Matt Burgess' office in his Uptown apartment is more like a closet.
"It's me, the kitty litter and an Ikea chair," he says.
He enters each morning by 9 and begins writing in a black-and-white Meade composition book. He scribbles the next draft on a yellow legal pad. Then types it up on his computer, prints it out, rips it apart and does it again. There is no music or TV. Just silence.
Sometimes Petunia, his fiancée's large cat, jumps on his lap.
"When the cat squats on the notebook," Burgess says, "it's a pretty good indication that I'm not writing well."
Based on the success of his first novel, Burgess is writing plenty well. A transplant from Queens, N.Y., Burgess is a finalist for a 2011 Minnesota Book Award. Winners will be named April 16.
His weekend-in-the-life tale of a small-time, fretting 19-year-old drug dealer -- "Dogfight, a Love Story" -- landed this rave from the New York Times book section: "With an acute ear for dialogue and the poetry of the street, Burgess gives us the pizzerias and bodegas, playgrounds and schoolyards, barbershops and bowling alleys of his home turf. His is a cliché-free depiction of gritty urban reality."
So what's he doing in Minnesota? Long story. His girlfriend, Georgia Banks, is a social worker at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. She considered applying to the U for her master's, but never did. And Minnesota was the only place that accepted Burgess in its master of fine arts program.
He finds writing about New York nearly impossible in New York, with family and friends "pulling me happily in other directions.
"Living out here, far enough away, gives me perspective," Burgess says. "I'm homesick for New York. It's a place I daydream about."
He won't divulge what the second novel is about -- "too superstitious." But whether he's writing, playing hoops at the Y or having a beer at Grumpy's, Burgess appears here to stay.
"When I left to come out here, I told everyone I'd be gone three years and then I'd be right back," he says. "But it's comfortable here. It's easier for me to write. And after getting slapped around for nine months, my face doesn't hurt from the cold. I appreciate spring and summer in a way that people in other parts of the world do not."
He and Georgia are getting married in July at an apple orchard on her family's farm near Maple, Wis. He plans to teach some writing this summer at the Loft, including a four-hour dissection of Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral."
In the meantime, he'll be in the closet with the litter box -- writing. When he's finished for the day, about 4 p.m., the silence is broken.
"With 'Dogfight,' I'd crank some Eric Clapton," he says. "With this book, I listen to Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' as a reward."