An interview with Matt Bell, by Michael Goroff
Matt Bell is one of the most active dudes in the world of the small press. Not only does he edit for small press heroes Dzanc Books and runs the online lit mag, The Collagist, but he’s also managed to publish a collection of stories, How They Were Found, and a few chapbooks (Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind), and is currently hard at work on a novel. His book reviews appear in publications such as the Los Angeles Times and American Book Review, and, according to his blog and at the time I’m writing this, he’s read 88 books in 2011. I met Matt at AWP in D.C. this past February, and he’s honestly one of the nicest and most generous guys I’ve ever met. I conducted this interview via email over the course of several months and asked him questions about How They Were Found, his new novel, writing to music, and why short stories matter.
I'd like to start by asking you about the collection as a whole. The stories in How They Were Found are very different from one another, which was something that I really liked about it, this diversity of perspectives and forms and subjects. But they are incredibly different, and it made me think about what makes a collection of stories more than just a handful of stories and more of a cohesive object. Was this a concern of yours when collecting the stories? Somehow, as different as these stories are, this collection works as a real, solid collection, and I was wondering if you could maybe discuss how that happened.
One of the reasons the stories might be so different is that I didn't write them with a specific theme in mind, or even with the idea that I might one day pull them together: I was just trying to write the best stories I could. That's really all I can do, anyway. I'm certainly aware of certain preoccupations of mine, but I can't really direct what my stories are going to be about, at least not so directly as to decide to write a bunch of stories about one thing or another.
When the time did come to start looking at making a manuscript, I was very aware of wanting a collection that read best as a whole book, despite the stories not having purposeful links between them, and I wanted that book to show off what was unique about my worldview and my style upon the page. I think these thirteen stories do that, in a way that thirteen others might not. There was no real easy way to determine which stories should stay and which to go, except to read the ones that seemed like they might fit over and over as I rewrote them in the context of the larger book. Eventually I settled on the stories that are in the book, and then I spent a long time looking for their right order. The last ten days I worked on the book, I read it cover to cover every single day, trying to hold it all in my head, to see how it worked as a whole instead of as separate parts. I don't think there are any shortcuts to this kind of process, or at least none that I found.
In the end, I think the book does have an arc that connects the pieces into a single whole, even if there aren't specifically planned links between the stories. "The Cartographer's Girl" couldn't really fit anywhere but the beginning, as I saw it, and from its concerns the rest of the book is able to progress. There are little "blocks" of stories throughout the book, like the three stories at the end, which each have their own ways of organizing the family through structures, first in the imagined houses of the boy's blueprints in "A Certain Number of Bedrooms, a Certain Number of Baths," then the obsession with the objects that fill the doomed house in "The Collectors," and then the more linguistic/textual structure used to describe what's been lost in "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed." There are a number of organizational units like that throughout the book, and it was by thinking of the stories in this way that I was able to (hopefully) strengthen the potential links between them, and also to build a more satisfying whole than any more random collection of my stories could have produced.
I like how you describe these stories working together because they have similar "preoccupations," or as I saw them, obsessions. This is an obsessive collection, one where I felt something being worked out as I was reading it. There's a lot to do with codes and orderings and violence, and how the characters try to make sense out of and use these things. I want to ask you about all three of these--codes, ordering, violence--so I'll start with codes. They are obviously introduced from the very beginning, in "The Cartographer's Girlfriend," but different codes pop up throughout the collection. Not just codes in the sense of symbols like in "The Cartographer's Girlfriend," but I'm also thinking about codes of conduct, as in "The Receiving Tower" and "His Last Great Gift." What were you exploring with the use of these different types of codes? How did you find yourself utilizing codes perhaps in the construction of these stories?
"Obsessions" is a better word, probably. Certainly the stories themselves are obsessively structured, and the characters in them. And often they sprung from obsessions of my own: sometimes directly, as in the historical fictions, "His Last Great Gift" and "The Collectors," or even just words I've particularly loved, like "cartographer," which was enough to spawn a whole story from playing around with the word, the idea of the word.
I do like codes, order, rules. Rituals. It's also one of the reasons I'm drawn to repetition, I think: A person does something one way for a long time, and then they do something different. That's a story. That's all it really needs. And of course it's also powerful at a sentence level, which lets you bury or nest that larger-form structure in line after line. One of the most perfect first sentences in contemporary fiction is the beginning of Ben Marcus's "The Weather Killer": "They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died." Those three repetitions and then the difference are fantastic—I love how it turns out of that third clause to undo some of what has been built, undermining itself while also making something else possible. That could have been the whole story, and I would have been happy.
