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An Interview With Matt Bell and Jac Jemc | Word Riot

September 16, 2012      

An Interview With Matt Bell and Jac Jemc

When Word Riot editor Jackie Corley suggested that Jac Jemc and I interview each other about our recent releases—her gorgeous debut novel My Only Wife, my novella Cataclysm Baby—she didn’t know that I had been Jac’s editor at Dzanc Books, the publisher of her novel. Once we disclosed that relationship, Jackie suggested that she’d be interested in a conversation between us about the development of Jac’s book and of mine, and so this conversation begins with the process behind our books, and then veers into book tours, our philosophies behind the names of characters (and the lack of named characters), as well as thoughts on daily process and how to move on to the next book.

This conversation was conducted over Google Docs over the span of several weeks, starting while Jac was touring for My Only Wife (and so frequently away from home base in Chicago), and proceeding through my preparations to move from Ann Arbor to Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We saw each other once in person in the middle of the conversation, when Jac was in Ann Arbor to give a reading. I was only able to attend the after-party. We did not add to this conversation there, but did acknowledge it over drinks.

Matt Bell: I know you wrote My Only Wife quite a while before it actually came out this year. It was already accepted by Dzanc when I started working there full-time in 2010, and we did our work together editing the book sometime in 2011, in preparation for an early 2012 publication date. How long was the entire process? When did you do most of the writing on the book? Did you feel dramatically different about it by the time it came out?

Jac Jemc: I wrote the first draft in the span of about three months in early 2005. Then I worked on it in a novel workshop in grad school that fall, and it went through two more drafts with different advisors in the two years after that. I’d put it down for a few months and pick it up again. Before what I considered to be the final draft, I think I ignored it for about eight months to try and see it with fresh eyes. I went to an artist residency for two weeks the fall of 2008, and worked on only that all day every day. Immediately after, I started sending it out to presses, and in May 2009 I got the call from Dan that Dzanc wanted to publish it and I was thrilled. I have never stopped being excited about the book, but there was a time when I got scared about what it would be to have a book coming out that felt so far from the things I was currently working on. Between the first draft of this book and now, I’d gone through grad school and read a lot more and written a lot more, and My Only Wife started to feel to me like a book written by a former self. I was nervous that people who knew my work might not like this former self’s book. But as I started to work on it with you, I started to get excited again. I hadn’t worked on it since it had been accepted, and as soon as I started working on it again, I felt better and remembered how much the book meant to me and how much I still meant the book. Editing could be tricky at times, because the impulse to change something was often countered by the fact that if I wanted to change one thing, i’d end up changing all the things, and I didn’t want to go there. You helped me a lot though, helped make the book stronger on its own terms.

Can you tell me a little about the process for Cataclysm Baby? What was the pace of writing it? I remember reading the sections as they came out in journals and loving them, but seeing them all add up together is such a thrill. When you were writing did you have an idea of how they would come together as a whole or did that come in drafts? What does it mean to you to call it a novella rather than a collection?

MB: I’m so glad you enjoyed the editorial process, and that you felt like the book is now stronger “on its own terms,” as that’s really the only goal I have for the process, most of the time. And I absolutely sympathize with the feeling that the book felt like it was written by someone else, or at least an earlier version of yourself. I think that’s an inevitable part of the experience, because of the lag between starting to write the book and its eventual publication. That was seven years for you, which is incredible, but I think even with my smaller lag times I’ve felt this with every book.

I started drafting Cataclysm Baby in July 2009, had a pretty good version of the book by the end of the year, and was done with the bulk of the rewrites by the next summer. It was originally supposed to come out with another press, and after that fell through I sent it out again at the end of 2010, when MLP took it. But then we didn’t start the editing process until the next summer, so I’d been away from it a long time at that point. By the time I had to do the rewrites of Cataclysm Baby, I was deep in a novel revision, and it took a lot of effort to put aside the novel, empty my head of its voice, and then get back into the voice of Cataclysm Baby so I could do the work.

