The PEN Ten with Matt Bell
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Matt Bell, the author of the novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award. His next novel, Scrapper, will be published in Fall 2015. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
A year or two after high school I dropped out of college, and I made a deal with myself that I’d read “serious” books to make up for the lack of going to classes. That year I read a lot of philosophy and science and history, but I also read Kurt Vonnegut and Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver, Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis and Christine Schutt, plus Denis Johnson, who would probably be the strongest early influence on my work and who is still one of my favorite writers. (I just listened yesterday to Donald Antrim reading “Work” on The New Yorker fiction podcast, reigniting my love for his work all over again). I hadn’t really read any contemporary fiction before then; I didn’t have any idea it could speak so directly to me. I started writing short stories sometime that year and never really looked back—I haven’t truly imagined doing anything else since I started.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I’ve already name-checked Denis Johnson, whose work I spent a couple years trying to imitate pretty directly, before realizing that the main problem I was having was that I wasn’t Denis Johnson. I’d also be willing to run off with a bunch of Anne Carson’s castaway and forgotten ideas, if I believed there was any way her singular work wouldn’t be recognized anywhere it appeared.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I do about 95 percent of my writing in my home office, between eight in the morning and noon or so. But I just moved to Arizona this fall, and my new house has a beautiful back patio where I’ve been migrating to more and more often, especially when doing editing or something else that doesn’t require me to be at the keyboard.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’ve never been arrested, although I was handcuffed once when I was twenty or so. I had a suspended driver’s license and thought I’d taken care of it properly but hadn’t. I was able to talk my way out of the back of the patrol car, under the agreement that I’d get up the next day and go pay to have my license reinstated, then bring proof to the officer before the end of his next shift. How’d I do it? I had waited on the officer just a few days earlier in the restaurant I worked at —he was the husband of my high school girlfriend’s cheerleading coach, and I remembered he’d had the seafood enchiladas.
When I tell this story, I like to say he wasn’t a good tipper, but that’s probably just me trying to make it a better tale. But I also don’t really tell this story anymore, because I’m now aware of the many privileges that kept me out of jail that night. It’s not the innocent anecdote I’ve been sharing it as for years, but rather just another instance in which a middle-class white kid doesn’t always have to pay all the consequences for his actions.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m obsessed with spaces that are bigger than they appear, with hoarding, with characters who take on roles or tasks they can’t possibly complete. I’m obsessed with the limits of language, of what happens when we don’t have words to describe our experiences or when we can’t speak the words we do have, with the power of naming things right. I think often about what happens after the story we’re telling ourselves ends. I’m obsessed with the relationship between fear and violence, although I would like to put an end to that, even temporarily: I think the next project I’ve started is in part a way to get myself somewhere new, by writing a book where it will be impossible for the character to solve his problems by force. I need a break from that obsession, after four books of chasing it.
Also: I recently realized that my novel due out next year is the only one of my four books without a single instance of cannibalism. I’ve decided not to think too hard about that.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I think my novel coming out next year contains the most daring work I’ve done so far, which is how it should be—although I hate to use the word “daring,” in part because that makes it sound like something I should be lauded for, when really I feel the opposite: What took me so long to get here, to do this kind of work, if I think it’s so important?
In the new book I’ve taken on topics I wouldn’t have in earlier books: I wouldn’t have had the confidence, wasn’t yet at a place where I could have done the work well. Much of the book takes place in Detroit, a city that as a lifelong Michigan resident perhaps means as much to me as any other, but is also not my culture of origin, something I felt keenly as I wrote and tried to admit to in different ways in the book. The plot revolves around a child abduction, and around different cycles of fear and violence and trauma—cycles that occur not only in our personal lives but also in our interactions with the Middle East and elsewhere, with the kind of racially-motivated killings that seem increasingly and distressingly more frequent. In addition to Detroit, parts of the book take place in Guantanamo Bay and Pripyat, and the whole was significantly shaped by the Trayvon Martin killing and the other similar events that followed. A central thread of the book also deals with child abuse, something that was obviously difficult to explore and to do in a way I felt was artistically and personally appropriate.
It’s certainly not light reading, and it wasn’t light writing either. But I recently found an old interview with Toni Morrison, where she said of her own work: “How can I get your attention … Unless I show you what can go wrong, with excesses?” I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot—although I think the excesses of the book are just barely excesses, considering the state of reality—but it helped give me the courage to push through the last work I had to do.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
It is a great privilege to have the time and the energy to make art in a world where so many people have so little, and it seems to me that the way to pay that privilege back is in part to make books that matter, to not just produce another cleverness, another product. I also think that I’m more and more aware that neutrality is not an option. Fiction writing does require a kind of empathy for all sides, but that does not mean fiction must be neutral. We should be speaking up, acting out, naming the atrocities. I think often of this Chinua Achebe quote: “I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects. That’s different from prescribing a way in which a writer should write. But I do think decency and civilization would insist that you take sides with the powerless.”
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I think even among most writers the idea of the intellectual has fallen out of fashion, much to the detriment of literature. When I was being trained as a fiction writer, there was a definite bias against writing about politics, with teachers and other students repeating this idea that “if you wanted to talk politics, you’d be better off writing an essay.” I’ve said these words myself, and perhaps that’s why our essayists seem to have so much more to say than many of our novelists. (I’m thinking of the great recent work by John D’Agata and Eula Biss, among others.) I wish I hadn’t been taught this, because I think it allowed me and other writers of my generation to cocoon ourselves in art, to argue that art didn’t have to directly impact the world, or that we weren’t responsible for our art. But we are responsible, and the voices of artists do matter. If writers refuse to enter the public sphere—to confront our violence in the Middle East, to speak up about climate change and gun control, to fight sexism and racism and homophobia at home and abroad—then others will speak instead, and many of those voices will not have our best interests in mind. I truly believe that in the literary community we have some of the smartest and most innovative people in our country, but sometimes we’re afraid to seem elitist or overly intellectual, or to not be fun, or to anger anyone because our community is so very small and the costs of an unpopular opinion are real costs. But we desperately need writers to bend their intellects and their creative abilities to the problems of our time, and I’m hopeful that more and more writers will do so. There are so many good examples to follow, and I’m personally hoping to keep doing better in my own work and in the rest of my life.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Despite the social media posts about the reading tastes of our presidents that appear whenever they deign to visit a local bookstore, I don’t believe books will change those leaders. If a president had learned anything about empathy from fiction—and empathy is perhaps the common muscle all good fiction exercises—could he imprison writers and artists and activists? Could he fly drones and fire missiles knowing innocent people would be killed alongside his targets? Could he allow minorities to serve the majority of prison sentences, to face the death penalty more than other groups? Could he allow corporations to destroy the environment, knowing that mostly it’ll be those with the least power who will suffer the most?
I don’t believe most books create change from the top down, but from the bottom up. The best books probably weren’t written for presidents. The most important books will probably always be written for people who are afraid of what the presidency might become.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Fear. Fear of the other, but just as importantly fear of ourselves. Now we have an American government that promises to protect us but is so afraid of Americans it has to watch our every move.