The Rumpus Interview with Matt Bell

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“Domina, Doreen, Dorma,” published in Everyday Genius, was the first of the stories which make up Cataclysm Baby to surface. Since then, what eventually became a novella puzzled itself out in similarly titled work, from “Abelard, Absalom, Abraham” in Sleepingfish in 2009 up to the most recent triptych “Meshach, Meshach, Meshach,” “Rohan, Rohit, Roho,” and “Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis,” which came out together in Ninth Letter in 2011. The whole is a varicolored, multi-faceted novella which transcends the tropes of ecological collapse and apocalypse, turning global catastrophe into claustrophobes of human crisis.

The power of each piece alone is that it draws into itself the themes, familial forces, pathology and conflicts of the preceding chapters, then the successive story carries – like the pros and cons of all hereditary hand-me-downs – the social bacteria a step further. Ghosts of loved ones cannibalize the living. These are the last ditch attempts to rebuild what’s lost, mythologize what’s irredeemable and finally just survive what’s coming.

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The Rumpus: The epigram you chose is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which immediately put me in a particular mind-set – associated not so much with how I felt reading The Road, but pointedly how I could only read it as a father – which remained constant through Cataclysm Baby. During the first waves of the book in your head did your response to The Road play a part in its inception?

Matt Bell: I read The Road when it first came out in 2006, and loved it: I know a lot of people don’t agree, but I think it’s one of McCarthy’s best novels. That said, I’m not sure it’s a direct influence on much of Cataclysm Baby. I wrote the first drafts of the novella in late 2009, and was finished long before I read The Road again last year, which was when I selected the epigraph. Of course, even if McCarthy’s book wasn’t consciously in mind, I’m sure it filtered in here and there, if only because the broad subject—post-apocalyptic fatherhood—is so similar.

At first I was only trying to write a single short, what became the book’s opener, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” and I was just working sentence-to-sentence, exploring the voice, rather than aiming for some larger structure. Once I saw the potential for more similar shorts I first thought might deal more evenly with parenthood, splitting the narrators between fathers and mothers, but in the end I decided that the book might accrue more power focusing on just one gender’s experience, and fatherhood seemed to offer the most potential inside the setting. And maybe that suggestion does have something to do with The Road‘s example, although I think it also has to do with the way I perceive the agency of women seeming to diminish in times of trouble, as well as symbolic links between motherhood and mother earth and so on—some of those other linkages are probably stronger when they’re reported or implied.

Rumpus: It’s interesting you bring in the idea that the men assume the dominant roles in this book. But in many ways the male action is dictated by the female characters, who remain the lifeblood that literally diminish as the book goes on. How would you characterize the gender divide during these types of crises – do the sexes assume roles, or do they fall into gender tropes?

Bell: It seems that women would have less freedom than men in this kind of crisis, in part because some of what has allowed women to seize their own destinies is related to things like reproductive health: Contraceptives have allowed women to choose when (and if) they will have children, which has allowed different kinds of lifestyles than were available before, and so on (this is in addition to all kinds of other factors, of course—I hate to be too reductive, and I realize I’m doing so here). I’d imagine almost no one in America today feels personally responsible for the continuation of the species, but if things were to change, and childbirth became much more difficult, then our ideas about these issues could change, perhaps rapidly and drastically.

I’m interested in your reading of the male characters as reactionary, dictated by what the female character do or by what happens to them: I think there’s probably some truth to that, especially in the fathers trying to keep the old world going, rather than move into the new one. And of course, later, the fathers are almost all that’s left, and so are mostly defined by what they’ve lost, and how they deal with it. The fathers still have their agency, presumably, but the range of action they choose is fairly constrained by their familial tragedies, on top of what little world is left. That seems about right to me: the structures they’re building and the stories they’re giving themselves to live out have as much to do with grief over the past as they do with whatever future might remain. Perhaps more so: For fathers like those who build the memorials and communication towers that arrive at the end of the book, it seems these are methods meant not to end their grief, but perhaps to allow them to stay within it forever.

Rumpus: And everything being built and conceived seems to be being rebuilt and reconceived, reconstructed from something they’ve lost collectively. The communication towers, I read anyway, as being an explicit desire to rebuild contact not just with his dead wife but in a more crucial way to rescind the social animal. I think that’s an element of this book I really felt strongly, that whatever myths are being created are only ever versions of their lives being retold. In a fundamental way mythology is sociality.

