NEA Literature Fellowships

Matt Ruff

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls

The house, along with the lake, the forest, and Coventry, are all in Andy Gage's head, or what would have been Andy Gage's head if he had lived. Andy Gage was born in 1965 and murdered not long after by his stepfather, a very evil man named Horace Rollins. It was no ordinary murder: though the torture and abuse that killed him were real, Andy Gage's death wasn't. Only his soul actually died, and when it died, it broke in pieces. Then the pieces became souls in their own right, coinheritors of Andy Gage's life.

There was no house back then, just a dark room in Andy Gage's head where the souls all lived. In the center of the room was a column of bright light, and any soul that entered or was pulled into the light found itself outside, in Andy Gage's body, with no memory of how it had gotten there or what had happened since the last time it was out. As you can imagine, this was a frightening and terrible existence, made more terrible by the continuing depredations of the stepfather. Of the seven original souls who descended from Andy Gage, five were later murdered themselves, broken into still more pieces, and even the two survivors were forced to splinter in order to cope. By the time they got free of Horace Rollins, there were over a hundred souls in Andy Gage's head.

That was when the real struggle began. Over many years, the two surviving original souls - Aaron, who is my father, and Gideon, my father's brother - pieced together enough of a sense of continuity to figure out what had happened to them. With the help of a good doctor named Danielle Grey, my father worked to establish order. In place of the dark room, he constructed a geography in Andy Gage's head, a sunlit countryside where the souls could see and talk to one another. He created the house, so they'd have a place to live; the forest, so they'd have somewhere to be alone; and the pumpkin field, so the dead could be decently buried. Gideon, who was selfish, wanted no part of any of this, and did everything he could to wreck the geography, until my father was forced to exile him to Coventry.

The effort required to complete the house exhausted my father, and left him with little enthusiasm for dealing with the outside world. But somebody had to run the body; and so, on the day the last shingle was nailed in place, my father went down to the lake and called my name.

Something else that puzzles me about other people is that a lot of them don't know their purpose in life. This usually does bother them - more than not being able to remember being born, anyway - but I can't even imagine it. Part of knowing who I am is knowing why I am, and I've always known who I am, from the first moment.

My name is Andrew Gage. I was twenty-six years old when I first came out of the lake. I was born with my father's strength, but not his weariness; his persistence, but not his pain. I was called to finish the job that my father had begun: a job that he had chosen, but that I was made for.

Matt Ruff was born in New York City in 1965. He graduated from Cornell University in 1987, and published his first novel, Fool on the Hill (Grove Press), a year later. His most recent novel, Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (HarperCollins), won a Washington State Book Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and was nominated for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa Gold. Visit Matt Ruff on the Web at

Photo by Lisa Gold

Author's Statement

Let me begin by passing along an apology to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia: my wife is very sorry she mistook you for a telemarketer. You were so polite and well-spoken on the phone, it seemed natural to assume you worked for the private sector. Usually when the government calls, it's the IRS, wanting to know how an honest person's annual income can vary as much as mine does.

This past year has been one of the leaner ones. Despite a great critical response, my latest novel has so far failed to be the breakthrough book I hoped it might be. Most of the people who've read it have loved it, but finding those readers in the first place has proven to be a challenge. This Fellowship will be an enormous help, allowing me to focus on finishing my next novel instead of worrying about money. I'm grateful to the NEA for both the support and the vote of confidence it represents. Thank you so much.