Matt Bell is a busy man. He writes and publishes, teaches, and reads voraciously. Just this year, he’s released two books: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (June 2015), a rumination both on his relationship with the classic D&D game of the same name and one’s ability to become emotionally invested in games; and Scrapper (September 2015), his sophomore novel set in a semi-post-apocalyptic Detroit.
Scrapper tells the story of Kelly and his work as an illegal metal scrapper in a part of Detroit that has suffered economically and culturally prior to the novel’s start. One evening on the job, Kelly finds a kidnapped boy in the basement of a house he is stripping. After he rescues him and becomes a local hero, Kelly is obsessed with solving the mystery of the kidnapping.
The dedication in the book reads, “Against all those who would make us afraid.” Not surprisingly, Bell’s fiction has been described as grisly, spooky, and dreamlike. Perhaps parts of Scrapper are each of those things, as it takes us on a journey through trauma, destruction, and hope—hope for ourselves, for others, for those who would make us afraid.
To celebrate his recent releases, Bell spoke to The Rumpus about how to write politics, the similarities between the literary and gaming worlds, and how he manages to get everything done.
The Rumpus: You’ve said that you started writing Scrapper during the 2012 election season. Unlike with In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, you were able to focus more on current events and “things you worry about.” Can you elaborate on that a bit? I think you did a fantastic job of commenting upon our society in such a way that isn’t very confrontational, which readers sometimes resist. For example, rather than directly addressing the racism in our society, you write that someone “shot at the color of her skin.”
Matt Bell: Obviously, In the House was also pushed in different ways by a set of worries and fears and curiosities, but there were areas of interest that novel just wasn’t equipped to deal with, which became more apparent as the book moved toward its final form. Because of its mythic setting and framework, it didn’t accommodate my interest in politics, culture, and current events, except indirectly. I’m very proud of In the House, and its form works for what it does, but I knew that I also wanted to write more directly toward certain topics, especially about the relationship between fear and violence and the way that one too often begets the other. That topic exists in In the House too, I think, but it’s much less the focus.
The way the political material in Scrapper is handled is primarily the result of everything in a novel having to be filtered through character, so that any kind of direct commentary has to be something the point of view character would think or say or notice: Kelly isn’t necessarily the guy to make sweeping pronouncements about the state of the country. He has a set of strong beliefs but they’re sort of limited. There are some things he’s willing to look at and others he avoids. But it’s also very important to me that the connective logical work of the bigger issues of the book is allowed to happen in the reader. If you put that logic on the page, the reader agrees or disagrees and then mostly moves on. If you allow it to exist in the subtext, or if you create spaces where the reader is asked to make the necessary connections on his or her own, then the reader owns those conclusions in a way that hopefully makes them last.
Rumpus: Scrapper is, among other things, a novel about how we culturally respond to fear, which can include silencing voices we don’t like. In today’s society, people on all sides try to silence each other. How do we figure out if we ourselves are silencing someone based on fear versus silencing them because we feel their words do more harm than good? Is it never okay to silence a voice?
Bell: In the US, we have freedom of speech, which mostly means it’s impossible to silence most people you disagree with, no matter how distasteful or harmful. (Although the Internet has made it increasingly easy to shout other people down, which has its own pluses and minuses.) It’s a price mostly worth paying, because the alternative is worse. But it does mean that we’re all responsible for filtering and evaluating the voices we hear, which makes critical thinking and empathy some of the most crucial skills a person can develop. Experiencing challenging art and stories is one way to do this.
I also think it’s important that we understand that our ideas and emotions rely on powerful stories we live inside, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about how we came to those stories. The most dangerous of these stories become the basis for religious fundamentalism, unquestioned nationalism, climate change denial, racism and sexism, and so on. We don’t need to silence the people telling these stories. We need to give people better stories to believe in.
Rumpus: Is that what you’re trying to do with Scrapper?
