My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Matthew J. Hefti, author of A Hard And Heavy Thing, a novel of love and redemption (and one which I particularly happen to love, calling it “brilliantly-observed and exquisitely-paced”). Audible recently purchased the rights to A Hard and Heavy Thing and it will soon be recording an audiobook. As a member of the armed forces, Matthew spent 12 years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq as an EOD team member and the remaining three tours as an EOD team leader. While enlisted, he earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. Matthew currently attends the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he is a member of both the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Criminal Appeals Project. He writes and edits regularly with fellow veteran authors Mike Carson, David James, and Adrian Bonenberger at www.Wrath-BearingTree.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheRealHefti.
My First Hard and Heavy Review
On some level, we novelists are all trying to write scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we want to redeem—and as readers, we want to be redeemed. This created world we each envision in our own imagination burns inside of us, and we want to get it out, to give it to others, to make it perfect. We write and rewrite and rewrite and edit and tinker and pick and fret because we want it to be right. We want it to be good. We want to harness the power of the gospel. We want our words to be downright holy.
For me, no memories exist before my dreams of becoming a writer. To see from the eyes of another, to live in the world of another, to feel from the heart of another, to gain insight, understanding, and redemption—this is why a novelist lives, and this is why a reader reads. Fiction can serve as a bridge: often the only way that an insulated white boy out in the country can glimpse what it is to be a poor black boy in Chicago; for a poor black boy in Chicago to experience the life of a partner at a major law firm; for an oppressed woman under an oppressive regime to imagine the privilege provided by an Ivy League education; for a battered young girl in Afghanistan to see a world of hope outside her mud walls.
I gave the first story I ever wrote to my dad as a gift for Father’s Day. Written in careful block letters, it told the story of a young boy who ruins his dad’s chair, and as punishment, he must stay home from vacation while the rest of the family goes to the Wild West for vacation. While on vacation, the rest of the family rides off a cliff in a stagecoach. I suppose even as a child I was drawn to melodrama, even if the melodrama was drawn with crayon.
But now I am 33 years old. I can no longer make light of tragedy like a child with a crayon. I married young and have painfully loved one woman for 13 years as the work I proudly did in uniform took me from her for years of our young life together. I have held her when we’ve lost the life that grew inside her. I have fought for her just as I fought enemies on foreign soil. We battled to grow up together when the world makes it so easy to grow apart.
I have been to combat four times. I have scraped up the remains of my comrades from sticky roads in distant lands. I have lost some of my closest friends in a sickening instant of fire and blast. I have had other fine young men die in front of me or with my hands in their gaping chest wounds. I have watched those closest to me endure the greatest tests I can imagine. I have endured my own trials, as we all have in one way or another.
Yet, I have also soared on wings as eagles. I married young and have ferociously loved one woman for 13 years, knowing that no person on this earth has ever known me like she does, and it is a beautiful thing to be known. I have watched her swell as the life we made together grew inside her, and I have watched the births of our three daughters. I have watched these girls grow and I don’t know that my heart could be fuller than it is when I watch them all tumble around on the floor of our modest townhome. My overwhelmed heart could burst like so many bombs on the side of the road.
But joys or pain, boy or man—I still have dreams. I dream to be a novelist. I dream to take what’s inside of me and transcribe it in a way that makes it valuable, that makes it reach inside of others. I dream to take all those joys, all those pains, all those sorrows, and all those questions and make something meaningful from them.
I got a text from my editor telling me the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would be doing a full review of the book. I could not have been more thrilled. After all, my book was set in Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is the largest newspaper in the state. Surely this was a good thing.
In the same way our dreams often do, life can quickly turn to nightmares. The next text I got from my editor was a link to the review. After twelve years taking apart roadside bombs and fighting terrorists, I no longer have much of a flight response, but the familiar rush of adrenaline from the fight response coursed through me as I first read the review. A powerful and wealthy man thought it a worthy use of his time to write a review of a novel he didn’t even like. That review panned the book it took me six years to write.
As I tirelessly work and forgo sleep to keep food on the table for my kids while I struggle through school to make a new life for our family after four combat tours and a decade in service, this critic thought it was important to warn anyone reading the newspaper against buying the book I wrote, a book published by a small press that began right here in our state.
