Redesigning the Modern Satire: An Interview with Matthew Reynolds

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

It’s rare in today’s market to find a well-constructed work of satire, but even more so to find one where the ludicrousness of the parody does not overshadow the humanity of its characters. This feat has been mastered by Matthew Reynolds in his brilliant debut novel, Designs for a Happy Home. Within its pages, successful designer Alizia Tamé bravely sets out to reveal the secrets of her philosophy, promising to not only revolutionize your home, but also to make you a better person for it. Unfortunately, her family and friends are not as easily perfected as the rooms in which they dwell. As Alizia’s philosophy is brought into question, the reader is privy to the shocking collapse and remodeling of far more than her designs.

It is without hesitation that TBL recommends this gem of modern literature, for it is not simply the tragic comedy that makes Designs for a Happy Home so unique: It is the fascinating way the story is told. Combining fictional memoir and how-to manual, Reynolds immerses himself in the glossy magazine persona of his main character, creating a parodic frame around an otherwise traditional marital drama. However, instead of allowing the genre of satire to overshadow the plot, Reynolds performs a surprising balancing act, leaving us with characters that are just ridiculous enough to make us laugh and just real enough to have us seriously invested in their outcomes. Alizia, in particular, comes across as a modern day Emma: humorous in her naiveté, lovable in her fool-hearted philanthropy, and unforgettable in her resilient spirit. It is testament to Reynolds’ writing skills, as it is to Austen’s, that a character who is so blatantly shallow, naïve, and at times manipulative, can also be so dearly loved and even admired by his readers.

While balancing a narrative that is simultaneously unreliable yet strangely trustworthy, Reynolds manages to create a character so passionate about the power of design that her philosophy, though seemingly ridiculous, seems strangely credible. Like a performing miracle worker, Alizia draws our attention to design dilemmas only to unfold her magic with such self-assurance that the reader is caught in the awkward struggle of wanting to both laugh at and applaud her solutions. From cabinets that levitate above a room on pulleys to incorrectly matched chairs causing psychological damage, it seems that no amount of ridiculous notions can turn us away from her. Even when her “miracle working” ceases to function in her personal life, her unyielding desire to bring her magic into others’ lives never dwindles, forcing the reader to realize that something deeply human dwells within her seemingly superficial intentions.

Matthew Reynolds’ Designs for a Happy Home is a delightful, humorous, tragically poignant story of one woman’s deep desire to bring happiness and beauty to the world, discovering in the end that we could all benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously, remembering all the good times—even if they didn’t happen at sunset—and that when the designs fall apart, those that stay to help you remodel are the ones that deserve your love.

Reynolds on Writing and Publishing

Never considering himself to be a natural story teller, Reynolds grew up as the “observant” member of his group, easily absorbed in the pleasure of reading, writing about, and teaching other brilliant literary works. However, the urge to strive for something more creative took hold in his early thirties, resulting in an unpublished book that Reynolds admits “no one seemed to like.” Luckily for all of his readers, Reynolds overcame this “traumatic experience” and, when his fascination with the language of superficial journalism burgeoned into a plot idea, Reynolds decided that he couldn’t stop himself from trying again. Using “the excuse of not being terribly productive” (i.e., the birth of his first child), Reynolds began to pour the voice of Design’s narrator—a voice that, Reynolds told TBL, he “simply couldn’t get out of his head”—onto the page. With a broad smile, Reynolds told TBL that he loved writing the how-to design sections. Often times, he found himself laughing aloud as he typed, caught up by the shallow yet well-meaning magazine persona of Alizia Tamé.

Despite the many laughs, Reynolds explained that the writing of Designs wasn’t as easy as he anticipated. Given how much he knew about literary theory from his work as a critic and professor, Reynolds was shocked at how difficult it was to transition from “observant” to “creative.” In particular, he told TBL that he struggled with aspects like dialogue, noting how different conversations in literature were from those in real life. When asked how he overcame this obstacle, Reynolds explained that his wife, Kate, was especially helpful in showing him how much of dialogue consists of “things that were not said,” always eager to point out when he was explaining too much.

