MDBell.com

Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, as well as three chapbooks, Wolf Parts (Keyhole Press), The Collectors (Caketrain Press), and How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden's Ferry Review, Willow Springs, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is also the editor of The Collagist and of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife Jessica.


Short Story Collections

how They Were Found
(Keyhole, 2010)

reviewed by Diane Becker

How the Broken Lead the Blind
(Willows Wept Press, 2009)

reviewed by Steven Wingate

The Collectors
(Caketrain, 2009)

Interview with Matt Bell (2010)

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Matt Bell: The earliest story in How They Were Found was written in 2006, or maybe even a little earlier. Every other story was written a couple years later, with all of their first drafts written in a nine or ten month period in the second half of 2008. Then there was another year or so of rewriting and refining as they appeared in magazines, and as the book moved through the publishing process.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MB: No, I didn’t, and that's probably to the book's benefit: I wasn't looking for how my stories might be put together until after they were written, so I wasn't trying to force certain themes or styles to come out in any individual work. Later, after I had finished assembling the collection, I was much more aware of what it took to make a group of stories cohere into a book, and I could feel myself over-determining some of those elements as I was starting new stories. I've thankfully gotten back to where I'm not looking for those links as I write, but it definitely took a while for that regression to happen.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MB: I'd published fifty or so stories and shorts before I even started thinking about putting together a book, or at least seriously enough to get it done. I ended up with two main criteria that a story had to meet to make it into the manuscript: The first was that the story had to be something that was unique to me, that showed off something that I could do that didn't seem derived in style, that didn't seem insincere or borrowed in its worldview. I wanted stories that came from me, as much as possible, and I think that the stories in this book do that more than the other stories I'd previously written. My influences aren't invisible here—certainly not—but hopefully I'm taking what I learned from those other writers and using it to create stories that are all mine.
    The second criteria was that the stories in the book needed to accrue to something greater: I wanted a book of stories that read like a whole, even though the stories might have a mix of styles and subjects. And so some stories that I liked got left out because they didn't fit with the rest, and so on.
    The ordering of the book is really related to this last point: I wanted an order that used the stories to build something greater. I think there are all these stock ideas that get trotted out about ordering books, like "put your best story first and your second best story second," and so on. I never got that: Why would you publish a book with any weak stories in it? And if you knew someone had organized a book in that way, wouldn’t you just read the first story and then put the book aside, knowing there wasn’t anything better in it? Instead, the stories should all be strong, and stronger for the order they're in. So I spent a lot of time trying to find an order in which some overarching movement could be made, and perhaps a number of smaller movements within that larger one, purely by how the stories were placed. The last week I worked on the book before submitting it, I read it beginning to end every single day, so that I could hold the whole thing in my head, at least for a few minutes, and also so I could feel the total effect of the book a couple times, to be sure of it.
    And then—of course—I reordered it again after Keyhole accepted it. Because I can never, ever stop adjusting anything.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

MB: A year ago, I probably would have had a clear and confident-sounding answer for this question, which would probably be more fun to read, or at least less frustrating. Now I would say that I try not to think about this sort of question very much. Why predetermine the possibilities and limitations of the form by marking its edges? I want to stay ambitious, stay open to what might come from working well upon the page, and it seems like defining these terms too well can only make that harder to do.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

MB
:  Not so much during the initial stages of writing—at that point I’m interested in moving myself, in creating new feelings and thoughts internally, or effecting some kind of change upon myself through the acting of writing. Later, when I’m rewriting and revising, I’m trying to re-create that effect in the reader, using whatever tools are available. So by that point, I’m very concerned with how readers will react to the particulars of a fiction, to the acoustics and word choices and details of the plot and so on.
   As to whether there’s a specific reader in mind, I don’t think so. I might wonder from time to time how certain writer friends might react, or how my wife or my parents or editors might. But that’s not really part of the writing process, just the kind of speculation I might make about getting a new haircut or buying a new sweater. It’s a nervousness or excitement somewhat apart from the thing itself.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

