Matt Ruff is the best author you’ve never read.
His first novel, Fool On The Hill, quickly became a cult hit on college campuses nationwide, and put a new spin on fantasy. Set in the present at Cornell University, the book features the crisscrossing adventures of a dog-and-cat team looking for pet heaven, a straggly band of students called the Bohemians, an insane Swedish chef, a killer blow-up doll, a secret race of pixies battling an evil army of rats, and at the center of this universe, a writer-in-residence named Stephen Titus George (an allusion to St. George), an unwitting hero who must face a deadly paper-meche dragon on the Ides of March.
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, one of my favorite books of all time, is a masterpiece of satire and science fiction that features elements of mystery, philosophy, and comedy. It’s even considered a companion piece to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. As I can’t explain it well enough to give it justice, just read this synopsis.
Matt Ruff’s style is similar to two other Cornell alumni – Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon. His books feature tons of unforgettable characters that find ways to interact with each other in imaginative ways, and the books are broken into chapters that are more like short, fast-paced, hilariously delirious vignettes.
Superficially, Ruff’s books are engaging and fun, but they’re also filled with satirical insights at not just our society and beliefs, but the genres themselves that he writes in.
I spoke with a very candid and humble Matt Ruff at length about his past works, as well as his ambitious new one, Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls.
I notice there’s not a lot of info about you on the Internet, and that’s a complaint many fans have-that they don’t know much about you.
I don’t know why that is, but I guess it’s because I publish books so infrequently. There wasn’t a big tour attached to Sewer, Gas and Electric, and I don’t think I made a lot of appearances elsewhere, so there just haven’t been a lot of opportunities to be interviewed.
There’s a lot of interviews with you on the ‘net in German, though.
It’s weird, I’m actually very popular in Germany, maybe more than I am here. When the German editions came out, I went there, and Switzerland and Austria as well, to do extensive touring, and I actually made it onto TV and radio. The whole scene is a lot different there. Readings are taken more seriously in Germany, for whatever reason-we get much bigger crowds coming out. That was sort of my taste of what it would be like to be a rock star, because in Germany, people knew who I was, so that was kind of neat.
How did you communicate?
Everyone there speaks English very well, and for the last book tour they hired an actress, Franka Potente. This was before Run Lola Run, when she was still up-and-coming, and they hired her to tour with me for part of the tour, and I would read in English and she would read in German. Between the two of us, we went over really well and it was a lot of fun.
So why the popularity in Germany?
I think they just like my sense of humor and style, or maybe the translation works really well. But it caught on, and other than that, I can’t really explain it.
You grew up in Queens, right?
Grew up in Queens, moved upstate for college. After college, I moved to Hartford for a year, then seven months in Seattle, then in Boston, eventually made my way up to Portland, Maine, stayed there for about five years, and finally came down to Philadelphia to get married, and now I’m back in Seattle.
Why did you move around so much?
I think at the time, when you’re not married and young, you CAN move around a lot. And I had the portable job-I can basically live where I wanted.
Have you held any other jobs between books?
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to survive by writing. There have been some pretty lean times between books, but now I’ve got enough-especially with the German publishing-that I’m able to write full time.
You wrote Fool On The Hill while a student at Cornell, right?
Yeah, that was my senior thesis project for English. I was in the MA program for creative writing, and we had to turn in 80 pages of fiction. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone had ever tried doing a novel before, which surprised me when I heard that. But my thinking at the time was that I had reached a point where I either had to get established as a writer or get a real job. I really wanted to write for a living, so it seemed like the time to do it.
How did you get into writing?
It was just something I always wanted to do… I can’t explain it. From the time that I could write, I did. And by the time I was in college, I had been at it for over a decade, and I felt it was time to sit down and do something that could be published. The guy who ran the thesis committee was actually pretty horrified when I brought in the book, because the manuscript was 450-500 pages, and you had to bind them in hardcover and submit six copies. So I’m bringing this huge stack of hardcover things, and he’s like, “What is that?” And I said, “It’s my thesis.” He said, “Your thesis advisor is going to read that. I’m not reading that.” I believe they’ve changed the rules now so that you can’t hand in novels anymore-it can be portions of novels, but not entire novels. I think I was the first and the last to do that.
Cornell had to change their rules because of you?
I’d like to think so. It’s one of those rumors I never inquired about too closely, because I’d like to think it was just because of me, but it probably wasn’t.
You wrote the book in one semester?
