Tin House // Even Our Bones Had Memories: An Interview with Matt Bell
I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Bell for Tin House:
Matt Bell’s visionary debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and Woods is one of the most singularly strange and beautiful and wondrous books to come along in a long time. I picked it up one afternoon just to read the opening paragraph—
“Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.”
—and finished the book before going to sleep that night. It took over my life for any number of hours and it’s one I continue to go back to from time to time, surfing the pages for the many passages I underlined. I drew checkmarks and more checkmarks in the margins. Consider yourself warned: do not pick up this novel if you have other commitments that day.
In the House is impossible to categorize. It’s impossible that anyone else could have written such a thing. It’s a novel that—as Borges wrote of Kafka—invents its own precursors. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of fabulist fiction in our midst these days; in fact, there’s so much of it right now that fabulism is beginning to taste a bit like the flavor of the month, a fad resulting from a natural and reasonable distrust of realism and a desire to return to pre-commercial methods of telling stories. But what Bell accomplishes here is something that doesn’t happen very often: he has invented an entirely new rhetoric of fiction and marked unique territory of his own.
No plot summary can do this novel justice, so please let it suffice to say that a man and woman build a remote house where they plan to raise a family. Their efforts are complicated by a series of biological occurrences that make even the noisiest scenes in Eraserhead feel like an episode of Sesame Street. There’s also a bear that talks, sort of, and something menacing in the lake. You just have to read it.
Bell is the also the author of a novella and a collection of stories. We met a few years ago at the Winter Wheat Literary Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, where we were late to an event because we stopped in a dive bar for a drink with Kyle Minor. I ran into Bell again a year or so later outside of a hotel room during the MLA conference, where we were both applying for the same job. Neither of us got it. I’ve followed his career with awe and jealousy and more jealousy—he’s an amazing writer—and absolute respect. He answered these questions via email in March.
Andrew Ervin: What impresses me the most about In the House is the immersive experience you’ve created. The first-person voice carries a mythic or timeless quality, and it’s sustained beautifully for hundreds of pages. Tell me how you found that and how you pulled it off so well.
Matt Bell: There’s a glib answer possible here, where I just say, “Slowly,” and then leave it at that—but of course I’ll go on. I suppose it really did take a long time to flesh it all out, but I had a kind of sketch of the voice early on—I can’t usually get very far into a story without having the story’s way of speaking at least partially in hand. Before I was finished, a lot of other influences had been mixed in: there’s a little bit of King James Version, some Greek myth, a little bit of Old Norwegian, a smattering of unusual words lifted from nineteenth-century dictionaries, some Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson and Hiromi Itō and Christine Schutt, all these writers who work so well at the sentence level, who write so wonderfully about the body. I’m sure there are plenty of other influences on the voice, ways of speaking I’d never be able to untangle from the novel’s, some of them there for the beginning, some folded in later.
One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence.
I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.
AE: Did this novel involve creating new writing habits? Can you say a little bit more about your process?
MB: Toward the end of writing the stories in How They Were Found—and while working on the few stories I’ve written since—I started writing very long stories—six thousand or eight thousand or twelve thousand words—and I found a sort of hard limit to how much story I could remember at once. It’s around forty pages: that’s about how much I seem to be able to remember in great detail while I’m working, down to the sentence level, in my normal process. In other words, I might be editing a sentence on page 37 and be able to go back and make a ligature with something that’s on page 12—but I’m less likely to see what’s on page 125 or 240. And forty pages only happens if I’m working three or four hours a day—the tunnel vision gets worse if I work less.
But, thankfully, it gets better if I work more: at the end of every major draft—I wrote four or five “drafts,” in my way of accounting, with the longest taking about ten months—and at the end of each there was a month or six weeks where I worked five or six hours in the morning, plus two to four at night, even more if I could do it. I can’t keep up that pace very long without destroying the rest of my life, but when I can do it I find I can work fast enough through my pages that I can remember more of them: Now I can write in whole-book passes, reading from the beginning of the book to the end over a couple of days or a week instead of a month, which means that when I’m working on page 300 or 400 or 500 I’m closer to page 12 and 37 and 125 than in my normal process. So that kind of intense work pattern became something new, developed in order to be able to see the book as a whole and to edit it as a book instead of a progression of discrete chapters—I’d never had to do this with shorter works, but the novel seemed to demand a way in which I could see the book as a whole, that even if only for a couple of days I could hold the entirety of it in my mind for a little while.
Other than that, I think my process is fairly simple: I write seven days a week, as often as possible, from the time I get up until 11 or 12 or 1, depending on what the rest of my day holds. In the afternoons I teach or edit, in the evenings I read—if my other work is finished and if I’m not with my wife or my friends—and then before I go to bed I tend to look over the manuscript I’m working on, so that I both start and end the day with the book I’m working on. For me, there’s a lot of power in routine—and within this routine, there’s a lot of variety to what any particular day actually looks like, which helps keep it from becoming stale or stifling.
