Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hard Wins: An Interview with Matt Bell (Part I)

Matt Bell is the author of a forthcoming fiction collection, How They Were Found (Keyhole, Fall 2010), as well as a novella, The Collectors, and a chapbook, How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, Willow Springs, Unsaid, American Short Fiction, Redivider, Gulf Coast, Caketrain, Hayden's Ferry Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and Gargoyle. He is also the editor of The Collagist and the series editor of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series.

Kyle Semmel: I came across your short fiction first in an issue of Barrelhouse, with the incredible science fictionish "BeautyForever", then later in the most recent issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review. After reading that second story, I just had to read The Collectors, the runner-up novella to Caketrain’s Fiction Chapbook contest. It’s impossible to read The Collectors—a novella about Homer & Langley Collyer—without thinking of E. L. Doctorow’s version of their story. How does that make you feel to see his novel follow so closely after your own work?

Matt Bell: First, thanks so much for interviewing me, and for taking the time to follow me from story to story. I really appreciate your reading as well as the kind words about the stories.

I was initially pretty excited to read Doctorow's Homer and Langley, and I guess now I'm not. When the book first came out, I read the sample chapter of it that was available for the Kindle, and just wasn't interested enough to pick up the book and read the rest, even though I’ve read several of Doctorow's books and loved at least one of them (City of God). Homer and Langley doesn't seem to be one of his stronger books, at least judging from the admittedly small sample I read, and I haven't seen a review or heard a personal recommendation to convince me to give it another chance. I actually saw the hardcover for fifty percent off the other day and almost bought it anyway, then changed my mind.

That might not have been what you were asking, of course. If you're asking about the connection between what I've done and what I perceive Doctorow as doing, then I'll only say that I don't really see much to compare. They're very different books with greatly diverging worldviews and aesthetics. One thing I do see (or think I do, since again I haven’t read it) in Doctorow's book is a forcing of the writer's wants into another person's life without apology or even recognition—he seems more interested in the story he wants to tell than he ever is in the historical subject, something I think he’s freely admitted in interviews by calling them the “mythological Collyer brothers” or something to that effect.

For instance, in his Homer and Langley, both brothers are kept alive through Watergate, whereas the real Collyers were dead by March 1947. Doctorow does this (I believe, from what I've read in reviews) so that they might serve as the chroniclers of the century, but to me that's not a good enough reason. Combined with all the other major deviations from their biographies, Doctorow's decisions suggest to me that the choice of Homer and Langley is little more than marketing. After all, Doctorow could have used some invented pair of brothers that fit his plot, but then he wouldn't have had a hook to sell the thing to interviewers and reviewers with: The Collyers generated the buzz for this book, not Doctorow's writing (or at least not only Doctorow’s writing).

One of the things I tried to do differently in The Collectors was to acknowledge that this sort of sin is impossible to avoid committing in the act of writing historical fiction, even if you try to stick close to the ground truth. Inevitably, as you write you’ll want to rearrange history to fit the wants of his story rather than the facts of the history. The problem is that history is more than just dates and important events. It’s also the remains of real people's lives and the stories of those lives, and when we unapologetically change those lives to fit our own needs we are—perhaps— making lies of the people who came before us.

This process made me increasingly uncomfortable, until finally I found that the way to complete The Collectors was to enter into it, to use my own obsessive qualities to inform the first-person voice of the author character who joins the brothers in the house, so that I could admit that I was probably wrong for manipulating the stuff of their tragedy into my own fiction.

It’s also honest to say that I didn’t do this consciously at first—it wasn’t until I started assembling and rearranging the sections that I realized there were all these lines scattered throughout the manuscript where I’d been inserting this author character a little bit at a time as I wrote the rest of the book. From that discovery, it took some reflection to figure out why I’d been doing so, and also what to do about it. A lot of what I’ve written above comes from that part of the process, already a long way into the writing of the novella.

KS: In a recent book review in The Washington Post, Tracey Lee Simmons writes: "All historical writing is an act of revision, an exercise in re-seeing figures and events of former times in the light of new or neglected evidence." You use a loving hand with Homer & Langley. Now that you've let the story into the world, do you still feel "wrong"?

MB: Maybe “wrong” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe what I mean is that I’m more conscious now of the fact that it's complicated to make fiction from the lives of others, because by doing so we inevitably take something of theirs and make it ours in a way that isn't necessarily honest to who they were or are. Obviously, this isn't just a problem with historical fiction. I'd imagine that even the most non-realist piece of fiction has all kinds of tendrils reaching out of it back into the writer's life and the lives of his friends and family. I often make the claim that I rarely write anything even remotely autobiographical, and on the surface of my stories, that claim probably holds up more often than not. On closer inspection, maybe not so much. There's a lot of stolen bits of life in every work of fiction, and I think my saying "apology" is my way of recognizing that while that kind of theft is perhaps an inevitable part of making art, that doesn't mean it should be taken lightly. It doesn't have to be a thoughtless or unconsidered act, and probably shouldn't be.

Another example of this sort of thing: There's a line in another story of mine that’s based on a traumatic experience that happened to someone close to me, that perhaps wasn't mine to steal. Every time I revised the story, I took that line out and then inevitably put it back in. The story needs that secret to work—it's part of the story's fuel—but that doesn't diminish the guilt I feel about it being there.

All this said, it’s not like I’m advocating that people should quit writing historical fiction or stop borrowing from their lives and the lives around them. I’ve written historical fiction since The Collectors, and certainly I’ll continue to steal whatever else I need to. I’m just saying that sometimes it makes me feel guilty, and that in the end I'm maybe glad I feel that guilt. The alternative would probably be worse.

KS: The Collectors and “Dredge” in Hayden’s Ferry Review both explore the dark parts of human psychology. What is it that motivates you when constructing your characters?

MB: I’ve always been drawn to the kind of characters who have been backed into a corner, either by themselves or others. I'm also interested in what happens to characters whose options have been limited severely, so that the only choices left to them are extreme ones. In The Collectors, Langley has gathered around himself everything that once belonged to his father and mother and his brother, and his reshaping of those piles creates iterations of a home that never becomes sufficient to make the family he wants it to. He could start over by leaving the house, but that would also mean abandoning all the objects he has claimed as his family for so long. Either choice is extreme—abandoning all he knows or else eventually dying inside a house buried from the inside out—and much of the tension in his character comes from his refusal to make that choice.

In "Dredge," I wanted to write a "failed" detective story. Due to his mental and social limitations, Punter is incapable of solving the "crime" he sets out to solve. He tries to act as he believes a detective should act, but because he understands so little of what he sees, he isn't capable of drawing appropriate connections. Partly, this is because he has been isolated for so long: No family, no friends, and everyone else in his life—his counselors, his co-workers—have all faded out of his life by the time the story starts. What happened to the drowned girl in this story is something that Punter can only understand if he understands the people around him, and since that's impossible, the story becomes about what he does instead. Without giving anything away, I think what happens at the end of "Dredge" is a positive thing for Punter, as dark as it seemingly is. For me, it's a hopeful ending, even though an outside observer would think much about Punter's life is now going to be worse than it was before. But from Punter's perspective, his getting to release his history has got to be a triumph, no matter what it eventually costs him. That kind of "hard win" interests me a lot—what if the best we can hope for is still a bad outcome? We still have to try, right?

Read Part II of this interview.

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