Bell: It might be more accurate to say that Scrapper is in part about the need for such stories. Part of Kelly’s problem is that he doesn’t see viable solutions to his problems other than violence against others or else near total abstinence from human interaction. There’s no in-between for him, no room for compromise, and it’s left him alone throughout most of his life. He’s afraid he’s doomed to be a certain kind of person, and trying to avoid the end of that story he’s telling himself has cost him terribly. What he needs, at some level, is a better narrative, but he’s mostly on his own after the stories he inherited from his parents, his religion, his country and his other communities have all in some way failed him.
Rumpus: I thought it was really interesting how Scrapper sort of moved around the map in terms of setting. There were brief, startling digressions from the main plot line. Why did you decide to make that choice? And how did you choose the “disaster zones” that you did? (i.e. Chernobyl, Trayvon Martin’s community, etc.)
Bell: I wrote those three interludes late in the process, partly as a response to the tunnel vision of Kelly’s point of view, which threatens to limit the scope of the book at times. The kind of fear and violence explored in the main thread isn’t only a local phenomenon or a personal one. It’s found everywhere, and I hoped to show how it was mirrored in these other situations: in the United States responding to the terrorism of 9/11 with violence of our own, extending far beyond the perpetrators of that atrocity; in the way that racism leads to incredible violence in our home communities; and in the large-scale environment devastation and economic/political abandonment of cities and landscapes, at home and abroad. Kelly doesn’t often zoom out to see the world at this scale, but the book can, and so can the reader.
Rumpus: I really enjoyed these, as you called them, interludes, because I wasn’t expecting them. And then once they happened, I expected you to return to them later in the book. Did you have any original plans to return to them or did you know they would be single chapters when you decided to include them?
Bell: As I said, these were all written pretty late, and so I had a pretty good idea of how they would fit into the structure of the final book. But I wrote a lot of similar kinds of outside material first, and in an earlier conception of the book I thought the novel might expand infinitely to include other concerns. In the end, it seemed like staying closer to Kelly’s story was probably for the best, as I know that there’s a chance of losing the reader or diluting the book’s focus even by including the interludes I have. For me, they’re worth the risk.
Rumpus: Did you know that Scrapper was going to be a novel when you started it? You’ve published short stories, novellas, prose poems. Do you know what form something will take when you start? Is there a process you go through to figure that out?
Bell: I did know it was going to be a novel from the beginning, although it took a long time to find the exact shape it took. I’m not much of a planner, so there was a lot of searching for both the story and the form. In the earliest days of drafting, I mostly just try to keep a protagonist moving through new spaces and taking action, which lets me see what he or she notices and feels, beginning the process of letting me get to know him or her.
As for other work, I usually have a pretty good sense of what it’s going to be before I start out. I have had some things turn slightly—the series of short fictions in Cataclysm Baby, for instance, were started in a poetry class in grad school—but mostly a story stays a story and so on. These days, I’m mostly working on the scale of the novel, so I’m starting fewer projects and staying with them for longer periods of time. I’ve found the kind of writing I enjoy doing most creates sustained opportunities for deep immersion in a subject or a way of writing, and the novel is one of the best ways for me to do so.
Rumpus: In a conversation with Jac Jemc, the two of you discuss not going through the trouble of writing something easy, which is an idea, as a writer, that I love. What was the most difficult part of putting Scrapper on the page?
Bell: It was a much more difficult book to write than In the House, or at least it felt like it at the time. Partly the emotional work was more draining, for a variety of reasons, including that I think the more realist depiction of violence in Scrapper was harder to write and inhabit than the mythic violence in In the House was. (This is an incredibly interesting idea for me, and it’s something I’m still parsing out.) Likewise, the responsibility of working in a real place with as much history as Detroit already has too many outsiders imposing their own narratives on it. It was very important to me that my book be only set in Detroit, if that makes sense: I didn’t want to see in any way to be trying to own the landscape, which isn’t mine, although I did spend the first thirty-four years of my life in Michigan.
