Smile Politely

Five Good Questions (or thereabouts) with Matt Bell

Matt Bell will be appearing in C-U this weekend as part of the Pygmalion Lit Fest. He will be reading from his fantastic debut novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which, if you haven’t read it, pick it up now or get a copy at the book fair as part of the festival. He also has two short story collections, How They Were Found  and Cataclysm Baby

I read Bell’s novel over a few days while I was on vacation this summer, and was fortunate to have picked it up when I was able to sit and read for hours a time. The novel sticks with you and will begin to haunt your thoughts and dreams. Bell has created a strange world, to say the least. It is a world complete with its own mythology and fantastical beings ready to blow away whatever expectations you have had about genre. And then there are these rooms. Bell agreed to be interviewed for Smile Politely about his book, touring, and his upcoming visit to Urbana. 


Smile Politely: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods takes a tragedy in a marriage and uses it as an entry point into a new, twisted almost fairy tale or myth. How did you come to this way of exploring the familiar experience of the alienating effects of loss on a relationship? 

Matt Bell: I came at it first through the voice of the narrator, without much idea of the story that the voice would allow me to tell. But I also came at it through a lifelong obsession with myth and fairy tale, and through a deep want to make myths and fairy tales of my own.

SP: Your novel has gotten some great reviews in both the mainstream press and the independent world. Much of it has been focused on your unique narrative style.   For example, Michael Schaub from NPR said,  “His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable.”   Did you intentionally match this intense style to the subject matter?

Bell: Yes, although the voice existed before the story did. But the voice of the book and the subject of the book are absolutely intertwined: There isn’t a way in which the novel is possible without its voice. If I’d written in a different style, I’d have written a different story.

SP: How do you use the internet and social media to connect with your audience? 

Bell: I originally started connecting with other people online as an antidote to isolation and loneliness. I started writing when I was twenty or twenty-one, living in rural Michigan, where I didn’t know other writers or even people who read the kind of books I read. So much of my early internet communication with other literary types was about community and about sharing, and I hope that remains true today. The best way to connect with other people online is the same as in life: You just have to be more interested in them than you are in yourself.

SP: You were on a book tour earlier this summer which included the Pitchfork Music Fest in Chicago. How does appearing in conjunction with a music fest change your approach to a live appearance?

Bell: I’m not sure it changes my approach much, but it definitely changes the experience, for me and for the audience. I also read at the great Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City earlier this year, and in both cases it was incredibly energizing and inspiring to move from band to writer to band to writer over the course of a few days. The crossover between indie music fans and indie lit fans is undeniable, and I’m so thankful to music festival organizers for bringing both worlds together.

SP: What other writers/musicians are you looking forward to seeing at the Pygmalion Festival?

Bell: I’m already fan of nearly every writer who’s appearing at the festival, so you can’t go wrong when picking a reading. Kyle Minor, who’s reading with me Friday night, has a new book out next year called Praying Drunk, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading early, and which is already on my Best-of-2014 list. Amelia Gray and Lindsay Hunter are two of the best performers in literature, and they shouldn’t be missed either. Dan Chaon is undoubtedly the rock star of the lineup, but I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him read before. I can’t wait.

As for music, it’s another embarrassment of riches. I just saw Warpaint and Youth Lagoon play last week in Detroit, but I’d love to see them again. And Murder by Death is one of my favorite live bands. I don’t know how it’ll be possible to see everything I want to see, but I’ve been loving the new albums by Daughter and Bleached, and really hope to check both out. Others on my must-see list include Damien Jurado, Kurt Vile, and especially Nat Baldwin, who I’m very excited to finally see live.

SP: What can we expect from your appearance at Pygmalion?  If readers are not familiar with your work, what should they pick up to get a feel for your writing?

Bell: I’ll definitely be reading from In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, so maybe start there. Readers can come ready to hear about love and marriage through the story a husband who desperately wants a family, a mother who sings seconds moons into existence, struggles with giant bears and giant squid, ghost-children and memory-mazes—and from there things will probably start to get a little stranger.


Matt Bell will be appearing at Buvon’s Wine Bar in Urbana on Friday, September 27 from 8:00—9:30 p.m. 

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