“These Are the Stories of How I Got There”: Matt Bell on His New Collection


Last month, I sat down for dinner with Matt Bell during a recent visit that he was making to New York. The occasion was the release of his collection of short stories, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, which includes shorter works taken from two earlier, now-out-of-print books, as well as stories written around the time of his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper. I’ve been interviewing Bell for a while now, and it was great to check back in with him to learn about the assembly of the book, the way that art has influenced him, and a lot more.

You were talking about art earlier tonight. Do you find that fine art influences the imagery in your writing, or your process of writing? Are there artists who you’ve found have had an influence on your work?

I grew up in a family where my parents were very encouraging of us as readers, and to be intellectually curious and curious about the world. My parents took us to a lot of science museums and history museums. We’d go to Washington, DC, and I’d go to the Smithsonian and stuff. But they were not art people. We didn’t know that world. I was never in an art museum before I was 21. That, in some ways, is the world I’m the farthest behind on. We watched a lot of movies, but we didn’t watch that kind of movie. It’s a weird thing, because my relationship with it is always newer.

I spent yesterday at MoMA, which is my favorite art museum; every time I’m in New York, I go. I walk around, and I think about the things people are doing. I think, “That’s really inspirational. That’s really applicable to what I’m thinking about.” Or, “The philosophical question behind this piece of art is a question I’ve had.” But I don’t have the pre-existing points of contact, the way I might have with science fiction or fantasy or detective novels; the things I grew up on. It’s a weird thing, where I think it does have an influence on me, but it’s a newer influence.

For me, a lot of the art that I went to see growing up was centuries of years old–going to the Cloisters or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Contemporary art was something that I found myself following more as an adult, and so I tend to hold it more closely. Do you feel the same way?

Yeah, absolutely. Today, I came out of a subway station, and there was one of the old New York City churches, this Gothic cathedral. You can wander out of a subway, and it’s right there. I grew up very religiously, and am not now at all. I was thinking about that, that this isn’t a thing that intellectually or spiritually moves me, but artistically it moves me. It connects to my childhood. So it’s wonderful, but at the same time, inert in a certain way. It’s engaging memory more than it’s engaging my current state of mind.

Rothko is one of my favorite–maybe my favorite artist. There are Rothkos that are always on display at MoMA, and I go and I sit in front of it for 15 minutes every six months when I’m here. That 15 minutes where I’m in front of Rothko is better than a lot of things. I don’t know what the direct influence of that on my work would be, but I know that something about that is formative on me as a person. And you’re right–it post-dates the influence of my people. It’s mine. It’s everybody’s, because Rothko is everybody’s. My parents would look at a Rothko and keep going. Maybe. Maybe they would learn to love it, but if I brought them there tomorrow, they would just walk by it, in a way that I, the first time I was in front of a Rothko, walked by it. I didn’t know yet how to see it. I’m grateful to have those things that wouldn’t have.

I remember a few years ago, when you announced that the two books that you drew stories from for this new collection would be going out of print. What was behind that decision? Did you have this new collection in mind?

Some of it was just trying to figure out the best shape for things. When Mark Doten and I first talked about it, there were different ways it might happen. It was possible that we might do a completely new short story collection, and maybe Soho would bring some of those things back as ebooks, or something. We bandied about some different possibilities.

They were both on small presses that did a lot of great work, and did a lot on my behalf, and I’m grateful to. But the audience is different, in some ways. The idea was that maybe this would reach new people, coming after the two novels, so that was part of it. And part of it, for me, was that there were stories that I wrote after How They Were Found and after Cataclysm Baby that felt like they were still in conversation with those stories. So maybe there was a way to make one book that incorporated everything–which is why they’re rearranged, why they’re in this new order, why the new stuff is mixed in with the old.

It’s not a “new and selected stories,” which would be ridiculous, because I’m 36, and would maybe not be the best use of the material. Thinking about how the stuff I wrote during the time I was writing the novel was in conversation with those stories seemed, to me, best–let’s get them all mixed together. They’re all related with the other Soho books. “Dredge” has linkages to Scrapper–that’s really obvious. The incidental detective, which is a theme I go back to. I don’t think In the House… exists if I hadn’t written “Cataclysm Baby” first. I think I was building toward that kind of work and that kind of voice. For some reason, it made sense that after doing these two novels with Soho, I would, like a math student, show my work. These are the stories of how I got there, in some ways.

