Matthew Frye Castillo’s writing has appeared Cirque Literary Journal, Opossum Literary Magazine, Newtown Literary, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Understory as well as the anthologies Best Gay Stories 2017 and Worn in New York (which led him to tell his story on Netflix’s adaptation, Worn Stories). He currently teaches writing at Lehman College in New York.
His recently published memoir, One Headlight, begins with a mother and son braving a turbulent drive through an Alaskan snowstorm in a Mustang with one headlight. It’s an apt metaphor for the relationship he had with his late mother, Abby, something he explores while also shedding light to an experience of Alaska beyond its cold, yet picturesque landscapes.
As it turns out, Matt and I have a friend in common, a fellow Alaskan ex-pat, in New York City. This lends credence to what Castillo describes as Anchorage’s small-town feel, something which we discuss in our interview, alongside the state’s literary character, how the memoir came to be, and what new projects Matt is working on.
You have a great line early in the book: “This is a theme with Alaska: what first appears inhospitable can become nourishing; middling expectations will be outshined by the unbelievable reality.” And it had me thinking about the stories that certain areas tell. I’m a Long Islander, where we have The Great Gatsby and stories about suburbia. Can you expand on what you feel the literary character of Alaska is?
That’s a good question. I say it’s a good question, because it seems obvious on the surface, it should be about the wilderness and wildlife and making your own in the great unknown, from everything from Jon Krakauer, most recently, and then all the way back to Jack London and John Muir, the naturalist. Historically, as you know, Long Island is tied to The Great Gatsby. Alaska is tied to those three authors.
They’re all white and male and straight. Which is interesting, because most of the people who live in Alaska are not necessarily white, male, or straight. And I love contributing to this expanding notion of Alaska, especially with an urban environment, where most of the people live—I think Anchorage is home to half of the state’s population, or approximately. So it’s interesting that not much literature about Anchorage itself and more urban environments hasn’t yet been created.
One exception is the anthology by Martha Amore and Lucian Childs, Building Fires In The Snow. That collection is amazing, because you have Black trans writers, you have Alaskan Native writers, you have people like me, there’s a lot of Latino writers in that collection. So I’m glad that as of—at least—2014, the notion of what Alaskan literature is, is continually expanding.
What I liked about reading the book is my notions of Alaska were tied to those wilderness narratives, and it was nice to get a glimpse of one person’s understanding and depiction of the people of Alaska. That leads me into my next question. A mutual friend of ours describes Alaska as a big place that can often feel like a small town. Does that feel like an accurate description?
Yes, I think that is definitely accurate. Every time I go back, my fiancé and the other friends I bring are kind of amazed how everyone seems to know each other. So yeah, that definitely strikes a chord, especially in the queer community. I think we all have at least heard of each other.
But every time I go back, I realize more and more how weird it is. For Anchorage, the nearest city of a similar population is Seattle, and that’s 1100 miles away or so. It’s so isolated, and growing up there, you don’t quite realize how isolated you are. And the nice thing is, I think that encourages a sort of resilience and self-reliance. The downside is it encourages perhaps too much self-reliance. I think I can do everything by myself and the idea of people helping me is just very foreign to me. I can’t generalize to say that’s like an Alaskan thing, but there is a sort of weariness to the degree that you can trust people.
One of the best essays I’ve ever read about contemporary, urban Alaska is called “Out in the Great Alone” by Brian Phillips. It’s part of his collection, Impossible Owls. The first essay in that collection is him traveling to Anchorage to observe the Iditarod. So he participates in the travel for a little bit and observes a lot of Alaskans. He has this one line about when you meet an Alaskan, when you talk to them, they respond with bright, wide eyes. And they’re like, “Who are you?” This great force of consciousness.
There’s a little anxiety with meeting people when you’re from Alaska. Whereas when you come to New York, or even on the East Coast, there’s this sort of social facility that I don’t think a lot of people in Alaska have. It can be very, very awkward. People can be very awkward. It does have that small, tiny feel.
As someone who’s written personal essays about their life, one of which has its way towards Netflix, when did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir and what made you decide specifically on a long-form memoir as opposed to an essay collection or something different?
