Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a collection of short fiction, Cataclysm Baby, a novella, as well as three chapbooks: Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind. He teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University, and is the senior editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs The Collagist, a literary magazine. Matt’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, will be published by Soho Press in June 2013.
I spoke to Matt over email.
Can you talk a bit about growing up in Michigan? Were you bookish as a child? In your early years, did you read anything that was particularly influential?
I grew up in a small town called Hemlock, about two hours north of Detroit, out in the country but close to a couple of medium-sized cities: I lived there into my early twenties, then moved to the nearby city of Saginaw for a few years before my wife and I moved to Ann Arbor for her to start her PhD at Michigan. I was a pretty prolific reader as a kid—my brother and I both read a lot, and read most books together, one after the other—and a lot of books come to mind when I think of reading before and during my teens: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were of course both big draws, and maybe the first “adult” books I read. Out of all the Isaac Asimov I read then, I think I started with Robots and Empire and kept coming back to it. I read a lot of fantasy novels—David Eddings was a favorite as a teenager, as were the many Dungeons & Dragons novels out there, especially those by R.A. Salvatore, Troy Denning, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Choose Your Own Adventure-style books were favorites for a long time, and mirrored my interest in the Infocom text adventures I played on the computer: with D&D, those were my first experiences with malleable narratives, with creating story by making choices. I can also remember being given Steinbeck’s The Red Pony really early and being sort of entranced by it—I was young enough that I can remember sitting at a desk in front of my grandpa’s VIC-20 computer and reading that book, so who knows how long ago that was. And then in the sixth or seventh grade I started reading Stephen King end to end—The Dark Tower books were my favorite books of his then, and still are—plus people like Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and so on. I read mostly that kind of stuff until after I dropped out of college for the first time—around nineteen?—and then I had a brief flirtation with the Beats before I found Kurt Vonnegut, before an interview with Chuck Palahniuk in Poets and Writers led me to Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and (most importantly) Denis Johnson.
Why did Johnson end up being particularly important?
In Jesus’ Son, I heard a voice that was exactly what I had been looking for, not just in books but everywhere. It’s not even so much that I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t found that book—I wouldn’t be me. When I read that book, it almost immediately changed who I was, in some important and thankfully irreversible way, and it felt like that was an experience that only I’d had: Even though my paperback was covered with blurbs from The New York Times and so on, it’d be years before I’d even meet anyone else who’d read that book—and then I’d find out that many, many people had been moved as powerfully as I had. There are only a few works of art that stand out in this way to me, like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, another work I got to have to myself for a long time before I start meeting all its other diehard fans. This is the double-edged sword of growing up in a place without much access to the broader culture: On one hand, I had all of these works to myself long enough to find out what I felt about them before I had to have anyone tell me what to feel—but there wasn’t anyone to share them with either, so that it was impossible to gather a community around any of these art experiences. Eventually I did find a few local writer friends to share with, which changed how I interacted with these books, and then, of course, there was the internet and college and grad school and all the rest. It’s a lot harder to have this kind of private experience now, but not impossible: what was once the default now requires an act of willful withdrawal or withholding.
When did you start writing? Do you remember a specific moment when you thought, “This is what I want to do?”
I wrote in middle school a little, but sort of secretly—it wasn’t a public ambition—then stopped for high school. I wrote some bad poetry in the first few years of college, stopped again, then picked up fiction again more seriously when I was twenty or so. I’ve been writing ever since, and pretty much thought of it as something I wanted to do professionally immediately, although I tried some other things simultaneously, like accruing a near-decade of restaurant experience. I published my first stories in places like Hobart and Barrelhouse when I was twenty-four or twenty-five, but I didn’t graduate from undergrad until I was twenty-six, then finished grad school when I was twenty-nine. So there was a bit of a lag between the beginning of that ambition and the education that supported it.
Do you come from a creative family? Was your family supportive of your writing?
