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Interview with Mathias B. Freese, author of Down to a Sunless Sea

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A teacher, writer and psychotherapist, Mathias B. Freese is the author of two books, The i Tetralogy and Down to a Sunless Sea. His fiction has appeared on numerous prestigious publications. His short story, "Herbie," was listed in The Best American Short Stories of 1974 along with the works of I.B. Singer, Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer. Readers may read my review of Down to a Sunless Sea on my blog, The Dark Phantom Review. In this insightful, fascinating interview, Freese talks about his writing and the force behind it.

It's nice to have you here today, Mathias. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

Teacher, writer and psychotherapist, I have written for forty years. Struggled for years to shed being a teacher and to regain my humanity, I have succeeded. Underestimated my self and my intelligence — benign neglect by parents and all that sob story — I have worked real hard on deconditioning myself – read Krishnamurti – so that, combined with being a therapist, has helped me to see. I am a stranger in a strange land. I thrive in that wintry landscape.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

I suppose there are those who do that. I bumped into writing by my first effort, a poem, published in the high school yearbook, gutted by an English teacher who grossly misread it. Editors! What I suggest to people who ask about writing is that they purchase Mazola oil, go into the woods, and self-anoint themselves. It works.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

I read because I was an introspective child, an observer. Early books were romantic, such as Harold Lamb’s take on Robin Hood and Jewish Legends. The books mottled my mind, romanticized me, a la Don Quixote, a false reading of the real world. I read junk, good junk, and superior junk. The key to this interview, dear reader, is to realize, as you do, if over 40, that we are the last to know ourselves. And the aggravating thing is, if we meet a good person or a gifted shrink, that others may grasp ourselves better than we do. And what is to be made of that?

Tell us a bit about Down to a Sunless Sea. 

In my middle age, frustrated, depressed, I wrote to understand who I was. I am an autodidact with all the defects of that. Stories were more therapy for my self than fodder for the reader. I never was really concerned about the reader. That has helped me serendipitously to this day. It is my assumption, given credence over the years, that I write for me, not you, in the expectation that you will pick up on it. And people do. In short, I made a pact with myself. I’d publish my book of short stories if all of them were published, as a testament to my craft. It took more than twenty years for that to happen, although not all stories were published. I’m constructed in this way, for the long haul, impatient in the present, patient for the years to come, although I now near my end, boo hoo.

The stories in Down to a Sunless Sea deal with the “deviant and damaged,” well, not exactly. They are epiphanies.I write about a cousin who had cerebral palsy and died driving a cab because he couldn’t handle the wheel with skill; about my daughter who had CFIDS; a macabre story about Juan Peron who had his hands cut off in his crypt –yummy – in fact, a story appeared in the Times about that and I was intrigued. And bingo! In 1974 Martha Foley listed me in The Best American Short Stories of 1974 for “Herbie.” I was listed with I. B. Singer, Joyce Carol Oates and dear Norman Mailer. I only recognized Mailer. I was so new at it.

I was now anointed as a writer. Curiously, the story is continually misread; perhaps I was too subtle. It is the mother in the story who is the real shark, killer and manipulator. Many readers omit her toxicity in their reviews. The i Tetralogy, a historical fiction on the Holocaust is forever my most significant work and it has garnered remarkable reviews around the world. It is a sleeper and it is contaminated, for I take no prisoners and many of us are in denial about the Holocaust itself. In Down to a Sunless Sea, the story about Juan Peron has a parallel theme about Jews in Argentina, again overlooked in reviews; and “Alabaster” is a story about a Holocaust survivor, an unsweetened, non-sanitized look, I hope. Unconsciously I was writing about the Jewish experience, all preparation for my Tetralogy novel later on in life.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of –consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

To write an outline is to maim my efforts. I write intuitively, from the gut, with passion. I write and write, knowing that it is in revision that I prune the pear tree. What is most emblematic of how I work is in the effort to write about Nazis in the Tetralogy. I sunk into my self. I dwelt east of Eden. I learned that the species is by default a murderous one. So, it came to pass that I wrote Nazi poetry; I pushed myself, I considered that and I did it. I count so very much on the unconscious that it is my belief that all conscious writing is like the penmanship teacher in primary school holding your hand to help you make that cursive letter “p.”

What will the reader learn after reading your book?

