Matt Bell is a writer, professor, critic, editor and someone who is excellent to talk to. He took some time to talk to us while touring his new book, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, and oh man are we glad he did. Love, Nicolle
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: When and how did you start writing?
MATT BELL: I recently read an essay by Rick Moody where he set the date for starting to write at when he started to revise—and I think that’s a perceptive way to separate the proper writing work from earlier, lesser attempts. For me, that means I started writing seriously when I was twenty or so, so about thirteen years ago. I started writing not because I necessarily had something to say but because I loved certain books so much I wanted to make more books like them.
NE: When and why did you start submitting writing?
MB: I first submitted work too early, got properly rejected by everyone, accepted the chastisement and didn’t submit again for several years. My first stories were published in magazines like Hobart and Barrelhouse, and they were the same stories I’d failed to publish a few years earlier: They were among the first real stories I wrote, and it took several years to get them strong enough to be accepted. Before, I hadn’t realized how far they were away from that point, in part because I wasn’t a good enough writer or reader to tell. I’m exponentially harder on the work and on myself than I was when I first started, which is probably true for most writers. It took a long time to learn to stay in a single piece long enough to make it as good as it could be.
NE: You have authored a few books now, what is your creative process and do you know you “have a novel” when you’re at the start.
MB: I think I do know whether I’m working on a story or a novel almost immediately, but the process of writing both is mostly the same: I write sentence by sentence, usually without much of a plan, just trying to extend whatever fragment of the story I’m working on. By the time I have a certain number of fragments written, I can usually start to arrange them in some kind of order, according to my current understanding of the character and the plot, often trying out different shapes and forms until I find the right ones. Often there are gaps between fragments that need to be filled, and that material is suggested by the arrangement of the original material: Once you get a few pieces of the puzzle down, there’s a sense of what shape the missing pieces might be. After I have the whole story written, then I rewrite obsessively, over and over.
What’s different between the forms is that the novel tends to be a bit messier: A novel is a bigger project, and comes into focus a little slower. For me, the novel takes longer to find its truest shape than the story does. In both cases, I tend to overwrite and then cut back—the last short story I published was 8,000 words in print, but 12,000 at one point—and for novels there might be a similar proportion of cut material. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was about twice as long at one point. I don’t think it’s that rare of a process. In an interview with The Paris Review, Elie Wiesel said, “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”
NE: How different is the self-editing process in a short story vs. a novel for you?
MB: I don’t know that they’re that much different: In either form, I tend to retype as I rewrite (especially in early drafts), I read aloud obsessively, I try to cut as much as I possibly can so that only what is absolutely necessary remains. In her essay “Close Reading,” Francine Prose offers up the phrase “putting every word on trial for its life,” and that’s really the best way to describe the rewriting process I know, and it applies equally to both stories and novels. Maybe the main difference between forms isn’t in the self-editing process, but in working with an editor: It’s been my own experience as an editor that a short story tends to arrive on my desk fairly fully formed, usually in need of little more than sentence-level suggestions, but that a novel sometimes needs a more comprehensive editorial process. And of course that makes sense, just because the novel is such a bigger manuscript, and usually has a lot more moving parts than the average short story. Mark Doten, my editor at Soho, was a crucial part of the process for In the House: The book wouldn’t be what it is without his invaluable help.
NE: Your writing is grounded in realism yet you always add an element of the fantastic. Who are some of your influences and what would you say to other writers who also feel their work wants to transcend genre?
MB: It’s probably no surprise that many of my favorite contemporary writers are all people who often purposefully toe this line: Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Brian Evenson, David Ohle, Stanley Crawford, Kate Bernhemier, Rikki Ducornet, and many more. I think that the best thing we can often do about working the realism/non-realism divide is to ignore it, or at least not be afraid of it: I think this distinction can be a distraction, and I don’t think it’s very true to real life, where we often have experiences that incorporate elements of the fantastical or magical thinking—even when, as sober rational thinkers, we might know better. In an essay in Fence, Evenson talked about growing up in a religious culture that literally believed angels could walk the earth, interacting with people—and so it’s hard for him “to think of the literary distinction we make between the real and the fantastic as being very firm or very definitive.” I grew up in a similar culture, and feel similarly about it. Sometimes writing in mythic or fabulist or fantastical modes isn’t about being “non-realist,” but instead a kind of shifted realism that incorporates where I’m from, how I grew up, and how, despite no longer being a believer in the supernatural world of religion, I sometimes still see the world. Mike McCormack, a great contemporary Irish writer, once said that he thinks fiction should be “the work of a measured and sober realist who has due regard for the metaphysical and fantastical elements which underpin every moment of our lives.” I think that sounds about right too. Even if the work contains elements that are not “real,” it doesn’t mean that the work is less about our contemporary life than something more straightforwardly realist—and I think you might even argue that a fiction that doesn’t make any place for magic isn’t particularly realist, at least in a country in which people regularly report conversations with angels, have after-death experiences, and claim to be guided by voices they hear during prayer or meditation.