Unfortunately, if books are simply ignored by critics, the books and authors often go away. The harsh reality known by people who actually write literature rather than tear it down is that people don’t need to be warned against buying novels. This is especially true of serious literature published by small presses such as the one that published A Hard and Heavy Thing. Publishers are already risk averse and every unknown artist that fails to turn a profit for the publisher that did take a risk will need a miracle to sell the next title. So a negative review in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a dense work of metafiction set in Wisconsin printed by a small press from Wisconsin does nothing but compound an already serious problem in literature.
To make matters even worse, of all the reviews available—every other review being positively glowing—every major newspaper in the country that printed a review picked up the review from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the one written by the powerful and wealthy man with nothing better to do than actively try to sabotage the career of a struggling debut novelist. Why the critic did not just ignore the book after learning it wasn’t for him, I cannot say.
However, in revisiting some of his comments now that my initial impression has passed, I cannot help but laugh out loud as I read what he wrote. That he believes A Hard and Heavy Thing “unwittingly” describes the experience of reading A Hard and Heavy Thing simply belies any claim that the critic could have carefully considered the book, which was quite wittingly written and marketed as a work of self-referential metafiction. That nearly every chapter title and ironic literary discussion in A Hard and Heavy Thing flew over the critic’s head or under his radar simply evinces the point made by one of the characters in the book. Near the end of A Hard and Heavy Thing, when Nick tries to urge Levi to write the book Levi had always wanted to write, he sounds downright prophetic in saying, “Forget about the critics. They want books written by a god they don’t believe in.”
That isn’t to say my novel is the paragon of originality. Perhaps the critic is right that my book is more of the same. Sure, perhaps I should have broken more rules. And how ignorant am I that I didn’t even know there were rules to break when creating art? Earnest and overworked. That one I can probably agree with. Overwrought. Probably. There certainly was a lot of beating this thing into shape, and I was unsure of the line between wrought and overwrought. These artistic choices can be complicated, especially when the author is unaware there are rules to writing stories.
Here is the link to the review: Debut Novel Questions Whether Soldiers Ever Truly Come Home. I am not ashamed to share the link, because I am not ashamed of the book. A Hard and Heavy Thing is a book I would want to read. All art doesn’t resonate in the same way with all people, so I bear no ill will to the reviewer simply for not caring for the book. Literature is subjective; reasonable people disagree. And I am not ashamed to share the link, because it is of such great value. It is such a great reminder to me of what I am and what I am not.
What I am is a father, a husband, a brother, and a son. I’m an advocate and a friend—someone who holds the hand of the wrongfully convicted and spends sleepless nights working for no pay on their behalf. I’m a guy who plunks away on a typewriter in my basement, surrounded by books and boxes that—except for the books—remain unpacked from the last three times my family picked up and moved. I’m a guy who loves the breaks I get when I’m frequently visited by little girls who come in from playing with their friends to see what daddy’s working on. I’m a guy who has difficulty staying organized and even more difficulty being on time. I’m a guy who still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but I am a guy who wakes up every morning wanting to make a difference.
What I am not is special or righteous. I’m no sage, no great prophet. My words are not holy. My book is not scripture. In reality, I’m just a guy whose dreams outsize his pragmatism. I’m a guy with more faults than I can count. I’m a guy who—just like everyone else—can’t make it on my own. And being reminded of that by the critics of the world—well that’s an incredible gift. I can’t be more blessed than to be reminded of how fallible I am. It is good that the harsh voices in the world are willing to whisper in my ear during my time of triumph, “Remember you are just a man. You are just a man. And you are mortal.”
It is a gift because it is only in abjection that we can possibly find redemption. Because it is then—when I remember that from dust I came and to dust I will return—that I remember that I am broken. I am imperfect. And when I remember my own decrepitude, I remember that I don’t write scripture. I remember that the words I write are not holy, and they never will be. But I also remember that some words are holy, and that I am indeed redeemed.
The harsh criticism of my first negative review (an inevitability for any published novelist) reminds me that the “impossibly good” Nick in my book aspires to be like one who was impossibly good in the way that that only God himself could have been. That is, God made man, who walked around in dusty sandals and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” God made man, who did what I can only feebly attempt to do with my pens and notebooks and novels; he actually put himself in our shoes and lived the life of another, doing it for me and all who are far off. And in that, all my rags turn to riches, my overwrought prose turns to poetry, and my hard and heavy things concern me no more.