Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Matt Marinovich

Interview by Cicily Janus

Through his own experiences as someone who has been diagnosed with skin cancer, Matt Marinovich has found a world of material to write about. But in the world he has created on the page where Strange Skies are hovering above and even stranger events are taking place below, the happy ending is not the norm and the diagnosis of cancer can be, well...a good thing. Matt's enjoyable observations and approach to the usually grievous subject of cancer, along with an influx of characters that are seemingly all too real, takes this story to the much-needed human side of life and at times, out-loud hilarious level of reality. In this tale of human nature versus the gripping need to nurture, the protagonist, Paul, takes advantage of his situation and plays Russian roulette with his self-inflicted good fortune at the expense of someone else's misfortune until he starts to realize that although his life may not be worth saving, the lives of others around him are.

Author Matt Marinovich's first book, Strange Skies is published by Harper Perennial and was released in August, 2007. His work has been featured in numerous publications including Open City, Mississippi Review, Salon.com, Esquire.com, The Quarterly and Other Voices, and he's been anthologized in What If? and Bridging the Gap.


CJ     Do you have a degree in writing?

MM     I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College. I was fortunate enough to study with a bunch of great writers, including Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence and also Tom Lux.

CJ     What was it like to study with Grace Paley and Tom Lux?

MM     They were both pretty great. Grace Paley had a way of sticking up for students the rest of the class dismissed. She'd wait for us to all make fools of ourselves as we criticized someone, and then she'd show us how we'd completely missed the point. She had an almost physical knowledge of what good writing was. You could see her face light up when she heard something she liked.

Tom Lux is such a superb poet. I went to the MFA program at Emerson on his recommendation, but when he showed up there to do a reading, the funny thing is that I shook his hand afterwards to thank him for nudging me in the right direction, and he had no idea who I was. I guess that happens when you've taught thousands of students.

CJ     Where do you live?

MM     I live in Brooklyn, New York, near Prospect Park.

CJ     When were you diagnosed with cancer?

MM     2004

CJ     How did your experience with cancer shape and mold this book? Your characters?

MM     Cancer pissed me off, basically. I felt kidnapped by bad luck. I got back at that bad luck by writing this novel.

CJ     As a writer, you took the road less traveled; you took your MC, Paul, to a place I could not have expected. How much of this was a take off of your own thoughts and experiences when you were going through an experience similar to that of your protagonist?

MM     I was sitting with a friend at a bar and he said, "You know what I like about Paul? He's not like you at all. He's a real fictional creation." Of course, that's nice to hear, because every fiction writer wants to believe they can create a character other than their own self. But I felt a twinge when he said that, because I identify with Paul. Maybe I'd do some of the outrageous things he does in Strange Skies if I weren't able to vent my emotions on my laptop.

CJ     In what ways do you identify with Paul? Is there one particularly outrageous thing that he does in the book that you would have liked to do after your diagnosis?

MM     Well, there are some days in New York City, not many, but a few, when I wouldn't mind shooting some jerk in the foot with a crossbow. And then I'd get to find out, just like Paul does, what it's like to be in a high speed police chase.

CJ     I suspected that this book was going to be different from most books that feature characters with cancer or terminal illness. Having read Anna Quindlen's One True Thing, where the character with cancer is portrayed as a frail being for the last half of the novel, the side of cancer you show is everything but that. Your characters are strong, even if they don't survive, and not willing to accept the cancer as end-all, be-all of their existence. By the time I finished up the second chapter of Strange Skies, I realized that I was right. I love your protagonist Paul. His character gives the word sinister a new definition in literature. Yet it is his fatalist POV. In the beginning, when the reader meets up with him in the waiting room and then, in the same chapter, he turns the tables over to wit, sarcasm and realism, I started to realize just exactly what he might be capable of doing in this story, and how maybe if I had been faced with a similar diagnosis, I would have reacted in a like manner.

The waiting room on the third floor of the Mount Zion Cancer Institute is packed. I've been flipping through an issue of ESPN Magazine, some backdated interview with Demetrius Davenport, the famous wide receiver. But understandably, I lose focus, after the first few questions—I mean, I have cancer. And I'm waiting to find out if its spread And if so, I'm probably going to die. And everyone else in the waiting room has cancer...

...Now, in under an hour, I had solved everything.

I'm out for myself. And so are you. The only difference is that one of us has stopped lying about that fact. I've left the old Paul behind. The guy who always told Lee the truth. The guy who was going to get her pregnant. The guy who always told himself her mother's money didn't matter, when it did. The guy who was going to wind up as miserable as Eric, getting self-righteous on a sagging back porch, blinking at the first drops of rain, telling anyone who'll listen that there's love here.

Keep it. Being nice was so exhausting. If having serious cancer is this much fun, I'm not ever going to be healthy again.

CJ     As the creator of Paul, do you think there was a little bit of you in his reaction to the diagnosis at the end of the book? If so, did this play upon your fears when you were in limbo of your diagnosis?

MM     I was feeling a lot more fear and anxiety than anything suicidal when I was waiting for my diagnosis. Paul's in a different category by the end of the book. He's very ill.

