Matt Bell on “Scrapper,” Detroit, and “How Landscape Has Informed My Imagination”

Matt Bell credit Elijah Tubbs for Scrapper

I’ve been reading and admiring Matt Bell‘s constantly shifting, deeply visceral fiction for years now. (I’ve interviewed him twice before, in 2009 and 2012.) His previous novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods was a stark tale of isolation that gradually transformed into a hallucinatory kind of creation story. His new novel, Scrapper, retains that sense of grit and emotional tension, but does so in a much more realistic setting: specifically, contemporary Detroit. In it, a man named Kelly living on the fringes of society discovers a child who’s been held in the basement of an abandoned house; the events that follow ratchet up the tension, pushing the novel’s characters to a series of harrowing places. I talked with Bell over email about Scrapper, Detroit, his recent book on Baldur’s Gate II, and more.

You mention that Scrapper arose out of a challenge to write something set in Michigan. Was this your first attempt, or had you tried to tell other stories set in the state that didn’t come together?

It probably wasn’t my first attempt, but definitely the first time I’d written something so explicitly about Michigan. I think a lot of my work is de facto set there, which has become much more apparent since moving to Arizona, but in the past I hadn’t so directly engaged with the state, especially on any kind of historical or political level. It’s been an important change, and one that seems like it might have permanently shifted the direction of my work.

What first attracted you to this particular angle on living life in Detroit?

While I was finishing the last draft of In the House, I watched a short documentary clip at the New York Times, by the filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, called “Dismantling Detroit.” That was absolutely the seed of the book: I wouldn’t start writing Scrapper for a couple months still, but in the five minutes or so of that clip I saw my first glimpse of the book’s landscape and my point of entry into it.

When I started writing, I began with the scrapping and the city. I didn’t even know Kelly’s name yet, or anything else about him. All I had was a man moving through that landscape, working alone in the empty buildings of the city. Everything else followed from trying to depict that action well, from the characters to the plot to the book’s worldview.

When I talked with you and Justin Taylor a couple of years ago, you mentioned that Scrapper was also a conscious decision to do something stylistically different from your previous novel. How did you work out the style–did that come first? Was it the themes? Was it the story?

I think it was less that I was burned out with the kind of prose I was writing in In the House and more that I understand that it could only be used to tell that one story, or else another very similar. It would have been ridiculous to try to write Scrapper in the voice from In the House, and vice versa: We hear so much about writers “finding their voice,” but it seems to me that every book has its own voice, and that this process is something I’ll go through over and over.

Before starting Scrapper, I did write about a hundred pages of another novel, an apocalyptic surrealist western—and there I went the opposite direction, doubling down on the kind of high archaic mythical prose I was working with in Scrapper. I may go back to that someday—it was fun to see how far that kind of prose might be pushed. As for the voice of Scrapper, I think a proto-version of the final style was there almost immediately, but it took a lot of refining over time, with elements coming and going as Kelly’s sensibility came into sharper focus.

Scrapper is being released a few months after a short nonfiction book on Baldur’s Gate II. Did the writing of the two end up overlapping at all?

Not the writing, but certainly the editing: I turned in Scrapper to Mark Doten, my editor at Soho, at the very end of December 2013, after three years or so of work. At the end of the process, I was working really long days—eight or ten hours over two or three sessions, six or seven days a week, trying to inhabit the whole book at once. Normally I can only remember the thirty or forty pages I’ve been working on most recently, but at some point I just have to have the whole book in my head while I’m working, which requires this enormous time commitment. By the time I was finished, I was pretty burned out and totally emotionally spent. So I took a break from writing fiction for the first half of 2014, really the first break I’ve taken since before grad school. But I still wanted to write, and so my “break” turned into writing a lot of poetry, followed by the first drafts of the Baldur’s Gate II book.