After Reynolds smoothed out those minor literary peccadilloes, he said that the largest issue he encountered was struggling to paint a reliable plot with an unreliable narrator. Simply making Alizia more trustworthy would be impossible in a book that draws its power from the main character’s propensity to manipulate reality to fit her designs. Reynolds resisted the urge at the beginning to include any interjected monologue into the book but finally decided to add the six “testimonies” from other characters in the final draft. Additionally, the openness of her character was another result of Reynolds’ rewrite, a change he made after experiencing her evolution through the end of the book. As he told TBL, the original draft was “much more satirical” but, as he came to know his characters, he went back and emphasized the human aspects of each, allowing Designs to remain emotionally gripping despite its pervasive comic parodies.

Although Reynolds was once content without the creative outlet of fictional writing, he told TBL that now he couldn’t imagine his life without it. Addicted now to the exhilarating, risky, and absorbing aspects of his craft, he has already begun work on a new novel. Taking a more serious turn, his new book focuses on the invisible reach of globalization through the lives of a few select characters around the world. Told through four separate moments that bring into question concepts of identity, belonging, and the human community, Reynolds’ new work is sure to be as gripping and revealing as Designs.

Excerpts from Designs for a Happy Home

It is a How-To Book; and also it is my Life Story. Why both together? Because the roots of my Designs go deep into my life and their branches (i.e., their effects) stretch out in all directions. You will see my ideas spring up, and watch me bringing them across the threshold of reality. Testimonials from friends and colleagues will show you the influence that I and my Designs have had on them. Finally, I am going to reveal to you my own personal trade secrets—my Magic Mottoes—to help you activate the Design potential in your own lives. A beautiful Interior can make you calmer, more generous—and, in a really startling way, more you.

How come? The reason is that your Interior—your thoughts and feeling and fears—and the Interiors that surround you, with their wallpaper and stripped-pine flooring and leather chairs (or whatever), all somehow go together. If a lick of paint can lift your mood, make life seem bright, and the world a better place—imagine what a full-scale re-design can do. Imagine light-filled rooms. Imagine shining, adorable colours: Naples yellow, cadmium, Manila, cobalt, verditer, burnt vine-wood blue. Imagine spaces harmoniously interlinked. Imagine a bathroom where the shower really works, is really wonderful. Imagine chairs chosen and arranged so that conversations zings like a jazz band or murmurs like a melodious string quartet. Imagine a kitchen where everything you need is miraculously within reach, where your everyday dull chores become a happy dance.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

When I step into my Home Office at the start of each Designing day, I take a few minutes to remember when I have been most happy. Of course good Interiors can make my spirits soar but at this sensitive beginning state I don’t think of them so much as of private things, moments with Poppy or Jem, oh, and other people, other times. I let the smiles rise again inside me, the sunsets fill me with their joy. What’s funny is that these moments didn’t always happen in beautiful places. It wasn’t always sunset! But I remember them as if they did. Don’t you? If it was drizzling I remember brightness singing though the wet; if I was in some terrible stodgy blunt Interior it comes back to me miraculously transformed. This is the golden key. This is what I am trying to get through to these angel Interiors that somehow were there in the air around me even though they actually, physically were not.


Think of all the unhappiness that is caused by feelings of inadequacy, and all the money spent on therapy, on lifestyle coaching or simply on chocolate. I sometimes wonder how much of this could be saved if people gave just a little bit more thought to their choice of chair…

Matthew Reynolds, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund

Matthew Reynolds is a writer and scholar, author of The Realms of Verse (2001) and of many essays in the London Review of Books and Time Literary Supplement, editor of Dante in English and of Manzoni’s The Betrothed. He spent time in London, Cambridge, Pisa, and Paris before settling in Oxford where he lectures at the University and is a Fellow of St Anne’s College. Another book of criticism, The Poetry of Translation, will come out later this year; a new novel should appear in 2012.

After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit Brink Literacy Project (formerly Tethered by Letters). Over the course of the last decade, Brink has grown into one of the largest independently-funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.