Matt Bell

Interviewed by Charles Brown

Matt Bell

Photo Credit: Hannah Ensor

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.

His writing has often and accurately been described as incantatory. His poetic prose floats through lakes and marches through forests. It drags you through the dirt and the asphalt. It sings moons into the sky, and watches as you writhe uncomfortable below. And when his spell releases you from its grasp, you aren’t quite sure how or why, but you feel it – a subtle shift in consciousness, a bodily confirmation that everything’s okay and maybe even a little more than.

To start, I’m interested in when your relationship with writing changed. When did you see it as something that could become a career path, and to take it further, when were you able to see your work as having the potential to contribute to a global discussion? When did you come to understand that what you had to say about the human condition was important? Was there a specific moment that you can recall?

I didn’t really start writing until I was in my early twenties, which was also when I started reading literary fiction, people like Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, Chuck Palahniuk, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders, or Aimee Bender: those were my real points of entry into contemporary fiction and into writing. At the time, I was in and out of college and working as a bartender, and wrote my first stories outside of school or a workshop system. But eventually I went back, started taking creative writing classes, and aiming for what might come after I finished school. I wanted to eventually publish something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what a career like that would look like.

By the time I went to grad school, I was definitely thinking about “career” more earnestly: I was starting to publish stories in magazines, and became very invested in the small press and lit mag scene. Between grad school and the writers I got to know while living in Ann Arbor, that kind of life began to seem a bit more possible, which made it easier to go after. I also discovered that I loved editing and teaching, and so aimed for both of those jobs as part of a fuller literary life.

As for the work having the “potential to contribute to a global discussion”: I don’t know if I exactly think of what I’m doing in those kinds of terms. Obviously, I hope the work is entertaining and that it moves people—to feeling, to thought, maybe even to action—but I don’t think I start from the stance of “having something to say.” My first stories were really written as a kind of reader response—I loved some existing story so much I wanted to make more of it—and there’s still a large component of that in my process. I want to write books because I’ve loved other books. I want to write about the world because I love the world.

 I follow your Instagram account (thank you for that), and I know that you have a new novel in the works. How does the process of working with an agent and having readers now that you’re an established writer differ from when you started out, emotionally or otherwise?

I think the biggest change to how I share work with others while it’s in-process has less to do with being established or working with an agent and more with the difference between novel writing and story writing. I’m not a very linear writer, and my rough drafts are rough. I try to wait as late in the game as I can before I show my work to anyone else, so that they’re helping me with the best possible version of the book, the one taken as far as I can go on my own. As you mentioned, I just finished a new novel, and I didn’t show it to anyone until I was three years in. I didn’t even tell anyone what it was about until I’d worked on it for a year. What I need more than anything while drafting is to protect the weirdness and the wonder and the possibility that I’m chasing in a book. Sharing a draft too early—and letting other voices into my process—ends up being more risky than beneficial, at least for me.

That said, it’s also moderately terrifying to give your first reader three years of work all at once, hoping that it was worth it…

That makes a lot of sense to me. I know a lot of writers do it differently, but I really admire that dedication to self that you seem to be cultivating, and I think, too, there’s an inherent kindness in giving the best possible version of your work to someone who is going to help shape it. So how does it feel after having protected something for so long, to get that feedback from your agent or The New York Times that reaffirms that what you’ve created was worth it, not from an egoic perspective, but in the sense that you’ve successfully created more of what you originally loved and responded to? Does the three years of silent working affect your response to that feedback? Or is it all about the process of creation for you?

 I’d be lying if I said outside feedback didn’t matter. I’d like not to be defined by it, if possible, but of course I care what people think about my books and stories. I will say that there’s something incredibly moving about talking to the first person who reads a new novel manuscript. By that point, I’ve lived with the characters and events inside my head for years, but they haven’t yet lived in anyone else. I recently had a conversation where a first reader said the names of my characters back to me for the first time, and I immediately got chills. It’s an incredible feeling to realize that what once lived in only you will soon live in others, and the feeling is just as powerful whether that’s one person or ten thousand.

I’m also curious about “GO BIG WITH WONDER” – which I love! You say on your Instagram that you wrote that note to yourself after the second draft of your current project. Having read your debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, I’m in awe thinking about the kind of wonder you might impart into this new project. How can the sense of wonder get bigger?! Can you maybe give some insight as to how that manifested in your latest manuscript? Or talk about how important it is to write notes like that, little reminders, to yourself?

GO BIG WITH WONDER was a huge help with the new novel, which is an environmental/climate change novel set over a large span of time. I think it’d be easy to be overly dour or depressed in such a book, but I think that one of the things I wanted to focus on was how amazing and beautiful the world is, even at the worst of times. You can be furious about climate change and worried about what is being lost and still be in awe of the phenomenal world all at the same time. It was really important to me that the wonder and awe I feel at the world—at both the human and the nonhuman worlds, which are of course really not so separate—came through wherever it could.

