To mark the publication of our first Mulholland Classic, A SINGLE SHOT by Matthew F. Jones, we connected Jones with his original editor for the book, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and John Schoenfelder, the editor of the Mulholland Books re-publication, for a lively conversation about influences, editorial vision and the future.
John Schoenfelder: Matthew, in discussing A SINGLE SHOT previously between the two of us, we’ve touched on a lot of topics. The way the novel seems very much of a kind with the work of Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. The fact that A SINGLE SHOT seems a good literary companion to films like The Deer Hunter and At Close Range. How did the book begin for you and what were your actual influences?
Matthew F. Jones: A SINGLE SHOT was borne from a single image: that of a man, in the pre-dawn light, walking up a wooded mountainside carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with deer slugs. The mountainside was the one I grew up at the base of in rural upstate New York; the woods were woods as a kid I had been as familiar with as John Moon is in A SINGLE SHOT. Only when that image appeared to me did I realize I already had an idea of who the man carrying the gun was and of the things weighing on him as he hiked up that hill. And I realized that I cared a great deal for the man, recognizing in him traits I had admired in a number of men I grew up around; hard men, with good souls, who, more than in whatever constructed homes they slept in at night, lived in the outdoors; men I’d worked on farms and in the fields with; men who in many ways lived off the land; men who to me seemed able to do or fix about anything with their hands but who seemed somehow not quite able to fit into the more modernized world away from the farms and woods most of their lives were spent working on or roaming in.
I had no idea what would come from that initial scene; or what would happen to John in the ensuing days; but I had an almost overwhelming curiosity to follow him and find out. And from the first sentence of the book that’s what I set out to do, to go with John wherever he led me, even at times into places and situations I might have preferred not to have gone. More than anything it was that curiosity, that powerful want to know John Moon and the story that would most define him, that compelled me in the writing of the novel.
John Schoenfelder: Jonathan, when you first encountered A SINGLE SHOT on submission in the mid-nineties, Cormac McCarthy was just beginning to break onto the national scene, and the whole concept of “country noir” typified by the work Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, William Gay and Ron Rash hadn’t quite come together the way it has today. What was your first impression of A SINGLE SHOT?
Jonathan Galassi: My impression was based on the authenticity of Matt’s voice. There was a directness , a roughness, even, to it, that struck me as totally authentic. I spent a lot of time in upstate New York earlier in my life (I don’t mean Westchester) and I recognized something in his world, the people he portrayed, the parameters of their lives. Upper New York State is very western in its feeling, it’s real country as in country music. I had read early McCarthy (Blood Meridian) but in my view his work is nothing like Matt’s—it’s highly estheticized, artificial even. That’s not true of Jones. The closest sound to Matt I’d had experience of was Denis Johnson’s in Jesus’ Son, but his voice too is more poetic than Matt’s in the sense of being magically distilled. Matt’s feels more unstudiedly urgent, immediately desperate. It was utterly sincere and beautiful. I believed every word of it.
John Schoenfelder: Matthew, Jonathan, obviously it’s been awhile. Can either of you recall any highlights regarding the discussion of the manuscript?
Matthew F. Jones: Shortly after FSG bought A SINGLE SHOT I had lunch with Jonathan in NY. Even though I’d published two novels prior to then I still felt pretty much disconnected from the publishing world. I hadn’t gone to school to be a writer so didn’t have those sorts of connections and in the world I was living in I had very few, if any, writer acquaintances. So I was a little intimidated to meet Jonathan, given his stellar reputation and the number of authors I admired who he had worked with in the past or was currently working with. That faded pretty quickly though once we started talking on the subject that had brought us together – books. I soon discovered what a knowledgeable, generous and down to earth guy Jonathan is. Other than him saying a few things about how much he admired it I don’t recall at that first meeting that we talked much about A SINGLE SHOT. I suspect part of the reason for that was Jonathan had intuited I wasn’t at that time all that comfortable discussing my own work. But we talked a lot about other novels – if memory serves, included among them were The Orchard Keeper – I believe I cared for it more than Jonathan did, Angels, which we both loved, and a pretty obscure but strong novel I was reading at the time (the name escapes me now) by the Australian author Rodney Hall which I was pretty amazed Jonathan had also read.
Later of course we discussed A SINGLE SHOT in depth and did all the editing things, but it was that first conversation that gave me trust in Jonathan and complete confidence that my novel was in great editorial hands. Jonathan, as an editor, I think respected my knowledge of the world I was writing about and that I write very much from instinct and feel and he didn’t try in any way to change or interfere with that, only to help hone it. Nor did he suggest any major edits to the book. He concentrated on helping me get right the sorts of details and smaller things in the book that in accumulation helped make it a stronger book than it otherwise would have been. And for that, and for the sort of attention Jonathan’s unmatched reputation for knowing great books helped bring to it, I was, and am forever, grateful to him.
Jonathan Galassi: So kind! When you meet Matt in person, as on paper, you know that his work is utterly authentic. That’s what makes his book so powerful and believable—frightening, too (but he’s not, he’s a real sweetheart).
I’m very curious as to what you’ve been up to recently, Matt. What are you working on?
Matthew F. Jones: Like most novelists I suspect (but for the ones who’ve hit the publishing lottery or the actual lottery) I write novels in between cobbling together enough other writing related work to make a living; for me that’s been mostly sporadic teaching gigs and more prominently in the last few years screen writing. The adaptation I did of A SINGLE SHOT has led to my being offered a few other screen writing jobs. That work has been welcome both financially and as an occasional creative change of pace from the more psychically assaultive work of novel writing. I say that having just recently completed a new novel I’m quite excited about, though it’s a far different one than the one I set out to write; though set where A SINGLE SHOT is set, in upstate New York, it’s a more expansive story with a wider panoply of characters. And now, as I’m working on a second draft of an original script I recently sold an option on, I’m already thinking about the next novel.
Jonathan, in your capacity as president and publisher of FSG, do you still have the opportunity to work individually with novelists? And, given the market pressures in the publishing industry from the ever increasing competition to book publishing, do you feel as unencumbered as you once might have to pursue, publish – and nurture – unique literary voices?
Jonathan Galassi: Yes, I’m still working with novelists, poets, essayists—it’s what makes this job fun—and discovering new talents is what’s it’s most deeply about for me—for all editors, really. I am concerned about how we’re going to draw attention to new writers in our changing bookselling/reviewing landscape—but it will happen. As one of my favorite
authors recently said to me, books will be written, and people will want to read them. It’s how the two connect that are changing.
Jonathan Galassi is the President and Publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
John Schoenfelder is the Senior Editor at Mulholland Books.
Matthew F. Jones is the author of the critically acclaimed novels A Single Shot, Boot Tracks, Deepwater, The Elements of Hitting, Blind Pursuit and The Cooter Farm.