Questions for Matthew Sharpe
Jamestown is Matthew Sharpe's fourth book (his previous novel, The Sleeping Father broke out into wide readership, thanks in part to a surprise Today show book club selection). We asked him a few questions about his latest work.
Amazon.com: What attracted you to the Jamestown story (aside, of course, from cashing in on the 400th anniversary)?
Sharpe: For a dozen years I worked as a writer in residence in New York City public schools for a nonprofit called Teachers & Writers Collaborative. In the late '90s a group of middle-school teachers in Queens asked me to help them develop some creative writing exercises for a unit they were about to teach on the Jamestown settlement of 1607 in Virginia. I read John Smith's several accounts of his sojourn there, made up some writing exercises, road-tested them, and liked the material so much I decided to do a big, novel-length writing exercise about it. I was drawn to the extremity of the story, the big personalities--Smith, Pocahontas, Powhatan--and, well, the awfulness of it. The story of Jamestown functions as one of the founding myths of our nation, and I wanted to highlight how America began in violence, bloodshed, and a level of incompetence that would be ridiculous had it not been so deadly; in other words, Jamestown was a lot like the administration of George W. Bush.
As for cashing in, I leave that to lottery winners and poker champions.
Amazon.com: You reveal how the former United States has come to this post-apocalyptic state of affairs in bits and pieces. Did you work that future history out for yourself beforehand, or did you just fill it in on the go, as needed?
Sharpe: I'm inclined to use the term post-annihilation rather than post-apocalyptic, since "apocalypse" implies revelation, i.e., the receiving of some crucial, maybe even divine knowledge. I don't see the people in my novel being the beneficiaries of that kind of knowledge, though some of them are struggling mightily to attain it. And I had a really good model for the post-annihilation future I depict, namely, the pre-annihilation present, presided over by the world's superpower-of-the-moment, us. As for working out my imaginary future beforehand or making it up as I went along: the latter, always the latter. The novel is an improvisation--a structured one, I hope, but the excitement (and terror) of writing fiction for me derives from the way I am always simultaneously playing the game and making up the game.
Amazon.com: How did you choose which elements from the original Jamestown story to include, and which to discard?
Sharpe: Mostly by intuition. I knew I wanted a cross-cultural love story and a cross-cultural horror story to co-exist: this would be the central tension of the novel, each would offset the other, or so I hoped. The primarily economic purpose of the original settlers also seemed important to include. The rest I used or invented as guided by presentiment. And, for better or worse, the things I say in interviews about the novel are mostly retroactive insights--hypotheses more than explanations. The person who wrote the book knows more about it than the person answering these questions does.
Amazon.com: Ben Marcus has written, "My feeling is that the impossible must be made viable, and only through language, that language is not subject to the laws of physics and therefore must not be restricted to conservative notions of 'sense' and 'nonsense,' but must pursue what appears impossible in order to discover the basic things." What's your take on that?
Sharpe: I like what Ben Marcus does with language in his own fiction and in his essays about other peoples'. I'd say one of the ways I tried to use language to depict the impossible in Jamestown was to represent the past, the present, and the future happening simultaneously. This happens at the level of content--people in a future America living one of America's originary historical events as if it had never happened before--and, I hope, it also happens at the level of style--people talking in English that is Shakespearean one moment, Keatsean the next, Otis Reddingesque the next, or all in the same sentence, or word.
Amazon.com: Jamestown is dedicated to Lore Segal, who is known in my house as the author of the fabulous kids' book, Tell Me a Mitzi, but who has had a long and varied career beyond that. What led you to honor her so?
Sharpe: Lore Segal is an excellent human being and was perhaps the most important writing teacher I had. I took a course with her at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan several years after graduating from college. It was all so dicey, "being a writer," it required an audacity I was attempting to muster. Lore's encouragement, her generosity, her good humor, her ability to help me figure out which parts of what I was doing were worth pursuing--these qualities of this wonderful woman helped me muster that audacity. She has a new book out called Shakespeare's Kitchen. Dear readers, if you have not already, please read the short story in there called "The Reverse Bug," and then, when you climb up off the floor, read the rest of the book.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
As you can see from the other reviews, this book, like the movie, 'Napoleon Dynamite' is a 'love it or hate it' deal. Read morePublished 23 months ago by MJ Freeman
I got halfway through this book before realizing that it had no structure,no sense of time, and no continuity. Read morePublished on August 31, 2011 by Moscain11
Anybody who reads this book and utterly denounces it, as far too many seem to have done on this website, is an idiot, and I hope they choke to death on their own enormous ignorance... Read morePublished on August 9, 2008 by Katherine Ferguson
I am wading through the book and it has finally started to come together about half-way through. The story is disjointed with little character or story development. Read morePublished on December 18, 2007 by Alicia
I just received this book, and could only read the first 10 pages, before I found myself falling asleep. Read morePublished on October 19, 2007 by P. Seidel
Gave this one star only because you din't have "0" listed. Don't bother to read. It is disjointed and difficult to follow. I read the author interview and gained some insight... Read morePublished on June 30, 2007 by Dianne Planeta
I realize my title is rather blasé, but I can't garner much enthusiasm for this novel. While I did really like small sections of the book, characters may be more accurate,... Read morePublished on June 1, 2007 by Skip Emerson
The author was trying to bring the old Jamestown story into a modern context. I found nothing in the story worth the money I paid for it, or the time I spent trying to wade... Read morePublished on May 27, 2007 by Mary Matthias