Conversation: “Cataclysm Baby” Author Matt Bell On Apocalypses, Fairy Tales, And Much More

The first work I read from Matt Bell was a novella called “The Collectors,” a dissection and exploration of the lives of the reclusive Collyer brothers. It sounded an impressive note: stylistically innovative while retaining a moving human core; I was hooked. His surreal and visceral work  — much of which can be found in the collection How They Were Found — borrows themes and images from video games and folktales alike. His latest book, the novella Cataclysm Baby, is a series of short vignettes exploring fatherhood in worlds where the landscape and human bodies exist in a constant state of flux. In anticipation of his reading at RAC on Tuesday, May 1st, I checked in with him via email; our conversation follows.

Looking at your body of work so far, Cataclysm Baby shares with “Wolf Parts” and “The Collectors” a quality of variations: each one seems to take one central idea and then run it through a series of different permutations: stylistically and in terms of the narrative. What attracts you to this approach? And what leads an idea to be explored via this style rather than something more plot-driven?
I rarely know what I’m writing when I sit down to write, and I try not to over-determine the process once I begin, and I think this leads to a lot of things coming in fragments, and to stories being drafted in non-linear ways. My first drafts are often a little unshaped, plot-wise: I start with the voice, and the voice creates a world, and eventually it suggests some conflict within it, and then I try my best to bring that conflict forward, but a lot of that ends up being second-draft work. In fact, I’d say almost everything I write starts that way—but then some assemble into more traditional linear structures, and some don’t. It’s really a process of trusting what the gathering fiction is suggesting, and then trying to be true to whatever will make it strongest.

I do like permutations a lot: That was absolutely the mode in which I wrote “Wolf Parts,” where I had identified this series of elements—wolf, girl, knife, stones, grandmother, woodsman, and so on—and then tried to use them in as many different combinations as I could, to see what I’d discover in the rearranging. (In addition to the forty retellings or so of “Little Red Riding Hood” that are in the final version, I wrote another twenty or thirty that didn’t work as well or didn’t fit the arc I arranged them into.) I didn’t think of Cataclysm Baby as the same kind of project, although you’re right that there are certain similarities in its final form. The way that fairy tales work is really important to me in Cataclysm Baby as well, so maybe there are more similarities than I’m seeing.

With Cataclysm Baby, what came first: the notion of these irrevocably altered states of fatherhood, or of the worlds in which they are set?
I started out just writing the section that opens the book as a stand-alone short, so I definitely had that father’s voice before I had his setting. I’d say that probably stayed true for the most of the part, but there are a few where I knew the world a bit before I knew the speaker, as in the jungle-world of “Edgar, Edric, Eduardo,” or the long walk across the country of “Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis.” In general, I’d say that once I’d written a few sections of the book—out of order, of course—I started to see the general shape of the book: I knew the three-name titling convention, knew they would all be told from the point of view of the parents, and that I’d have to put a lot of pressure on these parents to make stories this short resonate emotionally. (At the time, I also thought I might switch back and forth between fathers and mothers, but that never really worked.) And so fairly early on I had that basic premise—”apocalyptic parenting, as told by a father”—and then I’d have to keep finding a new way into that story, a new way to tell it. So maybe it was more of a process of permutation than I initially wanted to admit, in a slightly-less determined way.

I realize that in writing “worlds” there, I might have been inaccurate — do you view each of the stories here as being set in a distinct world, or are all of these happening in neighboring cataclysms?
I’m happy to have this be at least a little ambiguous: there’s probably no way that all of these stories can happen in the same world, but a large number of them might overlap, and some readers have asked me if certain speakers are the same father. I think there’s something useful in that uncertainty, and the way it allows the reader to make his or her own groupings within the book.

In terms of fairytales being an influence on your writing, do you tend to look towards those that already sit somewhere in our shared consciousness, or is there an interest in finding more obscure stories?
I think either work, but I’m thinking generally less of retelling fairytales and more about how fairytales work, at least how they work on me: I’m especially drawn to the sort of emotional and moral blankness I detect in fairytales, especially in versions before moralizing explanations started to be tacked on to the endings, as I believe this creates a useful space in which the reader can actively participate. This happens in part because, unlike contemporary realist fiction, you rarely (never?) get backstory or psychology in a fairy tale, and there’s so much power in that—by being allowed to experience without explanation, the reader has to do their own wrestling with the morality of the story’s actions, has to find their own way through the story without the kind of signposts and markers to the already-agreed upon world most contemporary realists provide. In fairy tales we inevitably detect some recognizable elements of our own worlds, but the project of the fairly tale is not imitative or mimetic, but creative and generative.

As Kate Bernheimer says, “In fairy tales there is no reality outside the pages but only the one reality, not copies of a purer reality, but one reality in its infinite variations and difference, which flows through all pages and lives and dies everywhere. There is nothing to represent because there is nothing beyond. There is the here and now and there is the becoming.”

I’m going to make an incredibly broad generalization here, but I think there are basically two kinds of fiction writers: there are writers who want to stuff as much of the observed world into their books as they can, trying to represent life as we know it, to write books about the “way we live now”—and then there are writers who want to create worlds, to instead create new life and new possibility, to use that newness to push back against the received world around us. This is, as I understand it, the basic divide between realist and non-realist writing: for me, it’s less about levels of representation or fabulism and more about capturing versus creating.

