Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also heads up the superb online literary magazine The Collagist, Matt Bell is the author of two books of (much anthologized) fiction, both of which feature his distinct, syntax-bending style and subject matter that transcends genres. I asked him about his first novel, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, (see starred review on page 90 and Editors’ Picks on page 34.—Ed.) via email.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods feels very much like a work of literary fiction to me (though I think we all map those genres out in our own idiosyncratic and personal ways), just one that uses its tools in different ways, to different ends. Where on the literary landscape do you feel like this book comes from? Do you think very much about categorization when you write?
What I would like to think is that the story works as both a myth or a fairy tale and also [as] a sort of strange and heavily filtered realism. In other words, while the setting and the actions of the book are mythical in nature, my hope is that the emotions at the center of the book’s marriage are recognizable as belonging not just to the book’s world but to ours. For instance, it’s not only my narrator who discovers, after being married, that he hasn’t before considered how to actually be a husband, or who discovers, after having children, that he doesn’t know how to be a father.
In an interview, David Foster Wallace once said that realistic fiction’s job is the opposite of what it once was: “no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again.” That fairly accurately describes what I also see as the task of writing successful fiction: not to reflect the real world directly but to create a world inside the book, with the new world’s mysteries and wonders offering a space where we might more easily confront the world we’re from, in all the emotional, moral, and intellectual complexity it deserves.
Readers never find out the names of the characters (human and non-) in your novel. Do you see them as archetypal in some way? Are their failures individual or endemic?
You’re right: Part of the decision not to reveal their names is my desire for the husband and the wife and the other characters to exist as characters more like those found in fairy tale or myth. (I use the word “archetype” often to describe them too, although I’m a little leery of it, only because I don’t want them to be seen as symbols: the bear is a bear, not a symbol for something un-bear-like.) But another part of the urge for namelessness is simply that in a story with this few characters, names aren’t necessary to fight confusion, and so their titles might suffice. After all, would you care more for the husband if he was Frank or a Bill, an Abraham or a Zebediah? Would you care more if you knew he had blonde hair instead of black? What do these trappings matter? Isn’t it his very husbandness that gives him shape?
So much of the specificity in this world you’ve created has been stripped away. Readers don’t, for instance, know what kinds of trees make up the woods, whether the dirt is sandy or full of clay. What is detailed instead is anatomy: the precise rate of the bear’s decay, the particular organs the fingerling makes his home in. Why is so much of the story’s locus in bodies?
I’d like to say that I knew the answer to this question from the first day of the book’s writing, but that’s not true: It’s a discovered quality of the book, not a conscious decision. It’s this way in part because it’s what felt right, because it’s what came out of the husband as he started to speak, because it’s what remained as I worked through the book again and again. But if I can be allowed to justify the decision in hindsight, I’d say that the body perhaps serves as the recognizable ground of the story: They don’t live in a world like our world, and their world is ultimately so malleable that it becomes ever more uncertain and unknowable. And while there are transformations of the body in the novel as well, it is the body that remains more constant throughout the bulk of the book, at least from the husband’s perspective: it is himself he believes he knows, even as everything outside him frustrates and eludes his control.
How has your experience as a member of the online literary community and indie publishing world affected your reading? Your writing?
I’ve worked as an editor at literary magazines since 2005 or so, and I’ve been an editor at Dzanc Books since 2010, where I’ve also edited over 40 issues of the monthly online magazine The Collagist, which I founded under their umbrella. These experiences have been invaluable both for the sheer number of new writers they’ve introduced me to and for the instruction as a writer they’ve allowed, in part just by showing me so much of what other writers are attempting and accomplishing. Every day, writers you’ve never heard of are exploring and exploding what’s possible with fiction, and much of their newest and most progressive work appears first in the indie press and the literary magazines.
Basically, I believe engagement with literature shouldn’t happen in just one zone: There’s great work being put out by the biggest publishers too, but they’re obviously only part of what’s available, and there are certainly areas of literature that they don’t cover well, such as translations and most kinds of more experimental writing. Readers who don’t discover the great work coming from indie presses simply haven’t yet read some of the best books released in recent years.
The other invaluable gift the online literary community gave me was my first literary community of any kind. I’m lucky to have found the friends and colleagues I needed via the Internet, and now I try to be open and available to help others when I can. There’s no reason to get in anyone else’s way, instead every reason to help others, because there’s no limit to the amount of success that’s available: the more writers who succeed in reaching an audience, the bigger literature gets for all of us.