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Small Press Conversation: Matt Bell and Steven Gillis

There's a little place in the middle of the country called Ann Arbor, Michigan. It has steadily produced some of the most exciting literary voices for several years. From big names (Charles Baxter) to rising stars (Davy Rothbart, Elizabeth Ellen), the little college town has a knack for producing strong, enduring books.

Two of the most interesting writers that have emerged from there in recent years are Matt Bell and Steven Gillis.

Matt Bell is the author of the new fiction collection, How They Were Found. His fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Fantasy. He is also the editor of The Collagist, series editor of Best of the Web, and a senior editor at Dzanc Books. He can be found online here.

Steven Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and, most recently The Consequence of Skating (October 2010). His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. Steve founded 826michigan before co-founding Dzanc Books with Dan Wickett.

They recently had this conversation, which includes their thoughts on Pinter, Beckett, "Little Red Riding Hood," politics, and editing.

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Matt Bell: The Consequence of Skating starts with Mickey Greene listing some of the things he knows, and also some of the things he does not know. Let's start this off the same way: What are some things Steve Gillis knows?

Steven Gillis: I know the things I don't know will always be more than what I know. I know the world can get hairy sometimes, even for a hairless guy like me. I know a certain madness will float your boat but a madness that is uncertain will sink you for sure.I know a certain madness will float your boat but a madness that is uncertain will sink you for sure. I know what is bad but not always what is good. I know the schedule I will keep each day but not always what I will do. I know I flash hot and when I flash hot it often leaves people cold. I know kindness is what matters and people who dismiss the effectiveness of social programs — right wing right wing right wing — are narrow-minded and don't live in the real world. I know I am a writer in my soul but sometimes the path from my soul to the page is a bitch. I know my kids are brighter than I am and that my wife endures in ways I can't even imagine. I know that in the end there is only the end absolutely, and what matters then is not what I write but how I loved. I know this yet there are times I fuck this up, too.

Bell: In the book, Mickey wants to stage a production of Harold Pinter's Moonlight, and the pursuit of this goal consumes a good share of the plot. I don't know Pinter's work very well, so you tell me: Why Harold Pinter? Why Moonlight? Does it mean anything different to you than it does to Mickey?

Gillis Pinter is God. I think Mick and I are almost on the same page, though Mick is drawn to Pinter the writer — as am I — but I also am drawn to Pinter the man. His politics blow me away; his Nobel Prize speech should be required reading in every high school and college campus. In short, Pinter embodies every aspect of what I am trying to achieve in Skating; from Mises's observations of human action, from the politics to the way people interact. I could write a book on Pinter, his application and understanding of language, how people talk but don't communicate. How he saw the necessity yet weaknesses of governments, how he opposed war and was not afraid to speak his mind. I chose Moonlight because it is one of Pinter's later and most obscure plays, yet deals so well with miscommunication and the difficulty of relationships. This theme lies at the heart of Skating, all that we know and don't know, the actions we take for reasons that are suspect.

While we're talking about influences: Your novella "The Collectors" appears in How They Were Found. I love this piece. I also love Beckett and I sense a clear Beckett influence in the piece. Maybe some John Fowles, who has his own book called The Collector. I use the word influence in a very positive way as we as writers are all inspired by external sources. Can you talk a bit about the genesis for this work, whether there is some Beckett influence, and how — if at all — the relationship with your own brothers played into this narrative of the relationship between Homer and Langley.

Bell: I'd never read anything by Beckett before I wrote "The Collectors," but I had enough people mention Beckett to me in relation to that story and others in the book that I eventually sat down and read his trilogy of novels and Murphy last summer. In retrospect, I can see why readers like yourself made that comparison — there's a review at Flatmancrooked of "The Collectors" that is almost entirely about its parallels to Beckett's work — but it's more likely that I've just been influenced by more contemporary writers who themselves were possibly influenced by Beckett.

As for where it did come from: I first read a minor mention of Homer and Langley Collyer in a book of my mother's that I found while visiting her. I thought they'd probably make a good pair of characters, and so when I got home I looked them up and did a couple days worth of research. A few weeks later, I started writing the first sections of "The Collectors," writing one section each morning before I turned to the bad novel I was drafting at the time. So it was written in a somewhat unconscious way — my focus was on the bad novel — and then arranged and rewritten over several months.

I don't think my brothers played into the writing of it very much. It's certainly not something I was thinking about at the time, as I'm generally not an autobiographical writer, at least in an intentional way. By the time I was closing in on the final arrangement, I was much more interested in the role of obsession in their downfall, and in mineI was much more interested in the role of obsession in their downfall, and in mine: I was increasingly dismayed by my relationship to the historical Collyers and my use of their tragedy to create art of my own, and I tried to insert that concern into the story through the authorial observer who appears in certain sections of the novella.

Gillis What about your "Wolf Parts"? It's a send up and dissection of and misdirection on "Little Red Riding Hood." Where did this idea come from? It's written in unique bursts of narrative, but did you always envision this as a collected piece or did it have its origin in a different sort of exercise?

