Matthew Gavin Frank on Diamond-Smuggling Pigeons and More

By Alexis Sack, contributing writer 

Matthew Gavin Frank is a poet and nonfiction author who read excerpts from his 2021 book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, during the Visiting Writers series on November 4th. Interviewing him allowed me to see his thoughts behind his books and how being a chef impacted his writing, while also learning some pigeon facts.

  1. What made you decide to transition to being an author, after becoming a chef? Was this transition difficult at all?

I’ve loved writing ever since I was a kid. My mom was a junior-high school English teacher and would read to me all the time. I remember in 5th grade collaborating with my friend, Ryan, on a series of gross-out stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on). Mrs. Buccheim, our English teacher, was so excited that these two boys were writing extracurricularly that she allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. In order to satisfy the expectations of our peers, Ryan and I felt a pressure to ratchet up the intensity of each subsequent installment, which, to us at that age, meant ratcheting up the gruesomeness. Once, in Death at Dark part IX, I think, some serial murderer forced his victim’s hand into a garbage disposal before killing him, and we compared the resulting carnage to something like “a punctured egg yolk dripping from his ruined wrist.” Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader on whom I had a serious crush, started crying. After that, Mrs. Buccheim put a stop to our public readings, which at first made me really sad, you know? My first real writerly rejection. But eventually, I sensed something infectious, and even addictive in this sort of rejection. Writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned; the ability not only to confirm expectations, but also to agitate them.

I remember one night, years later, after a grueling 15-hour shift in the restaurant kitchen, going out for drinks with the crew to unwind. We all started asking ourselves what we liked to do in our spare time, when we weren’t working, when we weren’t cooking. I remember that I said, “Well, I like to write poetry.” It was a fabulous conversation…killer. After mulling this over, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks, to seek out a community of writers. An old friend of mine asked if I had heard of MFA Programs. I hadn’t.  He explained to me what they involved, and I couldn’t believe that such constructs existed. It sounded like a dream come true to me. So, I pursued that, and then kept tumbling down the rabbit hole.

  1. How has your experience as a professional chef impacted your writing, if at all? Are there any specific stories that might stand out?

When I got to the fine-dining stage of my long career working in restaurant kitchens, we chefs oftentimes challenged ourselves to take two seemingly dissimilar ingredients and, via experimentation and trial and error, uncover a third ingredient that would best bridge the original two. Sometimes, in order to foster that edible “connective tissue,” we had to manipulate the texture and/or temperature of that “bridge” ingredient. In this way, we found that a black olive sorbet could be the bridge between lamb and orange; that a licorice syrup perfectly bridges cured chicken thighs and dehydrated watermelon rind.  When properly combined, the flavors would meld, and have this seemingly singular (if still delightfully complex) impact in the mouth.  I find myself doing this in my writing as well, attempting to uncover—via research and imaginative alchemy—the secret connections between seemingly dissimilar bits of subject matter.

And I still sometimes feel compelled to write about food directly.  I wrote a book a few years back called The Mad Feast, which is kind of a weird, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of sorts.  There are 50 essays, which engage foods typical of each of the 50 U.S. states, and then digress from there, gathering in odd elements of U.S. history.  The book is concerned with why we eat what we eat, and where we eat it, and what such inquiries can tell us about ourselves.

  1.  I know I never really cared for reading non-fiction and I didn’t think I’d enjoy writing it (based on preconceived ideas), but I took a Creative Nonfiction Writing course that changed my mind. Is there anything you’d like to say to other people who might have that same mindset of what they think nonfiction is versus what it can be?

I confess that I’m still not terribly confident that I know what “creative nonfiction” means. Many of us who purport to read, study and subsequently write nonfiction tend not to really call the genre “nonfiction” at all, but instead refer to it as the “essay.” And, I know that the term essay has often been narrowly defined in academia, but the term “essay,” as a literary term at least, is a verb, which simply means, “to try, to make an attempt.” And so, that’s what we nonfictioneers do: we produce a series of risky attempts.

“Nonfiction,” after all, is a meaningless term. It’s the only genre defined by what it’s not.  Nonfiction is NOT fiction. But what is it, then? This is one reason the term is so woefully inadequate. Nobody really knows what it is, not even those who have long labored both critically and creatively within the genre. We are ever debating what constitutes creative nonfiction (or the essay), what its parameters are. In the academy, at least, “creative nonfiction” is offered as a relatively new discipline and focus in English Departments and MFA Programs and, as such, there isn’t the long and wealthy history of scholarship on this so-called genre, as there is with poetry and fiction. Nonfiction, comparatively, has yet to be pinned-down, and so rigidly defined, which is what makes it so exciting, and what makes what we talk about and debate and wonder about and experiment with in the “creative nonfiction” classroom so important, so urgent, so electric. Because the conversations that we have are the very conversations that will help impact and form the future scholarship of the discipline, and the ways in which it’s discussed, and read, and written. And while I’ve been referring to “creative nonfiction” as a “genre,” what I also love about it, is that “creative nonfiction” is not a genre at all, but an umbrella term for a multitude of sub-genres and experiments with genre, and trans-genre work…  It’s so exciting how works of “creative nonfiction” often prove how woefully inadequate my ideas are (and have been) in regard to my ability to both pin-down, and to resist pinning-down, the “genre.”

