Interview: Matt Bell, author of How They Were Found

Matt Bell

Early October brought the publication of How They Were Found, the first full-length collection of short stories by the extremely talented and prolific Matt Bell. Bell’s work has previously appeared in three chapbooks — Wolf PartsThe Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind — and in a number of high-profile anthologies: “Mario’s Last Stand,” originally published in Barrelhouse, was selected for Best American Fantasy 2008; “Dredge,” originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010; and “His Last Great Gift,” originally published in Conjunctions, was named a notable story of the year in Best American Short Stories 2010. In addition to his own work as a writer, Bell is also the editor of The Collagist and of Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology series. And that’s just the start of a very distinguished résumé.

In the wake of the publication both of his new collection and of the Best American anthologies, Bell took a few moments to answer questions about his career, these recent honors and the work still ahead.

Art Taylor: The thirteen tales gathered in How They Were Found draw both on material from your earlier chapbooks and from your long line of journal publications. How did you decide what to include for this “debut” — and was there anything you were sorry to leave out?

Matt Bell: It took a long time to decide what should be included and what shouldn’t, in part because I’d never tried to organize my work in this way before, at least not on this scale. One thing that helped is that my writing made a pretty dramatic shift right around 2008 or so and kind of broke away from most of what I’d done before. So it was clear early on that a lot of the older work wasn’t going to fit, although there were certainly stories that I clung to for a while, hoping to find them a place in the order.

In the end, what I wanted was a collection that wasn’t just a random group of stories or even one that was organized around a theme or something similar. I wanted a collection that read best as a whole book, despite the stories not having obvious links between them, and I wanted that book to show off what was unique about my worldview as a writer and my style upon the page. I think these thirteen stories do that, in a way that thirteen others might not. I’m not sure there’s another book I could have made out of the other stories I had at the time, but certainly there isn’t one that I’d be as happy with as this one.

One of the stories in the new collection, “Dredge,” was selected for the 2010 Best American Mystery Stories. In the contributor’s notes from that anthology, you write that “Dredge” began with your wanting to write “a failed detective story.” Have you had long-standing interest in detective fiction? And more generally, since you’ve dabbled not only in crime fiction but in fairy tales and more, what is your approach toward hybridizing, incorporating or simply referencing the elements of specific genres in your own writing?

I grew up on genre fiction, and almost nothing but genre fiction. Lots of science fiction and fantasy, lots of detective novels and horror novels and so on. Then came a phase when I was starting out trying to be a “serious writer” where I thought I had to give all that stuff up. It took me a couple years to realize how not true that was, as there’s lots of genre influences in literary fiction, and plenty of genre fiction that’s just as well written and moving as the best of literary fiction.

For me, one of my favorite uses of genre tropes is as a point of entry for the reader. Recognizing that you’re reading a science fiction story or a whodunit or a myth or whatever, you start to have certain expectations, and as long as the writer feeds those expectations, you might be willing to read on even if things get weird or difficult. And then there’s the chance for the writer to subvert those expectations, or use them against the reader in some way, to produce some effect that’s perpendicular to those expectations. There’s a lot of potential power in such a move, and it’s one that I’m sure I’ll continue to return to.

For all of its potential hopefulness and tenderness, “Dredge” may obviously strike readers as a pretty dark story — and much of your other writing may evince a similar darkness. Do you yourself see such darkness as emblematic of your work?

The kind of fiction I like best—and that I want to write—is work that creates some sort of moral engagement in the reader, some zone where the reader has to wrestle with what they’ve been presented with, and where they can hopefully be changed by the reading. To be honest, that’s not so different from what I’m trying to do myself while I write, and one of the ways to get to these places is to write about what frightens or discomfits us. There’s an introduction to one of Neil Gamain’s books where he talks about how, when we’re children, it’s what frightens us that stays with us forever, and so frightening children is the best way to get them to remember. That’s pretty loosely paraphrased from memory, but I think the same effect holds true for adult readers. So while I might be able to engage your morality or effect some change upon you without delving into the dark, I’m not as convinced that I’d be able to make you remember it. And I want you to remember it: Why ask so much of the reader if you’re not going to give them something with the potential to last?

Finally, with the publication of the new collection, the inclusion of a story in this year’s Best American Mystery Stories, and the short-list mention in this year’s Best American Short Stories — three milestones on top of many other recent honors — your career is obviously riding high. How does such recognition impact what you’re writing now, or what you’re writing next? Do such honors help keep you motivated? empower you to push further with your art? or, alternately, leave you anxious about what’s ahead — the pressure to meet or exceed expectations?

I’m incredibly grateful and happy for all these nice things that have happened over the last year or so, and I don’t want to understate how much they mean to me. At the same time, the only thing to do is to go back to work, to keep trying harder, improving upon what I’ve done before. Really, that’s what I’ve been doing this whole time, or at least trying to: How They Were Found was accepted by Keyhole in March 2009, and “Dredge” and “His Last Great Gift” were obviously written before that. So while it’s great to have them recognized, that recognition is really for what I did a year or two ago, and so a little surreal feeling now, in how its disconnected from what I’m working on today.

I think that whatever pressure there is has to have already been met, at least in part, by the time it arrives: With the delays between acceptance and publication (and longer ones for awards and so on), if you’re not already moving forward by the time the recognition starts to come in, then you’re not going to keep up. And of course the recognition isn’t always going to be there, year after year, so you’ve got to find a way to move forward whether it is or not. I feel lucky that I’ve already written a lot since How They Were Found, and so whatever happens with the book I know I’ve already been able to write another, to start another after that. I get to live in the reader’s future, in that way: While people are reading this book, I’m already living with the next one. It’s an exciting place to be, and hopefully when readers arrive there in a year or two, they’ll enjoy what I’ve been writing since How They Were Found at least as much as I hope they’re enjoying this book now.

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