A Conversation with Matthew F. Jones

A Single Shot is in many ways a different breed of noir than other, less daring works of crime fiction—particularly in regard to the way the novel ends. Was choosing a fate for Moon difficult for you? Or did it simply seem like the natural conclusion all the way through your writing process? (Did you have this beginning in mind right from the start?)

I had no idea how the novel would end when I began it or, in fact, until the moment it unfolded while I was writing it.  Once I have the characters I’m writing about in mind – i.e. once I feel that I know them – I try to think as little as possible while writing.  And I never outline or plan out in advance what will happen in a novel or to the people in it.  Once I’ve created the characters, the story as I see it comes more from them, than from me.  I do my best to follow wherever they lead me and, through my own filter, accurately record their accounts.  I’ve never had much luck in trying to manipulate anything to come out a certain way in my own life, and doubt I’d be any better at it in the lives of fictional characters.  Plus I can’t imagine the monotony of writing from an outline.   I sit down to write each day with only a vague idea of  where I’m headed – and never knowing where I might end up – which for me makes writing more of an adventure than a task.

What are some of your personal favorite novels, and do you see any of their influence in A Single Shot, looking back on it now?

I’m an eclectic reader and a lover of many novels, though two unifying elements are found in the ones I admire most; indelible characters whose stories are compelling because of who they are; and a rich evocation of the particular world they live in.  In that vein some that, in no particular order, come readily to mind are, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Collector, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Sheltering Sky, Augie Marsh, A Flag For Sun Rise, The Quiet American, The Stars At Noon, Suttree, The Killer Inside Me, The Risk Pool, The Cement Garden, Paris Trout, The Professional, Mystic River, Affliction, Fat City, etc.

I don’t in truth see the influence of anyone else’s work in A Single Shot (or, for that matter, in any of my work except possibly in my novel Deepwater the opening scene of which, in retrospect, may have its inspiration in a favorite novel of mine) any more than I think the way in which I speak is influenced by the voices of other people I admire or care about.

More objective readers of the work might see something I don’t, I’m not sure.  It would be interesting for me to know.

Were you struck at any point by parallels in your writing to your own experiences, or was A Single Shot created, out of necessity, from deep research?

 A Single Shot came directly out of my own experiences and/or knowledge, though obviously the actual events (anyway most of them) are fictional.  I grew up in that world and with the people who inhabit it.  The mountain, the quarry, the farm were all based on the actual mountainside I grew up on.  Daggard Pitt’s law office above Newberry’s was modeled on the office I practiced law out of for three years.  The only research I ever do in my writing is for technical purposes (the caliber of a particular gun, the model of a car or tractor for example.)

Have you known anyone like Moon in the course of your life? How did you go about creating the character—and the situation in which he finds himself?

John was formed partially out of a composite of a few people I knew growing up.  I knew for example, several people who hunted deer all year long.  They did it to feed their families and to live on.  Jobs were – and are – scarce in that part of the country and deer nearly as plentiful as squirrels.

I went about creating John the same way I do every character I write about.  Before starting the book I put him in a number of imagined situations and wrote pages of him conversing with various people in those situations.  When I felt I knew him well enough to have an idea, without having to think about it, of how he would react in any type of circumstance I wrote the opening scene to the book and, from there – from John walking up the mountainside with his twelve gauge at the crack of dawn – I trusted my knowledge of him enough to follow him into whatever he led me.

Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, was kind enough to contribute a foreword for A Single Shot. What are your thoughts on how he’s prefaced the new edition? Would you say you’re as much a fan of Woodrell’s work as he is of yours?

Well, I’m not sure what to make of him calling me ‘a twisted motherfucker’,  though, in context of the rest of what he wrote I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment!  In all honesty, when I heard Daniel had offered to write a foreword to A Single Shot I was thrilled, largely because – as I told him when I thanked him after I’d read the foreword – I didn’t have to pretend I was a huge fan of his work, I actually am one and have been for a good long time.  A review he wrote in the Washington Post of A Single Shot when it came out in 1996 first alerted me to his work.  Not long after that I purchased a copy of the The Ones You Do, and from there I was hooked, and have gone on to read all of his novels.  He is one of a very few authors whose release of a new book is an event I eagerly anticipate.  In my mind he is ‘the voice’ for that part of the world he writes about.  If I hadn’t been such a recluse I would have contacted him to thank him after he wrote that first review of A Single Shot – I’m glad he didn’t hold it against me!  And I’m honored that he feels about my work the way I do about his.

Your novel Deepwater was made into the 2006 film of the same name, and A Single Shot is currently in development as well. Were you consulted as part of the filmmaking process for these two projects? (Did you adapt them for the screen yourself?) What are your thoughts on book-to-film adaptations—of your own work, and in general?

I had nothing to do with the screenplay for Deepwater, which had a lot to do with why I accepted an offer to write the screenplay for A Single Shot when it came along and, after that, the screenplay for my novel Boot Tracks, which is also in production.  Not that I believe Deepwater is a terrible film (for what it is it’s fine) it just isn’t close to an accurate representation of the novel or, in truth – and, more importantly – anywhere near as good a film as it could have been.  In fact the main producer of that film after reading the screenplay I’d written for A Single Shot told me he wished he’d hired me to write the script for Deepwater.  I told him I wished he had too!  So when the A Single Shot job was offered to me I felt I had to accept despite a few novelists friends warning me off of it based on their unpleasant experiences in trying to cross over into the film world.  The truth is, though, I love movies nearly as much as I love books and, as a novelist, have always considered writing dialogue one of my strengths which is a lot of what a good script is.  The two forms though are very different.  Novel writing in my view is an art in which the writer touches every one of a readers five (or, I guess, six) senses, whereas script writing is more of a craft in which my self-imposed rule is ‘if you can’t see it or hear it don’t write it’.  One quickly learns too that movie making, in direct contrast to novel writing, is very much a collaborative endeavor.  Every one – from the director, to the producers, to the actors, even sometimes the DP – give their input on a script.  Then there’s the money people who worry is it too dark?  Is it too graphic?  Is it too anything that might affect negatively on their investment?  So, the writer, while making compromises, has to work hard to keep in the script the true core and essence of his story.  The only way I believe that a novelist can do a good adaptation of his own novel is too always bear in mind that the movie will not be the novel.  And it shouldn’t be.  It should be the novel seen through a different prism and experienced in a different medium.