It was probably healthy for me to have some smaller-scale projects between Scrapper and the novel I’m working on now, since the novels require such a sustained deep dive, artistically and emotionally. But what I’ve always wanted is to get to spend my days writing and making things, and so it’s hard for me to completely squander any chance to do so. If I need time to reboot, I’d still like to do it by writing.

Interspersed with the novel’s plot are a handful of scenes inspired by real-life events. Did you know from the outset that you’d be engaging in this kind of juxtaposition?

If you’re referring to the three interludes that veer away from the main plot, those were the last passages of the book I drafted, so I didn’t exactly know they would be there. That said, I think there’s a lot of other elements of the book taken pretty directly from real life that are probably more subtly integrated: Outside of the kidnapping that drives the book, most of the other crimes in the book were drawn from Detroit newspapers during the years I was writing the book, and many of the specific locations Kelly works in were based on places I visited while I was researching. Even though the novel’s version of Detroit has been turned and transformed in certain ways, its grounded everywhere in the real, which felt important to me.

You can’t take the Detroit of Scrapper and map it directly onto the Detroit you’d find if you visited. But you might find little pockets of each that overlap, and you certainly could visit some of the same rooms Kelly did, could walk parts of the same streets, hear the same stories about the city. That seemed very important to me: that even though the book was a work of imagination, it had some level of moral responsibility toward verisimilitude.

Kelly is a complex character to read, and I found my opinion of him shifting over the course of the novel. Did you have his arc figured out as you sat down to write, or did he end up surprising you as well?

When I started writing the book, I didn’t even know Kelly’s name. Certainly I didn’t know his backstory—not what he’d done, not what had been done to him—and I didn’t know what his arc through the book was. Almost every element of his character was discovered as I was writing, and I think that’s the way it has to be for me, if I’m going to get somewhere real and honest with a character. I also found my relationship to him to shift over time, and I’ll say it still remains pretty complex: I don’t feel like I came to know him entirely by writing this novel. I’m okay with that too—there’s no real person I know perfectly either.

One interesting thing that happened in the writing of the first draft was that at some point I realized I needed to see Kelly in the town he grew up in, to understand his relationship to his family and his past and also his return to Michigan. I ended up writing a 10,000-word sustained scene, totally implausible, where Kelly, Jackie, and Daniel all go north to Kelly’s hometown, where they visit his parent’s house in the middle of the night, which is abandoned and about to be demolished. Together, they go room to room while he describes his memories of what happened to him and his family in every room. It’s impossible that this would ever happen, and I knew it during the month I spent writing it. But somehow in doing that work that would never ever appear in the novel I learned so much about Kelly. In some ways, I got the chance to see the bottom of the “iceberg” of his character, all that sunken weight below the sliver of his life that appears in the finished novel. I’d never done anything like that before, and I’m not sure I’ll do it again, in that way. But it was one of the most powerful parts of writing the book.

You recently moved to the Southwest–has this had any effect on your writing?

It’s probably a little too early to tell, but I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the question of how landscape has informed my imagination. We started out talking about how I hadn’t written this directly about Michigan before, and that’s true. But there’s also no doubt that my imagination was directly shaped by living there for thirty-four years, and that my memories are in some ways tied to its seasons and weather, its flora and fauna. As a minor example, both of my novels take place primarily in winter, which probably wouldn’t be the case if I grew up here in Phoenix.

More recently, I’ve realized that my memories aren’t being triggered by the changes of seasons here in the desert, which are so much more subtle than they are in Michigan, and that this is robbing me of a certain kind of access to my past. I spent a rainy week in the forest in Vermont this summer, and the smell of the rain and the earth and the sight of the trees and the grass brought my memories closer than they had been in months. One morning, it felt like my childhood was about an inch away, and it was so easy to write all that day, even though what I was working on didn’t have anything to do with childhood. It’s something I’m still sorting through, but it’s a powerful change, and I’m so curious what else it’ll bring.

Photo: Elijah Tubbs

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