(Opening Night is an occasional Slog feature in which we talk with a performer hours before the debut of a big new project. Today, over e-mail, I interviewed local novelist Matt Ruff, whose excellent book The Mirage—find my review here—is just out in paperback. Ruff will be celebrating The Mirage's paperback launch tonight at University Book Store at 7 pm. He'll also be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday the 28th.)
I don’t know if I’d call it a ritual, but I get really introverted before a reading, so I tend to go hide in the quietest part of the store. I get ready to talk to people by not talking to people.
A lot of authors seem to go on autopilot when it comes time for Q&A, dragging out the appropriate stock responses at the appropriate times, but you’re very thoughtful when you answer audience questions. I’ve never seen you toss off a stock answer. Do you prepare for questions in any way? Do you look forward to the Q&A part of the evenings?
I love the Q&A part of the evening, and by the time I get to it I’m as relaxed and conversational as I ever get, so my answers seem spontaneous even when I’m offering a variation on something I’ve said a dozen times before.
Where my answers start to sound stock is in moments of exhaustion, boredom, or panic. If you’ve ever done live radio or TV, you’ve probably experienced that moment where you lose your train of thought in the middle of a sentence and suddenly have no idea what you were trying to say. But you’ve got to say something, and you’ve only got a second to figure out what, so you claw madly at the mental greatest-hits collection and hope the audience doesn’t notice.
Tonight’s reading is the first since the paperback publication of The Mirage. Is the publication of a paperback edition as exciting as the original publication date?
The excitement of publication never goes away. What does change over time is the immediacy of my connection with the story. At the moment I finish writing a novel, I’ve practically got it memorized—I could recite whole passages without looking at the manuscript. But then a year goes by before the hardcover comes out, and another year before the paperback edition, and by then I’m working on and obsessing about the next novel, which is a completely different universe. So part of getting ready for the paperback has been going back and reacquainting myself with The Mirage, reminding myself what it was like when it was all I thought about.
At almost every reading I attend, there’s someone who asks “What are you working on next?” The author often looks like they’ve been shot in the gut when they get that question, because they just spent years working on a project and one of the first questions the public has for them is, basically, “what have you done for me lately?” Now that you’ve had a year, though, do you have an answer prepared for that question?
I’m currently working on a novel called Lovecraft Country. My elevator pitch is that it’s the story The X-Files would have been if Mulder and Scully were black travel writers living in the Jim Crow era.
The protagonist is Atticus Turner, an African-American soldier just back from the Korean War. He gets a job as a researcher for The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists and reviews hotels and restaurants that accept black customers. (Although the Guide is fictional, there really were such publications at the time and they were indispensible for people of color planning to drive cross-country.) Atticus is also a pulp-fiction geek, and the novel is about how he and his extended family get drawn into a series of real-life weird tales. But it’s also about the question of which is more dangerous to the health and sanity of a black man in the 1950s: Cthulhu, or America?
(Ruff's University Book Store reading starts tonight at 7 pm. It's free. You should go.)