A love letter, of sorts, to short stories
Brendan Mathews' affinity for short stories tracked in "This Is Not a Love Song"
LENOX — As a child, Brendan Mathews read encyclopedia entries for fun, taking a particular interest in less renowned figures.
"Each of them got their moment. You got these really exciting stories about people you'd never hear about in history class," Mathews said on Tuesday morning at The Lenox Library.
Nearly eight years after graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a bachelor's degree in English, Mathews began working as an editor at Britannica.com in Chicago. The digital department of Encyclopaedia Britannica didn't fare well. It eventually laid off Mathews and about 80 percent of his colleagues, he estimated.
"If you've ever watched 'Silicon Valley' or any of those shows, we did everything wrong," Mathews said. "We had a Super Bowl ad that aired the second after somebody was terribly injured."
Thankfully, Mathews hadn't stopped honing another form of compressed prose that, in college, he had grown to love far more than encyclopedia entries: short stories. Building off publications in "Glimmer Train" and "The Best American Short Stories" among others, the Lenox-based author's first short story collection, "This Is Not a Love Song" (Little, Brown), will hit shelves Tuesday; Mathews will begin a slew of Berkshire readings at The Bookstore in Lenox on Friday, Feb. 8 at 6:30 p.m. Unlike Mathews' expansive debut novel, "The World of Tomorrow," the book's 10 tales are short trips into disparate realms, though the same feeling rules all of them.
"It's all about people trying not to fall out of love or trying to fall in love and having trouble doing it," Mathews said.
In the book's final story, for example, a circus clown longs for "the new girl on the flying trapeze" to reciprocate his affection, but she has instead taken to a lion tamer.
"I've tried to convince myself that you couldn't help it, because let me tell you, some women are just drawn to lion tamers. It must be the smell of the lions — some pheromone that women can't resist," the clown ruminates in "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer."
Most of Mathews' narratives have less comedy; they convey the vast array of emotions that can accompany intimacy. In the title story, a rock star's photographer remembers her friend's rise and demise through summaries of snapshots.
"Some of them are almost comic interludes. Some of them are really deadly serious," Mathews said.
An early draft featured a more traditional narrative structure. Mathews returned to many of his old stories once he finished writing "The World of Tomorrow," which was published in September 2017.
"Some of them in the collection are like gut rehabs of their original version," Mathews said.
While the stories' settings often draw from periods when Mathews lived in Chapel Hill and Chicago, their final revisions were a Berkshire-based endeavor. Mathews moved to the county from Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2007 after accepting a teaching position at Bard College at Simon's Rock. He was raised in nearby Albany, but didn't visit Berkshire County during his youth.
"And now that we live here, we almost never go back to Albany," Mathews said.
The author and his wife, Community Access to the Arts Executive Director Margaret Keller, raise their four children — 16-year-old Nora, 14-year-old Fiona, 12-year-old Cormac and 10-year-old Greta — in Lenox. Mathews is a member of the library's board of trustees.
"The third floor is a good writing spot," he said on Tuesday at the Main Street building, winding his way upstairs.
Coffee shops are also a haunt of his. In 2009, he began penning what later became "The World of Tomorrow" at Lenox Coffee. Mathews' initial pages focused on a man driving during separate moments of triumph and despair.
"The novel started with the question, 'What could have happened in between these two?'" he recalled.
In the book, two brothers escape from Ireland to New York City, where their other brother resides, after stealing from the Irish Republican Army. (They don't necessarily outrun the consequences.) The novel is set in the 1930s, a period that felt familiar to Mathews.
"A long economic decline, economic crisis, was happening. There was a refugee crisis happening overseas that the U.S. was trying not to pay attention to. I didn't know it at the time, but there was this rise of fascism subtext that was going on that was less apparent then than by the time the book came out globally, and maybe here, too. The ways in which the '30s looked a lot like now were interesting to me and drew me in," he said.
Unlike many novelists, Mathews didn't write a semi-autobiographical debut, but it does capture his passions.
"It's full of history and music and architecture and family stuff around brothers and children and what it means to be a parent," he said.
Fatherhood has helped Mathews become a more disciplined writer. He has always been a voracious reader.
"My brothers and I were not earning athletic glory. We were much more bookish," he recalled.
Mathews' interest in writing heightened during his first semester at UNC. He took a creative writing class with author Max Steele.
"I really fell in love with writing. I fell in love with reading short stories," Mathews said. "It was the first time I'd read short stories in a really sustained way and saw what you could do in that kind of space, the kind of depth that was possible, and to read them with real intensity, which, Albany High was a great school. I had great teachers when I was there, but we hadn't read short fiction."
He started penning his own narratives in school, expecting to publish them shortly after earning his diploma in 1991. He sent pieces to The New Yorker and The Atlantic. They were rejected.
"I didn't really know how the game worked," he said.
Over the next 12 years, he held positions in marketing, advertising, architectural salvage, journalism and digital education, moving to Chicago during that time, but he never stopped writing.
"When I go back through notebooks from my 20s, it's constantly stuff from work. It would be a work notebook, but in the margins, I'm sketching out the details of a story," he said. "Or, there will be pages and pages that I'm writing for work about mutual funds, and then it'll be two pages of the beginnings of a story, and then it's back to mutual funds. The impulse was there, but I needed the discipline."
The University of Virginia's MFA program helped provide that structure.
"It gave me the focus and seriousness of purpose that I should have had all along," he said.
Mathews stuck around Charlottesville for another two years after he finished the program, working in the university's media relations department. The Berkshires move was a shift.
"I think that when we left Chicago, we really never imagined that we'd live in such a small town, but we've really come to like it a lot," Mathews said.
Mathews has built a literary community in the Berkshires — he pointed out that "The World of Tomorrow" launch party at the library was packed — but it isn't nearly as large as writing groups in major cities. There are pros and cons to this downsizing.
"It can become easy to believe that every other writer in the country is hanging out in Brooklyn, and they're all at the same parties, and they're passing around prizes and awards to each other," Mathews said. "But I guess it also allows you, when you're here, to focus on the work that you're doing."
Mathews is currently composing another novel.
"It's not set in the 1930s, and it's not going to be 500 pages," Mathews said when asked about its subject matter.
The famous "second book" question had been easier for the scribe to answer. When Mathews inked a two-book deal with Little, Brown in 2014, he was told that "The World of Tomorrow" would be published before his short story collection. When he finished the novel, he immediately began revising his short stories.
"I didn't have to stare at a blank page and wonder, 'What am I going to do next?'" Mathews said.
He was happy to return to the form.
"It felt like I was doing something totally different. I could work in these different voices that had nothing to do with New York in the 1930s. I didn't have to keep in mind this sprawling narrative where it felt like, for a while, every time I made one small change, it affected something 100 pages later," he said. "In the story, I felt like I could see the whole thing all the time. It's a different kind of work."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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