The Shifting Boundaries of Story and Medium: Interview with Matthew Derby

By Sylke Jackson

This post appeared originally on the CILK119 blog. 

This weekend, Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space welcomes Matthew Derby for the River River biannual Lodestar Reading. His recent novel, The Silent History, co-authored with Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffatt, and Russell Quinn (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014), was originally conceived as the first major exploratory interactive novel designed for digital platforms.  In this interview, Sylke and Matt discuss reaching beyond the boundaries of print media to tell a rich story about children, language, and the questions addressed in the novel that made him delve into unconsciously held thoughts and feelings about his late sister.

The Guardian called The Silent History “A compelling story about difference, rights and power”; Wired called it “Entirely revolutionary.” Matt’s work has also appeared in The Anchor Book of American Short Stories, Dzanc’sBest of the Web 2009, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. He is also a designer for Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


SJ: Is there any moment or experience in your childhood that you’d point to that opened the door to the kind of work that you are doing now?

MD: I grew up in a big Catholic family. I had six siblings, most of whom were significantly older than me. By the time I was six, all but two of them were already in college. They left a lot of stuff behind in the house when they went away – mostly books and records – and I pored over these materials like an archaeologist struggling to understand an ancient civilization.

The Beatles were the one thing all of my siblings seemed to have in common, so I spent most of my time listening to their records and reading the many books we had about them. I became fascinated with the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory, and spent many afternoons scaring myself silly looking for the clues about his death scattered throughout their recordings. One day, I read that, if you played the very end of “A Day in the Life” backwards, you could hear, instead of an orchestra reaching a spastic climax before hitting a single, unforgettable note, the sound of Paul’s car skidding and crashing in the moments before his death. I went straight to the record player and spun the record in reverse, and what I heard sounded astonishingly like a car crash.

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I’m At Risk for Screen Poisoning. Are You?

A couple of weeks ago, author Emmy Laybourne and mentee joined us for a Q&A on literary mentorship at American Bulldog in Chestnut Ridge. Writers in attendance came away with a renewed sense of what it takes to draft a novel or other long written work, and how a “Pro in Your Corner” can shorten your drafting time and keep self-confidence strong.

To encourage you to seek out your mentors, whether online, via favorite writing treatises, or in person, we are delighted to share some of Emmy’s wisdom for staying on track. This blog post originally appeared in her newsletter. Enjoy!


“Screen poisoning” is what I call an illness that sets in when I’ve been spending too much time in front of my computer and engaged with my phone. Symptoms include physical complaints such as dry eyes, strained vision, shoulder and/or neck pain, feeling drained; and mental difficulties like fogginess, being easily distracted, fractured attention span, forgetfulness, and… I can’t remember what else.

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On the Same Page: One Tip for Easing the Pain of Critique

Dylan Manning

Featured Image: Truman Capote, 1959 by Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram and the Sun via Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain.


You’ve finished your short story,  painstakingly perfecting all twelve pages, and submitted it to your writing group to be workshopped. After weeks of apprehension, tonight is finally the night. You’re looking forward to the praise, congratulations, and encouragements you’re sure you are going to receive and perhaps a suggestion to submit your work to The New Yorker. You brace yourself for this cascade of compliments, taking a seat in the circle and nodding politely to your colleagues. “Don’t smile too much,” you tell yourself. “Be cool.” And then it starts. They smile and say they “liked it” and it “definitely had some parts worth reading” but overall it “needs some work” and “heavy editing” before it can be “considered for publication.”

You want to cry. You want to tell them how you really felt about all their pieces because all the times you thoughtfully critiqued their work you had really been holding back. You feel the urge to run away, rip up your piece, and never write again, regretting suddenly your decision not to go to med school or night school for automotive repair. You wish that you knew someone with real taste who could read it for you, really read it, and tell you that it’s a great piece of fiction and anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know a thing about writing.

They just told you your baby was ugly, and it hurt.

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A Character Template: You Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask

By Julie M. Goldberg

The fiction project I’m working on features a large cast of characters gathered in a supermarket one autumn evening. I won’t elaborate on what is happening to them there, but suffice to say that not one is having a pleasant shopping experience.

When writing my first novel, I felt that the characters existed in the universe somewhere, and my role was to get well enough acquainted with them that they would trust me and tell me their story. They did, but it took a long time.

The characters in the current story have suggested their collective existence and experiences to me, but require much more effort to sculpt as individuals. I wanted each to have a separate soul, as evidenced through her language, her longings, and her choices.

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Patience, clarity, and the “glimmer factor”

In anticipation of our upcoming 6-week workshop, “Step into Revision,” here’s a brief discussion on the topic. And, following typical revision advice (“Show, don’t tell”), our Fiction Editor, Donna Lee Miele, demonstrates the art of clarifying character motivation, improving syntax and word choices, and creating momentum in a scene.

Patience: First Draft and the Revision Persona

In prose or poetry, fiction or personal essay, revision begins in the first draft as the nagging, questioning voice of self-doubt. Most of us begin hearing that voice in the middle of the first paragraph! That voice is your revision persona. As you press forward, make note of that persona-non-grata’s questions and comments in a separate file or notebook. Then ask her to kindly get out of your way. Be determined, but don’t rush your first draft. The first principle of writing, and re-writing, is patience.

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