We really don’t learn much from books except other people’s smarts. Again, I do not write for you. I write for me and for my understanding. I write without expectations of any readership, but I have a world of expectations for myself. What type of writer are you – the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes? I make no such distinctions. I am. I do not write a certain amount of words each day, having heard that conditional piece of advice for years. Who said so? Why? Did Tolstoy learn that when he took his MFA in Leningrad? I don’t read necessarily to deconstruct the artifice of a novelist. Read Hemingway too much and you’ll end up as a declarative sentence, noun and verb forever glued together.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I leave anality for the last. I channel my unconscious, let it flow and then I cut back as necessary. I believe that I am a dugout on the vast Amazon River. I go with it.

Do you have any favorite authors or books?

I have read a great deal of Krishnamurti. His message is in my own work – the awakening of intelligence. However, Nikos Kazantzakis has always moved me, The Last Temptation of Christ, St. Francis and Report to Greco probably the greatest confessional since St. Augustine. He wrote a sequel in two volumes, in verse, to the Odyssey and by all accounts equaled Homer. I read him because when he writes about grapes I can taste the dew on their skins.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Marguerite Young, author, said that we should put the kitchen sink into our writings. To wit, in “Mortise and Tenon,” in the short story collection, I give information about Gustav Klimt, citing a few paintings that the characters see in the museum. It enriches the story, I believe.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

As you have gathered, I go my own way – should I go your way? Publishers fled from the The i Tetralogy. I don’t need someone else — it does help, I am human — to tell me this book is masterful; they ran away because of resistance and denial. America’s great contribution to the world besides Dick Cheney is marketing. I self-publish, draw inspiration from Thoreau, who only published 75 copies of Walden. When you die and I die, does it really matter who published us, except that our efforts are published – the rest is vanity.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

It is www.mathiasbfreese.com. Under "Pages" I have short essays or “factions,” published and unpublished, so you can get a sense of my interests – an essay for PMA discussing that the artist is never poor, to wit. I have links to reviews and interviews with me, especially David Herrle (www.subtletea.com), who does a terrific job. Parenthetically, Herrle did a 25 page literary analysis of The I Tetralogy which reflects as much upon his brilliance as it does upon my book. He was the first to state that the Tetralogy was a major literary effort, perhaps a work of art as well. The blog contains short essays as I go along in life and an ongoing memoir.

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I am into rewriting Sojourner, a historical fiction about a Chinese who ventures to California during the Gold Rush. It is a philosophical quest that he is on. I wrote it about the age of 40, revealing my existential discontent, a need to find purpose and intention in this world. All the while I taught, I wrote, and I went back to school to become a psychotherapist which again was a latent need to understand my self. I practiced as a therapist and felt purposeful. The other book is Gruffworld; the first chapter,“Covenant,” is on my website, published in a major magazine. It combines the analytic insights I metabolized as a writer and therapist and reflects my readings of Krishnamurti, especially dealing with the awakening of intelligence. It takes place in an apocalyptic world as a creature comes into self-awareness.

In your collection, you use various writing styles for the different stories. Was this a conscious decision? It also offers readers a dark glimpse into the troubled mind of the characters. What’s in the mind of the author?

I’d like to answer both questions in one amalgam. I always write in order to make sense of my life and situation, and “making sense” is both the writer’s goal and his ultimate folly After four decades I can say that I have made some headway in my craft, but existentially it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. I write to “soothe” myself and the terror of existence itself. We face two questions: life and death, and they are fierce deities, insatiable, terrific adversaries, I must add. To make sense is to give order, to be rational. “I did this because of that.” Oh, yeah.

After the Holocaust, all is farce. The species is shattered. And if I make sense, at all, it is only for me. The surprise of all my writing is that I don’t take it too seriously. I kiss no ass. I am compelled to write but the folly is in feeling that it does good. It all is in my patrimony, given to my children. I don’t care about readers per se other than the fun it provides when reviewed well or a gracious comment proffered about the book. I am greedy about life while I have it, not greedy about my books, except as an extension of whom I am and that gets awfully murky.

Short stories were written to express emotional states, and often the style was not a conscious choice. I was learning, I’m self taught, I was experimenting. I never went for a MFA (Argh!). I never took a course except one which I quickly left, the lecturer needed to be adored. I was rejected so many times that I developed a defense: arrogance, which, in effect, said – your loss! Obviously I have been proven right. Even that haughty feeling doesn’t last.

Thank you for your insightful, thoughtful answers, Mathias.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.