An Interview with Matt Bell

1 Aug
Matt Bell's novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods has been called not "just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years."

Matt Bell’s novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods has been called not “just a joy to read, it’s also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years.”

Matt Bell is the author of the new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods from Soho Press, which has received the kind of positive reviews that writers dream about. He’s also written Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction.  He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also edits the literary magazine The Collagist, and he teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.

In this interview, Bell discusses conveying emotion in fiction, his revision process, and words of wisdom from great writers.

(To read excerpts from his novel, and to find exercises based on them, click here and here.)

Michael Noll

In the excerpt of the novel that appears at The Good Men Project, every paragraph begins with the phrase “And in this room.” It’s a powerful piece. Each time the phrase “In this room” appears, it hits with greater impact. The effect is not unlike reading a forceful essay or listening to a speech. Did you have something like that in mind? What drew you to this device/strategy?

Matt Bell

Thank you: I think the part of the book that section is from is the heart of the book, in many ways, and I was lucky to discover it as I was writing. I’m not sure exactly when I first found the form of that section, but in a lot of my work there are similar constructs, some kind of structure or system by which emotion can be organized and then interacted with. My characters often externalize their emotions in order to deal with them, and in this case it’s the wife who creates the deep house, so that her husband might be able to experience their marriage and its component parts anew, one by one, room after room.

Michael Noll

The sentence structure in both excerpts is very formal: long sentences, often structured around a series of repetitions. Here is one example: “And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

And here is another: “The genes of a killer, the genes of someone killed; half of what her parents had, but which half?”

And a final example: “And what bruises accompanied these words. What burns and shallow cuts. What years those wounds lasted, scabbed over, healed, replaced, scarred white.”

Sentences like these have the effect of fixing the reader’s gaze, of expanding the space for reflection. How much revision is required to make these sentences work? Is the rhythm of these sentences in your head from the start, or do you tease it out through the drafting process?

Matt Bell

The amount of revision required was fairly staggering. There’s rarely a sentence that appears whole and then remains untouched over the years it takes to finish the book. I’d say that an approximation of the rhythm appears early on—I can’t begin without the voice, or at least a version of it—but the fuller, final version of the voice takes a long time to emerge. The first draft of the book contained a sketch of the husband’s voice, but it took years of rewriting to get it into this final form.

Michael Noll

Both excerpts use unlikely vocabulary: exhalations, immolations, sequestered. What draws you to words like these?

Matt Bell

In this book, the diction is somewhat determined by the voice, which has a certain archaic feel to it. I’d say that some of the words are suggested by the setting of the book, which has mythic and biblical overtones, and others are determined by sentence acoustics, by the other words of the sentences. There’s a little King James Version here, a little Greek myth, a little Old Norwegian folklore, a smattering of words gleaned from 19th-century American dictionaries. All together, these words perhaps allow the book to exist outside any specific time or place, which allows it to be its own kind of myth, without overdetermining any particular association.

Michael Noll

Matt Bell's website offers quotes from writers about craft and the writing life.

Matt Bell’s website offers quotes from writers about craft and the writing life.

Every day on your website and Facebook page, you post a quote from a writer. They’re often about the mentality required to be a writer, the need for persistence and doggedness and self-criticism. Now that you have three books out, I wonder what these quotes mean to you now as compared to when you were

Matt Bell

If anything, they mean more to me than ever. The career of a writer is long, not short. Nothing is finished, nothing is good enough, nothing lasts. All of the publication and reviews and so on won’t sustain me in the same way the work will. I knew that before I had a book, and I know it more now. So I’ll take inspiration wherever I can find it. Anyone that can push me to get up everyday and hit the keys again is someone worth listening to and learning from.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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