by Blake Butler
Last year saw the release of the first full length work by a much buzzed and discussed and well admired presence both online and in print, the seemingly inexhaustible Matt Bell. Between his countless writing projects, his editorship of The Collagist and role on the masthead at Dzanc Books, to relentlessly blogging and spreading the word all over the place not only about his own work, but scads of other, I don’t think there’s anybody who would argue Matt Bell isn’t an enormous lodestone-type presence for the independent press world, and always on the prowl.
Over the past few months, Matt and I exchanged a bunch of emails, some days apart, some weeks, in the midst of all this, conversing about the book, How They Were Found, Matt’s fortitude and unwavering ambition, process, sound, and many other things of the word.
BB: So, as a collection, How They Were Found represents a pretty wide arc of time and writing for you, yes? I remember “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” fromCaketrain several years ago being a story that was probably the first of yours I read and was like Yes, this man’s mind: there is aura here. I think I’d actually read all of the stories except one perhaps in journals since then, and was really impressed in the reading of them as a whole object how they really seemed to comprise a sense of a whole, even over such a course.. I wonder how it feels now to you to see all that time represented in an object, and if the parts as parts became different to you once they were assembled into that body? Also, how did you go about figuring out what stories from that time should go into the book and what should be left out?
MB: The time span of How They Were Found is a weirdly elongated space, because while I wrote “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” in 2006–looks like I did the first draft in March of that year–I didn’t write any of the other stories in the book until 2008. The next earliest is “Hold on to Your Vacuum,” written in January of that year, and then “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy,” written a month or two later. Staring six months later, say August 2008, I wrote all of the rest of the stories that are in the book, meaning that ten of the thirteen were written between August 2009 and May 2010. So in one sense the book took me five years to write, and in another I wrote the bulk of the book in eight or nine months. The truth is probably that it was both, and that what I didn’t realize was starting with “A Certain Number of Bedrooms” just took a couple years to play out. What I remember of writing that story is that it came out almost effortlessly, in a way almost nothing does now: I had a first draft in a single day, and while it took a while to polish it–I literally just stopped, in some ways, since I tweaked a few sentences between the galleys and the final of the book–but ninety or ninety-five percent of what’s in the final version is in the first. It was something new for me, different than what I’d done before, and while I’d like to say that writing that story instantly helped me get to where I could write the rest of the stories in the book, it didn’t. I didn’t write anything else like it for a long time, didn’t even know enough to recognize how different it was from what else I was doing.
When I started looking at stories to put together for a possible collection, it became pretty clear that much of what I had done previous to that 2008-2009 burst of writing wasn’t going to fit. I was working with Michael Czyzniejewski at the time, who had just finished putting together his collection Elephants in our Bedroom. One of the lessons he said he learned from that process was that you could write a story that was good enough for a great magazine, remain really proud of the story, and still need to leave it out of your book. There are “book stories,” and stories that are not. His saying that led me to decide that the stories in my collection should come together to create a book, one worth reading from beginning to end and that was actually better read that way, rather than just a collection of stories that could be read in any order.
BB: One of the major themes that seems to span the breadth of these stories as a whole is fault of memory and a kind of hoarding of objects or information, as if the characters are both aware that you as author are taking away their minds gradually and at the same time you are trying to protect them with relics. Do you feel you are manipulating characters, as tools, or objects maybe, or are they something more?
MB: Sometimes writers talk about their characters as if they are living, breathing friends and family, but I’m not sure I feel that way exactly, or at least not always. Even if one of the goals of fiction might be to create a feeling in the reader of knowing a real person, of creating empathy or sympathy or disgust at that person, even then that is something that mostly happens in the reader, or rather, if it does eventually happens in the writer too, that might just be because we are also our own readers, because one of the ways in which we know we are done is when we recognize that happening in us as we read and edit our own work, as we refine that happening toward greater effect.