You know, I think my parents initially wanted us all to be doctors (or professional basketball players), but that wasn’t how it panned out. I’m the oldest of five, and my siblings include an architect and an ornithologist-in-training, a computer engineer and a budding anthropologist. And almost all of them are creative in their own way, whether it’s writing poems or painting or designing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. I think we were a family that didn’t think of creativity as a career choice, but as a complement to normal life: my dad’s a fantastic and prolific photographer, for instance, and has been his entire life—but I’m not sure you could get him to admit any career ambition in it. It’s just something he enjoys doing and puts a lot of effort into without wanting it to be the way he makes his living. (I suppose that’s the definition of a hobby. I’m not sure I’m very good at hobbies. Too obsessive.)
My family’s incredibly supportive of my writing now, and if they ever weren’t, I don’t think it’s because they didn’t want me to be a writer. The times when I felt they weren’t as supportive as they could have been were also the times that, in retrospect, it’s fairly easy to see that I was being an extraordinary fuckup in other ways. They just wanted to me to work hard and try to be successful in whatever I chose to do, which I wasn’t necessarily doing at the time. But once I was truly serious, then they took me seriously too. And that’s all I can ask for.
What made you decide to attend an MFA program? Was that a good experience? What do you make of the seemingly inexhaustible debate regarding the “value” of the MFA degree?
I attended an MFA program because I was aware that I wanted to study writing more seriously, and because I wanted to be in an environment where making art was not just accepted but normalized. And yes, also because I was ready to stop working in restaurants and wanted to move into another kind of career, and I thought grad school was one way to get there. The best part of the MFA—other than the amazing amounts of time to write—is being surrounded every day by talented people who believe that writing and reading are worthy of serious discussion and effort, and where that kind of effort is rewarded by both peers and people in positions of authority. There aren’t many places like a good MFA program, and probably too many people never find something similar again.
I went to Bowling Green State University, where I had fantastic faculty, and where my fellow students were hardworking and intelligent and fun to be around. I also got an immense amount of writing done there—I wrote the first drafts of both How They Were Found and Cataclysm Baby while an MFA student—and I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I hadn’t gone.
I guess I mostly feel like the debate over the value of the MFA is a waste of time and energy. But maybe that’s easy for me to say, because my MFA experience was so good. Or because I now teach at a university with an MFA program, with workshops to run and thesis students of my own. Or because I was publishing before, during, and after my MFA, and so never imagined it as the same sort of gatekeeper or secret handshake society or maker of mediocrity so many of its critics do. The MFA was useful to me as an artist, first and foremost, and I hope to make the academic study of writing equally useful to my own students. It’s not the only path to artistic success and I’m glad that’s the case.
There are articles written about this constantly because it stirs up debate but I wish they would stop. Even if I believed MFAs are terrible and a scam—which again, I do not—I would want these articles to disappear. We live in a world that for the most part does not value what we do as writers and in response we waste our time complaining about degrees and pedigrees instead of making the big art that might actually silence our critics—or at least bring new readers back into the fold. There’s a lot of righteous bitterness that tends to erupt during discussions of MFA programs, but for me there are more important things to think about—and to burn with anger over—than whether or not writers should get a higher education.
Is there anything, writing-wise, that does get your back up the way that MFA programs do for some people?
Sure. I can definitely be curmudgeonly, if given the chance: For instance, I can be moved to anger wherever someone writes about how the novel is dead or poetry is dead or bookstores are dead—I wish saying the arts are dead was, itself, a dead thing, but it probably never will be. But like the constant debate about MFA programs, these kind of articles—which inevitably get an inordinate amount of attention—serve only to diminish literature and its institutions to the broader public. We need champions, not doomsayers, and we should think about what we respond to publicly, what we spread the reach of through social networking or other means.
Your Tumblr feed often features quotes from writers who are skeptical of interpretation. It seems to me that the hyper-focus on “meaning” is one of the central problems with the traditional workshop model. Do you agree that this model is problematic, and if so, how is this addressed in your classroom? Can you recommend any readings for young writers who are fed up with this “John Gardner” guy?
