by Chris Burlingame
Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found (2010, Keyhole Press) and Cataclysm Baby (2012, Mud Luscious Press), as well as three chapbooks. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, and American Short Fiction, among others. He works as an editor for Dzanc Books and runs the literary journal The Collagist.
The Fourth River: Although you are relatively young, you have published extensively. How do you know when a piece is ready for submission and how has publishing in the digital age afforded you opportunities to get your work out to a wider audience?
Matt Bell: One of the ways I know a story is done is when I can read the whole thing out loud, beginning to end, after I’ve set it aside for a while. If I can get through it without wanting to change anything, then it’s probably close to ready. Now I’m very slow to send out my stuff: I’ve gotten more and more hesitant, but then I’ve never been one to send out everything I wrote.
I really appreciate all the opportunities for gaining readers that come along with publishing in online magazines. I publish online and run an online magazine, and mostly I think the stigmas have gone away in the past few years: I honestly distinguish less and less between the mediums when I read, especially as I spend more and more time with eBooks and devices like the iPad. That said, I never minded being published online, and in fact was grateful for the change. Even when I was in print magazines, I would try to let editors know I was open to having my work published online as well, as a sample for the magazine, and I think that got me a lot of extra exposure, offering the best of both worlds.
FR: How has your work evolved from some of your earlier pieces to the ones in How They Were Found and [Cataclysm Baby], your current novella project?
MB: There are probably a lot of things that have changed. As I was finishing [How They Were Found], I could tell I was moving on when I started writing stories that didn’t fit well with those earlier stories. I also started to want to try new things: I’ve always been aware of my influences—in How They Were Found, there’s a lot inspired by favorite writers of mine, such as Denis Johnson, Norman Lock, Brian Evenson, and so on—but I’ve been trying to grow by giving up the tools and devices I’ve used before, that I learned from other writers. In at least small ways, I’ve been trying to write against my tendencies in order to find something new.
FR: What is your jumping off point when you write a new piece and what role do structural devices like the cartography symbols in “The Cartographer’s Girl” or the alphabetical form in “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” when drafting a story?
MB: I often don’t have a clear idea of what I’m going to write about with a new story, but I do tend to have an idea for the constraints of the piece, the voice or the structure. A lot of what I do emerges from those parts of fiction. When I started writing “Index,” the story emerged from the form [and] was generated by adhering to that alphabetical structure, which helped me form the voice and, eventually, generated the character. Really, it’s about starting with voice, or using voice to propel the prose: that could be structural or formal, but it could also be a certain kind of diction or syntax.
FR: One thing I noticed while reading How They Were Found was the way you manage time. Could you describe your limited use of dialogue and the role it plays in writing stories that can cover such varied scopes of time?
MB: One thing I dislike about dialogue is that dialogue stops the flow of time. It’s one of the only parts of fiction that can only happen in real time: it takes just as long to read a piece of direct dialogue as it does to actually hear it. So I look for other ways to integrate dialogue into the prose, to limit its effect on the time of the story. Sometimes this is as simple as removing quotation marks, so the dialogue can be flowed into the prose more easily, and sometimes it means using lots of indirect and summarized dialogue.
There are also other ways of dealing with time, of complicating its relationship to the events of the story: in “The Cartographer’s Girl,” for instance, there’s a line that went something like “It’s been years, but in his heart, he is still true to her.” I didn’t know that much time had passed in the story until I wrote that line, and suddenly the story was a lot bigger than before. This is also one of the reasons I often write in fragments: it allows a less direct movement through time, and can unsettle the reader in a very productive way.
FR: At a reading you gave in Pittsburgh on March 1, 2011, you mentioned the idea of following an individual narrative to exhaustion and writing from the cracks that form. Could you explain what you meant by that statement?
MB: In my story “Wolf Parts,” I identified six or seven tropes of “Little Red Riding Hood” that stuck out to me, from reading the more traditional versions: the girl, the wolf, a knife or an axe, the woodsman, the grandmother, some kind of stones. From there, I tried to permutate those tropes as many times as possible, in new combinations. At some point, I had sixty short retellings, which eventually became forty in the final version. What happened, as I tried to use these materials over and over, is that I would wear out the most traditional ways of using them, exhaust them somehow, and then, when there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, I’d find something else there that I couldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t written all the other versions first. By exhausting the elements we’re working with, we sometimes find what really lies beneath them, and that can be a really exciting part of the writing process.
