ABOVE: MATT BELL. IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVE TATZMANN
In his debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell cracks us in the mind’s eye, drops us in inky waters, leaves us dripping with love potions and scarred from our innermost animal natures. A newlywed couple moves to a quiet, lakeshore plot, where they plan to build a home and a family together. The husband hunts and gathers, cutting down timber and catching fish on the line; the wife creates fine home furnishings for their raw spun home. With an ability to sing objects into existence, the wife plays an important part in their simple homesteading. She can call forward a bowl into being with her magical song—but she cannot bring to full term the children they continue to desperately long for. Her husband pulls away from her, and in the sorrow that ensues, foundations are altered, dimensions are punctured, and one house becomes two. A labyrinth, a twist, is built from the wife’s sad song. There is a bear in the forest; a squid in the lake; bones are buried in the garden; and wife is lost in the labyrinth beyond the darkness under the house upon the dirt. In the tradition of Calvino, Borges, and Kafka, this is a mystic’s tale—the gods here are most definitely crazy.
We sat down with Bell to discuss genres of fiction, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, Borges and his duplicates.
JENNIFER SKY: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a genre-bending wonder! My mind could not help but keep trying to classify what type of literature I was reading. How would you categorize your fiction?
MATT BELL: When I was writing In the House, I adopted a sort of “anything goes” philosophy early on, and so when something would occur to me, I would just put it in the book and give myself license figure it out later. So I never really had a firm conception of the genre of the piece, although clearly there were non-realist events happening, and certain kinds of magic and moves to the mythic. Other people have described it as fantastical or fabulist or fairy-tale-like, and I’m fine with all of those tags.
That said, I think there are other ways I’ve come to think about it too, because while there are certainly mythic events throughout the book, I hope that those events will also feel grounded and concrete. Mike McCormack, one of my favorite Irish writers, one said in an interview that fiction was “the work of a measured and sober realist who has due regard for the metaphysical and fantastical elements which underpin every moment of our lives.” I like that description a lot: I think that I’m happiest with my work when it toes this same line, simultaneously grounded in the real world and also allowing for manifestations of the kinds of everyday magic and supernatural belief that so often ride alongside our more rational thoughts and reactions. Some of my work—like In the House—lifts the magic to the surface of the story, but I think you’ll almost always find it there, to some extent.
SKY: Does myth influence your work? Do you imagine that literature as a whole may move away from realism and towards more experimental spheres?
BELL: Absolutely, myth influences my work, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an either/or proposition, to be either realist or non-realist, conventional or experimental. Realism dominates our award cycles, but it doesn’t dominate the heart and mind of the average reader. Young people, especially, often have their strongest early literary experiences with books like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, meaning their points of entry into literature are through these genre portals. And certainly, writers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King experience a much larger fan base than even our most-lauded literary writers. And of course, there are plenty of literary novelists who have never been strict realists, and even most writers who would describe themselves in those terms include in their fictions plenty of instances of everyday magic, the way the world suddenly skews weird or unexplained, the kind of heavily-weighted coincidences and lucky breaks that seem to define our experiences. So I don’t think of non-realist texts as experimental, necessarily—but I do think that there is a different set of concerns that arises when we talk about publishing and awards than when we talk about art and critical acclaim. My hope is that these kinds of false distinctions will continue to break down, and that works of many different styles might be allowed to flourish and be rewarded.
SKY: A man and a woman get married. They move to a quiet place in the woods and build a life together. They hope to build a family. Via metaphor, you explore the difficulties of marriage, family, and relationship. How did you choose the creatures your characters turned into?
BELL: I’m not sure I’d use the word “chose” to describe it: Almost everything that happens in the novel was discovered, rather than decided, found as I progressed through the book’s early drafts. During the first draft, I rarely knew much more than the narrator did about any particular element of their world, and so there were constant surprises, even for me. The only thing I realized early on was the narrator’s most important mistake: That he never understood how to truly become a husband or a father, despite his constant assertions that marriage and parenthood were his only wants. In that way, the looming tragedy of the book is less about what the narrator becomes, and more about who he might remain.
SKY: How did you keep track of all the meta-layers, the world building you did within this story? Do you employ outlines?
BELL: I don’t use outlines while drafting, but I do use them at other points in the process. For In the House, I wrote the first draft completely without any prior planning, and then I outlined what I’d written. From there, I revised that outline into a plan for the second draft—this was about a 30-page document—and then I retyped and rewrote the book again, toward that outline. So that’s part of the answer. The other part of the answer is that I was constantly backing up and revising forward again, moving forward by going backward first. That helped keep more of the book in my head at once. And then once the book was mostly complete, I started working longer hours, and moving faster through the book, so that I could get through a pass from beginning to end quicker than before. That way it was easier to remember what was happening on page 25 when I was on 125 and 225, in a way that I couldn’t have done earlier in the process. Of course, after a few years of work, you start to know the book really well: There’s a landscape to a book that is unknown for a long time, but then eventually becomes familiar, easy. You stop needing your maps, your outlines and your notes. And if you’re lucky, that knowledge will last as long as you need it. But then you start all over with the next book, back on alien territory. Which is as fun as it is daunting.
SKY: In Jorges Luis Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he creates a word called hrönir. This word refers to the duplication of lost objects. Duplicates are a huge theme in this book. Can you speak to that?
BELL: The world of the dirt between the lake and the woods is extraordinarily constrained: There are so few people there, so few creatures of real note, and fewer as the book goes on. Rather than a constant influx of novelty, the characters instead find the same objects and people repeating, sometimes in changed form, and often in ways that both balance the world and upset it. I think there’s something lovely about this, and something true: The husband wants a marriage that works differently, wants better children than the children he has, wishes for an improved kind of world to live in-but that’s not how life works. Instead, even when the husband finds something new, it is most like something he always knows. He has to learn to make do, to love what he’s been given and what he’s made, or else continue to grieve and to rage.
SKY: What authors or stories have been influential for you? This is a genesis story, in a way.
BELL: It is a genesis story, I think, and not just of creation: There’s certainly a garden here, and an exodus. That wasn’t planned, but I’m not surprised to find it there. I grew up in a devout Catholic household, and certain Biblical stories run pretty deep in me still, even though I’m no longer religious. I don’t think there’s any point in pretending this book would exist if that wasn’t true: The first magical world I lived in wasn’t anything I’d read, but rather the world of my childhood, where angels were not supernatural beings but literal ones, where parted seas and burning bushes were not myth but history.
As for literary influences, there are plenty of writers whose work has been incredibly important to me, writers like Denis Johnson, Brian Evenson, Christine Schutt, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Kate Bernheimer, and truly countless others. But I read constantly, and almost everything I read helps the writing in some way. That’s the story of influence that’s harder to see, and harder to talk about. Often, when we’re asked who our influences are, we name the writers we love, and for good reason—but writing a novel takes years, and over the years I worked on In the House I read hundreds of books, and together with the films I watched and the music I listened to and so on, those books made up the art experience half of my life, which must have seeped into the novel, too. Reading back through In the House, I can see many places where an event in my “real” life filtered into the book, often in a single sentence, sometimes even a single word changed to reflect some new bit of knowledge or understanding, and of course there are many places where my art experiences manifests in similar ways. As writers, I believe we are mostly made of what we do and what we read—and so while my novel is obviously not autobiographical, it is, in another way, as autobiographical as it can be, because in the cracks and cubbies of the text are all these little motes of myself, of who I was during the years it took me to write this book.
IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS IS OUT NOW.