Matthew Quick Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Matthew Quick. Matthew is the acclaimed author of The Silver Linings Playbook, which has been adapted for a movie premiering November 21—starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker, and directed by David O. Russell. Matthew has written three young adult novels as well: Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy21, and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, which is set to publish in 2013. He is also a public speaker visiting schools and making special appearances to talk about his books and the importance of pursuing goals and dreams. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of The Silver Linings Playbook, narrated by Ray Porter. Welcome Matthew. Thanks for joining us.
MATTHEW QUICK: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
GG: You’ve had a lot of success recently, but according to your bio things haven’t always been this easy for you. Is it true that starting in your teens you were already a rejected author?
MQ: In high school my English teacher had submitted some poems for critique, and I was taken to a local university where they were critiqued by a professor. It was an interesting experience for me because the feedback was quite negative, but the experience was thrilling because for the first time somebody was taking my word seriously. And I realized that there was currency in literature and that excited me a great deal. My story is that I’d always wanted to write, and I needed to find a way to make money. And I became a high school English teacher because I thought it would be very easy, and it would afford me a lot of time to write. I found out that being a high school English teacher, if you want to be a good high school English teacher, is perhaps the hardest job in the world. So I stopped writing for a while, and woke up at thirty and realized I’d become somebody that I hadn’t imagined being. I fell into a very serious depression, and my wife and I decided to make a very radical move, which was to sell our house, liquidate our assets. I quit a tenured position at perhaps the best high school in south Jersey, and my in-laws allowed us to move in with them. And I wrote in their unfinished basement for three years before I sold The Silver Linings Playbook.
GG: Wow. What was your wife doing all this time?
MQ: My wife quit a job at Bryn Mawr College, where she was working for the alumni magazine. When we moved up to Massachusetts she took a job as a local reporter for a small weekly. She wanted to write fiction too, and the plan originally was that I would write and pursue an MFA through a low-residency program at Goddard College in Vermont. Once I graduated from Goddard I would get some type of job and she would go do the MFA. But, of course, when we hit with the movie deal we were able to both write full time, and move out of my in-laws’ house, which was quite nice.
GG: I imagine. So you sat down in a basement for three years and wrote The Silver Linings Playbook. Where did the idea come from?
MQ: When I was in the basement I attempted to write a few different novels, which failed or were not salable. And I knew that I was learning the craft. One day, when I was very frustrated, after a couple years of writing and not collecting a paycheck, I felt I wasn’t moving any closer to coming up with a salable manuscript. I went for a run. It was a very cold winter’s day, and while I was running, and feeling very depressed, I looked up. And there was this gorgeous silver silhouette around this cloud. Coming through was this gorgeous silver lining. I thought to myself, “What if it’s an omen? And it means I’m going to make it as a writer.” Of course, I immediately criticized myself mentally for believing in something so ridiculous and silly, and I said to myself, “Well, what if you just allow yourself to believe it’s an omen, and what if you can buy yourself some time, give yourself some emotional fuel by believing in some type of delusional philosophy?” When I got home that night from my run, I thought, “what if I had a character who believed in some type of delusional philosophy, but it actually made him a better person?” And that’s where the beginning of The Silver Linings Playbook was born. Also, I was living in Massachusetts and I very much missed my home, which is Philadelphia—in the suburbs of Philly. People in Massachusetts are quite different than people in Philadelphia, and so writing the book was a way to go home for me. It was a way to go back to Philly and deal with some unresolved issues, some things I had left behind. It all came together from there.
GG: When did the movie deal start?
MQ: I finished the book. I wrote the book in 2006, and I wrote it as the 2006 Philadelphia Eagles’ season progressed. And I actually used that as a writing device. I said it was a literary equivalent of Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo journalism because I would write the scenes for the week and then I would allow the results of the Eagles game on Sunday to affect my characters, and dictate the plot. So I wrapped the book up at the end of the Eagles season, and that’s also when I graduated from Goddard with my MFA. I started pitching in early 2007 in New York trying to get a literary agent. I landed a literary agent in March or April, and within six or so weeks we had a movie deal, which was quite surprising at the time. And then we sold the book internationally and ended up with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
GG: You say you started off with a couple novels that you wrote that didn’t quite work out. What’s the process of finding a style or an approach that does work for you? How does that come about?
