Woodshop Talk: Matthew Duffus
Matthew Duffus is the author of the short story “Shadowboxing” and
winner of the Inkslinger Award in fiction for Issue No. 8.
Here we chat with him about his process and his art.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: So much of this story feels like a critique of the culture of fine art, particularly those scenes involving the partygoers and hangers-on at Sara’s mansion. Yet we sense a degree of sympathy in your treatment of Sara and Ravi. What are your thoughts on art culture? We’re especially curious about where you see it intersecting with the culture of literature.
MATTHEW DUFFUS: I wrote the first draft of this story from my perspective as an uneducated art appreciator. It was only as I revised that I researched the art world, and what I found matched the literary world fairly well. Both seem obsessed with the cult of youth, with finding the next hot thing. And when you put that together in the form of an artist-couple, look out! So Sara and Ravi get caught up in this PR dream-turned-nightmare where they are feted for their youth, their looks, and, lastly, their art. While Sara has the tunnel vision necessary to keep making art amid all of this, Ravi succumbs to the hype a bit. As Sara says, he hasn’t done anything significant in years. The pressure builds to avoid has-been territory, and he makes the fateful decision to “borrow” from Sara, at least from her perspective.
Robin Black wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the New York Times a while back that is far more articulate than my thoughts on this subject. As someone who is on the verge of forty, the final dividing line between being a “young” writer and just being a writer, I’m concerned about the pressures our culture’s emphasis on youth puts on writers on either side of this division. Strangely enough, I think the Internet can have a positive effective in this regard. Readers and art appreciator alike have access to so many more writers and artists than they had in previous decades, when our awareness was tied primarily to traditional media and the specific tastes of a handful of other gatekeepers. Youth will always have its allure, but I’m hopeful that the next Sara or Ravi will come up in an art culture that is more open to nontraditional career trajectories.
BA: There’s a looooooong history of culture drawing connections between mental illness and creative energy. To what extent do you imagine Sara to be reflective of the generic artistic state of mind?
MD: I was very aware of this history as I wrote “Shadowboxing.” While I didn’t want to fall into the trap of writing a story about a character type, I couldn’t escape feeling that Sara’s struggles and successes are completely intertwined. My goal was to make Sara as specific as possible, in an attempt to transcend the generic. When it comes to Sara’s mental illness, I was purposely vague, though she certainly suffers from bipolar disorder at minimum. While I would never say that all artists have to suffer similarly for their art, I do think there’s something a bit unnerving, at times, about the intense focus that is required to make art. When I’m working on a story, I have to forget the bills that need to be paid, the errands that are awaiting my attention, and even my immediate surroundings. I can see where this could lend itself to a manic disposition.
BA: This piece is notable among those we’ve published for closing on a particularly intense downer ending. What challenges (or opportunities!) do these sort of bleak conclusions provide? Did you ever envision a happy way out for a story that begins with the death of a sibling, and if so, why did you choose this avenue instead?
MD: The first draft of this story told Sara’s life chronologically, but early readers didn’t like coming upon Sara’s death midway through, so as I revised, her death became the focal point from the beginning. With that in mind, I couldn’t see any way out of a downer ending, if I planned on staying true to Anita’s role as the narrator. The challenge to such a structure was to give the readers a satisfying experience without the promise of an uplifting finish. Once Anita returns to Houston, the story became as much about her — her role as enabler/support system, her desire for a break from this pattern, her guilt — as it was about Sara. As such, I felt that even though the ending is bleak, it offers readers an accurate portrait of her state of mind. Understandably, this death is going to haunt her for a long time. And even though I, for one, would never fault her for what she’s done for her sister over the years, she’s still left feeling like she should have done more.
Lastly, I tried my damnedest to convince Anita to end on a more uplifting note, but she resisted every attempt! For what it’s worth, I think she was right.
BA: Where, when and how do you write best? We want to know more about the Duffus rules of writing!
MD: I wrote the first draft of this story five years ago. As with most of my more successful stories, I wrote the draft quickly, in about a week’s worth of long writing days. It took two years, off and on, to revise, largely because of the research I did into the art world after that draft and my desire to pare the story down to its essence. In the meantime, my wife and I had a baby, which has dramatically changed my writing routine. Now, instead of having long stretches of time, I write for an hour every morning, before my daughter gets up, seated on the couch in our living room. It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve shifted my attention to novel writing over that same period. For me, successful stories come out in white-hot bursts. My goal when writing them is just to keep up, to stay in that moment. Novel writing, on the other hand, requires that long-distance runner’s endurance, which fits my writing schedule better these days.