Cataclysm Baby started as a single story, and then after I finished that one I sensed a couple more that I could write like it, and then eventually I got a sense of the overall project and set out to write the twenty-six pieces I thought I’d need. But from that point on it was always a novella to me, and not a collection: I think there it has the kind of a overall plot progression–even if it’s buried, or exists only in the background, or in the shared thematic material of the book, instead of tied to character, as would be the norm—and I think that progression is part of what makes it a novella. The other reason is that it would be, I think, a fairly poor collection: the fact that every narrator is a father, that they share so many concerns, that the conflicts they find themselves in are all within a certain range of parental experience, all that would, in a pure story collection, add up to a kind of sameness that would immediately bore me, and presumably other readers. So I think that choosing the right form to frame the book with was really important.

Moving in another direction: You’ve done a lot of traveling this year, supporting My Only Wife with readings and other events all over the country, but this is hardly your first experience with touring. For instance, a couple years ago you were part of the Dollar Store Tour put together by Featherproof Books, and that was a pretty intense couple of weeks in a van with some great writers. How was touring for My Only Wife different? Give us an idea of how your road experience went this time: What were the highlights? And when you get done bragging it up, tell me about one of the disasters.

JJ: The major difference between the two tours is that for the Dollar Store, we were a van of anywhere from six to eiht writers for a span of two weeks, and for this book tour I was traveling alone via plane and train. The Dollar Store was longs days of driving and then arriving to a city and getting drunk and reading and doing it again the next day. I think all of us have consulted on this, and agreed that we probably could not do it again. I think the longest drive was from Nashville to Austin in a day: like 14 hours. We were absurd.

This time I broke the tour up into two legs: east and west coast. On the east coast I was in a different city every day for a week. I flew into Baltimore and then took the train to a new city every morning. I found a coffee shop and worked for my day job remotely for eight hours, then went to my reading and crashed on someone’s couch, and did it again the next day. It was a similarly ridiculous schedule to the Dollar Store tour, but more boring and grown-up. I missed my van-mates and would highly prefer reading ghost stories aloud with my friends to writing e-learning content, while on tour. The west coast was a little more laid back—only three cities in nine days. I still worked a bit, but I also got to relax with friends a bit more.

As far as highlights, there are many. In New York the Franklin Park Reading Series is just about as good as it gets literary-event-wise and and I ate the best meal of my life at Momofuku Ko. Seattle was neat because it was my only solo bookstore reading outside of Chicago and the turnout was not embarrassing and then an old friend traipsed me around the city to parks and bars and restaurants. LA was great and laid back and J Ryan Stradal set me up an awesome event at 826 Echo Park with several other awesome lady writers and specialty cocktails. I guess a good crowd and great friends and decent snacks are all it takes to make a tour highlight for me.

Disasters? There was a reading where I didn’t sell a single copy of my book. That was disheartening, but I dealt with it by just giving a few books away. Somehow that made the event satisfying. Mary Hamilton and I each drank a bottle of wine on the back porch of the house where she was dog sitting and then wondered why we thought that was a good idea. I saw Jared Leto on the street and he looked like a bit of a disaster. I was a bit more well-behaved on this tour – perhaps because I didn’t have seven friends to watch my back.

I really like touring, but always by the end of it, I’m so happy to be home and able to settle into a normal schedule again.

I’m so interested in the naming scheme in Cataclysm Baby. Growing up, I had a very strange attachment to the baby name book and had a sort of graphomaniacal impulse to make as many combinations of names as possible, sometimes imagining combinations of first and middle names and sometimes combining 4 or 5 together to make a family of names, like the way a greeting card would be signed. Your names in Cataclysm Baby reminded me of that. Obviously you’ve got representatives for the 26 alphabet letters, but they all show up in groups of threes. Can you tell me more about where this scheme came from? How did you choose the names? Can you talk about your general process for titling things? Do you generally title work early in the process of working on something or later? Is it a mix? Do you see the title or titles shaping projects?

MB:I’m so glad to hear you had a great tour: It seemed like it, from the glimmers I could glean online. I’m just sad I didn’t get to see any of it, even when you were here in Ann Arbor. But thankfully there will be other books for you, and other tours for me to get to see you read. Next time!

Graphomaniacal! What a great word, and a great thing: I feel like almost all of my writing is driven by my obsessions, and most of my characters are motivated by their own. Glad to have that in the mix here, and glad you were obsessed by baby name books too. I’ve always been obsessed with what I think of as books of organized hope, even as a kid: baby name books bought to name siblings I had and also ones I didn’t, catalogs of blueprints my dad bought so he might consider building our family houses that he never actually built. I’d read those things myself, sometimes idly, sometimes with the same kind of intensity you seemed to have read the baby name books with.