The confusion comes when writers get interviewed, and we start making up lies about how we arrived at where we’ve arrived. We wrote this much a day, we got the idea from this or that, we were thinking about how people do this thing or that one, and we say we have always had these fully drawn characters who directed the action, so that the story “wrote itself.” At least for me, that’s rarely the way the process works. Instead, I’m starting from a piece of language or an image or a constraint, and from that place I start building, extending, adjusting, and out of that arises character, plot, and so on, which I then am happy work with. When characters emerge in this way, they are perhaps more like tools and objects, as you suggest, one of the many means by which I hope to enter a reader’s heart and mind, and to do whatever else I want to do there.
The bigger point is that while I’m writing, a character isn’t its own entity, isn’t something that commands me or the flow of the fiction. The character is also an aggression which the reader does not necessarily notice, which the reader in fact invites into himself or herself, because that is what they’ve been trained to do: To care what happens to the people in stories, and to cheer for the protagonist. A writer can use that expectation to ride the character into the heart and mind of the reader, and then to affect some change upon the reader.
BB: I think clearly your characters are exploring their terrain along with the reader, as you say, often knowing even less than what is given. It is interesting then to see those shifts where they begin to be startled, such as the character trapped in the scenes where they are then drilled into the head, and the scene is over. Some of the most compelling moments of your work in particular is the accumulation of those residues while the characters themselves are left struggling to figure it out, and often never do, and then they die. I think this is probably also a big product of your approach and revision methods. I know you write obsessively and revise obsessively. Do you think it is possible to make good writing without revision? Does the revision come from a different place, outside of the sound, than the generation? You marry sound and forward motion so well, I wonder where you see that balance, and how the two can be approached at once both in generation and revision.
MB: Here’s what I know: It’s not possible for me to make good writing without revision, although certainly I can see how other people might. But for me, everything is revision, and revision everything. Whatever generates the beginning of the fiction–acoustic event, image, a sentence or an idea, whatever is—I can generally only maintain it or extend it by revising in different ways. When I find myself at the far edge of a draft, and I’m in that place where the fiction’s not working very well, or I can tell the writing is kind of weak, or I’m just blocked for what to write next, then I’ll back up–sometimes just a page, sometimes ten pages, sometimes all the way to the beginning–and I’ll work my way forward again, sentence by sentence, trying to find the places I can make it better, that I can turn it or adjust it so that it’s stronger than it was. The trick is to stay open to the possibilities of individual sentences, paragraphs, scenes, as it’s important not to just polish. If I’m working well, by the time I reach the edge of the draft again I’m usually able to extend it forward a little more, and sometimes a lot.
Doing this, it’s one way to take that initial urge, whatever got me excited enough to put it down on the page, and to carry it along throughout the writing of the story, which probably generates some of that forward motion you mentioned: If I can keep in motion that initial urge, by continually going back and bringing it forward again, then there’s a chance for the whole fiction to have a kind of headlong movement from beginning to end.
BB: How much do you estimate you throw away versus how much you keep? I know you’ve written a few novels that are buried. What besides practice helps you hone?
MB: I think I throw away less finished stuff than I used to–pretty much everything I’ve finished in the last two years I’ve published. I think that’s partly because I discover what to just stop working on quicker than I did in the past. It’s gotten easier to tell, early in the process, whether something has the chance to be worthwhile in the end, and so more stuff gets abandoned quicker. That said, I’ve got a couple stories that I’ve spent months and months on and never panned out, plus half a novel draft that ran out of steam. That’s just part of the process, and it’s better to have a few things fail and get put in the drawer than to try to publish everything, and not be able to realize when a story isn’t as strong as other things I’ve done.
