Things came full circle for adjunct literature professor and PLNU alum Eddie Matthews, Ph.D., (’14) on April 13, 2023 in a way he had never dreamed. He found himself in PLNU’s Colt Auditorium sitting across from journalism professor Dean Nelson, PhD. As a student, Matthews would sit in silent rapture during Nelson’s interviews at PLNU’s annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. But this time, he was the subject being interviewed as an audience of colleagues and friends listened intently.
The occasion: the U.S. book launch of his debut novel, Border Memories, published by Watermark Press.
“Dean is one of the best interviewers on the planet and I knew I was in such good hands,” Matthews said. “With Dean, it was such a privilege to be taken along. All of his interviews are very much narratives. I was fascinated to be almost like a spectator, even in that experience as he was asking me questions about this book. It was such an honor to share that space with him.”
Border Memories concerns a character named Sol, who works in the underground memory trade, harvesting memories from Mexican citizens and implanting them in Americans. He accepts a $100,000 assignment from the shady Mr. Bray, who is searching for a Tijuana graveyard where miracles have occurred. Sol’s task is to track down Nora, who may know its location, and extract her memory. But Sol soon realizes that Mr. Bray’s intentions are more sinister than he can imagine.
The novel represents the culmination of Matthew’s educational and writing journey thus far.
At PLNU, Matthews entered the Bachelor of Arts in Writing program, where he was mentored by Nelson, Michael Dean Clark, PhD., and James Wicks, PhD. He worked at improving his writing, which he achieved in part by writing for the campus newspaper, The Point (formerly The Point Weekly when Matthews was a student).
“[Writing for The Point] was such a helpful crash course in journalism,” he explained. “Because it’s low stakes and high stakes at the same time. Readership, learning the ropes, wanting to get it right. Building that type of muscle memory to carry around a notebook or make notes on your phone — that type of habit was built up when I was at Loma working for the Weekly.”
Matthews recalls being inspired by one world literature course he took with Clark during his second year.
“As I did the readings and took them seriously, I was opened up to really phenomenal magic realist, Latin American authors,” he explained. “We read [Gabriel García Márquez’s] One Hundred Years of Solitude and several [Jorge Luis] Borges stories.”
“What stood out for Borges was the fact that he could build an entire world in four pages, and the level of description to the most minute detail. He could go macroscopic to microscopic in four pages and it felt holistic and fleshed out. Marquez was doing the kind of Steinbeck generation Biblical epic in a place I’d never read or thought about. The way he used language was phenomenal.”
He soon after discovered the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jack Kerouac, and Cormac McCarthy, among others, consuming literature at a fast pace.
Mathews further honed that ability to find interesting stories in daily life through his early fiction, an internship with the San Diego Union Tribune, and the reading recommendations from his professors.
“With Dean, it was such a privilege to be taken along. All of his interviews are very much narratives. I was fascinated to be almost like a spectator, even in that experience as he was asking me questions about this book. It was such an honor to share that space with him.”
After graduating in the summer of 2014, Matthews worked for the university’s Office of Instructional Design, designing Canvas pages for the business and kinesiology departments. He eventually earned a Master of Arts in Education, with an emphasis in Teaching and Learning.
But Matthews soon became listless and creatively stifled.
“I felt like if I was ever going to take creative writing seriously, I had to do the full immersion,” he said.
He began looking at Ph.D. programs in the British Isles. He was particularly drawn to universities in Wales because of his Welsh heritage.
“My great-grandfather grew up and immigrated from Wales, so I was more drawn to the Celtic countries and traditions,” he explained. “It was quite a romantic place. When I toured Swansea, which was in the south of Wales on the bay — second largest city in Wales, but very much the little stepbrother to Cardiff, the capital. I fell in love with Swansea.”
Enrolling in Swansea University in 2017, Matthews had to adjust to the new environment, dealing with culture shock and the reality of being the farthest away from home he had ever been.
“I felt like if I was ever going to take creative writing seriously, I had to do the full immersion.”
“I was drawn to isolation in a way I hadn’t been before at all,” he recalled. “Physical isolation, being 6,000 miles away from my family and all my friends, and moving to a country I’d never been to before. Even in Wales I wasn’t the most sociable person by any means, part of that was I was so poor. And I’m here for two and a half years in the U.K. in the rain in this new city — let me dive into the type of isolation that happens in that circumstance, and try to figure out something about myself or about the world in that process.”
Matthews immersed himself in the Wales literary scene, and even worked as an associate editor for independent publisher Pantheon Books while also taking courses at the university. There, he participated in monthly workshops and met regularly with his advisor as he drafted his novel. He also developed a deeper appreciation for his favorite authors: Kazuo Ishiguro, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and Zadie Smith.
“I’ve read everything they’ve ever written,” he said. “Wallace because he pushes the boundaries of the human language. I was attracted to the gymnastics of that.”
“Smith and Ishiguro are such giants in the UK, they’re very much a cultural force. Zadie Smith is phenomenal at characterization, writing characters that feel so real you’ll follow them wherever. Ishiguro gave me permission to write sentences that could carry the reader along based on their moment and on their beauty and on these little vignettes. Hopefully, there’d be some narrative arc that creates tension and structure.”
Each author influenced Matthews’ craft and writing process, most of all Ishiguro and Saunders.
“Ishiguro wrote so subtly and beautifully where I [thought],‘Okay, I don’t need to have something shocking or don’t have to have something that pops off the page,’” Matthews said.
