Matthew Quick delights and devastates in latest novel, Love May Fail

Author photo by Alicia Bessette

Matthew Quick’s debut novel, Silver Linings Playbook — now with its own Oscar-winning film adaptation — is a classic example of what reader’s can expect from a typical Quick narrative. The author’s books are quirky, fun, heartbreaking, and optimistic — usually all at once. Graeme Simsion, author of New York Times bestseller The Rosie Project, agrees that Quick’s writing “is shot through with wit and humanity and an ultimately optimistic view of people, without ever becoming sentimental.” Quick’s soon-to-be-released novel Love May Fail is poised to be the next on Quick’s list of bestsellers.

Quick reads and signs Love May Fail at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Monday, June 29, at 7 p.m.

Mountain Xpress: Love May Fail centers around recently divorced Portia Kane and her quest to save her old high school English teacher, Mr. Vernon, who is now retired and broken after a traumatic classroom experience. Where did you get the inspiration for the character of Mr. Vernon?

Matthew Quick: My junior year English teacher, Ms. Griffith, encouraged me to write at a time when no one else even knew I wanted to write. In college, my theater professor, Helena White, read several of my first attempts at playwriting during her summer months off. Without compensation, she sent me pages and pages of feedback; each envelope was a treasure. I’ve had many wonderful teachers, but Mr. Vernon mostly comes from my own experiences standing in front of students and working in the trenches of high school education.

How have your own experiences informed this character?

At a ridiculously young age I was hired to teach high school English. They put me in front of a classroom and told me to help kids form personal life philosophies via the study of literature. The problem was this: I had no idea what my own personal life philosophy was. I was green. Untested. In my naivety, and with no real life experience to back my claims, I channeled my inner Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society and encouraged my students to think big and dream bigger. I left teaching completely burned out and dangerously depressed. Part of that was neglecting my own longing to write fiction. Part of it was facing the politics and daunting odds of the public education machine. Mr. Vernon is the result.

What is it about the teacher/student relationship that you find fascinating?

It gets frozen in time. I eternally think of my former students as teenagers, even though some of them are in their thirties now. They have careers, houses and children of their own. And they think of me as a teacher even though I haven’t written a lesson plan or graded a test in more than a decade. I’ve given talks at the high school I attended as a teenager and I still can’t call my former teachers by their first names. I don’t think I ever will be able to do that.

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Mr. Vernon once told Portia to “Make daring choices, work hard, enjoy the ride and … become exactly whomever you choose to be.” Do you think this is realistic advice? Do you believe that it is possible for people to rise above their circumstances and choose who it is they want to be, and then become that?

There is a big difference between encouraging people to become something more than they are and shaming people for remaining where they began. I never want to do the latter. I grew up in a mostly blue-collar neighborhood. The thought that any of my classmates — let alone me — could become a full-time fiction writer was outrageous. But there was a secret part of me that suspected I could indeed be a storyteller and maybe even make my living that way. It wasn’t that I felt superior to the people in my neighborhood — far from it. If anything, I felt inferior. But there was this voice in my head that said write and I had to obey. My family and friends didn’t get that. They didn’t encourage me at first. But I chose to give writing a go anyway. “You can be a fiction writer” was a story I told myself, not one I inherited. I fully acknowledge that plenty of people write stories and don’t end up with Oscar-winning film adaptations. And there are also fiction writers who sell more books in a month than I will in a lifetime. But the point Mr. Vernon is trying to make is this: we tell ourselves stories about our own potential and those stories have a funny way of cementing our limitations.

All of your past writing — including the Silver Linings Playbook — can be described as quirky, fun, heartbreaking and optimistic all at once. How does Love May Fail fit into that dynamic? 

Love May Fail is very much a Matthew Quick novel. But I never sit down at my laptop and think, OK, now you have to be quirky, fun, heartbreaking and optimistic all at once. On a good day I shut off my brain and allow the subconscious to take over. I’ve written a lot of darker more literary stuff over the years — none of it publishable. I had a light-bulb moment while doing the MFA where I realized I was trying to be what I thought a writer was supposed to be. So when I began writing Silver Linings, my mantra was this: Be you on the page, for good, bad or indifferent. Whenever someone accepts what comes out — and especially when anyone enjoys my words — I feel a little less alone in the world. When you manage to keep the ego in check and the world at bay, the writing is infinitely easier. But then you read your reviews and you have to start all over again. Ha!

In Love May Fail, and in general, how do you maintain a balance between the devastating events your characters go through and the beautiful optimism they are able to hang on to?

My characters take turns rescuing each other. I once read — and I believe it may have been in an Anne Lamott essay — that everyone in a family gets to be crazy, just not at the same time. My wife and I take turns playing therapist, talking each other off the metaphorical ledge. We both are prone to bouts of depression. We both are full-time writers. Alicia is also a musician. We know the great ups and downs intimately. It’s been my experience that those who believe wildly are also those who get hurt most often. Many of my writing friends try to remain “cautiously optimistic” about the potential for commercial success. That’s a great long-term strategy for navigating the publishing world, but when it comes time to actually write a novel, you had better believe in more than that. My characters allow themselves to hope. As a result, there are great joys and dire consequences. Risk and reward.

What can you tell us about the title, Love May Fail, and what it means to you?

It’s taken from a quote Kurt Vonnegut includes at the beginning of Jailbird. A Vonnegut fan sums up all of Vonnegut’s work in a single sentence: “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.” Vonnegut has influenced me greatly, not just as a writer but as a human being. Small, simple things save us in the end. Vonnegut believed it and I do, too.

Why do you think that it’s important to represent mental illness in your work and what sort of message do you hope to send to people who have mental illness and the people who care for those who do have it? 

I consider myself a proud member of the mental health community. I’ve run behavior therapy programs for people who have suffered severe brain trauma, taught non-verbal teens diagnosed with autism, counseled troubled teens and have struggled with depression and anxiety for 40-plus years now. I think it’s essential to talk openly and honestly about mental health issues. We don’t do that nearly enough. I’m always grateful when my work helps a troubled reader through a dark period or ignites a community discussion. And yet, when I sit down, I don’t think, OK, now it is time to write about mental health. Now I must raise awareness. I write about people and I try to tell each protagonist’s story honestly. I intentionally resist labeling my characters because I don’t want readers to interact just with depression or brain injury or the aftermath of sexual abuse, but with a fully fleshed out human being who is so much more than his or her diagnosis. I am not a depressed, anxious person. I’m a person who sometimes has to deal with depression and anxiety. My mother often says she never thinks of me as depressed or anxious. I love her for seeing the whole me. I want my readers to see all of my characters, too.

If you could only give us one reason to go buy Love May Fail, what would it be?

If you have ever felt deeply nostalgic for the past, if you’ve ever wished you could have a do over, or if there is something deep within you that suspects that maybe — just maybe — you were meant to have taken a wild chance along the way but never got around to it, Love May Fail is definitely the book for you.

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About Melissa Sibley
Melissa Sibley is from a tiny town near the coast of North Carolina called New Bern, and will be a senior next year at UNC Asheville. She is a Literature major with an emphasis on Creative Writing, and a Psychology minor. She plans to stay in Asheville after graduation and continue to work on her personal and public writing through internships/employment with local publications. Follow me @MissMelissaSib

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