A Sentence of Mystery: Matt Bell
Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a collection of fiction from Keyhole Press. His fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is also the editor of The Collagist. Laird Hunt calls How They Were Found “fierce, unflinching, and funny.” Matthew Derby says, “You’re a robot if the stories in Matt Bell’s debut collection don’t exhilarate, frighten, and unalterably change you.”
Michael Kimball: How do you begin a story—with a title, an idea, a word, a phrase, a feeling, a situation, a plot, a character, or with something else?
Matt Bell: I think my answer to that question evolved quite a bit over the time I spent writing How They Were Found. I’d say that prior to writing most of the stories in this book, I probably started with an idea or a character or a situation–never quite a plot, although sometimes I had ideas about that too. Eventually I start becoming dissatisfied with my ideas, which were always more limited than I would have liked. Then something changed, and I began to start with the language first–a phrase, generally, more than a single word–working that until it became a voice, and then following that voice until it revealed character, plot, and so on.
Kimball: So tell me about a story that started with an idea or a character—maybe “The Cartographer’s Girl” or “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy” or “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” (I don’t know if those did start that way; I’m guessing). What was the beginning idea and how did the story develop from there?
Bell: I like your guesses, and they’re only partially wrong: “Index” started with a constraint—I’d written a whole draft of the story before the character was even close to being obvious to me—and “Ten Scenes” started without any plan at all, just writing fragments and letting them lead the way, although if I remember right it actually proceeded pretty linearly. That was an easy story to draft and a hard story to finish, as I recall. “The Cartographer’s Girl” would be closest to starting with an idea, although I had to go back and look at my files to see what the first days of that story looked like. (I keep a new file for every day I worked on a story, so it’s somewhat easy to go back and see the genesis of stories.) The first day’s work on “The Cartographer’s Girl” is a list of symbols, and what they each mean, and most of them have the designation they have in the final story. I don’t remember that at all, so it’s weird to go and look at it now.
Further proof of that story’s genesis-as-idea: There’s a title that I don’t remember either, and that I actually had to look both words up, since I don’t remember what they mean anymore. It was called—on that very first day, and never again afterward—”The Percipient’s Exonym.” Who knows where I got that from, although—once I looked up the definitions—I can see how the story came from that: A percipient is “one that perceives; a person on whose mind a telepathic impulse or message is held to fall,” and an exonym is “a name for a place that differs from that used in the official or well-established language by the local inhabitants.” It’s interesting how much of that initial impulse is in the final story, but also how I went so far away from the impulse in the writing and rewriting that I forgot it ever existed.
Kimball: I love that title—“Percipient’s Exonym”—and the story even makes a different kind of sense with that behind it. I also love that you keep a draft a day for each story so that that didn’t get lost. OK, let’s move away from beginning with an idea and go back to the idea of beginning with language. I’m guessing that “His Last Great Gift” and maybe “The Receiving Tower” started with language. Could you talk about what it was in the language that captured you?
Bell: “His Last Great Gift” is probably a bit of both, since there’s a historical basis for the story — John Murray Spear (just “Spear” in my story) was a real person, who supposedly did build a mechanical messiah — but I didn’t write the story until months after I did the research, and then on a whim. I sat down to start figuring out something new, and from the first few sentences I started messing around with came the voice of that story, showing me how the borrowed bits of language from the research could combine into a narratorial voice I could generate. But that’s not really what you’re asking.
I do often start with language or voice, usually embodied in a phrase that provides the seed for me to continue building a narratorial voice. It’s also worth saying that this generative phrase isn’t always an acoustic event, as talking about it this way might suggest it was. Sometimes it’s just a sentence worth of mystery, something I want to follow behind or else tunnel into, to see where it might lead or what it contained. I’m thinking specifically of “The Receiving Tower,” where the first sentences — say an early version of that first section — appeared without any more prompting than the blank screen and my fingers starting to hit the keys to see what might come of it. Then I got to the end of that section — “Once, Cormack stood beside me and prayed aloud that one might crash into the receiving tower instead and free us all… Once, I knew which one of us Cormack actually was” (although then the name was different), and I had no idea what that meant. It was enough that I wanted to know, and that I could let that want propel me as I worked forward along the thread of the story.
Kimball: Let’s stick with those opening lines from “The Receiving Tower.” Besides not knowing what was behind those lines, were there other things in sentences—certain words or sounds or maybe a feeling — that animated what came next in the story?
Bell: I can remember the initial feeling of the lines. It’s one that I think persists in that story’s final form, and in much of the rest of the book: At the time, I was growing very interested in characters who arrive at the end of things, some exhausted role or story or space. The narrator in “The Receiving Tower” speaks those first sentences from a point of vantage upon the end of a world, in several different ways, not all of them apparent to the reader at that point, and the role he takes on as investigator in the story carries its own integral exhausting, its own ending. So that feeling of the north, the arctic, of watching the sky fall through the dark, that was all very powerful for me, and served to draw me into the story long before it ever had to draw in any reader.
In those two lines I cited above, I know I now find the sound there very pleasing, with the “Cormack/crash” ligature, and also the repeated diminishment of “once” into “one,” a tiny exhaustion at the beginning of a longer one. The sound of “Cormack/crash” continues into the next section’s opening sentence, with “concrete and crowned,” and I remember thinking—at least later, during rewriting—that if there were opportunities to create alliterations or other kinds of acoustic or sentence-level connections between the ends and beginnings of sections, that might help the story hold together, since there’s so much potential for the story to be confusing, with the unreliable narrator and the fragmentary structure.
