Tag Archives: Good Men Project

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.

How to Write about Remembering

30 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel was published by Soho Press and has been called, by the New York Times, “a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergency from some kind of personal hell.”

A novel that’s getting some well-deserved attention is Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the synopsis will give you some sense of this novel’s ambition:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

Think about that phrase: the labyrinth of memory. Many novels—and certainly memoirs—feature narrators telling stories from memory. But what if the novel seeks to represent the act of remembering? It’s not an easy task. In a way, storytelling and memory are incompatible. Fiction moves forward while memory tends to return endlessly to an image or moment. So, it takes a gifted writer to reconcile the two.

Matt Bell is one of those writers. Find out how he writes about remembering in this excerpt from his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

Every paragraph from the excerpt begins with the same four words: And in this room. The effect is powerful and clear. The passage is drilling down into a room, into and through moments, details, revelations that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The first two encounters with memory may seem familiar: “The love letters we wrote to each other” and “the moment of our first lovemaking.” But then comes the third encounter:

“And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

As the passage develops, the phrase “And in this room” continues to be repeated, leaving the narrator no choice to not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: And in this room. The character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s encounter a memory without looking away. (This exercise works for both fiction and nonfiction.)

  1. Choose a powerful memory to write about (yours or the character/narrator’s). It could be something funny or sad, happy or tragic. The best memories often cannot be easily labeled; that is why we remember deaths and births. They’re some of the few times that we, as adults, will encounter something that is wholly and completely outside of our experience.
  2. Let’s borrow from Matt Bell and use the phrase “And in this room.” If the memory takes place outside, substitute the appropriate noun for room.
  3. Write a series of paragraphs that begin with “And in this room.” You’ll write about the obvious things, of course, but don’t stop there. Keep going. Exhaust your memory; excavate the contents. Discover things that you thought you’d forgotten or that the character never realized she knew. Focus on objects in the room and their role in the memory. Think about relationships that define the room and the objects that were picked up or leaned against or sat on by the people in that relationship.
  4. Once you’ve written about a moment, try to remember the moment that occurred immediately before or afterward. You can worry about arranging and rearranging the details later. For now, let your mind surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

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