Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Matt Bell

by Wayne Kumai Read the Story April 3, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re not seeing things—The main character of Matt’s story is actually interviewing Matt. In Fall 2014, SmokeLong Quarterly ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for our new web site. Wayne donated to our project and received as a thank-you an original story written by Matt Bell with him as a main character. Here Wayne interviews Matt on that and more.

In the story, the first-time novelist Wayne struggles with his own identity, at one point asking himself, “What is the essence of Wayne Kumai?”  He pains over his dust jacket photo and the way he is represented in his bio.  Does this ring true of today’s internet-age authors? Must they have a well-conceived and manicured online personae?

I think writers have always curated personas, sometimes by performing or acting out in public, sometimes by withdrawing and cultivating a sense of mystery. The same options exist in the Internet age. What I find most striking is how many authors are actually choosing to give access to their normal lives that earlier generations wouldn’t—even if only to each other, in friendships contained behind privacy settings. On Facebook and Twitter, most writers present a combination of professional and personal information, giving us authors who are perhaps more human and earthly than those of older generations. (Although, obviously, the personal self we present online is also curated: very few of us appear in public, online or in person, as we really are.) I think this is mostly a good thing, and does away with a lot of the mythologizing of the artist that sometimes prevents aspiring writers from imagining the real lives of the writers who have gone before them.

This flash fiction piece has an underlying theme of honesty, with the author, Wayne, a true and honest man, embellishing his biography to sell books. It seems, regardless of the length of your work (novel, short, or flash fiction), that you manage to work in a theme. Do you plan this out before pen-to-paper, for even short works, or does the theme materialize as the story takes shape?

I couldn’t imagine starting from theme. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” I like that. There’s an old cliché that writers should write what they know, which often gets changed to something like “Write what you don’t know.” More and more, I want to write not just what I don’t know but what I’m afraid to know. (Although that’s probably not the mode of the piece in this issue, which is obviously a bit lighter than most of my work.) I try to avoid seeing too much of the whole too early. I stay in the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, confident that the larger movements of the piece will emerge from that small work. And then in revision I see what’s there, what might be strengthened or turned up.

Your works feature mythically-large beasts, such as the bear and the squid in your novel, In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press, 2013) and also the centaur in this piece. Is there some unexplained childhood dream behind these animals, and do they continue in your upcoming novel, Scrapper (Soho, Sept 2015)?

There are no mythical beasts in Scrapper—it’s set in contemporary Detroit—but myth is always on my mind and there are other ways to move toward the mythic. As for the centaur references in this story, I’m not sure I have a better answer for their inclusion except that it was the first thing that came to mind and seemed like it had some opportunities for strange humor. The centaur is a strange beast, at once ungainly and majestic, grotesque and alluring. It’s a funny thing to want to be, and opened the story up to a different level of absurdity I hadn’t necessarily expected.

Marriage and parenting is common in your works—family in How They Were Found (Amazon Digital, 2010), parenting in Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious, 2012), and marriage, both in In The House… and here in this story.  Why do you believe these motifs are recurring in your work?

A lot of my work begins with characters taking on new roles—in this case of this story, Wayne Kumai’s role as published author looms—and often explores their fear of loss (and what that fear causes them to do). Marriage and parenthood are prime examples of both of these themes: There are few roles more important than spouse, than parent. There are few people we fear losing more than our partners, our children.

You recently moved from Michigan to Arizona to teach at Arizona State University. How do you think it might affect your life and writing?

I lived in Michigan my entire life until now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my imagination might have formed if I’d lived here in Arizona instead. For instance, both of my novels take place primarily in winter, which probably wouldn’t be the case if I’d internalized this desert landscape instead of the Midwestern one. I’m excited to find out what might change next, but it might take a while: I wrote a book that took place in a mostly pastoral setting while living in a condo in the city of Ann Arbor, then wrote a book set in Detroit from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and from Phoenix. So who knows? The place I live in doesn’t determine the work I’m doing, although it certainly affects it. I’m looking forward to taking the desert into the work and seeing what new places it takes me.

About the Author:

Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and the winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. His next novel, Scrapper, will be published in Fall 2015. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

About the Interviewer:

Wayne is a Chicago sports and pain management physician and his debut novel will be completed this autumn.