Author Profile: Matthew Eck

July 1, 2008
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Matthew Eck is the 2007 runner-up for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for his first novel, The Farther Shore (ISBN 1571310576), released through Milkweed Editions publishing group. The Farther Shore is a gripping, haunting short novel about the effects of war set in the troubled nation of Somalia. The novel was universally well received, with comparisons to other accomplished novelists such as Hemingway and Tim O’Brien—very distinguished company indeed.

In The Farther Shore, Matthew Eck puts the reader inside the world of a fragmented country where gangs and warlords rule and where there is little regard for life as we know it. In 1992, when a small unit of soldiers from the U.S. Army is separated from their command and left for dead, their only option is to “keep moving” in hope that they will escape those marauding gangs and clansmen who rule the city of Mogadishu with an iron clad fist. In scenes reminiscent of Dante’s horrific description of the journey through the Inferno, Eck expertly moves the reader through horrifying violent encounters where one by one the members of the small American unit are tragically lost. Eck brilliantly engages the reader with ghostly images where the characters are both human and inhuman—a mirror image to the violence of war.

Eck enlisted in the Army in 1992 and served in both Somalia and Haiti. He has a B.A. in English Literature from Wichita State University and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. He currently is a popular professor of Creative Writing at a small college in the Midwest—the University of Central Missouri. Eck lives in the Kansas City area with his wife Katie and young son Cormac (any guess as to who he is named after?). His wife is due to deliver their second child at any time. Eck enjoys teaching and interacting with his students as they also pursue their own writing careers. He has a full schedule at work and home and values his cherished spare time to write.

Eck is currently finishing up his second novel, which does not concern war despite having some violent characters. He has plans to return to a “war setting” for his third novel. I recently had a conversation with the young author where he answered questions not only about The Farther Shore and his upcoming second novel, but also about his writing style and how he goes about his daily busy schedule with little free time available to him.

Matthew Eck

In a recent review, I described the way I felt while reading The Farther Shore as having a “sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach and a lump in my throat at the same time,” and I described the book as a “crying out for no more war.” Also, for the book’s characters, survival meant they were forced oftentimes to observe war and the violence around them from an isolated “farther shore.” Do you feel these are accurate descriptions?

I think your descriptions are perfect. The Farther Shore is my hymn against war. I imagine it is what most war writers hope for, deep down inside, that they can change the world for the better with their writing. They do observe the war from The Farther Shore—they’re victims and participants, but more importantly, they bear witness to that around them. They physically bear the weight of the war and all the memories they’re making.

While reading The Farther Shore I felt that the characters in your story had, above all else, an overwhelming feeling of detachment. It wasn’t so much as if they were fighting for their survival—it was, to me, as if they were fighting to disassociate themselves from any possible memory of Somalia and the violence, if they were to survive. As a veteran of the Somalia action, is this what you also felt? Is that what you were trying to convey to the reader? The characters seemed more and more detached from the violence as the story went on. At the beginning there seemed to be some apathy for those killed or wounded, but as the novel and the suspense grew it seemed that they took everything that happened in stride.

I think memory is the key word there. Stantz says in the end that he won’t remember it all, an obvious lie, built as much for those asking the question as for himself. I think the reason for the “keep moving” attitude served two purposes. First, they are more and more exhausted as the novel goes on. They’re physically, emotionally—and in the sense of belief—spiritually exhausted as they are forced to make decisions and accept the consequences of their actions. The other reason for the “keep going” attitude was to keep the plot moving so that the reader can share in the burden of the experience with the characters.

Our readers are interested in all aspects of the creative style. Jack London had a saying, “A thousand words a morning.” Do you have a set schedule you are firm with for your daily work? How do you juggle your writing needs in with being a busy professor of Creative Writing? Do you write at home or at the “office?” Is writing a difficult process for you or does it come easily?

I try to write at least a thousand words a day or put in four hours writing and editing. So much depends on my teaching schedule and my wife and son’s schedule as well. My teaching load is insane at the moment. I teach four courses a semester. I look forward to my summers.

The Katie and Cormac schedule is wonderful though. We have another one on the way, so I can’t wait to make time for them as well. All writers have to figure out how to make their time work. We all have 24 hours in a day. Some days you are selfish with your time and some days you are kind with your time. I write in my office at home. We’re in the midst of buying me a door for my office. When Cormac was born my office didn’t have a door. I was going over the manuscript for The Farther Shore and I would hear Cormac cooing in the next room while I worked on a scene about killing children. It was tough. If he’s home when I’m writing he’ll stop by to chat about baboons and such. I like to hug him. I enjoy my space when I write. I like to pace and drink coffee. I open books by dead authors at random and read what they have to say. Sometimes the writing is easy and sometimes it is hard. Most days it’s hard. I can whip myself with self-doubt like no one. It’d be nice if it were all the roses of happiness. But, alas, the well of despair is deep, the forest is dark and deep, and the trail is full of peril.

What can we expect to see in the future from Mr. Matthew Eck? Do you think Joshua Ferris deserved to win the Discover Award?

I’m working on a new novel. It’s about killers. It’s about a character that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years now. It’s not a war story though. It’s about the lies someone will believe in order to live their life between the long stretches of darkness that fall in front of it and behind it. I think I’ll probably visit the war story again soon though. I care deeply about veterans, for all the obvious reasons. My heart goes out to all the soldiers out there in the world and I’m always thinking of stories I can share with them. And yes, Joshua Ferris is an amazing writer; he deserves all the praise that he’s received. He’s intelligent and gifted. I thought Vida’s book [Vendela Vita—another Discover Award runner-up] was remarkable as well. Either one of them could have won it.

How did you hook up with Milkweed over the other big publishing houses? Will that relationship continue?

My agent sent it to Daniel Slager and the rest is history as they say. She had a feeling that we would work well together. As I say in the acknowledgments page, he found the heart of the novel and edited it true. I’m honored to be at Milkweed and I would love to work with Daniel again. I learned a great deal from his edits and requests and we can get along very well. Like all writers I just want to get my work out there into the world and get it to as many readers as possible. Publishing is a wonderful business and writers switch houses all the time for all the obvious reasons.

Are you one of those writers that feels they should write only about things they are familiar with in their lives—say like fighting in Somalia? If so, what else has happened to Matthew Eck that you would like to write about? And will it always be fiction?I think writers should write about whatever they want. Men can write about women, dogs can write about cats, and on and on. Oh, what hasn’t happened to me that would be interesting to write about? I like going to the grocery store. Something fun always happens. The craziest person in the place usually finds me and starts a conversation. I used to think that you had to “own” the experience in order to write about it. But these days I like to watch people and I like to try and figure out what it is they’re doing, what they’re about, and what their lives might look like on the page. What would happen if I sent character A to a petting zoo? That kind of stuff. Empathy. Some days I write to teach myself empathy. To teach myself to be a better person.

Was the title The Farther Shore your idea?

My wife helped me with that one. It’s a line from Dante:

As, in the autumn, leaves detach themselves,
First one and then the other, till the bough
Sees all its fallen garments on the ground,
Similarly, the evil seed of Adam
Descended from the shoreline one by one,
When signaled, as a falcon—called—will come.
So they move across the darkened waters [all those souls];
Even before they reach the farther shore,
New ranks already gather on this bank.

Stephen Parker operates Classic First Editions LLC out of Orange, CA and can be contacted at http://www.classicfirsteditions.com.

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