Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Matthew Fiander

by Marie Verheul, Sophie Valcour, Sophia Matthew Read the Story December 19, 2016

Matt Fiander’s wonderful story “Trivia” is about a character who appears to be an expert at Jeopardy! So in the spirit of the renowned game show, we decided to pose our questions in the form of answers.

The inspiration behind your story “Trivia.”

What kind of distraction would pull me in?

I, like many, have known many people fighting with long-term illness. It’s amazing how strong they are, still managing to be themselves in the face of it. I hope somewhere in this story is the quiet strength I’ve seen. This story is also about me worrying how I would react, where I would find hope, and if a small moment like this — watching Jeopardy! in a room with others fighting — would be a distraction to make me forget.

The role played by Jeopardy! in the story and the reason for its effectiveness.

What is the memory that drives the story?

I remember re-runs of Jeopardy! airing on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, and the way the character in the story remembers the answers, and how everyone latches on the hopeful illusion that he’s answering them in the moment, brings memory, the past and the future into a room that seems — in the story, anyway — removed from all of that.

Your characters in “Trivia” are based on this.

How do I use people as inspiration for characters?

Most of my characters aren’t based on people I know, but they sometimes borrow a phrase or a mannerism or a small trait from people who stuck with me in some way. I’m sure there’s a little bit of me in some of these characters too, but it’s unlikely to be the flattering parts, so I try not to dwell on that too much.

The best piece of writing advice you have ever received.

What does “less is more” mean in a story’s ending?

Michael Parker broke me of a habit a lot of writers fall into: the lyrical ending. They tend to be more about my epiphany than a great discovery for my characters. Sometimes to get under the surface of your characters requires something quieter. A line. A gesture. Even silence.

Oscar Wilde said, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself,” but you should give this piece of advice to aspiring young writers anyway.

How do we use what we know?

We hear “write what you know” a lot. But I prefer the idea that writers should use what they know – Lee Zacharias. Use pieces of your life: observations, mannerisms, odd occurrences, little family anecdotes… Find a place you want to know and use what you know to bridge your way there. The moment we step outside our own backyard, the sooner our writing turns away from what we know and toward what we find mysterious or troubling.

Your ideas generally follow a creative process.

What can I do when I get inspired by a little moment/detail/memory?

My work starts with the small stuff: an odd detail I notice, a phrase I overhear, a sentence that I piece together in my head, some memory that comes to me. I need some little seed to get me started, but sometimes those seeds hang around for a long time before they make it to the page. But in each case it’s a small piece — the TV in the corner of a room, in “Trivia” — that gets me started.

You employ these strategies to condense your writing into flash fiction but still have enough details, a complex plot, and character growth.

What are the little things we do that give ourselves away?

To me, flash fiction is about finding a story in a moment, some shift in perspective. In this story, I tried to find these people — and the narrator especially — in the little things they did while they received treatment. And then the question: how could I disrupt that pattern? That was the only way to move the story somewhere.

When writing on its own does not produce a beautiful and fully complete story, like Athena springing from Zeus’ head, your editing process looks like this.

How important is voice in writing?

I think it’s important to balance between your own editorial voice and outside voices you trust. You have to cultivate the ability to cut your own lines. For me, this starts with sound. I read drafts aloud and cut and reshape language to make it sound right, to capture the mood of the piece and the voice of the characters. If I can’t hear something in the language to keep me going, I’ll leave it for a while until I can come back to it fresh and find it then.

When you need help, you entrust the editing process of your pieces to these people.

What is you also can’t be an island as a writer?

You need other voices like friends who are honest and encouraging. “Trivia” started when I sent it to my friend Paul Crenshaw, and it might not have survived without his keen eye. My wife is also a great editor who is both kind and decisive in killing off the parts that aren’t working.

About the Author:

Matthew Fiander received his MFA from UNC-Greensboro. His work has appeared in the Yalobusha Review, Waccamaw Journal, Exposition Review, Our State Magazine, StorySouth and elsewhere. He currently teaches English at High Point University in High Point, NC.

About the Interviewer:

Marie Verheul studies international relations and history at Amsterdam University College. Sophie Valcour is a humanities major at Amsterdam University College focusing on literature and cultural studies. “I often get stuck between poetry and meaning; I usually just want to write something that embodies a feeling, rather than an event…” Sophia Matthew studies political science and trauma representations at Quest University Canada where she also worked as an editor on Dr. Richard Hoshino’s The Math Olympian (2015). She is currently on exchange at Amsterdam University College.