Border Memories can be described as speculative fiction, where the boundaries of science-fiction and the weird intertwine with reality to comment on the human condition. But Matthews shies away from the science-fiction designation, due to his disinterest in world-building, and even the ambiguous term ‘genre.’ He feels more indebted to Saunders, given how his narrative is primarily rooted in the modern world.
“Michael Dean Clark was the first person to put a Saunders story in front of me, ‘The Wavemaker Falters,’” he explained. “Saunders is so good at speculative fiction in a way that doesn’t draw too much attention to technology. It’s very much like ‘Here’s the world, here’s this one piece of technology that skews the reader’s perspective, but everything else is pretty much the same.’ He uses that to create tension or draw out certain characteristics of the human experience.”
Matthews wrote the first draft of his novel as his Ph.D. dissertation. Between that time and the novel’s publication in 2022, about 15 percent ended up on the cutting room floor after extensive redrafting and editing.
Although Border Memories is speculative fiction, it draws heavily from Matthews’ own experience living in San Diego.
“San Diego is such a safe place to me,” he said. “It’s so near but so far from the border. You can see it from certain angles, but if you don’t make a point to go to Chula Vista you won’t get anywhere close. There can be a humanitarian crisis happening, but La Jolla is going to be La Jolla.”
Matthews wandered around Tijuana and San Diego for research, using his experiences to flesh out his writing. In addition, reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza opened his eyes to seeing the border as both a liminal space and a space of transformation.
In addition, he explored feelings of alienation as he tried to make sense of the polarizing socio-political climate that left him with a fractured worldview. He particularly grappled with former U.S. president Donald Trump’s campaign message to build a wall along the southern U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think there was something about that message of fear, danger and invasion,” he continued. “That we should fear the other, or the immigrant. Or fear what’s coming for us and our way of life, rather than engage with it or try to understand it, or at least have some sort of dialogue with the people who are seeking solace here.”
“So I think that feeling was very bizarre to see this national media frenzy being riled up by Trump, who was being supported by members of my family and friends. I couldn’t figure out what the appeal was because the undergirding principle he was saying was false, that this danger was coming for us. If you go to Tijuana and engage with it, it’s hard not to have your heart transformed.”
Matthews’ stance is informed by his volunteer work with Dr. Jamie Gates, former director of PLNU’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation. He would visit Casa del Migrante, where he would speak with asylum seekers and refugee families.
“It’s impossible not to root for them,” Matthews said. “Your heart responds before your head does. That was one experience that was helpful.”
When Matthews first began drafting the novel, it had a more sprawling narrative, taking its main characters from Tijuana to Calexico. Eventually the scope was truncated to focus on Sol, Nora, and Mr. Bray, each of whom are both based on different aspects of Matthews’ personality or are composites of people he knows.
“Nora and Sol and Mr. Bray are all exaggerations of one part of my personality,” he explained. “I found a part within myself that I could accentuate and elaborate upon until it became more fleshed out.”
“We can’t avoid our influences. Zadie Smith writes that ‘all books spawn from other books,’ in the sense that we can’t avoid the things we are reading making it into the stuff we are writing.”
In order to humanize the characters with whom readers could empathize, he elucidated the careful process in developing them, especially since they have different lived experiences than his own.
“I approached the characters as people in the story before I approached the intersectionality of all their identities,” he explained. “I would have been paralyzed with fear if I were trying to make a statement about a Mexican woman who is a millennial living on the border. It’s definitely not my strength or what I was trying to do.”
“The characters, whether Nora or Sol, are all composites of people I know. I’d take a sense of humor from a person I know and mix it with the grief of another person I know. Then I’d mix it with other influences — like how Saunders seeps into this book, how Smith seeps into this book. We can’t avoid our influences. Zadie Smith writes that ‘all books spawn from other books,’ in the sense that we can’t avoid the things we are reading making it into the stuff we are writing.”
“But as far as the process, honestly, I didn’t worry too much about how a white person would come across writing a woman of color, because I approached it as honestly and diligently as possible.”
Another aspect that reveals itself in different scenes of the novel is faith. For example, in one scene Mr. Bray recalls attending Catholic mass with his mother, incorrectly reducing the reception of communion to a transactional function. This misconception colors his worldview, that anything can be bought or bargained for. This contrasts with the faith that emanates from Nora and Sol — one that extends from generosity, is indelibly selfless, and more concerned with forgiveness.
For Matthews, the faith component in the novel was unavoidable. Although he notices a trend in the U.S. where people are generationally becoming less religiously-affiliated, he still observes a yearning for the divine.
“The thirst for community, spirituality, and serving something beyond yourself is never ever going to go away,” he said.
Since returning to San Diego, Matthews has found community not only on PLNU’s campus — where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching world literature, rhetoric, and a publishing course — but also in the local arts scene. In particular, he extols San Diego Writers, Ink for establishing a physical space where art, music, drama, writing, and other art forms can collaborate.
“The thirst for community, spirituality, and serving something beyond yourself is never ever going to go away.”
It is this group of creatives, including his students, who he hopes he can serve as an inspiration and dispel the stereotypical myths about writers. Although he acknowledges that Border Memories was a personal project with a small print run from an independent press, he appreciated that a handful of students attended his book launch.
“Taking the time to show up and engage with the book is such a privilege,” he said.
Writing the novel helped Matthews understand an uncertain period in his life, but it also allowed him to devote his entire self to something: the act of creation. That was motivation enough for him to start that journey and have readers meet him along the way as they spent time in the world between the book’s covers.