Writing While Under the Influence: The Accidental Genius of Mather Schneider

If you’ve ever eaten the pickled worm at the bottom of a Mezcal bottle—and stumbled into the wrong casita after a long night of drinking cheap beer and shooting bottle rockets at a hot, sweaty moon, you have a taste of what it’s like to read Mather Schneider. Schneider doesn’t do polite company. He relates to the seedy, irascible underbelly of society’s most prickly, marginalized citizens, and offers them a temporary passport to the borderland of misfit toys. His writing is a tonic for nasty hangovers, the hair of the mangy mutt that bit you.

Schneider sat down with Atticus Review founder and former publisher Dan Cafaro to discuss life, writing, different states of mind, and the launch of his most recent book, The Bacanora Notebooks. The freewheeling conversation took place for two weeks on Facebook Messenger. It revealed a writer with a firm understanding of the working class who takes his craft seriously and playfully calls himself a “small press burnout.” It also revealed the misgivings of two anxious and creative spirits trying to make sense of their lives and the inconvenient randomness of the daily grind (and the universe).

Shots may not have been fired, but they were clearly poured and swallowed. Drinking was a common theme.

Image by Mather Schneider, X

Dan Cafaro: Why write? What’s the purpose for you?

Mather Schneider: Why does a bird sing? Marking my place in the world. Why does an old man groan?

DC: As someone who has a reputation for being a cantankerous poet, you decided to write your first novel. Do you find prose to be more constricting than poetry? The Bacanora Notebooks is quite autobiographical, I’m assuming. What distinguishes this book from your full-length memoir, 6 to 6?

MS: One question at a time, ok? Am I a cantankerous poet? You say that like it’s fact. Why do you say that?

DC: Well, I’ve seen you mix it up online with a few sorry souls. You seem to have little patience for people at times, which is understandable given the state of communication these days. I just think you’re more open about it, which in one way is admirable and, in another way, intimidating for some.

MS: I see. Well, I speak my mind. Some people don’t like that. People all over social media are pissed off about all kinds of things.

To get back to your question, I didn’t decide to write my first novel. It was a compilation of many prose pieces I had written which became the first half. The second half was from a journal I kept when my wife and I went to Mexico. Not really a novel, I guess.

What distinguishes it from my book of stories, 6 to 6? Not much. Just another stage in my life.

DC: I had no idea you weren’t driving a cab anymore. Are you in Mexico still or Tucson?

MS: I am in Tucson now, renting from a slumlord. My wife and I have a place in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. We go there once a month. I am working as an exterminator. Keep up.

DC: Which job is better fodder for writing?

MS: Cab driving was better for fodder. Just the amount of people I met and the crazy stories they had, which I stole. As an exterminator it’s not quite the same. But I’m still writing, there’s always something to write about.

DC: Are you flattered at the comparisons between you and [Charles] Bukowski or [John] Fante? Are they among your influences?

MS: People compare many writers to Bukowski and Fante. I’m not flattered. It is a compliment but a lazy one. Yes, they are among my influences. Are they not among yours?

DC: I am attracted to your writings in the same way that I gravitate to a few of your contemporaries: For example, Michael Meyerhofer, Dave Newman, Tony Gloeggler, Lori Jakiela. You all write in a plain-spoken fashion that resonates with me. One thing that catches me off-guard in a really good way with you is the risks you take with metaphors. I noticed a bunch of them in The Bacanora Notebooks and most of them didn’t flop. There’s a fine line, I think, between trying too hard to be creative and simply being unconventional and imaginative. I loathe cliches but it’s hard to get around them sometimes. You appear to like the challenge in a “hold my beer” fashion. Have you ever read Tom Robbins? He’s a magician with words.

MS: Tom Robbins? Haha, now you’re taking me back to my days in Bellingham, Washington. What, 30 years ago? I loved his books. So crazy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. He’s like a lot of writers I liked at the time but will never return to. In the end I prefer simple, sincere stories, not fancy imaginative stuff.

DC: How do you know when maybe your wildly colorful descriptions of a sunset have gone too far (e.g., “And the sun is barking in the turquoise sky.”)? I think it’s that kind of risk-taking that defines the depth of a writer.

MS: Have I done that? Probably. Gotta have a human correlative, or else it’s dead.

DC: Who are you reading these days? Fiction? Poetry?

MS: I have been reading Jim Harrison and William Matthews. And Montaigne.

