Matt Bell
Interviewed by Brandon Hobson

Editor's note: Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind. His new book is Cataclysm Baby, just out from MudLuscious Press. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, 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. Cataclysm Baby will also be available as an eBook for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and other major platforms, as well as on audiobook from Iambik Audiobooks. Matt works as an editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist. More about Matt can be found at his website:

BH: Your new book Cataclysm Baby begins with the story "Abelard, Abraham, Absalom" and continues alphabetically with three names in each title to the letter Z, when we reach the last story, "Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah." You've published many of these stories in journals. Can you talk a little about the origin of this book? Did the book begin with one of the stories and develop into a larger idea from there, or did you originally plan a book with this specific structure?

MB: I began with "Abelard, Abraham, Absalom" as a standalone piece, with no intention to begin something longer. I often don't have a very good idea of where I'm going with any particular piece of writing, especially in the earliest stages. Usually it's just a voice that interests me, or an image, or maybe a constraint or a form. I'm pretty sure that in this case it was voice that pushed me through this first draft, just trying to extend this father's way of speaking, trying to find the world he was describing a sentence at a time. Doing that not only filled in this particular narrative, but also led me to the possibility of the bigger one, which I started to see when I reached these two lines:

For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequenced failure.

I wrote those sentences in the summer of 2009, when staying at my cousin's cabin in the mountains of Virginia, and I'm not really sure where they came from. But I do know what they suggested: the three-name title of that particular narrative, and also that there might be others -- other babies, other sequenced failures -- to go with it. In the next few weeks I wrote a couple more, and the project seemed to expand as I went, each new narrative suggesting another, and very quickly the overall project. I didn't write them in order, and I often didn't know what I was up to when I started each individual narrative, but once that overall structure was suggested I had a good idea how much was left. In some ways, there's a finiteness to the story of Cataclysm Baby that was always there in its structure: I had twenty-six narratives to complete its arc, no more and no less, and I think that made each one feel important to me, because they had to each do work on their own, but also be load-bearing in some way for the whole.

BH: The stories in Cataclysm Baby are very short yet sustain a very strong narrative and hold a powerful voice. The absence of quotation marks in the dialogue lends itself nicely to this narrative. Can you discuss your decision to omit quotation marks in your dialogue? Is there any connection between their absence and the overall theme or scope of Cataclysm Baby or your work in general?

MB: I don't generally put dialogue in quotes, and haven't published a piece with quotation marks in it in years. There are a couple of reasons, each important to me but maybe varying in importance in any one fiction: The first is that, especially in first-person, the narrator is already voicing the surrounding words, and so it seems strange to mark off certain parts of their speech. If they're the one telling the story, aren't they also retelling all the dialogue? So why separate it? Leaving the quotes out allows the dialogue to remain part of the main utterance: In Cataclysm Baby, so many of these fathers are speaking with a sort of insistence that I think would tend to override anyone else's version of their stories, and so by not giving the dialogue of others quotes they're taking ownership of those other people's speech in a certain way -- it's a particular kind of aggression that feels right here.
There's also the problem of what quotes signify in other contexts: When we're reading a newspaper article or an essay or even a piece of criticism, I think phrases in quotes sometimes feel more true than what surrounds them -- the quoted words are the evidence, and the rest is argument or opinion. By removing the quotes, it levels the playing field, and makes everything of more equal importance, and that feels crucial to me. If at any point we read the quoted dialogue as more accurate than the narration -- where the words quoted are presumably exactly what was really said by the person speaking, unfiltered by the narrator's own consciousness, as the narration is -- it seems to be that it risks breaking the spell of the fiction's syntax and diction, and then diminishing the narrator's stance or voice.
Finally, it also reduces the writer's ability to control time, as direct dialogue necessarily progresses in real-time: it takes the same time to read it as it does for it to actually happen, and that's a rare thing in fiction. It's the only device that works that way, and I'm suspicious of giving it that kind of power over the passage of time in my work.

BH: You've talked before about the importance of revision in your work. Can you talk about the differences in revising such a short piece of fiction vs. a longer story?

