Jack Matthews was a literary giant for this nation whose value and importance will only increase with time. He was also a constant source of joy and hilarity. His stories displayed a keen understanding of human motivations and a knack for recognizing beauty and humor in the smallest of things.
Early on Thanksgiving morning, Ohio author Jack Matthews died after a long-standing illness. He was 88. I will be making a bigger announcement and posting my “literary obituary” about him this weekend, but for now, here is a flash fiction he wrote from his soon-to-be-published Abruptions flash fiction collection. Three years ago in an audio interview Jack Matthews mentioned that Abruptions contained 88 short stories, a number which was formally interesting because it corresponded to the number of keys on a piano. In a kind of cosmic irony, that same number 88 also corresponded with each year he lived on earth.
THE LESSON (By Jack Matthews)
This was one of his first memories. He was five years old and begged to join the older boys in their baseball games. They finally relented, gave him an old glove that hung almost to his knees when he put it on. And to keep him out of the way, they placed him in the “outfield” beyond a ragged row of barberry shrubs.
From this position, the little boy couldn’t see any of the other players. Nevertheless, he faithfully kept gazing up into the sky above the little shrubs. Waiting, waiting, day after day.
Then late one afternoon it happened. He saw a dark point in the sky. It grew swiftly bigger and bigger until it hit him in the face, knocking him down and bloodying his nose.
This was a mystical experience for him, and he never forgot the lesson, which is that there are some things which grow bigger and bigger, and then there is this brief blunt painful spasm of darkness, after which they are gone and you find yourself lying on the ground, looking up at the sky.
(Flash fiction from “Abruptions”, which will be published in 2014).
“Literature is the least pure of all the arts, and that is its richness and power. It’s a temporal art like a symphony; it has periodicities, it has rhythms — prose itself has sound, it evokes visual imagery like painting….” Jack Matthews, Interview 2010
I had already interviewed Mr. Matthews by email in 2009, and so naturally when I visited Mr. Matthews in Ohio in 2010, I had to interview him on various other topics which we never got around to in the first interview. I set up the interview in his personal writing room. (During the interview, his wife came in to pick up the breakfast dishes, and I believe the dog came in during the middle of it as well — you can probably hear it). We had a delightful talk. Matthews was talkative and full of erudition and digressions and personal anecdotes. I made it a point to try to ask him questions he hadn’t been asked before. As a matter of fact, I had just finished the quirky novel Tale of Asa Bean (which I loved) and had just started to read the historical novel Sassafras — which was a great comic novel about 19th century America. I also asked him to talk about Gambler’s Nephew (which was published in 2011) and Schopenhauer’s Will (which should be published in late 2013 or early 2014). I hope this discussion sheds insight about Matthews’ approach to fiction and what sort of things inspire him.
Finally in the last 5 minutes Mr. Matthews reads a flash story called “The Lesson”.
Since writing a book on Schopenhauer a few years ago, I often find myself thinking about the dark sentiments voiced by that old philosopher. My thoughts often revolve around his quaint notion that the lives of actors are perfect prescriptions for madness, because every night they must step forth upon a stage and pretend to be other people. Since the gloomy thinker arrived at this idea in the heyday of faculty psychology, long before our “Modern Age of Enlightenment”, he should perhaps be forgiven its crudity; and yet, I find the pronouncement interesting and possessed of an antiquated charm—and even a quirky sort of validity.
As one who has undertaken the writing of plays after years of publishing books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, I think of actors as being among those for whom I most intimately and instinctively write. Actors are, of course, my readers, and they must be shrewd and thorough and capable of finding the oxygen in the language they are given and breathing it in. Later, having memorized my words, they will speak them aloud before an audience, who then become secondary readers, of sorts. I still hold that sentimental old belief in the “magic of theatre,” and I cannot imagine a more intimate communication with others than that in which they will, in all their various and individual ways, give voice to words which I have first heard in silence.
No matter how ephemeral or limited or flawed my plays may prove to be, they will have their moment of truth, of being alive. This is a Pirandellian notion, to be sure; and it deviates from my original faith in being a writer; for part of my mind will forever be wedded to the printed page (I collect old and rare books, and write books about them). Still, it is the words that are primary, after all; and the fact that you are now reading these words gives further testimony to how words can live lives of their own—not only in the environment of the printed page, but in their development and outgrowth into the voices of living people who have taken a sort of benign madness upon themselves in pretending to be people who have no real existence. As playwrights, we are first privileged to know our characters and hear them speak; but as with our biological children, we rejoice to see them grow into their own realities, and speak in voices beyond our hearing.
It’s official. Nine Point Publishing has announced that it will be publishing Schopenhauer’s Will, a hybrid novel based on the life and thoughts of Schopenhauer. Publication date is listed on the Nine Point Publishing website in Fall 2014.