As for how I built my own stories, I'm not sure any of them generate exactly the way you suggest, but I do think codes of conduct can be generative—I just didn't usually have it in advance. Still, having a character have to follow a certain routine or ritual or be bound by a certain morality creates a present which must be broken or exhausted or fulfilled in order to reach the future that waits beyond it, and the action necessary to reach that resolution pushes the story forward. Often the stuff it takes to make a story go presents itself as these other qualities—these ways of being that characters have—create the worldview that along with diction and syntax help create the character's personality for the reader, and help create the boundaries of what should stay inside the story, and what should be cut or excluded.
Do the orderings or indexes in certain stories, then, act in the same way as ritual for the characters? As in, do these instances--especially in the last three stories, which all somehow utilize indexes of sorts--give the story a structure, a focus, a boundary it cannot cross until the story's over? I'm also curious about where these indexes come from. Are they aspects of the characters, or of the demands of the story? Or is that the wrong question for me to be asking?
I think that these are mostly different ways to look at the same issues: These structures give rise to character, and then the characters are somewhat constrained by them, and through the stories they might break out of the structures, or might be defeated by them. One way to think of it is to think of the structure as the lens through which the character sees the world, so that in "A Certain Number of Bedrooms," the boy is seeing the world through the lens of his blueprints, which the brothers in "The Collectors" gather their family not in memories but in things. In "Index," X gathers and gathers, but is ultimately unable to connect the dots, to draw connections: He's got all the pieces, but isn't able to bring analysis to them yet, and that, really, might be one of the glues that holds the whole book together. So many of these characters have some trauma or loss to deal with, but the systems available to them are insufficient to the task. Their stories then become a way for them to approach that boundary you mentioned, and then, through repetition or exhaustion, to somehow cross over or else escape the need to do so.
Trying to find where these things begin is always difficult, because they are so deeply linked in these stories: In my story, X arose from his index—I had the form first—but the form would be empty without his character filling it, without the trauma his family experienced necessitating the index's creation in the story. It's a loop that is very, very hard for me to trace the proper beginning of, even if I know where I started to do the initial drafting. It's generally not a story at the point, or even anything that will become one, unless all of these qualities begin to appear, and to work together in some way.
How They Were Found deals with violence in many stories. Even the stories that aren't explicitly violent still felt violent, or at least antagonistic. Also, violence, like the use of codes, seems like another of your book's obsessions. What inspired the violence in these stories? Do you see violence working in the same way as the indexes? What I mean is, was there a "circular" relationship between the characters and the violence?
When we talked at AWP, you said something about the book to the effect that the violence in the book was mostly notable for having already happened, which was something I hadn't really realized: In "Index," the only murders in the story have already occurred, and in "Dredge," the murder of the girl and of the mother both predate the opening of the story. I came home thinking about that, and found it applied to other stories too: "A Certain Number of Bedrooms" has the mother who committed suicide well before the story's opening, and even "Wolf Parts"—as violent as it is in its various presents—has a weird relation to time, to cause and effect. So I think you're right that there's something interesting in where the violence is located, and how it spurs the stories onward. I'm not sure how conscious I was of those effects when I was writing, but looking at it now, I think that this is connected to the roles the characters often take on, that I've mentioned elsewhere.
Using "Dredge" as an example: Punter is not a detective at the beginning of the story, but he becomes one to solve the murder of the girl he finds in the pond. This is not a role he's been prepared for by training, or even by inclination, natural ability: All that prepares him to step into this role is the trauma he'd previously experienced, the murder of his mother and the preservation of her body. I think that kind of progression occurs in a number of the stories, and it's something I see in the work I've done since How They Were Found as well: My characters are frequently prepared for their stories by previous loss, made capable of doing what they will by what has been done to them, or what they've already done in the past. It's probably also notable here that my characters often have incomplete relationships to memory, despite their frequent attempts to codify or organize it: In some ways, this might serve to keep them from being too-welled prepared, and also to keep the progressions springing from their traumas from being too neat.
I've been really excited to see your daily Twitter updates about how you're progressing with your new novel. I'm really excited to read it, especially knowing how diverse and eclectic your writing is. I want to ask you about the process of writing this novel. I'm thinking of your actual writing process, of course, but more than that, I'm wondering how what you've done with the stories in How They Were Found--the themes of violence, the indexes and codes and rituals, etc.--if these are finding their ways into this new longer work of yours. How is your relationship with these kinds of narrative elements changing and developing in the novel? Or are you taking a different approach entirely?