FR: You also discussed writing stories somewhere in the realm of 12,000 words. How did you settle into this story form and how has it helped you carve out a niche for yourself in the literary world?
MB: It took me a long time to get there. For the first five years I was working, I probably never wrote anything finished longer than 3,500 words or so—maybe five thousand as a hard upper limit. I tried and failed to write a novel a couple years ago, taking it through a few drafts, and after doing that, I found I’d developed more stamina, the ability to stick with something longer, to stay in it. (In some ways, this might be related to what I was saying about exhausting a story, about writing through and past it—these are ways to extend the starting material, as much as they are to move past it.) Since then, I’ve found the long story to be my preferred length and have done less and less very short work.
FR: With a story in The Best American Mystery series and your re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood in “Wolf Parts,” how would you describe your intermingling of genre fiction and literature? Why do you think so many academics insist on making a distinction between the two?
MB: I grew up reading genre, and I’m glad I’ve found a way to use that early love in my work. In some ways, genre creates another kind of structure for the story to build around. Mystery stories work a certain way, and it’s possible to subvert that, to play with it. You can create something new, work toward or against those expectations at different parts of the story, causing different effects. It’s a nice tool to have, and I think more and more literary writers are indebted to the genre material they’ve consumed.
When I taught at the college level, I let students in my undergraduate class write genre if they wanted, mostly because I wanted them to work on what was most interesting to them, what brought them to the class. Sometimes it turned out well, sometimes it didn’t. But generally, I think excluding genre writers from writing classes only serves to hurt writing as a whole. We lose some writers who—like me—came into literature through genre, and we also could be holding back genre writing in general because these students aren’t getting access to some of the ways writers learn the craft.
FR: At your reading, we also discussed your revision process of reading work aloud. Why is sound such a key element in your understanding of your own writing, and how has this current style of revision affected your ability to re-visit or revise pieces from earlier in your writing life?
MB: The acoustic quality of language is something that’s become increasingly important to me over the past few years. What I’ve learned to pay more attention to is the way that acoustics and rhythm, different kinds of repetition, syntax, diction, and so on, all have some effect on the reader as sound, even if they never actually hear it out loud. There’s an echo of the sound in the word, just as there’s an echo of the word in the sound. They’re not the same thing, but they’re related. This is one of the ways I try to create linkages between parts of a story, to make it a whole. Most importantly, this is one of those things that is working in your fiction, even if you don’t attend to it consciously: when writers don’t work with the sound at all, that lack of acoustic sense about a piece creates a hole in the experience, and diminishes the effect of the whole.
Reading aloud is also a good way to revise because it slows you down. It’s like practicing a song on an instrument: you can’t skim. When you read a story aloud, you’re playing all the notes, and when you’re done, you’re playing them right.
FR: Your blog focuses on books you are reading. How do you select these books and what are the best books you’ve read recently?
MB: I read a lot, and so it can be a little haphazard deciding what to read next. I get a lot of review copies in the mail, and I read a lot of books by friends, which is exciting. I also have writers I get obsessed with, or feel like I need to read everything by. I’m currently reading all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, which is the goal for the first half of the year or so. So I’m reading one or two of those a month, amid everything else.
Here are some of the newer books I’ve really enjoyed lately: Angela Woodward’s End of the Fire Cult, Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution, Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, Johannes Göransson’s Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. There’s so much great work being done right now, and no chance of reading it all, but these are some good ones to start with if you want to see the kind of interesting, strong things people are doing right now.
FR: Your work has received accolades and one of your stories has even been adapted into an Israeli screenplay. Where would you like your work to go next and what do you expect from yourself as a writer?
MB: I love the idea that people want to adapt something of mine, and I’m of course appreciative of those opportunities as they arise. But I don’t really think of that while I’m working, or even later in the publishing process. Mostly, I just want to keep writing books. My abilities shouldn’t ever become static. I want each new book to show how hard I’ve been reading and writing from year to year. I want each one to be better, to have the results of my efforts show up on the page. I’ve come a long way in the ten years I’ve been writing, but where I want to go is still a long way away. I hope that, looking back, the progression of the books will show where I was trying to get to, what I was willing to do to arrive.
Chris Burlingame is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s creative writing program. He lives in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Photo of Matt Bell by Jacob S. Knabb