This memoir, One Headlight, came out of grief. My mom died in 2017 and I needed to grapple with that. Writing is how I grapple with the world and find some stability and meaning. So my response, the day she died, I started writing in a journal. And I’ve been journaling since I was like 10, it’s just a part of who I am. I eventually wrote the whole book in a journal from September 19, 2019, until the day before Christmas.
There’s something about writing by hand that is super important to me, I can almost feel closer to the people when I write by hand and you have to think things through at a slower pace. So you absorb the past a little more powerfully when you write by hand from when you type. I don’t think there was a conscious choice to write this memoir, I would have written it if no one read it. I really wrote it out of necessity to remember my mom and come to grips with our fairly complex relationship.
And initially, I wrote weird short stories, I wrote a play, I wrote some poem where Abby interrupted the 2016 election and became a surprise candidate. So instead of Trump energy, who is very aggressive and mean, you get someone who is incredibly kind and compassionate. It was an awful poem. It took me two years to find some emotional stability to be able to write this book.
I remember coming up to the second-year anniversary of her death, I kept on thinking about how I plan to have kids and would I put my children and some of the situations I was in? Then I thought about the opening chapter which is about a mother and a son driving in one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit Alaska in a shitty old Mustang. I was thinking about that and how I would not put a child in that situation; I would have called a friend, I would have gotten a hotel, I would have parked in a parking garage for the night. There’s so many alternatives to choosing to take your child through a blizzard in that unstable car, but then I just started thinking about all the other times she’s driven and how important driving was. When you’re driving with your loved one, you’re in this enclosed space, it’s quiet. You have a lot of intimate revelations in a car. And that led to the tsunami of images of the two of us driving. And I think in 90 minutes, maybe less, I had an outline of the whole memoir. And it was all based on this one headlight. Because this one headlight became the symbol of our relationship. It’s beautiful. It’s stupid. It’s not practical, but I loved it. And I would do all of it again.
I wrote it because I wanted to and I didn’t think I would find a publisher—a debut memoir from anyone, especially someone like me—I’m no one, they are so impossible to sell. This is actually the second memoir I wrote, because I studied memoir in grad school, and the first memoir was about sex work. I was a sex worker for about a year in 2012. I thought that would surely sell because sex sells. It didn’t sell. And for a while, I was like, “What?” Now I look back and I’m like, “Okay, you were a baby writer, you didn’t know what was happening,” and it was not that good. This is all to say that when you write something without any hope of publication, I feel like the final product will always be better. There are many people who can just use that I’m sure, but that’s kind of my personal belief at the moment.
Speaking of driving, a central metaphor in the book, there’s a forward momentum in One Headlight. But I wouldn’t describe it as a straightforward memoir. Some chapters don’t focus on periods of time, they focus on topics. You call into question your own memories and sometimes you revisit a period of time. Did this structure come out of the journaling that you did? Or out of a poetic sense as opposed to straightforward, A-to-Z storytelling?
I think I pursued the emotional truth more so than the chronological truth. I’m happy that once I got the outline of that one headlight, I knew it would have to, as we say, have that forward momentum. And it is chronological, but within each chapter it goes kind of all over the place. Time, in a memoir, can be almost fictionalized or you can slice it up and reach a better truth.
I think I didn’t think about the structure so much because of that M.F.A. program. I studied a lot of memoirs, especially grief memoirs, memoirs that were, like this one, written in about three or four months in response to the loss of the most important person in your life. I studied The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. I think Richard Blanco, his memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, was really powerful and inspirational to me. It’s about a mother and a grandmother and it’s chronological about his boyhood in Miami, but he allows himself this poetic freedom to kind of meander toward the truth and incorporate these memories that seem to have no relationship or no urgency to the present topic at hand.
There’s this one chapter, as far as following chronology, that surprised me. It was where I talked about the last drive Abby and I took together and at one point, I described how she vomited and was super sick and the fact of her dying was kind of undeniable at that moment. So I talked about her having this awful vomiting scene and then I somehow go into the time when someone else threw up in my car. It was the ex-girlfriend of my first boyfriend. I go from something that’s really dramatic to something kind of lighthearted and ridiculous. I go from my mom throwing up because of stage 4 cancer, to driving my ex’s girlfriend, who just realized that her boyfriend was gay, and driving her home and she starts vomiting in my car. I remember thinking, “Why is that memory there?” It can be seen as disrespectful or irrelevant, irreverent. But to me, it just seems necessary. I don’t know why. I think Abby would have liked the contrast between the drama and the humor; we were always crying one moment, laughing the next.