DC: Will need to check out Matthews. Being a bookstore owner has its advantages, but one of them isn’t having all that much time to read—and by the time I get home, I’m too brain dead to want to do much more than binge on some Netflix series or listen to music. Do you listen to music when you write? Are you much of a music listener? If so, what kind?

MS: I like old country, Bob Dylan, Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt, and also Tom Waits and stuff like that. I never listen to music while writing.

2013 Poetry Collection

DC: What’s your take on the poetry scene today? Has it always been a form of therapy and self-esteem boost for poets to get published in journals that [virtually] no one reads except for writers?

MS: It probably has been for a long time, yes. When I started submitting poems 30 years ago, I doubt many people read those zines except for other writers, so that hasn’t changed. I do think poetry can be a kind of therapy, a kind of meditation and exploration and people have always been looking for a self-esteem boost. What’s changed is the internet and the sheer number of zines and poets doing it, Instagram, all that. MFA programs have helped flood the scene and bloated it into a kind of monster with a zillion heads. It’s more convoluted than a rat maze.

I’m no bigshot, I’m part of this ridiculousness, I get published in internet zines by editors who don’t even need to shave yet, so I’m no different and nothing special. It’s very hard to find the good stuff in a poetry scene like this. I haven’t found a poet I like enough to buy their book for 20 years, which is why I am always going back to older poets like William Matthews and Jim Harrison and Bukowski and Carver.

Some people say this is a “golden age” of poetry and it’s true there are a lot of good writers out there, writers who can craft good sentences, know how to break a line, know what a sestina is, blah blah. But to stand out? To reach an audience bigger than your little circle of friends? Good luck!

DC: I used to write a lot of bad poetry, especially in my 20s and 30s. I usually drank when I wrote my best stuff. I also drank when I wrote my worst stuff. I also wrote poetry sober, but that took a lot of discipline that I didn’t have. I know there’s a creative writer in me down deep, but at some point in my 40s, I made a conscious decision to stop writing poetry. It didn’t fulfill me anymore. I also convinced myself that I was meant to promote the work of others who didn’t necessarily deserve the accolades more than me; they just were better than me at consistently showing up at the keyboard and putting in the time. I’m 57 and there’s still a broken, buried part of me that wants to be the next Raymond Carver except I suck at traditional storytelling. I would love to get back into a head space where writing actually feels like it matters. I would love to write Edward Albee-like plays even more than poetry. It sounds like you fit into a different category of writer. It sounds like you have to write. What are your goals as a writer?

MS: I still drink beer, too much beer. I write drunk, sober, hungover and all states in between. I’m 54, so not too far behind you. I don’t have much discipline either, which is why it’s taken me this long to write a full-length prose book. Poets will argue this, but it seems clear that novels and stories take a lot more discipline than poetry.

You made a conscious decision to stop writing poetry? That is interesting. Like giving up a bad habit! Ha ha. I’ve thought about giving it up too. I’ve thought about how hard it is on the body to sit in a chair at a desk, how it is so easy to drink beer and smoke cigarettes while doing it. Henry Miller noted how writers always looked haggard and stooped and painters looked much more upright and healthier. I’ve thought that it is nothing but a vanity affair, especially if you spend too much time worrying about getting published or getting angry that you see others getting fanfare who you don’t think deserve it. I’ve often thought my time could be better spent doing something else, even if it’s just going for a walk or petting a dog. I don’t understand the mindset some writers have of “I will write one more page even though I hate every minute of it.” I’ve gone months without writing at all, when it ceased to be fun and I just got sick of it. But I always come back to it.

Do I “have to write?” Writers say that all the time and it seems so dramatic and silly and like God has touched them with this great calling. It truly is a habit and a ritual and after a while it becomes part of you, but no, I don’t have to write. I keep writing for various reasons. To see what I can see. To explore my dreams, to record my day, to express my love or sadness or confusion, to find some way through the veneer, to save a part of my soul and to nurture it, to feel more alive, to record the insanity of the world and the human condition, to see if there’s some magic or secret in my mind somewhere trying to get out. To make something that is peculiarly my own. To see if I can get any better. To try to make something beautiful or funny out of the crap that is modern life. To have a small brush with eternity. And also to reach out to other people in this form, which is why I try to get published. I don’t have any other goals than that. My goals of being rich and famous from writing, or even making a meager living from it, were abandoned long ago. Does it “matter?” It matters to me, in this short life I have. In the long term, probably not.

DC: Do you do edibles? I sometimes want to take my writing in the direction of Wordsworth, Whitman, and the Beats. Ginsberg. Corso. Burroughs. Ferlinghetti is an influence. Have you written with much success on hallucinogens? Pot? Or just mainly Tequila and the like?

