Photo by Jacob S. Knabb
Interview by Jeanne Lesinski

Despite the press of public readings, editorial work, and holiday activities, author Matt Bell graciously took time to answer our questions.  Bell grew up in Hemlock, outside of Saginaw, and lived in Saginaw until about three and a half years ago. In October his collection of short stories, How They Were Found,  was published and has been attracting considerable attention. Bell has also authored the chapbooks, Wolf Parts (Keyhole Press), The Collectors (Caketrain Press), and How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press). His fiction, poetry, reviews and essays have appeared in a number of print and online publications. Bell also edits the online literary journal The Collagist and Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife Jessica.

Bell will be reading from How They Were Found at 6pm on December 2, at Court Street Gallery (417 Hancock St., Saginaw, MI 48602).

Jeanne Lesinski:
Some writers realize they're writing on an overarching theme and then compile a collection of work. Others write purposefully on a theme from the outset. Over what time period did you write these pieces and what approach did you use in compiling How They Were Found?

Matt Bell: The earliest story in How They Were Found was written in or around 2006, maybe even a little earlier. Every other story was written a couple years later, with all of their first drafts written in a nine or ten month period in the second half of 2008. Then there was another year or so of rewriting and refining as they appeared in magazines, and as the book moved through the publishing process.

I didn't write these stories with a specific theme in mind, or even with the idea that I might one day pull them together: I was just trying to write the best stories I could. When the time did come to start looking at making a manuscript, I decided I wanted a collection that read best as a whole book, despite the stories not having purposeful links between them, and I wanted that book to show off what was unique about my world-view and my style upon the page. I think these thirteen stories do that, in a way that thirteen others might not. There was no real easy way to determine which stories should stay and which to go, except to read the ones that seemed like they might fit over and over as I rewrote them in the context of the larger book. Eventually I settled on the stories that are in the book, and then I spent a long time looking for their right order. The last ten days I worked on the book, I read it cover to cover every single day, trying to hold it all in my head, to see how it worked as a whole instead of as separate parts. I don't think there are any shortcuts to this kind of process, or at least none that I found.

JL: Some of the stories are obviously fables, while others are more realistic yet still have elements that might make readers wonder about their plausibility. Would you speak about this range of style and intent?

MB: I'm very interested in fables, mythology, and especially fairy tales, and I generally would consider most of what I do to be "non-realist" writing, if it has to be put in any category at all. Generally, believability—as in, "could this really happen"—doesn't interest me that much. Why be limited by the world you have to inhabit, that you've been given by others? I've always been more interested in writers who generate worlds of their own, creating out of language and diction and imagination what did not exist before. To me, that's a great ambition rather than to be merely representational, and many of the writers I enjoy whose work otherwise seems "realistic" are still world-builders at heart: I think of Denis Johnson's fiction, and while it certainly is set in the "real world," his ability to make the everyday strange creates a landscape that's unfamiliar at the same time as it is instantly recognizable.

I also think there are opportunities to get at certain moral or emotional issues through a world that's made different from our everyday, merely because the skewed setting makes it easier for what we do recognize to stand out in a more stark way. George Orwell was a master of this, in books like 1984 and Animal Farm, and of course there are loads of other examples of how it might be done. Setting the universal into a unique world creates the opportunity for recognizing some of our basic truths and dilemmas and fears all over again, merely by removing them from the more banal settings we generally encounter them in.

JL: Are you a collector of minutia that you file mentally or physically with the idea you might need this input someday, or do you decide to write about a particular topic and do research on that topic, or fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum?

MB: I don't consciously collect minutia for the purpose of fiction writing, but certainly lots of details from other things seep into the writing. I can be a very obsessive person, and my obsessions come in through those telling details, I'm sure. As far as actual research, I do tend to do some, but usually when I'm already into a story, and I go looking for the conspicuous language that makes a certain kind of character's world-view more apparent, like the cartography terminology in the opening story. For the two stories based on actual historical persons—"His Last Great Gift" was based on the real life John Murray Spear, and "The Collectors" is of course based on the famous Collyer brothers—I did do some research in advance, but not necessarily for the purpose of writing fiction. I was interested in their stories, and read some small amount about both, and then later, once I knew I was going to write about them, I mostly stopped looking at the research at all. I don't have a ton of interest in being historically accurate, at least not outside of what serves the story I'm telling, which is both good and bad in places: Part of what "The Collectors" ended up being about was the discomfort I felt using the truth of their tragedy to make my own fiction, and it's something I continue to struggle with as I write other stories. As writers, we take details and bits of speech and action from all kinds of people, and I wonder often what our responsibility for those thefts is, and how best to deal with them in art.

