Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.
Author: Matt Bell
Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.
Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…
Bell: Right, right, right.
Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.
Bell: Yes, absolutely.
Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?
Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.
Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.
Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.
Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?
Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.
Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?
Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.
Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.
Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.
Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)
Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.
Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.
Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.
Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.
Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**
Bell: Right, right.
Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.
Correspondent: How do you work around that?
Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.
Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”
Bell: Okay! (laughs)
Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”
Bell: Nice! (laughs)
Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.
Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.
Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?
Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.
* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.
** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”