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.  




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