But the hardest part of the book was probably the climactic chapter of the book, which I won’t spoil here, obviously. Even once I knew what needed to happen there, I struggled with writing the action in a way I felt was morally appropriate. In the end, I drafted the chapter backward, working through cause and effect and action and reaction in reverse—I think I needed to see how it ended and how the emotions of it panned out before I could face how it happened. But I knew there was some cowardice in that, and so I then rewrote the chapter again, in close linear detail, staying inside the event and its consequences second by second. If something like this had to happen in a book of mine, it mattered to me that I get it right, that I not flinch from the responsibilities of the task.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting. I’ve often wondered how writers deal with violent material in their work (or any sort of difficult issues or moral dilemmas). Sometimes it’s hard enough to read, so it’s even harder to imagine having to live in it long enough to make it come to life.
Bell: There was definitely a psychic toll to inhabiting this material, but there’s also something hopeful about feeling like you’re paying attention to the concerns of your life and your time, instead of ignoring them. The books I love the most are the ones that help me face into my life, not escape it. On the best days at the desk, the same principle rules the writing.
Rumpus: In an interview with Tin House, you said that if you go a few days without reading you start to feel “sluggish, less empathetic, less open.” I think that suggesting that reading gives one empathy and can open one to new ideas is more provocative of a suggestion than it should be. Obviously we can learn a lot about the human spirit and learn from reading about experiences outside of our own. Some people are hesitant to read outside of their comfort zone. If you could give a reading list to someone to make them more empathetic and/or more open, what would you include?
Bell: I think there are two kinds of books that accomplish this empathy-deepening task best: The first kind shows you something about the human experience you’ve never thought of, and so you come away from it knowing a little more about other people. A book like this reduces the amount of other in the world—it reduces the distances between us. That’s a beautiful and crucial experience to have and to keep having. The other kind of book expresses something you’ve maybe known all along—something you’ve felt about what it means to be in the world, about the way the world works. Maybe it’s an emotion that people don’t talk about and so you didn’t know it was okay to feel. Maybe it’s a worldview that runs counter to the one you’re supposed to present every day. Maybe it’s an expression of sexuality you recognize or just some exquisite kind of joy or sadness. These books help us deepen our own feelings by giving names and shapes to what we’ve maybe only vaguely sensed or been afraid to express.
This is such a personal thing that the books that work for one person might not work for someone else. Isn’t that the way, sometimes? You give someone a book you love, and worse than not liking it, they just feel neutral about the experience. But also our comfort zones aren’t all shaped the same, and so what pushes us out into the world is going to be slightly different.
That said, some of the contemporary books I know that have moved me in this way most powerfully include Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Eula Biss‘s Notes from No Man’s Land, J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Christine Schutt’s Nightwork, Laird Hunt’s Kind One, Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain, Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B… I could go on and on and forget more books than I listed. But most good books do this to some extent, and my personal history of being changed by literature extends from reading The Hobbit in the fifth grade through reading Slaughterhouse-Five and Fight Club at twenty and on into the reading I’ve been doing this month, where books like Lidia Yuknavitch‘s The Small Backs of Children and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition continue to simultaneously thrill and instruct, entertain and challenge.
Rumpus: Speaking of reading lists, I’m astounded by the reading log on your website. You read over a hundred books a year. How do you find the time to write, publish, teach, and read? Can you let the rest of us in on your secret?
Bell: I’m a creature of habit, which helps: I tend to write in the mornings, before I do anything else. As long as I get my hours in at the desk, it’s reasonably easy for me to turn toward the rest of my day and focus on other tasks without resentment or distraction. But really, it helps that this is what I want to be doing. There were many years of my life where I had to work jobs I didn’t like or otherwise give my time and energy to things I didn’t really value. The life I have now, full of writing and reading and teaching and community building is a joy. It’s what I’d want to spend my days doing. That’s not to say there aren’t ever hard or discouraging days, but I am grateful for the chance to live this life I’ve always wanted, and determined to make the most of it.
