Matt Bell’s recent chapbooks How the Broken Lead the Blind and The Collectors occupy a surreal corner of American fiction, ranging from historical meditations to unsettling invocations of myths, folktales, and horror. My introduction to his work came via the short story “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” which appeared in the sixth issue of Keyhole. Its unsettling forays through personal geography recalled both Jonathan Lethem‘s novella “The Happy Man” and Michel Gondry‘s uprooted mental landscapes; from there, I was hooked. Via email, we discussed the limited-edition nature of his chapbooks, the historical origins of The Collectors, his work as an editor for the web edition of Hobart, and more.
[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]
Both How the Broken Lead the Blind and The Collectors have appeared as chapbooks, and both are now sold out. What about the chapbook format appeals to you? How do you feel about the limited-edition nature of both — ideally, would you like to see both reprinted, combined into a larger collection, or something else?
What I like about the fiction chapbook is the way it can highlight forms that are hard to pull off in full length books. With the emergence of flash fiction as a popular form, there’s a need for a way to put together collections, but (generally speaking) short-shorts become less satisfying when too many of them are read in a row. A chapbook containing ten to fifteen shorts is much more palatable, and much more likely to have the kind of resonance that good books provide.Â It’s also a great form for the novella, since they are so hard to publish in traditional literary magazines-I feel like that’s the biggest growth area for chapbooks, and I expect we’ll see more and more of them published in this format.
The limited edition nature of the books has been interesting. I’ve been lucky with how fast they’ve sold-How the Broken Lead the Blind sold out in pre-orders, and The Collectors was for sale for about a month total-and I’m extremely grateful for that. I do feel bad that there are people who wanted the books who couldn’t get them in time, but I think both Willows Wept and Caketrain have plans to make them available electronically at some point in the future, so hopefully everyone who wants to read them will still be able to. (That’s actually something that’s very important to me-I’d like to be able to offer free electronic copies of every book I have the good fortune to publish). As far as reprinting them in other books go, I just finished a full-length collection manuscript, and if it were to be printed exactly as it is now, there’ll be two stories from How the Broken Lead the Blind and the entirety of The Collectors within. So hopefully they’ll get a new life in print sooner or later.
When and how did you first become interested in the Collyer brothers?
I first read about the Collyer brothers in a book I ran across while I was staying in a hunting lodge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula while I was in town for my grandmother’s 85th birthday last year. It was only a few paragraphs, but still enough for me to recognize that they’d make great characters. I came home a few days later and looked them up, and started writing the same day, with the first section of the book (probably the only one I wrote in order). From there, I did a lot of research over a very short period and then I tried not to do any more-Historical accuracy wasn’t the goal, and so a more impressionistic brand of research seemed best.
The narrator of the “4” sections of The Collectors has certain authorial traits — particularly in terms of how he circles the action but seems to do so from a retrospective point. Did you know from the outset that the story would include this viewpoint? And how close is this narrator to the perspective of Matt Bell?
As I was writing, the authorial narrator started to appear in Langley’s sections first, and then in his own. I think this was probably inevitable, for a historical book like mine to work-The time scale is so small, and the outcome so definite. The tension in the book can’t come from whether or not they’re going to live, since anyone who’s familiar with their history knows they’re doomed, and steps had to be taken to dramatize the events around them to make up for that (this is also part of the reason for the two sections about the men who independently found the bodies of the brothers). I think the authorial narrator also allowed me to be more forthcoming, as it gave me both the ability to get closer to my version of the Collyers, since they’re separated from each other the whole book, and so there would have been no interaction without this intrusion.
The narrator isn’t very a nice guy, of course, because he’s the antagonist of the story: he inflates his own importance, lies to Langley, offers false hope and some false redemption, and accidentally traps himself in their house because he believes that the story is something he can control. Like Langley, he is defined and motivated by his obsessive gathering, and by a perhaps hopeless attempt to understand and complete the obsession in some meaningful way. A few of these qualities are reflective of who I am at times, for better or worse, but most are whole fabrications added for the purpose of making the book work.
