relationships at various levels of dysfunction.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I have trouble coming up with any of my favorite stories that don’t contain couples (not limited to the obvious choice, of course–John Updike’s Couples). I think you’ve hit on something here. What are your favorite literary couples? How about your favorite works of coupledom?
It’s funny, my favorite couples seem to occur more often in movies and TV than in literature. Pnin, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, are three of my favorite books, but they all involve isolated, alienated characters. Annie Hall, however, is my all-time favorite movie. I also loved HBO’s Big Love. When it was at its best because you got a dozen possible couple relationships for the price of just one marriage! The “sister wives” one-on-one relationships with each other was always really compelling.
My husband is a writer. I am a writer. We sometimes write stories to get back at each other, kind of like an argument. Is this psychologically healthy? (Please say yes.)
No. As we all know any expression of anger in a relationship means that we will all certainly die alone and soon and that love is impossible!
Actually, I think that is really funny, kind of awesome, and shows psychological health. I think the best relationships often involve an easy-going, unapologetic emotional honesty.
Well, that’s a fine segue into this: What’s the strangest couple dynamic you’ve ever witnessed? Did you write about it?
I think every relationship dynamic is to some extent strange and that is why they’re so much fun to write about. Everybody has ideas of their own status, worth, strengths and weaknesses that can either add to or take away from a successful relationship. I think the best short story I ever wrote (which, ironically, is still unpublished) is about a woman who discovers that her husband’s IQ is a standard deviation and a half lower than hers when her career falling apart and his is on the ascent. It becomes a catalyst for a bitter, hidden, one-way, kind of destructive competitiveness. Maybe competitiveness in a romantic relationship can be a healthy thing, but I haven’t really seen it. Umm, unless you guys are competitive with each other… then that’s totally cool.
I would ask about your couple status, but then I’d feel like I’m at a bar. So I’m just going to put it out there, if you want to tell us how your own relationships feed your writing. And while you’re at it, feel free to tell us anything else new with you: publications, projects, any good movies you’ve Netflixed.
Oh my God you’re totally hitting on me!
Just kidding. Actually, I just got engaged a few weeks ago and we just started planning our little Brooklyn wedding last week. It’s funny, I was pretty happy as a single person, and particularly happy as a single man in New York, so I’d reached the point where I didn’t really see any need to get married at all, really ever. But then I met someone who just fundamentally changed the equation. Rather than looking at a relationship as a struggle that you feel needless pressure to take on and fight your way through, I met someone who the thought of spending every day with for the rest of my life actually sounded kind of wonderful. It’s just fundamentally different than any relationship I’ve ever had before. I remember when people told me that when you met the right person it would be easy, and pretty much laughing at them. They were right.
I have to admit, though, I wonder what my happy healthy, relationship is going to do to my writing about dysfunctional ones! As for projects, I was kind of hibernating from writing (fiction, that is; I write plenty of nonfiction) until someone I had never met before invited me to join Fictionaut. Now I am working up the ego strength to start sending out the short story I mentioned earlier, and the novel I finished about a year ago, again (I can’t stand sending stuff out). The novel could be called a love triangle, but it really is about two couples, one romantic, and one where only one side ever knows that it’s romantic. I also have a screenplay that has been optioned, a musical that I would like to put back into production, and, once I get some of this taken care of, I’ve been feeling the itch to write a fanciful, sprawling, futuristic political satire. It seems like that’s the direction my writing is going, and now that I’ve obsessed over the topics of, first, regret (a major theme in my screenplay), and then couples, now on to dystopia! (Actually, the future I imagine is really not that bad, but there are still stupid people, cruel people, and my ever beloved oddballs and misfits)
As for my Netflix I only signed up for it last week, and I’m totally in love with it thanks to Roku (seriously, buy one). My fiancée (although we much prefer the term “girlfriend to whom I am engaged”) and I just started watching Breaking Bad. I love genuine moral dilemmas that spiral out of control in my drama and you can’t do much better than that show.
Thank you, Benjamin, and here’s a toast to your new couple-ness! (Endnote: I can totally vouch for both the Roku *and* Breaking Bad.)
Katrina Gray checks in with Fictionaut groups every Friday. She lives in Nashville with the writer John Minichillo and their lovechild. She is the editor-in-chief of Atticus Review, and she blogs about mostly non-literary things at www.katrinagray.com.