Matt Sumell didn’t set out to be a writer. Making Nice, his debut, is a collection of linked stories, all featuring the same character—a troubled but lovable lout named Alby. Sumell says he simply found a voice that is interesting—and irreverent—and “kept pushing forward.” He adds, “I just sort of mined my experiences, and tried to use them—tried to use what hurts.”
Sumell, who is from Long Island, began writing about Alby while in the M.F.A. program at UC Irvine during the early aughts, and he kept revisiting the character on and off for 10 years while working at an assortment of jobs, including being a gas attendant at a marina. In 2012, he published the short story “Toast,” which features Alby, in the Paris Review.
Sarah Bowlin, a senior editor at Henry Holt, says she “was instantly taken with Alby’s voice.” She adds, “It’s raw and driven by rage to a certain degree, but when you look a little more closely there’s a soft and tender underbelly. It’s that exposed quality, that underbelly, that got me.” Bowlin compares Sumell’s writing to that of Junot Díaz, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson; Sumell names Johnson—whose Jesus’ Son is also a collection of linked stories—as one of his biggest influences.
Early reviews of Making Nice have praised Alby’s voice, citing its swagger, humor, and undertone of grief. “The book was sort of a promise I made to myself,” Sumell says. “It was emotionally expensive for me. There were times I hated it—a lot of times I hated it. It doesn’t come easy for me. So, I’m happy to have this completed thing in front of me. There’s a sense of accomplishment in that.”