I started working on it the summer between sophomore and junior year. The first book I ever finished was called The Gospel According to St. Thomas, a very autobiographical religious novel that I started writing in high school and finished in the first semester of freshman year. It was basically the first work I had finished, but it wasn’t good enough to get published. By junior year, it was time to start working on a book that I thought could get published, and I gave myself two years to finish it. I squeaked in under the wire-I finished it over Easter vacation of senior year, which gave me just enough time to hand it in for thesis submission.
How did it go from thesis project to publication?
I just got lucky. One of my teachers in the creative writing program, Allison Lurie, liked my work enough to suggest sending a copy to her agent Melanie Jackson in New York, and to see if she would like to represent me. And I did, and she did, and that was basically how the book got sold so quickly. So it was finished by the time I left Cornell, and then I submitted it to Melanie, and by the end of the year we had sold it. So it worked out really nicely.
That book has probably become one of the most read books at Cornell.
Is it really? I don’t really get that sense… I hear from people from Cornell who have read it, but I don’t really have a sense of how popular it is there, or whether anybody knows about it or not. So that’s great to hear if it’s true.
Have you ever been asked to come back to Cornell to give a speech?
I came back twice. The first time was a couple of years after I graduated-I came back to talk to a creative writing class, and that was a great experience. And then I had a really disastrous appearance in ’91 or ’92. I was asked to give an address to the graduating class, I think it was to give away the senior class gift on behalf of an alumni association… What should probably have been a 15 minute speech went on much longer, to the point where the natives were really getting restless. At one point, there was a pigeon circling the auditorium, and I realized the audience was more interested in the pigeon than in me, so finally I decided to quit while I was behind. I got off relatively easily, but it was a mortifying experience.
Were you ever asked back?
I don’t know if has anything to do with that, but, yeah, I haven’t been invited back since. (laughs)
Since Cornell is the backdrop for Fool, you must have really enjoyed your time there. I hated college-I would never write about my school other than to bash it.
I guess it depends on where you went and what you wanted to do while you were there. I was very impractical-I chose the campus solely on the basis of how it looked. I didn’t really look into the academic program or anything, I just spent an hour walking around the campus and decided, hey, this would be a really cool place to live for four years. And on that basis, I went for early admission and never applied anywhere else. But, yeah, I loved the physical location, and actually enjoyed my classes a lot and had a good time there, but I didn’t really take a practical approach to college, in terms of studying. If I hadn’t made it as a writer, I would’ve been totally screwed. Creative writing isn’t much useful except for teaching, and I’m just not the type of person who’d make a good teacher. But the ’91 debacle notwithstanding, I have good memories of Cornell.
Between the eight or nine years between Fool and Sewer, I know you wrote another book…
After I finished Fool, I started a book called Venus Envy. Which, at the time, was an original title, but since then three or four books have used that pun. But, yeah, I haven’t actually sat down to reread it in awhile, but I still think the story is pretty good, but my publisher at the time didn’t feel it was a good follow-up. It was a… (pause) lesbian vampire story. Today, people would probably be all over that, but at the time I guess lesbian vampires weren’t that chic.
Now you have lesbian vampires on Buffy. The time is ripe to release it!
Yeah, but one thing I have to be careful about is that, looking back, it’s always easy to view a book as better than it was. I still like the story and there might be something to rewrite, but I have a feeling that if I actually pulled out the manuscript and looked at it, I would find other reasons why my publisher decided to publish it-that it just may not have been that good.
Do you keep it under lock and key, or can people look at it?
I would definitely like to look at it myself before showing it to anyone. There’s this part of me that’s worried that I’m going to read it and it’s really going to suck.
Aww!! No way, man!
No, don’t feel bad. Even if that’s true, it’s not a tragedy. In the very least, I think Venus Envy would require revision, but I would rather rewrite it in my current style than try to revise something that I wrote ten years ago. I guess I’d be willing to look at it, but even if it’s good there would be a lot of work to salvage it, and there are other books I’d rather work on instead. So, it’s not necessarily gone forever, but it’s low priority right now.
Well, I for one would love to read the book about the lesbian vampires.
(laughs) Well, then I’ll definitely go back and look at it one of these days.
You mention other books you want to write. Can you tell us about them, or do you keep it hush so people won’t steal your ideas?
With my books, it’s less of a risk. Even if I told someone what Fool or Sewer was about before they came out, I don’t think anyone but me could write them, or would want to.
Do you have in mind the next book?