That said, I did walk around for months thinking about these two brothers and wondering about their relationship. I rewrote lists of their possessions over and over until they were mine too, trying to see what connected the things they kept to the people they were, or-perhaps more importantly-to the people I wanted them to be for my own purposes. There were definitely days when I had trouble leaving them behind, and I think the ending of the book was written as much for me as for the story itself-It was one way to both complete the action and to allow myself to act out leaving this particular obsession behind. It wasn’t the last section I wrote, so I’m not sure it was completely successful.
I know this might make me sound kind of crazy and self-fixated now, but it really was on my mind at the time. I’m not a very autobiographical writer, so putting this kind of character in the book was something new for me, and therefore both interesting and somewhat uncomfortable.
How did you become involved with Hobart? Has your work as an editor there had any effect on your writing?
One of my very first fiction publications was in the fifth issue of Hobart, back in 2005, and I had an essay in the Games issue last year. Some months later, Aaron Burch invited me to come on board and edit the web edition (along with Jensen Whelan), and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’m obviously biased, but I think Hobart is one of the best literary magazines around, and it’s only going to keep getting better as it grows.
I’m not sure that working for Hobart (or for any of the other places I’ve been an editor) has had a direct impact on my writing, but it has helped me as a reader and an editor-There’s nothing quite like reading a couple hundred submissions to get a really good idea of what you like in a story and what you don’t, and to start formulating reasons why. One of the most educational parts of the process is when I get down to the last dozen submissions or so, and need to pick a final four for an issue. At that point, you’re down to twelve publishable, exciting stories, and finding the small qualities that separate them is very interesting (and hard).
How do games and gameplay factor in to your writing? “Mario’s Three Lives” comes to mind, as does — in a looser sense — “Hold On To Your Vacuum”.
Games are a rich source of inspiration, in so many ways-They provide forms and structure, like all storytelling mediums do, and they also offer new examples of how people interact with stories.Â I think older video games appeal to me partly because they’re so often blank slates attached to the mythic framework of the hero and the quest. The stories are so minimal, and often they were relegated to the instruction manual, or didn’t make any sense whatsoever. For instance, to find out the story of the original Donkey Kong, you had to read the side of the arcade cabinet, as there’s absolutely nothing in the game itself. Games also have a Sisyphean aspect to them, where the character and the player are both asked to do the same thing over and over again. “The princess is in another castle!” and so on. And then of course there’s the free will problem, at least as it appears from the avatar’s point of view-even a modern video game character with a fully cinematic storyline meant to evoke real emotion from the player is still just a shell, incapable of independent action-which is much like a character in a novel, with the only difference being where the inputs are. In a novel, it’s the writer’s job to bring a character to life, while in a game it’s the player’s. (That’s an imperfect distinction, obviously-both readers and game designers have big roles to play in these relationships as well.)
In “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” there’s obviously a game involved, but it’s a fairly sadistic one, both physically with Teacher’s repeated drilling into the narrator’s skull, and also because the game revolves around something that isn’t fun (and shouldn’t be): the letting go of guilt and shame, and being freed of both of those things whether or not the protagonist has earned that freedom. For me, part of that story is the protagonist learning that the game is wrong, at least as it’s being played-he doesn’t want to be freed of his guilt, but to redeem himself for these things he’s done, and so he starts to play the game in a way that he thinks will help him do that.
To link this back to games and gameplay, I think it’s an example of another quality of games that only a certain percentage of players ever take advantage of: The freedom to play the game in any way they choose, whether or not the makers intended it. There are consequences, of course-often the game punishes players who don’t play by the rules, even if it’s just something as mild as the absence of a visible score by which to gauge their “progress.” It’s in places like this where I think video games reflect life best: There are rules you’re meant to play by, but they’re not absolutes, and sometimes the best times are when you play the game your own way, regardless of whether anyone else understands or appreciates what you’re up to.