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Meet Matt Werner '02, writer 2.0

Matt Werner combines old world printing techniques with 21st century internet publishing at Google.

Matt Werner ’02 lives between two worlds of small-press publications, where he is lucky to sell 1,000 copies of one of his books, and the high tech publishing world of Google, where his audience runs into the millions.

The odd thing about this dual existence is that one informs the other. For instance, Werner gave a lecture to an audience at Google on his 2011 short story collection, Papers for the Suppression of Reality (based on a Jorge Luis Borges  book review). In attendance was an artist who draws the Google doodles – the renditions of Google’s logo that the company changes from time to time to mark an anniversary. The artist was so inspired by Werner’s account of Borges’ life and work that she pitched the idea of a Borges Google doodle.

“She wanted to portray the labyrinths and infinite libraries that Borges wrote about,” said Werner. “And Google is bringing to life Borges’ vision of an infinite library, scanning and digitizing millions of books and making them accessible online.”

When the Borges Google doodle appeared on Aug. 24, 2011, the anniversary of Borge’s 1899 birth, those who clicked on it found Werner’s blog post on the life and works of Borges, giving Werner a vast audience for one of his favorite authors.

A consummate writer himself, Werner spends 10 hours a day working at Google and then returns home to write for three more hours to keep to his regimen of writing each night in order to publish a book a  year. “I’d like to publish two a year, but that may be too ambitious.”

His discipline has paid off. In addition to his first book, his second, Oakland in Popular Memory, came out in May 2012, and Bay Area Underground: Photos of Protests and Social Movements, 2008-2012 (with photographs by Werner and classmate Joe Sciarillo ’02) hit the bookstores in December 2012, documenting the many social movements in San Francisco, from Occupy to immigration rights.

“Joe works at the African Advocacy Network, a part of Dolores Street Community Services, and attends immigrant rights rallies where he takes photos, many of which are spectacular. He’s on the ground when events are happening, and I wanted to showcase another positive side of the city.”

Werner has another book slated for release in 2013 based on interviews with recent college graduates facing a tough job market.

For his day job at Google, Werner serves as a tech writer on Google Apps, Android and Chrome OS, Publish on Google’s Help Center, blogs and YouTube channels. He also serves on the Talks at Google Team, hosting authors to speak at Google’s headquarters.

At 28 and with nearly three years employment at Google, Werner is both older and more veteran than half of his colleagues. “But I still work with some amazing Silicon Valley veterans, including one woman who was a tech writer for Steve Jobs.”

Werner first honed his craft as a writer for Inside SI, and he credits English teachers Elizabeth Purcell and Bobby Gavin and the Nature/Nexus class with nurturing his talents.

He also befriended Kevin Feeney’04, who published Thought Magazine, a literary journal that featured professional writers. Feeney invited Werner to be part of a new venture, the Writing Center at 826 Valencia, started by Dave Eggers. “The first day I showed up in 2001, I helped to paint bookshelves and met the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Later I attended writing workshops led by both Eggers and Berkeley author Michael Chabon. These top-notch writers were approachable and encouraged me to write my own fiction.”

While Werner pursued a degree in English literature at Cal (taking classes from authors Robert Hass and Ishmael Reed), he also worked in San Francisco, this time as an intern with McSweeney’s, a publishing house started by Eggers. Werner edited pieces for McSweeney’s Quarterly and Believer Magazine, wrote essays and published interviews with artists, writers and musicians. He found himself in the heart of the Bay Area writing community and even helped Amy Tan with other McSweeney’s interns when she moved out of her home.

“I saw how writers lived, with most just scraping by and others living in Pacific Heights with homes filled with museum-quality furniture.”

After graduating from Cal, Werner worked for a local educational publisher before deciding to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his thesis on McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, which publishes oral histories of people living through human rights crises around the world.

He also did some oral history work of his own. “People in Scotland are fascinated by America’s hip-hop scene,” said Werner, who satisfied their curiosity by interviewing Oakland musicians for the university’s radio station and then playing their music. (Werner would later use those interviews for his second book, Oakland in Popular Memory, which has sold several hundred copies and earned a mention on The Huffington Post, which ran an excerpt of Werner’s book last June.)

“People are shocked to learn that Oakland has an amazing art and music scene,” said Werner. “When I tell them I was born there, they ask how many drive-by shootings I have witnessed.”

Werner publishes his books under the Thought Publishing imprint. “After Kevin Feeney stopped publishing Thought Magazine, I asked him if I could take over the name and publish my own titles with it.”

Werner also uses the help of a cousin who works as a printer and an uncle who is a bookbinder. He uses archival-quality paper so that his work will last. “In a digital world of increasing speed and mechanization, I still like to print books that are hand-bound.” 

Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Monday January, 14, 2013 at 05:10PM

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