You’ve written six novels to date—1992’s The Cooter Farm, 1994’s The Elements of Hitting, 1997’s Blind Pursuit, 1999’s Deepwater, 2006’s Boot Tracks and, of course, A Single Shot. Is there a particular novel of the bunch of which you have the fondest memories—either of the writing process; how it was received by friends, family, or more generally; or because of its association with a particular period in your life?

Each one is special to me for a different reason.  I’m sure this sounds strange to people but I feel in many ways as if a different person wrote each novel.  I suppose that’s because I was at a different point in my life during the time I was intimately with each one.  By that I mean while working on a novel I’m fully consumed with the particular world and people I’m writing about.  It’s as if you’re spending a very intense period of time with a group of people you’ve been marooned on an island with and then they’re all rescued and go they’re separate ways into new lives.  So each book you’re with a new group of people and even if you’re on the same island (i.e. writing about the same locale which I often do) it’s through these new peoples eyes and perspectives.  Or, looked at in a different way, each book is an exploration of the same world through a different writer’s viewpoint.  The Cooter Farm had a unique impact on me not only because it was my first published book (after a long struggle) but because in the weeks leading up to its publication my wife gave birth to our first and only child and shortly after that my father died after a long, excruciating illness.  So, I was dealing with all these conflicting emotions.  And when it came out it seemed like half the people in the town I grew up in saw themselves (in a good or bad light) in it.  In retrospect I could see why some of them thought so, though no character in it (or in any of my novels) is based on any one particular person.

Have any of your working experiences had an influence in the events depicted in A Single Shot?

Well, I grew up working on dairy and horse farms and did so for many years so I have a very close understanding of that way of life.  And for a few years I practiced law in the rural upstate New York town I grew up in which is very much the town I modeled the town in a A Single Shot after.  A small town lawyer specializing in criminal and family law can’t but help, to a certain extent, to have their finger on the pulse of the community or be attuned to the intimate details of his/her clients lives.  And being a criminal defense lawyer – there, and in a larger city for a time – I learned a lot about criminals.  And I learned the difference between people who choose, as a way of life, to be criminals (and how they think or look at the world) and people (such as, in my view, John Moon) who are basically good people who for a myriad of reasons end up committing criminal acts.

In giving interviews or answering questions in front of readers, are you surprised by the frequency of any of the topics that come up—both about your work in general and A Single Shot in particular?

Often times a reader will wonder if I intended a specific passage or event in one of my novels to have a particular symbolic meaning they’ve attributed to it.  Usually, once it’s pointed out to me, I see exactly why they would think so.  But those sorts of thoughts never cross my mind when I’m writing, all I’m thinking about is creating the best story I can.  In relation to A Single Shot I’m probably asked most often about the ending, and why I chose the one I did.  And my answer always is, I didn’t choose it, the writing of it did – and sometimes I wish it had come out a different way for John.

What would you have done in Moon’s shoes? Would you have followed the same path as Moon throughout the course of A Single Shot’s events?

That’s the question hopefully every reader of the book asks – or will ask – of his or her self.  What would he or she have done had it been them?  And I don’t think that any of us can do more than speculate on the answer.  Based on what I know about myself and how I think I view the world I can guess – or hope – I would have reacted one way or another.  But without being in that actual moment – in the immediate wake of having fired that single shot – (and in John’s particular circumstances) I can’t know for sure what I would have done.  I’ve long suspected – and maybe it comes across In A Single Shot – that only in the most dire circumstances – when one’s back is to the wall, so to speak – does one truly get to know one self.

What books, music and art inspire you? What are you reading and listening to right now?

Art that inspires me most – through whatever medium – creates for me characters or scenes so indelible that I’m drawn to know more about them the way I’m drawn to know more about a new person – or stranger – I meet who in some way (often indefinable to me) sparks my interest.  In the visual arts I find this most in certain photographs (often black-and-white) of people in their everyday surroundings or in the best impressionist paintings that magically ignite my imagination to see a world and story well beyond what is on the canvas.  Great blues music (from the pioneers of it up through today’s masters) inspires me in the same way.  I spend far more time and money than I care to admit searching for, collecting, and making blues playlists to exercise or mellow out to.  The newest one combines cuts from, among others, R.L. Burnside, Odetta, James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, Otis Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Big Mama Thornton.   And on my nightstand right now are two books I’m a ways into; James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (it doesn’t, in my opinion measure up to Postman, but few novels do) and The Snow Leopard (a great piece of nature writing by Peter Mathieson about a trip he took into the Himalayas in the 1970s in search of the elusive snow leopard, but that is about so much more than that).

   Matthew F. Jones is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Cooter Farm, The Elements of Hitting, Blind Pursuit, DeepwaterBoot Tracks and A Single Shot, as well as a number of screenplays, including adaptations of A Single Shot and Boot Tracks, both which are being filmed in 2011. Deepwater was made into a film in 2005. Jones grew up in rural upstate New York and lives now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Learn more at http://matthewfjones.com/