The Nothing That Is: A Profile of Matthew Sharpe

Mary Gannon

With Nothing Is Terrible finished, his new agent, Jennifer Hengen at Sterling Lord, began shopping both books around. Bruce Tracy at Villard Books offered a two-book deal, and Sharpe accepted.

Sharpe says the editorial process at Villard was fine, but that he felt "lost in the sauce" when it came to the actual publishing of the books. "This is a fairly common story. I was just one of many relatively unknown authors that these big corporate-owned houses publish. If things don't start going well immediately upon publication they move their resources elsewhere." While the books sold modestly, they were, on the whole, well received by critics and reviewed in such places as Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

By the time Sharpe finished his next novel, Hengen had decided to leave the business and the author was working with agent David McCormick, who had a tough time finding a home for it. "I think all the publishers, all the editors that he pitched it to, had access to the sales figures of the first two books, which were dreadful or at least by their standards were dreadful," Sharpe says. "I was happy that more than say, my mother, father, sister, and a couple of friends had bought the books."

Sharpe asked McCormick to try Soft Skull, which he had heard about from his friend, writer Eileen Myles; she had published her first novel, Cool for You, there in 2000. "I admire Eileen, and the book seemed to be making its way into the world in a nice way," says Sharpe. "The first time [McCormick] called me with a response from Soft Skull, he said, 'I spoke to the editor of Soft Skull. He called me from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Midwest. He's on the lam at the moment.'" That editor was Soft Skull founder Sander Hicks, who ran the show before Richard Nash took over in 2001. Hicks had published a negative biography of George W. Bush called Fortunate Son, and the author of it had committed suicide. "I guess Sander thought that it was not a suicide," says Sharpe, "that it was an assassination, or so the story was told to me—I've never actually spoken to Sander about it. I thought, 'So much for Soft Skull.'"

About a year later, McCormick called Sharpe and told him that Soft Skull had finally made an offer. "I said, 'So are they going to publish it on a mimeograph in their darkened motel room in Nebraska?' He said, 'No, they're under new management.'"

Sharpe couldn't be happier at Soft Skull. "I feel like Cinderella or something. It's been amazing. Everything is on a more human scale, and you know who's making all the decisions. As Richard said to me at one point, 'I wish you well, I like your book, but you should also know that if your book doesn't do well, I'm screwed. So I really have to make it work.' That's how he treats every title that he does, and it turns out to be really good for everybody."

Before he started writing The Sleeping Father, Sharpe had a vague idea of wanting to write about the shift over the past couple of decades in American mental-health care, away from the talk-therapy model and toward the pill-taking model. "I think behind that therapeutic model there's a governing idea about what a self is, what a person is. The talk model is the narrative model, and the pill model is the biochemical model. I wanted to write a novel that in some way investigates what it feels like to be a self, now that we are determined by chemistry and electricity instead of by narratives."

Sharpe already had extensive knowledge about the psychoanalytic model and was well versed in the ideas of psychoanalytical theorists such as Freud, Lacan, and D. W. Winnicott, among others—so he began reading about antidepressant medication. There he stumbled upon the disturbing detail of what happens when two classes of antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors and monoamine oxidase inhibitors, are mixed. "Something bad has to happen to somebody for you to be able to write a novel about it," Sharpe says. Thus, the story was born.

The Sleeping Father shares some themes with Nothing Is Terrible. In both books, children not only endure hardship, but also are left to their own devices in an often negligent adult world. Sharpe says that, again, he never set out to make any such commentary. But he admits: "It does seem that we live in a culture that tends to promote a kind of perpetual adolescence. Look, I understand that those pills are extremely helpful to a lot of people, but when I read the statistic—I'm sure it's changed by now, this was in 2003—that a hundred and twenty million Americans were prescribed antidepressants, and at that time there were not that much more than twice that number of us, it seemed high to me. It does seem like people, with the supersaturation of the culture with advertising and marketing, are constantly being asked to turn to products to cope with what ails them, the difficulties of life. There's a reliance on the product as a kind of authority, as a kind of solution, as opposed to relying on, well, other people or one's self."