Because of the delays in publishing, it probably looks a little more like the novel I've been writing is coming right on the heels of How They Were Found, but of course I've written a lot of other stuff in between: I finished a novella-in-shorts called Cataclysm Baby (that will out from MLP next year), wrote 30K or so of another novel that didn’t pan out, and a half-dozen or so other stories. So I'm not only distant from the chronological time I wrote the stories in How They Were Found, but I've also written maybe triple that number of words since. It happens faster than you think it will, if you're writing steadily.
I think some of those elements that you found in How They Were Found are still present, much later, although it'd be an oversimplification to say they mean the same kind of things, or that they work in the same way. The trajectory from book to book feels—right now—tied to some of the themes of family that occurred in How They Were Found, but maybe are less-emphasized there, especially in the first half of the book. If that's come to the foreground, that means some of the other elements might have been reweighted as well. That said, the novel has still found me working with memory, with the organization of experience into systems and roles.
I should say that all of this feels so obvious when I look back at it: It seems like, Hey, of course this is what I've been doing, where I've been leading, etc. I use words like trajectory, and so on. But really, in the moment of writing, it's so much less purposed than that. I wrote the entire first draft of this novel with outlines or planning, and so the concerns of the book emerge from me via the act of writing, rather than being written out from some previous conception of what I wanted to talk about. I think this helps the approach to my various materials shift and advance: the new work becomes a stage in which to drag some other feeling or idea out of me, and then to refine or further explore those discoveries, instead of a place to express what I already know.
What happened with the novel that didn't pan out? I'm interested in this for selfish reasons, I'll admit, since I find that the way I write is a lot like burning down everything I've ever done and scrounging around in the rubble to find whatever gem might remain. My own issues with this probably stem from a bucket-load of neuroses and crippling self-doubts, but I find that every time I burn down one of my stories, the result might not be a better story but at least it's a better understanding of what I'm trying to do. So what was the novel that didn't pan out, if you're comfortable talking about it, and how did you decide it wasn't panning out? Did you extract anything productive from that novel, or did you scrap it entirely?
Mostly, what happened was that it just wasn't good enough: I wrote the first draft in seven months or so, then revised over the next year and a half, completing a fairly straightforward second draft and then a radically revised third, in which the book mostly became something else entirely. I think, in the end, it might have been possible to publish that book, somewhere. Doing so would have been a huge mistake, of course: I knew it wasn't as good as most other books—certainly not as good as the books I liked best—and also that the marks of me learning to write it were all over its page. The nicest thing I can say for it now is that it was wildly ambitious: It covered a hundred years or so, with characters who repeated and recurred through time, and was written in a variety of voices and forms, very few of which repeated. Some of those sections remain in excerpted form: Very short pieces of it were published in NOÖ, Smokelong Quarterly, and Lamination Colony. Everything else—some 400 pages of material—never appeared anywhere, and only a quarter or so of that was ever seen by anyone else, the three people in my writing group at the time.
In the end, it's this huge amount of writing I've never shared, but I don't regret that, or the writing of it. At the very least, I came out of the novel writing process having learned how to write every day, and also beginning to build the stamina I'd need for the very long stories I'd start writing that year, many of which are in How They Were Found. Those two things—work ethic and stamina—are a lot to gain out of what was ultimately a failure, and I couldn't have reached where I am now without working on that novel, or at least not as quickly.
It never really gets easier to have fiction I've worked on for a long time not pan out, but I think it's important to keep the bar that determines work is ready to submit raised, and then to raise it higher. It's better to have a smaller body of work that is all strong than to have a ton of work out there that is less well-crafted, less finished, less pushed past what others could do. I'm lucky to have that little bit of restraint holding me back sometimes, and I'm finding myself holding back even more as the years go on. There's absolutely no hurry to get to the next book, the next story publication: In so many ways, that part of writing is filled with distraction and disappointment, even when things to go well, as they mostly have for me. The only buffer I have against that is the writing itself, and holding that to a continuously higher standard seems like the most important goal I've set for my career.
I know you've been listening to music while you work on this new novel, and I find that really interesting, writers that can do that. If I listen to music when I write, it's hard for me to write, and when I do listen to music, I have to limit what I listen to more atmospheric music, or at least music that can just be thought of as "white noise," never anything like rap that demands a lot of attention. What kind of music were you listening to while drafting this novel? Was there any particular reason you selected the music you selected, i.e. you were looking for the music to in some way inform your work?
