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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

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Hannah Jenkins
Hannah Jenkins
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Hi! My name is Hannah Jenkins, and I am one of the copy editors here at the North Wind. I am a sophomore at NMU, and I love all things writing and editing-related. I am proud to be a part of this great...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

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Students encouraged to make sustainable products with EcoReps
Amelia KashianFebruary 22, 2024

In search of the giant squid, Q&A with Matthew G. Frank

In his office in Jamrich, behind a desk piled with books, Matthew Gavin Frank sits typing, one can only presume making the connection between crawfish etoufee, bad weather and auto-erotic asphyxiation.

The North Wind’s features editor, Anthony Viola, sat down with Frank to discuss writing, myth, giant squids and ice cream.

North Wind: Why did you start writing?

Matt Frank: I spent most of my occupational life working in restaurant kitchens. I found that when a bunch of chefs go out to a bar to drink and socialize after an incredibly long shift and they start asking each other questions like ‘what do you like to do in your spare time?’ I found when my answer was, ‘well, I like to write poetry and literary non-fiction,’ it was a great conversation… killer. Eventually I got tired of that. I wanted to talk to people about some of these things that were exciting me in writing and in reading, so I went back and got my MFA degree for that reason.

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NW: How do you think you became successful?

MF: I know this is a common and really boring answer. I think persistence matters and just having a thick skin matters. But it’s more than that. I guess you have to have the other thing also, which is [long pause], I continue writing because I can’t not write. I get such a pleasure of creating and doing it. It’s not to say it’s not a chore—sometimes there’s some days where the last thing I want to do is sit down in front of the computer for six hours, but I sort of feel awful if I don’t. I continue at it because I can’t stop, not necessarily all out of compulsion but out of love. I absolutely love it.

NW: How do you prepare to write a book?

MF: It’s all situation-specific. Sometimes I’m bowled over by the serendipitous discovery of a fact or an event or a photograph. For instance I was in Washington, D.C. a few years ago and I went in to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and there was this photograph there —it was the first ever photograph taken of the giant squid. What intrigued me about the photograph is that the carcass of this giant squid was very cleary draped over Moses Harvey’s bathroom curtain rod. I just wanted to know the backstory of the taking of the photograph, so I jotted down the three-line caption. That’s all the research I did—I accidentally stumbled upon the photograph, and as any good non-fictionier would do, when I got home I turned on the computer, went onto Google and started Googling.

NW: What did you find surprising researching for “Preparing the Ghost?”

MF: This is going to seem like a really hokey metaphor. When I was writing I was just chasing the main thread of the giant squid and Moses Harvey’s photograph, and it was like I was walking through this meadow—how’s that for hokeyness? As I was walking through the meadow of the main thread, giant squid and Moses Harvey’s photograph, all of these ancillary burrs started attaching themselves to my pants cuffs. These things, like ice cream, and cultural expressions of pain and old familial narratives of my long dead saxophonist grandfather, just started asserting themselves. While I was doing some research, a couple of times notions of ice cream crept into articles. I’m all about trying to find that electric bridge between seemingly dissimilar things, and I’m all about holding one subject up against a seemingly dissimilar subject, giant squid and ice cream, and seeing what the reaction is to see if there is electricity.

NW: So why ice cream?

MF: There were these three fisherman, so the story goes, two adult men and this one child, the son of one of the other men. According to these guys, a giant squid attacked their boat. The little boy was the only one to have the presence of mind to take up a hatchet and hack off the squid’s tentacle. It reacted silently, it made no sound. Because of that the fisherman said it feels no pain, which means it’s this mythological creature somehow made actual. So I became interested in expression of pain. If a being expresses their pain silently, what does that mean to us, how do we react, do we think it’s actually feeling no pain? I was really interested in the fisherman’s reaction to that, and in extension, how we react, how we grapple toward empathizing with someone else’s pain. I was reading this article on sympathy and empathy and sympathetic cravings. Somebody is in pain—what are the first actual objects or artifacts that we want to gift unto them in order to ease their pain? Two of the most popular things in Western culture are flowers and ice cream. I started thinking about ice cream, cultural expressions of pain, how these leash up to the giant squid, and our engagement, and our compulsion to make myth of the giant squid even after its long been proven actual. Is that an act of aggression—to make myth of something even after we know it’s real, and why are we doing it?

NW: Do you think myth and myth-making will ever fall out of existence?

MF: I just can’t see that happening. We depend on narrative in order to make sense of the world. One of our coping mechanisms, one of the primary tools to navigate this world, is narrative—in order to impose meaning, but I think it’s more than that too. It’s always been a tool we’ve used to compartmentalize and manage what is essentially a pretty overwhelming existence and world that we can’t know or fully understand.

NW: What is the Matthew Gavin Frank tip for successful writing?

MF: [laughs] Obsess easily? Look, what worked for me is, I would certainly not presume so arrogantly to impose my experience and my path onto somebody else. Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean that’s the prescription, but what worked for me was getting out of academia for a while, then just bumming around and living in a lot of different places with no money, living out of a tent for awhile—willing to do everything in order to take risks, turn yourself loose on the world and gather stories, then return to academia after. So my answer is really cookie-cutter and simple: Be curious, be easily obsessed.

The associate professor of English is giving a reading and discussion 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5 in the University Center.

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