Building characters: fiction writer Matt Burgess visiting Weisman

The novelist and Macalester College professor earned his MFA in creative writing at the University of Minnesota

Jared Hemming

Nurturing fantasies of writing the Great American Novel isn’t easy. But for author Matt Burgess, the decision to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing was simple.

Burgess, who teaches at Macalester College, earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Minnesota in 2010, soon before publishing his first novel, “Dogfight, a Love Story.”

His career’s garnered more progress than he was making in his native New York, where he would slack off at his editorial assistant day job by photocopying novels at work and reading them at his desk.

“When I was living in New York, I was doing a lot of that — just hanging out and not doing a lot of writing,” Burgess said about life before grad school. “It’s easy to walk away from an office job.”

When he moved to Minneapolis to start the MFA program, coordinated by writers and faculty members Charles Baxter and Peter Campion, Burgess brewed ideas for what would become his first novel, “Dogfight.”

With the book, Burgess created Alfredo, a drug-dealer balancing a life of crime and a seven-months-pregnant girlfriend while living in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York.

“If there’s one part of my history that’s had a bigger impact on the person I am, it’s probably that neighborhood,” Burgess said of growing up in Jackson Heights.

His hometown neighborhood influences both “Dogfight” and Burgess’s new novel, “Uncle Janice,” which is also set in Queens. 

When talking about his former home, Burgess reflected that Queens’ New York brusqueness informed his natural storytelling ability.

“The storytelling that comes out of that culture was a definitive experience for me,” Burgess said.

He recounted the story of a friend whom a babbling old woman on the street randomly assaulted.

“What else are you supposed to do with these crazy moments in the city? You can’t react,” Burgess said. “Instead, you turn it into this story to amuse your friends later at the hangout spot. That’s the audience I have in mind.”

While writing his first book, stories from friends in New York kept him reminiscing about his former home, which became a nourishing and oppressive character in each of his novels.

Letting in this influence helped make Burgess a published novelist at only 28, Baxter said.

“Most young writers have to work for a while before they get their novel in shape,” Baxter said. “Matt’s was the exception — it had so much propulsion.”

While Burgess heightens the reality of his New York stories for his novels, Campion said the books’ rhythmic prose speaks truth.

“Matt has an incredible gift for dialogue and timing,” Campion said. “Not just comedic timing, but musical timing.”

Despite missing New York, Burgess said he doesn’t envy the lives in his stories.

“Have I ever wanted to switch spots with any of my characters? No,” Burgess said. “I’m putting them under so much pressure and stress — I’m torturing them.”

Queens’ contradictory force strains the title character in “Uncle Janice,” an undercover narcotics officer struggling to care for her ailing mother.

For Burgess, stressing out his characters’ heightened realities creates better storylines.

“When we say that somebody has character in real life — we mean that they’ve been through some sort of crucible and have come out transformed,” Burgess said. “Difficulties, challenges build character. Narrative does, too.”

What: Matt Burgess reading from “Uncle Janice”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Road, Minneapolis
Cost: Free