20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“In a time of continuous self-awareness, with plenty of events in the world to think about, I love being able to just give myself to a single emotion or two, and revel in it. It’s like, there’s so much going on in my life, let me take three minutes to lean into this vibe.” Matt Ortile (pronounced or-TEE-lay) is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name, the managing editor of the National Magazine Award-winning publication Catapult, and a MacDowell Fellow. Previously, he was the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines, and his writing has appeared in association with BuzzFeed News, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Self, Out, and other places. He graduated from Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn.
I had the absolute privilege of getting to know Matt for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where he told me about how his creative brain works, the importance of pop culture in an age of isolation, the queer politics that inspired his first book, what he’s working on next, and lots more.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?
While on a college tour trip with one of my best friends from high school, I was reading a book called I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. It’s a memoir of a drag queen working in the ’90s Manhattan bar scene and her relationship with a sex worker.
I finished it at around midnight, and my classmate and I were heading to New York in the morning. In hindsight, that was a pretty major moment. Though I didn’t think I’d have a life quite as exciting as Josh’s, it was eye-opening to me that there could be queer books out there that weren’t fiction, that weren’t David Levithan storylines, that were true. That was really important to me at that age.
If I could write a book like this, I thought, and inspire someone out there the way Josh inspired me to write about my life, I’d be happy.
As the managing editor of Catapult, what would you say is your favorite part of being an editor?
Helping writers tell their stories. I like being able to teach writers about style and narrative and crafting scenes, but the work is most satisfying when I can work mainly through comments—just asking an author questions about their intent, or challenging their prose or ideas, or suggesting new directions for the story to go. And I love when they come back, having taken direction beautifully, and uncovering a new layer to the thing that they’re trying to express.
What is the most challenging part of writing for you?
Finding the time and energy. I’m always exhausted at the end of the day and the last thing I want to do after back-to-back Zoom calls is to keep staring at a screen. But when I get into a groove, I try my best to lean into it because I never know when I’ll fall into that rhythm again.
Favorite book of all-time?
If you ask me next week, I’ll probably say something different, but right now I’ll say The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The prose is incredibly clean and delicious, like crystal-clear spring water. It’s refreshing to dip into those pages every now and then.
As an enthusiast of pop culture, what have you always loved most about it and why, especially in the era of pandemic escapism?
I could go on for ages about this, but the nutshell is that pop—for me—gets at and expresses lived contemporary truths without shame. It lets me feel my feelings without getting too hung up or self-conscious about it. Carly for when I’m in the mood for love, Dua when I want to dance, Ari when I want to fuck. In a time of continuous self-awareness, with plenty of events in the world to think about, I love being able to just give myself to a single emotion or two, and revel in it. It’s like, there’s so much going on in my life, let me take three minutes to lean into this vibe.
One piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Don’t forsake your mother, and spend as much time with her as you can.
The last series you binge-watched?
Probably Big Mouth. I now do a pretty decent Lola Ugfolio Skumpy impression.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Honestly, I’ve lately been reading mostly for work or work-related reasons, so to take a break from that, I’ve devoured lots of food-and-wine tomes. Wine Simple by Aldo Sohm with Christine Muhlke became one of my bibles last year. It’s made me more confident whenever I talk to winesellers at my local shop. Like, I know what “oaky” actually means now.
Favorite movie of all-time?
The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl and Annie.
Your first book, The Groom Will Keep His Name, is described as learning about how “sex is power” in America, especially as a queer person. How would you explain the importance and significance of queer visibility in literature and media right now?
I’d say visibility is still pretty important in 2021. For better or for worse, to see people in our communities legitimized by a wider audience still has an impact. And of course, for someone coming into their identity at any age, seeing another person who resembles them, who echoes their experiences—it’s affirming. For queer visibility in particular, you really can’t put a price on identifying and finding your community and kin. It’s invaluable. Still, I’m conscious of a conversation right now that says visibility and representational politics can only go so far. “We now have a Black and South Asian woman as our vice president!” But what are the actual policies and actions of this administration? We have to ask more of those with power in our society to do more than just exist and be seen.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Roland Barthes. He’s written about loss and the aftermath of death so beautifully—his Mourning Diary about grieving his mother has helped me grieve my own—that my obit would be a treat to read. I’m constantly writing about or in conversation with him; I’d like him to return the favor.
What’s your current read?
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis, for obvious reasons.
Favorite quote of all-time?
I have a few. But I was reading an old fiction project of mine, and I still really like what I used as an epigraph—some lines from an Andrés Neuman essay translated by George Henson: “Love and translation look alike in their grammar. To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together.”
Alternately, what I used as an epigraph for Groom: “thank u, next”
One song that you will never be sick of?
Oh, “Be Alright” by Ariana Grande, one hundred percent. I love her more vibe-y songs—“Be Alright” has some house influence, it’s more downtempo—and this one never fails to make me feel good. It’s consistently on my end-of-year Spotify “most played” list.
Coffee or hot chocolate?
I’m a homosexual, so iced coffee.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Lady Gaga, easily. I think we’d have a good time just listening to jazz between shared AirPods, drinking wine, watching classic Drag Race on my iPad, and letting each other nap.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
I like to walk away from my work. You have to know when you’re tapped out for the day and also be OK with that because it just feels awful when you’re forcing yourself to create when you’ve nothing left for the moment. When I do close my laptop, I’ll usually cook a new recipe from the Times Cooking section, or play video games on my Nintendo Switch.
Favorite social media app?
Twitter, unfortunately. But I’ve started spending more and more time on TikTok. It’s fun over there—until I blink and it’s suddenly four in the morning.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
FaceTime calls with my friends. They’re all in my Google Calendar now, so I always have something to look forward to, something to make it feel like time is indeed moving.
According to the Interwebs, you are currently working on one or more new books. What can we expect to see next from you?
More about my mom, more about love. And I’m veering into travel-y content in my freelancing, and it’s seeping into my very nascent fiction projects. There’s a flight attendant character named David running around in my head, so I’m trying to get to know him a little bit. It’s nothing serious yet, but, you know, we’ll see where it goes.