The difficult thing about talking about any of this—and, to me, one of the more interesting aspects of author interviews in general—is the difficulty of being accurate, even as I’m trying to be as forthcoming and honest as possible. It’s a problem all writer interviews have: I’m talking about stories I wrote in 2008, with my next book finished and another book underway, and so of course I’m not precisely the same writer or person I was when I wrote these. I’m trying hard not to describe how the writer I am now would look at these sentences, but rather how the writer who wrote them did. It’s a tough thing, but perhaps one worth getting as close to right as possible.
Kimball: One of the things that I continue to find fascinating about writing is when I love a sentence, but don’t quite know why. Often, when I look back at it, I find all sorts of acoustical resonance. Also, your observation of “once” and “one”—that whole story is contained in that bit of diminishment, as you called it. OK, you’ve given us some hints about your process. Could you talk a bit more about that, maybe especially about working without knowing where a particular piece of fiction is going?
Bell: “The Collectors” was written half-hidden from myself—I was working on a novel at the time, and wrote the forty or fifty original sections that were arranged into “The Collectors” as a daily warm up, making one per day before I started my efforts on the novel. I didn’t have a plan for them, and didn’t know how they would all fit together, if they ever would or could. Instead of worrying about how it would work, I spent that time working the language, trying out points of view, just letting myself slowly fill the spaces left by the very few facts I knew about the Collyer Brothers. Later, when I began to arrange, the structure of the story quickly became apparent to me, revealed not by trying to find it but by not looking at all.
“An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” was written in a similar way: I mentioned earlier that it started with a constraint, which was the index form. So I knew how it was going to be structured, and I knew it was going to be a mystery or detective story of some kind—the first knowing coming earlier than the second—but I didn’t know who the narrator was, what had happened, or who it had happened to, not for a long time. I wrote until I had exhausted my initial impulses, then I started alphabetizing the sentences and fragments. Once I saw them in order, there were all these other spaces to write into, all these other possibilities there in the blanks between. I saw that the history of this family was already hidden there in the pile I had made, but wasn’t able to be found until I applied some organizing structure to the story, until I allowed that structure to dictate the next move, rather than my own ideas for what the story should be.
That giving up control—without having meant to the first times, and then intentionally later on, in other stories—is a lesson I’m still trying to fully learn, especially because it often conflicts with my want to perfect things, to be in charge of the proceedings at all times. By now though, I’m aware that sometimes the best way for me to get at what I really want to put on the page—to write what I’ll be proud of later, that will last, at least in my own estimation—seems to often be to mask my intentions from myself, working on the craft until the better deep stuff rushes forward, the words and feelings not accessible to my rather limited day-to-day self. It can be frustrating, but it’s better than the alternative.
Kimball: We began with how you begin, so let’s end with how you end. I know you’re a big fan of lots of revision, as I am. How do you know when you’re finished with a piece of fiction?
Bell: Well, the glib answer is that I never think of anything as done. I edited How They Were Found right up until the end, and Peter Cole at Keyhole is probably still exhausted from seeing emails from me with the subject line “One more thing.” He sent me an email a week or two ago about a reviewer who’d called to confirm a couple quotes for a forthcoming review, and I’d somehow managed to tweak every single passage the reviewer was trying to quote between the galley and the final. I can’t help it. I adjust and I adjust and I adjust and I will do so forever, if you will let me.
When I was just starting to get published five or six years ago, I know now that I would send work out too early, when there were still some nagging concerns here and there. At the time, I chalked it up to insecurity, telling myself I was a perfectionist, that I was being too hard on myself, that these little nagging feelings didn’t matter. (And of course this is what writers too often hear from others they might share work with: It’s good enough. It’s publishable. Send it out. What a terrible piece of advice to give someone. As if good enough is the goal.)
It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t insecurity that I was feeling but good instinct, and that I should have held on to those stories until I found and fixed whatever was causing those doubts.
These days, I try to write and rewrite and revise until I don’t have any of those feelings left at all, which means every page is slow, every story slower, and that this novel draft I just finished scares the hell out of me, as the idea of getting something that big right seems incredibly daunting. But at least I know the process, and I trust the process works.
If I’ve got a nagging feeling, I hold on to it another day. The way I test the finality of the work is really the same way I do the bulk of my revising: I read the fiction out loud, in a performative manner, trying to get from beginning to end without feeling a single doubt about it. I stop and work on whatever I find as I do it—which means that in the early stages of revising I might not get very far at all—and by the time I’m done I should be able to make it all the way through. There shouldn’t be any words left I can’t say out loud—this is important to me, even if I’m writing in another’s voice, which is always—and there shouldn’t be any weak or flat sentences, any failures of logic or wit or feeling, any weightless cleverness, any unmeant characters or scenes. Everything left in the story should be coming together to build some bigger effect happening inside the reader, and that effect should be worthy of the reader’s time and energy.
There is, of course, a risk involved with being this unsentimental with yourself: You might never get anything done, or you might have to admit that what you do get done isn’t very good. And some days that’s the truth of the situation, whether I like it or not. I’m trying to be hard enough on myself to say this whenever it’s necessary to say it, and to get better at seeing when it’s necessary. I’m not all the way there yet—I’m not sure it’s somewhere you arrive—but I’m going to keep heading in that direction, and hopefully the fiction keeps getting better because of it.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”), is now out in paperback and his books have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), I WILL SMASH YOU, 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, and the 510 Readings.
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