I am a little less afraid of the world because I know you are never more than a phone call away: A conversation between Jackie and Matt Sumell

Event: Jan 30, 2012

Little brother, big sister, Matt and Jackie Sumell
Little brother, big sister, Matt and Jackie Sumell

I’ve been exchanging emails with Matt and Jackie Sumell for over a month now, hammering out details of the reading Matt will headline this Thursday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the Antenna Gallery Outdoor Auxiliary (2116 St. Claude Ave.). Matt is coming from Los Angeles, and the idea to bring him out began in a conversation with his sister, Jackie, who is an artist living in New Orleans (you might remember her from her work with prisoner Herman Wallace).

Throughout the course of our correspondence I have begun to gain a slice of perspective on what looks, from my vantage, like an incredible sibling relationship. Theirs is clearly a secret and powerful world, with treacherous and wonderful topography only they can completely see and navigate. It was for this reason that I asked Jackie to do the honor of conducting the Room 220 interview with Matt in advance of his event. I expected something special, and I got it.

Along the way I fielded commentary from both of them on how it was going—they emailed back and forth for a few weeks—and when I received the final transcription, it came along with caveats about what to omit, who thought it should be omitted, and why.

I received an email from Matt that began, “NATE! Not to involve you further in the Sumell mess (and there’s always mess) my only issue with the interview is ONE question …”

He was referring to a question Jackie had asked about their mother, who died of cancer. Matt sometimes references her in his work, such as in the 2009 story he published in NOON, titled “Punching Jackie.” The question Jackie asked was a bit morbid, gallows humor, as was Matt’s response.

“It’s a little too ‘insidey’ of a joke, and dark,” Matt wrote to me about the question. “The dark I don’t mind necessarily, but I don’t want people to be confused, or to confuse author and narrator, which happens a lot.”

I cut the question because he was right—it fell flat and would have been confusing. Toward the end of the interview, when Matt begins asking Jackie questions, their mother comes up again, this time in a more articulate way.

Jackie sent me an email after turning in the transcription, too. It said, “Matt and I have some concerns about the edited version and it being permanently up on the internet forever, so could we see it before you publish it? If you say no, the only thing I can threaten you with is that we both have violent tendencies and will be in the same city.”

Maybe I’m a sucker for neurotic people, but my affection for them—and excitement for the event—increased. Below is the interview, lightly edited, and as of posting it, I haven’t sent it to the Sumells. If there’s a confrontation between the three of us Thursday night, maybe this is why. I hope you’ll be there to witness the spectacle.

Nathan C. Martin

Jackie Sumell: So, you are answering my questions with a broken hand because you got in an emotional fistfight with a parked car, correct?

Matt Sumell: Correct. But look: There was a lot of celebratory drinking involved and it was a KIA Soul, and who doesn’t want to punch those?

Jackie: Where do you see yourself along the spectrum of asshole to badboy.

Matt: How do you answer this? Three?

Jackie: What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for someone?

Matt: Yeesh. This is a tough one. I do nice things for people all the time. In fact, just yesterday I hosed a bunch of dog vomit off a baby’s play mat for my friend Tricano while he was at work and he thought that was nice. But “nicest” doesn’t really pop out.

One of the nicest things I did wasn’t for a someone but a something. It was when we found that baby bird in the driveway. If you remember, Dad wanted to run it over with the car and put it out of its misery, but I got it in my head to save it. So what I did was mix a cup of cat food with a quarter cup of applesauce, a Tums Smooth Dissolve tablet ground to powder, a hardboiled egg, and some water until the whole thing was the approximate consistency of cooked oatmeal. I did that because that’s what it said to do online. It also said online to cut the end of a straw to make a small scoop, to feed it every fourteen to twenty minutes from sunrise to sunset, that you should never put liquids directly into its mouth or it could drown, to keep it at approximately 90 degrees, and that despite your best efforts, 90 – 95 percent will die, good luck. With luck like that I didn’t name him at first because I didn’t think I could stand losing another thing with a name. When he lasted a week, I called him Gary. I got crazy over him and built him this house thing with crumpled hand towels in a small Easter basket suspended from the handle of a large Easter basket with string. For décor’s and scent’s sake I paper-clamped on some pinecones and twigs, and then fastened a large oak leaf over the whole thing to shade him from the lamp. I’d also bought a large wooden G from the local arts and crafts store and painted it a blue and glued it to the big basket. I did all that because he was helpless and he needed me, and I have a thing in my heart for helpless things that need me.

Jackie: Did he live?

Matt: For a month or so, yeah. But it turned out that he wasn’t a he. If you remember, you’re the one who found out that Gary wasn’t a male sparrow but a female cardinal. I think.

Jackie: Oh yeah, then Dad “birdysat” for him one night, got wasted and stepped on Gary with his prosthetic leg while he was sleeping in the avery you made him/her on the porch—remember?!

Matt: Probable, but unproven. I, for one, want to give Dad the benefit of the doubt. He was trying.

Matt and Jackie Sumell, before they were famous and neurotic

Jackie: Okay, writer question time. What are your ten favorite books?

Matt: When asked this same question, Mary Gaitskill, whose work I admire a lot, answered: “I don’t think I can give an absolute set of ten favorites, because that varies with time; books come forward and fade back in one’s thinking. Some of the books I am going to put on this current list are there because I read them recently, and because they hit the spot right now. A year from now, it could be a quite different list.”