MQ: I think that when I was in the basement I was really trying to find my voice as a writer. I go into colleges and high schools all the time for visits. I give talks about writing to young people who want to be novelists. I say to them that the most important thing that you need to do—of course you need to learn craft, of course you need to learn writing rules, and all of that—but the most important thing is you need to figure who you are and what’s really important to you. I think, when I was in the MFA program, I had ideas of who I wanted to be as a writer, and for a while I was writing very literary-type fiction. When I started to write Silver Linings I actually just did it as a project. It was a fun thing that I wasn’t going to show my advisers at Goddard, and I’m just going to write this for me. And then I started to think, well I want to write a book that my friends that I grew up with in Philly, who don’t read novels, who aren’t into literature, might actually enjoy. I want to write it in the voice of everyman. And the more I started to write the book the more I started to realize that the book and Pat Peoples, and the voice and all of the stuff about mental health issues—these are really personal to me. It was really a reflection of who I am. So as the book started to grow I started to see that for the first time I thought I was being authentically me on the page, which was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. And it’s funny now that I’ve published three novels and I’ve sold four—people look at my body of work and my writing friends and my friends and family, they’ll say, “Love ’em or hate ’em, these books are Matthew Quick books. They’re authentically him.”
MQ: And I think that’s the thing I had to learn to do.
GG: Were you involved with the movie production at all?
MQ: No. I wasn’t. David (O’Russell) adapted the screenplay. I read copies of the screenplay at various points. And then I did one day on the movie set. That’s when I met David for the first time. Since the movie has finished, I’ve been very involved in promoting the film. And I’ve gotten to know David O. Russell pretty well. In retrospect, I see that my voice was such a huge voice in his head. This is the first novel that he’s ever adapted to film. And it was very personal to him. He talks very openly about how his son is a member of the mental health community, and it resonated strongly with him, and David is such a strong voice himself. He knows who he is as a storyteller. And I think it was very important for him to figure out how this story works on screen—without me looking over his shoulder.
MQ: Which I completely get because as a writer I need to lock the door and emote and be alone. So, in the promotions I’ve been doing—I’ve been going all over the country to promote the movie and the book—I’ve done interviews with David. And I’ve come to really respect what great care he took to preserve the heart of what I did. We’ve become friendly because of that.
GG: During the process, the times you did speak to him or deal with him, did you feel confident about what he was going to do with it?
MQ: I’m a huge David O. Russell fan. Even before I wrote the novel, in my dream world, the writer in the basement who nobody knows, who would be your top director to adapt a novel in the future, I would have listed David O. Russell in a heartbeat. I’m always saying that when you’re alone in a room writing you’re an artist, and when you send your work to New York or LA, you’re a professional. But it gets a lot easier to be professional when you have a name attached to your film like David O. Russell. I knew I was in great hands, and when I saw the film I was just thrilled with what he did. It’s been a real pleasure to work with him.
GG: Has the teaching gone away completely? Are you glad you left it behind? Is there a part of you that wishes you could go back?
MQ: When I left the school—I was at Haddonfield Memorial High School in south Jersey—I was very invested in my students. I coached. I mentored. I counseled. I taught the accelerated classes. I chaperoned trips to South America. Everything you could do as a high school English teacher, I did. When I left, I felt so guilty. In fact, the last thing I did was chaperone a trip to Peru as my last responsibility. And I remember being in a hotel room in Lima, Peru, and an episode of Boston Public came on, and it was a very almost corny episode where a teacher makes a big difference in a student’s life. And I remember watching it and I thought I had made a huge mistake. I can’t leave teaching. Now, when I go and lecture either at the college level or at the high school level, inevitably somebody will come up to me and say, “You really should be teaching again.” And that’s a great compliment. I really value it when people say that to me. But when I left high school teaching, my principal, who hired me, said to me, “Matt, you’re not the kind of guy that can serve two masters.” I knew that when I was teaching I gave everything that I had. And when I write I give everything I have. So I don’t think I could write full time and be a good teacher. Something’s got to give. There are only so many hours in a day. And writing and teaching well are two occupations that require one hundred percent. At least, for me to do them well.
GG: What kind of a writer are you? Are you an inspiration writer—do you write in bursts of inspiration or are you the nine-to-five, sit down and tough it out on a regular schedule? What’s your process like?
MQ: I respond to my writing in a lot of ways, the way I respond to life. I have a very manic relationship with writing. There will be months when I’ll be trying to figure out a novel, and for four or five months I just can’t get it right. And I’ll go into serious depressive episodes where it really affects my mental health, and then all of a sudden things will just start to click. When things work with the novel I will be incredibly euphoric, and I’ll work for twelve hours a day. I can write very quickly when I’m in that type of upswing. I think that’s not uncommon for many fiction writers. I often talk about mental health when I talk about writing. And story arcs, the way that stories are framed—they always begin at status quo and they rise to a climax and then they fall back down to status quo. These are very similar to the rhythms of bipolar disorder, manic depressive. And I think it’s no secret that so many fiction writers would consider themselves members of the mental health community. So I’ve learned to weather those ups and downs with my writing, but when I was a young writer it could be very hard for me. Because when things are working and I’m in a story, I know what I’m doing, I feel in control of the material, it can be very, very euphoric. But sometimes I have to wait for that to happen. That being said, I do sit down at the computer every day and either write fiction or work on my career. For the past two months, it’s really just been promoting, so I spend eight to ten hours promoting, but that’s still working on my career.