AE: What was the greatest technical challenge you faced in completing this novel? What texts (books, films, TV shows, whatevers) made writing this more difficult for you?
MB: The biggest technical challenge was probably trying to understand how a writer revised three hundred pages of text, something I’d never successfully done before—I’ve got some failed drawer novels, but this is the first one that came out well enough to even send out, much less publish. Some of the solution is the kind of work schedule I just described, but what made the transition from the first draft possible was what I call a narrative outline. The first draft took me about ten months to complete, writing without an outline, just extending the book bit by bit every day, moving backward and revising forward whenever I got stuck, trying to let what already existed dictate what might come next—and while this process made for an organic and surprising manuscript—at least surprising to me—it also made for a huge mess. So I took a month off from the book, then came back, read it twice, and then wrote a 10,000-word/30-page document describing all of the action in the book, just what happened (or as close to that as I could keep myself), sort of in the voice of the book. Then, before I started to revise the book, I revised the outline, trying to get the shape of the plot right before I started rewriting.
And then I retyped the book, every single word, rewriting and revising as I went. That took another eight months—and during those months the book doubled in size. (It’s thankfully been cut down again.) But at the end of that draft I had a book, something I knew was going to turn out, instead of a mess. I wasn’t close to done—I’d work on it another year before I’d show it to anyone else—but I had a pretty good idea it was going to come together by that point. That draft felt like an accomplishment, where the first one didn’t: I’d worked hard on the first draft, made it the best I could at the time, but I knew I wasn’t close to being done at either the plot-level or the sentence-level. And retyping the book was one way to go slow enough to give me plenty of chances to figure it out.
I love the idea of other texts making things more difficult for me—as soon as I saw your question, I thought, Of course they did! But mostly the same texts made the book better by pushing me harder too: If you set the bar of success high enough, in some ways it makes it easier to stay in the work, to keep revising and revising. Looking back over my reading logs for the past few years, I know some of the writers that set that bar high for me were Lance Olsen, Jack Gilbert, Rikki Ducornet, William Gass—whose essays I go back to all the time for a push. I read twelve or so books by Cormac McCarthy while I was rewriting the novel, read all of Beckett’s plays over a couple months. I went back to favorite contemporary novels like Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain, Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez; read first novels by other writers near my own age, like the extraordinary The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, and thought about whether I’d pushed myself as hard as these writers seemed to have. I went back to people who’d influenced me earlier, Aimee Bender and Lucy Corin, Karen Russell and Chris Bachelder and Sarah Manguso. As I was finishing the book, I read my friend Robert Kloss’s The Alligators of Abraham in an early draft, and I was so blown away that I can remember having to resist putting down his first novel to go make mine better, because I wasn’t sure I was making something as strong or as new. It’s competition but of a useful kind: I’m not trying to compete with anyone on a career level—that seems disastrously embittering—but I do try to recognize greatness in others, and to push myself toward that level. I’m now saying I’ve achieved this, of course: only that the goal of doing so is part of what drives me through the long process of rewriting a book.
AE: Do you think the novel’s relatively short flirtation with mimesis over? Has its heart been broken?
MB: I think there are a lot of rooms in the house of art, a lot of doors to enter by, a lot of windows to look through once you get inside. Mimesis is one of those rooms, and whatever its flaws it’s still a room with plenty of doors and windows. I think that teaching and editing have been good balances against my own want to stay in certain favorite parts of the house: If left to my own devices, I might hang out in the rooms of myth and fairy tale forever, might never leave the non-realist wing. But working with the writing of others continues to not just show me other literary aesthetics and ideologies but also asks me to interact with the writings they produce, to be moved by them and to be able to understand and interact with them. I’m doubtful of the idea that mimesis and the novel are splitting up any time soon, but they don’t have to, as long as other kinds of novels are also allowed to thrive. (I’m mixing my metaphor with your metaphor, but I think we’ll get by.) There is a way in which there is an art side to this question and also a publishing side, a critical acclaim side: It seems to me that the art side has never been quite so exclusively enthralled as the others.
AE: Are you heavily medicated? I want to take whatever you’re on.
MB: What am I on? This year, I’m on Dana Spiotta and Karen Russell and Eugene Marten. I’m on Alissa Nutting’s forthcoming Tampa, which is going to make a lot of noise this summer. I’m coming down from a year of Don DeLillo and before that a year of Cormac McCarthy, looking forward to tackling as much Joan Didion as I can this year. Last year I ingested everything Jack Gilbert wrote and most of Phillip Levine’s poems. We started out talking about influence, but more important than influence is feeding the addiction, the need: Lately I’ve been reading Bonnie Jo Campbell, Holly Goddard Jones, James Salter; I’m still feeling my favorite books of last year, books like Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Michael Kimball’s Big Ray. Some people take medication to feel like themselves. Maybe other people pray or meditate, go running. I read. Writing helps too but I need the reading more: If I go a few days without reading I start to feel sluggish, less empathetic, less open. It’s one of the only things that’s ever consistently seemed to work to make me better.