Matt Bell's debut novel is set, as its title suggests, in a remote area next to a lake in a forest. The cast of characters includes a giant bear, a foundling, a fingerling, a woman who can sing whole worlds into being, and her husband, who wants nothing more than to lead a quiet life and — most importantly — raise a family. Things don't work out as planned, though, as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in tragedy. As the story unfolds, and the couple's dreams of a simple life unravel, the sheer force of Bell's prose and the mythic, underworldly power of his characters' fates grip the reader by the throat.
Jess Walter (National Book Award finalist and author of Beautiful Ruins) tried to capture the experience: "This is a fiercely original book...that sent me scurrying for adjectives, for precedents, for cover." That about sums it up. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is as difficult to describe as a dream. This onslaught of primordial imagination will confound, confront, and absolutely amaze you. We loved it so much, we chose it for Volume 40 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods? I will note, I love that title, but it might be the hardest title to remember ever.
Matt Bell: It's a lot of title! [Laughter]
I'm not necessarily an idea person. I don't start off with an idea ahead of time. It's weird, the way these things work. I had just finished my last book, and I was trying to find the next thing. I was writing a lot of starts every day, trying to get some traction.
The first thing I wrote was a passage that's not in the book, of the husband watching the wife singing. He's seeing these things that she could potentially one day create with her voice, which isn't something that happens in the book anymore. But that was the initial seed of it.
Within the first day or two of writing, I had a lot of the elements of the book. I had the bear. I had written a sentence or two about the fingerling and the foundling, but I didn't really know what they were. I had all these things I wanted to explore. I generated a bunch of mysteries, and then I chased them down for a year or two.
Jill: I like that idea, that you set up mysteries and then chased them down. That feels like what the narrator is doing in the book.
Bell: Yes. I think that's part of it. I always was in his voice. I had to find out everything through his eyes, in a certain way. He would encounter something he didn't understand, and I wouldn't get to understand it yet either.
Jill: I've never read a novel remotely like this book, which was an amazing thing. When I would try to describe it to people, I would say things like, "It's like a prose-poem-myth-fable-creation story." What were you thinking about in terms of form, in terms of pushing or exploring the boundaries of what a novel can be?
Bell: Yeah, it doesn't synopsize well, right? [Laughter]
Jill: It really doesn't.
Bell: It's funny, because I feel like that's the worst thing. The book before it was a book of 26 post-apocalyptic parenting stories. It was really easy to explain. This is not!
I think about it a lot in terms of myth. That's a big part of it. One of the things I hated when I was in grad school, if you were a person who wrote in a really high prose, if you weren't writing in a vernacular, everyday prose, the assumption was always that this would be impossible to sustain, that you could only do this in short stories or poems.
That's clearly not true because there are lots of books that do it. I knew that it was something that I was conscious of and working at — trying to be able to extend this sort of prose over a long period of time. Some of the initial goals worked that way.
It's gone through a couple of different forms. Early on, I was looking for a form for it. It was shaped off this five-part opera structure that I was reading about but that I didn't really understand. I was just using it to hang stuff on. Then that fell apart. Formally, it's been a lot of different things. What started to really work, but it's hard to see, is that there were these repetitions in the story, both in the prose at the microscale and these larger forms of repetition. That seemed useful, that every time those repetitions became exhausted, the form broke and something new happened. That became a way of writing it.
It did end up in this weird place! Some of the things I really love about myth and fairy tale don't actually lend themselves to novels very well. That created some of the weird effect of it, maybe. Like slightness of character in fairy tales — not having psychological motivation, in a certain way. But combining this parenting story with that kind of characterization, I think, maybe created some of that motivation.
Jill: That makes sense, that repetition, both in the prose and in what's happening. It feels like a spiral, or getting to the bottom of a spiral, and then a new thing happens. I was really impressed with one of your other interviewers, Andrew Ervin from Tin House, who said he read the whole book in one night. I do that a lot, but I couldn't do that with this book. I needed to have some of those breaks to step back and process what was going on for a while there.
Bell: That makes sense. There was a version of the book where the original structure wasn't working. I wrote a version that had no chapters. It was just this scroll that was like 500 pages long. It was clear that it was way too relentless. There was nowhere to breathe or pause or stop.
When I was first talking to my agent about the book, he never saw that version of it. I told him it existed, and I saw the look on his face. He was ashen. [Laughter] He said, "That's a terrible idea!" I was like, "I know!"
Not every book needs to be read cover to cover. I think that's okay.
Jill: You mentioned the voice earlier. There's such a solemnity to it and very little, if any, humor, which does add to the feeling that it's epic and momentous and mythic.
Bell: One of the things that I go back to a lot, that I found really interesting in this book and the book before, that I'm trying to step away from now a little bit, is this idea of using that biblical diction or an archaic diction or a mythic diction as a way of making things that are familiar strange.
