Matt participated in an e-interview with us in November of 2020. Below are edited excerpts from our conversations about writing, creating art for young audiences, and studying at VCFA.
ON HIS JOURNEY FROM TEACHING TO WRITING AT VCFA
Writing and telling stories was a hobby for a long time. When I was getting my degree in education and in the first years of teaching, I used it as an outlet for stress. It always put me at ease. I was still dabbling in short stories when my first daughter was born and then, a few months later, we moved back to the northeast. We decided I should stay home with her full-time and get my MFA, something that has always been a dream of mine. I owe a lot to my wife and family.
My wife and I joke that all those years of teaching was research for the books I want to write! But seriously, I think my ten years as a teacher allowed me to get to know young people in a different way. I could see how they view the world, how they prioritize the important things in their life, and how they can react to hardship and subsequently persevere. I think these qualities, and so many more, have helped me inform the characters I create on the page. As for being a dad, I think it is crucial to my process. Being with the girls all day really keeps me grounded in the present and reminds me why I do this work. It also helps when one of them says something crazy and my mind can work that into a story. I love it when my two worlds connect like that!
ON WHY HE WRITES FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES
I think the big reason is because I never really grew up. There is something magical about books for kids, and it comes from the authors themselves. I think when people write for children, there is a special amount of care being put into that story—and that caring and love can be felt in the characters, plot, theme, and so many other layers. I wanted to be a part of that community and be a writer that can connect children with stories, giving them a safe haven or fun escape whenever they may need it.
Stories can help shape and define who you are. When I was young, I could find myself in books and connect with characters as they navigated the world. I want to connect children with my characters, allowing them to find themselves and learn something important about that connection.
ON THE BENEFIT OF VCFA
Coming into the program, I knew very little about the craft and skill of writing. That first residency was intense because I realized just how much I had to learn. Tom Birdseye, my first advisor, did an amazing job guiding me through that first semester and celebrating all my successes, while also taking care to teach me along the way. Every semester I have added more and more layers to my craft and process, learning from each advisor something different about writing, revision, the writing life, layering, and so much more. My writing has transformed in ways I didn’t think were possible.
The residencies are such an important part of this whole process. Not only do you get a ton of information on craft and the writing life, but you can find a community that cares about you and your stories. Being thrown together for so many intense days of instruction and discussion leads to new realizations and eye-opening techniques for being successful. Even the informal conversations are loaded with knowledge that I wish I could just bottle up and take home so I don’t forget anything!
ON THE BEST LESSON HE’S LEARNED AT VCFA
Multiple mentors have told me to trust my gut, and I have gone back to that time and again when I am feeling insecure about my art. [VCFA’s] Jenny Ziegler once told me that writing and taking care of children require a similar energy. The energy to create and care for something or someone else. She told me to embrace this time, with the girls at home and the deadlines rolling in, because it is strengthening my ability to work at a high level for a long period of time. I will remind myself of this often, digging deep to do both jobs.
Interested in an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults? Visit our program page for more information on our VCFA graduate degrees.