NE: Do you work as an editor of other writer’s work while working on your own or do you take time out to isolate while working on your own fiction?
MB: The only way in which I isolate my own process is that I try to write early in the day, before I do anything else: If left to my own devices, I write from the time I get up into the early afternoon, and then I turn to my teaching and editing and reading and the rest of my life. That does enough to protect my writing time from my other work. I’ve never had a life where I did nothing but write, and I don’t really expect to. I’m not sure that would be healthy for me or good for my work, at least not over any extended period. It’s good to have other kinds of literary engagement to balance out the writing time.
NE: You are a voracious reader, which is one of the most wonderful things about you. Has it always been this way? Do you think reading other writers’ work while working on your own helps or confuses your own process?
MB: I’ve always been that way, at least as far back as I can remember: it seems like reading is one of the few things I took to very naturally. But I’ve still read more in the past few years than ever before, and of course what I’m reading has changed over the years as well. As for whether reading helps or hinders, I think it always helps, no matter what I’m reading, but especially when I’m reading truly great books. Reading almost anything might help you find solutions to your story’s problems, or recharge your language, or renew your love for narrative, but reading great books is also how you set the measure for your own work. Whoever your literary heroes are, there should be an attempt, at least, to push your work as far as it can go, until it hopefully begins to at least approach that level over time, across a career. We might not succeed very often—these people are our heroes for a reason—but we should also be willing to do the hard work of trying to be great ourselves. For a writer, there’s no better way to continually raise and complicate that standard than to be constantly reading.
NE: I found the medical issues you chose to introduce in your recent novel so, so moving. What drove you to write about this? (Thank you for it).
MB: I don’t necessarily ever set out to write about a particular topic, so these events in the novel maybe appeared in a more organic way that perhaps defies the kind of intent your question implies. I will say that one thing I’ve learned is that not having children is something you do, in the same way that having children is. The cultural norm is that married people are supposed to want to have children, and so when they don’t want that, it does sometimes to suggest to others that you must not be able. In our case it’s a decision we’ve made, and not a sign of anything else, but of course we know many other couples who do want to have children and haven’t been able to have their own, and the different ways in which these couples attempted to bring children into their family—IVF, adoption, etc.—or tried to come to grips with the idea of not having kids surely inspired similar emotional movements in the novel.
I’m not a particularly autobiographical writer, and while every character probably has some link to my own person, I mostly write about characters doing things I wouldn’t do, making different choices than I would, and by doing so I hope to end up with characters whose beliefs and ideas are different from mine. This is how I try to get somewhere new, to arrive at new feelings and new thoughts, even as I continue to explore, almost by accident, the central questions of my own life: In this case, what a marriage without children looks like, how it might grow in its own powerful ways. But of course the narrator in In the House isn’t the answer to that question, because his conclusions are so different than mine—he never considers a version of his marriage that doesn’t eventually include children, not once in all the long years of his story. He wants children more than anything else, and his reaction to their inability to have them—and then to have them in the manner he desires—is to try and bend the world to his will in a way that estranges him from both the world and his wife, from the family he might have had instead. In many ways, this hubris is what powers the novel: He makes a series of tragic mistakes in the way he responds to their infertility, and these mistakes nearly cost him everything, starting with the wife he loves so much.
NE: Will you continue to write longer works or will we see short fiction from you in the future, you seem to me, to be the kind of writer who sticks with his original artistic integrity, that is to say, if the work seems like it needs to be a short, you will write it as such and if it seems like it should be a novel, you will write it as such.
MB: I’ll definitely continue to write both. I’m in the middle of rewriting a new novel now, but when I finish I’ll be returning to the short story for a while: I haven’t written many in the last few years, and I miss the form. But you’re definitely right that I wouldn’t try to stretch a short story into a novel: It seems like a lot of first novels are really just long stories, and those books rarely seem to succeed. Thankfully, I don’t think it’s usually that confusing which form a bit of new writing is bending toward. I’ve written a lot of failed novels, but I don’t think the issue was ever that they really should have been stories.
NE: What advice can you offer for writers just starting to realize their own voice?
MB: The most valuable thing a writer can is to write every day, for a few hours, preferably at the same time, in the same place. But if that’s not possible or enjoyable, then some other routine will work just as well. The point is that the routine will privilege the place of the work in their life, and that’s a crucial step: It’s hard to create a place for art in your life when the world around you doesn’t necessarily value art—and it absolutely doesn’t, especially when you’re starting out—and so you have to privilege it yourself. At the same time, a writer needs to develop an equally mighty work ethic as a reader. Nothing will teach you faster how far you still have to go than reading great books, and nothing else will better inspire you to do the work to get there.
Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is out on June 18th.
See more of the Go Forth series here.