In a 2009 interview, Mr. Matthews described the project — which was published in Czech translation before it was actually published in English.
My most recent published book is SCHOPENHAUEROVA VULE, a Czech language translation of SCHOPENHAUER’S WILL, brought out by H&H Publishers in Prague. This is something of an anomaly because it has yet to be published in English (one editor rejected it, saying it was “too experimental and too cerebral” — the latter reason a rather odd one, perhaps, for rejecting a novel about a philosopher; but that’s what she said, and I have no reason to doubt her good will). Perhaps a more cogent reason, however, is the fact that the book is somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in).
To jump the gun a bit, here’s one of the poems (republished from the same interview) which will appear in the upcoming book:
Schopenhauer’s Reflections Upon Humor
In effect, he argued that every word denotes a class,
But the members of that class are all unique,
tellingly different from one another--no two beetles
are alike, no shoes or sneezes--and when we speak
of justice, liberty, love or similar abstractions,
who can clearly understand what then is meant?
"Liberty" can signify mere selfishness and greed,
And yet, the word remains the same, indifferent
To the use it's been corrupted to promote.
And the word "love" will never literally apply
To more than one such passion that enflames
The loins and lays the heart to siege.
It's in this theory that one begins to sense
The principle which signifies that there is irony
Inherent simply in the way words work,
For nothing ever named can fit the name,
And in the soberest speech there is some quirk
Of comical discrepancy. That irony is intrinsic
To the very language that defines our world
Is a proud discovery. And so it is that ever after,
In every word we speak, the intellect hears laughter.
One final note. This book will be print only. In a private email to me, Jack Matthews mentioned that he chose Nine Point Publishing because it “produces beautiful books, & I like the idea of Schop coming out elegantly attired.”
In this provocative & immensely irritating comic play, the Sphinx from ancient Greece is interviewed in modern times as though she were a celebrity pop star. The problem is she never answers any questions — never directly anyway. Instead she prefers just dishing the dirt on everybody. ON HOMER: “I never was exactly sure which one Homer was. I’m positive he wasn’t the blind one, though; that was just a silly story they started telling a few centuries later”. ON OEDIPUS: “Eddie was terribly conceited, you know … of course he was smart and handsome and, oh, just had a way of carrying himself that impressed everybody. In spite of his foot.” Bit by bit the Interview learns that what happens in Greek legend didn’t happen exactly the way Sophocles described it. Fortunately, the Sphinx offers the Interviewer another riddle … if only he could figure out what exactly it is! This witty 67 minute audio play stars Jill Brumer as the Sphinx and Neal Gage as the Interviewer. Part Tom Stoppard, part Monty Python, part Oscar Wilde, this play by Jack Matthews combines philosophical paradoxes with fast-paced verbal pyrotechnics. It offers the perfect antidote to people who remembered ancient literature as nothing but stuffy and melodramatic characters with hard-to-pronounce names. Other Places to Buy the Audio Play: cdbaby $3.99 | itunes $3.99 | Amazon USA $8.99 | emusic $5.99
Jill Brumer (the “Sphinx”) is a Houston actress originally from South Carolina with an MFA in Media & Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design. She is an avid reader, college professor, actor, all-around artsy/crafty person and fan of Sherlock Holmes. She has actually taught the play Oedipus Rex to her college students.
Playwright Jack Matthews is the author of 10+ plays and 20+ books (including short stories, novels and essays). Winner of the Guggenheim, a play competition and several arts grants, Matthews has been anthologized widely, translated into several languages and nominated for a National Book Award.
Music for the play comes from the album “Listen” by Tryad (Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0).
About the Ebook
This ebook contains the complete script used for the 2013 audio production plus another expanded two act version of the same play. This expanded two act version is titled “Dr. Freud and the Sphinx,” and includes Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud characters (who serve as the Greek chorus).
This edition provides two versions of the same play: a two act version with four characters, and a one act version with two characters. The recent audio production uses the one act version in this ebook.
To explain why this edition has two versions of the same play, it is necessary to explain this play’s history.
In 1992 Michigan Quarterly Review published an excerpt of the play Interview with the Sphinx, and in 1993 the full version of the script was published by the Dramatic Publishing company. At about the same time, Logan Elm Press and Papermill at Ohio State University published a special limited version of the play with original illustrations by Eric May. Aside from minor typographical discrepancies, the Logan Elm Press edition contains the exact same text as the Dramatic Publishing edition.
Since that time, Matthews made a large number of minor revisions to the original play and expanded it to a two act play by adding two more characters (Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale) who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the action. The two act version alternates between Freud-Nightingale scenes and Sphinx-Interviewer scenes; even though the two act version begins and ends with Freud and Nightingale, the play’s primary focus is still with the Interviewer and the Sphinx. Freud and Nightingale – like a typical Greek chorus – are there mainly for commentary and interpretation.
