Breaking out of his own prison

By David Larsen

It took a hellish long time for best-selling writer Matthew Quick’s overnight success to come, he tells David Larsen

Writer Matthew Quick.
Writer Matthew Quick.

Matthew Quick is an affront to journalism. He is also a best-selling writer, and whether or not you have read his books, you almost certainly have heard of one of them.

This is because its Oscar-winning big-screen adaptation was in wide release less than a year ago. Which is splendid, but from my point of view the problem is this: I am about to tell you Quick's story, and not only is it going to sound like I made it up, it will also sound as though I was too lazy to put much work into the job.

No help for it. Every so often, the rags-to-riches cliche that young writers are told will never, ever happen to them actually does happen to someone. In this case, the someone was living in his in-laws' basement and close to reaching the end of his rope, details I would love to pretend are not standard elements of the starving-artist-hits-the-big-time script.

Quick had always wanted to write. This is what he tells me, but very quickly he qualifies the statement: he means since the age when he first realised writing was an available option.

"In the neighbourhood where I grew up, this blue-collar neighbourhood just outside Philadelphia, on the New Jersey side, men didn't read and they didn't write. But somewhere around the age of 15 or 16 I started to write, obsessively, in a red notebook I used to carry round with me everywhere. Poetry, journalling, short stories. I suppose that was around the time I was first exposed to literature at school ... I vividly remember reading A Tale Of Two Cities at about that age."

It was an oddly shameful thing; or rather, it seems odd to Quick now. At the time it was just another thing to feel awkward and adolescent about: a real man should not want to do this thing, and here he was, doing it.

"No one told me I could make a living as a writer; the adults in my world steered me in a different direction. So I became a high school English teacher."

He took teaching very seriously, and he was good at it.

"I was counselling troubled teens, and I was coaching sports - many days I'd spend 12 hours at the high school. It took a toll. I went from writing all the time as an undergraduate to not writing at all. And one day I woke up and I was 30, and I had a tenured position at perhaps the best high school in South Jersey, I had a house in a great neighbourhood, I had health insurance, I had a pension. I was wretched. I felt like I was spending my life polishing the bars of my prison."

You see where this is going, but it was not as simple as just jumping the rails and starting a new life. Or rather, it was exactly that simple, but first he had to be talked into it.

His wife asked him one night what he would do if she could make his career, their house, their whole upwardly mobile aspirational life, go away.

"And I said, 'You can't, there's no way'. And she said, 'But what if I could? Because you're miserable'."

His wife's plan was that they would leave their jobs, sell their house, backpack around South America and southern Africa for a while, then move in with her parents, and he would write.

"We lived with them for three years while I wrote, unpaid. My friends thought I'd lost my grip, they were seriously concerned. My father, who's a very a pragmatic businessman, went ballistic. But I'd been feeling as though I was wearing a mask every day. As soon as I made that jump, things got better."

Then they got worse again. He wrote four novels in two and a half years. "They were dreadful. They were practice. I didn't know that." Two and a half years, without any feedback other than publisher rejections, is a long time to be a formerly independent adult living in your in-laws' basement.

"I went for a run one day. Bleak winter's day. I looked up at the sky and I saw this gorgeous cloud, with this electric, beautiful, silver lining. It made me feel like things were going to get better. And immediately I started berating myself for magical thinking - it's just a cloud in front of the sun, don't be ridiculous. But the idea made me feel good, and I thought, what if I were to allow myself to believe in some delusional philosophy just so it would give me enough fuel to keep going, could I allow myself to do that? And I'm running and running and running, then I thought, wait a minute, what if I had a character who had a delusional philosophy that allowed him to get through a tough time?"

He went home and started writing The Silver Linings Playbook. It took seven months, it was rejected by 70 agents, then an agent took it on.

"He phoned up and I thought, 'Is this guy playing a joke on me?' and then the sales started coming: first in Italy, then Hollywood, then New York, and on around the globe."
Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for her part in the film version earlier this year.

Silver Linings is about a former teacher grappling with mental illness, and living in Philadelphia with his blue collar parents after his independent adult life fell to pieces.

Quick's latest novel - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, his fourth - also features a teacher trying to deal with mental instability but, in this case, the troubled person, and the book's narrator, is a New Jersey high school student.

"It was a hard book to get going with, initially. I finally found the right voice for it while we were staying with a friend in the south of France. We were in this idyllic place and here I am writing about this very depressed, angry teenager ...

I think being somewhere so beautiful let me go to this place I didn't want to go to. I was surprised how angry Leonard was, and I was surprised to find he had this gun in his backpack, but I went with it.

"I thought a lot about the troubled teens I'd taught - so many of them struggled with mental health issues and all kinds of feelings, in silence. And yet when you got them alone in the room, they would just gush with all of this information that was boiling under the surface. That's what Leonard's doing, he's venting. That's why I've used so many footnotes. I wanted to show how all over the place his thoughts are - synapses firing everywhere. Leonard can't be contained on the page."

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (Headline $37.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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