Brief and Not So Hideous: Robert Lopez Interviews Matt Bell

It’s always interesting how a book presents itself to the author. Where did Cataclysm Baby come from? We’ve seen you play with various forms before in How They Were Found, how did you come to the form for this book? What of the subject matter? There have been a lot of post apocalyptic fictions in the past few years, is this something that has interested you for a while?

I started writing “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” the book’s first narrative, without any idea that it would be part of a book, and I’m not sure anymore what got me started. I can remember where I was better than what I was thinking: I was visiting my cousin in Virginia, staying with him and his wife and my wife and my mother and father in my cousin’s cabin up in the mountains, and at night while everyone else watched a movie I sat at their table and wrote. I think I got the rough shape of that first section that night, and while writing I reached some early version of these lines: “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequence failure.” That’s what pushed the three-name title onto that piece, and what suggested there might be more, that I could extrapolate that idea forward: I could see that father standing there with a book of baby names, just exhausting its content into his frustration, and eventually that implied other parents, trapped in similar situations.

As for post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre, I think that’s more or less been a staple of my reading since I was a kid: I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi, and so much of that takes place at some kind of ending of the world. Now Endgame is my favorite of Beckett’s plays, The Road one of my favorite McCarthy books, Fiskadoro my favorite Denis Johnson book no one talks about—even inside the canon of great literary writers I’ll often pick their apocalypses. I think that as a culture we seem surprisingly fascinated with these kind of stories, maybe because of the very real threats of global climate change, constant war, economic meltdown, and so on that we’re all living through—but that very few of us can do anything individually to prevent. Perhaps that creates a helpless kind of anxiety that we can begin to work out through making and experiencing art.

More personally, I also think that I’m always trying to make the kind of books I like most, or that I would want to read. This is a genre I’ve loved a long time, and I’m glad to have this chance to add to it.

I love what you’re doing with the alphabet here, with names. One of the great stories in your first collection, “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” does something similar. What is it about the alphabet? Is it an idea of order, indexing?

At some point after finishing How They Were Found—maybe while doing interviews for that book—I became aware of how often my characters spend their time organizing their lives and their losses into various systems or structures or stories. I think the baby name book seems to me now like a pre-emptive version of the same, for expecting parents: all those names so nicely ordered, all those possible futures, all those name meanings so complimentary to any child they might be attached to. It’s a version of what often seems to drive my characters as they create these structures: If we can organize our fears we can make them seem less likely, or at least we can know what to expect; if we can organize our grief then we can contain it and leave it behind, or else make a place to experience it forever, undiminished by time or fading memory.

The sentences here are intricate and beautiful. Some paragraphs/stories are dense and others move quickly. How do you think about language, sentences? Are you mindful of a particular reader/readership while you are working? I suppose part of what I’m asking is if you are writing words/phrases/sentences first and foremost and from there comes a narrative or is your language born out of the narrative you are already engaged in?

Starting with your last question first: How I begin changes a bit piece to piece, but I would say that I rarely get very far without finding the voice of a story, and that it’s the voice that does much of the propelling/generating of the narrative, especially during the first drafts. In Cataclysm Baby, I certainly began the first pages purely from voice, which then generated setting and character and situation, but later sections of the book began with situations or images, or else were generated from their titles: Once I hit upon the the three-name title convention, I went and found titles for all the pieces written so far, and then in some cases (especially for tougher letters like Q or X) I found trios of names and used their sounds or their etymologies to help inspire their contents. But once I had that seed, it was back to trying to move sentence to sentence: The starting material of a story is something to unpack as far as possible. I want to take whatever interests me in it and keep pulling it forward, trying to extend the power that brought me to it in the first place—and eventually that power comes to an exhaustion, or else it breaks and then you can write into that break, excavating what’s waiting past or within the original inspiration. In Cataclysm Baby, that might be a shorter process, because of the size of the sections, but in a longer work this process might repeat over and over, so that what came before gives birth to what will follow, over and over again. It’s less inventing novelty after novelty and more exploiting what’s already given or discovered to get to what might happen next.

Most of my plot-level and (maybe too many) of my character-level concerns are dealt with in the following drafts of a piece: In the early writing, I’m mostly trying to have an experience myself, to have something happen to me during the creating. In later drafts I’m trying to create a space for the reader to have their own experience, and that requires me to bend the prose and the structure of the fiction toward the reader, to make it as appropriate a piece of technology as I can for their task.

As you publish and write your books are you aware of how they work together? Do you see them in some kind of arc or are they entirely separate entities? Do you ever find yourself getting rid of something because you’ve done this before, the terrain has already been explored?

That’s a weird part of the experience of publishing, isn’t it? When I was putting together the contents and order of How They Were Found, I was aware that I hadn’t ever thought of my writing as a body of work, and so was surprised to see how the stories arced and interacted together when arranged. Now I think that my relationship to that book has been changed by the writing I’ve done since: I look back through the lens of Cataclysm Baby and the novel I’ve finished since, and very different things stand out to me—I think that I ended up moving into a different future as a writer than I thought I was going to then. But threads of the thematic material I’m working with now are in that book, and certainly my novel comes from a heart-space and brain-space it shares at least partially with Cataclysm Baby. There’s definitely more crossover and building-upon than I expected there would be, and hopefully that’s for the best.

One of the reasons I starting working on the shorts that became Cataclysm Baby was that I felt I was still writing full-length stories that could have been included in How They Were Found. If I’d kept writing stories instead, I might have produced a second collection very much like my first, and I didn’t necessarily want to do that, especially not immediately after—I wanted to find something new to do or say with the story form, rather than just repeat myself, even if the repetitions were pleasant. It still feels important to me that each book makes its own claim to existence, that even if I’m building forward from previous works I’m also somehow cutting against them, or adding to their artistic and thematic concerns in a significant way. Maybe I’m doing that less than I think I am—we’re all constrained by the limits of who we are, and those bounds are probably smaller than we’d like.

It occurs to me that this is another version of what I talked about at the sentence level: that maybe the best way to move forward isn’t necessarily to innovate anew, but to write through and then forward from the exhaustions and failures and leftover threads of the previous works. But so much of the meaningful growth I’ve had as a writer and a reader came from periods of artistic uncertainty, and I think that I have to be willing to put myself in that position over and over, whatever its frustrations might be. If that means abandoning even some of what has already been proven to work, then that’s a risk I’d like to take.

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3 Responses to Brief and Not So Hideous: Robert Lopez Interviews Matt Bell

  1. BrianKubarycz says:

    Dzancus lavat Dzancum.

  2. L. E. Porto says:

    Thank you Matt, and Robert. Such descriptions of process are very helpful, as i attempt to manage elements into patterns. (Interesting to see how we each do these things).

  3. ravi says:

    Really enjoyed your thoughts on artistic growth. Thanks, Matt and Robert.

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