Reading his publication history—Brevity, The Southeast Review, The New York Times—you’d never know SNR contributor Matthew Komatsu started writing in earnest in 2013. Sierra Nevada Review’s Michael Fischer sat down with Komatsu to talk about his work in SNR’s most recent issue, his feelings about being called a war writer, and the pitfalls of “MFA voice.”
Michael Fischer: There are things in “Penuel” that go unexplained; you seem to be trusting the reader to catch on. How do you make those decisions on when to spell something out for the reader and when to take a chance on leaving them in the dark?
Matthew Komatsu: I think I always tend towards trusting a sophisticated reader. It’s an interesting balance to walk, because being in the military and writing quite a bit about military stuff, it’s really easy for jargon to creep into the language. In fact, I was just going through this with another piece lately, where I’ve been challenged on the use of jargon within the piece. I think there’s a time and a place for everything, so I think the use of military jargon can actually serve a point. For example, Phil Klay has a story in Redeployment which is essentially nothing but a collection of military jargon. The entire story is nothing but jargon. He does that purposely, so I think it serves a purpose.
That’s a long way of saying that you can’t explain everything. You have to retain a certain level of sophistication. And then, second, I think it also helps to trust your own instinct for some of these things. I’ll be honest: there’s also a part of me that—because of my personality—it’ll come off a little rough around the edges, but I don’t care if a reader doesn’t understand every single aspect of a particular story.
So for me, with “Penuel,” I thought it was from the get-go going to be very difficult for a lot of readers. I mean, I think anybody who went to Sunday school will probably recognize that story, but maybe not. I did my best to place it with the intro and to bring the reader into the experience, but beyond that it’s really a story about struggle. Even if I don’t explain everything, I want there to be a reason for why I do or why I don’t, and hopefully it all builds up towards the end, towards what I’m hoping the piece achieves.
MF: And what is that, in your own words? You mentioned struggle. To me it was a meditation on the evolution of man’s struggle against man, taking a moment to explore that as you’ve experienced it.
MK: Yeah. One of the things I like about “Penuel” is that it’s probably the most personal piece I’ve published. A lot of the other pieces I’ve been able to kind of divorce myself from in terms of creating the narrative eye versus the authorial eye. In “Penuel,” I really felt like there was a lot of blurring between the narrator on the page and who I am as a person. It was exciting to write that way, just in terms of relating a current period in my life where I do feel as if I’m struggling with the idea of God and faith.
The very end of that piece brings into focus some of the reasons I’ve found to struggle with that. But by the same token, the piece is also about the intellectual paradox of dealing with something like the supernatural or faith, where you can grasp at logical straws and things like that all day long, but in the end it becomes very difficult to tie science back to what is essentially unscientific. I wanted that to be present within the piece as well.
MF: I want to talk about the tone of the piece. It balances a more intellectual tone with some earthy, accessible, more casual moments that are blunt and immediate in a really gratifying way—a way that doesn’t seem to get enough respect in the literary world. How conscious are you of that tone balance as you’re writing?
MK: I think a lot of the time for me it comes from an organic place. I find myself doing that kind of thing a lot in writing, as I’ve matured as a writer, just moving back and forth between modalities within the writing itself. I think there’s something poetic about counterposing two different things in relationship next to each other.
The painting that I reference in “Penuel” is all about that: the concept of the chiaroscuro, which is essentially light against dark, in super high contrast. That influenced the writing as well, in terms of balancing this intellectual, very thoughtful way, but then there’s the layman’s reality of what he would’ve seen on that particular night, which is essentially two men kicking the shit out of each other. Two different ways of viewing it, and I think when you put those two next to each other, if you do it right, there can be a very poetic aspect to that where you can essentially represent the different viewpoints, neither being more valid than the other. I think there’s something kind of fun about that.
But I totally see what you’re saying about the—I’ve heard an agent refer to it as “MFA voice.” The literary world is full of people who are dressing up their language and things like that. I think your point is probably valid, that if you do read the journals it tends to be more the flowery language and things like that. I’ll be honest: my take on that is, particularly within the literary world, it’s mostly just pushing back on Hemingway at this point, which I think is necessary. But at some point, the pendulum is going to swing the other direction and we’re all going to go back to writing like Ray Carver—the spare prose.
MF: “Penuel” is very concise. I’d love to hear you talk about the length of essays in general, about this grade school idea that still seems to exist in some corners, which says that the longer, 8,000-word essays are the important ones in a writer’s arsenal.
MK: I’ve written long and I’ve written short, and I think it just so happens for me that right now my shorter pieces have been the ones that have been seen more widely. I’m a very new writer. I used to write when I was a kid and then I did some journaling through adult life, but I really only started writing in 2013. When I started my MFA program, I was terribly unsophisticated about what nonfiction writing was. Once I started the program, I got exposed to all these different things. I think I saw Brevity within my first month of my MFA program, and it just so happened that I was working on something at the time that would end up in Brevity.
I think the timing of it all, seeing these short pieces—whether you want to call them lyric or flash nonfiction or open forms, which is what I prefer—it really opened my eyes to what the possibilities were. All of a sudden, I was getting this update of information about what nonfiction was. It really was as radical as thinking nonfiction is what you read in the newspapers to thinking nonfiction is what you read in journals; the two worlds are on opposing ends of the spectrum. I think there’s just some formative stuff in there in terms of how I discovered short essays, in terms of my overall writing life as well.
