“Only the blank page has limitless possibilities.” Matt Bell talks to Mark F. Smith

Have you ever known someone who does what you do, but who does so much of it, and does it so well, and with such great perspicacity, that at the very mention of that person’s name, you instinctively snap out of whatever idle time-wasting activity you’re up to, and get busy?   For instance, if the things you do include reading and writing ceaselessly, the thought of Matt Bell probably has you abandoning blog comment wars and Wikipedia surfing sessions and ceiling-staring contests.  This is all probably for the best.  In fact, you probably owe him a great deal of thanks for it.  But hopefully a blog introduction will suffice.  So here’s Matt discussing How They Were Found with audiobook narrator Mark F. Smith and me:

Mark F. Smith: I had an unusual amount of fun narrating How They Were Found. You took me strange places where I got to apply unusual emotion in telling the story. So, which of these captures Matt Bell: are you someone who is haunted by disturbing dreams, or are you someone maliciously hoping to intrude on the dreams of your readers/listeners?

Matt Bell: “Haunted” and “malicious” might be overstating it, but I have always been a person who dreamed vividly and often–and, when I was younger, repeatedly, with the same dreams reappearing over and over. Nowadays, I think that sense you’re picking up comes first out of the process of my stories, in that I often start without knowing where I’m going: I’m beginning with an intriguing image or pleasant sounding sentence, and then just trying to extend or explore that thing, whatever it is that’s set me in motion.

The other reason for that dream-sense might be impossible to prove, but I think it matters: Right around the time I started writing How They Were Found, I switched from writing late at night to writing first thing in the morning. I get out of bed in the morning and walk right into my computer and start working, usually trying to get at least an hour in before I even go make coffee or have breakfast or whatever. That transition from dreaming to writing feels like it diminishes the gap between the two activities, and drags some of the night into the day.

Matt Bell

Author Matt Bell

MFS: When you sit down to write your stories, do you already know where they’re going, or do they write themselves and you find out their ends as you go?

MB: I wouldn’t say they write themselves, but they do help direct me on where to go: Only the blank page has limitless possibilities. If you’re doing things correctly on the page, every sentence you write lowers the number of possible right next sentences, words, actions, and so on. So even though I’m starting with mystery, I’m writing to explore, to discover. The trick, really, is not to overdetermine it, or to explain too much of that mystery away: I always want there to be space remaining for the reader to work with, to insert their own emotions and sensibilities.

MFS: You’ve won prizes with at least of couple of the stories in this book. Which of the thirteen is your personal favorite? Which do you most like to read out loud yourself? Why?

Mark F. Smith

Narrator Mark F. Smith

MB: I think my favorite changes from time to time. “The Collectors” means a lot to me, because it was a big turn in my writing at the time, but “His Last Great Gift” was essential in other ways– both were born out of obsessions with their bits of history, so writing them was a great way to exercise and exorcise those obsessions. But others stick out too: “Wolf Parts” was an enormous challenge to write, and one I greatly enjoyed working on, and “The Receiving Tower” is certainly one that I feel close to, in part because I’d wanted to write a story in that mode for a very long time, and never could.

As for reading aloud: I’ve performed every story in the book at least a time or two, but “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” was a staple in the early part of my book tour. Later, “The Cartographer’s Girl” became my most common choice, in part because of its length–it’s a good size for most events–but also because it’s one that consistently got a kind response from a wide variety of different audiences: It’s become that unexpected “hit” bands discover on tour, and I’ve really learned to enjoy performing it.

MFS: I once kicked you a question about categorization tags for this book, lamenting that I was having a terrible time trying to put labels on such a disparate collection. I believe your answer was something like, “Tough, huh?” followed by diplomatic silence! Now that the audiobook is “out there” would you like to add to or subtract from any of my tags?

MB: Well, it was less “diplomatic” and more “overwhelmed,” as I let the time slip by a bit on that. But tagging is difficult for any work, and harder for short story collections. I think it’s especially hard for most writers to do that kind of thing for themselves: It feels reductive, and while I realize this kind of thing is necessary for sales purposes, it’s hard to try to reduce my own art to ten words. If it only took ten words to talk about these stories, then that’s all I would have used!

MFS: I remarked as I was narrating How They Were Found that there is almost no dialogue. When someone says something, it is usually reported as having been said, and the words are echoes in the protagonist’s brain. In your upcoming novel, are you going to let people speak?