Within this ebook, the two act version is called Dr. Freud and the Sphinx while the one act version keeps the original Interview with the Sphinx title. The one act version lasts about 65 minutes, while the two act version runs about 105-100 minutes. The one act version is identical to the two act version except that all scenes with Freud and Nightingale have been removed. To make things easier, the entire ebook is called Interview with the Sphinx; this should not be construed as implying that the one act version is more canonical or preferred.
So which version is better (or best)? I faced that question when producing an audio play. I had read the 1993 edition first and the two act version later, so that might have predisposed me slightly to the one act version. I think the ending of the two act version is easier to digest; on the other hand, I like how the shorter version focuses unrelentingly on the riddle question. The two act version reads more like a novella, which might be good or bad. A resourceful director could probably stage either version, but producing it as an audio play has the advantage of calling attention to the wordplay and rhetorical paradoxes.
In addition to serving as a kind of “Greek chorus,” Freud and Nightingale add dramatic variety and give the play a more concrete grounding in human history. Although Freud and Nightingale exist in an unspecified time and place, they represent actual people who are shaped by the era they came from. Unlike the Sphinx and the Interviewer (who are basically literary abstractions), Freud and Nightingale speak with the knowledge of life’s mundane aspects – going to school, eating, falling in love. Both are healers and problem solvers; at the same time, they approach society’s problems in an objective, dispassionate way. The ending of the one act play is abrupt and possibly disturbing, while the ending of the two act play (Freud’s final soliloquy) is more conversational, even-tempered and even light-hearted. So each play has a different tone.
Some miscellaneous notes. First, the Interviewer refers to an article about the Sphinx riddle. In fact, Mr. Matthews had himself published such an article more than 20 years before he wrote the play (“The Riddle and the Staff,” THE CEA CRITIC, Vol. XXX #9, 6-1968, pp. 3-5). The Thomas DeQuincy essay is real – it’s called “The Sphinx’s Riddle” and is found in Memorials and Other Papers Volume 2 at Project Gutenberg.
Starting in the 1990s, Matthews started using a number of European figures as literary subjects – most notably Arthur Schopenhauer (Matthews has already written a play, a poetry collection and a novel about him). By this time, Matthews had already written a number of plays. Although Sphinx is one of the few formally published plays by Matthews, quite a number have been published in the last decade especially. About half use Mr. Matthews’ real name, while the remaining plays use his pseudonym, “Matt Hughes.”
87 year old Author Jack Matthews has published seven short story collections which have been reviewed favorably by New York Times Book Review, London Review of Books, LA Times, Washington Book World and USA Today. In addition, Matthews has published hundreds of stories in smaller literary magazines around the U.S. Despite the prodigious output, it’s been a while since the last Matthews short story collection has been published…..actually, it’s been 20 years!
To rectify that, Personville Press will publish four new short story collections by Jack Matthews. The first collection, Soldier Boys, will be published in August 2013. It depicts how ordinary Civil War soldiers deal with the rigors of war and have to confront life-and-death questions. Ironically, war itself is not so much the main subject of the book as how individuals deal with the insanity while trying to live a normal life…and ultimately how they make their peace with it. Like other short stories by Matthews, they are suspenseful, tricky, humorous, contemplative and even spiritual. Reading about the Civil War doesn’t sound like “fun reading, ” but it is certainly relevant in an age where US soldiers are being sent to fight in faraway places for controversial reasons. The stories are less about the subject of war but than the challenges of growing up in dangerous circumstances and learning enough resilience to survive.
This collection reflects Matthew’s interest and fascination with 19th Century America. His most recent novel, the Gambler’s Nephew depicts how the accidental death of an escaped slave has repercussions on an entire town. His novel Sassafras (published in the 1980s) depicted a traveling phrenologist who has all sorts of comic misadventures during his travels. Matthews has also collected lots of soldier memoirs and written essays about some of them for his nonfiction books.
This story collection will be published as ebook in late Spring. After this ebook, another volume of short stories (called Abruptions: 5 Minute Tales to Awaken the Mind) will be published in Summer, 2013.
Here is the outstanding cover art for the Jack Matthews play Interview with the Sphinx. It is the image of the female Sphinx wearing dark glasses – as viewed in the sunglasses of the onlooker. This art by Barbiel Matthews-Saunders (Jack Matthews’ daughter) does a good job of capturing the paradoxical nature of this comic philosophical play.
In August, we recorded an audio version of this play starring two distinguished Houston actors. Jill Brumer played the role of Sphinx, while Neal Gage played the role of the Interviewer. Both were great. The audio is still in post-production, but the audio play should be available at a moderate price in a few weeks. The ebook of the play should be available at about the same time in the usual places. Here’s a photo I took during the production. Sorry for the poor photo quality, but the resemblance between the cover and Jill with her sunglasses was uncanny (er, except for the lion paws!)