Bell: I like that very much: “mythology is sociality.” There’s definitely something to the idea that we need shared stories and myths and so on in order to form meaningful communities, and of course there are a lot of fathers in Cataclysm Baby who speak not only for their families but for the other families similarly afflicted. I also like taking your idea and applying it to “Walker, Wallace, Warren,” where the father is the only remaining member of his family, and so carves his memories of them into the orchard behind their house—because he first makes a way to remember them, and then, after he loses his memories, he finds a new way to understand that memorial, a new way of making a family out of his carvings. He’s not trying to find a new family or community—he’s trying to preserve the people he’s lost, and then, later, to contextualize this second way he loses them, after he forgets.

Rumpus: Uncannily I was reading the neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust at the same time I was reading Cataclysm Baby. In that book she says that the two most notable re-arrangements in our neurological makeup were the introduction of fear and anxiety when separated from our offspring, and the development of group problem solving. Read this way each story or chapter in Cataclysm Baby is a way of showing the variables of these instincts and more importantly how we react when those instincts are subverted by ecological collapse – thinking here specifically of the Xarles, Xavier, Xenos section. The conflict in the book does seem to arise from these subversions, as well as the dismantling of social groups, shared concerns. Did you set out to write each section as a response?

Bell: I’m not familiar with Churchland’s work, but I like your summary of it here: It seems that the fear and anxiety that is part of being a parent (and of being a child, especially later in life as your parents age) is extraordinarily powerful, and, in an evolutionary sense there’s probably a lot of good that feeling this way does us. I’m curious about the group problem solving development too: That seems a little less commonly discussed, but obviously there’s a lot of power in it too. One of the ideas that was constantly on my mind throughout this book—and really anything I’m working on—is the way that, on a daily basis, we generally set out to do good in the world, and especially to do right by our family and friends, and yet somehow it’s the people we’re closest to that we tend to hurt the most, both through bigger mistakes and through the daily attrition of small mistakes, accidental insults and failures. I think that when you’re a spouse or a parent or anyone else who spends everyday with someone whose happiness and welfare you’re directly responsible for, then despite your best intentions you are also bound to hurt them sometimes. We would do anything to protect the people we love from harm—but those loved ones are also the people we’re likely to disappoint the most. This is what makes loving others so terrible-feeling sometimes, despite all the good it does us and them. This tension is one of the ways in which I try to leverage my characters’ actions on the page: It is the intent to do good that makes what they do wrong so fraught.

You’ve asked me twice now if I was “responding” to other ideas or works, and I’ve obviously sort of dodged the question both times. I’d say it’s not so much that there isn’t any response—certainly I hope the work is in conversation with other works—but rather that I rarely think of what I’m doing as a writer in those terms. But I’m still happy if the finished work can operate as a response, and curious to think about how it does.

Rumpus: Not so much a response to Churchland, I mean more in the sense that each new section from A-Z is dealing with a new set of problems and new traumas, and these moral situations are played out in the actions of the characters, which are diverse, from infanticide, self-sacrifice to gross indolence, myth-making, destruction, construction. By response I really mean the character’s response to their situation, which as you’ve confirmed usually begins with an impetus to ‘do good.’

Bell: Yes, that’s a different kind of response altogether, and one I think is absolutely in play. My characters (both in this book and elsewhere) often come with fairly limited backstories, if they have backstories at all—usually it’s just a little bit of recent news, not true history. So instead we often join them at the moment they become someone new: In Cataclysm Baby, this means they’re becoming a father, or a husband—or a widower. So instead of getting a character who is playing out some psychological motivation, you get one enacting a new story or role. For me, this is closer to how a fairy tale works than a contemporary story: I think it creates a moral or emotional blankness within the action of the story, and allows for the reader to bring something of themselves to the reading, instead of having their experience completely dictated by me.

Rumpus: Language has not so much devolved but become sermonized, as though when telling their stories the tellers feel compelled to speak Revelation-biblically, say things in a proportionately grand  style when weighed against their desolation and hopelessness. Do these voices have a real-world genesis? To what extent are these Revelation voices intuitive or was there a process of rhythm, pacing, tuning, syntax-hammering before they took on a life?

