What a Cute Baby!
an interview with Matt Bell
Matt Bell is the author of the short story collection How They Were Found (Keyhole Press) and the recently published Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious Press, $12), a series of twenty-six stories about parents enduring the apocalypses of children. His stories seem to be one part fable, one part prose poem, one part investigation into the fears and desires of those often unequipped for the scope of the world. His stories have appeared in Best American Mystery and Best American Fantasy anthologies, and he is an editor for Dzanc Books, where he also runs the magazine The Collagist. In the fall he begins his appointment as an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University.
Gavin Pate: Let’s talk a little about the origin of Cataclysm Baby, specifically its particular style and structure. In How They Were Found, stories work in quite a few different registers. In Cataclysm Baby, you zero in on a very consistent and specific style. How did this specific style come about, and more generally, how does a style find its footing in your work?
Matt Bell: There’s a lot of luck and instinct at the beginning of a project: I’m searching for a voice, a bit of language or speech that I can then extend or unpack until I get my footing in the story. In Cataclysm Baby I became aware fairly early on of an almost Biblical rhythm and diction, which became prevalent throughout the book. I also started using kennings and kenning-like word combinations, which added to the kind of antique speech I seemed to be building. Once I recognized these possibilities, I started to look for ways to make them stronger: I liked the idea of writing a book about the future in the language of the past. I hoped that it might make the book seem timeless, in the same way that all of the fathers raising similar voices would make them seem part of a whole: they’re individuals, but they’re also united in this role they all share.
GP: Parenting, childbirth, and children are also subjects we also see in How They Were Found, for instance in “His Last Great Gift” and “Her Ennead.” I’m wondering what drew you back to these themes in Cataclysm Baby.
MB: The particular kinds of fear and anxiety that most parents seem to feel are incredibly generative of story: parents aren’t just afraid of the external world, what others might do to their children, and what the future might hold. They’re also worried that they won’t be good enough parents, that they’ll let their children down, that they won’t be able to provide all the things kids need. That tension between the dangerous world outside the family and the fraught one inside is everything a writer could ask for.
It’s possible that the two great arenas for contemporary stories to be set are the family and the workplace. Both of them contain almost limitless possible conflicts, and both involve people constrained to close proximity with each other. You can hate your co-worker or your father, but good luck just avoiding them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cubicle or a Thanksgiving dinner. Sooner or later story is going to happen.
GP: As I was reading, I secretly hoped the book was a commentary on America’s Cult of Having Children. I mean, if you’re thirty and without a kid, isn’t there something wrong with you?
MB: I’m thirty-one, have been married for eight years, and am currently without children, so I know what you mean. I don’t want to overdetermine the reading of the book by answering this too closely, so maybe I’ll just say two short things: the first is that almost all of the environmental and social problems we have globally are either the effects of overpopulation or are worsened by it. The second is that there is some truth to the idea that children consume their parents, just as they’ll later consume the earth. The only thing a newborn’s body can be made of is its parents, especially its mother—who herself is consuming the animals and plants of the earth to feed the baby. We don’t think of it that way very often, for obvious reasons, but there it is. As they grow up, children have to consume some great portion of their parents’ time and energy and talent. And the better the parent, the greater that portion is likely to be.
GP: I have three children myself. In this book, I felt a strong connection to the sense that my children, more than anyone, will be the final jurors of my life. I think the line at the end of “Justina, Justine, Justise” is frighteningly astute: “I want this good behavior to matter.”
MB: Isn’t that what we all want? I’m not a Christian anymore but that sense of preparing to be judged takes longer to go away. Even with the best of intentions, we constantly hurt the people we love—and are hurt by them. There’s almost no one who can hurt a parent more than a child, almost no one who can hurt a husband more than a wife—but almost all of that hurt is accidental, or worse, happens because we are trying to do good, for us and for them. There’s so much power in that paradox. I at least worry that the good won’t be remembered, only the times I let my loved ones down.
GP: You obviously pay close attention to the acoustics of language and syntax. Cataclysm Baby is full of lines like “Only my wife cries. Only the birds caw, flap their wings. Only again a howl of spoor, cigar sputter,” and “All around me, my wolf-children gather, licking my face and chest, pulling loose what matters they find fouled upon my fur.” This is one of the things that stands out about Cataclysm Baby, but I wonder if you ever find this attention at odds with narrative itself? Can a writer over-emphasize or spend too much time on the sound of sentences?
MB: I think that fiction writers are generally more guilty of not spending enough time on the sound of their sentences than too much, but I know that’s not exactly what you’re asking. The benefits of working at the sentence level and at the level of sound is that often getting the sound of a sentence as right as I can will push the story, or reveal some bit of character, or take me in a direction I wouldn’t have otherwise gone. Richard Hugo said, “You carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it . . . One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music.” I believe that if you make the music right then it will eventually come to contain the truth, and that the truth it contains might be somehow surprising even to the writer. I can’t get at the truth of my feelings by starting with them. I have to sneak up on them through language. I’m a pretty serious writer but there’s a part of the craft that requires play and it’s in the sentences that I do most of that playing. When I don’t know what to say next I can at least make music, I can at least play with sound.
