Woog's World / A tale that's letter perfect
Published 9:36 am, Thursday, May 31, 2012
Matt Dojny's first novel was "The Million Dollar Mystery." An agent shopped it around to publishers.
The Westport native received plenty of "extremely nice rejection letters. They said they liked it, but it didn't fit their needs." They added things like, "this is very impressive writing for an 11-year-old."
At the time, Dojny was a student in Annette Fournier's workshop program -- special classes for gifted fourth through sixth graders. She was one of a series of Westport teachers who inspired the youngster. At Burr Farms Elementary School, he liked Mrs. Griffith's class so much he stayed after school. Librarian Matt Rudd instilled in Dojny a lifelong love of books.
Kay Blumhardt was "an intense, powerful presence" at Staples, Dojny says. He read "Moby-Dick" as an independent project. He also served as co-editor-in-chief of Inklings, the school newspaper (where he wrote a memorable piece in the voice of Dan Quayle).
But at Oberlin College, Dojny took a creative writing class with a professor he didn't like -- and who didn't like Dojny's work. So he focused his attention on art. After graduation he found "middling success," first in Texas and then New York. Yet, Dojny says, "I'm not good at schmoozing, and networking" -- two talents the art world "demands."
In 1998 his girlfriend got a job teaching nursing at a university in the "un-touristy" northeast corner of Thailand. Dojny tagged along.
After six months the couple split up. "I'm not the adventure-traveler type," Dojny says. "But I was there, so I figured I'd just randomly go places."
When he ran out of money, he did "Caucasian-related" jobs in Singapore. "If they needed a white guy to be a hand model, or act in a karaoke video or soap opera, that was me," he says.
He also wrote long letters to a friend in New York. When Dojny returned to the States, and felt mired in a series of "weird" jobs, and the friend suggested he do something with the letters.
Dojny liked the idea. Unlike art -- which he calls "gone forever" once it's sold -- a book stays around. Plus, if the novel didn't work out, it would sit on his computer. No one would see it, as they do with bad art.
He started writing. Now, on June 19 -- a mere seven years later -- "The Festival of Earthly Delights" will be published.
It's an enjoyably wacky novel about a young American living in Puchai -- a tiny Southeast Asian country that tourist brochures refer to as "The Kingdom of Winks." The book takes the form of a series of letters -- go figure -- describing bizarre traditions, strange transportation, odd food, mind-blowing sex, and of course much more.
Dojny calls it "a coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water" book. Ultimately, he says, "it's a very personal, visceral reaction to living in a foreign country, filtered and distilled in a weird way."
Puchai is, of course, a fake nation. "I didn't want to disrespect Thailand by getting details wrong," Dojny says. Much of his Thai experience infuses the book. But he's fabricated festivals and invented an ethnic minority, and done it endearingly well. Actress Kristen Schaal -- a contributor to "The Daily Show" -- says she wishes Puchai was a real place.
Dojny loved the writing process. He wrote for hours each day. And though he's a private person who finds it tough to "expose parts of my past, or myself," the result is worth it.
"The Festival of Earthly Delights" includes some of Dojny's drawings and scribbles. He doodled while writing his original letters home, he says, so he added them into the book. They give it, he says, "a hand-crafted feel."
The audience will be "younger, hipster-ish people" -- backpacking, Lonely Planet-type folks. Of course, he adds, "hopefully older people will enjoy it too!"
Dojny's day job is a designer for Scholastic Publications. (He works on textbooks, not Harry Potter .) He lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife and young son.
His parents moved from Westport to Maine several years ago. Dojny does not get back to Westport often, though he remembers fondly his many years working at Joey's By the Shore (and hanging out at the diner).
His mother, Brooke Dojny, is a noted food and cookbook author. She and Matt are doing joint readings in Maine and New York. Perhaps, he says, they'll be asked to bring their tag-team show to the Westport Public Library or Barnes & Noble.
A cookbook author and novelist appearing together is out of the ordinary, sure. But after inventing an entire Asian country -- its politics, holidays, money, even sexual tastes -- nothing strikes Matt Dojny as undoable.