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Book Review: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho; 320 pages; $25.95).

in the houseReading Matt Bell’s first novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I often looked up from the book and blinked furiously in confusion.  I expected to see a house with myriad rooms, a strange sky above me, a lake in the distance, and a wooded green.  Instead, my own familiar environs surrounded me.   That is just how powerful the setting is in Bell’s dreamlike, fabled, and beautiful debut.  The story of a marriage and its collapse become much more as Bell infuses myth, allegory, and symbolism into his story, transforming the work into something else entirely.

A couple marries and, longing to get away from the rest of the world, moves to a bizarre land.  The husband builds them a house, which the wife improves upon not by her hands but with her voice.  If the husband starts building a room, for example, the wife can simply sing the rest of the space into being.  For a time, despite the presence of a bear, a presence that looms over the entire novel, they are harmonious.  Yet, their family is incomplete.

He longs for a child; she tries to give him one, but fulfilling that longing is not easy as her every pregnancy fails.  The wife senses that she and her husband are slowly drifting further and further away from one another.  Determined to save her marriage, the wife sings a son into existence.  When the husband discovers the horrible truth of the child’s origins, he goes in search of his wife and their “foundling.”

As the husband walks through the house his wife built, now abandoned by them, Bell shows us the remnants of a failed marriage.  “And in this room,” Bell writes, “The sound of my wife’s knuckle first sliding beneath the beaten silver of that ring, a sound never before heard, or else forgotten amidst all the other business of our wedding day.”  Behind each door the husband opens is a different and striking scene.  Each room holds a memory, a recollection the husband has long forgotten, but which the wife tucks away.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods may seem otherworldly, but the story is actually very familiar and recognizable.  “As her side of our bedchamber grew some few inches, I did what little I could to right our arrangement, tugged hard at the blankets that barely covered the widened bed—until once again all things were distributed evenly, even as they were somehow also further apart.”

The debut is a simple story of love, marriage, parenthood, and aging amplified by mystery, lore, and imagery.  A fabulous and fantastical journey into the heart of a husband and wife and into the unknown, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is by turns dark, mysterious, and foreboding.  Bell imbues such imagination and brilliance into this tale.  Bell provides a real insight into ourselves, and therein lies the real beauty of the story.

As the years pass and the couple gets older, the wife can no longer remember her husband or the foundling.  Sadly, she cannot even remember the songs she once sang.  Most arresting to me was the squid the husband turned into as he swam into the depths of the murky lake, his aches and pains and age dissolving away.  Muted passages like these spoke volumes to me and lend the narrative richness and power.

Reminiscent of the work of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has already

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

garnered attention from the Indie Next list, choosing it as one of its selections for July.  Bell’s lyrical language, his crystal clarity, and his sharp and colorful setting explain what all the fuss is about and herald the arrival of a major new literary talent.

When you open In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, you leave your world behind and enter a shadowy and forbidding landscape.  And you will be so glad you did.

 

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Interview with Matt Bell, Author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

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

Matt Bell

 

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 in the houseby 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.

 

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?168260_642316809130295_92234040_n

 

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.

 

 

 

tumblr_mnkw9hNU5R1r8flbfo1_500JB: 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.

 

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Spotlight on In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

I am reading a truly fabled and mythical novel so rich in language and place that I’m reading it slowly, so as to savor every word.

in the house

Coming June 18 from Soho

 

About the Book:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
 
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of 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.

About the Author:

matt bell

My debut novel IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS will be published by Soho Press in Spring 2013. I am also the author of CATACLYSM BABY, a novella, and HOW THEY WERE FOUND, a collection of fiction, as well as three chapbooks, WOLF PARTS, THE COLLECTORS, and HOW THE BROKEN LEAD THE BLIND. My fiction has appeared in many magazines, including 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 and BEST AMERICAN FANTASY. I teach creative writing at Northern Michigan University, and previously taught at the University of Michigan. I am the senior editor at Dzanc Books, where I also run the literary magazine THE COLLAGIST.     –from Matt Bell’s website

If you are a fan of Karen Russell and/or Aimee Bender, then it’s time you discovered Matt Bell.  His debut has already been selected as the 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.

When you open IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS, you leave your world and enter a new dark and forbidding landscape.  And you will be so glad you did.

 

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Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, literary fiction, Mythic novels, Spotlight Books