Kelly Writers Series: Matthew Gavin Frank

Writer Matthew Gavin Frank in a Pigeon head. Photo by Meaghan DelleCave

On Wednesday, March 9, DePauw welcomed author Matthew Gavin Frank to discuss his most recent book Flight of the Diamond Smugglers as part of the Kelly Writers Series. Frank is a “creative non-fiction” writer, a genre he himself finds difficult to describe: “It’s the only genre described by what it’s not- it’s not fiction. Originally, it was used to describe anything that wasn’t frivolous.” Frank’s extensive knowledge of the term ‘non-fiction’ is a testament to what Professor Joe Heithaus, coordinator of the Kelly Writers Series, described as “the vast, long tentacles of his imagination and curiosity in his writing” (a nod to Frank’s book Preparing the Ghost, which is about the giant squid and the first-ever photograph taken of it).

Frank took the stage (his first time doing so since before the pandemic) in a rather unusual fashion. Understandably nervous, he requested the audience participate in a “grounding exercise” with him. “I have this pigeon mask that I'm going to put on and I'm going to flap my arms three times as if they were wings, and simultaneously coo as if a pigeon,” Frank told the audience as he removed a rubber pigeon mask from a bag, “I would feel really weird if I was the only one in the room cooing, so please coo with me.” He then proceeded to do exactly what he said he would, and we, in the audience, not wanting to make things weird, did so as well. (To be very honest, the exercise was, in fact, grounding and I feel deeply connected to the people who were in the room with me- we’ve shared an incredibly personal experience.)

Jitters out of the way, Frank began reading a passage from his book about the physiology of the carrier pigeon and their “miraculous ability” to fly great distances without sleep and on just an ounce of birdseed. Maybe pigeon anatomy doesn’t seem particularly interesting to you -- that’s understandable -- but  Matthew Gavin Frank’s writing is so exciting and engaging, that it becomes interesting. 

Wanting to read something a little lighter and less textbook-like, Frank opened to an excerpt from the book which featured some personal experience pertaining to some of his first ventures into writing, gruesome death by pigeon, and his first kiss on the lips from someone who wasn’t in his family. 

Pigeon anatomy and first kisses aside, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers tells the true story of how carrier pigeons were used to smuggle diamonds in South Africa. It details the ethical issues and immorality of the practices used by diamond companies such as DeBeers. 

Following the reading, Frank took questions from audience members about his writing and research methods and work-life balance. He gave advice to students on free-writing and explained how his obsessive tendencies aid in his deep-dives into topics he wants to research, “I'm just kind of going and going and going. I'm like a baby, new to the world who just wants to put everything into its mouth…  I guess, practically speaking. I wake up in the morning, I'll eat some Raisin Bram, I'll have like four cups of coffee, and I'll sit down at the computer for six hours a day/four days a week.” Describing how he balances this style he said, “I always feel very unsettled, very unbalanced- in the best way, though.”

Frank emphasized the power of free writing and journaling in his own work. He said that most of the time his free writes stay in his notebook but from time to time, they might become a catalyst for a poem or a point of entry into an essay. “Free writing helps me pay attention to my surroundings and be more intentional,” said Frank. In addition, he said he was keeping numerous notebooks when he was heading out in the Diamond Coast of South Africa. His journal entries were helpful when he decided to write Flight of the Diamond Smugglers as he was able to go back to his entries and fact-check himself.

Frank pointed out the importance of research in his work. In particular, he said that research helps him foster connections between seemingly dissimilar things. “Something I am always telling my students is that we, as writers, have the power to manipulate connections between just about anything, said Frank. “Sometimes all that takes is sufficient research and imagination.”

The event was interesting and insightful according to senior Ivy Sedam when asked about the Kelly Writers event. “I found it interesting how Frank talked about the challenge of respecting the voices of other people when writing a story that is not yours,” Sedam said.  

Senior Emma Von Werder added, “I think it was valuable to hear that not romanticizing other people’s trauma should be a priority in writing nonfiction. I think not many writers say that so explicitly because people who write nonfiction make it sound pretty.”

The next Kelly Writers Series reading will be Wednesday, April 27 with Lee Ann Roripaugh.