An Interview with Matthew F. Amati

Haven’t read the story yet? Read “The Cratch, Thy Keeper” now.

SM: Tell us how you came up with “The Cratch, Thy Keeper”.

MA: Eh, there wasn’t any real plan behind it. That’s the great thing about flash fiction. You just start typing, and 700 words later there’s a draft.  “Cratch” started out as a piece called “The Snord.” I was at work. The boss told me to write about software. I wrote about the Snord instead.

So “Snord” came out in a moment of skiving off, and I thought “OK, that’s good,” and I sent it to FFO. Later Suzanne Vincent emailed me and said, it’s not bad, but we think the word “Snord” is too silly for a story that ends with an ax murder.  Of course, she was right. She suggested I try to find the perfect word to replace Snord. So I thought up just a few alternates, maybe 30 or so. Tried “Haw,” “Bogg,” “Flim” “Lard” “Hab” “Slake” and “David Axelrod,” but eventually ran across “Cratch” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It’s an old Devonshire word for a fodder-rack. And it sounds eeeeeevil. So “Cratch” won.

SM: It is my understanding that this is your first professional fiction publication. Congratulations! Are you excited?

MA: Yes! Thanks! In the past, I’ve published scholarly articles on ancient mathematics and comedy. My proudest achievement in that area is that an article of mine is cited as footnote #12 in the Wikipedia article on “squaring the circle.” But writing fiction is the only thing worth doing in this crazy hexagonal world, with its pizzas and its seismologists. It’s been a lifelong dream. So I’m pleased as anything to be appearing in Flash Fiction Online, and very grateful to the editors for giving my stuff a chance.

SM: When I first read the story, I was struck by the unique voice which contributed to the mood of the piece overall. Conventional writing wisdom states that one should avoid transcribed accents or regional vernacular. What made you choose the voice we see in Cratch?

MA: I got kicked out of Creative Writing class senior year for writing “offensive” material. So I never learned the conventional wisdom. That’s both good — ain’t tied down by no rules, man! — but also bad, because I end up reinventing the wheel a lot. I could have used some good writing classes. The no-dialect rule sounds like a good rule; Bad dialect is literary plutonium. It seems to have worked this time, but I’d better not try it again for a while.

The voice: I’m not sure what accent that’s supposed to be. I had some vague idea I’d leave off S’s and use a lot of monosyllables. That’s as much thought as I gave it, honest.

SM: How did you keep the spelling and grammatical quirks consistent throughout the piece? Do you mind telling us how many drafts the story went through?

MA: Are the spelling and grammar consistent? Don’t look too hard! Ha ha! I think it went through a dozen drafts, nine or ten in “Snord” form, and a few revisions after I “Cratched” it. 

SM: The story reads like a cautionary tale of the oral tradition. Are you a fan of urban legends and if so, which is your favorite one?

MA: I used to teach a class on ancient religion, and that was in the back of my mind when I wrote “Cratch.” The Roman religion was intensely agricultural, and they had all these crazy gods — in addition to Jupiter, Juno, etc. they also had a god of manure, a god of wheat-fungus, and a god of the bottom half of a door. To make angry gods go away, you had to perform very specific apotropaic rituals — apotropaic means “turning away evil.” Romans would do things like to make the “evil eye” sign, keep wormwood in their rectums, or throw salt over their shoulders, which is something my grandmother used to do (the salt, not the wormwood. Though come to think of it, I never asked her where she kept her wormwood). Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, that’s apotropaic because you’re chasing off the demons that cause sneezing.

“Cratch” is a sort of modern-day version of a spirit that you have to keep at bay through ritual. Bury mouse teeth, throw salt, suck a corncob, or the Cratch’ll get you. He’s rural, he’s tied to the land, he’s ancient, mysterious, and meeean.

SM: Flash Fiction Online is open to all genres, but I have the feeling that well-executed horror stories are hard to come by in slush. What makes for good horror in your opinion?

MA: Make it scary! I think the horror genre gets stuck in ruts. Vampires, zombies, ho-hum. You’ve seen ’em a million times, how scary can they be anymore? I think psychological horror is the creepiest. Nothing’s scarier than the human mind. 

SM: Please recommend us some horror novels or stories that you think need more exposure!

MA: Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” “The Circus of Dr. Lao” by Charles Finney. Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery” also wrote a short book called “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” and THAT is the creepiest little book I’ve ever read. Just tremendous. I’ll also make a plug for some children’s horror: “The 13 Clocks” by James Thurber. Favorite book of all time. 

SM: Now here is a curve-ball for you. I have it on good authority that you used to work on The Jerry Springer Show. Regale us with your experiences.

MA: I worked there in spring of ’99, at NBC Tower in Chicago. Down the hall from Oprah, next door to Jenny Jones. Jerry pretended to be a jovial Midwestern Chautauqua, but not many people know he started his career in Bucharest, Romania, as a glue-lifter and part-time rural dentist. We used to organize expeditions to remote hinterlands to hunt for Springer guests. Our dugout canoes penetrated deep into swamps, redolent with magnolias and cheap tobacco. When we spotted a native, clad in too-tight orange sweats, hunting bottles of Thunderbird with bow and arrow, we’d cast the net, and drag him cussing and writhing back to Chicago. One angry captive confronted us. “I am the Poet Laureate!” he seethed. Jerry merely said, “And here’s your long-lost sister, to tell you she’s been having an affair with your wife!” Cue the flying mashed potatoes. I quit, to take a job training circus bears. Jerry spoke passable Shanghainese, had an insatiable fondness for Calvados and Bombay Twist. He could balance Maury Povich on the end of a javelin while he sang “Pale Hands I Loved By The Shalimar” zipping along on his velocipede. He was the little-known Sixth Beatle. I remember Jerry’s hangdog face across the table from me in Monte Carlo, after I’d trounced him at Chemin-de-fer. Destitute, he offered me the codes to the ancient nuclear stockpile under the Great Pyramid, but I held out for his prized possession: a gold phial containing Stan Laurel’s desiccated nose. Another thing about that job: I had my own desk.

That’s all I remember. Some details might have been changed to harm the innocent.

SM: Thank you for your time, Matt! Where can we find you in the world of social media watering holes?

MA: I have a Facebook page. You can look up Matt Amati. Thanks for interviewing!