Matt Madden is a cartoonist and teacher best known for his book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Thanks to that project Matt was made a member of Oubapo, Workshop for Potential Comics, and later a French knight in the Order of Arts and Letters. In addition to his personal work, Matt Madden has written two textbooks with his wife, Jessica Abel, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. Born in New York City, but having spent time living in Paris, Michigan, Texas, Mexico City and Brooklyn; Matt has experienced lots of different cultures and influences. Matt Madden also has an interest in foreign languages which has allowed him to travel and meet artists outside the English-speaking scene. This has also lead to opportunities for Matt as a translator from French and Spanish to English. His translation from the French of Aristophane’s The Zabîme Sisters was a YALSA book of the year in 2011. Matt Madden has also translated several short stories and excerpts of longer works for Words Without Borders and has several interesting projects brewing for the future. My personal connection with Matt is that I was handed his book as suggested reading whilst studying screenwriting at University, and it became one of my favourite and most interesting books on the shelf. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderfully talented Matt Madden…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ How do you respond?
These days I tell people I’m a dad and a cartoonist. Neither of which can I really say I ‘do for a living,’ they are just ‘living.’
What are you reading at the moment?
You’re asking me during an unusually intensive period of reading. I often go through months without having time to read more than articles online or the occasional comic book. I get restless and that makes me go through periods of acquisition where I’ll read a bunch of stuff all at the same time.
Right now I’m in the midst of a 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, El Mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady) by Enrique Vila-Matas—an author I’m finally getting around to reading and it’s like meeting an uncle I didn’t know I had; I’m also reading John Corbett’s concise A Listener’s Guide to Improvisation, a limpid introduction to the often opaque world of improvised music; meanwhile I’ve been trying to read an e-book edition of The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt on my phone for over a year but I may need to give up and get the print edition (though I made it successfully through some short story collections on the Kindle, like Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti and Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link. I just finished—and enjoyed immensely—Le Locataire Chimerique by Roland Topor —the basis for Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant—as well as his hilariously dark cookbook, La Cuisine Cannibale; Splendide-Hôtel by Gilbert Sorrentino which is inventive, funny, and occasionally maddening; Reader’s Block by David Markson (what a title), and Jean Toomer’s remarkable, haunting Cane.
Comics reading: The widely- and deservedly-praised My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, vol. 1 by Emil Ferris, the fascinating project The Re(a)d Diary by Teddy Kristiansen and Steven T. Seagle, which consists of a translated comic by the Danish Kristiansen along with a completely different script placed on the same artwork that the American Seagle wrote for himself because he couldn’t read the original Danish; OTTO, l’homme réécrit, a philosophical investigation into identity by Marc-Antoine Mathieu, the Bolaño-esque Pinturas de Guerra by Ángel de la Calle, featuring a cast of Latin American artists in exile in Paris in the 80s; Lamia, a noir-ish serial killer farce by Rayco Pulido (which has just won Spain’s national prize for comics), and Miércoles by Juan Berrio, a charming (Wednes)day-in-the-life story full of playful experiments in form and a warm generosity toward all its characters. (None of these foreign titles have appeared in English but since I do some translating I always have that in my mind as I read this stuff.)
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I lived in France for a few years when I was a kid and one of my earliest memories is poring over issues of a perfect-bound comic book called Strange which reprinted in French Marvel comics like Daredevil, Spiderman, and Dr. Strange. It’s ironic because I didn’t go on to become a reader of superhero comics at all once we moved back to the states when I was eight.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I don’t think anyone gets to read as much as they’d like to, or else they get stuck with more than they can handle, like when you’re reading for a PhD or being a series editor for one of the Best American X books, which I did for six years. In that scenario, you end up being forced to read way more than you would like to, and only a small portion of it is stuff you actually want to be reading. There’s no Goldilocks solution!
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. There’s something very satisfying to me about the shambolic, eccentric humour of that book that feels very American—I see it also in Pynchon, Salinger, William Gaddis’ JR, or in Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick. At the same time, I see a kinship to Raymond Queneau’s novels as well, among other things.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Not really one book in particular but I often recommend comics and graphic novels to friends and family, from standards like Maus by Art Spiegelman or reprints of Krazy Kat by George Herriman to personal favorites like Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes or The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor (which my mom couldn’t get through because of the spidery lettering).
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Literary/art comics and experimental prose, especially works that play with the medium in one way or another and/or which are self-reflexive to some degree.
Without a doubt, that would be Exercices de style by Raymond Queneau. Not only did it inspire me to make a comic based on the same principle of variations on a simple theme (99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style), it also led me to the world of Oulipo, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature. Immersing myself in their work and ideas (and later those of Oubapo, the comics branch of that group), I was able to formulate clearly for the first time the approaches to creating and experiencing art that I find most valuable.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
The best book about reading that I’ve encountered recently is How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, which is something like a literary ice bucket challenge. You will be shocked and outraged by many of his assertions but you will also realize that he is mostly right and that he just made you an even better reader for it.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’ve been reading about music and philosophy lately (as well as watching youtube videos and listening to podcasts—I particularly like Philosophy Bites and, lately, Damon Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing, which is part of Radiotopia’s new podcast series Showcase) in addition to my ongoing diet of experimental literature and comics in French and Spanish. I’m still a poetry novice and accumulate more books than I actually read. I’d like to be reading more manga but it’s such an overwhelming enterprise! What else? I got halfway through Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon before my daughter was born in 2007. I set it aside even though I was really enjoying it so maybe I’ll haul it out again. This topic could clearly be the subject of a whole other interview.
If you were to write an autobiography — what would it be called?
Slow Learner. I know Pynchon already used it for a short story collection and it’s too self-deprecating but it’s a phrase I constantly come back to when reflecting on my life thus far.
Image credit: Nicolas Guerin