There's a David Foster Wallace quote, which I'm going to paraphrase badly, that says something like, the task used to be to make the strange world familiar to readers. Now everything is familiar. This generation's task is to take what's familiar and make it strange again so we can see it.
It feels like there are some benefits to writing these parenting or marriage stories in a way that, at the prose level, they're shaking it up enough that you can see it again. The core story of their couple-ness — when the husband's wondering if they're defined by whether or not they have children and what happens to them if they don't — could be told in a much more real and straightforward way. But there are some benefits to telling it in this mythic form that make it, at least for me as a writer, accessible in a new way. Whereas if I wrote in a more realistic way, I wouldn't have gotten some of these slices emotionally.
Jill: In the House does subvert the familiar in every possible way. There's enough in it that's recognizable and transferable that the reader can empathize with, but it's very much on the book's terms or this world's own terms, which I thought was really successful.
Bell: I'm really glad to hear that. As a writer, when I'm doing the work, part of what makes it gratifying is that I get to go places emotionally where I don't get to go in my day-to-day life, where I have to run errands and go to the grocery store and get gas, which are not deep-feeling moments. Sometimes, writing in a way that is not my day-to-day voice helps me with that.
Jill: For a mythic, fable-like book, it's incredibly physical and focused on the body; all the characters go through some pretty agonizing physical pain and transformations. The focus is very closely corporeal. That's an interesting contrast with some of the more surreal or metaphysical ideas in the novel.
Bell: That's one of the things that I was drawn to early on, the opportunity for that. Not that I'm drawn to people having horrible things happen to their bodies [laughter], but I really got into the physical. It keeps it from being purely a novel of ideas or an abstraction. None of us are fighting giant squid on a daily basis, but those bodily fears and that bodily angst are ways to link back. It keeps me uncomfortable as a writer and keeps the book grounded, in a way.
There are things in the book that are difficult to visualize or difficult to empathize with directly, because they're so bizarre. So grounding it in the body that way can sometimes work. Some of it is that the characters need somebody to react to. The husband is alone so often that he almost has to have his own body to contend with, since there are no other characters to interact with.
Jill: Though there is another character, the fingerling, inside his body.
Bell: Right! [Laughter]
Jill: How did you think of that? I will say that one of my colleagues is pregnant and actually could not read past that point. She got to just that point and said, "I'm going to read this after I give birth."
Bell: I think it came not out of sense but out of sound. I was playing around with sentences. I don't know if I came up with "fingerling" or "foundling" first, but I know that I wrote them both down the first time in the same paragraph. I thought, Huh, I wonder what those are. I didn't really know. I was writing the next sentence from the acoustics of the last sentence and got to these weird words accidentally. I didn't know what they meant for a long time. At some point very early on, the fingerling became the ghost child. Its relationship to the husband had to be parsed out for a while. I think it was one of the first times I wrote about it; it was a word that made me feel very uncomfortable, and the idea made me feel really uncomfortable.
That scene very early on was probably what your colleague reacted to, this idea that out of the wife's miscarriage, the husband had this idea that he could grow this child better. I found that such a crazy and egomaniacal and wrongheaded idea. And, of course, in the real world it would never play out, but in this mythic setting it's allowed to, which I found very difficult. It created some engine in the story that I wanted. To turn into your discomfort instead of away is an option we sometimes have when we're making or encountering art. I guess I try to do that when I'm writing, although I totally understand why readers would choose not to for certain topics.
Jill: In connection with the fact that you initially had the fingerling and the foundling — one thing I really loved about the book is that it's so much about balance and imbalance, and trying to get things back to a certain way in which things equal out. The timing is always wrong. One character always wants more than the other one or stops listening or listens to the wrong voices at the wrong time. It's this constant seesawing back and forth, trying to get this cosmos back in balance.
Bell: I have a really good marriage and a really good family, and I still feel like you just described how marriages and families work. My parents were great, but they were rarely on the same page at the same time [laughter]. That can happen inside marriages, so it's nice to play that out over the world itself as well.
There is a way they can have this balance, possibly. This place they came to could be more ideal. It could be Garden of Edenish instead of what it becomes. But for various reasons, many of which are related to the husband's inability to husband or father in the way that he more ideally would, they're not able to get to that place. They don't end up making that world. I hope that by the end of the book there's at least the potential for that. You can see how it could have played out a different way. But for these particular people, it doesn't. They never find that balance in a certain way.
Jill: Why did you choose the bear and the squid, those specific animals, as the main nonhuman characters in the book?
Bell: The bear was there from the beginning, in that first scene where the husband sees the bear at the edge of the woods. It came very organically. I was mindful of this landscape that was emerging, the dirt and the woods and the lake. It seemed to immediately call for something else to be in the lake.
