Critical Questions: Matt BellBy Tracy O’Neill
The busiest guy in indie literature
Matt Bell just may be the busiest guy in indie literature, writing a novella, a short story collection, and three chapbooks -- all while heading Dzanc Books and its blog The Collagist and teaching. A few weeks after the release of Cataclysm Baby we talked about magical realism, book giveaways, and literary legend Gordon Lish.
CM: Your collection How They Were Found begins with a story "The Cartographer's Girl," in which a young man marks the locations where important moments might have -- but did not -- happen with his lost girlfriend. It strikes me as strangely apropros of fiction for a story to be based around non-happenings. What do you consider the criteria for a story to be a story?
MB: I'm not sure I can speak for all stories, but one of the things I learned while arranging How They Were Found was that many of mine begin at the moment a character takes on some kind of new role: they become a cartographer or a detective, a mother or an ex-girlfriend. What makes the story go is the way they try to fulfill this new role, or to escape it. The character possesses want that creates this opportunity, and it's the opportunity for meaningful choices-on the part of the character, and of the writer-that creates most of the tension and conflict and moral landscape of a story. In "The Cartographer's Girl," it's not important whether or not these events in the story did or didn't happen. What's important is what the cartographer wants because he believes that they did, and then what he does to try and fulfill that want. So I think it's want and choice that creates story, more than anything else. I should say that while I'm not sure you can have a story without those two elements, you can definitely still have a fiction, if I can make that kind of broad distinction without taking up the space I'd need to say more.
"The Leftover," a story about a woman who finds her ex-boyfriend has turned into a miniature version of himself, is a wonderfully nonchalant take on magical realism. It reminded me in some ways of Aimee Bender's "The Rememberer," which is one of the best compliments I can give. Were you at all inspired by Bender's work?
Bender was once one of my favorite writers, and "The Rememberer" is a great story: It's absolutely a compliment to have my story compared to it, and I can see why you would want to. I think her The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is such an incredibly weird and dark and well-crafted book, one of the best collections of its particular type. More recently, I've become somewhat suspicious of a certain brand of magical realism that uses its fabulist elements only to dress up what would otherwise be a more typical piece of social or domestic realism. Bender avoids this problem in the best of her work, but a lot of the imitators of her style don't. (I'm not sure I did either, as much as I'd like to believe it.) It's maybe weird to say I probably won't write a story that works exactly like "The Leftover" again, but I'm at least glad I did once: It's a nice reminder of that particular influence, and a story I'm always happy to hear that people enjoyed. So thank you.
Cataclysm Baby, your new novella, focuses on fatherhood. Why is fatherhood an important subject to you, and how were you able to inhabit the roles of twenty-six fathers without being a father yourself?
I'm not a particularly autobiographical writer, at least in the most straightforward way, but thankfully I don't have to have had an experience to write about it. With very rare exceptions, I haven't done most of what my characters have done, and so there's always some distance between what I include of myself and how it gets rendered in story. I think that's a useful distance, and prevents a lot of problems.
Parents makes for good characters in part because of the enormity of their role, and because of how socially loaded that role is. We have fairly strong cultural and social expectations of parents and children, and those expectations can be subverted or expanded upon in interesting ways. I also think that parenthood comes with a sequence of hopes and fears and anxieties that are common to most parents but can be resolved in unique ways in individual family. Being a parent or a spouse is also one of the few roles where most of us are always trying to do our best-but generally can't always succeed. Some of the most interesting and emotionally-rich fiction occurs at the point where a character tries to do right by the people he or she loves-and ends up hurting them instead. I think that parenting and childhood and marriage are full of these situations. It's our families we love the most, and that gives them great power to hurt us-or to save us.
Recently you gave away over one thousand books in what you termed The Great Book Giveaway of 2012. What prompted you to do this?
I'm moving in the fall, and thought I'd take the opportunity to shrink my library a bit: A rough estimate was that I had about four thousand books in the house, so getting rid of a thousand seemed like a good goal. I thought it might be fun to try to give them to individual people rather than just take them all to a used book store or a library, but I wasn't sure if people would be interested: Would it be weird to get a random box of books from a stranger? Was it weird of me to ask people if they wanted one? In the end, I had over one hundred people request books in about three hours-and then it took me almost a month to get them all boxed and addressed and mailed. It's exciting to think those books will no longer be inert, just sitting on my shelves or in crates. They'll be revitalized by being new to someone else, and hopefully the work within will get another chance at being read and enjoyed.
