Interview: Matt Bell Author of Cataclysm Baby

Shelf Unbound:You’ve written 26 small tales of the grim and grotesque, with grossly malformed babies and shockingly evil children. How did you come to this subject matter and to the idea of cataclysm?

Matt Bell: The apocalyptic mood has been a strong part of my reading and writing for a long time, and I’ve definitely written more fiction about people perched at endings than at beginnings. I like characters backed into corners, and I generally work from the belief that by my taking the everyday elements of our lives—in this case, especially the family—and estranging them in some extreme situation sometimes allows us to see their parts more clearly. And certainly the use of violence and trauma in fiction always creates a strong reaction in readers. My hope is that it isn’t merely shocking, but that it discomfits the readers into a special kind of openness: by confronting the grotesque, we’re already dealing with elements outside our day-to-day life, and that confrontation can be both moving and generative of change in ways that a milder fiction might not be.

Shelf:You seem like a nice guy, Matt. Where do you go in your head to invent such wicked characters as the daughters who slowly dismember their adulterous father?

Bell: As I writer, I often feel tasked to turn into what worries or upsets me, rather than away, as I more often would in my daily life. When I was a kid, it was the books and movies that scared me that I remembered into adulthood, and as an adult we’re still vulnerable to a similar kind of reaction or interaction. Where I might shy away from violent or upsetting thoughts while out in the real world, making the fictional world alive with conflict and danger sometimes means allowing that fear and disgust into my conscious thoughts, and then going past those emotions into what’s beyond them, an often useful space. What’s the thing that scares us most, and what would come to replace it, once we get acclimated to that first fear, as we inevitably will? Those are powerful places to visit, and worth exploring on the page.

Shelf:I’m struck by the way you use language to evoke real, relatable pain within your fantastical gothic construct: the “pummeled womb,” “my grief-stung wife,” “this hurt-drowned heart.” Do you start with the caricature and work to find the character, or the opposite?

Bell: I wouldn’t say that I start with caricature, but I usually start with voice or image, and then try to unpack whatever it is that interests or moves me in that voice or image. What I’ve learned to do is to move forward by moving backward, continuing to go back to that initial inspiration, mining it for what else is there, and then extruding that into the next part of the story—and if I’m lucky, that process will lead to the next such image, the next self-powered or pregnant utterance, hopefully before the first one runs out of juice and leaves me stranded. This process is enough to get me from event to event, from scene to scene, from beginning to end, and along the way it ideally offers up everything I need to make it through a draft. When I was a younger writer, I thought writing fiction was about piling up novelty after novelty, trying to offer something new in every moment, but I think now I believe something fairly different: that this process of unpacking is more powerful, that it eventually goes deeper, by working to explore a greater part of a smaller number of objects or ideas.

Shelf:Care to share what you’re working on now?

Bell: I’ve been writing a novel for the past few years, and am now in the final editing stages. After that? Who knows. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to start from scratch, and in many ways I’m looking forward to returning to the blank page, in all its possibilities. At the end of a project, it’s easier to work—because what you’re working on is presumably already pretty strong and only needs to get better—but the work is also more constrained, because every choice already made means there are less potential choices to make next. I’m looking forward to starting again, to making another long passage through uncertainty, and to seeing what new experiences I might find there.

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in August/September 2015 Issue

Hali, Halle, Hamako

The day came when we could no longer hide the glistening sight of our daughter’s flippers, nor the secret of her skin, its oils and fur.

Like the other parents afflicted before us, we took her to the lonely end of the island, to the cliffs hung high above the breaking surf. There my wife kissed our daughter’s wet nose, after which I bound tight her swaddling, stilling her wide limbs to her sleek middle, and then together we let our baby tumble from our hands, through the tall air, into the swallowing sea.

Afterward, what endeavors we undertook to forget, even as our guilty bodies tried again for some more right-birthed baby, even as our bodies proved unable to produce another – even as we entered this famished sea, this season of nets cast out and collected empty, until throughout our village every stomach was as hollowed as our crib. 

And now these legs, walking me back to the cliff, my guilt-path worn through the jungle.

Now these eyes, watching the ocean crash its anger-first upon the shore, a parade of knuckles on top of knuckles on top of knuckles.

Now this hurt-drowned heart, when I see how other times the ocean is flat like so much glass, like the unwalked beach below, its sand stormed upon, lightning-fused and mirror-smooth; when sometimes I catch my own face staring back from the water beyond. 

Those waveless days, I see my face or a face like my face, but not the faces of the fish that once swam in those depths. 

Our fish are gone, and our daughter too, and together her mother and I pray for some rewinding of waves, some reversal of what awful ripples we have made, so that our daughter might one day find her way to the flatter side of the island, to the yellow beaches, to the path leading to our small hut, our home meant once to be her home.

And if it happens? If our pup returns? 

Then what?

Then how: With anger? With forgiveness? With love?

Or with that thing we deserve instead, a new mood from our new daughter, dredged deep from the dark, rising slow and sure, purposed only to take us back down. 

From Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Mudluscious Press 2012,
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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