I didn't know what was in the lake for a long time. I think it was maybe other things. Some of that is left in the book, the information that it could be other things. That mystery doesn't get resolved in the book in the way some of the others do.
It was an interesting problem to have. I didn't know what the bear was or what the bear was doing or what the bear meant. I knew the bear was this thing that I could send the characters to interact with. Then I had this other thing in the lake that I didn't know what to do with and how to have them interact with.
That created an interesting... I don't know, it generates. As a writer, to have that kind of mystery in your own story is so good. I'm reading Robert Boswell's book of essays on fiction right now, The Half-Known World. He's always talking about the fact that to not know your own story fully is generative. The first time I read that I was like, Yeah, absolutely. This is how I work. To hide the world you're creating from yourself while you're creating it, it's a weird balance, but it seems necessary, at least for me. If I know it too early, I just lose all that, and it becomes very flat and very stale.
I don't know why I chose the squid initially. I can tell you why it stayed, though. The epigraph in the book is from an old Norse book called The King's Mirror. I was just looking up random facts about squid trying to work on this part. I found this document, and it's written in the 1200s, supposedly from a Norse king to his son. It's basically teaching him how to rule, how to handle politics, and all that stuff. It also talks about the natural world and the science of Scandinavia, Greenland, and Iceland. There's a part in there about the squid and the kraken. This part is in the epigraph where it talks about there always being only two that appear. They don't reproduce.
I really loved that, and it became an underpinning of some of the relationships, these mythic creatures, these mythic powers that also were unable to be parents in a certain way. Then this world became filled with parents who couldn't reproduce.
That was a weird thing. The squid was accidental, and then I found this other thing to help me add some of the underpinnings to the rules of the world or the way that these relationships were going to play out. So the squid was crucial, even though I didn't understand it for a really long time.
Jill: The rhythm of your language took a little bit of getting used to initially. Then once you get it, you're in, and it carries you along. It's like you're on this tide. Then you have these little eddies that would stop you. I would end up reading them out loud sometimes, like the lists when the husband's searching and finding things in room after room, which are wonderful.
I'm wondering how you think about your prose in this book. I read somewhere that you were interested in Anglo-Saxon language or rhythms.
Bell: Years ago my friend Michael Kimball, whose work I'm sure you know — and if you don't, he's a wonderful, wonderful writer — was talking to me about a story that was in my first book. He mentioned to me that, when given a choice, I was 80 percent of the time choosing the Anglo-Saxon–rooted word instead of the Latinate-rooted word. He said, "The Anglo-Saxon words are like the body, and the Latin words are like the spirit. So if you want this really bodily feel, maybe you turn that up to 90 percent or 99 percent, or as much as you can, you move towards the Germanic words as opposed to the Latin words."
I didn't know that. I had never heard that. Then I went and started investigating it and realized that I was making these choices and it did seem to have the effect that he was suggesting. So it was a little bit of a help, working on this book or other things and given those choices to revise towards that side of our language that was rooted in the body and the ground in a way that, for this book especially, is right. That's absolutely who the husband is. He's not good at the spirit. He's not good at emotion. So, yes, some of those diction choices were really driven by that thinking, at least at certain stages of revision.
Beyond that, I try to be very conscious of the acoustics of language. I read the book out loud obsessively while I was writing it, while I was revising it at every stage, even the copyediting stages when I was supposed to be just saying yes or no to comma usages before I turned it back in. I read the book again, end to end, out loud.
It matters to me that it has that acoustic sense, even if a reader never hears it out loud. Somehow that sound on the page has a bodily effect on the reader and adds up to something. I do worry about that a lot. If a sentence doesn't feel right, I have to keep adjusting until it's there.
Jill: How do you feel your writing has changed or is changing over the years?
Bell: It has changed in various ways. My first set of stories had more formal play at the macro level. There are stories in there in various braided threads of numbered sections. There's a story that's an index and there are stories which do different things. The second book had a very structured alphabetical form. I've moved away from some of that as I've become better at it at the sentence level, better at it at the paragraph level or the scene level, doing different things that way.
One of the things that I'm trying a lot in the new novel I'm working on now is to give up some of the archaisms that are in this novel, that Biblical high speech in favor of doing something else. One of the bad things about this kind of prose is that it works really well for a character like the husband, an egomaniac, and very badly for other characters [laughter]. With that kind of speech, you constantly have to move through the world with a certain priestly or kingly bravado. It doesn't lend itself to every story. In general, between books I'm always looking for a way to maybe give up some of what I've done or done well in hopes that I'll have to figure out something new to replace it with.
I saw Anne Carson do a table reading of her Antigone translation in Ann Arbor this summer. Someone was asking in the Q&A afterwards why she had written so many different kinds of books. Why didn't she do one thing? Again, I'm probably going to paraphrase badly, but she said that writing a book is learning to do something. Once she learns how to do it, she wants to learn how to do something else.
