What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Apocalypse: An Interview with Matt Bell
matt bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist. In the fall he will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.
Front Porch: So Matt… what’s the apocalypse really going to be like? You don’t have to water it down. I’m tough. I can take it.
Matt Bell: I’m not sure I have extra apocalyptic predications left after Cataclysm Baby, so let me say this instead: part of what makes the genre of post-apocalyptic literature vital is the way writers attempt to predict how our present choices might play out, as well as to predict the effects of the random and uncontrollable events that might happen to the planet. I read somewhere once that the problem with risk management predictions is that we often just try to get the probability of the worst possible outcome down to an acceptable number, and then we hope we can live with those odds. Apocalyptic stories tend to take a different approach, by imagining that the worst possible outcome has already happened, and then trying to figure out how we might live with it.
FP: Cataclysm Baby operates as a sort of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Apocalypse. What made you decide to focus on children?
MB: I’m probably slightly more interested in the fathers here than in the children, and especially how they conduct themselves as parents once faced with certain obstacles. It’s a role that it’s impossible to properly prepare for, and probably more so in my book, with its heightened range of challenges. There’s a lot there to work with, and a lot for readers to identify with and react to: fatherhood is full of very powerful fears and anxieties, and also possible rewards—or at least that’s the way it’s popularly framed. It was interesting to work with those expectations, and to try to subvert them or strengthen them in certain ways.
FP: In Cataclysm Baby and your previous collection, How They Were Found, you feature characters having to make decisions amidst extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes the results are favorable, but usually not so much. Would you say your characters, and maybe people in general, are determined by the choices they make?
MB: That almost has to be the case, especially in fiction, where characters can’t have any nature or nurture that the writer didn’t give them, but I’d say it’s true in real life too. It’s our actions that put our morality into practice. That’s one of the functions of fiction: it gives us a space in which to imagine these kinds of moral or social dilemmas. The distance or the tension between what a character chooses and what we might choose ourselves is a particularly powerful space, and one in which the writer and the reader can do a lot of work.
FP: I also get a religious vibe from your work. The pacing, especially when revealing characters’ thoughts, has a ritualistic aspect to it. Your characters seem to live as either prayers or parables. Is this a deliberate or conscious effect?
MB: There’s definitely an attempt to keep the voice archaic in certain ways, with biblical rhythms, with kennings and kenning-like compound words, with structures taken from fairy tales. The hope was that by writing about the future in the language of the past I could affect a certain kind of timelessness, or at least keep the book from being located too specifically in any given year.
FP: One of the most interesting things about Cataclysm Baby is the relationship between children and parents that you explore. A theme that seems to spring up is the extent of parental love when children don’t turn out how they’re expected to. Was this meant to be such a large part of the book’s mechanics?
MB: Are there any children who turn out the way their parents expect them to? I doubt it. The world of Cataclysm Baby allowed me to make parental expectation even less accurate than usual, by making the world and the children in it stranger than any we might reasonably expect. In general, this is a tactic I admire in fiction: you can either take the strange and try to make it familiar, or you can take the familiar and make it strange. I think the second route has more power, at least for me.
FP: I know you often work on strict personal schedules when it comes to writing. Can you talk a little bit about your process for Cataclysm Baby and anything you happen to be working on now?
MB: My process doesn’t really change that much from project to project. If life allows, I write from the time I get up in the morning until lunch every day, at home in my office. It’s a very routine-based process, and I try not to deviate from it too much. I know that’s not a very exciting answer, but it’s the honest one. I know there are a lot of writers who don’t feel the need to write daily, but I can’t do good work any other way.
FP: You’re fairly active in the small press community—in adding your own work to it, being an avid reader of others within the community, and with your literary magazine, The Collagist. What are your thoughts on indie lit magazines and presses, and what they mean to contemporary literature?
MB: I think it’s a good era for the literary magazine and the small press. There are so many great magazines and publishers right now, and I think that the internet has allowed them to play a bigger part in the culture than they have in the past. It’s exciting to get to be a part of it through my own work, and through Dzanc and The Collagist, and I’m lucky for that chance. I wouldn’t be the same writer without the years I’ve spent writing and working within this part of literary culture, and I probably wouldn’t be the same person either.