Saturday, August 01, 2015
Interview with Matthew Lickona

Matthew Lickona is the author of the memoir Swimming with Scapulars: Confessions of a Young Catholic, published by Loyola Press in 2005.

His latest work, Surfing with Mel, is a story in script form and was recently published by Korrektiv Press as the first in a series called “Lives of Famous Catholics.” It is available for $.99 download on Amazon.

Ellen: For readers who may feel like they know you from Swimming with Scapulars, can you tell us a little bit about what you've been up to since? Are you still a Catholic? Are you still married? Are you still wearing your scapular?

Matthew: I am still Catholic. I am still married. It has been easier to remain married than it has been to remain Catholic. Not too terribly long after Scapulars came out, I hit a nasty dry patch in my spiritual life. I even wrote about it for Loyola Press, as a sort of sequel to Scapulars. I called it Fingers Crossed That There's a Heaven. They didn't like it much. But I keep hanging on, crying "Lord I believe, help my unbelief!" and remembering Puddleglum's speech in The Silver Chair.

Since the attempted second memoir, my motto has been, "Fail on many fronts." I wrote some fiction -- mostly first chapters. I wrote a bunch of movie treatments. I wrote a bunch of songs, a couple of which I actually got recorded (with other folks singing, thank heaven). I self-published a comic starring a sentient fetus who survives an abortion. You get the idea.

As for my scapular, I keep misplacing it. But it keeps turning back up, and when I find it, I put it on.

Ellen: Swimming with Scapulars was a memoir. How would you characterize your latest, Surfing with Mel, in terms of genre? Why did you choose this approach to the material?

Matthew: Surfing with Mel was an itch I couldn't help scratching. It started with a blog post I wrote about Joe Eszterhas's leaked letter to Mel Gibson about their disastrous attempt to collaborate on a movie about the Maccabees. An old friend of mine from college left a comment: "Joe and Mel work on an Old Testament movie. THAT'S your movie, right there. Sort of like The Odd Couple meets The Player." A couple of hours later, I had an opening scene worked out. The approach was provided by the letter -- so many scenes read like they belonged in a movie treatment. I just got carried along -- like a surfer in a wave! I'm sorry, that was terrible. How would I characterize the work? A dramatic exploration of certain aspects of faith through the lens of celebrity meltdown.

Ellen: What drew you to this story?

Matthew: Mel Gibson, for starters. I can sympathize with rage and doubt. I can sympathize with the struggle to engage with the more alarming aspects of Christianity. And I think he's fascinating: a super-traditional Catholic who made it in Hollywood, then made a smash hit movie about Jesus, then just fell apart. What happened? What's going on inside a man when something like that happens?

Ellen: Was it difficult to give yourself license to tell a story about a personal drama that really happened without your knowing what really happened? In other words, are you worried that Mel Gibson might read this and think, "Who does this guy think he is?"

Matthew: I'm told that Shakespeare was pretty rough in his treatment of the real Richard III. Amadeus was awfully hard on the real Salieri. And Gibson himself took more than a few liberties with William Wallace in Braveheart. I figure I can get away with making Mel Gibson into a fictional version of himself, especially if I make it clear that I'm not pretending to tell the truth about actual events. That's not the point.

I was very pleased when a few readers said that they didn't feel I was out to mock Gibson, or condemn him -- because I wasn't. The Internet has that task well in hand. If anything, I was trying to make sense of him, to find the man inside the meltdown. I'm not trying to imagine what really happened; I'm trying to use the framework provided by one account of what happened to tell an interesting story. This isn't a nonfiction novel à la In Cold Blood. It's historical fiction, based on very recent history.

Ellen: I found it to be an incredibly empathetic portrait, which is one reason why I liked it so much. Normally celebrities’ personal problems and their lives (which, spiritually, must be fraught with peril), are treated as entertainment fodder for the rest of us. There is the sense that these people are “fair game” for our scorn and ridicule, because they are different from us, and because they choose to be in the public eye. Surfing with Mel is entertaining, for sure, in its appreciation for human folly, and funny, but the folly comes across as universal, only heightened in this case by fame.

Matthew: Right! I mean, the Greeks wrote tragedies about famous heroes. Shakespeare wrote tragedies about famous kings. I'd say celebrities are what we have to work with, the grist for our tragedy mills.

Ellen: The other day in Mass, they read from 1 Corinthians: “Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker, are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this.” I’m no Biblical scholar, but of course, I thought of Mel. Do you see any correlation?

Matthew: Well, I mean, a lot of really great acting involves the flaunting of less presentable parts, doesn't it? I'm not just talking about nekkid bodies -- I'm talking about the damaged parts of us that are a long way from presentable. I think it's safe to say that actors tend to pull from their personal stores of damage when giving life to a character, which means that theater is not a place for propriety. Which may be part of the reason some of the old saints warned against it. Actor Mel has had a frenetic, sometimes frightening intensity about him for a long, long time. It was sad when the demons came pouring out in public, but not exactly shocking. Though mind you, I'm not attempting to "explain" Mel Gibson. That wasn't the point.

Or were you getting at something else?

Ellen: I guess I was thinking less about individuals and more about the Body of Christ being the Catholic Church and Her members. I like this idea that those parts that appear to be the weakest, who might be seen to give the rest of us “a bad name,” are all the more necessary. Or, yeah, something like that!

One of the most poignant moments to me in the story is when Mel is talking about his rage, and he says that the only thing that sometimes makes it better is working. Many people with artistic temperaments work out their demons, so to speak, through art, but since this is a website about faith and gender, I’m wondering if you think this might also be something that applies more generally to men. It seems to me that men do suffer, at times on a very deep level, when they are suddenly rendered unable to work: retirement, disability, getting laid off. Would you agree that this makes Mel’s character more relatable, even sympathetic, given that he is professionally ostracized, even though he, himself, is responsible for that?

Matthew: Did you see Get the Gringo? Straight to VOD, but it wasn't half-bad. Kind of like Stallone's Bullet to the Head -- in theaters now! -- except with a fantastically crazy Mexican prison setting instead of New Orleans. So he's still sort of working, but yeah, I take your point. Did you see Reversal of Fortune? So very quotable. Jeremy Irons has a great line in there -- he's gone and married this fabulously wealthy woman, but he still wants to work. "I need that as a man!" he proclaims, while sitting in bed wearing a smoking jacket. Fantastic.

I do know that within my own life, there is frustration attached to not being able to do the work I want to do -- as opposed to the work I get to do/have to do in order to provide for my family. My dear wife once said something about how the life we've built was enough for her in a way that it was, apparently, not enough for me. It brought me up short. What the hell was my problem? Why did I need to take precious time to try making stories that no one was clamoring to hear? I won't bore you with an attempt to answer that, but I will say that yes, it makes Mel sympathetic.

One thing that interests me about Gibson in exile is his habit of reaching out to fallen stars. He brought Britney down to his place after her freakout. He's been in touch with Lindsay Lohan. He reached out to Whitney Houston and Robert Downey, Jr. too! I'm not gonna start rhapsodizing about the Wounded Healer, but it's interesting.

Ellen: Indeed, it is. I think we’ve hit our word limit! Thanks for your writing, Matthew, and for your time.

Matthew blogs at, with a few other “bad Catholics afflicted with the desire to write good stuff.”

Ellen Finnigan is a writer and a teacher living in Athens, GA. Visit her at or Photo courtesy of laurizza.

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