Matthew Parker has a story and he knows how to tell it. He first tried pot at age 13 when he was living in Bridgeport, CT; soon after, he began to help his mom deal out of their house. He spent the next 27 years in and out of jail, using harder and harder drugs—eventually, he landed on heroin. Parker survived prison by making and consuming art. Once he got clean and was released, he applied to Columbia’s MFA program in nonfiction, from which he graduated in 2012. His first book, the graphic memoir “Larceny in My Blood,” will be released by Gotham Books later this month. In it, Parker makes some insightful and surprising parallels between the American prison system and Columbia’s bureaucracy. To find out more, Bwog’s Resident Reader Diana Clarke gave him a call. Read on to find out what Parker had to say about memory, the ethics of
nonfiction, storytelling, and the limits of the literary.
Bwog: How did you decide to tell your story in graphic form? Did that come about alongside the initial narrative, or afterwards?
Parker: It came afterwards. I was writing a prose memoir while at Columbia, and only got an agent my last semester. I was doing a little cross-genre—a little drawing. I got breakfast with my agent one morning , and showed him my drawings, and by the time I got back uptown, he’d called six times. He told me “Drop everything, this is what we’re doing.” I knew nothing about art, and I had to teach myself as I went along. I don’t know if you noticed, but the drawings get better later in the book.
Bwog: Were you at all influenced by naïve art? I kept connecting your drawings to Paul Klee’s work—the urgency, shaky lines, childlike overwhelming swirls of color, and figures reduced to their simplest forms. Do you think there’s something childlike about the limited scope of an addict, and were you trying to convey that?
Parker: I’ve never heard of him, but a lot of addiction counselors will tell you you stop maturing when you start taking drugs, and I started taking drugs when I was 13, so… I’m a pretty good artist but I’m more of a copier. I didn’t figure out how to do it right until about halfway through, when I started taking pictures of myself in the poses I wanted. I just found out that’s how Alison Bechdel does it!
Bwog: Interspersed with the comics, you include more delicate drawings—often landscapes, or portraits of rock gods. They look so different from the cartoon world you depict, almost ethereal; it’s almost as if you elevate art/artists/naturalism to a holy status. Is art a secular kind of faith? I’m thinking in regards to the “higher power” of the twelve steps. In typical Columbia student fashion, I could be massively over-reading this.
Parker: That’s a lot of over-reading. There are lots of talented people in prison. You have a lot of time on your hands, and you need the money, so you sell your art. Guys would make little houses out of popsicle sticks, all kinds of things. Art was a big release for me. To kill time, I would go through entire albums in my head. So that would kill an hour. Any outlet like that is a big deal. So there’s a healing aspect to it. I took the rockstar images from YouTube—from actual events. I didn’t use a stylus, just scanned hand drawings, and I did all the coloring with photoshop.
NA, AA never worked for me; you’re basically trading one addiction for for another.
Bwog: I really appreciated that you mentioned not just classic addiction, but eating disorders, desperation for intimacy, and a host of other nihilistic drives, all together.
Parker: There’s good addictions and there’s bad addiction. As a kid I always wondered if I’d rather go blind or deaf. I couldn’t live without music… With the heroin it was just a bad thing, I thought I was being very rebellious, very cool. Once I figured that out it was pretty easy to quit. But when you’re in prison, you don’t get to touch anybody. When I got out, I was craving intimacy more than sex. I mean, you want sex too, but intimacy is very difficult to find for a guy like me with a prison record, [and] when I found it I kept onto it. I’m still with the girl in the book, Natalya. I changed her name. We have a lot of intimacy, a lot of love, a lot of trust. We have all three. I needed to find something that was real, and when I did I hung onto it. I think [intimacy] is a good addiction, but in a bad relationship people get strung out on intimacy and stay. The thing is to be able to walk away.
Bwog: You’re clearly really interested in postmodern literary theory, and I was really struck by your portrayal of the Kafkaesque absurdity of the prison system. Do you think there’s much interconnection there? Especially in terms of the Columbia bureaucracy?
Parker: I think there’s a certain absurdity to life. Whenever you get into a system, that absurdity is magnified. Prison bureaucracy is really absurd. You’d get in trouble for putting books on your bookshelf. The Columbia work study process—it’s like you’re interviewing for the State Department. It’s nine bucks an hour, a monkey could do it. That’s the red state-blue state dichotomy. In Arizona they didn’t care if you were a convict, they’d hire you anyway. In blue states, they won’t hire you. At Columbia they’re thinking about lawsuits, if you’re going to stab your roommate…There’s too much political correctness.
