SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Matt Sumell spent a decade writing the 20 interconnected stories that comprise his debut "Making Nice." They were written in part as a response to his mother's death from cancer. Sumell's narrator faces the same tragedy, and his pain and anger lead him to act in ways that don't create a lot of sympathy - he throws things; he gets into fights. But the book is also funny. And Matt Sumell has been described as a new voice in American fiction. Tom Vitale has a profile.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Friday afternoon, the back room at the Wharf, a fisherman's watering hole on Long Island's South Shore, looking out across the Great South Bay towards Fire Island. It's a special place for Matt Sumell.
MATT SUMELL: This is the first bar I got into, been in bar fights here. This is my place. This is my spot.
VITALE: He says it's like coming home to the wreckage of his youth. Sumell grew up a mile from here, up the Connetquot River. He's 38, and he's lived in Los Angeles the last 15 years. He's back to launch his book tour - a book that grew out of another homecoming a dozen years ago, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
SUMELL: She was driving to work one day and she passed out at the wheel, woke up on the side of the road and ended up getting some stuff checked out. And they found it in her shoulder. But by the time they really got - figured it all out, it was everywhere.
VITALE: His mother spent the next five months in the hospital, then died at home with hospice. At the time, Sumell was enrolled in the graduate fiction program at the University of California-Irvine.
SUMELL: When my mother got sick, I was sort of using - I was using the good luck of bad luck - use what hurts. I started to take aim at that.
VITALE: Sumell created an amped-up version of himself, Alby, filled with rage and grief. His story "If P, Then Q" begins with Alby's remembering his 11th grade calculus teacher telling a story about drugging a bumblebee so he could tie a thread around it and have it on a leash.
SUMELL: (Reading) Then he walked over to the window and stared out past the parking lot filled with cars that looked alike. So I studied math as an undergrad until I tried using modus tollens to prove to Kate Damon that she should date me. It didn't work, and I realized that math would not get me what I wanted, so I dropped out and started drinking a lot of well whiskey in a bar around the corner from my apartment I would eventually be evicted from.
GEOFFREY WOLFF: A new voice is a big deal.
VITALE: Novelist Geoffrey Wolff was director of the writing program at UC-Irvine when Sumell began writing the stories in "Making Nice."
WOLFF: Matt Sumell has a voice that I've never heard before. I love his writing for its idiom, but particularly for its rhythms - the way he gets on a roll with it.
SUMELL: (Reading) Money ran out quickly and more out of boredom than habit. I kept going to the ATM, checking to see if a balance would somehow appear in my account. It never did. And so I learned a little green Spanish and spent hours doing finger puppetry for the ATM camera. I got pretty good at it. I can do a dog, a rabbit, a lizard, an elephant, a hawk and an eagle. There's a difference in the thumbs. I could do a donkey, a squirrel, a cow, a cobra, a horse and a pig.
VITALE: Geoffrey Wolff says Alby's voice reminded him of another character in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher In The Rye."
WOLFF: What has moved me about him is how quickly I connected with him. Certainly not because he seemed like me, but it was the same experience that I had when I was 15 years old reading about Holden Caulfield - that same sort of sense that yes, yes, yes, yes, I know what's going on here.
VITALE: But fiction never came easily for Matt Sumell. He spent 10 years writing these stories. He worked renovating houses, teaching writing, promoting a racing car tour and fueling boats. He used a student loan to buy a 31-foot sailboat and then lived on it. He chased girls and he got drunk in bars. But he never did some of the things his character Alby does in "Making Nice," like setting fire to a 7-11. Sumell says people who've read his stories in the Paris Review and Esquire think he's Alby.
SUMELL: I was up in Squaw Valley once, and someone refused to sit at the table with me, just got up and left. You know, but it happens all the time and I think it's happening right now. You know, people are like oh, Matt Sumell's Alby. I mean, it's just - no, I let Alby indulge in all the bad choices and the impetuousness and the recklessness that I necessarily wouldn't, you know? But I think bad choices make for good stories, so I'm like yeah, have fun with that. Let's let Alby do those things that I restrained myself from doing.
VITALE: Sumell says what's important to him in fiction is complexity.
SUMELL: You know, I wanted to just present a character who may not be the most likable guy, but hopefully you can have some sort of generosity towards him or have some tenderness for this guy. And I guess I wanted to sort of explore that.
VITALE: Matt Sumell says when he's writing, his motto is make them laugh, then break their hearts.
SUMELL: (Reading) I also do a mouse and make him say ee, ee, ee and then I also do myself and he says what? I can't hear you, Ma? Mom, my left hand, asks what's wrong, Alby? And my right hand goes it's the little things. The little things, Ma, they're relentless. Why are you so angry? I don't know, Ma, I said. I don't know. Excuse me, a voice behind me said. I need to use the ATM.
VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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