I first met Matt Bell at the Conversations and Connections Conference, hosted by Barrelhouse, in Washington, D.C. Matt was leading a workshop on repetition. He also had copies of his collection How They Were Found available, which I happily picked up. Now, Matt has his first novel(la), Cataclysm Baby, out from Mud Luscious Press. I found the book haunting, beautifully written, and wholly Matt Bell. I hope you enjoy this exclusive interview as much as I did. —Andrew
Cobalt: Your first book, How They Were Found (Keyhole, 2010), was a collection of short stories. What were some of the differences between the publishing of that book, and the publishing of Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious, 2012)? Some of the similarities?
Matt Bell: I’m trying to think about what some of the similarities were! They both got written in very different ways, in part because How They Were Found only became a book manuscript after the stories were written individually, whereas I knew Cataclysm Baby would be a novella-in-shorts almost immediately. So the process definitely differed in scope at the time of drafting. And of course the publishing process has been different for each book, as Keyhole and MLP are fairly different presses. But both allowed me to be very hands-on with the design process, and that was something I really appreciated.
Cobalt: Tell me about your story, “The Cartographer’s Girl.” Where did it originate, and how did it take shape?
Bell: Sometimes I get obsessed about a piece of language, and have to go looking for a story in which to put it, so I can stop thinking about it all the time. This was one of those stories: “cartographer” is one of my favorite words, and I just wanted to put it to good use. So it really started from that, and the bulk of the story was discovered as I went. I think originally it was a much more formal exercise, and then once I found the narrative it moved in the direction of story.
Cobalt: Why this form, in Cataclysm Baby? Or, I should ask, why the alphabetized names? Was this an effort – or a struggle – to create order where there otherwise is none?
Bell: The alphabetized names grew out of the suggestion in the opening section: That father names his children of a book of baby names, a “sequenced failure,” and that suggested that there could be more stories, more children, more fathers. It was less a way to create order (although it does do that), and more a way of driving generation: I had titles long before I had the contents that would be printed below them, and sometimes I wrote from those titles, or toward them.
Cobalt: Are you a father? If so, what statement are you making in Cataclysm Baby? If not, how did you dare to write this?
Bell: I’m not, but I’m not sure that bars me from writing stories about parents, any more than my lack of having been a wolf prevents me from retelling “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Cobalt: Do you have a favorite chapter, like a father would have a favorite child?
Bell: My allegiances are slippery things, and so it changes from time to time. Usually my favorite is whatever I’m having fun performing at readings at the time. “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana” is a favorite for readings, as is “Walker, Wallace, Warren,” and so those are safe picks.
Cobalt: Jill Williams, our poetry editor, claims that some of your “chapters” are really poetry. How aware were you of the poetic nature of your language when you were writing this book?
Bell: I think that all the fiction writers I admire most are very aware of the poetic nature of language, and that, conversely, anyone who isn’t working with the acoustics of their words is probably not writing very well. Clearly some people are more conscious of this than others. It’d be wonderful to do it more instinctively, but it’s something I’ve worked at, building upon what was natural to me, what was already most pleasing or interesting or discomfiting. I read my work aloud often as part of the process, with the belief that even if a reader never hears the fiction aloud—if the only place the words sound is in their head—then the power of those acoustic events set in the prose still occurs, creating some bodily effect on the reader. That’s too great a tool not to take advantage of at every opportunity.
Cobalt: I once heard you lecture on the usefulness of repetition in literary work. What are some of the ways that you have incorporated repetition into your own?
Bell: I gave the lecture on repetition because I had been studying it in response to my realizing how heavily I lean on repetition as a tool, and how pleasing it is to me as a reader. So what you heard in that lecture was part of my own process of exploration, going from instinct to a form of attention, where I’m watching and listening for opportunities to repeat and to build upon. I think when I was a younger writer I thought that the way you got from point A to point B was to innovate along the way, to continually be introducing novelty into the plot and the prose. Now I think that the best fictions work with a much smaller amount of elements, and that repetition can allow for a slow unspooling of sound or sense of story, an unpacking of what is already there.
Cobalt: You have an extraordinary presence in the social literary community. You’re involved with Dzanc Books and The Collagist, and it seems as though you have a fingers in many other pies as well. How do you define yourself as a writer/editor, and, perhaps more importantly, how do you manage your time?
Bell: I realized a couple of years ago that I had, at least broadly speaking, the life I wanted: I was able to write every day, I enjoyed the editing work I was doing for Dzanc, I was teaching and reviewing and generally able to participate in a handful of incredible literary communities. This was great, of course, and it occurred to me that what I was doing was less about being a writer and more about living a literary life: All of these things were adding up to a satisfying whole, and I was lucky to get to do so many different things. I’d like to think that if there comes a time where I can’t write anymore, then I’ll still me just as happy to be editing or teaching—and if those are all parts of the same life, then a day where my teaching has to take priority over my writing feels like less of an imposition.
As for time management, all I’ll say is this: I try to write first, every morning, before I do anything else. That puts the writing in a place of privilege, so that no matter how badly the rest of the day goes, at least I’ll have done that.
Cobalt: In your opinion, what are some tools that no young writer should go without?
Bell: Curiosity as a reader and a writer, generosity toward other writers, and a writing schedule you can actually keep. Those three things will take you a long way.
About Matt: Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the editor at Dzanc Books and The Collagist, and in Fall 2012 he will begin teaching creative writing at Northern Michigan University.