In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho Press; 312 pages; $25).
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Matt, for letting me ask you these questions. I loved your mythic, fabled novel IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS. Did you always want to be a writer?
Matt Bell: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate you talking to me about it.
I was always a reader, and did occasionally write, off and on, but I didn’t begin to actively pursue writing seriously until I was twenty or so, right before I went back to college. Not surprisingly, that change happened around the same time I found the first literary writers I truly loved, writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, and Raymond Carver.
JB: How would you describe IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS in ten words or less?
MB: It’s not the easiest book to synopsize, is it? Ten words isn’t much—that’s less words than are in the title—but let’s say the book is a “myth about marriage and parenthood—with bear, squid, and maze.”
JB: How did you come up with the title?
MB: I think I had the title pretty early on. It’s not a particularly tricky title, despite how long it is: It’s really just the setting, right? And I always liked that. Part of what makes the book go is the constrained setting, and I like announcing that in the title.
JB: Your story explores “the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.” Yet you infuse the tale with allegorical and epic qualities. Why did you choose to tell the story in this way? And how different a novel would it be without the myth and enchantment?
MB: The story is this way because it’s what the story demanded, more than anything else: I was discovering the events of the story before I knew what they meant, or how they necessarily went together. For me, these thematic concerns emerge from story, not the other way around.
JB: Novelist Colum McCann writes, “It’s complicated when you’re talking about voices and trying to create voices, or trying to create an atmosphere around a voice. I think eventually the voice is heard deep, deep into the work. There’s one line there—if you can recognize it, you can bring it back to the beginning. It’s like music, right? You find the right note, the other notes will follow. That’s how the voice things work in a book. You’re like a conductor who goes into the pit and you bring all the magicians and the instruments and you have to strike them up. Most likely you need a few days with them to find the texture of the music you want to play, or perhaps months. And then you find where the actual quality, the actual flavor of the voice is. From there, you hope the music works.” Is this true for you? Whose voice did you hear first in your own story?
MB: I think this is absolutely the case: Without the voice, there isn’t even any way to continue forward. I often don’t hear it quite right at the beginning—one of the reasons to rewrite so much is to continue to deepen the voice—but I try always to let it push the story forward. I don’t plan first drafts, I don’t try to understand too much, I try to let the speaker dictate where the story goes next. In this case, of course, it was the husband’s voice—and his voice was so loud that it was, for a long time, hard to see the rest of the story from any other perspective but his.
JB: You teach creative writing at Northern Michigan University. Is writing something that can be taught or is it a matter of either you “got it or you don’t”?
MB: If I didn’t believe you could teach writing, my job would be a bit of a scam, right? Talent exists, but it’s the least of the qualities a writer needs, and a writer can make up for most any lack he or she has with a powerful work ethic, a voracious reading appetite, and an honest and personal approach to the world, in addition to the study of form and technique. And if any of these aspects of being a writer can’t be taught, they can at least be modeled. I try to do both for my students.
JB: Has teaching writing made you a better author?
MB: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to get to talk about stories I love with smart and sensitive young writers, and of course their own work is often surprising and inspiring. A lot of the models I share with my students are stories that were fundamental in my own growth as a writer, but I also share a lot of very new stories from lit mags and new collections that I find interesting. It’s great to get to work through those stories with fifteen smart students, and to see them working day by day to understand their own natural aesthetics, the slice of literature in which they’ll begin to write and work.
MB: Under normal circumstances, I write in the mornings, from the time I get up until I break for lunch at 12 or 1. Then the rest of the day is given to reading and teaching and editing, and of course to friends and family and so on. It’s a surprisingly dull-sounding schedule, perhaps—but I’m very thankful for it.
JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?
MB: I’m so bad at listing favorites, because the number of writers I might name is far too lengthy for this kind of interview. If you forced me to pick a favorite book, I’d say Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: I’ve read that book at least once a year for as long as I’ve known it, and it’s gotten better with every single read.
JB: Your debut has already been selected as June Book Club Selections for Powell’s Indiespensable and the Nervous Breakdown. IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS also has the distinct honor of being chosen as an Indie Next pick for July. How did you react upon hearing the news?
MB: Obviously, each of these was a great honor, unexpected but greatly appreciated. I never thought the response to this novel would be so kind, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the attention it’s received.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS?
MB: There isn’t a specific message I want readers to take away, or anything like that. The book isn’t an argument, in that sense. What I hope instead is that readers have an experience with the book, that it draws them in and then makes a space where they might be moved and possibly changed, intellectually or morally or, most importantly, emotionally. That’s what writing the book did for me. It’s what I hope reading the book will do for others.
JB: Thanks, Matt, for a wonderful interview, and good luck with the book.