Q & A with Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn is the author of two books now, the brand new novel The Resurrectionist from W. W. Norton and After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South published in 2000 UPM. A native of Atlanta, Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the University of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master's degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe. 

On Saturday, July 13 at 5:00, Guinn will be signing copies of his new book at Lemuria. Find his complete book tour schedule here.

When did you start writing The Resurrectionist?

I started in 2003 and finished in 2006, though there were several rewrites after that initial draft. One of them was driven by the input I got from Steve Yates and Paul Rankin in our writing group. And I spent most of 2012 revising with the guidance of my editor at Norton, Alane Salierno Mason. 

So were you working on any literary criticism at that time? Did your two worlds collide? 

I was also working on a study of postmodern realism called Vacancies, but it remains in the works. I guess as a writer, you can tell where your truest heart lies from the projects you complete. Perhaps I’ll get back to Vacancies someday. Right now I’m immersed in writing the two books that will follow The Resurrectionist in what I think of as a kind of triptych of southern historical novels. Malthus (due out from Norton in 2014) follows a serial murderer through Atlanta’s 1881 International Cotton Exposition, and Red Mountain involves a fictional labor uprising among miners in Birmingham around the turn of the 20th century.

In After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South, you wrote about a wide range of southern authors, from Cormac McCarthy to Barry Hannah to Richard Ford to Bobbie Ann Mason, Dorothy Allison, Kaye Gibbons.  Did that sweeping study of contemporary southern letters inform how or what you chose to write in this new novel? 

Out of all those greats you study in After Southern Modernism, are there any whose prose and tactics you think come through in how you approached writing The Resurrectionist?

The best thing about writing After Southern Modernism was getting to spend all that studying so many great writers, and a big part of what they taught me concerned the issues of race and social class in southern culture. Those definitely found their way into The Resurrectionist—that sense of viewing the powerful from outsiders’ perspectives. My character Nemo Johnston is marginalized by his race and Jacob Thacker, to a lesser extent, is on the borders due to class. But that outside-looking-in status is what brings them together ultimately, and what each character uses to achieve his own separate peace.

Writing the chapter on Randall Kenan forced me to think more clearly about matters of race than I had previously. I found that the toughest element of writing about race is getting started—discussing the topic of race and racism compels the southerner to explore parts of our past that are still, to some extent, taboo. I’m grateful to Kenan for spurring my engagement with those issues, and his work taught me again about the power of empathy in fiction, which may be the grandest and most transformative part of the writer’s interaction with the reader. I paired Kenan with his predecessor Richard Wright, whose Uncle Tom’s Children is one of the three or four books that genuinely changed my life. I learned from Wright that writing about injustice in a kind of flat, uninflected manner is actually the most effective way to draw out the reader’s empathy (Wright’s prologue “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is an exquisite study in this). I tried to use that technique in narrating several key passages in Nemo’s life.

The Resurrectionist
is set on a medical school campus in South Carolina in the recent past and in the distant past. Where did you gain medical school experience or is it just campus experience?

I taught English for seven years at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, which is primarily a medical school, and that gave me a wealth of experience to use in the novel. Let me just say that friends who wish not to be named provided me with access to places typically closed to the public. In one such place I held a human heart in my hand. How can a writer not be transformed by that experience? Memento mori, indeed!

Many of the writers you studied in After Southern Modernism wrote historical fiction or at least wrote of a time long before they were alive. Your “Fernyear” portions in The Resurrectionist are searing and immersive in their detail, stunning really. What writers did you draw on for guidance and inspiration writing about the long distant past?

Also, the roster of authors surveyed in After Southern Modernism includes so many wonderfully gifted storytellers. It was reading Larry Brown many years ago that made me want to come to Mississippi—I had never encountered such elegiac writing about southern working-class people—and Harry Crews is such a born storyteller that he could narrate a trip to the grocery store in a way that would have you on the edge of your seat. If I was able to glean a soupcon of their narrative ability by studying them, I’m happy. 

The interest in historical fiction came late and was a surprise to me. Coming across the story of Grandison Harris (the real-life resurrectionist at the Medical College of Georgia) was a happy accident, but it provided me with the kernel of a story I could not leave untold. I probably was spurred on by James Lee Burke’s wonderful historical novel White Doves at Morning, which is a departure from his usual milieu. I also pulled down volume three of Shelby Foote’s Civil War narrative to research Sherman’s burning of Columbia for The Resurrectionist and got hooked. Reader, beware that voluminous trilogy! It hooked me and I spent the better part of a year reading every page of it. I believe Foote is right that one cannot understand America without understanding the Civil War, and that is if anything more true for the southerner. For my money, Foote’s history is the best thing southern letters has ever produced. 

Are the reading experiences and responses of a critic much different from that of a writer of fiction? I guess what I am asking is now that you have completed a novel and published it, how do you see and sense yourself changed as a reader? 

No doubt, fiction is harder to write than criticism. But the common thread is the love of reading itself—love for the compelling story and the well-turned phrase. The unity lies in the desire to understand both how fiction works and how to practice the creation of it. I find it delightful that Alfred Kazin entitled his memoir Writing Was Everything. There’s a proper critical focus for you, despite whatever socio-political approaches may be currently in vogue. Reverence for the creative act itself ought to be front and center. That’s the kind of critic I want to read and that I would, perhaps vainly, aspire to be. Writing is everything.