Matt Bell, Matthew Derby & the Best of the Web
Did everyone else already know that Matt Bell is going to be the series editor for Dzanc’s Best of the Web series, beginning with the 2010 book? I didn’t, but aren’t I glad to know it now? Yes. Anyway, I learned this information in a note Matt posted to facebook about also-Matt Matthew Derby, whose story “January in December” from Guernica will be anthologized in BotW2009, edited by Lee K. Abbott. (Disclosure/chest-beating: I am a proud alum of the BotW series; my story “The Jealousy of Angels” appeared in the 2008 edition, which was edited by Steve Almond.) After the jump, MB’s full facebook post: his explanation of what BotW is, his introduction of Derby, and then a long guest-post by Derby himself about the writing of “January in December.”
Published by Dzanc Books and guest-edited by Lee K. Abbott, Best of the Web 2009 is the newest edition of Dzanc’s yearly attempt to compile the best fiction, poetry, and non-fiction that online literary journals have to offer in an eclectic collection in the manner of other broad-ranging anthologies such as Pushcart and Best American Non-Required Reading. Now in its second year, this is the first substantial attempt at creating an annual print compilation of the best of material published online.
Starting with the 2010 edition of the book, I’ll be serving as series editor for Best of the Web. While I didn’t have anything to do with the selection of works in this year’s edition, I’ve still spent a lot of time with the book, reading and enjoying its pages while also working to promote the book by setting up readings and helping organize this blog tour. While every reader might not agree that the works in this book are the “best”–always a tricky and subjective word–I do sincerely believe that the works collected here are easily among the most accomplished, most interesting writing that’s been published online, and that their collection into this anthology is an important and exciting development in the emerging world of online literature.
Best of the Web 2009 can be purchased directly from Dzanc for $18, or in a bundle with Best of the Web 2008 for $30. It can also be purchased everywhere else you might buy books, including Amazon and other online booksellers.
Now, on to my guest, Matthew Derby.
Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times, one of my favorite story collections of all time, a book that’s inspired and influenced me in more ways than I can count. He’s also the author of “January in December,” which was originally published by Guernica and is now reprinted in Best of the Web 2009. Below is a short essay by Derby about the writing of this truly spectacular story:
I started writing “January in December” several years ago, as part of an attempt to distance myself from the sort of writing I’d been doing previously. By the time my first collection of short fiction, Super Flat Times, was published in 2003, I’d figured out how to write a certain type of story – a domestic drama invariably set in some sort of near future in which some of the fundamental properties of the world has been significantly altered. I’d learned how to quickly produce stories that operated under these conditions, but not only was I bored by my writing; it was also pretty terrible. Even my hardcore fanbase (hello, Gordon!) found these stories unreadably predictable.
So I had to find a way out. I usually start any project by writing toward some unfinished business from the past, and so I combed through my memories to find some as-yet uncharted node that I could hitch to a narrative. My daughter was listening to a lot of Beatles music at the time, and this got me thinking about my own childhood, which was heavily steeped in the Beatles. My siblings had, between them, the essential discography of Beatles recordings, including Rarities, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and a four LP bootleg set of their holiday fan club recordings in plain white sleeves. These albums played at competing volumes in their rooms constantly throughout my childhood. The walls in our house knew each tempo shift, every false ending and extended bridge. One of my earliest memories is of sneaking into my sister’s room to listen to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ again and again while paging through the booklet that accompanied the Magical Mystery Tour album. I would hold my breath and put my ear to the single built-in speaker on my sister’s portable record player to hear John Lennon utter, in an affected voice, the phrase ‘Cranberry sauce’ as the song faded out (for the first time). Listening to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was like peering into a haunted kaleidoscope, an ever-changing spectrum of visions both beautiful and terrifying. It was like absolutely nothing else in the world.
I don’t remember where I was when I found out that Lennon had been shot, but I clearly recall the dusky gloom that fell over our household in the days and weeks that surrounded the event. It was my first experience of death and the accompanying feeling of utter helplessness that drew that first phase of my childhood to a close. Lennon was, essentially, to my seven-year-old mind, a real-world wizard, capable of generating a form of music so unique and wild it seemed poised on some distant point in the universe, light years away. The fact that he could be so easily killed meant that anything good could die.
I took my daughter to the re-release of the Yellow Submarine animated film in 1999. She enjoyed it, so I bought the soundtrack. Some of the music I hadn’t heard in many, many years, but it retained its power. It drew me in again. I became an obsessed completist, buying up the official releases on CD and then, when I had everything, scouring the then-nascent internet for any bootleg studio outtake I could get my hands on. I purchased, at great expense, the entire 13-disc set of the Let It Be sessions, as well as every take of every track on the White Album and the gritty White Album rehearsal demos. And, yes, all 26 takes of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ I don’t know what I was after. I don’t know why it took hold of me. Listening to the aborted starts of all the botched takes of their songs was like finding a family photo album you’d never seen before, like seeing a picture of your mother taken when she was young, posing brashly for the camera, full of youth and pride, her face radiant in a way you’ve never seen before. This was the degree of my intimacy with the music – The Beatles are as much a part of my family history as anything else I can think of, and hearing them bicker and laugh and fuck up on the bootleg recordings was indescribably moving.
This degree of intimacy got me thinking about how, for a brief time, John Lennon and I had both been alive. We’d both shared the same air, had moved about in the same part of the world. Granted, I was a seven year-old boy living in a small town in Western New York and Lennon was a 40 year-old man living in Manhattan, easily one of the most famous people in the world. The thing is, we both lived in the same universe. He was alive. I could have saved him. Maybe. Somehow. Sure, it’s improbable, ridiculously so. But not impossible. Not absolutely impossible to think that I could have made it to the square of sidewalk on which Mark David Chapman stood as he waited for Lennon and Yoko Ono to return to the Dakota and persuaded him to put down his gun. I could have done it. I was alive in the same world as John Lennon and I could have saved his life, but I did not. And in that moment the story that would eventually become ‘January in December’ first took root.