  1. Out of all the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite? Or maybe at least one that you enjoyed writing the most?

Oh, this is tough, as I tend to fall in love with all my subjects. I’ve already mentioned Flight of the Diamond Smugglers and The Mad Feast. A few years ago, I also wrote a book called, Preparing the Ghost, which is about the first-ever photograph taken of the giant squid, and the ways in which that photograph changed how we greeted the concept of the “sea monster,” and the “monstrous” in general—in art, science, literature, religion…  I still often think about the giant squid. It haunts me. After latching on to a bit of subject matter like this so intensely, across many years, it’s difficult to squeegee your brain clean of these obsessions.

Matthew Gavin Frank is a poet and nonfiction author who read excerpts from his 2021 book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, during the Visiting Writers series on November 4th. Interviewing him allowed me to see his thoughts behind his books and how being a chef impacted his writing, while also learning some pigeon facts.

  1. How do you come up with the ideas for your books? How much research goes into them?

I obsess easily. I come from a long line of folks who suffer from often-overwhelming OCD, and I’ve learned to channel mine I suppose. Sometimes, a story or an image or a bit of subject matter simply latches onto me, and I can’t quite cut it loose until I feel as if I’ve exhausted a multi-faceted investigation into it—until that bit of subject matter yields its secrets.  My latest nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, is about, in part, the ways in which trained carrier pigeons are used by diamond smuggling rings along coastal South Africa. Like many carrying over a childish sort of curiosity into adulthood, I am attracted to forbidden places. In fact, 10 out of my 12 juvenile arrests were for trespassing. So, when I heard that a portion of South Africa’s West Coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and was officially closed-off to the public for the better part of 80 years (the heyday of diamond exploration and mining in the area), plunging the local communities into a mysterious isolation, I became obsessed with visiting the place. Beginning in 2007, De Beers deemed portions of this land “over-mined,” and once they began to withdraw some of their interests there in the ensuing years, the doors to some of these previously closed towns slowly began opening to the public for the first time. Eventually, I navigated the hoops necessary for a visit. Flight of the Diamond Smugglers began in earnest when I was visiting the so-called Diamond Coast, chatting deep into the night in a bar with a former diamond diver. He told me about the ways in which workers would sometimes use trained homing pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of the mines, and that if pigeons are overloaded with too much weight, they can lose their natural GPS, and begin landing at random. This happened along coastal South Africa—diamond-bearing pigeons dropping from the sky onto the local beaches. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. A rain of birds, burdened with gems. It was that image that eventually led me to investigate further.

  1. You’re going to be writing at UMFs Visiting Writers series. How do you choose which excerpts to read or which books to read from?

I’ll likely read a couple of excerpts from Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, as it’s my latest. I tend to choose sections that represent different stylistic flourishes that occur in the book. So I’ll probably read a brief lyrical and/or research-heavy section, and a more narrative/memoir-ish section. What I really enjoy about such events is that they are part of the long, serpentine, interconnected and essential dialogue between writers, our readers, and our peers; between members of our wonderful, twitchy, arty community.

  1. Is there anything you’d like to leave the students at UMF with?

Can I leave you with some cool pigeon facts that I uncovered when researching Flight of the Diamond Smugglers? I hope so, because here they are: Pigeons have demonstrated the capacity to recognize all 26 letters of our alphabet (and other alphabets, if so trained); they can differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph; they pass the “mirror test,” meaning that a pigeon recognizes its reflection as its own image, and not as another bird—which is unheard of in the animal kingdom for the most part. Did you know that B.F. Skinner [the behavioral psychologist] kept a bunch of pigeons in cages and deprived them of food? For a few seconds each day, a mechanism would dispense a meager pile of seed. And soon, the birds developed what Skinner determined to be superstitious behavior. They seemed to believe that by acting a certain way, or performing some kind of action, they could compel a feeding. One pigeon came to believe that if it turned around three times in succession counterclockwise, that would yield a feeding. Another was compelled to swing its head like a pendulum six times, three to the right, three to the left. And another nodded in bursts of five. Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes.