Every Day at 4:40 AM: Mary-Kim Arnold and Matthew Derby on Writing and Marriage
This post was originally published on Dead Darlings, a blog about novel writing run by alumni of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program.
Mary-Kim Arnold and Matthew Derby are married writers who live in Pawtucket, RI.
Mary-Kim is the author of The Fish & The Dove, a poetry collection, and Litany for the Long Moment, a book-length experimental memoir about the failed search for her Korean birth mother. Her writing has also appeared in Hyperallergic, Conjunctions, The Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Rumpus. She teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University and in The Newport MFA, a low-residency graduate program at Salve Regina University.
Matt co-wrote the serialized fiction podcast Sandra for Gimlet Media and is the author of Phreaks, an Audible Original, and Super Flat Times, a short story collection. He also co-wrote The Silent History, the first major exploratory, interactive novel designed specifically for the iPad and iPhone. He is a designer at Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, MA.
This interview isn’t about your books. It’s more of a lifestyle piece about being writers who are married—a little bit like the The Newlywed Game. So to start, could each of you describe the other one’s writing habits?
Matt: We actually have a very similar habit. We’ve developed a regimen, which is that we both wake up at 4:40 in the morning. I’ve already made coffee the night before that auto-brews. So I go down, I get two cups of coffee, and I hand one blearily to Mary-Kim. Then she goes to her desk and I go to mine. We write until 7:00 and then we take a walk. That’s how we start every day.
Matt: Yeah, 365 days a year. Even on Christmas. ‘Cause at this age, we’ve basically stopped sleeping. Before we started this practice, we’d wake up at 4:30 and ruminate about the past and the future for three hours anyway. So by doing this we’re short-circuiting that loop of despair.
Is it hard to stop at 7:00? Because I think I’d be tempted to keep writing and skip the exercise.
Mary-Kim: Not for me, because I rarely can put in that much time at once. I have to take a lot of breaks. Matt is more diligent.
Matt: When I have a deadline or when I’m working on something that I’m passionate about, 7:00 o’clock comes about twelve minutes too soon, and I have to rip myself away. But having this rigid schedule is the only thing that’s ever really worked for us both in terms of our creativity and our ability to be in a family together, raising kids. So sometimes that means having to stop in the middle of a thought, but I think it would feel worse to sacrifice the morning walk, because then we would feel out of sync.
Mary-Kim: The walk is only a half hour, but it’s come to be one of the things that I value most.
Do you talk about writing on your morning walk?
Mary-Kim: Yeah, that’s when we talk about what we’re working on, and we give each other advice and support. For me, that is a really important part of the process, to be able to voice things that I’m thinking about. We talk about different strategies that we’ve come up with to handle certain problems in the writing, or something we’ve read that feels useful. Sometimes, we just complain. That’s useful, too.
Matt: Having to say a thing out loud can sometimes break the spell of a bad thought pattern. Just the other day I was trying to write something from multiple perspectives and I was banging my head against the wall on whose perspective was being shown when. And Mary-Kim said, “Is there a way to just show it from one person’s perspective?” As soon as she said that, the cloud disappeared and I saw a path forward. It was such a simple solution, but I was so deep in my own head that I couldn’t see it.
Mary-Kim: We’re very committed to our morning walk. We have almost a religious devotion to it.
Matt: We’re probably making it sound like we’re zealots who want to embrace the universe, but we’re actually much more pessimistic.
Mary-Kim: Writing and walking is the only thing we’re like that about. Everything else we hate.
How did you meet, and how long have you been married?
Mary-Kim: This fall, we will have been married twenty years, and we were together for two years before that. We were in the same writing workshop at the Brown MFA program.
Matt: It was the first day of workshop, and Mary-Kim arrived just a moment late. She had been moving, and she was wearing red sweatpants.
Mary-Kim: I wasn’t wearing red sweatpants. Who has red sweatpants?
Matt: And we’ve been arguing about that for twenty years. But besides the red sweatpants, what I remember was a story she turned in. It was told in fragments, and it was very impressionistic and very beautiful. That narrative approach was something that was new to me at the time, and it really stood out to me.
Mary-Kim: Oh, I never heard this story!
Matt: She used the fragments as a kind of indirection that allowed us to see this complicated and emotionally wrought relationship between two people—but then to look away at the moment where that drama might turn into melodrama. The fragments added a contemplative silence that was really startling to me and made the piece attain this power that I hadn’t seen in any of the other stories in our workshop.
Mary-Kim: Not that he’s trashing any of the other students’ writing.
Matt: No, no. But you can only fall in love with so many people in a workshop. So, of course, I never approached her or said anything to her for many months, and my memory is fuzzy, but somehow I went from a creepy admirer to us talking on the phone.
Mary-Kim: I had a Garfield phone with a cord. I was on the Garfield phone with my friend, and I read her part of this piece he’d written and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so amazing. I think I’m in love.” It was about a group of people who were protesting a nuclear bomb facility, and he wrote with this beautiful, lyrical precision. In the scene that I remember, the speaker is watching a woman through a window, from outside. He sees the silhouette of the woman washing something in the sink, and the description was so moving and captured her sadness and this mood of melancholy regret. I had never read a male writer treat a female subject so tenderly. And the article of clothing that I remember him wearing was this blue turtleneck. It set off his eyes, and I thought he was so cute.
Matt, do you confirm or deny the turtleneck?
Matt: I confirm. I’m embarrassed that I wore it, but it was a very 90s look.
Who would win a spelling bee between the two of you?
Mary-Kim: Oh, me. Definitely.
Matt: Wow. Really? No pause there? But I would have to say that that is true, and actually, Mary-Kim, I think you were in spelling bees, weren’t you?
Mary-Kim: Yes, in third grade. And the word that I got out on, I will never forget. The word was “embarrass.” I spelled it with one r and it’s two. Or… the other way around? But still, I think I’m a better speller. Don’t you think, Matt?
Matt: Um, this is very uncomfortable. I don’t know. But I do know that early on I misused the term “auspicious” and you very quickly corrected me. So I’m going to grudgingly give it to you.
What animal would your spouse most like to have with them as a pet while they’re writing?
Matt: Hmm, well I know the type of animal Mary-Kim would want: something that could be immobile for long periods of time, and she could keep it on her lap and it would not demand anything, but she could selectively snuggle it.
Mary-Kim: Yeah, yeah. And it has to be furry, too. And for Matt, it would have to be a big fish or a bird, because he wouldn’t want to snuggle it. He would rather keep his distance but be able to admire it.
Matt: That’s right. I would have a very dangerous fish in a 700-gallon tank that was one wall of my writing studio. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been attracted to dangerous fish. When I was in 8th grade my mom agreed to buy me this moray eel for my birthday. And as the clerk was handing over the bag with the eel writhing in it, he told me everything would probably be fine, and that I shouldn’t worry because it hardly ever happened, but that if the eel did bite anyone, they should immediately go to the emergency room because the teeth have neurotoxins in them. I had this eel for a week, but I had to bring it back to the store. I couldn’t take the pressure.
Let’s talk about process. Could each of you describe how the other works?
Matt: Mary-Kim thrives on deadlines. She tends to circle around the piece until crunch time and then at the eleventh hour she comes up with this incredible work. It’s a very painful process for her, and years ago I might have said, “Hey, you might want to get started on that a little earlier.” Now, I understand that’s just the way she works.
Mary-Kim: Matt is much more consistent and methodical. I envy the way he is able to think things through more deeply and more thoughtfully, rather than throw up his hands and pound on the laptop in the last four minutes before it’s due. He is more focused and intentional—at least that’s the way it looks to me. He doesn’t spend a lot of time flailing around like I do. He just does the work.
Matt: I think I just amortize the pain over a longer period of time.
Do either one of you have a pet peeve about your partner’s writing habits?
Matt: I don’t know if we can go on the record about the sleeping bag controversy?
Matt: Well, we love our house, but it doesn’t do a lot of the things that you would expect a house to do, like keep you warm. So from roughly August to June, it is so cold at 4:40 in the morning that I took to getting into a sleeping bag. I write wearing this sleeping bag like a caterpillar, and Mary-Kim always made fun of me—until the day that she got into the sleeping bag.
Mary-Kim: Well, I got into the sleeping bag because Matt actually had two sleeping bags. He had an upstairs sleeping bag and a downstairs sleeping bag. My desk is downstairs, and one morning the downstairs sleeping bag was empty, and it was so cold. So I got into it and I thought, My God, he’s a genius.
Matt: She commandeered the sleeping bag, and now when I’m downstairs I have to use shredded napkins to keep warm.
Have you ever read a book out loud together?
Matt: Well, wait a minute. Midway through the pandemic Mary-Kim was telling me that she really liked being read to. So that night I decided to read to her, and I read this book about technology being used equitably. I think I read a page and a half and she was like, “I’m good.” So, yeah. I guess the answer is no.
If your spouse could take a time machine to any place and time in the world, where would they go?
Mary-Kim: Matt has always wanted to see what it was like in the time of the early mammals.
Matt: And she always says, “Why would you want to go there? There’s no people there.”
For this question, why don’t you pick somewhere you both agree on.
Mary-Kim: I’m not going to the mammals.
Matt: Okay, okay. I know.
Mary-Kim: How about New York in the ‘seventies?
Matt: Yeah, let’s go there.
What would you do there?
Mary-Kim: Hang out with all the weirdo artists in the Village.
Matt: And go see Television and Patti Smith and hang out on St. Marks Place.
While you’re there you can go to one reading. Who do you go see?
Matt: Oh, it’s hard to pick one person. What about Eileen Myles?
Mary-Kim: Yeah. Eileen Myles. That’s good.
What is one of the best things about being writers that are married?
Mary-Kim: I’ve always, from the beginning, been a big fan of Matt’s writing. And there’s so much pleasure in being able to talk about our writing with each other.
Matt: A lot of our lives are spent trying to navigate an ugly, uncertain mess that often feels overwhelming. For me, what is amazing is to see Mary-Kim translate all that into art, into this startling, crystalline image that captures a feeling and an emotion and a specific time—and that feels so artful and composed. Being the first person in the world to see that is thrilling.
This interview was conducted in April of 2021. The original transcript has been edited.