Rumpus: Scrapper is coming out this September, but you also recently released a non-fiction title with Boss Fight Books on the RPG Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. I find myself first wondering how you approach writing non-fiction as compared to fiction, which seems to be your primary genre. What was the experience of writing about Baldur’s Gate II like?
Bell: I took on the book partly to take a break after finishing Scrapper, but of course no book is a “break,” exactly. It was a lot of fun to revisit so many of the games of my childhood and teenage years, and to talk to my dad and brother about them. My dad was my point of entry into games and into D&D—we played on the computers he brought home from his work as a computer programmer, and our first D&D rulebooks were ones he’d bought out of curiosity around the time my brother and I were born, in the early eighties. It was also interesting to keep moving toward the kind of honesty the more memoir-ish parts of the book required, because its so different than what the novel takes. In stories we tell about ourselves, there’s a tendency to always want to be the hero or the victim—”I did this amazing thing” or “you won’t believe what happened to me.” But true stories require more personal objectivity, and it took a number of tries (and some editorial assistance) to find the right way to approach this particular story.
Rumpus: I didn’t grow up playing many video games, but my partner (a gamer) and I frequently have conversations about the similarities between literature and video games, both forms of art in their own respect. As both a writer and gamer, can you talk about how books and video games were/are similar for you, or how one takes you on a different type of adventure than the other? I love what you say early in the book: “In these stories I found I could have experiences other people did not have to know about, experiences they could not forbid or control.” Later, you suggest that your experiences are no less valuable just because you may have spent more time in the realm of “art life,” rather than “lived life.”
Bell: One thing I didn’t talk about in the book is that it was these more interactive forms of narrative that led me to writing the first stories of my own: Choose Your Own Adventure books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games. Before that, I hadn’t realized that stories could be malleable. That was a huge revelation, and I feel really lucky to have had that experience with these other forms, which led me to see how the thing I loved most—fiction—could be rewritten and retold and made my own, opening up a process of imitation that eventually led to more original work. It’s a lucky thing, and I’m glad to have experienced it so early.
Thanks for both of those quotes, as well: I think there’s a lot of emotional and intellectual and moral work that can be done by a reader inside narratives of all kinds, with much of that work taking the form of fun. We remember fondly the things that entertain us, and letting us step into other people’s shoes and explores other kinds of stories and landscapes under the guise of play is a fantastic way to make lasting memories and emotions.
Rumpus: Do you think there’s room for even more crossover between the literary and gaming worlds?
Bell: Definitely. We’re really just getting started with the first generation of writers raised with computer games, and we’re still a few years out from every aspiring writer having grown up with computers, cell phones, social media, and so on as parts of their lives from birth. New and interesting kinds of stories are going to continue to come out of that extended exposure, and I’m excited to see what comes next.
Rumpus: Finally, I’d like to touch on the art of the interview. When you’re about to interview someone, how do you prepare? How do you decide which questions to ask? How do you know when to follow up on something?
Bell: Mostly what I do is follow my curiosity, assuming that what I’ve reacted most strongly or am most interested in will make for a good starting place for conversation. But I also have some other aims: For example, I read a lot of interviews with other writers, looking for little bits of craft knowledge to post to my Tumblr and to kick off my writing day, and one thing I’ve learned is that women writers especially are much more likely to be asked about their biography than their craft. They obviously have brilliant things to say about craft and the writing life, but they are definitely asked less often. So I do try to correct that when given the chance, by being sure to ask women writers the direct questions about their craft and their ideas that most male writers get by default. All this is really a long way to say that I always try to privilege the work on the page and the writer’s aims as I understand them over my own agendas and over the writer’s background or personal life.
As for what to follow up on: I always want to go where the writer seems the most excited. A great interview isn’t adversarial, or at least that’s my style. I think of an interview as something more collaborative, a chance to make a space where a writer can speak openly about what matters most to him or her. What excites the writer will excite the reader, and this almost always leads to interesting revelations in conversation.
Author photo © Elijah Tubbs.