Other than the practice of writing every day, I think reading and reading as much as I can is just as vital. When I was younger, one of the problems with my understanding of what good fiction was that I had such a narrow view of it: I thought there was less tiny island of stuff that was worth something, and that everything else was kind of crap, or old and worn out, or whatever. But the truth is that there are thousands and thousands of better books than I can yet write, thousands of writers and thinkers that are smarter and braver and more ingenious than I’ve yet dared to be. I think it used to be that great writing or brilliant thinking intimidated me, or made me want to copy what those others had already done, but know I mostly use it to embolden my own efforts: When I see the great thing that someone else has done, I try to believe that I can do something equally great, and that I can do it on my own terms, in my way. So reading as much as I can serves to constantly raise that bar, to create the reason for me to constantly hone my craft and my person into whatever shape might be able to reach what I’m aiming for.
BB: I think your passion and dedication to the word is evident not only in your writing, but your daily approach to it from every angle, as editor, and in promotion of the work, spreading the word. You seem to have 100 heads and hands. How do you manage your time and life and keep the momentum singular and going fwd, and find seemingly infinite motivation/energy for both? Does the experience editing The Collagist, what you read there, end up influencing your work?
MB: I’m not going to lie: there are day’s it’s tough to keep all the balls I’m juggling up in the air. That said, it’s mostly just a matter of prioritizing: I try to write first thing when I get up, for two or three hours a day, seven days a week, whenever I can. During the week, the rest of the day I spend doing my work at Dzanc, until my wife comes home late in the evening, after which I spend a few hours with her before returning to reading or work after she goes to bed. The days are long, but they’re good days– I like what I do, and I’m lucky to get to spend my days doing it.
This makes it sound like I work all the time, which of course isn’t true. If anything, I constantly feel guilty that I’m not doing enough. I still spend a fair about of time playing video games, or screwing around on the internet, or whatever else I do when I’m not working. And of course I’ll put it all aside to make time for my family or friends when I get the chance. I’ve also been traveling a lot this past year, which means making up for the work I missed when I get home.
So yes, it’s a balancing act, but an achievable one. If someone as lazy as me can do it, anyone can.
BB: Does the experience editing The Collagist, what you read there, end up influencing your work?
MB: The Collagist has been great for my writing, I think. The first thing it does is help expose some of the tropes in fiction that are commonplace, too easy, worn out: Reading a couple hundred pieces of prose a month will show you all the things that seemingly anyone can do, and it’ll convince you not to do them yourself. All the time now I pick up books and see some quality that I see in fifty submissions a month, and I think, why bother? I already read this all the time. That sort of feeling helps push me to keep looking for what only I can do, instead of what anyone could.
I’m also a reasonably hands-on editor, and working closely with so many great writers has been great for my own prose. It’s so much easier to find solutions to problems that aren’t yours, and once you’ve learned how to fix certain issues, you can apply that knowledge to your own work. Even better than fixing the problems is learning how the successful parts of other people’s fiction works: Between book reviewing and editing for Dzanc and The Collagist, I’ve gotten a lot of close-up looks at other people’s work, and that’s definitely been one of the major components of my own growth.
BB: I know you are very focused on music and the fact of what is playing when you are writing being an influence. Do you feel like the book would have been different if you had listened to other music while you were writing it? What about silence?
MB: I’ve always listened to music while I wrote, although that depends a little on the phase of the process I’m in. I generally can listen to music when I’m first getting started, and during some of the drafting, and then generally listen to less and less as I go: At points during the beginning, I have to shut off the music so I can read aloud and edit the sound of the language more directly, and by the time I get to the end of the process I’m generally working in silence, or at least I’m listening to wholly instrumental music, turned down low.
Of course, it’s not that I’m not editing the acoustics all the time: It’s just that in the
Mostly, I think music functions to keep me in the chair: It’s that just-enough-of-a-distraction to create that paradoxical kind of attention I need to work. It’s really not much different than trying to write just a little drunk, or just a little hungry, or after just the right amount of insomnia. It’s sometimes good to give the most conscious part of your brain something else to do, so the rest of you can get to work.
