Matthew Batt

Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into our Home Sweet Home.

Author and assistant professor of English Matt Batt offers an excerpt from his debut book, Sugarhouse, and answers a few questions about his writing.

You’ve seen us. Them. You’ve said to your sugar, What the hell do they think they’re doing? You’re on your stoop, your porch, your lanai, your whatever – and as we pass by you scrunch forward, down to car-window height. I’m gonna say something, you say, handing your honey the hose. Can’t have people just driving around like that, all slow and everything, rubbernecking. Can I help you? you say. You shake your head as we speed away. Freaks.

But you’re just going to have to deal with it. We’re not burglars or pedophiles, missionaries or Hari Krishnas. We’re looking for a place to live. We need a home and we need one now.

It’s the middle of July already and it’s a desert wasteland here in Salt Lake City. For eight days running it’s been over a hundred and the blacktop roads have begun to liquefy – not to mention this three-year drought that a thousand inches of rain won’t fix. The air is so hot and brittle it feels as though my skin might shatter, and beyond that the lease on our apartment is up in six weeks and we just can’t rent again. Jenae and I have been together for six years and have lived in nearly as many apartments. And it’s not that Utah is exactly what we imagine when we say we want a place to call home, but it’ll have to do for now. Still, we have no mover, no moving date, no home loan for that matter, and no home upon which we can make an offer.

It is not, however, for a lack of looking. Since May, Jenae and I have picked up every home buyer’s guide in the grocery store, studied each realty website till our eyes bled, and cased favorable neighborhoods so methodically we could put them back together from memory were they ever to fall apart. Then again, we’ve been driving around in Jenae’s VW Beetle, a yellow poppy waving like a drag queen from the dashboard vase; we are a threat only to good sense, fundamentalists, and long-legged passengers.

Having rented apartments for so long, we usually lived near other renters. We met in Boston where everybody we knew – rich or poor, young or old – lived in apartments, even if they owned them. In the West – and especially Utah – practically everyone we know owns her own house. Fellow waiters, writers, graduate students … everybody. Having just moved there, it made us feel like pariahs. It wasn’t just how we paid for the roof above us, it’s who we were and what we did to our communities: We were renters. An easy mark for the missionaries, for that matter.

When looking for an apartment, we had sought convenience, proximity to bars and grocery stores, off-street parking, soundproofing against the klezmer music that was always wafting around our invariably bohemian neighborhoods, a backyard for the beer-can bowling, a porch for the rocking chairs and a nice corner for the spittoon. We didn’t have to worry about the neighborhood, the neighbors, not even the place itself. It would have been like worrying about the feng shui of a bus station bathroom stall.

It’s utilitarian and temporary. Go ahead, dance with that glass of red wine, smoke those cigars, fry up some catfish, juggle those skunks. You don’t live here. You just rent. To buy a house – or at least to look in earnest for one – is to admit to yourself that you think you’re ready. At the very least, that you should be ready. Time to suck it up and recognize that there’s relatively little pride to be had in the fact that your downstairs neighbors are actually as careful as they promise about cleaning their guns or that you managed to keep a ficus alive from Halloween until Thanksgiving whereupon it shrugged all its leaves ceremonially to the floor. You’re married, you’re getting older, and your parents are looking more and more like the grandparents they are pestering you to make them. It’s getting embarrassing.

Your pathetic renter’s mailbox – the one with three former tenants’ names crossed out – is stuffed with your friends’ baby shower invitations. Just a few months ago, right after my grandmother died, five different people mentioned the word ultrasound to me on the same day. It was both onomatopoetic and devastating.

There’s something dreadful, however, about buying a house. You have to be willing to say to yourself, there go my freewheeling days of touring the Arctic on a kitepowered bobsled. So much for starting up that punk rock band that was finally going to answer The Clash’s call. If I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, it’s going to be with a Baby Bjorn or not at all. K2 and Katmandu will have to take a bid on somebody else’s death wish. I’m getting old. Forty might be the new thirty, but nobody who’s twenty thinks so. It was time to grow up and settle down.

