Intern Morgan is at it again, and virtually sits down with Matt Bell.
M: I saw you at the Literary Death Match during AWP in DC. Your story was hilarious, and I think about it every time I am forced to venture into the city from my safe suburban Maryland haven. What inspired the piece?
MB: What I read was one part of a longer story, called “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed.” It began not with the subject, but with the form: I’d been trying to write a story in the form of an index for a couple of years, and hadn’t been able to pull it off, in part because the subject matter hadn’t ever emerged for me. This was maybe my third or fourth attempt at the form, and still the narrator’s character and his tragedy-struck family took a while to make themselves known: I had written a whole draft of it before I even had an inkling of the deeper story. But I kept at it, adding and rearranging and filling out the form, and eventually the narrative appeared, which was an awesome feeling. I’m not sure I knew I was going to end up with an actual story when I started, and I feel lucky that I did. It was an early lesson for me in the ways that form and constraints can generate story and character, and that’s something I’ve banked on ever since.
M: Do you find that a story is better when it is performed/read by the author?
MB: Hopefully, a story is strong both ways. I spend a lot of time with the sound of my language, and with the way it sounds out loud. I actually spend much of my drafting time standing in front of the computer, reading aloud, revising the rhythms and the acoustics of the work just as much as I’m working on things like plot and character. In one of his essays, William Gass says, “Words have sound and shape. Even the written word wears a halo of unvoiced sound while the spoken word bears the image of its written shape.” As he so often does, Gass nails it: A story’s sound is present, even when you read it on the page, and a story’s shape should be evident, even when heard aloud. The two things are not actually separable, and the best writers attend to both.
M: Who are the writers or performers that have most influenced you? Who do you turn to for guidance when you’re stuck?
MB: I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers, of course. When I was starting out writing, Denis Johnson was my first big literary hero, and I certainly learned to write trying to emulate him. Later influences include Brian Evenson, Matthew Derby, Christine Schutt, David Ohle, Ben Marcus, Norman Lock, Deb Unferth, and so many other contemporary writers, from whom I’ve learned things both big and small—there’s almost always something. Cormac McCarthy continues to be a growing influence. The stack of books on and around my desk that I go to for inspiration is a constantly growing pile, and there do seem to be some I can’t ever truly put back on the shelf.
M: You seem to have the trifecta of a literary career: published author, editor at Dzanc Books and of The Collagist, and teacher. How do you manage it all while still having time to write more of your own work?
MB: I’m very lucky right now to get to work from home for the most part, and so I write every day in the mornings, before beginning my work for Dzanc. Generally, I write for two or three hours in the morning, and then work the rest of the day, more or less seven days a week, minus travel and so on. It’s a busy schedule, but all of these different things tend to feed each other—being an editor makes me a better writer, being a better writer makes me a better teacher, etc.—and so it’s easier to stay enthused and on task than it has been at other, more distracting times in my life.
M: At the upcoming Conversations and Connections Conference, you will be leading a craft workshop called, “Everything Worth Saying is Worth Saying Twice: the Power of Repetition.” In one word, describe what the audience can expect from your session.
MB: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.
He works as an editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist. He is the visiting writer at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Matt will be leading a craft lecture at the Conversations and Connections conference in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 16, 2011.