MQ: Subconsciously, I’m always thinking about the next story. There are always things going on in my subconscious. In the back of my brain, I’m always plotting out the next tale.
GG: Some writers read. Some don’t. Some don’t want any kind of outside influences, or there are other writers who like to read to check out what’s going on. Are you a reader?
MQ: I am. I read very widely. I don’t limit myself to reading the types of books that I write. I read pretty much across the board—whatever influences me. I also watch a lot of movies. My wife and I consider the cinema to be like church for us. We’ve got to go once a week. That is a very important part of our storytelling life. But I think you learn from other writers. And I think, more importantly, whenever I read a book I fall in love with, I fall in love with storytelling. When I see a movie that works and I emote and go through all these emotions, and I leave the theater either emotionally exhausted from the catharsis of it, or just feeling lifted or buoyed. I remember that stories are so powerful. They have such a tremendous effect on our psyche. And it really reinforces my belief in story. So I go to the page. I go to novels for the same reason I went to them when I was fifteen. I want to understand who we are as human beings. I want to feel less alone in the world. And I think that’s why I still go to story. Over and over again, it’s been a great friend over the years.
GG: If you had to pick a couple of people who just have really wowed you, or turned you on in your reading, who would that be?
MQ: I am a huge Haruki Murakami fan. I love Murakami because whenever I open up one of his novels it just completely transports me into another world. I know exactly how I’m going to feel if I have a nice scotch, and I know exactly how I’ll feel if I open up a Murakami novel. I’m just in awe of Murakami. I love his work. I did my thesis in the MFA on Gao Xingjian, who is a Nobel Laureate. His novel Soul Mountain just blew me away at the time. And I’ve gone back to it since, and I’m such a huge fan of his work. I taught Hemingway at the high school level for years. The simplicity of Hemingway’s work—and how deceptively simple it is—really influenced me. He influenced everybody in the twentieth century. I’m a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. I love Vonnegut, and I love how he can write about such serious issues, but with humor, and really take people’s guard down that way.
GG: You mentioned the audiobook when we were exchanging e-mails.
MQ: Yeah. I’ve listened to it. More than once actually. I was thrilled. Ray—who read, performed the audiobook—contacted me during the recording. Reached out with e-mail just to say how much he’s enjoying the process. I could hear a great deal of enthusiasm coming through his e-mail. From what he said I could tell that he really got the book, and he was enjoying it. And I think that comes across in his performance. Which I, again, have listened to more than once. I listened to it recently while I was traveling, just to refresh my memory about my own book after seeing the film so many times. And it was enjoyable. It might sound silly to say that on an airplane I’m listening to the ending of my novel, and I was actually getting quite emotional. And I’d like to take credit for that as the author of the source material but I think his performance was really spot-on. I’m just in awe of how he can do all the different voices as well and keep all that consistent throughout the reading. He’s very talented and I’m very grateful for the good work that he did.
GG: Well, as a fellow narrator, I can tell you we live for that kind of approval. Few things are more gratifying than knowing that the author is happy with what we’ve done. It’s terrific. I’m delighted to hear that. Thank you for joining us today. It’s been a terrific conversation. We appreciated it. And congratulations on the success of the book and the movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
MQ: Yeah. Thanks. The movie is fantastic. And, of course, we hope everyone will read or listen to the book first. It’s really the complete experience, having the book experience and the film experience. It makes for a very chewy juxtaposition. I thank you for having me today. This has been a blast.
GG: All right. Thank you, Matthew. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Matthew Quick. You can find The Silver Linings Playbook and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in November 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Silver Linings Playbook
The Silver Linings Playbook is the riotous and poignant story of how one man regains his memory and comes to terms with the magnitude of his wife’s betrayal, an enchanting first novel about love, madness, and Kenny G.
During the years he spends in a neural health facility, Pat Peoples formulates a theory about silver linings: he believes his life is a movie produced by God, his mission is to become physically fit and emotionally supportive, and his happy ending will be the return of his estranged wife, Nikki. The problem is that Pat is now home, living with his parents, and everything seems off; no one will talk to him about Nikki; his old friends are saddled with families; the Philadelphia Eagles keep losing, making his father moody; and his new therapist seems to be recommending adultery as a form of therapy.
When Pat meets the tragically widowed, physically fit, and clinically depressed Tiffany, she offers to act as a liaison between him and his wife, but only if he will give up watching football, agree to perform in this year’s Dance Away Depression competition, and promise not to tell anyone about their “contract.” All the while, Pat keeps searching for his silver lining.
In this brilliantly written debut novel, Matthew Quick takes us inside Pat’s mind, deftly showing us the world from his distorted yet endearing perspective. The result is a touching and funny story that helps us look at both depression and love in a wonderfully refreshing way.