Bell: I'm not normally one to write to prompts, but I originally wrote "Wolf Parts" in an attempt to get into Fairy Tale Review's Red Issue, which was themed around "Red Riding Hood." Much like with "The Collectors," I did a period of research — here reading as many different versions of "Red Riding Hood" as I could, going as far back as I could find them — and then I start writing fragmentary retellings of the fairy tale, eventually writing maybe 60 short versions, 40 of which make up the final "Wolf Parts." Here, the goal was to try to take a number of elements I saw in common across many of the oldest versions — the girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the cottage, the woodsman, stones, knives or other implements — and to permutate them over and over into as many different combinations as I could. A lot of stories in How They Were Found work via some sort of exhaustion, and this is one of the clearest examples, I think: I tried to reuse those common elements over and over in new combinations until they had exhausted their potential power to change the basic story, by which time they had broken the expected roles and actions of the characters into a number of new shapes, which themselves then had to be exhausted by additional sets of permutations.

One of the elements of Skating that I was curious about was how the revolutionary actions of students in Iran — and that government's crackdown on those actions — is threaded throughout much of the book. I was thinking about how you'd been working on the book for years, but the events depicted here are more recent ones. Was this a late addition to the novel, after the rest had been drafted, or did it replace some other conflict? How do you see Iran's story in conjunction with Mickey's?

Gillis I have followed the political crisis in Iran for some time, watching the population squirm under oppression in a way that is antithetical to the response of the people in Iraq. There has been a growing movement to unseat the body politic and the religious zealots in Iran; President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah are viewed by a growing number as tyrants. But only recently did this movement fester to the point where there were marches in the streets and the Western presses chose to pick up the story, albeit briefly. When this happened, you are correct, I was looking for a certain motif to work into the Ted storyline and the perfect storm of Iran allowed this to happen for the purposes of Skating, so I did come to this storyline after a few drafts of Skating had been written but I had been following the crisis in Iran even before I started writing.

Bell: Let's switch gears. We've talked about how our reading and our families and our politics have influenced some of our writing. What about your work? I know I spend a fairly equal amount of time on editing as I do on my own writing, between Dzanc and The Collagist and Best of the Web, and I've been thinking lately about the interplay between the two — how growing as a writer makes me grow as an editor, and vice versa. I imagine you've noticed similar effects on your own writing from your editorial work and also the more business-oriented side of running Dzanc. Have the last four years of running Dzanc changed your writing at all, or your approach to your career?

Gillis The process of editing is great in that it puts me inside another writer's head in a way that is different from "simply" reading. I dig it a lot. And I take a lot from the process, without question. Editing reinforces what I already know: that the art of writing is in the rewritingEditing reinforces what I already know: that the art of writing is in the rewriting, to quote a well known fellow; and that the majority of the time invested in my own writing is actually rewriting. I see things as I edit other people's writing, and then when I turn to my own writing those issues and observations and concerns are more in my face, which is excellent for me. As for my role as publisher and co-founder of Dzanc, other than the long hours invested, the effect on my writing is just the wonderful exposure I have to other great writers. I have gotten to learn the business of publishing intimately. If this hasn't so much directly had an influence on my approach to my own writing — which remains head down, Katie bar the door — it has allowed me to remain entirely invested in the writing world 24/7 in ways that being a writer "only" doesn't afford.

Having known and followed your writing for some time, I am intrigued and impressed by the evolution of your narrative voice, how your stories when I first read them or heard you read five years ago, were more tales told on the surface, whereas now your work is a bit twisted a la Barthelme and Coover and others and yet at the same time your stories are even more human and subtle and insightful now. Can you speak to the evolution of your narrative voice, whether the process has been conscious or organic or both?

Bell: Whatever has happened there, a lot of it is probably just natural growth over the early part of a career: You and I met right about the time I was first starting to publish, and when I'd only been writing seriously for a handful of years. In any case, any growth on my part isn't conscious, in that I didn't sit down and decide, "Well, now it's time to evolve my narrative voice." What was conscious was committing to writing every day that I could, and to reading constantly, finding the books that were the right ones for me, that I needed to read. I also got much more interested in the smallest parts of fiction — grammar, acoustics, syntax, and so on — and I think working on my control there has helped the effects at the macro level. Spending the last five years working in various editorial capacities also helped me see some of the things everyone can do, both good and bad, allowing me to try and never do what others can do. Better to fail than to be common, I think, and while that's a hard goal, it's one I try to hold myself to more and more.

The biggest change is that these days I try to be unsentimental about my own writing. Nothing is ever good enough, and nothing is ever truly done. I've tried to learn to risk everything I've already accomplished to make something better, even if that means temporarily breaking a sentence or paragraph or scene or whole story in order to better it later. Along the same lines, I think I've also tried to be more and more ambitious over the years. Readers don't need another cleverness, another slight restatement of a feeling or an idea. I want to write stories that go after greatness, and I want to keep taking chances, keep giving more and more until I get there. I think that's what most of the writers I admire are doing, and I don't really see the point in doing anything else, ever again.

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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  2. A Common Pornography: A Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. How They Were Found New Trade Paper $13.95
  4. Murphy Used Trade Paper $7.95
  5. The Collector
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  6. Moonlight : a Play (94 Edition) Used Trade Paper $7.00

  7. Giraffes
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  8. The Weight of Nothing Used Trade Paper $22.50

Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir

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