MB: I'm not one of those writers who gets it right the first time, so a lot of my process involves doing a very small number of steps a very large number of times. So while I'm drafting I'm absolutely trying to do the best job I can, but -- perhaps because I'm not a planner -- I rarely nail it. I think part of what rewriting enables in me is that rather than trying to work forward from the void of the blank page, as long I've put something down prior then I can be influenced or inspired by what I've already made: This good sentence in a first draft can seed a good paragraph in the second, and then as I'm rereading that maybe some good bit of sound in the language inspires something else. So I try to make a lot of those opportunities for myself: Not just to improve that first draft, but to use it as the starting material for making something maybe quite different in the second.
I'm not sure that changes very much for a long piece versus a short one, other than obvious issues of scale. The biggest thing is that the longer the piece is, the harder it is to hold it in my head all at once. And sometimes there are multiple scales to work at. For instance, in Cataclysm Baby, each individual piece had its own drafting process, but then there were also times where I edited book as a whole: Because it's a novella-in-shorts, the whole has an arc that needed to be considered and worked with as well. There are some ligatures and resonances that hopefully move across the book, and I might not have found those if I didn't also do full book rewrites, where I just started at one end and went right through to the end, rather than seeing each piece as a discrete work. So I think that with a project like this, those two layers have opportunities to create interesting variances: Presumably the effect of reading the book in its entirety will be fairly different than when people read them one at a time in journals, and I think that's related not just to things like arrangement but also to the way in which it was revised.

BH: What are your thoughts on the short-short story in general?

MB: I really admire a well-done short-short, but I think too much of what passes in the genre -- especially, for whatever reason, when framed by its writers as "flash fiction," a term I have come to dislike immensely -- strikes me as under-realized, or at least underworked. There's often a good spark, but then it feels as though the writer might also have flinched away from the bigger work that could have been done, or else hasn't fully explored the possibilities of the compression they're doing -- there's nothing worse than a short-short that is still somehow baggy or bloated.
To say it again, perhaps, in other words: Just as I'd want a 40-page story to earn its long length, I want a 400-word one to earn its brevity, to make the most of its form.
I'm probably being too harsh, as there are certainly a number of people doing gorgeous work in the short-short, and of course elimae is one of the best-curated champions of the form. But I think that I've become most interested in this kind of compression when it also serves some larger effect, as in a series of related shorts, or as fragments of a bigger work that use arrangements of shorts to create complexities of psychic shifts and recursions and undercutting.

BH: I always look forward to reading The Collagist every month. In addition to editing that and your teaching duties, you've still managed to be very prolific with producing such good work. I know you've recently completed a long novel, which is close to 500 pages, isn't it? Did you find it difficult disciplining yourself to work on such a long book? How do you find inspiration or approach disciplining yourself to sit down and write?

MB: I did recently complete a novel, after a couple years of work -- basically from the time I finished Cataclysm Baby on, although there was some overlap. It ended up being a bit smaller than 500 pages: I think it was 480 or so at its longest, and is now at least 50 pages shorter than that. But still, a pretty big book, and harder than anything else I've written. But I'm not sure that difficulty was related to length in any way, except maybe toward the very end, when the only way I could achieve that kind of whole book understanding I talked about previously was to work very long days, trying to cover big swaths of ground in hopes of being able to remember more of the book at once.
But most of the time I don't think discipline is the issue with a longer work: I write every day in the mornings, if I can, and the size of what I'm working on doesn't have much to do with being at the desk during that time. Even if I'm just making a failure of a short story that'll never even reach a single draft, it still takes about the same amount of time every day as doing something more successful. Effort doesn't necessarily equal excellence, and I strangely seem to apply almost exactly the same amount of effort from day to day.
As far as finding the inspiration to sit down and write: I love writing, and so it's not terribly hard to get me to the desk in the first place. That said, I'm just as prone to distraction and laziness as anyone else, and probably more so some days. But what I try to remind myself about then is how lucky I am to get to spend several hours every day writing when I could be doing something more useful to my family: I mean, I certainly also work long hours at my day jobs, but if I wasn't spending that time writing, I could be working another job, or doing more around the house, or volunteering in my community, or even just spending more time relaxing with my wife. And so in some ways the time I spend writing -- which provides so much to me, but much less to many others, at least directly -- feels like a kind of theft. And the only way I know to pay for that theft is to work as hard as I can, and to take the work seriously, to be ambitious with my efforts. More often than not, that's the prod I use to keep myself in the chair, trying my best.

BH: What are you working on now? Anything you feel comfortable discussing?

MB: I'm actually working on two longer manuscripts, which I hardly ever do. At this point, I'm still not sure which of the two books I'll end up focusing on long-term, or if I'll ever finish both of them, or even just one. But one of the things I try to do after finishing a book is to look for a way to step away from the finished manuscript either aesthetically or in subject matter, and so these manuscripts each contain some different way I might build on and also move away from the voice in the finished novel, just as that novel builds on Cataclysm Baby even as it gives up some of that book's devices and strategies. I do this not only to keep things fresh -- although that's good too, as I'm sure no one really wants four books about the same things, in the same voice -- but also because giving up the old ways of writing is one of the best methods to get me to a new place emotionally and intellectually, where I might dredge up something different from within myself. And that's really the day-to-day reward of writing: to get myself somewhere that I've never been before, and perhaps to come back someone different.