Matthew Fowler: The Quest for the Perfect YA Title, and Baklava

Matthew Fowler is a writer born in White Plains, New York. He attended Brandeis University and received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His play “For Sale” was the winner of the 2016 W Keith Hedrick Playwriting Contest, a winner of the 10th Annual New Works Festival with Panndora Productions, and a finalist for The Rita and Burton Goldberg Playwriting Award. His play, “The Lemonade Stand,” was the winner of the 2016 Page to Stage Playwriting Contest at the Cloverdale Playhouse in Montgomery, Alabama. His short plays and short films have also been shown in New York, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia.  

[Turns over recorder] No need to look at this.

Oh gosh, I’m so nervous. Can I say at any point, “This interview is over?” [Laughs]

At [the Department of Dramatic Writing], people pegged you to be a comedy writer. Do you consider yourself to be a comedy writer?

I wasn’t self-aware enough to notice. [Laughs] All my writing usually has jokes, but I feel like they come from an emotional place. One of the reasons I write is to show the different emotions that come from specific situations and characters.

I think comedy is actually harder to write than drama.

Yeah? I mean, it depends. I don’t think any of my pieces are fully comedic. I might throw in a penis joke or poop joke because I want to break up the seriousness of the scene, but what I want to write are things that resonate with a universal group, hopefully.

Was writing what you always wanted to do growing up?

Depends on when you caught me as a kid. In 1st grade, I had a class where we had to keep a journal. We would have to write 25 to 30 minutes in class, and I’d always draw pictures instead of writing. My mom found out and she was super upset with me. She made me keep a journal at home, so I wrote every day.

Recently, I found those journals in the attic of my old home. One entry was like, my mom wants me to write right now and I don’t want to write. As I went on in middle school and high school, I’d write characters based on my friends in math class instead of learning the Pythagorean Theorem. I’d write scripts based on what I imagined they would do in different situations. It wasn’t great for math, but at that point I knew I wanted to write.

So writing was encouraged by your parents.

Definitely.

What do they do?

My mom is a semi-retired English teacher. My dad is a lawyer now, but he started as a writer as well. He wrote a few books. I like them.

What did you study in undergrad?

I was an English major, but they introduced a film major halfway through [my undergrad] and I had courses that coincided with it. I had enough credits to become a double major.

What made you decide to pursue writing professionally rather than something you do purely for enjoyment?

You know that question, where do you see yourself in five years? My answer was always that I wanted to write. I didn’t have a better answer after that.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I like Billy Wilder, John Hughes, and J. D. Salinger. I feel like I have a kinship with the young adult genre, so I enjoy a good John Green book. John Cheever is one of my favorites. Tennessee Williams. Jane Austen. August Wilson. There are too many to name. Right now I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity.”

Do you remember the first script you ever wrote?

I’m sure in elementary school I wrote about a kid who wanted to get a dog, because I really liked dogs. My first pilot was about some 15-year-old kid who worked at a record store with cool guys who loved music. It was basically “High Fidelity” with me added in.

[Laughs] What was your experience like at DDW? What did you learn that was important to you? What did you wish they had addressed more on?

What I learned is that no matter what kind of story you’re telling, as long as you find your own voice, it has weight. As long as you find that it’s important, it will become important. If you don’t like what you’re writing, then no one else is going to like it.

Were you nervous going into the program?

So much nervous.

But you made sure you liked your writing.

I tried. The first time we sat down for playwriting, I’d never written a play at that point.

Same. What did you write about again?

I wrote our 10-minute piece about someone who didn’t want to give a bathroom attendant $1. I remember that maybe the first joke bombed, but someone laughed out loud at the second one. I was like, alright let’s do this. Let’s go!

Of all our writer friends, I never get the sense that you like to criticize or judge other people’s work. That’s on the rare side. How do you do that?

I don’t like to group everybody together. I don’t think all writers are the same. Everyone has their specific philosophy, and I was taught to treat others the way you’d like to be treated. I like constructive criticism so I assume others do to.

What’s your happiest memory as a writer?

One of my happiest memories is actually getting into [Tisch School of the Arts]. I remember getting the E-mail walking into my senior housing at Brandeis University.

Shout out!

Shouts! It came in an E-mail, which I thought was weird, and I started making noises like I was very emotional. All my friends knew what they were going to do after senior year and this was the one thing I wanted to do. I started tearing up and one of my roommates walked out asking, “Is somebody hurt?” Oh no, it’s just Matt crying on the stairs. [Laughs] That’s one. Also, a full-length play of mine just had its first full reading in front friends and family. That was pretty surreal.