I was just reading an essay last night in the new Writer’s Notebook II from Tin House by Bret Anthony Johnston that said, wisely, that “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things… Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.” (A long version of that quote will probably be on the Tumblr before this is published.) And of course he’s absolutely right: One place where my students—and where many writers, published and unpublished—sometimes misstep is this idea that the story should be about something rather than be something, that the story is not the experience but rather an attempt at mimesis or representation or (worst of all) allegorical symbolism, which means that the objects of stories become abstractions or substitutions. I want stories to be the thing, as Johnston says, to have the words and sentences and plot be the experience itself, not a puzzle under which the real experience lies—in an interpretive model, that experience then is almost always intellectual, not emotional, and that seems like an abdication of the powers of fiction. I don’t want to test your brain to see if you’re smart enough to get what I “mean.” I want to write sentences that as you experience them move your heart. And I think that’s best done by giving you a story which is first itself—not a simile or a metaphor or a system of symbols for the world but rather a created world.
In my own workshops, I try to never ask students, “What did you think this meant?” What I want to ask instead is, “How did this make you feel?” And then, “How did the writer create that feeling?” Those are the craft lessons to isolate and learn from—what Ben Marcus calls “the technologies of heartbreak”—the ways in which writers, through a variety of tools and techniques and tricks, move us. I’m glad if students write smart stories and I want them of course to engage with the world they live in, in all its intellectual and political and cultural and moral complexity, but the path to greatness as a writer isn’t the path of cleverness. We’ve got enough cleverness in the world, are literally overwhelmed with cleverness coming from all corners. The path I want them to see is the path of emotion and of empathy and for me a focus on interpretation too often leads us away from that path.
In addition to writing and teaching, you put together a new issue of The Collagist each month, which is one of the most consistently spectacular lit mags out there right now. You also edit manuscripts for Dzanc Books, read 100 books a year, and have photographic evidence of donning sharp suits for date nights with your wife. Sometimes, when I’m reading your Facebook feed, I imagine you’re a cyborg that Gordon Lish built to make other writers feel inadequate. How do you balance everything? What does a typical day look like for you?
Thank you for the kind words about The Collagist: that means so much to me. I’m incredibly grateful for my fellow editors and for the contributors who send us such good work.
I do get a lot done, although it never feels like enough. I’m certainly guilty of screwing around too much too: I’m usually up for one more beer, for instance, and I don’t even want to tell you how grotesquely high my Gamerscore on Xbox Live is. I think mostly I’m just a creature of routine, and that this routine makes my life possible: Every day, I write in the mornings, teach in the afternoons, edit or read or prep or wear those suits at night. I always wish there was a more exciting answer to this, some kind of secret portal universe that exists outside the flow of time and that I could teach others to access. But really, it’s just a matter of working often, in a particular way that works for me. Obviously, it helps that almost everything I have to do every day is something I enjoy.
What does your workspace look like? I know that you like to write while listening to music, especially during early drafts. Is there anything else that you like to have around? Snacks, drinks, cue cards, copies of favorite books?
I write at home, in an office upstairs. It’s a pretty sparse space: Right now, I don’t have any art or posters on the wall, no corkboards. Despite my frequent attempts to clear my desk of books and papers, it’s usually a bit more cluttered than I’d like: certain books migrate back, no matter how often you shelve them. And then of course there are piles for editing projects and folders of workshop stories for class and so on. I’m not particularly precious about pens or paper or anything like that: the main thing I do to make the office a workspace is to try to do very little else there. It’s the place I write and edit and teach from. Almost nothing else happens in the room.
In your interview for HTMLGiant, you talked about how editing The Collagist has influenced your work, saying: “All the time now I pick up books and see some quality that I see in fifty submissions a month, and I think, why bother? I already read this all the time. That sort of feeling helps push me to keep looking for what only I can do, instead of what anyone could.” I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot in relation to George Saunders’ new collection, which has garnered near-unanimous praise. I love Saunders, and, certainly, no one else can do what he does, but I don’t think he breaks new ground, exactly, with Tenth of December. I suppose my question is: how does a writer recognize when he’s come across something only he can do, and once he finds that thing, how does he push past it?