Bell: One of the things I learned early on about the voice in Cataclysm Baby was that it worked best when it had an older feel. I thought there was power to be had in talking about the future in a more archaic voice, and so I tried to create a sense of timelessness by incorporating elements of both biblical language and Anglo-Saxon styles (for instance, through the use of kennings). I also wanted each piece to be an utterance of some kind, a speech, a confession, an accusation, or a sermon, as you noted. To that end I worked by starting on the screen and then reading aloud, listening for what wasn’t strong yet, what didn’t have the same acoustic insistence as the rest. So yes, there was a long process of tuning and “syntax-hammering” (I love that) that extended long past the plottier parts of the writing. If I remember right, I had a first draft of the book about six months after I started it, but some of that listening and tweaking and getting the prose right (which of course makes everything else right) went on in spurts for two years. I did my last full, serious draft at the end of last year, and I did it mostly in the same way I had completed earlier drafts: by reading the book aloud, end to end, over and over and over.

Rumpus: ‘Timelessness’ I think is the best way of describing the language.

It’s devoid of popular iconography and brands. How intentional was it, leaving out the cultural signposts?

Bell: Very intentional. A lot of it was for that same kind of effect: It’s hard to be both biblical and mythic and to litter the book with references to Coca-Cola and General Motors and Kim Kardashian. It also relates to the time-frame of the book as a whole: It’s fairly ambiguous (even to me) how much time passes between the first father’s speaking and the last’s, or if they’re all happening on the same timeline. I think that’s for the best, and pop culture indicators might have damaged that.

I think that the removal of many of these things is also an attempt to reduce the number of proper nouns in the book almost to zero. In Cataclysm Baby, the only character names are implied in the section titles, but even those can’t really fit all the time, as the numbers of children don’t match up. So if the characters go nameless, then “husband” and “wife” and “son” and “daughter” can’t be getting overwhelmed visually by Pepsi and Doritos and Kentucky Fried Chicken. To have to capitalize brand names is to give them the same importance on the page as the names of characters, and I certainly don’t believe they do have the same importance, at least not in my work. So they have to be reduced to a generalized state, so that the characters can rise above them.

Rumpus: Whereas, looping back, The Road is very different in this respect. As with another great post-American novel, J. G Ballard’s Hello America, Cormac McCarthy insists, descriptively – his houses, cars, tinned foods – that The Road is an American road.  Just as Ballard lays the iconography on thick McCarthy reinforces the collapse of things, superfluity, excess. Cataclysm Baby succeeds in a different way, as a book about humans coping, social with out an -ology. Even with its various mutations and abstractions, it deals with people. But is America in Cataclysm Baby?

Bell: I think it probably is, but you get less direct glimpses of it. Maybe it’s simply a more mythological America, rather than the tangible grounded ones in Ballard and McCarthy: For instance, the father in “Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis” takes his daughter west, across the middle of the country toward the California coast, a particularly American journey that’s hardly unique to my book. A lot of the narratives here might be built on these kind of tropes—I think I’m using them as shorthand for different pasts or predicaments, so that I can more quickly get into the meat of each story. I don’t need to tell you about the western-bound father’s motivations, about where he came from, because we’re already aware of all the other American stories that begin in the east or the middle of the country, and end up on the coast of California. That’s a story-shape deeply embedded in what Americans believe they are, and it’s there waiting to be exploited and built upon or turned against.

Rumpus: What makes up your personal Apocalypse canon?

Bell: I know I’m going to forget more than I remember, but here’s some starting places: The Road, obviously. Motorman by David Ohle. Swan Song by Robert McCammon. Beckett’s Endgame. Dark Property by Brian Evenson. Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos by Vonnegut. There’s an out-of-print novel, This Time of Trouble by H.M. Hoover, which I loved as a young teenager but couldn’t remember the title of or find until just recently, when I discovered it again in my parents’ basement. John Christopher’s The Tripods YA novels. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, his The Stand. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford. Genesis and Revelations. Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which isn’t about apocalypse exactly, but certainly about cataclysm. The films Children of Men and Battle Royale. Brian K. Vaughn’s comic series Y: The Last Man. Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The nineties version of The Outer Limits, which was full of great variations on the theme. The Fallout series of video games. Rock Plaza Central’s album Are We Not Horses? And really, many, many more books and films and games and albums than it’s probably productive to list here.

Obviously, this is a genre that already has plenty of entries, and so maybe it’s presumptuous to add my book to the ranks. But I hope that even the most diehard apocalypse enthusiasts will find something new in Cataclysm Baby—and that the world holds together long enough for it to find its best readers.


Chris Vaughan has written about film and books for the Rumpus, Bookslut and other venues. His fiction has appeared in the UK's Warwick Review and most recently in The Lifted Brow. More from this author →