MB: I’d argue that summarized and indirect dialogue is still dialogue, but I know what you mean: There isn’t a ton of direct dialogue in the book. There’s more in my next book (Cataclysm Baby, a novella-in-shorts, which will also be from Iambik next year), but even there, it’s always filtered through the narrator, since the stories are in the first-person. Really, I don’t find direct dialogue very natural–when you tell me a story that happened to you, I’d imagine that very little of the dialogue you relate is truly direct, or worthy of quotes–and I think it’s generally the weakest part of many books. It also has other costs: unfiltered by the narrator, it can break the flow of the fiction’s syntax and diction, and 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. The only device, I think, that works that way.

MFS: You read a prodigious amount! To what degree does your reading find its way into your writing (or, are all the nightmares your own?)

MB: I’ve taken a lot of writing classes over the years, and had some amazing teachers, writer friends, and editors. But more than anything else, it’s books that taught me how to write, their authors who taught me how to be a writer. I must have read thousands of books before I was able to write one of my own, and–other than my day to day habits of writing–the only thing that’s going to keep accelerating what I’m capable of–and what I know the form is capable of–is to read as much as I can.

Besides, the reason I became a writer was because I loved to read. The two go together, and I don’t expect that to change. If anything, I might someday (somehow?) stop writing. But never reading.

Miette Elm: Mark was right in noting that your reading output is enviable, and you seem to have a better handle on today’s young writers of innovative, genre-defying American fiction. If you could curate a collection of literary fiction for Iambik, who would you be sure to include?

MB: I’d have to think about this a bit harder, but what I’d really love to see is a collection of fiction that seemed meant to be read out loud in the first place: A lot of fiction technically works in audiobook format, but not every writer is as alive to the acoustic possibilities of their prose as perhaps they should be. I think there are some really great fiction writers who just beg to be read out loud on every page, and Iambik would be smart to snatch up their books and match them with narrators who could really make their books sing.

ME: Do you listen to many audiobooks, and if so, what are you up to while doing so?

MB: I used to listen to tons of audiobooks, because I’ve spent a lot of time commuting: I went to both undergrad and grad school an hour away from home, and then my first job after I moved to Ann Arbor was an hour away too. So audiobooks took up a lot of that drive time. I still travel by car quite a bit, often alone on book tour or similar outings, and so try to squeeze in some whenever I’m gone. I’ve also listened to them while working out, while doing website or eBook coding, or anything that doesn’t require my fullest brain, leaving me some attention left. I’ve probably listened to one or two a month every month since 2004 or so.

ME: In addition to writing and reading seemingly ceaselessly, you’re the editor of Dzanc Books and its literary journal The Collagist. Being this exposed to the writing landscape, what stylistic/structural trends have you noticed lately? Are writers adapting the way they create text to work better online, in audio, for e-readers etc? What else is happening?

MB: One of the first things I thought when I listened to the Iambik audiobook of How They Were Found was that maybe I should have reordered it for audio, that maybe it worked differently in that medium. It hadn’t even occurred to me, even though I’d already made slight changes to the text in the first story (which I’d also done in the eBook version)– Now I think those changes are actually better, and if I were to be lucky enough to have the book go into another printing, I might ask to be allowed to change the text there.

I do think things work differently in these different mediums, and the writers who are most aware of this are going to have certain advantages over others, or at least certain opportunities. Sometimes you can tell a writer isn’t thinking about this: We’ll get submissions full of footnotes, for example, which is really a print artifact, and doesn’t work exactly the same way online. I’m also hoping that the expanded margins of the screen will open us up for new structural attempts: I think poetry is dominated by shorter lines in part because, if you want to get published in lit mags, there are line length limits marked off by the printed page. There are ways around this (the hanging indent, etc.), but I’m sure it scares off a lot of would-be long-line poets, by suggesting that the short line is the de facto standard.

ME: Thanks so much for letting us turn How They Were Found into audio. We hope to be able to do it again with the upcoming novel, and with other Dzanc/Keyhole titles.

MB: Thanks to everyone at Iambik for publishing How They Were Found in audio: It’s something I’d always hoped would happen with my work, and I’m so glad Mark did such a fine job narrating it.

How They Were Found

Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, published in print by Keyhole Press, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.

You can also have a listen to Mark F. Smith’s reading of the collection’s first story, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” using the embedded audio player below.