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Mr. Write

by Josephine Cusumano
Matthew Quick—or as he’s famously known, Q—is sitting pretty in North Carolina’s Outer Banks right about now. Not only is he gearing up for the release of his seventh novel, Every Exquisite Thing, he’s letting the ink dry off his first screenplay for Hollywood.

Quick, a South Jersey native hailing from Oaklyn and a former tenured Haddonfield Memorial High School teacher, is still reveling in his Silver Linings Playbook success, whose film adaptation—featuring an all-star cast including Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—was nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture in 2013.

So how does a novelist top that type of success? If you’re anything like Quick, you hit the books, so to speak, and continue writing novels, in turn, creating more Hollywood projects and even penning a screenplay for The Weinstein Company.

Logistically speaking, Quick has over five projects in the works, with Every Exquisite Thing due out in May and its screenplay already adapted by Ted Melfi, who directed St. Vincent. Quick’s other novel, The Good Luck of Right Now, is with DreamWorks, while his YA novel Boy21, is in the works with Tom Heller of Foxcatcher fame and Fox Searchlight is developing Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Currently, Quick’s 2015’s Love May Fail is in the throes of production, with the script written by Mike White and TriStar searching for its star. In fact, Emma Stone—who starred in The Help and last year’s Oscar-winning film, Birdman—is reportedly attached to the adaptation, however, as of press time, nothing had been finalized.

“First off, I’m extremely grateful any time people of that caliber—you’re talking about A-list, one of the top five actresses in demand in Hollywood—takes interest in my characters. You know, the kid from Oaklyn who grew up in South Jersey, his mind is blown,” Quick says of his Hollywood success.

“You try to hold on to that, you try to hold on to the fact that it’s a special thing and it doesn't happen to everybody. I’m always really grateful when people want to work with me. That being said, it’s Hollywood and anything can happen, so you cross your fingers and take a deep breath.”

Unfortunately, Quick keeps his lips sealed on the happenings behind Hollywood’s golden doors and tells us, “We have a lot of things going on and I’m not really sure which one will pop first or which one will start getting made first. So you just root for all of them.” As for writing Love May Fail and his soon-to-be released book about a rebellious teen, Quick doesn’t hold anything back. In fact, he’s on top of his soapbox preaching about his love for literature, education and yes, coming home to South Jersey.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: How did you come up with the idea for Love May Fail?
MATTHEW QUICK: It was a book that I had been thinking about for a long time. It was really hard for me to leave teaching in Haddonfield in 2004. I felt as though I was saying bye to a large part of my identity and then transitioning into the writing life was almost like saying goodbye to my former self. ... I felt I’ve had a decade to kind of look back at my teaching career and it was a way for me to come to terms with processing what my 20s were all about.

SJM: What conclusion about your 20s did you come to?
MQ: I was really hopeful in a naive and untested way and that actually propelled me forward, not only in the classroom but in the world of publishing. I could never go back and be that person again because I’ve learned a lot. I look back at who I was as a teacher and when my former students contact me, they remind me of the things I’ve told them. ... It’s both really humbling and exciting, but it makes me kind of fearful too because I want to say to them, ‘You realize when I said that to you, I was seven years younger than who you are today.’ ... I think that’s the power of teaching and that’s what the book is really about.

SJM: What inspired you to write the book?
MQ: When you’re thrown into a classroom to teach teenagers at the age of 23—when I first started teaching—you feel a lot of pressure to know the answers about life and you feel as though you need to have some type of philosophy to give these kids. Largely you make something up because you’re in your 20s. … It’s not until later that you realize that a lot of these kids took you seriously. ... Love May Fail is largely about a teacher who has left the classroom after a tragic situation and a former student coming back to almost haunt him with her life. She took what he said really seriously in the classroom and she’s kind of rebuilding her entire life around this message that he put out there 20 years ago, [one] that he doesn’t even believe in anymore.

SJM: How have your students inspired you?
MQ: A lot of my students have come back and told me about incredible struggles they’ve had since they left my classroom and a lot of times they’ll think about the novels we read. They’ll go to literature, they’ll journal, or they’ll do things I tried to teach them to do when they were 16 in a literature class. ... As a novelist [and as] someone who cares about literature, reading books is a powerful, revolutionary act and it can literally change the world. It’s really inspiring to hear that these people, who were once 16, are now using literature and the written word to have a really serious, positive impact.

SJM: You’ve once said writing about South Jersey was like coming home. How did this book do that?
MQ: The main, main character of the book is Portia Kane and she grows up across from the Acme in Westmont, a place where my mom took me many times shopping as a kid. And I grew up in Oaklyn, and I could walk from Portia’s house to my house in Oaklyn. ... Jumping into Portia’s mind was [also] very much like going home. [She’s] the type of person with whom I would have grown up with and I could relate to. Even just the silly things, like her being obsessed with ’80s rock metal—that’s what was around in South Jersey when you grew up in the ’80s and you listened to Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake and Motley Crue.

SJM: Did you revisit any places in South Jersey while writing this book?
MQ: I know those areas so well, I can close my eyes and navigate anywhere around those towns. Over the past 10 years, I’ve visited South Jersey a lot, my parents still live in Haddonfield and I have a lot of friends there. I wouldn’t say I specifically came home to do research for Love May Fail, but it’s one of those things where I know all of those places intimately.