Were there any themes that you became aware of as you went back and revisited your stories?

I think How They Were Found has 13 stories, and nine of them are in this book. If you were to ask me how to describe those, I don’t know what I would have said then, though we can probably look that up, but I don’t remember exactly. Later, it became apparent to me how much I was already writing about family and parenthood and family memory.

The other night at Franklin Park, I read from “Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” which is a story about familial memory and familial destiny. That’s not an obvious precursor to In the House…, but it totally is. Stories like “Her Ennead,” which is literally a woman imagining this mythic pregnancy monster herself–I was doing that work before I was doing that work. The later work reframed the older work, in the same way that as we age, there are memories that are important to us at the age we are now that will not be ten years from now, and were not ten years ago. There’s artistic memory: “That’s a story that’s part of the story I’m telling about myself as a writer now.” Other stories that got left out of this book were not. And things that I’ve written in the ten years that this book draws on weren’t part of this book because they’re not part of that story.

How difficult was it for you to come up with the sequence?

One of the big influences on the sequence was Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea, which I think is a really skillfully-ordered book. It’s ordered very differently. He’s always been an experimental writer, or an experimental writer’s experimental writer. It felt like he’d organized the book from traditional to experimental; the end of that book is much more experimental than the beginning of it. That was one way of thinking about it. He had stories in small units. His structure was really influential; I feel like he’d organized a disparate group of things well. I wanted to, when I could, have new stuff with old stuff. The argument is that this is a unified work–how do you you figure that out? How do you have these things in conversation with one another?

The only unit that stayed the same from a previous book was “A Certain Number of Bedrooms,” “The Collectors,” and “Index of How Our Family Was Killed.” It’s still the same unit in this as it was in How They Were Found. Everything else got moved around and mixed. I really liked that unit; that was the unit I was happiest about in the previous book, so I left it as a homage to that. And thinking about what would work in conversation with each other. The book does a lot of different things; can these things be unified in some way. I don’t know how you felt with your short story collection.

The opening story is like an invitation. So in How They Were Found, the opening was “The Cartographer.” I thought that it was a story that was, emotionally, very accessible but signaled that I was going to do these experimental things. In this book, I wanted to start with something new. But also, I think “A Tree or a Person or a Wall” signals some thematic stuff–this thing about the dangers of childhood, the dangers of being a child, and the place where the adult world and the child world don’t mesh well.

You’ve always struck me as someone who reads very well. Have you found that your relationship to performing the work has changed over time?

I think with a new book, you have an idea of what’s going to be best. You’re looking for self-contained things or things that go well or things that you just like the sound of. For me, I find following the plot of a piece at a reading very hard, and so something that’s a sonic or acoustic experience seems valuable.

We were talking about reading at the Center for Fiction. I took one of Gordon Lish’s classes there, and he would talk about how reading from novels were always harder, or compromised, and that you should give someone a complete experience. That makes a lot of sense to me. Even if you’re reading part of a story or part of a novel, the reading should have an arc. When I read from a novel, I often try to read three parts from the book that somehow have a little three-peg triangle arc.

I think I get it wrong a lot, what I think will work from a book. If you do enough readings, then you figure it out. One of the stories in here and in How They Were Found, “The Cartographer,” I hadn’t initially been reading. And then I read it, and it went over super-well. I thought, “Maybe I should read that again.” I did 40 readings for [How They Were Found], driving around the Midwest and the East. Sometimes, I just read that. It was the most accessible, and I could read it well. Two days ago, I saw on Twitter, someone said, “This story broke my heart.” I thought, “I should probably be reading that story,” because people have a strong [reaction], and it’s short enough to read. But it always takes me a while to figure it out. Even inside a story, I can skip this part and not lose anything; I can do this part better; this part can be slowed down or moved.

“The Cartographer” is one of the stories that got revised the most, because of reading it over and over again. It had been published in a really good magazine, it had been in the book, and no one really objected to little things about it. But at some point, I noticed that there were these little details that were off, because I’d read it out loud 30 times to audiences.

Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid reading the same passages from the collection or the novel when I do readings in New York.

Earlier, we were discussing our table-wide affection for Robert Lopez. I’ve known Robert for a long time. He’s been a good friend and a good supporter to me. When In the House came out, I think I did four readings in New York, and he came to all of them. I told him, “You have to stop coming! I don’t have this many readings!” I did one reading, and I read something that I never read any other time, because he’d been to so many in a row. I thought, “Robert’s going to get to hear something new! This isn’t the best part of the book to read, but this one guy shouldn’t have to keep hearing it over and over.” He’s the best.

Of your two novels, In the House… is more surreal and experimental and Scrapper is more realistic, and there’s a similar balance with the stories in this collection. Now that you’ve worked in both modes, do you find that the stories you’ve written since Scrapper are in a more realistic vein, or do you go back and forth?

Back and forth. I think I’m writing between zero and four novels right now. I’ve always worked in both of those modes, and you go back and forth between them. In the House… has such a very specific voice that you almost have to break with that. The story “Inheritance” is in this, but it came out of an attempt to write a novel–which maybe I’ll go back and do; I like that world. I wrote a bunch of stuff, but I couldn’t figure out the book, and that story came out of it. It was almost a doubling down on that voice, because I was trying to get out of it.

Scrapper was much more restrained. Not just more realistic; it was much more full, in a certain way. Having both has always allowed me to explore different things. You want to move in different directions, and you’re going to be yourself everywhere you go–which is the tragedy of being a human. You want to, artistically, be different people. The voice that Scrapper needed allowed me to do different things than the voice that In the House… needed. One of the things I always prized about story writing was that you get to do that faster. Novel writing, it’s more like every three years, you get to move that way. Or five years, or ten years.

The next thing could easily be in either voice, or their own version of those spaces. Putting this book together, and looking at 10 years of short stories–some of which written before I had an inkling to write a novel and some of which were during and one or two were written after–the exciting thing was looking at things I’d done six or seven years ago and doing that thrill of, “You let yourself feel this” or “You let yourself think this.” The only way in which I’m judging the work I’m writing right now is, at the end of it, I think, “What was the moment today where you thought, I can’t believe I’m willing to say this; I can’t believe I thought this up; I can’t believe I’m allowing this weirdness to get onto the page.” I’m going to preserve the quirks of my thought as much as possible. I don’t know exactly what that means, as far as a realist or non-realist thing, but what’s guiding the work right now is: that thought that you might pull back on and go, “What would people think of that?” I think for me, that’s the stuff I’ve liked of my own the best. If I’m not seeing that every day, then I should do something different. So that’s the thing I’m trying to preserve or move towards.

I know that, for a while, you were doing editorial work for Dzanc. Do you find yourself missing that at all?

What I miss about The Collagist–we did 49 issues in 49 months. I miss all the new people I was meeting because of that and all the new work I was seeing. My pitch, always, for the literary mag world, was, this is the future of our literature. This is the stuff that’s maybe 10 years away from appearing in a book. Getting to see that stuff as it’s happening is great. Some of that stuff will never be in a book. Some of the people I published will not publish books, as sad as it makes me. It was exciting to work at that level.

At Dzanc, the excitement was getting to be deeply inside the making of another book. I teach a novel-writing workshop a lot. We talk a lot about process and product. The only thing you can study in a bookstore is product. It’s impossible to see how the thing was made, usually. In class we can see the process. We can share with each other things that are half-formed, and we can talk about that.

At Dzanc, I got to help make the product, but I got to be in the final stages of the process. That was wildly interesting and fascinating as a reader, and educational as a writer. The first book I ever worked on there was Roy Kesey’s Pacazo. Roy was a writing hero of mine. I was working on his book as I was writing my first novel. Understanding the choices he was making and trying to prove to him that I understood the choices he was making was incredibly educational. I miss that part of it a lot. And there are things that I don’t miss about it. But I miss those things: I miss the newness of people and the art, and I miss the access I had to the work of great writers in process.

Photo: Elijah Tubbs

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.