Bwog: I did have some trouble during the abrupt narrative transitions between your time in prison and your time at Columbia, how in the middle of the book I’d turn a page and without announcement find myself in prison, or in workshop, or shooting up.
Parker: I don’t know if it worked, but I was trying to capture what it’s like to be in that revolving door. In jail one day, prison the next. You just never know. Every time you’d see a cop you’d panic. One minute you’re here, the next you’re in jail. I was in prison 11 times. I lost count of how many times I went to jail.
Bwog: Do you see the character of yourself in the book as an unreliable narrator, devoted more to junk than to the truth? How can you rely on your own memory now?
Parker: I kept a journal while I was in prison. It was very loud, rude, didactic, but it was helpful. Then I was working on the prose memoir [in the MFA program]. I did a draft of that, and had workshopped the first couple of chapters, so I had a lot to work from—and my memory’s pretty good. Heroin’s fairly clean, people don’t realize that. And in prison you’ve got nothing to do but remember.
Bwog: How do you handle writing about the people in your life, telling a true story without hurting them? Do you worry about that?
Parker: You definitely worry about hurting people. Some people in the MFA program got really upset about some of the things I said, the way I portrayed the third-years—they’re really a bunch of bullies. A lawyer tried to get me to change a bunch of stuff. The thing with nonfiction is you try to capture the spirit of the moment. You’re not gonna remember the dialogue.
Bwog: There’s a dark honesty to your work that was really refreshing, and kept the narrative from being too Lifetime Movie-redemptive. I think lot of young writers, especially, think they need to have some kind of traumatic experience in order to access a certain darknesses in their work. Do you think you’d have moved towards writing without your experiences? How do you balance living clean and creative work? I guess what I mean is where do you get your inspiration from?
Parker: I pull it from a lot of places. I pull it from music, poetry, life experience, literature. It all amounts to my worldview, which is fucked up, but no more fucked up than anybody else’s. You gotta remember I started doing drugs when I was 13 [so I can’t really separate my drug use from my writing]…Young writers gotta start with essays. The bad experiences will come. The trick with fiction is to do your research. It’s a lot easier to make shit up. As for finding something dark…I really can’t relate to your experience. I think it might just take some people longer to find it. Everybody’s got a book in them. Go out on the street, talk to people. Take someone with you, go out and give a prostitute sixty bucks to talk to you, and you’ll get a story. The best place to start is nonfiction, where they tell you the truth. It’s not what I usually read, but lately I’ve been reading slacker fiction: Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen—he’s another MFA grad. I like to go back and reread: Crime and Punishment, Dune—which is very well written, very political. But most inspiration’s going to come from within…And I have a crazy mind…that really helps.
Bwog: How did the MFA program react to your writing a graphic novel, rather than something more traditionally literary?
Parker: In Columbia’s MFA they don’t do graphics. Aside from that, everybody’s been totally supportive. So many people say they’re writers and don’t finish a book, so when you do everybody’s really happy. If you finish a book, chances are you’re gonna sell it.
Bwog: What do you see yourself writing in the future? You mention turning away from some godawful poetry (something I’ve done myself), but do you only work in nonfiction, or in prose more generally? Where does that impulse come from to tell what really happened?
Parker: It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t a good poet. I wrote poetry in prison—whole stacks of it. Then I put poetry aside [after taking a writing class in prison with poet Richard Shelton] and went to fiction. When I was getting my B.A. in English Lit. at Arizona State, I kept a journal while I was teaching kids writing, which I had to show to my professor. He said, “Matthew, you have a story here. You have to do it, then you can write whatever you want.” I’ve been working on this prose memoir for seven years now, and I’m sick of it, which they say is a sign that you’re almost done. When I’m finished, maybe I’ll go back to fiction.
Bwog: And do you feel ready to write fiction?
Parker: Yeah. Don’t feel that you have to read anything to be able to write. You either know how to write or you don’t; you just have to get better.
Look out for Diana’s book review of “Larceny in My Blood,” in the NSOP issue of the Blue & White.
Interview has been condensed and edited.