You know, I think this is a frequent complaint about Saunders—I think I’ve made it before too, in one of my less generous moments—but what’s easy to forget is that Saunders published his first book already Saunders: because he’s been so widely imitated, it’s easy to forget how singular that book was, how unprecedented it was. Teaching “Sea Oak” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” to undergrads this year, it’s been nice to be reminded of what those stories were like to read in a world in which there weren’t thousands of people trying to make stories just like them. Unlike most writers, he broke his new ground with his first book—and I’m not sure that it’s fair to ask him to be able to do it over and over. In an interview at BOMB, he said, “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.” He talks about the excitement of finding new discoveries inside that “wedge of talent”—and if you watched him on Charlie Rose recently, you can hear him explain some of those discoveries, like finding ways to stop making the darkest turn possible in a story in favor of a turn that seems to mimic some of the good things he’s seen happen in his life. So from his own point of view, he is breaking new ground—but perhaps he’s burrowing down into the territory of his talent or else building above it, rather than discovering whole new territories.
It’s a funny thing, as a fan, to want to ask an artist to abandon the thing we love them for—that makes them them—in favor of something else. And some writers do that, and some don’t. I think both models make sense. This conversation makes me think of an artist displayed at MOMA named On Kawara, whose Today series of paintings are very simple-seeming and also highly repetitive—and what’s beautiful to me about them is the way that they’re repetitive, the way that he attempts to create what is basically the same series of moves every day for forty-plus years, with only slight variations—most notably the date—to distinguish them. There are different ways to go about the task of making a body of work, and I don’t think any one way is necessarily better than any other.
But going back to Saunders, who I’d argue arrived on the scene already in possession of a singular voice, one that he’s continued to refine and explore across his newer books: I wasn’t at the same stage when I published my first book. My influences were more obvious—you can read reviews of How They Were Found if you ever need to make a list—and while I’m proud of that book, I’m much more proud of the books I’ve written since, which I think continue to move toward something that is more unique. For the sake of argument, let’s assuming my novel is approaching this level of uniqueness: it’s taken me a handful of books to arrive nearer to where Saunders started (and again, I’m not actually saying I have). Looking at my three books, you could argue for a lot of progress and new ground being broken and leaps forward—but maybe that perception is built on where I started, not necessarily where I’m going.
I think we could have an interview-length discussion just on the topic of what we can or should ask of the artists we love, but I’ll resist that temptation here! I like that idea of “burrowing down.” I suppose I’m thinking about this in relation to my own experiences in workshop; I’ve seen a lot of students (myself included) garner praise for this one thing they’ve figured out how to do well, and when they try something entirely different, there can be a real sense of disappointment from the group. So they go back to hitting that same note over and over. I think young writers often hear, “Let yourself play, throw shit at the wall until something sticks, it’s okay to fail,” but that doesn’t always reflect their experience. As teachers or editors or classmates, what can we do to foster that sense of play? As writers, how can we sort out the difference between something that’s unsuccessful because we haven’t worked at it enough and something that’s unsuccessful because it simply isn’t within our “wedge of talent”?
I want to have that conversation about what we can/should ask too! Let’s save that for another day, for sure.
I think the problem you’re raising here is a potential danger of both the workshop method and early attention. But I wonder how big of a problem it really is: My experience in workshop was that many of the qualities of my work that I was praised for weren’t fully developed yet—they were the strongest parts of my stories, but that’s different from being strong—and so even if I returned to them again that was an opportunity to continue to improve on those elements. And I agree that workshops are sometimes bad at creating a strong risk-taking environment, but maybe that’s okay: If every new thing we tried was greeted with equal enthusiasm, there wouldn’t be much actual risk, right?