In the memoir, there are a few moments where you talk about the memoir itself. What made you want to include the creation of the memoir within the book?
That’s something I picked up during an M.F.A. program. I didn’t think about any of this consciously, but I definitely needed the structure of the M.F.A. program to realize what you can do in the genre. But the idea of using memory itself and the willingness of memory as a generative tool is really fascinating. When you ask yourself, “Why can’t I remember something?” there can be a reason for that lack of memory or a dim, shadowy memory. Pursuing why you don’t remember something can be really fascinating and revealing.
I also find it liberating to talk about the meta-narrative or how something is created. I like that honesty. I think I was inspired by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The third page or something is a block text, single space, telling you how much he is making from this book. He says, “You know, I got a $40,000 deal, that might seem like a lot, but you have to think about the promotional expense, the agent cut…” and he constantly interrogates himself as to whether he is being honest. And being honest about the meta-narrative, I think, is part of that quest for veracity. There’s another wonderful thing where he imagines that he is being interviewed by an MTV reporter. And this is the early 90s. MTV is at its height. So there’s this question of fame, and whether he is producing this heartbreaking work of staggering genius in order to get fame or does he want to do something larger than this almost narcissistic tendency to write. So I think that’s partially why I reference the behind the scenes, as a part of a quest for more veracity.
I remembered something else I thought of cutting. It was about writing in Florida. I was just thinking about class, and how I am now, in this social world, where a lot of my friends will go on these fancy vacations that are totally normal to them. But it’s very foreign to me and I feel a little unease at all times when I’m on one of their vacations. But, you know, I’m part of that very privileged world now and I kind of wish I was able to bring Abby and Victoria, my grandmother, into that world. I think that was important to include the up-to-a moment, honest depiction of how I think about these two very important figures in my life.
I got the sense that it was important to include that because you were trying to capture this relationship that you ended up producing this tribute to, and that tribute was an important part of the relationship that you also wanted to capture. For me, it made a kind of emotional sense to include that both as a reader and as somebody who writes nonfiction themselves.
I’m going to ask the annoying writer question now: After this, do you have any other projects that you’re starting, or are you resurrecting the initial memoir? What’s next on the horizon?
I’m always trying to do like 20 projects at once. I’ve tried to order that and one way to order that is ask yourself: if I die in a year, what needs to exist before I die? So that adds to my urgency. But I also don’t want to be totally morbid.
After this memoir, which was so intense—I cried so much, I want to reward myself and just kind of go down another path, a lighter path, perhaps. This was more of a serious drama and now I kind of want a comedy. I’m working on a fun novel and usually I’ve only written literary fiction. It’s fun to go in this other direction. It’s a satire about vampires who kill vampire authors. And it gets a little complicated—they’re also in a book club—it’s so ridiculous, but I’m having a lot of fun. I’m also finding that characters that initially seemed really archetypal, or even stereotypical, in the second or third draft, gain a little more nuance.
I’m doing a screenplay, which is also a little more lighthearted. The screenplay is called Sallie Mae. It’s about a young gay Columbia [University] student who learns that his father is kind of a mafia billionaire, which means his need-based aid at Columbia is revoked. So now he needs to find a way to make a shit-ton of money. He turns to sex work and he turns to drag. And his drag name is named after the student loan company, Sally May.
I’m also doing a biography about Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Johns was gay and he lived with Robert Rauschenberg from 1954 to 1961. Over those six years, they happened to create their most famous work. And they had a really unique creative partnership. They would literally assign each other things to do. Robert would be like, “Hey, Jasper, I think you should paint the U.S. flag or something.” And Jasper Johns would give him an assignment. So the story hasn’t really been told, I think, largely because of homophobia. They hinted at their relationship, but they never really talked about it openly. I think now, in 2021, they can, there’s a lot more acceptance of their relationship. I’ve been working on that, that’s more of an academic thing.
There’s always a lot of stuff to do.