About 18 years ago, I met Matthew Batt while playing, of all things, touch football with a group of fellow grad students. Maybe it was flag football, hard to say. But after reading Matt’s memoir Sugarhouse, which recounts in vivid detail some of his experiences at Boston College as well as the trials and tribulations of renovating a former crack house, I’m willing to bet that he remembers which it was. (Or at least Dieter does.)
Sugarhouse, published last June by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is Matt’s first book. He now teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though our football glory days are far behind us, he graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts on memoir writing, book promotion, and the ever-changing world of publishing. We also learn why digging up your past is infinitely easier if you have someone like Dieter on your side. (Matt explains below).
WOLF: Sugarhouse is an intensely frank look at your personal life and some of the people close to you. A lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny, but there are other cringe-worthy parts that don’t paint a rather, well, “glamorous” picture of some friends and family. Was this a dilemma for you when you realized that your memoir would become very public? What has the reaction of your family been now that it’s hit the shelves?
MATT: Until a manuscript gets published, it’s practically the least public thing imaginable. All it usually takes to get somebody to not read something is to say, Hey, you want to read this thing I wrote? So, because it’s my first book, I didn’t really fret over it a lot. After it came out, well, things have been a little strained with me and my grandfather, but they have been all along. In a lot of ways, I feel free from all of that nonsense now. After all, he knows how I feel and then some.
WOLF: You’ve also opened your life up to the world through your blog, though its focus is more concentrated on home maintenance, cooking, and photography. Have you felt like the blogging process has helped you with your writing, or is it more of a marketing obligation?
MATT: I like the whole blog world better than I like Facebook or Twitter. It exists mostly for its own sake, rather than for a requisite number of likes or whatnot. I wouldn’t say it helps with my writing so much as it keeps me stitching a writing life together between bigger projects. The potential for an audience (rather than the expectation) is nicely challenging, too. It keeps me a little more honest than I would be with just a journal or diary.
WOLF: Here’s another question about the art of memoir-writing: Your book goes way, way, way back to our college years at Boston College, but you have a remarkable recollection of details, including setting and dialogue. As I was reading Sugarhouse, I wondered whether a) you’re an avid journal/diary keeper b) you have a photographic memory c) you illicitly tape record all of your conversations or d) you took some artistic liberties.
MATT: Actually, I have a court-appointed stenographer fairy named Dieter who follows me around, taking constant and careful notes. He’s also a former covert ops guy, so he’s real subtle. There’s that. At the same time, I have a fairly obsessive way about me and tend to ruminate incessantly over things, especially of the kind that are likely to be significant enough for me to write about in yonder book. But of course, when Dieter was off smoking one of his cigarillos or refueling his El Camino, I do depend upon a kind of creative reconstruction wherein I feel it’s okay to write dialogue or whatnot that is as likely as not what was said. And, whenever possible, I do run it by Jenae, my trusty wife/external conscience. If she says it sounds right, that’s good enough for me.
WOLF: We always hear about how hard it is for a first-time author to land a big publisher for a debut book, but you managed to do it with a big name like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Can you tell us a bit about how you approached the submissions process? Did you work with an agent?
MATT: I struggled for years to find an agent to represent me. I don’t think any publisher will look at unagented work, unless it’s through a contest or some elaborate bribing. Finally, I asked my good friend Bruce Machart, who’s first novel had just come out, if his editor could recommend any agents she liked working with. So she did, and I wrote to all those folks and out of that, Jim Rutman of the truly but also improbably named Sterling Lord Literistic agency was interested in taking me on. The first thing he wanted to know was had Adrienne, the editor who recommended him to me, seen my manuscript. She hadn’t, but she soon would. And that, inexplicably, was that.
WOLF: Writers are mostly aware now of how important it is to have an author marketing platform to promote their books, and you clearly have that with a website, a blog, and a Twitter following. But you also did the book tour circuit. Can you tell us what that was like and which approach seemed to help you sell more books? Are book readings and signings still worth it? What about media interviews?
MATT: The fabulous Summer Smith, my publicist at HMH, set up a whole world of media junket thingees, and somehow got my book into the hands of some great reporters/reviewers at places like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Radio, and a bunch of other places. Those seemed to be the most effective, pound for pound, but also the longest of bets.
I did a ton of little local radio shows, universally at five in the morning in far-flung stations in between the ag reports and the fishing reports. Those felt less than effective, but they didn’t cost me anything and it’s always rewarding and flattering to talk with people about your book. That was definitely true of the readings. Some were really well attended, others, well, the audience barely outnumbered me. But meeting the booksellers and all the great independent bookstores of America and those beautiful people who take the time to go to debut author readings . . . they are among God’s finest creations. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Dream come true. Period.
WOLF: Your original website was built using the now obsolete iWeb software, but we switched you to a custom WordPress framework. How user-friendly have you found it, and would you recommend WordPress to other authors?
MATT: Absolutely I would recommend WordPress, especially as you all transitioned me into it. iWeb was the My Little Pony of web publishing. With WordPress I feel like I actually have a significant and measurable web presence. iWeb is cute and all, but I always felt like it was as sophisticated as just having a Lite Brite with my name on it.
WOLF: When I worked as an editor, one of the major considerations we had was where will each book sit on the bookshelves in places like Barnes & Noble. Sugarhouse seems as if it would be rather hard to pigeon-hole into a particular category. I know it says on the back cover that it’s a memoir (and that’s how I’d define it), but when we found it in our local bookstore, they’d placed it in How-To/Home Improvement. You could easily make a similar case for Humor. As an author, you really don’t have much control over that, but how has Harcourt handled this potential marketing conundrum?
MATT: Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what they had to do with it. I have a feeling it’s like a taco shell manufacturer trying to tell Wal-Mart to put their products next to the bread instead of in the obvious, subject-oriented place. I haven’t really fretted over it. B&N is fine and all, but all my money is on the independent book-slingers. They’re the ones who matter in my book. Literally.
WOLF: What can we expect next from you? Your website mentions a book of essays called The Enthusiast. Can you tell us a bit about it?
MATT: Thanks for asking! Yeah, it’s a collection of compulsive essays on obsessive subjects. For me, anyway. I have found, over the years, that I tend to get embroiled in things that start as hobbies that blossom into completely consuming obsessions. They’ve ranged from the domestic (bread baking, toddler wrangling) to the fairly exotic (fixed-gear cycling, ultra-marathon running). I hope to be finished with that in a month or so. We’ll see what my publisher has to say about that!
WOLF: For someone who’s about to tear up all of the carpet in his house and replace it with hardwoods, I’d love to know if you have any words of wisdom to impart before I load up the nail gun. Are you undertaking any major home renovations yourself at the moment?
MATT: Have fun! (And keep a contractor on retainer.) I loved laying new hardwood floor. It seems like it ought to be really hard—and it often is, I’m sure—but it was one of the quickest and easiest things I’ve done. Those nail guns, too, are holy terrors but kind of miraculous to use. As for me, I just laid a new diner-style checkerboard wood floor in my kitchen. That kind of took the sap out of me for a while. Now I mostly just stand on it and hope it stays down.