I think most of my novels have eventually discovered their own marching orders like this: little provocations or reminders to help guide the long slow work of drafting. I don’t know them in advance, usually, but I’m always excited to discover them.

This is a more personal question, maybe. Your schedule seems to be really full. How do things like teaching, running, and your culinary explorations inform or impede your writing practice? How beneficial is it to learn from other artforms, like cooking, and take lessons inherent within that medium and apply them to your practice? 

I’m sure there are a lot of crossover lessons. For instance, runners talk about having to “run your own race,” not worrying too much about what other people are doing, and that certainly applies to being a writer too, where comparison and envy are the roads to imposter syndrome and writer’s block. But really, I think it’s best to do each thing for its own sake: I love teaching and trail running and cooking and writing. They don’t have to have more purpose in my life than that. I think I’m always happier doing the activity itself, as opposed to hoping for what the activity might do for me or how it might define me.

I love your response to this question. Crossover lessons may be understood consciously or even bodily, but to do each thing for its own sake – there’s no better way to be fully present in that moment with whatever it is that you’re doing. And sometimes it’s nice just to have a break. On that note, and because we’ve had a lot of discussion about the beauty of the natural world, I’ve got a fun question for you: if you could go running anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

I’m lucky to get to run in the Sonoran Desert every week, and to have had some good adventures while traveling for teaching and for work. I’m sure there are many new places I’d like to visit, but honestly I think the place I’d like to run again most is somewhere I’ve already been: last year, I ran the twenty-plus-mile “Cowboy Loop” in the Grand Canyon, down South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch and then back up Bright Angel, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. This fall, my wife and I backpacked Rim to Rim, and I’d love to go back and do that again as a run. Someday, I hope!

Charles Brown is an MFA candidate in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program. His poetry has been published in Anima Poetry Press and The AZ Republic. His Fiction can be found in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. He enjoys basketball, games of any kind, and a steaming cup of coffee in the morning.  




Micheline Mayor


bio picMicheline Maylor is the poet laureate emeritus of Calgary and a decorated professor who has inspired many students to write, including yours truly. She has published five books of poetry, the most recent of which, Drifting Like a Metaphor, featured twelve emerging Calgarian poets handpicked by her. She joined me for this interview from Windsor, Ontario, the day after participating as a featured guest in Poetry at the Manor.

From 2016 to 2018, you served as Calgary’s poet laureate. Looking back, what was the most memorable moment from that time?

The most memorable moment… Oh boy, that’s a tough question because there were a few. Many of them had to do with the people that I met. People were coming to consult with me anywhere from someone who had a polished memoir about his alcoholism, all the way to a new immigrant who had been in Canada for only two weeks, and there were kids as young as three and people as old as eighty-five. It made me realize that poetry, literature, and self-expression are a hugely connecting factor in our society. Before, I could understand how important poetry was to me but I couldn’t see it on a societal scale until I had that experience.

Wow, so even at a poet laureate level, you’re still learning.

 Of course! I think that poetry is a lifelong art, I think all literature is a lifelong art. It’s you against yourself no matter how long you’re doing it. So it’s a continual thing as long as you’re breathing you’re still learning. So that only puts me at the middle of my journey, so that’s pretty neat (laughs).

(Laughs) Also maybe daunting, especially for new writers.

 Well daunting or glorious because once you can say to yourself, this is a lifelong learning opportunity, you can give up on the idea of perfection and just move into letting it be a process. Rather than having an end goal, the journey is the goal.

How do you find inspiration for your poems?

 Well, as my friend Mary Ann Mulhern said yesterday, “You don’t find inspiration, inspiration finds you.” If you are standing or walking down the street, something can catch your eye and that can be enough. You’re riding your bike down the street, and all of a sudden you hear a line in your head, or sometimes you wake up from a dream with a line, and that can be enough to begin. So inspiration comes from everywhere. I think it’s also essential to add in commonality. Because If I only told of my own experience—that would be fine—but what is even more essential is when you can tap into the experience of the other, the big other. The big other can be the human experience, it can be human emotion, it can be the pure livingness of being on the planet, that can be enough. We all have this common experience of love, sorrow, joy, elation, exuberance, laughter, naughtiness, and sorrow. All of these are common experiences, so when we find those moments where a specific thing can become grander because of its connection to the larger experience, that’s when the best inspirations happen. So my experience comes from walking around being me. I’m a walker, I walk and think, walk and think.

Out of all the poems you write, how do you pick the ones to continue working on?

 The ones that I pick to work on have that element in them. Once I write out a rough draft, I double-check and I say to myself, can this also be someone else’s experience? Because I don’t need to diarize my experience, I need to tap into the connection. When those things come closely with an emotional charge, then it becomes important to work on the language of the thing. Then, is the language also doing something beyond common speech, beyond what can be said in the vernacular? If the language doing something, is the form doing something? And I think both the language and the form is essential to elevate a poem out of a common occurrence. The language is creating the entryway, the spell, the rhythm, it can entice you to think about things in a different way. So it’s the language, the emotion, and does it have that bigger experience available within it?