What’s your favorite thing about writing? What’s your least favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing is that you can spit out all the emotions you have bottled up inside through the characters. I’m shy around big groups, but I’m never shy with my writing, and I hope that comes through. My least favorite thing is [after] all the work that goes into a piece, I can look at it and think, I don’t know if this is working. You’re constantly wondering if it is good. Sometimes you can feel if something is working, but other times you’re just throwing darts and hoping that it does. It always amazes me when writers I admire are self-critical because I’m like, I read your stuff and it’s good. Why?

What do you do as far as self-care?

There are two areas. There’s writing and then there’s what you do outside of it. As far writing goes, I try to write every day although sometimes I fail. I fail a lot, like all the time. But even if things aren’t working the way I want, you have to try and realize it’s part of the process. Another thing is who you surround yourself with. I’m lucky enough to be in the New York area, near my family. Whenever I feel bad about writing, I can go see Mom and Dad and they will ground me emotionally. They will be like, “There are other things that are more important.” And they’re right.

What might be something you’re upset about that prompts you to go back home?

It’s the question of where am I with my work at this point. Should I be further along in this thing that I want to do? They remind me that everyone’s journey is different and harp on the good things that I’ve done. They’ll take me out to a movie and that calms my nerves. Or maybe I’ll just watch “Cheers.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Wait, were you a television concentrate at DDW?

I applied as one with two pilots, but I switched to screenwriting.

You were one of those who was just good at everything.

I don’t know if that’s true. Everyone in the program was a good writer.

Do you ever feel competitive or compare yourself to other writers?

Occasionally, you’ll see someone receive an award and you’re just like, sigh. It’s not necessarily being competitive with them; it’s being competitive with myself. In those instances, I have to realize that I’ve had successes in my own way.

Are you someone who’s pretty hard on himself?

Sometimes I wish I worked harder if I’ve only written a few hours for the day, and I’m sitting there watching “Stranger Things.” I’d be like, I shouldn’t be watching this great show. I should be trying to write my own. Watching something I’ve already watched is when I’m hardest on myself. I feel like I’m sort of wasting time.

What has life been like since graduation? It’s been a few years.

[Pause] There were some things that were scary, sure. Worrying about rent and stuff like that. But I feel like I’m in my own bubble and I feel that’s helpful, for me at least. There are set things that I’m supposed to do, but I can also go back to being fun and goofy with people. There has to be a balance.

Are you someone who needs lots of time by yourself?

I need time alone to write, but I don’t think I can function without my support system.

Do you work out?

I’m eating baklava right now for dinner. No, I don’t work out. One time I ran and my dad was like, amazing! Then I didn’t do it for another four months.

[Laughs] This is going to be the best part of the interview.

Cut it! This interview is at an end! [Laughs]

I know we’ve talked about whether we’d move to L.A., but you wouldn’t necessarily move just for your career. Why do you think there’s that difference in people?

I think the people we know who are in L.A. are a lot braver than me. My whole family lives on the East Coast, and it just seems like such an eerie thing to go off to a distant place without a sense of what’s next. In some ways, I get my sense of not caring what’s next through my writing. I write from scene to scene, and that’s adventurous enough for me.

Have you ever tried writing prose or a novel?

I occasionally dabble. [Laughs]

I encourage that. I’d read your YA novels.

Thanks! What would it be called?

[Pause] All that’s coming into my brain are puns involving your name. I think titles with the author’s name in it are hilarious.

“The Quest for Robert,” “Robert’s Quest”…I’m only thinking of quest. It just has to be quest no matter what. Johnny Quest? Is that a thing? Great title.

That’s a cartoon. [Laughs] What’s your definition of success?

Good question. [Pause] Obviously success is different for everyone. I want to take care of the practical things, but as far as writing goes…you write a piece and you’re really happy with it. You show it to someone whose opinion you value and they really like it. I think that’s a success. Selling it would be great, but there are different levels of success and you need to have levels, which you can lean on.

To find things you can be proud of on a regular basis.

Exactly.

If you knew another person who was going through a hard time in a way that you could relate to, what would you say or do?

[Pause] It depends on the type of stress they’re having. It’s different for each person so this is a hard question. If they feel you can help them in some way, talk it out with them, but most importantly just listen. Everyone has his or her own set of unique experiences and just understanding that is important.   

Last question. If you were a superhero, what would be your superpower?

Coming up with YA titles. If I had that superpower, they wouldn’t all end in quest. They’d be so good.

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