How Denver native Matthew Batt turned a Salt Lake city crackhouse into his home
First-time author and Denver native Matthew Batt tells of his entry into the real world when he and his wife bought a house -- a former crack house -- in Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into Our Home. The tale takes readers on his journey into adulthood, which included stops for dying family membrs, bills, marriage, the oppressive shadow of school and always, the new house.
Batt will be at the Tattered Cover Colfax at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow to sign copies of his book and read from it; Westword caught up with him in advance of that appearance to ask a few questions.
Westword: Why did you decide to write this book?
Matthew Batt: I was a graduate student enrolled at the University of Utah. I was primarily writing fiction. I took a creative nonfiction class with creative and nonfiction writer Robin Hemley, and we had to present a piece to the class. I like to get stuff out of the way, so I offered to go first. I was focused on writing important essays that one thinks one should write, but I was struggling with a topic. All I had around me was stray wood and power tools, and I had to write something. When I actually had to move power tools and wood off my desk to write, I thought, "Oh, why don't I write this?" I always try to imitate other writers, but I have never read anything like this, so I wasn't constrained at all.
How does this book break away from your tendency to act and dress in the way society dictates is proper for your given role?
In terms of literary style, the book allowed me to respond to myself and see how I sound, not unlike an interview question. This book is a pure form of an essay. It is a means to try; not something you write for a college essay, but an endeavor, an attempt. I couldn't put it all down neat and clean because there's something inherently messy about a memoir. It's a work in progress. Writing can be play. It's not something with very precise tools where you can do damage, but it's like a toy store or a sandbox.
Where do you find your inspiration?
From my family. Especially from my really dear friends who are great writers, like the novelists Bruce Machart and Peter Geye. Being a good person and hopefully decent listener comes from my mom and my wife. Jenae is especially my external conscience. If I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing, I run it by her. The other thing is I have a four-, almost five-year-old son. There's nothing to make something fresh and new and weird like having a toddler's eye. It's like having another childhood.
What is your favorite thing to write about?
Weird things. Things that don't seem like they conspicuously deserve to be written about - not like the election or religion or philosophy. The first thing I ever wrote I remember really loving writing the piece, and that was important to me. It was a meditation on waterproof, wing-tip, lug-soled shoes. I like things that don't necessarily deserve to exist. I had them, but I don't really understand why they are necessary. When would I walk out of a boardroom onto a muddy mountain?
What is the most valuable thing you learned while building your house? This might sound obvious, but that a house is made rather than just built somehow by some entity, perhaps at an offsite manufacturing company. I learned through building the house and writing about it that houses are a lot like books: They are built. They don't come from any one source; they come from things that want to stand up and things that want to fall down. You have to work with opposing, often violently, forces.
When the first guy to help us tear out some carpet came, I don't know what I was expecting, but there was floor underneath. It never occurred to me that carpet wasn't so integral to the house. I thought maybe if you tug at that there would be some kind of nothingness beneath it. I can't overstate my ignorance at how a house is made; I really did not know that houses were negotiable things. They were just the way they were. It's always more complicated than assemble by numbers, than snap it together and there you go. Most of the things that seem like they are law in homes are really just hypotheticals. There's no such thing as a straight, flat wall or a square corner. They're really just make believe.
My first encounter with this was when I read William Maxwell's So Long See You Tomorrow. The focal character was wandering around a construction building a home in rural Illinois. He's walking through a partially built wall, and it's a surreal experience for him. It both is and is not a house. The structure is there it's just permeable. That was the beginning of my understanding that houses are not just delivered but rather they are made by a long process of negotiation and, hopefully, cooperation by builder and material. Neither always gets their way. What is the most valuable thing you have learned since?
I think that it's far more important that you worry about who's in a house rather than what it looks like or what you do to it. So many people lose sight of the priority, which is not the thing but the life within it. It's such a frequent predictor of divorce because couples get lost in the end result of having a house that's worth more and looks better and forget about what's inside it and who is there and why they wanted to do it in the first place. You can renovate a house for love or money, but if you try to do both you can get into trouble. I'm not saying it's not possible, but it's good to know are you a real estate developer or are you a family?
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