As for whether the book would be different with different music, I’m not really sure. What I’ve recently realized about my process is that in the earlier stages of a manuscript, I’m much less discriminating about what I listen to. Within a certain range, just about anything works. Then, as time goes on, what I listen to tends to get more and more specific, or at least the range gets smaller: It’s a certain kind of music, at least. In the same way that by the end of working on a manuscript you’ve thrown out everything that doesn’t fit the book, so I’m often getting rid of all the music that somehow doesn’t match. So maybe it’s less about finding the right music to make the book and more about getting rid of all the music that can’t help.
BB: Many of your stories seem interested in iconography and symbols and archives. Is this something that has followed you? Do you think about a story in terms of layers when you are building it?
MB: My characters definitely seem to be interested in organizing, mapping, making inventories and indexes and lists. In understanding through systems. That’s a quality of most of the stories in HTWF, and it’s certainly present to some extent in my next book, and maybe even more so in the one I’m working on now, although in a very different way. I’m not sure that comes from a pre-existing part of myself–I’m not that organized a person myself, really–but if it does it probably comes from my obsessive tendencies: I can get very, very obsessed with a book or a movie or a song, even parts of any of those things– I can remember skipping to the middle of songs to play some fifteen or twenty second section over and over, and certainly there are books I’ve never read twice but I’ve read some passage inside the book hundred of times.
The layering of my stories has less to do with some ideology and more to do with process, I think: I’ve mentioned a few times that I rarely know what I’m doing in advance, and that means that I discover the characters and settings and plots and concerns of my stories by gradually adding and adding and adding to what’s already been put down. So maybe the first part of the writing is some acoustic event, or a situational hook, and then something else gets put on top of that, and something else on top of that, and if things are going well all those additional elements get interspersed and strengthened by one each other. Often layers won’t mix at first, and it takes some as-yet-undiscovered new element to bring them together. Finding those connections is one of the most exciting aspects to the writing, one of the ways the process keeps me surprised and interested.
BB: Now you are working on a novel, right? Have you found that the making of the stories, not to mention it becoming an object, influenced your approach in going forward? Have there been major differences in moving from more localized settings to the longer sprawl?
MB: I think the biggest effect putting out the book had on me was to assist in the reconfiguring of my goals as a writer. Once the early goals of the career happened–get published, then get published in great magazines, then have a book–then I needed new goals to replace them, or at least supplement them. For me, rather than having goals related to the publishing side of the process–although certainly I want to keep doing bigger and better things with my manuscripts too–it’s mostly resulted in me trying to set the artistic goals as high as they can be. I’m a slower writer than ever before, and harder on myself, less accepting of my flaws as a writer. I want to write great books, and I want to keep pushing myself to go further and further with what I’m capable of, to keep trying after what I couldn’t do before. So that’s one part of it.
I wrote most of the stories in How They Were Found right after failing to pull off a novel attempt, my first major push to write a book-length manuscript. I came out of that process with a lot more stamina than I went into it, and suddenly I was able to pull off the 8000-12000 word story, which I never would have dreamed of beforehand, in part because I didn’t yet have the ability to work on one thing for months at a time. Being able to sustain a narrative for that length was good training for going back for a new novel attempt, just because in novel-writing you have to hold so much more in your head at once, far more than you have to in shorter works. So many of the abilities that seem crucial to my current efforts came from figuring out those long stories from HTWF, and I honestly don’t think I’d be able to write this novel if I hadn’t written those stories first. I hope that keeps happening to me with each progressive book. I don’t want there to be a plateau, a place where I can’t go forward from where I am, where I can’t see my way to my own next thing. I want to keep pushing, to keep going on, so that each finished book becomes not just its own accomplishment but also a staging ground for the writing of the next one. I never expected to get everything right the first time. I always imagined my career not as a destination but as a trajectory or as a process. I want to keep getting better and stronger, and also hungrier: Whatever it is that makes a writer great, I want to want it more when I have ten books than when I had zero.