And, adulthood had just coldcocked us. First my adoptive dad died. And then Gram. Then Jenae’s grandfather. They all were devastating in their own ways, but Gram – her death was utterly unacceptable. All bets were off after that. Our best couplefriends were getting divorced. Doctors detected a strange mass in my mother’s abdomen, and, not to be upstaged, my grandfather started having trouble with – among a raft of other things – his colon. It all seemed to be happening at the same time, on the same day – every hour on the hour.

Between all the birth announcements and death certificates, we couldn’t tell up from down. Even the simplest facts and dates became obscured, irrelevant. All we knew was everyone but us was either dying, getting divorced, or having a kid and we were stuck with our hands in our pockets, waiting for the band to start. Life and death were coming for us, and we could either dig in, settle down and try to defend the home front, or just shake hands and walk quietly away from the line and go our separate ways.

Matthew Batt has been a member of the English Department since 2007. Sugarhouse, his debut novel, was published on June 19. Find out more about Batt at


Q & A with Matt Batt

What are your writing habits?
When I’m actively working on a project, I can pretty much do it anywhere, any time. No incense, stinky candles or fancy berets necessary. I try to abide by the 500-word-a-day rule. That’s like a long email or the equivalent of a couple of Facebook posts. Low stakes, in other words. But it’s long enough that, if you do it every day or so, you can write a book a year. Of course, the editing and revision process isn’t included there, but still. I like how it takes the mysticism out of the process and really just makes it what it is: the daily striving toward a long-term goal.

Has parenthood changed how you write?
I still have lots of other nonparenthood projects I’m developing, but there’s something so profound about parenthood that, for a nonfiction writer like me, I feel supremely compelled to write about. At the same time, knowing that my son isn’t just a hobby or a source of fascination but rather a person who deserves to have his identity unencumbered by my writing … it gives me pause.

Has writing gotten easier for you?
I feel like it’s gotten more goal-oriented and less imitative. I started out writing a lot of watered-down fiction where I was trying to sound like Ray Carver or Hemingway or Andre Dubus. Over the years I feel like now I know what my point of view is and what I sound like on the page, and it’s been extremely liberating if not actually easier.

Do you write anything other than nonfiction?
I started off as a fiction writer and remain an ardent fan of the short story, and I have a lot of ideas for a novel that have been percolating for some time. But, then again, who doesn’t?

Do you find that you gravitate to work similar to your own?
I find that I read about equal amounts fiction and nonfiction, some older/canonical work and a healthy amount of poetry, too. And I don’t know if it’s overly self- congratulatory or just silly or what, but I wish I could find more folks who write like I think I do. What and how that is I don’t guess is really for me to say, but I think the blessing and the curse of how I write is that I don’t feel terribly under any one or two writer’s sway.

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written?
I suppose I am pretty pleased with my essay “The Path of Righteousness” about baking sourdough bread and, you know, the fear of parenthood.

Is there something by another writer that you read over and over again?
In an oddly similar way, despite the vast differences in subject matter, I come back almost annually to Jo Anne Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” and David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair.” They both do an astonishing job of taking a public event and making it deeply personal and vice versa. And, in a lot of ways, I think that’s what the best nonfiction writers are always after. Not just pathetic navel gazing but finding a meaningful and literary way to suture the public and the private.

What are the recurring themes throughout your work?
Without overthinking it (to which I am prone) I would say the fear of/attraction to commitment to huge responsibilities and/or challenges. It seems to me we live in a relatively lowstakes world where we can pretty readily make a life out of not really striving for anything. That sounds pompous, I know, but how often in your daily experiences do you encounter someone who seems to be really driven toward something important and meaningful to them? I do sometimes, but mostly not. I know I am daily tempted to do the same and often just fall right in line. But in my writing and the aspects of my life I like to write about I find myself drawn to extreme commitments and extraordinary challenges. All the better if I’m not particularly equipped or prepared for it, right?!

What are you working on now?
I just finished putting in a new kitchen floor. That was one onerous and long job, and I honestly hope I’ll never do something like that again. As for writing, I’m working on what I hope to be the final piece of a collection of essays called The Enthusiast. The manuscript deals with both personal and cultural obsessions with extremity, whether in the realm of bread baking or toddler-wrangling or more ostensibly exotic or athletic pursuits such as cave diving in Central America or ultra longdistance running. Meanwhile, I pray, no more home work.

Note: The Q&A was conducted on Sept. 18 by Kelly Engebretson for the St. Thomas Newsroom.

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