I think I'm looking for that too. I'm not as dramatic as Anne Carson; I'm probably not going to suddenly translate ancient Greek. But I want a similar thing. I want to be continuing with what's strong in my work, what makes my work mine, but also continuing to incorporate new things and trying to find that next new skill or new mode of writing, because otherwise it's going to be limiting in a really bad way.
Jill: You're a senior editor at Dzanc Books, you edit the literary magazine the Collagist, and you teach at Northern Michigan University. What have you learned from editing and teaching that's affected your writing?
Bell: You know, concerning the book editing at Dzanc, I started working there right out of grad school, and I was immediately editing. The first novel I edited was Roy Kesey's Pacazo. Roy was a hero of mine whose writing I really admired, and an influence of mine. He had this 700-page, dense, lyrical, Peruvian novel. And I hadn't written a novel. I was writing this novel. I remember being very intimidated by that and not wanting him to see that I was, wanting to prove that I could help him.
I worked really extensively with Roy on the book, and, in a way, that's where I really learned a lot about how a novel like that might be built. Everybody I've worked with brings something different. The difference between working on a book of Roy's or working on a short story that might have a different kind of voice or all these different things — you see all these different ways to structure books.
Really, my novel-writing education was editing. I didn't learn that in school. I probably could have, but I didn't. There aren't a lot of ways to learn to write a novel. You just have to write one. But getting to edit a bunch of them isn't a bad sideline to that. So that was massively, massively helpful, certainly in the interest of just getting to see a lot of new work and a lot of different stuff. Working with the Collagist has been really great for that. We publish a lot of really unconventional stuff, so seeing what new things people are up to has been great.
One of the great things about teaching workshops is that we read a lot. We read a lot of short stories. When I'm teaching, I tend to do half really new, contemporary stuff and half foundational stuff, the things that maybe taught me to write in a certain way. Getting to go back to those stories, after having more experience, taking the things that initially sent me down these roads and getting to go back to them again with 15 really smart students, is incredible in a way that I wouldn't have been able to predict. It's incredibly helpful for my writing to get to return to my foundational chops and try to share them with others in a way that they were shared with me.
Jill: I also read somewhere that you listen to music while you write. What was on the soundtrack for In the House?
Bell: I listened to an album called By the Throat. It's electronic music by Ben Frost. It's very aggressive in a certain way. If I listen to it with headphones with it turned up, it actually makes me feel uncomfortable in my stomach. It discomfits me at this really high level that music rarely does, and there's something good about having this way to put yourself in that discomfited position. By rote, almost, I could put that on and it would get me in this place that was productive for writing.
I listened to that the most. I listened to a lot of similar stuff. Tim Hecker, The Antlers. Especially for the first draft. A lot of these would fall out and get replaced, once I burned out on them. I'm really attracted to writing to things that are droning, like Jim O'Rourke albums, like Happy Days and Bad Timing. They keep me in the chair, but they're also not distracting by being lyrical.
Jill: What are you reading that you're enjoying lately?
Bell: Really good stuff. Susan Steinberg's collection Spectacle. It's probably been my favorite book of the year so far. It's really phenomenal. She's just great. I got lucky enough to read a galley of Alissa Nutting's Tampa, which is coming out in July. It's really incredible. I think it's going to get a lot of attention this year when it comes out.
I didn't know Renata Adler's work until the New York Review of Books reprinted Speedboat this year. I'm just going to say that I thought it was fantastic. I wasn't familiar with her at all. That's a shame, because it's a really interesting book. It's dense in a weird way. It's not dense because it's hard to read. It's dense because there's an incredible amount of content on every page. It's really funny and really smart. It doesn't remind me of anything. It's its own thing. It's worth checking out.
What else am I reading? I went back and read Kate Bernheimer's Gold sisters trilogy. I had read the first two a long time ago and then the third one came out last year or the year before. I hadn't got to it. I went back and read those three in order. Really fantastic! I'm in the middle of Ben Percy's Red Moon right now.
Jill: I really liked that.
Bell: Yes! It's incredible. It's different than what I expected. Ben's a friend of mine. I know his work pretty well. I'm used to the idea, with other people, of what literary horror looks like. It's really amazing how this is, like, horror. It's great.
One of the things that really surprised me recently was Byliner put out this ebook of Joy Williams called 99 Stories of God, and I downloaded it and was reading it. I assumed it was a short story. But it's a book, and it's amazing! I feel like more people should know that that's there, because I really haven't heard too much about it.
Jill: I read something about it somewhere. I adore her, but I have yet to really start reading ebooks, so I didn't follow up on it, though maybe I should make an exception for that one.
Bell: It'd be worth it! I think there are going to be a lot of good books this year. As always, I'm buying more than I'm reading, and there's a lot that I'm really excited to get to.