There’s a line in the opening story of Cataclysm Baby that references a “book of names,” and says that each name has been “exhausted one after another,” that this father’s family-to-be has become a “sequenced failure.” It was discovering that line that suggested the three-name title of that first story, and then as I wrote more I assigned them all similar names, creating that sort of overarching march of names and titles. Sometimes I matched the names to the stories, and sometimes i found a trio of names that went together in some way–perhaps acoustically, perhaps because of their meanings, perhaps in some other way that just felt right–and then I wrote stories to match them. I enjoyed how most of the names can’t perfectly fit the children in the stories, because there’s often a numbers mismatch: While there are some stories with three children, there are far more with one or two kids or dozens. There’s a way in which those names don’t belong to the stories they title, but to Cataclysm Baby as a whole. To go back to your earlier line of questioning, this is one of the ways that I think the book is made a novella instead of a collection: its sequence of names is like a ticker running over the top of the individual stories, and it precedes each of these family tragedies, and also continues on after their time is up. And while the book ends with Z, there’s no reason those three names have to be the end of the sequence: The Zs could go on forever, or nearly so.

To speak to titling, more generally: I feel like I used to struggle more with titles, but I often know them fairly early on now. Most of the stories in How They Were Found were titled long before they were finished, and I knew Cataclysm Baby’s title almost as soon as I knew I was working on a book. I do think that titles have become very generative for me now: I don’t do much planning (if any) before diving into a new fiction, and so if I can get a powerful title at the top of the page early, then that can become a source of power, a sort of framing magic to go back and draw on. I’m working on a new manuscript right now, and the working title—just one word—was for some time responsible for containing almost everything I knew about what I was making. Now it doesn’t have to do so much work, but it still retains a certain something that makes me feel bold. It’s the right word, and that’s all I’m ever looking for, you know?

Overall I’ve sort of veered away from character names over the course of a couple of books, and I never felt like I always had to have them, especially in a story with only two characters. If the story is about him and her, why do they need names? (My manuscript-in-progress has character names, but they’re only used in moments of syntactic desperation.) My Only Wife has more characters than just its central pair, but if I recall right, none of them have proper names–mostly they just get the kind of phrasal namings that I also often rely on. What’s your thinking behind the choice to omit names in the novel, and elsewhere? Considering we’re both obsessed with names, why aren’t we using them in our fiction as often as we might?

JJ: I think that my obsession with names is what has caused me to avoid them. That’s why I was so taken with the names in Cataclysm Baby, because you came up with a way to incorporate names that wasn’t necessarily naming anyone!

It’s true I often try to avoid names, but there’s a flip side for me, too, where I name things and consciously ignore what the name signifies or don’t go to the trouble of finding out what the name could mean to some readers. There are two examples of this I can think of. In my chapbook, These Strangers She’d Invited in, the characters all have the names of real-life Russian stage actors, but I don’t know a thing about the real people I stole the names from. The chapbook is a collection of character studies, but not of the individuals from whom I took the names. The other example of this is a period of about a year where I was working on a series of stories in a particular way and all the characters had the names of birds. I don’t know much about birds, but I had a list of bird names, many of which I’d never heard, and somehow that became one of the throughlines of that series for me. But if I named a characters Barnswallow, I didn’t try and make that character a personified Barnswallow.

This is actually the first time I’ve really thought about those two naming impulses so specifically: no name or a meaningless reference as a name. I think, for me, names were just a pure form of poetry for a long time. I don’t doubt that that combining of names to hear the sounds of them together was some sort of early poetry writing for me. It’s a way to hear rhythm without much meaning. Naming also makes me think about those big fat books about birthdays and names and what they mean about your personality and horoscopes. I don’t believe in that stuff, but I do think listening to someone read one about themselves and try to match it to their life is pretty fascinating stuff. Anytime you take something chaotic, a life, say, and try to force order on it, whether it be a horoscope or a personality evaluation or even, ta-da, a narrative story, seeing the pieces that people tend to acknowledge or ignore can be extremely revealing. I think I’m getting off-track though. What I’m trying to say is, I like the playfulness of a character name having a specific reference or meaning, and a reader trying to make it match up, and having to decide if it does. Is that irresponsible? I know there are writers who take naming very seriously or who try to pick names based on their meanings.