 MS: No, I don’t do edibles. I used to smoke pot and write and it was fun. The good thing about smoking pot is it diminishes my desire for alcohol. But, pot has a way of making everything seem good, even bad writing. I think there are a lot of poets who write stoned and basically live their lives stoned. I might pick it up one day. I only drink beer these days, and coffee. I haven’t done any hallucinogens since I was in my early 20’s. One time I ended up on the top of a car thinking it was an island and there were sharks circling me. I stayed there for 4 hours.

I haven’t read Wordsworth in a long time and Whitman is good in parts, though much of it bores me. And I was never a fan of much of the beat poetry. I like Kerouac, his novels and haiku, and early Burroughs.

DC: Are you working on another book?

MS: I have pretty much finished editing/revising a book of short stories which is a mishmash of all kinds of things from satire/humor to old stories from 20 years ago about my childhood. I also have two manuscripts of poetry which I think are about ready. One is about living in Mexico and the other is something new for me, dream poems. I have separated chapbook-sized chunks from them and entered them into a couple of chapbook contests. I am not in a big hurry to publish them as full-length books but I’m sure it will happen in the next couple years. I’m sure I have enough random poems in computer files to put together a third manuscript and I am also working on a series that are, loosely, ghazals, which again is new for me. I am trying to break out of strictly narrative poetry.

DC: Do you think the best writers continue to get better as they age? If so, then how do you explain the great many who seem to break through at a young age?

MS: What writers are you talking about? My favorite writers broke through late. Henry Miller, Bukowski.

DC: I guess I’m thinking of writers like JD Salinger and Harper Lee who weren’t very prolific, but apparently, they didn’t need to be. I guess I was mainly thinking of novelists who often publish dozens of manuscripts and are only known by their first or second title.

MS: I don’t think Salinger or Harper Lee were very prolific. I guess they were young when they wrote. It kind of works the same way with a lot of music too, doesn’t it? The early stuff always seems to be the best, well not always but often. Probably has something to do with the fact that when artists become successful, they lose their edge and also are able to publish pretty much anything they write, and it doesn’t have the same power behind it. They get comfortable and full of themselves.

cacti near ocean during daytime

DC: What’s your desert island book, and what’s your greatest fear?

MS: Desert island book? Probably Seneca. My greatest fear is being stuck on a deserted island. One of my fears is public speaking, believe it or not. That’s why I’ve never done a reading and one of the reasons I never finished college, too many oral presentations.

DC: As one college dropout to another, do you regret not finishing? I romanticized (read: justified) dropping out by thinking that formal education was not meant for me. I thought the path of self-education was more authentic. What about you?

MS: I went to two community colleges and two universities in three states and never even managed to get an associate degree. I tried, I really did. But I hated it, I hated everything about it. I hated the desks, the lights, the teachers, the students, the atmosphere, the politics, the “sitting in circles,” the “buddy system,” the power points, the oral presentations, the cost, it all seemed like a big joke to me. Everything but the library. The last time I went back to University in Arizona it was only an excuse to stop working. I got some student loans and had a great time for a while, drinking mainly. Then I stopped going to classes once again and those loans haunted me for years. I finally paid them back though, ha. I never tried to “justify” it. I simply could not do it. Yes, I regret it sometimes. I can’t even teach English in Mexico without a degree. I think I regret not finding a skilled labor job at a younger age. Even the job I’m doing now, as an exterminator. If I had started this at age 30, I could be making good money by now. Don’t get me started about regrets. I’ve got plenty.

I’ve always been kind of a loser. That’s just the way it is. I guess traditional wisdom would say if I did anything different along the way I could never have met my wife and would be a completely different person. I don’t hate myself. I don’t think I’m great or anything, but I’m ok with where I am and what I’ve done. The university system now is now even worse than when I tried it, and it was bad then, especially if you wanted to be a writer. The groupthink is horrifying to me. What was I going to be, a teacher? Right!

DC: Thanks for the genuine answer. Not getting a college degree has always haunted me, while at the same time, it seems meaningless. I’ve always had trouble with systematic conformity. Okay, how about indulge me with two more questions: (1) If you had to give up drinking or writing, which would it be and why?

MS: Give up writing or drinking? Easy. I’d give up writing and start painting.

DC: What do you believe in more? Accidental genius or hard-earned merit?

MS: Hard-earned merit. Is there such a thing as accidental genius? Children have accidental genius I guess. But they’re children, what do they know?

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