JL: You bring a poet's sensitivity to language to your prose work. In fact, a couple pieces in How They Were Found blur the definitions of these genres. Poems often define their own shape. Does this tendency for a piece to shape its form apply to your writing process?

MB: I think that prose writers who don't have the "poet's sensitivity to language," as you call it, aren't generally very good: Writers who aren't interested in syntax and diction, rhythm and repetition, language and form, well, they're not using most of the tools available to them, and their effects are going to be limited because of that. Plot and character and so on are the big, obvious tools, but those poetic devices are what create a large part of the feeling and emotion in the reader, more subtly, and, in my opinion, more lastingly.

I do tend to discover the form of a story as I go, although some of the stories in the book were built starting from the form first: "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed" is one of those stories. I had actually written a first draft of the story without discovering the plot at all, just working with these listed, alphabetized elements, and as I kept adding more and more, these started to resonate with each other and suggest a larger story, which I then began to consciously build into the form I already had.

JL: Detective/crime scene fiction and true crime on television and in books are popular genres now. To what extent do readers of these stories need to be detectives in a broad sense?

Readers need to be willing to be complicit in what they read, and writers need to be ingenious in implicating them in the moral complexity of the fiction. In the same way that the mystery engages the detective in trying to solve the murder or the theft, a story can present a set of circumstances—a character, a setting, a plot, a new diction or syntax—that create a need for the reader to find all they contain, and to make some sense of what has come. The very best fictions are, perhaps, those that are in the end not directly solvable, so that they can be revisited over and over, so that their true nature seems to shift more the closer you get to it.

To keep with your detective theme: The most interesting parts of a murder mystery are the moments where the maximum number of possibilities are in the air, all of them equally plausible, and then slightly later, when the detective is getting close, but still missing the crucial clue on which everything else turns. The end of the mystery—the certainty of the criminal's identity—is less filled with potential, and therefore can never be as exciting as the moments that have come before. In the same way, readers should know that they have a role to play in the experience of the story, but they shouldn't be trying to "get it" or to "figure it out," but to feel its emotional and moral effects upon them. That's always going to be more satisfying than the more critical ways of reading.

JL: A recurring theme of these pieces seems to be the need to find a voice—somehow communicate with others—and then to remember what's been communicated. What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

MB: I like that description of the book, and there does seem to be a number of characters in the book who begin their respective stories at the time they take on some role—they become a detective, or a cartographer, or a mother—and that then that role gives them a story to tell about themselves, a way in which to define themselves. The rest of the fiction often has to do with how they conduct themselves in that role, whether they succeed, whether they fail, whether it fixes what is wrong with them or whether it ruins them more completely. I think that's a part of the book that I hope readers can identify with, even amongst all the strange plots, all the surreal settings: We all have stories we tell ourselves, related to the roles we inhabit—for example, I'm a husband, a son, a sibling, a friend, a writer, an editor, at the very least—and the ways in which we succeed or fail or struggle or triumph in each of those roles says a lot about who we are, about who we want to be. Of course, our successes in one role might cause our failures in another, in a whole series of others, and so there's a moral complexity to the way the choices we make interact not only with the stories of others but also on the competing stories within us. I think balancing all our roles against each other is an inescapably difficult part of life, and that it's the work of a lifetime to figure out which are the most important to you, which will drive the action of who you are.

That's one thing I think is wrestled with in the book, but I don't know that any conclusions are drawn: As I hinted at in the question before, I'm much less interested in telling readers what to think and feel as I am in making a place in which they might do those things, if they come to the work at the right time and in the right way, and if I've done my job well enough. The best art changes us as we experience it, but I don't think it's necessary that what that change is be well-defined, or even immediately noticeable. In fact, it's maybe better if it is not. Most of my favorite books have that kind of potential power, for the right readers, and I'd like to keep trying to write books that that might do the same for mine.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010