What’s your editing process like?

 I’ll look at it over and over and over again. I’d say my average is editing something about twenty times. Once I can say to myself, okay, this is satisfying for me at this point, then I have people I send my work to regularly. I break my own rules and I also send my poetry to my mother but that’s because she’s not the typical mother who’ll say, that’s nice dear, you’re so talented! My mother would say, this doesn’t work, this sucks, this word is wrong… So I send her my work because I get good feedback. But that’s because she’s been listening to me for twenty-five years harp on about how you should read, and what you should look for, don’t do this, and don’t do that… She’s been my most consistent student.

Right, so you taught your own mother to become a good workshop partner.

 Yes, and now my daughter also takes my classes but she’s a songwriter. She’s a really good lyricist because she picks up the same elements of poetry writing and puts them into her songs. One of the other people I send my poetry to is Susan Plett, she’s a poet who thinks she should be a psychologist, but she’s really a poet (laughs). Another one of those people is John Wall Barger because he takes no prisoners. He currently works for a magazine in the US called Painted Bride, and they have a podcast where the editors sit together over the slush pile and pull something out of it, read it, and discuss whether or not they are gonna publish it and why. Quite fascinating. You really get an inside view of what it absolutely looks like in an editorial meeting.

Speaking of editing, you’ve also been a long-time editor at FreeFall and now at Frontenac House, and also a professor at Mount Royal University. Does working on other people’s poetry affect your own writing?

 What’s most interesting to me is that I can deeply respect someone’s work and think to myself, oh, I’d love to write like that, then don’t, because my voice is completely different. But typically, I’d say it makes my writing sharper because I see what other people are doing and I think to myself, okay, you gotta clean that up and that up and that, and it forces me to look at my own work and say, alright, is all of this stuff cleaned up?”

But you know, I don’t think that anyone should write like me. I think you know from my classes too, where I don’t say, “write like this.” What I say is, “this is what your writing is doing, is this what you want your writing to be doing?”

Also, there’s this other thing that I learned from working with new writers all the time because I get this perpetual stream of first-year writers coming my direction. I have to remember what happened in my son’s karate class—if you can just hold on while I go for this little ride. I went to my son’s karate class when he was about six, and there is this black belt teaching this class. So I asked, “Sensei, you are a black belt, why are you teaching little kids?” And he said to me, “it’s important to be in beginner mind, if I can’t teach them, I’m learning nothing.” He really emphasized to me what it was like, oh yea, beginner mind! So teaching these first years forces me to have beginner mind and, in so doing, I also get beginner enthusiasm. I go, ah… this is fun. Ah, this is fun!

 What’s the toughest thing about being a poet?

 The paycheque. (laughs)

(laughs) Of course, the grim reality.

 The grim reality! Yea, it’s a tough go, man. You make a couple hundred here, a couple hundred there and that’s it. So, why do you do it? I gotta remember what Tom Wayman said, which is that poetry lives outside of the money economy, therefore it’s an act of social change. Being a poet is an act of rebellion, there is no reason to do it except that you love it because you got something to say and you want to say it beautifully. That’s an act of rebellion against the economy, all the politics, shit news, the crazy president down south, sorrow and suffering that goes on in the world.

Do you have any advice to new poets in dealing with the capitalistic realities of our world?

 Yea. Poetry is still free. You go to your free public library, with your free library card, and you can get free poetry and that’s also an act of dissent. Everything is available to you, a world, a lifetime is available to you. So my recommendation to you is to get yourself a library card and go read. Read, read, read, read. If you have a cellphone, pull it up on YouTube, that’s free too. So the paycheque sucks, but poetry is free, and that’s a big deal. It’s a wonderful amazement of life and it’s available to you, for free, at your fingertips. So my advice to young poets is to read. Use your library, use YouTube, learn something, expand your mind, think of things differently, be awake, be aware, be engaged.

As a final question, what is the most common mistake you see new writers make?

 Self-doubt. Everything else can be fixed in your writing. If you have shit grammar, alright we can fix that. Got writer’s block? Meh, we can fix that too! But self-doubt can kill your writing. The thing that can’t be fixed is self-doubt, that’s the one you gotta break through yourself from the inside out. As a writer, will you have self-doubt? Yes, because that’s human nature, it’s the human experience. But what do you do with that self-doubt? That’s the question. At times of self-doubt, feel it, rail against it, express it, and you rebuild yourself. It’s a tiny act of heroism, denying self-doubt. Giving up is the only time a mistake is fatal.

Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s currently trying to establish a sleep schedule, but writing isn’t helping. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, Wax Poetry and Art, and most recently, he was shortlisted for PEN Canada’s New Voices Award. You can find him on twitter @jTonyBae.