CJ     Paul isn't that likeable at first, but, in my opinion, by the end of the book, I was very much in love with who he had become. I found the character arc blinding and refreshing all at the same time:

He screams then. A real scream that shakes every last bird from the branches above us. I'm still looking at myself now. I'm looking at myself hugging a screaming kid, and I'm thinking, I've got to be right. I'm betting it all on this one moment. And the truth is, I can't be sure. I'm just going on instinct right now. A wave of love. It's a whole lot better than fear. In fact, I don't care how far it carries me.

CJ     Speaking of character arcs, your characterization style is crisp, no-nonsense writing with vivid descriptions of each situation. As a reader, I could feel the chill of the sterile cold hanging above the heads of Paul and Lee in the beginning when they are sitting together in the car discussing his diagnosis and her need for a child, then the passionate heat felt between Paul and Alex after he transforms himself into a one-man sexual/palliative care for the terminally ill program, and finally the salty air surrounding his sick body in the end before he goes back for his final goodbye. Did you intentionally change Paul's surroundings from being cold, careless and hurtful to warm and careful back to the cold, just like his character arc?

MM     That's interesting. I do feel that physical warmth/coldness plays a role in the book. For instance, it's even important at the end when he knows he's going to die and says, "I wish I could just be warm light on a winter day, painting their hands."

CJ     Your book reveals much of the dark side of the human psyche. Did writing this affect you as you went along and Paul's character became darker?

MM     Writing dark is a thrill for me. Seeing people's reactions to it can be enlightening, though. I'd take my daughter to the playground and one of the moms said, "I liked your book," but at the same time I noticed there was about ten feet of bench separating me from her, as if I were going to make some Paul Mauro-type move on her. It's pretty funny. I'm already having playground anxiety about my next book, which is turning out to be just as dark.

CJ     Upon finishing this book, is there one idea or feeling that you would like for your readers to take to heart?

MM     So many of us are not quite who we pretend to be. That receptionist who smiles at you when you walk in the door? She probably wants to eat your brain with chopsticks. I think that's what's so refreshing and joyful about Paul; he somehow becomes a better person after his stint as a lying, selfish prick. But it's an honest, complicated better person.

CJ     Is there a particular passage in your book that is your favorite? If so, why?

MM     I think the scene with Alex Hivinshki and Paul up on her balcony after the "cancer" sex is one of my favorites. She's stayed with me. I can vividly see her, naked on the balcony, that guy in the distance waving. There's something wonderful about how she deals with her diagnosis. That whole feeling of having to live life in terms of months, not years: It makes you behave in a completely different way.

CJ     As a person who has had cancer, do you feel that others who have cancer or have been "cured" from cancer would be upset by the subject matter of your book?

MM     No one's cured as far as cancer. You always have it. It's always there. Mine (skin cancer) is much lower scale than ninety percent of what people suffer from. I hope there are cancer survivors out there who find the humor in this book refreshing. I'm sure there are some who will absolutely hate it.

CJ     Do you find that you write better when under deadlines, or when it is completely at your own pace and timeline?

MM     None of my fiction writing has ever been under a deadline, except the final revision of Strange Skies for HarperCollins. It was a very light edit, so it definitely didn't make me feel uptight. I actually think that deadlines, especially self-imposed ones, can be helpful for writers. You are the whole business when you're a writer; it's in your head. So having a plan is a good thing, I think.

CJ     Besides the novel you are currently working on, is there anything else on your table? Do you write for anyone else at the moment, i.e. magazines etc.?

MM     I'm working on a piece for Esquire.com. By the way, if there's anyone out there who knows how to knock out a guy without using your hands, please let me know, since that's what the piece is supposed to be about, "The No-Touch Knockout."

CJ     When you're not writing, what do you do?

MM     I'm currently teaching at a college (The Art Institute) in NYC. It's kind of nice freshening students up on basic grammar, though I've got to come up with better comma splice examples than, "Jack and Jill went up a hill, they fetched a pail of water."

CJ     What do you find to be your biggest daily challenge as a full time writer?

MM     Taking yourself seriously. I mean, it's just very strange sometimes, typing away for four hours and then taking a walk and realizing that nothing you've done that day is strictly real. Which is fine, that's fiction. But when my daughter is following me around asking for a new pair of shoes, I sometimes feel a moment of discomfort, because the person who's basically going to put those shoes on her feet is my main character, who doesn't exist. Still, he's got to sell. Otherwise, no shoes.

CJ     Are there any particular authors that you would say influence you the most as a writer? Why?

MM     It changes. I've just handed out James Salter's short story "Twenty Questions" to my class. The details are incredible. Just the way he can nail a scene down with one sentence. A cocktail party is "wine bottles crowded on a mantle."

CJ     What book are you reading now?

MM     I've been reading poetry. Mark Halliday's "Selfwolf." He's such a funny, moving poet.

CJ     Can you leave us with parting words or advice for writers, or is there anything you would like to confess about your writing life or your life in general?

MM     Basically, just try to find your voice. That's the hardest thing. Are you funny? Are you creepily ironic? Are you a bashful romantic fool? Everybody has a sweet spot, and a lot of writers aren't writing in it.

CJ     Thank you for doing this interview and I hope you continue to impress the literary community with your upcoming projects. I certainly look forward to the next addition of Marinovich in my personal library.


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