I’d like to ask a bit about your big news! You recently announced that you have a novel coming out from Soho Press called In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. I just realized there is a plot summary to read and I am even more excited now. It sounds spooky and a little bit magical! How long have you been working in it? Can you tell me about your process for creating a fatter story like this? Do you outline or do you just start writing and figure it out as you go along? Can you tell me about a moment of change that happened while you were working on it, where you realized something important or you were stalled or you got into a zone? I’m also very interested in what a typical day in the life of Matt Bell looks like. You seem to have it figured out writing-life-wise (from where I stand): you’re producing high-quality work at a steady pace; you’re reading a ton; you teach; you pull together an awesome issue for literary journal, The Collagist, every month and edit manuscripts for Dzanc; you respond to my emails almost instantaneously to the point where I wonder how you typed all the words in the amount of time it takes for them to reach my inbox; and then there’s all the normal life stuff you apparently fit in. In short, your diligence and work ethic are a real inspiration to me. So what does a day look like for you? Sample schedule, please!

MB: I found myself nodding ridiculously throughout your answer about namings, and I think you’re getting at a lot of what I love so much about how you use names. I’ve been reading a lot of Eugene Marten lately, and I love his protagonist’s girlfriend’s “name”: She’s always only “the girl Jelonnek lived with,” and that phrase not only robs her of the power of having a proper name, but also keeps her constantly reduced to Jelonnek and the reader, no matter what she does. It’s the way he sees her, and it becomes the way we see her. But the way you’re using it with the bird names and the Russians is spectacular for its opposite effect, which you stated so nicely that I’m going to be stealing your description forever: “the playfulness of a character name having a specific reference or meaning, and a reader trying to make it match up, and having to decide if it does.” That’s great.

And thank you for the congratulations! I’m very excited about doing In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods with Soho Press, and everything so far there has gone really well: Mark Doten is my editor there, and he’s a perfect fit for the book, pushing me really hard in all the right places.

I’ve been working on the book almost exclusively for about three years now, only interrupting the work between drafts or when I had to stop to do final edits on one of the other books. I don’t plan first drafts, so initially writing the novel wasn’t that much different than the beginning of anything else—It just went on a lot longer, for ten months or so. In the earliest stages of a project, I try to say “yes” to anything that occurs: I’ll have a weird idea, and instead of excluding it based on what I think I’m writing, I’ll instead try to jam it into the manuscript, to find a way to make it work, to make it generate. This is a pretty odd novel, content-wise, but so much of its content was first discovered as just the tiniest hint: There’s a giant bear in the titular woods, for example, and when that bear first appeared in the prose I didn’t know what it meant, what it was doing, or even how it could possibly fit with what I’d already written. But finding a way to incorporate every instinct was enough to keep me wanting to move forward, sentence to sentence, page to page: it creates a curiosity in me, and unpacking that curiosity leads me to another, and eventually this chain of wondrous events creates a novel. So it doesn’t take planning to get two hundred or three hundred or five hundred pages of material: In the first draft—I just try to focus on the moment I’m writing in, and to try to extend that until whatever power it began with is exhausted, and to hope that before it’s completely run down I’ll have found something else to move forward with onto the next page.

That said, I did write an outline for the second draft, in paragraph form, in the voice of the book—I think it was about ten thousand words of outline, actually. And I typed the second draft of the book from scratch, using the first draft and the outline as a guide, rewriting everything, adding and cutting and rearranging as I went. This took another eight months, and when it was over the second draft had a much, much tighter plot than the first draft did, and wa the first “real” draft of the book, in some ways: the first draft was generative, and created all the primordial material of the novel, but it wasn’t a book anyone could have read, probably. In general, I need to start with the more exploratory, unplanned process, but eventually I tend to impose more structure and rigor on the work as a whole. In other words, my work usually starts fragmentary and structurally vague, and then moves toward something more concrete—in my own mind, one of the things that differentiates one of my story structures from another is the degree to which my early draft fragmentation survives in the final work.