I’ve got a couple of different ideas. I think the new book (Set This House In Order) is easily the best thing I’ve ever written, and I want to take my time in deciding what to do next. Because it was very hard to write and very satisfying to finish, I want to pick something that’s going to challenge me as much as this one did. I have a couple ideas for books that would be easy to write, but for that very reason I may not do them next. One of my ideas is a book called King of the Cats; it would be a fantasy novel set in Seattle. There would be parallels to Fool on the Hill, since this is the first place I’ve lived since Cornell where the landscape could really be a character in a book. And it has a lot in common with Cornell-it’s a hilly, wet, enchanted kind of city, with lots of animals running around. And while hiking around here, I came up with the idea for the story, which will be different from Fool, but the theme and the feel will be similar. It would be an easy to book to write, and I think it would be a good book, but I would be hesitant to make that my next project. I think I would rather do something that makes me use different muscles, that would be more of a stretch.
Do you ever write things simultaneously? Like, how Stephen King writes ten books at once?
I constantly wish I could do that and I tell myself I should try, but in practice it would be very hard for me to do more than one thing at a time. And every book has its stylistic quirks that make it distinct, and I wouldn’t want signature phrases from one book bleeding over into another.
The new book sounds like it’s got quite a few stylistic quirks.
Yes. Set This House In Order is told from the point of view of two multiple personalities. One character knows he’s multiple at the beginning of the book, and is dealing with it fairly well, and his part of the story is told all in first-person past tense. The other character doesn’t know she’s multiple at the beginning of the story and slowly comes to terms with it as the story continues, and her parts of the story are written in third-person present tense. And there are a lot of other little things I do to distinguish the viewpoints, and keeping that straight and consistent… Well, if I tried writing another book at the same time, I would probably end up borrowing the same bits, and it would end up with two books that sound too much alike.
Keeping books distinct is something you’ve done. You’re not a traditional genre author; you purposely go in different directions with each book. How do you describe yourself? Where do you like seeing your books shelved?
It’s funny, I don’t have a strong opinion about that. The genre vs. non-genre debate is interesting to watch, but I sort of feel bad for people who spend too much energy worrying about it. The main thing I want is to have the freedom to work on whatever book I want to work on. I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into having to do the same thing over and over again. But beyond that, I don’t worry too much about how it’s categorized. Maybe being tagged as a mainstream author gives you more room to maneuver, but I wouldn’t get offended if you called me a science fiction or fantasy writer. I just wouldn’t want to get into a situation where everything would have to be marketed that way, where I’d decide to do a book that isn’t genre, and somebody tell me, we’re not going to publish that. That would be bad.
The new book seems much darker than the others…
Yes and no. It deals with some very dark subject matter, but… well, the subtitle is A Romance of Souls. It’s got a sort of romantic view of even the most horrible stuff, so I managed to talk about dark subject matter without totally destroying the reader. It seems to have worked well… It may be the most mature book of the ones I’ve written, but I don’t know if it’s darker. I guess I’ll have to see what people think once it’s out.
What inspired Set This House?
I guess it was ten years ago. I was talking to my friend, Lisa, who is now my wife, and somehow we got on the subject of multiple personality disorder. I think I either reread Sybil or maybe I had just read When The Rabbit Howls [by Truddi Chase], and we began talking about MPD. Lisa mentioned that she had a friend named Michael who was multiple. And the thing that was interesting about Michael, as Lisa described him, was that he had rejected the standard treatment of attempting to reintegrate into a single personality. Which I now know is a fairly common response, but at the time, every narrative I had read about MPD the story ended with them fusing into one personality again.
Michael didn’t do that. The original Michael had been so badly abused that he basically didn’t exist anymore. Michael and his other people talked about the original Michael as someone who was dead, and had been dead for a long time. And they created this system of living as a multiple personality, and he had this imaginary house in his head, this imaginary landscape, where all of his people could live and cooperate with each other. It was run along the lines of a benign dictatorship, where there was this one personality, or soul, whose job it was to maintain order inside, and make rules about who could come out and when, and just keep people from making trouble. And there was Michael, the guy you actually met, whose specific job was to deal with the outside world. And I thought, jeez, this is really fascinating. And Lisa mentioned something else. Michael began dating this woman, and it turned out that SHE had multiple personalities too, but she hadn’t been diagnosed yet. Michael had figured out she was multiple personality, and this woman hadn’t wanted to admit it, and basically, it ended very badly.
I had my own schizophrenic reaction. On the one hand, jeez, poor Michael, this sounded like the relationship from hell. But at the same time, I’m thinking, god, this is a really great idea for a novel! That was basically the original inspiration, but I was working on Sewer at the time and still had to finish that. But when it came time to think about what to work on next, the idea stayed with me. A number of things changed as the book evolved. Originally, when I started pitching it to people, I said it was a love story between two multiple personalities. But as I wrote it and the characters began taking shape, it didn’t work out as a love story; it became more of a “friendship with potential.” So the main story is about a stable multiple who meets an unstable, undiagnosed multiple, and she ends up asking him for help and dealing with her condition, and wackiness ensues.