As for what isn’t inside our wedge of talent: I think that most writers have two kinds of strengths, developed in two different ways. One kind of strength is what we’re naturally good at or inclined toward. These skills still need development and deepening but they’re our base, where we start out. The other kind of strength comes from all the techniques and tactics we develop to cover up our weaknesses: A writer might be bad with indirect dialogue so they have to innovate with indirect dialogue and summary. They might struggle with transitions so they embrace the power of the fragment or the jump cut. I am almost entirely convinced that what we call style is often nothing less than an individual’s unique way of masking the inevitable failings of their magic, a sort of writerly sleight-of-hand that keeps the reader focused on the outcome of the trick.
You’re big on revision, which I admire. In your conversation with Jac Jemc for Word Riot, you talked about the difficulty of getting back in the voice of Cataclysm Baby to do rewrites, after being away from the manuscript for a year. I had a similar situation with my own book, and struggled a lot during the editing process. How did you manage to get back into the voice of that project? Has editing manuscripts for Dzanc taught you anything about navigating your own rewrites?
It’s always at least a small problem to switch back to the old voice from a new one—sometimes when giving a reading from How They Were Found, for instance, I’ll run out of breath in the wrong part of the sentence because the rhythms and syntax I’m using now are so different—but I think that it’s not quite as big of a problem as it could be. If the manuscript is all of a piece because it’s written with a certain set of syntactic or acoustic rules, sometimes I think a pass done much later—while working under a new set of rules—sometimes actually adds a slight bit of sentence-level variation that’s probably good for the book. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Editing has helped me with my own work, if only because it’s made me so open to rewriting and editing: I spend a lot of time helping other people with revisions, which means I’m often thinking about the ways I could push myself harder. I was editing novels before I’d ever finished writing one, and that was especially instructive. The first book I worked on at Dzanc was Roy Kesey’s Pacazo and getting to talk to Roy about the book and how it worked was an educational experience that absolutely helped me finish my own book.
You obviously thrive on being immersed in writing all day, but some writers find that teaching/editing/publishing sucks the creative energy away from their own work. What advice would you give to young writers who are considering this path?
When I was in grad school, I realized that writing and teaching and editing and writing reviews and so on were really all part of the same thing, and that thing was what I really wanted, a literary life. I’m lucky to get to spend my day doing these different tasks, which so often feed into each other. An obvious example is how the stories I’m teaching in my workshops often contain the solutions to problems I’m having in my writing—ways I’ve forgotten about to transition between scenes or exit paragraphs or even structure chapters—that I wouldn’t see if wasn’t teaching. And of course having to teach elements of craft tends to reinforce them for me too. Reading submissions exposes me to some of the most progressive and interesting writing around—and also to all that is common and ordinary, which has to be avoided whenever possible.
My advice for students is that they should try everything they want to: Some of them are going to find out they like the editing part of this life better, or the critic part of the teaching part. Some of them are going to find out that they only want to write and have to find a way to make that work. The trick for me is that I can do almost anything else I want to and still write as long as I write first: I wake up, write for several hours, and then I start the rest of my day, which means that I’ve always been able to write before any of these other tasks start making demands of my time and energy and ability. I couldn’t do it the other way around—and I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to, or feel guilty about putting their writing before their other responsibilities. But we need to privilege what’s most important in our daily work, which for me means writing before I do anything else.
Usually I would never pose this question to another writer for fear of inducing a panic attack, but you’re a special (read: productive) case. What’s next for you after In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods comes out in June?
I’m at work on another novel, making the turn toward the end of a first draft. One of my goals is always to be well into the next project when the last one publishes. There’s a lot of self-protection in that—it’d be hard to start a new book amid the noise of reviews and touring and so on—and so I’m happy to have it to work on. And so far so good, I think: There’s a ways to go still, probably, but I’ve learned to trust in my process and to believe that eventually it’ll get me where I need to go, as long as I stick with the work, as long as I can give it the form of attention and the work ethic it deserves.
Kristina Born is the author of One Hour of Television. Her stories have appeared in DIAGRAM, Unsaid, PANK, and elsewhere. She currently lives and writes in Vancouver.