|Matthew Batt, author of Sugarhouse|
Matthew Batt talks to Colin about fixing up a house, a life, and the lingering stench of old takeout
CGB: Sugarhouse, the Salt lake City neighborhood in which you found your fixer-upper, contains streets with names like Emerson and Browning. As you say, there's something American or Emersonian about your desire or conviction to start from scratch and, more-or-less, rebuild a house yourself. Especially considering your not knowing the difference at the time between a hammer and a nail, and "doing it anyway." What in recent memory have you "done anyway," regardless of a lack of knowledge, with less favorable or benevolent results? As in, "I didn't know how I'd react to once again consuming dairy, but I ate the chocolate ice-cream, anyway! With whip-topping."
MB: I’ve been mostly really lucky/determined enough to see something through revision after revision after revision until it’s right or, you know, right enough, but winter before last when we had a ton of snow in Minnesota and then some warm weather and then some super cold weather, we got some tremendously robust ice dams on our roof. People were having theirs jet-washed off for thousands of dollars and, sadly, still had bad leaks inside and all that. I thought, Surely there’s a DIY solution here and, sure enough, found a friend who recommended putting salt in panty hose and slinging them over the ice dams and in a few hours, she said, you’ll have these tidy little channels for when the ice melts. Well, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time fretting over whether they should be control top or if they had to match my shoes and not enough time practicing slinging what are effectively really uncooperative snakes over my gutter in subzero temperatures while perched atop a twenty foot ladder. When everything finally melted we had beige stockings hanging from our eaves as though the neighborhood high school kids had run out of eggs and toilet paper. It was unfortunate.
What, in terms of labor, proved most difficult, disgusting, or unexpectedly endearing as a result of your new home having once been full of crack?
The one thing we never did fix was that whenever we would use the shower, the white walls would weep this orange, gooey resin. We probably conserved a good deal of water, we were so scared to be in there for very long.
Amidst repairs, your family life was faltering as well. Did your enthusiasm or perseverance for this project manufacture from an instinct to simply not let something else implode?
Technically, things could have been worse. Like maybe in the fine film Red Dawn, Russians could have decided out of the blue to attack the Midwest and the mountain states, as though they were somehow the key to controlling the nation. But short of being strafed by a bunch of MIG fighters, it was the worst year of our life. My dad died, my grandmother died, my wife’s grandfather died, doctors detected a suspicious mass on my mom’s abdomen, my grandfather was having prostate trouble, four of our very best friends were getting divorced, others were having babies while we weren’t . . . no jet fighters, but we probably wouldn’t have noticed. Our decision to dig in, buy a house, and fix it up ourselves wasn’t some self-fashioned move to make us appealing to all the Canadian producers of HGTV (and they are all Canadian—isn’t that weird?) but rather it was our only option short of unmerging our book and music collection and trying to decided who was getting the dog and who was getting the cat.
I laughed out loud at your line about buying a car based on its cup holders, and other less-than-informed purchase decisions. And I'm just betting you can name a book or two you've bought based on its cover that defied your expectations, for better or worse. Anything particularly explosive come to mind? And any advice for readers who themselves buy books for looks, like "Keep doing it," or "Way to go!"?
I am loathe to admit it but I bought the novelization of the movie Rambo. I might have been thinking, What could be finer than Stallone’s acting prowess? Or what’s better than watching a very soggy vigilante single-handedly blow up a town? Reading about it! I was twelve. What can I say? As for readers who buy books for looks—that’s catchy!—I would say it’s absolutely the way to go if the words don’t matter. Like if you only want them to stack in chromatically-unified piles—the way those bastards on HGTV do! (I know, I harbor a lot of resentment toward them. It’s all just an expression of a secret crush on Candice Olsen.)
Now that you live in Saint Paul, what do you miss most about Salt Lake City and/or the lingering stench of old takeout?
The mountains, of course, and the aridity. That rarified, dry mountain air made it all the easier to smell with—and that, of course, cuts both ways.