Later in the process these sentence-level effects often do get in the way of plot or character—when that happens, then I trim them back, cut away the scaffolding, and it has to go. You can be too precious about this cutting but its best to approach it in a workmanlike way, to just get it done.
GP: But isn’t the scaffolding sometimes seductive in itself? What “workmanlike” process do you undertake to determine in the end what stays and what goes.
MB: “The seductiveness of scaffolding” is a craft essay waiting to be written. It absolutely is. I’m not good at talking about numbers of drafts or revisions, in part because I might go over a passage dozens of times in any particular “draft” of a project. I read the work aloud. I read it on the screen, I read it on the printed page. I look at its physical shape. Sometimes I zoom way out in Word so the page is just blocks of text, so I can see the size of the units. I think about whether what I’ve written seems true to character, to plot, to real life. I try to determine if I’m just attached to it or if it’s truly necessary. Francine Prose called writing “putting every word on trial for its life.” I like the fraughtness implied in her phrasing. I think it should matter that much when you’re trying to get it right.
GP: In your own reading, what qualities do you enjoy most in fiction, and how have your reading habits changed over the years?
MB: Maybe the most of the seminal events of my writing life are really events in my life as a reader: The first time I read Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, David Ohle’s Motorman, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The first times I read Christine Schutt or Amy Hempel or Rikki Ducornet. Those are all pretty deeply ingrained experiences that had a lot to do with who I turned out to be as a writer.
I think my reading habits have mostly changed by opening up. I’m reading more different things than I ever have. There’s a certain muscularity of prose that I need to enjoy anything—I just can’t abide flat prose, although I do have a lot of admiration for writers who appear flat while actually doing a lot of interesting things at the sentence level—but once that’s in place I’m willing to read just about anything. I almost don’t care about subject matter—what the book is about is always less interesting to me than what the book does to make me feel. I want a book to generate emotion, and I want it to leave me changed somehow, even if it’s in a very minor way, even if it’s temporary.
GP: Do you see these changes in any specific way played out in your writing?
MB: When I was starting to find my voice as a writer I needed the range of what I believed was good to be small, so that I could handle working with it. I wasn't ready to allow for a toolbox with a hundred tools. I could barely use one with two or three or five. But over time I've wanted to let more and more in, to admit the success and power in much of what I had to dismiss earlier. I'm not at one hundred tools yet but I want to get there. I’m probably never going to say yes to everything I read—there are always going to be things that fail to move me, or that I don't find particularly strong. But hopefully I can be more generous as a reader without giving up my standards. If anything, I hope those standards expand and complicate and lead me in new directions, new ways of feeling and thinking.
GP: Speaking of new ways of thinking, you’ve stated elsewhere that you’re working on a novel. What challenges have you encountered, if any, in structuring a large narrative?
MB: The challenges of the novel are immense, but I think that the day-to-day work isn’t very different: the building blocks of the novel are still sentences, and you can only work on one sentence at a time. So the drafting wasn’t terribly different than it is with a story. The hardest part of a longer work, at least for me, is being able to hold enough of it in my head at once to effectively rewrite and to maneuver the plot. My stories have been getting longer over the past few years—a lot of the stories in How They Were Found were between six and twelve thousand words, and the few I’ve published since have almost all been over six thousand. So I was starting to work in those bigger units already, and what I learned rewriting those stories—later in the process, once the bulk of the writing had been done—was how to go end-to-end on a piece by a quicker method. It’s almost impossible to hold four hundred pages of fiction in your head, when you’re working on one or two pages a day, as you might be in the beginning. When you’re drafting page 398-400, the chances that you remember pages 120-122 seems pretty slim. But later you can work in bigger chunks, moving faster, maybe working on five pages at a time, then ten, then thirty. By the end I was doing huge chunks of the book a day, which also required more hours—last summer, I was working six hours in the morning, then two or three or four at night, something I’d never done before. But if I worked that hard, then I could keep the entirety of the book more present in my thoughts, which allowed for more accuracy and stronger ligatures spread throughout the book. You can’t go that fast forever—it’s exhausting, and you also need to not lose sight of the book at the sentence level—but over a couple years of rewrites I found that switching between that faster large-scale process and the slower mode of sticking with one sentence or paragraph for a long time were very complementary processes, and that by working them together I might be able to finish my book.
My most recent revision involved almost nothing but cutting: I’d made this big thing, and for a while I was too proud to do the unsentimental work of changing it from something I’d made for me—which is how all my work starts—into something that might affect a reader. I hope that it’s getting close to being only what applies, what affects, what the reader needs and wants. That’s all a reader wants to receive, and if we’re doing our job right then that’s exactly what we give them—not a sentence more, not a word less.Tweet