You don’t think this will be confusing to the reader, do you?
No, actually, so far the reaction from readers and editors have been positive, and they’ve been able to follow along. I haven’t gotten any reviews yet, but I’m optimistic that people won’t have any trouble at all.
Your books have this sprawling quality to them-tons of characters and side stories-and yet everything comes together so smoothly. Do you do a lot of prep work and mapping before the actual writing?
I just have a good memory and I’m able to keep it straight. I tend to be pretty lazy when it comes to things like outlines. I never write them or do any mapping in advance. Some people would go crazy without an outline, but I don’t have any problem in keeping straight who’s who and what’s what. I have a knack for that.
Even in Set This House?
The big joke for this book is that there are fewer characters, but the characters who are there are many characters. But people who have had trouble keeping characters straight in my previous novels, this should be a cakewalk. This one is much easier to follow, I think.
Well, I just hope one of the personalities in your new book isn’t Ayn Rand.
(laughs) Yeah! I said what I had to say about Ayn Rand. The other nice thing about this book is that politics doesn’t enter into it at all; that’s something I was happy to get away from for a book.
Did the Objectivists attack you after Sewer, Gas and Electric?
It was a mixed reaction, kind of what I expected. There were a few people who hadn’t read the book who were terribly incensed. There’s a usenet group called Humanity Philosophy Objectivism, and there was one guy who was just so incensed-and he hadn’t read the book and wasn’t going to-but he felt I really slandered Ayn Rand’s name, so he did a series of posts in which the subject head was “Matt Ruff-Child Molester?” And he would write, “You may wonder why I used this subject line. It’s so that you could feel what it’s like to associate your name with something awful, like what you’ve done to Ayn Rand.” (laughs) But for the most part, people were more restrained than that, and there was the inevitable: “Well if you don’t like Ayn Rand, obviously you just don’t understand her. You weren’t paying enough attention.” But I also got a lot of private communications from Objectivists who read the book and really loved it, but didn’t want to say so out loud. So it was a mixed reaction, but I felt that the people who actually took time to read it enjoyed it a lot. So that was a gratifying response.
Objectivists don’t seem like a humorous lot.
They’re not really as monolithic as they or their detractors would like to think. But the way my book differs from Atlas Shrugged is that I didn’t try to take sides politically. It was less a book about who was right, and more about how do you get on in a world where everybody thinks they’re right and everybody has a different opinion. The book does have good guys and bad guys, but almost all the villains have some redeeming qualities, and all the good guys have their moments of abject stupidity. What was interesting was that certain people didn’t catch on to that, and wanted to know what the author’s political beliefs were, trying to guess where I stood on different issues. It really became a Rorschach test, because you can’t really tell from the book. Like, the Village Voice, taking the dedication way too seriously, decided that I was an Objectivist, and Liberty Magazine said that I was an environmentalist. So it was interesting watching the political people try to figure me out.
If Ayn Rand were alive today, would you debate her? Or just throttle her?
I think she would throttle me! I think she was a very interesting person, and I can understand why so many people subjected themselves to her company, because she must’ve been a difficult person to be near; she was one of these people who are very demanding on the people close to her. And, unfortunately, she had a very dim view of humor. I would probably strike her as very flippant and unserious, and she would very rapidly get disgusted with me.
Both Rand and Tolkien have been big influences on your early work… just as they were for power rock trio Rush. So… are you a Rush fan?
(laughs) Yes, actually, or at least I was back in the day.
Wow. You’re the first interviewee who has admitted to being a Rush fan. (choked up) That is special.
Well, I like a lot of stuff. I’m all over the map. I also like ABBA.
Oh. (pause) Oh. So what do you enjoy doing besides writing?
I like to go on long, rambling walks around the city. I’m a fairly introverted character, so I like to spend a lot of time walking and talking to myself. I do a lot of gardening on my fire escape. We discovered kayaking since we moved to Seattle. We play a lot of board games.
Not very exciting for a cult icon.
I don’t know how big a cult icon I really am, though. It’s like being pegged as a sci-fi writer. It wouldn’t bother me if it’s true, but it’s not really something I think too much about. My main hope is that there’s enough people who like the books, so that I can keep on doing it. And if cult icon status lets me do that, then hey, that’s fine.
Matt Ruff’s new book, Set This House In Order: A Romance Of Souls is published by HarperCollins and is in stores now. Visit the author at here.