MB: I hope people enjoy reading the book, that they feel engaged and interested by both its surface and what’s waiting beneath, but I’d hopefully never ask them if that were the case, no matter how much I might want to hear the truth of it. The best reading experiences can’t be made sense of in that way, or at least not easily, at least not without breaking the magic of it. And what could be worse than managing, against all odds, to conjure something up from the blankness of the page, only to dispel it by asking too many questions?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MB: I’m very appreciative anytime someone reads my fiction, considering all the other things they could be doing—and spending money on—instead. To be honest, it doesn’t matter much to me whether or not they buy it or read it somewhere else, borrowing a copy or getting it from the library or however they might find it. In any case, a lot of my book was published online as previews of the print magazines the stories originally appeared in, or were published by online magazines in the first place. Keyhole has also agreed to put the book online at www.howtheywerefound.com, one piece at a time over the next few months, so that eventually anyone who wants to read it can. My publisher may not exactly agree—he’ll probably yell at me for saying this—but for myself I’d rather have readers than consumers, and hopefully this will get the book to more people than we otherwise might.

TSR: What are you working on now?

MB:  I recently finished an early draft of a novel, and will be returning to that very soon. In the meantime, I’m rewriting a couple shorter fictions, as well as working on a side project I’m supposed to be wrapping up. I try to keep myself pretty busy: There’s always something new to be working on, always something in need of revision or rethinking.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

MB: The last three collections I read were Dawn Raffel’s Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects, and Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird. They kind of sound like they go together, don’t they? In any case, these are three of the very best short story collections published recently, and I’d recommend them to just about anyone. All three are books whos stories I keep returning to, or turning over in my head, in part because each of these writers can do things no one else can.




Interview with Matt Bell (2009)

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Matt Bell: The earliest stories in How the Broken Lead the Blind were written in 2006, and the latest written at the very end of 2008. Curiously, none of them were written in 2007, so there is a sort of gap in between the early pieces (the title story, The Present, Player Piano) and the late ones (Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy, Her Ennead.) I don’t know how visible that is in the actual collection, but I hope they hang together well as a small body of work.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MB: I definitely didn’t have a collection in mind when I was writing them—I know some people work that way, but I don’t think I have up to now, or that I necessarily could if I wanted to. I don’t really have “ideas,” and hardly ever know what a story is going to be before I start. Sometimes I’ve hit the third or fourth draft before I’ve really got a handle on what it’s going to be when I’m done, so trying to write stories that purposely fit together would be nearly impossible for me.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MB: I was actually surprised when I started trying to organize the chapbook manuscript that I had as many short-shorts that went together as I did. I was trying to select ten out of the twenty or thirty I had published or felt were publishable, and I mostly wanted to find stories that resonated with each other in close proximity, and that had some crossover thematically without repeating each other exactly. I don’t know how much more I want to say about what those thematic grounds might be, but not because I want to be evasive—From other people’s reactions, I think I’ve realized that here are multiple valid ways to read or interact with some of these stories, and I’d rather not put my own explicit reading on the book as a whole.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

MB:  For me, stories are always about entertaining people first, with "entertainment" being very broadly defined—I think there’s just as much joy in structure and form or well-crafted wordplay as there is in a finely crafted plot or a good joke or a tear-jerker ending. I want stories to be fun and welcoming, and only once I get readers sucked into the story itself do I feel I can try and work on all those other loftier goals we all have as writers. But entertainment first, at least as a goal.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

MB:  I don’t think so—Maybe much later, when I’m revising, but certainly not on first drafts. First drafts are all about telling myself stories I like, and about surprising myself as much as possible. When I can’t surprise myself, the story tends to fall apart before I can get it finished, at least in part because if I can’t keep myself surprised and engaged, then I don’t really expect other people to be.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

MB: I’m always curious to hear what people enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, but that’s probably as much ego as anything else, right? We like to talk about ourselves, even when we pretend we don’t. In all honesty though, I’d be just as happy if people who read the book just e-mailed or Facebooked or whatever and introduced themselves, and told me who they are, about their own work or other things they were reading—I’m much more interested in hearing about other people’s work, and being led to new stories and writers and friends that I haven’t found on my own yet.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MB: It’s both amazing and humbling, and I’m very grateful to everyone who bought this book—It was a limited edition chapbook, and it sold out in pre-orders, which was really surprising. I’m so thankful to every single reader for taking the chance on the book, and for then being such kind and gracious readers of it. It’s more than I deserve.

TSR: What are you working on now?

MB: I just "finished" a full-length story collection and am starting the next draft of my novel, which should keep me busy for a while.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

MB: The last three story collections I read were In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor, Drift and Swerve by Samuel Ligon, and Airships by Barry Hannah. All three are great books, and I’d highly recommend any one of them.

 
                     
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>