posted Aug 8, 2007
Matthew Sharpe makes a good story. By this, we don’t just mean to say he’s a talented short story and novel writer, though of course he’s both. We’re talking about the path he’s taken as an author. While his collection Stories from the Tube and novel Nothing Is Terrible were both praised by critics, they didn’t sell as well as they should have. So he found himself unfairly bounced from the world of big-time publishing, and signed with the feisty and talented—but shoestring-scale—folks at Soft Skull. And what happened with his next book, The Sleeping Father? Another raft of great reviews, but even smaller sales? Don’t sell him or Soft Skull short: Father was a sensation and bestseller both.
And for his next trick, another surprise: rather than sign with one of the big boys, Sharpe stayed with Soft Skull for Jamestown. Which has not only been another big seller, but is also the most original—and strangely profound— re-writing of an American myth we’ve come across.
You did a lot of research into the history of the real Jamestown before crafting your updated, fictional version—your book’s bibliography lists works ranging from The Complete Works of Captain John Smith to Jamestown Narratives to Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. But tell us, did you also watch Disney’s Pocahontas, and was it a useful source?
I watched Pocahontas when it first came out on video at the behest of the daughters of some good friends of mine, long before I imagined writing a novel about Jamestown. I fell asleep midway through, was awakened by the girls, fell asleep again, was awakened, etc. Each time they woke me up they demanded I tell them what had just happened in the movie, and, weirdly, I was able to describe quite accurately the parts I had slept through. This was the most productive series of naps I’ve ever had in my life.
In the popular imagination, the Jamestown experience is sort of colonial Williamsburg with a little less food—quaint and cutesy, someplace we’d like to live for a bit, if only we could give up TiVo. But in reality, it was often terrifying, with death by violence, starvation, or disease lurking always around the corner. Do you think it was as difficult as life in Jamestown? Or were the original Jamestowners more able to look past their difficulties, because they had greater hope for the future?
I think the grimness of life in Jamestown is not so far from the grimness of life in Jamestown. But I don’t know what the level of hopefulness or optimism of the original settlers was. I think it’s reasonable to assume that they did not all think of it the same way, just as now we have, on the one hand, say, Cindy Sheehan, who thinks the Iraq war is an unqualified disaster and mourns the loss of each wasted life, and on the other hand we have that ball of sunshine Dick Cheney, than which I defy you to name a more Mary Poppinslike figure in the history of American politics.
In crafting your narrative, you included not only versions of some of the original Jamestowners, but some of the events from the original Jamestown story? Did you feel at all bound to stick to it as you wrote?
The novel is an improvisation and the harmonic structure that formed the basis of the improvisation, if you will, is the motley agglomeration of primary and secondary accounts of things that really happened 400 years ago, if that makes sense. I did want this to be a fantasia on American history so the history part was as important to me as the fantasia part.
A number of critics have noted the syncretic nature of your characters’ voices. Pocahontas, in particular, who comes off as a sort of tech-hip Shakespearean valley girl from the ‘hood. How did you decide what each character should “sound” like? Did you work from a set of ‘specs’ drawn up in advance, or develop the voices as you wrote?
Each character’s voice or combination of voices developed as I wrote, and how a character talked early in the book became the specs for how that character’s talk would develop later in the book.
Which character’s voice did you find easiest to channel? The most fun to write in?
Each one was fun and miserable after its own fashion.
Jamestown is an incredibly violent place, but the violence mostly comes off as something from a cartoon—less horrific than amusing, and even mundane, to the characters as well as the reader. Did you mean it to come off this way? If so, why?
I can’t control or predict how readers will respond to or understand what I’ve written, but I gather that some readers have found the violence in Jamestown quite horrifying, as I often did while writing it, while others have been inclined to read it as slapstick, as I often did while writing it. I think there are many passages in which characters are deeply disturbed by the violence done to and by themselves, while there are many others in which characters respond glibly and blithely to violence they’ve witnessed or perpetrated. Why write (or intend to write) violence that sometimes feels real and sometimes fake and stylized? I think as a way of representing both the experience of violence and the representation of violence: violence as violence and violence as spectacle. To put it another way, I meant to write a novel in which there is a lot of fluidity among various degrees of abstraction: sometimes it feels real, sometimes it feels fake, and I hope often both, for as the poet William Matthews used to say, “It’s always both.”
“My name is Pocahontas and I’m nineteen, but Pocahontas isn’t my real name. I will never say my real name. If I say my real name you will die…” Ms. P not only says this in Jamestown,but also on her very own MySpace page! Whose idea was to put her on the Web? Has her page brought many readers to the book? And most importantly, how many “friends” does she have?
Really? Pocahontas has a MySpace page?
Jamestown is a big departure from your earlier middle-class-coming-of-age works. Did you make this departure mostly because you wanted to push yourself as a writer, or because you simply came up with an interesting story idea and ran with it?
Both. Writing Jamestown was like writing my first novel again. I didn’t feel I knew what the hell I was doing. I considered it likely that the book would be a failure. Maybe it is. This, the possibility of failure, the willingness to attempt something new and fail, as y’all no doubt know over at www.failbetter.com, is one of the more exciting and awful things about being an artist, or a person of any kind for that matter.
Your The Sleeping Father was a big success for Soft Skull Press, and in its wake, any number of big houses would have jumped at the chance to publish Jamestown. What made you stick with Soft Skull?
The Sleeping Father was also a big success for me, thanks to Soft Skull Press.
What’s next for you—something completely different, or Plymouth Rock, Part II?
I like the idea of a novel about Plymouth. Did you know Myles Standish was really a woman?
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