What are the books you could not part with?
It's a bit of a paradox, but the books I love the most are the ones I've parted with most often, as they get passed around to friends, and some number of them never make it back. Off the top of my head, I know I'm on my third copy of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, my second copies of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian Eugene Marten's Waste, Brian Evenson's The Open Curtain, David Ohle's Motoroman, Dennis Cooper's Guide. That's one way to determine my current favorite books: Not the books that I can't part with, but the books I can't stop giving away. There's books by Robert Lopez and Christine Schutt and Dawn Raffel and Stanley Crawford and William Gass that I wouldn't want to stock my home library without. Some of them are out on loan and if I don't get them back before I move I'll probably have to buy them again once I arrive in my new city. It wouldn't be home without them.
You're an editor at Dzanc Books, a prestigious indie press, and have published all of your books through indie presses. What do you consider the advantages of publishing indie?
The best benefits of working with the independent press are probably the increased personal attention a good indie can provide, and also the chance for writers to be more involved in every aspect of the publishing process, from design to marketing to touring. Personally, I learned a lot about the publishing process by having to do so much myself on the first two books, and I think it's made me a better editor and publisher. I also think that the independent press excels at publishing projects that don't fit certain categories, or when the work doesn't have the kind of sales potential that commercial publishers might need to take on a project. Thanks in large part to the online literary community, it's much easier for an independent press book to reach a broader audience than in the past. The best independent presses-Graywolf, Coffee House, FC2, Two Dollar Radio, Milkweed, Featherproof, Hobart, Soho Press, just to name a few-are finding ways to engage with an audience and to build a direct relationship between readers and writers that only a few of the best corporate publishers (Harper Perennial, for instance) also seem to actively cultivate. I think that's changing too though: the gap between the corporate publishers and the independents is constantly shrinking, and there's a lot more overlap than ever before. I think some writers will have careers that move back and forth between them, project to project, and not in a way that implies the relative success or failure of any particular book.
Up until recently you taught writing at the University of Michigan. Now you're about to start a new teaching gig. To what extent do you believe writing can be taught?
At the very least, some portion of the craft part of writing can be taught. as can a lot of the complimentary modes of thought, the forms of attention. We can't teach innovation, maybe, but we can teach what we know to be strong, and we can perhaps model the kinds of mindsets that might lead to innovation. A good program should leave students better readers, while also helping them delve into the particular area of literature they're interested in: Part of what makes each writer unique is the personal canon of models and inspirations they gather to them, and the sooner a writer can start figuring this out the better off they're going to be. All of that feels teachable, and when you combine the classroom experience with the gifts of a community of writers and the time in which to work, then I think you've created a great way for an interested writer to spend two or three years.
What I think probably can't be taught is the kind of unique stance that makes a writer's work come fully alive-and this lack in a lot of otherwise well-crafted work does sometimes contribute to the idea that writing can't be taught at all. It takes bravery and risk to produce the kind of work that only you could write, and to stand behind it over the (probably) years it will take to achieve even moderate success with it-and then that success might not be commercial in any way. A book won't change most writers' lives, at least in the most traditional ways we measure success. Ten books won't. So I don't think we can gauge the success of creative writing instruction or the writers who come from their programs purely by those kind of metrics. That's not what the making of art is ultimately about.
You took a writing class with the famed minimalist Gordon Lish at the Center for Fiction. Can you tell us a little about that experience?
Lish is famous for the difficulty of his classes, and not without reason. But what has stuck most with me was how high he set the measure of success, and how he refused to allow us to pretend that success could start anywhere other than each sentence we wrote.
Finally, what is your next literary project?
I've been working on my first novel for the past few years, and it's now thankfully complete-I can't share too many of the details yet, but hopefully soon. (If anyone's curious, excerpts appeared in the newest issues of Unsaid and Fairy Tale Review.) I've since started what will hopefully be the book after that, but it's still very early in the process. I'm much more suited to rewriting than to generating, and so after spending a couple years with the same project, it's been daunting to start over again. But good things are starting to happen, and I'm hoping they'll continue.