As for my daily life: I do feel really lucky to get to live the way I have for the past few years. I’m a very routine-based person, and in a typical week there’s very little variation in my day-to-day schedule. I write from the time I get up until lunch, so usually four or five hours in the morning. Then in the afternoons and evenings I either teach or do Dzanc work. Afterward I spent time with my wife or go out with friends, or read or whatever. And then I get up and do it again the next day. I keep the schedule pretty much seven days a week, all year long, and it’s really the secret to every bit of productivity: When it’s the writing time of my day, I’m completely focused on my writing. When it’s the teaching part of my day, I’m completely focused on my teaching. And so on. For a couple years it’s been to the point where I actually rarely get the feeling that I want to write while I’m doing something else: I don’t have that flash when you’re out with other people and you want to go home and write. My writing has a time and a place in my life, and it gets so much of my daily effort. The rest of my time has to be spent working for and with other people, and they deserve my full attention when it’s their turn. But all of this is the result of any number of lucky circumstances lining up: I didn’t always get to work in this way, and I know most writers don’t.

So, one of the most obnoxious things that happens when you publish a book is that instantly people want to know what you’re publishing next. As in, “Thanks for spending seven years on this novel that came out yesterday—but what’s next?” But since I’m also, an obnoxious interviewer, you have to put up with the question: What are you working on now? I think I already know at least some of the answer, because you’ve told me you’re working on a new novel—and I guess what I’m more interested in is less what the novel is about (although share as much as you want), and more how writing a second one is different? I feel like the learning curve is so high the first time out—and so many first novels seem to bear this theory out, as I don’t think very many people write one of their best novels first—and I’m curious to see what the experience of seeing one book all the way through the years from drafting to publication to book tour and beyond has given you, in terms of making the new one easier, or even just different. Are there elements of the process you no longer have to grapple with? And even if there are, does that make the job easier, or just free you up to tackle more difficult challenges?

JJ: “The girl Jelonnek lived with” is such an incredible character name. That is enough to make me want to read Firework, which has somehow otherwise escaped my attention.

I really enjoyed what you had to say about writing in the moment and I’m fascinated by your second draft method. I want to try it now! I’ve heard of people throwing out drafts and just trying to tell the same story again without even looking back at the first one, but that scares the bejesus out of me. Your method seems similarly bold, but more…exact? I like it.

I am indeed working on a new novel. It’s sort of a haunted house story from what I can tell. I’m still just filling up a first draft, though I really like what you said about your first drafts not being readable as a draft. I think this project might be in that same boat. I think that what I learned most from working on the last book was something I happened to learn at the time, and wasn’t necessarily specific to the novel. It could have been applied to any length of writing. I learned how to ask myself questions. I had an AMAZING advisor at the Art Institute, Beth Nugent, who never stopped asking questions that just opened the world up. In class and in personal meetings, whenever anyone said anything, she’d just ask, “Why?” In workshops, the most important question became, “What is it I want from this?” or “What is it I’m trying to do?” It seems so simple, but asking those questions became the only thing that mattered. A lot of times I couldn’t answer them with words, but I could feel what it was I wanted. Learning to trust that feeling was the most important lesson. Because in the end, you’re the only person who cares if you made the thing you wanted to make. And nothing about it would be satisfying if you didn’t at least do that much. Maybe no one likes it, but what if you took suggestions you didn’t trust and people still hated it? I want to be the one responsible for my work.

“Easy” and “hard” aren’t really words that work for me in regard to writing. Each project feels different, like a new fight, and it wouldn’t feel right not to go through all that rigorous questioning again, you know? If something felt easy to write, I probably wouldn’t go to the trouble. When you’re grappling with one thing, it can be hard to remember what it is you’re not fighting. Like you said, you’ve got to focus on the moment.

Matt, this was so fun! Thanks for a great conversation!

MB: I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear you say you wouldn’t go through the trouble of writing something easy. I feel the same way: The reason to learn how to write a novel wasn’t so I could write ten more like it: It was so I could write that novel. And now I’m learning how to write the next one and it’s a whole new fight, as you say. I can’t imagine how it could be any other way and still be meaningful, or fun.

Thanks, Jac! As always, I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

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