SJM: How involved are you in the film adaptation process?
MQ: It’s different for every book. For Love May Fail, Mike White wrote the screenplay and I’m a huge fan of his work and it’s a fantastic screenplay. I feel like he was really respectful of the book and it was fun to read because I’m such a fan of [White]. My thought is that I wrote the novel so that’s a huge involvement, but [White] is taking my characters and adapting them.

SJM: You mentioned you did a “blind script deal” for The Weinstein Company. How different was that compared to writing a novel?
MQ: It was an interesting process because you start to see what you need to do in order to make a film, the things you have to cut and what will work on the screen rather than what will work on the page. ... When writing a novel, you go away, do your thing and emerge miraculously a long time later and say, ‘Here it is!’ With a screenplay, they want to know what you’re doing and they want to be involved.

SJM: Will you ever consider writing your own film adaptations?
MQ: I definitely want to write my own adaptations, but after writing a screenplay for The Weinstein Company, I see what needs to be done. You have to be really dedicated ... to kill whole chunks of your work ... to whittle it down to fit on the screen. That is a bridge that I want to cross, but for right now, I’m focusing on the original screenplay.

SJM: You’re also an acclaimed young adult writer. How do you tap into the teen mind-set?
MQ: People make a big deal about that sometimes, but I was a teenager for several years [laughs]. I remember what it was like, but also I spent almost a decade working with teenagers, counseling them and troubled youth. I also think that with a little empathy, you can just jump into anyone’s skull. When I build a character, whether the character is male or female or teenager or adult, that doesn’t matter so much to me. It’s what are the circumstances that lead to that character being in the position he/she is in? ... If you really look at things objectively, you can usually figure out why anyone is doing what they’re doing and I think that’s your job as a novelist, to really figure out a character and understand their motives, explain their actions with their thoughts and that’s what leads to stories. I don’t really think too much of the age of my character. ... I just think about where that person is in their life and go from there.

SJM: Do you have a preference between writing a YA or an adult fiction novel?
MQ: I really don’t. I like telling a good story [and] I like being invested in a story. If I really care about the character and the subject matter is something that resonates with me strongly, then I’m all in. With Every Exquisite Thing, I hadn’t planned on writing it as a YA book. ... I just started to write and that came out of me and [the main character, Nanette] is this really good kid who starts to rebel and starts to read a lot of literature about rebelling and realizes that her whole life is a lie. I’ve gone through that phase many times, not only as a teenager, but at the end of my teaching career and then at several points in my career as I’ve had more success. ... So even though the story is about a teenager, what Nanette is struggling with is something that we struggle with our entire lives. Even though I’m writing about teenagers, it’s not exclusively teen problems and vice versa.\ When I write about an adult, sometimes teenagers really enjoy those books because they’re going through the same things that adults go through.

SJM: What advice you would give to anyone wanting to break into publishing?
MQ: I’m always hesitant to answer this question. I think if you’re meant to do it—especially fiction writing—it really doesn’t matter what anyone else says, you figure out a way to do it. The odds are just so stacked against you that if you’re not meant to do it, you’re going to quit at some point. I don’t think it’s necessarily the most talented people who make it in fiction writing—I think it’s the people who are most convinced that they want to be fiction writers and they’ll just keep going no matter what and I don’t think you can coach that. Anybody can write pretty sentences, [but] you have to have a philosophy or a worldview or something to say that’s uniquely you or else no one is going to listen. … The people who make it are the people who do something different and the people who exist on the fringe. … Writing fiction means sometimes being different and not saying what everybody is saying and not agreeing with what everybody is saying. … If you want people to pay attention, you’ve got to be uniquely you, you’ve got to be vulnerable and that’s a hard thing to do.

SJM: Your wife, Alicia Bessette, is also a writer. Have you two thought of writing a novel together?
MQ: Yeah, we talk about that. We have different skill sets and they really complement each other. Alicia is good on the sentence level, she is a fantastic editor, she’s very good with very specific things, whereas I’m more of a big picture and idea person. So we’ve talked about it but creating something together is often risky— we wonder if our marriage would survive it [laughs]. I think we’ll probably do it at some point, it’s just a question of when and what. It could be a screenplay because I think that would probably be the easiest thing for us to write together. To be honest with you, Alicia has played a big role in everything that I’ve written. ... She’s active in every part of the writing process so I need to give her a lot of credit for all of the books and the screenplays.

SJM: Where in South Jersey do you like to revisit when you’re back in town?
MQ: Usually when I come home, I go to old places. The Manor Bar in Oaklyn— which I don’t even know if it’s open now. My parents live in Haddonfield so we usually take these [mile-long] walks all over [town] and it brings up a lot of mixed emotions for me to go back to the days of teaching. I much prefer to hang out in Collingswood and Oaklyn where I wasn’t a teacher [laughs] because I can just be me [and] I don’t have to put on that teacher persona. I often go to the diner across from the Cherry Hill Mall, I call it the Silver Bullet, [but] it’s called Silver Diner. I go there with my friend Evan Roskos—he wrote a great book called Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets—and we order breakfast and end up staying for hours just talking about everything in the world. I love doing that, it’s a nice ritual.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February, 2016).
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