There’s a visceral quality to some of the depictions of families in Cataclysm Baby — the transformations from humans to something entirely different. Do you ever find yourself unnerved or even repulsed by a description you’ve written?
Absolutely, and usefully so: When the writing is going well, I can read the sentences depicting an action or an image aloud and then feel it somewhere in the body, as some sensation that feels like disgust or joy or anger or hope—and if I can’t yet then I try it again—and if I can then I try to make that sensation stronger upon the page. That’s the process that guides the drafting, more than anything more intellect-driven. Writing and reading aren’t activities of the mind, but of the body—and if I can read a sentence or a scene and not feel something somewhere then it isn’t done yet. My goal as a writer isn’t to manipulate the reader into feeling, but rather to offer something that made me feel first, in hopes that it might do the same for them—I’m the first reader it needs to happen to. I often think that if I really meant what I was doing I would always be physically exhausted when I’m done writing. And sometimes I am.

You’ve had a few excerpts from an upcoming novel appear in print recently. Did the writing of this novel overlap at all with the writing of Cataclysm Baby?
Some of the rewriting did, but not the drafting: I wrote Cataclysm Baby in 2009, and had it in near-final form before I started on the novel in January of 2010, which I’ve worked on more or less exclusively since. I can’t really juggle more than one writing project at a time, so whenever I needed to do a fuller round of rewrites on Cataclysm Baby—say before sending it out to publishers, or in the months leading up to publication—I generally had to first get the novel somewhere I could leave it alone without harm. I think Cataclysm Baby still has a very different voice than my novel does, and sometimes it was a struggle going back and forth between them unless I had a couple weeks in which to make the transition to and from each book’s own way of speaking.

What effect has your work as an editor for The Collagist and Dzanc had on your writing?
I think it’s benefited me in more ways than we probably have space to discuss here, but I’d say first that getting to spend hands-on time working closely with the prose of very good writers is an excellent way to grow as a writer and as a reader: The appreciation you have for something that you’ve read and enjoyed often only grows when you get down among its moving parts. Not to oversimplify, but it’s something like taking apart a machine to see how it works, and then putting it back together again —with the additional task as editor of helping its inventor make it a better machine, a new and improved technology, even closer to what they’d imagined it could be. This also has allowed me into other people’s revision and rewriting processes, and to see the way other writers think through the projects of their books, which has helped me to see my own in new ways.

The submission pile at both the magazine and the press offer other opportunities: One of the first things I realized when I started reading submissions years ago is that they not only provide an education in the difference between a good and a bad submission, but also to see the variances inside the good submissions. For instance, there are a lot of very strong moves in fiction that seemingly every good writer can make —You just see these same kinds of openings or beginnings or transitions or even sentence-level effects over and over. And so even though the move works, I think it’s best to stop using it, or to try some way to subvert it or work against it. It doesn’t do a writer any good to be accomplished in the same way everyone else is, and we should all work against whatever is common. Reading a hundred or a thousand submissions is a great way to start identifying what that means, and to start trying to turn your own work away, toward something hopefully more unique.

You keep track of notable passages from books that you’ve been reading on your blog. What book has impressed you the most so far this year?
Can I expand this to books, instead of book? Amelia Gray’s Threats was a fantastic and surprising first novel, and my appreciation grows for it every time I return to it for another look. Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet was a book I’d been waiting for a long time, and I thought it was great—I feel like a lot of the more negative reviews have really missed the book’s scope and accomplishment, probabably because of preconceived notions of what the book should have been. In smaller press books, I thought Renee Gladman’s The Ravickians was extraordinary, as was Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait (and the earlier-translated Suicide, which was one of my favorite 2011 books). I’m very grateful to presses like Dorothy and Dalkey Archive for putting their weight behind these books, and I hope more people will read them soon.

Apocalypse and cataclysm have made their way into literary fiction in numerous ways in recent years — The RoadZone OneThe Flame Alphabet, and Scorch Atlas all come to mind. Cataclysm Baby strikes me as rare in this group for its idea that there will be generations to come, even if they aren’t recognizable. What are your thoughts on the roles of hope and despair in the face of irrevocable change?
There’s a great nostalgia in America for “the way things were,” but of course things were never as good as we remember, or as we’d like to think we were. Despite all the technological and ecological and ideological changes over time, those days are in many ways these days: We still worry about the future, we’re still afraid to lose those we love, we still struggle to find our place in the ever-expanding vastness of the universe and the sprawl of the human population. And so yes, sometimes that means despair, because the world can seem irrevocably cruel and broken, and also that it’s getting worse—but it also means hope, because I think that the long story of humanity has been one of progress and opportunity, of the slow righting of past wrongs. Even if we’re currently in the middle of a potential backslide, politically and socially, as we seem to be, still I think that longer story has a chance to prevail.

And if it doesn’t? Then something or someone else might come to take our place—even if those new generations aren’t, as you say, “recognizable.” We almost never get to see the future coming from far enough away to predict it right, and it’s probably only hubris that leads us to think the world will end with us, with our way of living. Something will follow us into the future and then into history, and there’s no reason to believe what comes next will be any less spectacular and unexpected, any less beautiful and terrible upon the earth than we were.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle + and our Tumblr.

Photo: Jacob S. Knapp