I think that’s smart and true, and for me that list right now is :

Thom Jones – The Pugilist At Rest
Barry Hannah – Airships
Michael Herr – Dispatches
Leonard Michaels – I Would Have Saved Them If I Could
Mark Richard – The Ice At the Bottom of the World
Frederick Exley – A Fan’s Notes
Geoffrey Wolff –  A Day at the Beach
Aimee Bender – The Girl In The Flammable Skirt
Nicholson Baker – Mezzanine
George Saunders – Civilwarland In Bad Decline
Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son
Michelle Latiolais – Widow

That’s twelve and still not enough. I also love Kurt Vonnetgut, Wells Tower, Leonard Gardner, Edward Hoagland, Patrick DeWitt, J.D. Salinger, Ron Carlson, Charles D’Ambrosio, Junot Diaz, Jim Krusoe, Marisa Matarazzo, Pickney Benedict and holy shit, William Gay, who just died.

Jackie: What percentage of eyebrows are you operating with right now?

Matt: What people need to know here is that I have alopecia areata, this lame autoimmune disease where I occasionally lose a small patch of hair on my head or eyebrows, and then it grows back whenever it feels like it. It’s the stupidest thing. I also have no hair on my legs, except my kneecaps, which is weird but girls are jealous ‘cause I’m so silky smooth. Anyway, I’d estimate I’m operating at 100 percent of my eyebrow capacity, but that’s like 50 percent of your eyebrow capacity, because you’re a hairy girl.

Remember that one time you volunteered to give me a haircut and shaved half my eyebrow off because you were mean and then I had to color it in with a Sharpie every day for months? That sucked.

Jackie: You’re welcome. In the song Yankee Doodle, is he calling the horse or the feather “macaroni”?

Matt: Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony. Ponies are different creatures than horses, Jackie. Although similar, horses are bigger.

Jackie: How would you describe your biggest accomplishment in life?

Matt: Well that’s difficult so here’s a few highlights:

-     Getting into UC Irvine

-     Being published in the Paris Review

-    I once bedded a very attractive lady celebrity, and for the first and maybe only time, Dad was truly proud of me.

Jackie: What adjectives would your references use to describe you?

Matt: How would I know? It depends on the references. But if you’re making me guess: Little. Brownish. Dangerous.

Jackie: Who are your heroes?

Matt: I’m not sure who my heroes are now, but growing up I was a Lenny “Nails” Dykstra fan, while A.J. (our younger brother) was a Mookie Wilson fan. Mookie is now one of the most celebrated Mets of all time, widely known for his overall decency, kindness and positivity. Lenny Dykstra is in prison for grand theft auto and assault with a deadly weapon.

My turn. What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for anyone (and you can’t say dedicating your life’s work to bringing attention to Herman Wallace’s plight)?

Jackie: Giving up my child-bearing years to head a campaign on behalf of social justice & wrongful conviction is pretty fucking nice Matt. But nicest? I don’t know. I teach a lot of yoga, which is nice. I am raising a bunch of kids that I didn’t make—also nice. I took a bunch of kids from New Orleans to Ireland and fit the bill, then to Paris. Sometimes I pay people’s tolls unsuspectingly, I give away almost everything I own, bring food to two elderly people at least once a week, still visit the prison twice a month, I help families visit their loved ones who are incarcerated. But maybe the nicest thing I have ever done is play infinite amounts of Words With Friends with Dad—although I actually think asking about the mean things you and I didn’t do would probably source better answers.

Matt: Does he ever beat you at Words With Friends?

Jackie: Yes, often.

Matt: That’s ‘cause he cheats. So this new work of yours—that’s going to be on display at The Salon, 4432 Magazine Street, Opening Reception May 5, from 6 – 9 p.m.—is it scary to completely start over, to work in another medium altogether?

Jackie: Thanks for the plug, bro: Nope not scary at all. It’s totally refreshing, actually. I am an artist—I am not just an artist who makes monumental 10-year projects with wrongfully convicted Black Panthers. I love that this show is simple, and all the work is made through an engine of adjectives related to laughter, pleasure, silliness, joy, happiness, and surprise. I am pumped about it.

Matt: Who are your top five influences as an artist?

Jackie: Miss Piggy, The Anti-Coloring Book, Blondie, The Sprinkle Brigade, and Gabriel Orozco/Katya Bonnenfant (tie).

Matt: What was the last thing mom said to you? You never told me that.

Jackie: She said she was worried the most about me being able to recover from her death because apparently she saw me do a bad job of that when Grandpa Scobby died—and then when Aaron died—and that there was money hidden in the piano.

Matt: There was money in the piano?

Jackie: Yup 2k wrapped in tinfoil—we divided it up, even shared some with Dad (WTF?!). Some of it went to buying your dog Bacon with it.

Matt: Are you proud of me? Because I’m proud of you.

Jackie: You are a giant piece of my heart, Matt—the piece that includes pride and love and the ineffable. Not just because you are a great writer or a handsome younger brother who looks older, but because you are the most fearlessly loyal person I know—and you just happen to be my brother as some consequence for being short and dangerous, I guess. I am a little less afraid of the world because I know you are never more than a phone call away—is that pride?