I do listen to music a lot when I write: pretty much all of the time, unless I'm reading aloud and rewriting, where I need to be able to hear. But honestly, the music fades into the background pretty fast for me: it's there to help me settle in, to set up the work space, and to keep me in the chair long enough to get moving on the day's work. I'll forget all about it for great spans of time, and come out of the work to find out a couple albums have passed.
For the novel, I was listening to mostly instrumental music too, or things where the lyrics can fade away into the background, just another instrument. I've been working on the novel for 18 months or so, so things have come and gone in the rotation, but some of the more persistent ones include albums by Ben Frost, Brian Eno, Fennesz, The Antlers, Barn Owl, Bear in Heaven, Teeth of the Sea, Bon Iver, Codes in the Clouds, as well as Clint Massell's soundtrack for The Fountain, one of my absolute favorite pieces of writing music.
This year I've traveled more than I ever have before, and I found music an invaluable way to immediately make any space somewhere I could work: I would sit down in a coffee shop or a bar or someone's kitchen table, turn on my computer, and plug in my headphones: as soon as my "writing music" came on, it helped create that same space I enjoyed at home, in which I do my work. I can't imagine if I'd had to work in all those strange places surrounded by their own ambient noises: maybe it would have been better in some ways, but I think I would have gotten less done, and certainly it would have been hard to keep up the certain kind of open constancy that novel drafting seems to require.
May was Short Story Month, and you daily updated your blog with entries about specific short stories, interesting thoughts by celebrated short story writers, etc. I really enjoyed these updates. They introduced me to a lot of great stories I'd never read before, and they also gave me some interesting and varied perspectives on the short story form. In a way, I'm conflicted by what short stories have become, or I guess the reasons that many people seem to be writing short stories (as my very limited experience as an MFA student, as a general attitude I sometimes perceive in some of the other students in my program), which is either a) to get published in journals so they can later sell a novel, or b) to learn how to write a novel, as if the novel is the ultimate form of writing and the story is only the stepping stone. Am I completely off-base there? At the same time, there are a great many stories being written and published solely for the sake of existing as amazing, precise, perfect things. I was really appreciative of the dedicated amount of attention you gave to short stories as a form, and I'm curious to hear from you what you look for in a story. I guess an easier way to get this question out would be to ask you, what are your favorite short stories, and why? Sorry. I think I have a lot of big, stupid questions I'm trying to ask. If you want, just say whatever you feel about short stories. I know you love them.
I started to answer this negatively, then stopped myself, started again more positively, because despite all the frustrating things you mentioned, I think your question ended up in a place where he can celebrate short stories instead, which is a better way to end. And while I'm bad at listing favorites, certainly some stories come to mind almost immediately: "Emergency" by Denis Johnson; "I'm Slavering" by Sam Lipsyte; "The Paperhanger" by William Gay; "You Drive" by Christine Schutt; "The Sound Gun" by Matthew Derby; "Prairie" by Brian Evenson; and really I could go on and on, talking about Amy Hempel, about Aimee Bender, about Raymond Carver and Stanley Elkin and Jonathan Lethem and Etgar Keret, and even then I'd only be scratching the surface of the most famous examples I can come up with, the ones that first moved me to want to write, that showed me how. And that wouldn't even be close to accurate, to answering your question of why write stories, of what the best stories should be.
The truth is, I am always falling in love with stories, because I am always seeing things done in the short story that cannot be done in any other medium, that couldn't be accomplished in a movie or a novel or a song or a painting. In the end, I think that's the best reason to write one, or to read one: because the short story can create some effects that nothing else can. The best stories are always the stories that do this, and it's those stories that are destined to last, to be returned to over and over. Those are the kind I want to write, of course, but even more than that, those are the kind I want to read, and also the reason I keep going back to the literary magazine, the online journal, the stacks of new collections being published everywhere year: inside them, there are experiences that can be had nowhere else, and I will never have so many of them that I won't want another.
Michael Goroff is a contributing editor and small press fiction staff reviewer for Barn Owl Review. He lives with his cat in Akron, Ohio, where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction through the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program.
Also by Michael Goroff:
Review of Volt by Alan Heathcock
Review of Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young
Review of Us by Michael Kimball
Review of How They Were Found by Matt Bell