For something like “Penuel,” to be honest, the more drafts I got into it, the more I thought that being brief was actually the way to go because, for something like this—grappling with one’s faith—that’s the subject of 800-page books. There are literally library shelves full of books that essentially do that exact thing. So for me, when I look at “Penuel,” I actually tend to see it as the beginning of a conversation, if anything.
I really do like going short. I like the idea of condensing the information down and just trying to get at the true nature of a thing, and then just leaving it out there. There’s great long prose out there, but then there’s some really great short prose, where you hit the end of it and you wish it was longer, but not because it would be better if it was longer; you just wish it was longer so you could keep enjoying it. So when I write short, that’s what I’m going for. I want people to want the piece to be longer, not because they think it would be better that way, but because they enjoy the writing.
MF: How do you decide when to just write a given story—beginning, middle, end—and be done, and when a story would benefit from one or more interwoven narratives, time jumps, thematically-related vignettes, the kinds of things you see so much now in literary journals?
MK: I think the best advice that I’ve gotten on the idea of structure is that form has to follow function. If the form makes sense for the function of the piece, then that’s what you do. That advice actually came from my creative writing professor at the Air Force Academy, a guy by the name of Donald Anderson who I’m still in touch with. He’s the editor for War, Literature, & the Arts. Really good dude, but also not given to lengthy explanations to dipshit students like me.
It’s interesting that you bring that up because that’s actually what my thesis essay is about; it’s on the idea of structure in creative nonfiction. The biggest thing for me is that if you tend to write in that way (i.e. in open form) then I think that’s what you do, or at least that’s where you begin. Sometimes it stays that way and other times it becomes more chronological; it becomes tighter or it becomes potentially just a single, chronological piece.
I think the real answer to your question is it’s all going to be what you want to do with the piece as a writer. If you feel like taking a chronological storyline and blowing it up into a bunch of little pieces ends up enhancing the story, then I think that’s what you need to do. I know for me, it’s just how I write—either in segmented or fragmented forms. I’m sure it won’t always be that way.
I see “Penuel” as being the most linear piece I’ve potentially ever written. For me, discovering open forms was really important because it freed me to interrogate the chronological, which for me to write that way is very difficult. I actually really appreciate the chronological—the beginning, middle, end essays—just because I feel like sometimes open forms essays can kind of hide behind structure and use that to obscure a lack of art. So I think there’s a flip side, for sure.
MF: Do you ever worry about—or would you care if you were—being pigeonholed as a war writer, a war essayist? Are you conscious of that? Would that be a label that bothered you?
MK: It used to bother me. It bothers me less now, because if you look at it, that is primarily the stuff that I’ve written about. People are always going to want to fit people into a classification. We do it all the time in everyday life. It doesn’t bother me too much, because I think as writers we place a little bit too much stock in what that classification looks like and think that somehow it limits us.
The reality is that, for guys like me, it’s so early on in a career the possibilities are literally endless. I think about it in terms of pitching a book. If I pitch a book to an agent right now and it happens to be a book about goblins and elves, they’re not going to reject it because I’m a war writer. They’re probably going to reject it because it sucks. So it doesn’t bother me too much. Honestly, that’s the kind of stuff that I want to write for the moment. I was reading a thing on James Salter this morning and I think the ultimate compliment is to be referred to as a writer’s writer—for that to be your classification. But nobody really gets a label until they’re almost dead or dead anyways.
MF: You’re a big fan of SNC MFA faculty member Benjamin Busch’s memoir, Dust to Dust. What was it about that book that spoke to you the most from a craft perspective?
MK: At the point that I read Dust to Dust, the only book that I had read about war that had experimented with structure was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I’ve read a lot of war books and a lot of war memoirs, so when I read that it really opened my eyes to what the possibilities were of the use of structure in terms of interrogation of our own personal histories.
There are two things that Dust to Dust really caused me to reconsider. One was the idea of structure and structuring a book and a memoir, and memoir itself. Second, you know Ben is a poet. I mean Ben is a lot of things: he’s an actor, he’s an artist. But he came to writing through poetry really, so the language in Dust to Dust, especially in a couple of the sections within the book—I mean it’s just stunning. There are literally sentences that are so finely crafted within that book that they will make you green with jealousy.
I think those two things were probably my biggest inspirations from Dust to Dust. Play with structure, challenge the traditional and see if you can make it work. And then the other thing was pay attention to your individual sentences and really work to make them beautiful.
MF: As you said, you’re a relatively new writer. But as a new writer, you’ve already placed your work in some very well-respected journals. What’s your ultimate goal for your writing?
MK: I’m working on a memoir right now, which is kind of a war memoir, it’s kind of a memoir memoir, maybe a little bit “essay collection-y.” Right now it’s in its second draft, it’s a lot of different things, and it’s a pretty unconventional approach. Well, I say it’s unconventional, but these days it’s getting harder and harder to figure out what exactly is unconventional, so I’m working on a memoir. I’ve got a couple other ideas for some essays in long-form journals, pieces that I would like to get done as well. And then I’ve actually got a great idea for a novel that I refuse to let myself work on until I get done with the memoir. So the answer to your question is, I’m working on a lot of different things, but the memoir is the primary thing that I’m focused on for this year.
Matthew Komatsu is a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he is in his third and final year of the University of Alaska’s MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) program. As he is still in uniform, he is obliged to remind you that nothing he says represents official policy or position, but if you’d like to see more, stop by www.matthewkomatsu.com.