In other news, I (Robert Nagle) will be going to Ohio to visit Mr. Matthews in two weeks.
Here’s a list of questions and discussion topics for the novella Hanger Stout, Awake! This study guide is saved and being maintained in Google Docs and is available as a free download. (In Google Docs, you also save it as a PDF and DOC file). If you have additional suggestions about this study guide, feel free to comment here or send me an email (idiotprogrammer at gmail.com). Continue reading →
[2016 Update: For a while Amazon was charging 99 cents for this free ebook, but the situation is unpredictable; sometimes, it’s free and sometimes it’s 99 cents. You can always find it for free at the other places. If you’re looking for a free copy to read on your Kindle, download the free .mobi file from Smashwords and then use Personal Document Service to send it to your device. ] One of America’s foremost short story writers has made available 3 of his most intriguing stories for a new promotional ebook. These 3 stories (first published in the 1980s) were chosen because they are accessible, intricately written and provocative on many levels. Also included is a long interview with the author about the craft of storytelling. Total: 23,000 words.
87 year old Jack Matthews has published hundreds of short stories, 7 novels and 8 volumes of literary essays. This ebook republishes three of Jack Matthews’ best stories. “Amos Smith, the Gunsmith” reaches into the folk tale tradition to produce a nice allegory about human labor. “A Woman of Properties” is a satirical suburban tale (reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor or Cheever) about a real estate agent with a grudge. “The Girl at the Window” is an unsettling and mysterious tale about our relationship to the past.
Here is a list of other titles by Jack Matthews you can purchase as ebooks — either from the major ebook distributors or directly through this site. Note: Several new titles will be coming out in the next few months, so sign up for the mailing list if you wish to be notified.
Now after a delay, here’s some honest-to-god news.
First, at the beginning of July, Personville Press will release a free ebook sampler, Three Times Time containing three of Jack Matthews’ best short stories previously published in other volumes. It’s being released as a promotional sampler for readers who haven’t heard of Jack Matthews. I’ll keep you in suspense about which stories they are, but they should be released very soon.
Second, Personville Press will be republishing the play Interview with the Sphinx which Mr. Matthews first published in 1992. It’s a philosophical comedy based on the legend of the Sphinx character in Greek mythology. In this modern version, the Sphinx is being interviewed by a interviewer, as though she were just another Lady Gaga celebrity. She is a talkative, flirtatious and mysterious person who likes to talk about anything except the question being asked. The Sphinx speaks of ancient Greek times as though it were yesterday. She and the interviewer discuss all kinds of linguistic and philosophical questions, weaving contemporary and classical allusions together. As an added bonus, Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale make cameo appearances as a kind of “Greek chorus.”
Now here’s the fun part. Although Interview with the Sphinx makes for fun and cerebral reading, Personville Press will be producing an audio version of the play which will be released at approximately the same time as the ebook. The audio version should capture the lively wordplay and pyrotechnics from the script. (More). Both the ebook and audio play will be for sale separately and as part of a bundle. Both will be available in November.
Finally, there’s a backlog of ebooks that will probably be published before the year is over. That includes 4 new story collections of stories published in book form for the first time. Personville hasn’t finalized any deals yet, but I can say that I’ve read most of the completed manuscripts. They are all delightful. This includes:
Soldier Boys, a series of stories about ordinary Civil War soldiers and how they confront life-and-death questions. Ironically, war itself is not so much the main subject of the book as how individuals deal with the insanity while trying to live a normal life…and ultimately how they make their peace with it. These are contemplative and even spiritual stories. They also reflect Matthew’s interest and fascination with the Civil War era (which we also see in Gambler’s Nephew).
Abruptions is a collection of flash fiction or prose poems (under the pseudonym Matt Hughes). which Matthews has been writing over the last decade. These pieces fuse the lyrical/metaphysical/humorous/ with the mundane, yet these pieces remain accessible and are not simply “precious.”
TheSecond Death of Edgar Allen Poe and other Stories is a Borgesian collection of stories, full of twists, plots and narrative tricks. The title story was one of the most fun pieces I’d read in a long time.
Boxes of Time is a collection of stories written over the decades which have appeared in various literary magazines. They have a variety of different styles and themes and many different approaches to storytelling.
As I said, the 4 story collections haven’t been finalized, but they’re ready to go. At the moment, it’s hard to say which story collection will come out first. They are all important in their own way. If I were a betting man, I would say, Sphinx comes out by Thanksgiving, and at least two additional collections will be out by the beginning of 2013.
Finally, one final note about formatting. You may know that ebook formatting are changing for the better. Starting with Sphinx onward, people reading on the Kindle should see substantial improvements in layout and design (pretty much because the old Kindle format was atrocious). People reading the epub file should see some improvements too.