The Secret is Persistence

Matthew Baker ’08 dreamed of becoming a professional writer since the fourth grade, when he entered a “When I Grow Up” speech competition. “My speech was all about how I wanted to be Brian Jacques, the British guy who wrote the Redwall books,” Baker recalls.

He wrote throughout high school in Grand Rapids but readily admits, “I didn’t actually start learning how to write until Hope.” However, his first foray into the publishing world, also at Hope, wasn’t exactly encouraging.

“The first time I submitted to Opus, the campus literary magazine, all my poems were rejected,” Baker winces. “I was crushed. I was like, ‘Oh, I must not be very good.’”

Oh, but he is. And the literary and entertainment worlds are thankful he persevered.

Baker, featured author last September for the annual Tom Andrews Memorial Reading of the college’s Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series (JRVWS), recently saw four of his short stories optioned as Hollywood screenplays after intense bidding wars. “Transition” ultimately was sold to Amazon, “Life Sentence” went to Netflix, the new independent studio Makeready outbid three others for “The Appearance” and “To Be Read Backward” was purchased by Fox. His latest collection, Hybrid Creatures (LSU Press), was released last year, and If You Find This, his first children’s novel, was nominated for an Edgar Award (as in Edgar Allan Poe) in the Best Juvenile category.

The rangy Baker, cloaked in a secondhand topcoat at the Martha Miller Center for Global Communication prior to a Q&A session with students, seems mildly overwhelmed by it all. “It’s very surreal,” he concedes. “Before this I was very poor for a long time, living in low-income housing and subsisting on bananas, rice and lentils because those were the cheapest foods.

“When I wrote these stories, the best possible outcome for me was maybe a literary magazine would publish one and send me a check for $100. So to see Netflix and Amazon, obviously that dramatically exceeded my wildest expectations.”

Susanna Childress, Hope associate professor of creative writing and JRVWS director, invited Baker to return to campus from his New York City home because she believed students needed to hear his story. “Selfishly, I wanted him to come because I teach a linked short stories class and advanced fiction course, and his new book is right in that vein,” Childress says. “But the other element is, we want not just talented writers, but ones willing to engage students. We knew Matt would be generous with his time and energy.”

A lot of young writers question, ‘When do I become a writer?’ I think if you write things, you already are a writer. Getting a story or a novel rejected isn’t really failure to me because you can always try again, with that story or another one. The only failure is if you give up.

Baker’s Hope connections run deep: his mother, Dr. Susan Dunn, is a former associate professor and chair of the nursing department. His talent is unique, individual and arresting: Hybrid Creatures literally creates a new form of communication, mixing his prose with HTML, music dynamics, math notations and propositional logic.

“I was really jealous of the moves filmmakers can do in their medium, like switching back and forth between color and black and white in Memento,” Baker explains. “I started thinking, ‘What’s the something only writers can do? Is there a way to incorporate artificial languages like HTML or math notations to tell a story?’ That’s how I ended up doing this very strange project.”

Baker’s two-day appearance for the JRVWS, which included classroom discussions and one-on-one sessions with fiction writers, was a momentous, full-circle occasion on multiple levels. It marked the first event in the 25th anniversary of the series established by Ridl, professor emeritus of English, who was a visible presence throughout the affair. Baker was one of the last Hope students taught by Ridl, who retired in 2006. And other featured participants included Ridl’s own daughter, Meridith, who illustrated the poem-tale Lake Michigan Mermaid co-authored by Anne-Marie Oomen and Linda Nemec Foster.

There is warm, mutual admiration between the two men. “I took three poetry workshops and three fiction workshops with Jack, and that was where I really learned the basics,” says Baker. “Before that I was trying to write novels, but they were just really bad stories about pirates. I like to write experimental stories, and the last piece of advice Jack gave me was, ‘If you’re going to do a weird thing, only do one weird thing.’

“That was really useful to me, because I realized I was throwing in a bunch of weird things in my poems and stories because I was excited about them, but I was overwhelming the reader. That’s just one example of something Jack told me that had a dramatic effect on the way I thought about writing.”

At the Andrews reading, named for the late, prolific poet and ’84 Hope alum, Ridl praised, “In Matt’s case, it was mostly just getting out of his way. I’m not sure he ever said a word in class. He would sit there, and I knew he was taking it in. He wasn’t going to feed it back, but I could tell he was probably doing something with it in his head. He got it.”

Baker, who teaches “one class a year” at New York University, earned his master’s degree from Vanderbilt University, where he was founding editor of the Nashville Review, a sort of nationally-focused version of Opus. After Opus rejected his initial submissions, he later volunteered to work on the publication. “It was a revelation,” he remembers. “I mean, this should have been obvious, but sitting in meetings I realized, ‘Wait, these are just random people who have their particular tastes as readers.’ It was entirely subjective.

“I figured out, there isn’t really good or bad. You just have to get your story into the hands of someone who will understand it and be excited about it. A lot of young writers question, ‘When do I become a writer?’ I think if you write things, you already are a writer. Getting a story or a novel rejected isn’t really failure to me because you can always try again, with that story or another one. The only failure is if you give up. The secret is persistence.”

Remarkably, Baker also volunteered with the JRVWS while attending Hope, where one could say he left a colorful impression.

“One year I somehow talked them into giving me enough budget to have 1,000 temporary tattoos made of Jack’s face,” Baker says, laughing. “He was shocked, and for months after you could walk around campus and see somebody with Jack’s face on their neck or forehead. It became like this weird cult. I think they should still have them on the merchandise table. It was the highlight of my Hope career.”