matt-bell-for-fictionautMatt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a fiction collection forthcoming in Fall 2010 from Keyhole Press, as well as The Collectors, a novella, and How the Broken Lead the Blind, a chapbook of short fiction. His fiction has been published or is upcoming in Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Willow Springs, Gulf Coast, and many other magazines. He is also the editor of The Collagist and can be found online at

What story or book do you feel closest to?

There are books that are never far from my desk, that I put back on the shelves every time I clean only to get them back out again: Dennis Cooper’s Guide. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. Brian Evenson’s novels The Open Curtain and Last Days (and now his new collection, Fugue State.) Matthew Derby’s Super Flat Times. Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland and Venus Drive. David Ohle’s Motorman. Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! and Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine.

Michael Kimball’s How Much of Us There Was has lived nearby for much of the last year, because it’s one of the finest examples I can find of a book in which every new sentence absolutely requires the one that precedes–It feels like Kimball tapped into a stream of inevitable language, of progressive sentences that each require both the preceding sentence and the following one. That’s how I want my work to feel too, and I’m working on it.

Similarly, Robert Lopez’s Kamby Bolongo Mean River has been on my mind since this summer, and I’ve read it twice now as well as worked on a long essay about it. It’s a great book that continues to open up more and more on further study, and I’m really learning a lot from it even beyond its immediate emotional impact.

Do you have a mentor?

I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of more established writers help me over the years, at various stages. One of the first writers I got to know was a man named Bill Sternman, who lived in Philadelphia and corresponded with me online when I was twenty and twenty-one and living in an area with no other writers. I’m not even 100% sure any more how we met, but we e-mailed consistently for a long time, and he helped me tremendously with the very first serious stories I wrote. I had several professors take an interest in me when I was a community college student, both of whom I’m still friends with, although we rarely share work directly anymore. More recently, I’ve worked closely with Michael Czyzniejewski, whose help has been so pervasive as to perhaps be impossible to quantify in both my work and my conception of what it means to be a writer and editor.

I’ve had a lot of people encourage me and help guide me over the last ten years or so, and I can’t say enough how much that means to me, and how important it is to my work. I’ve also had a fantastic group of peers to work with and be inspired by in various configurations of writing groups in the last few years, including Blake Butler, Ryan Call, Josh Maday, Aaron Burch, Elizabeth Ellen, Sean Kilpatrick, and Barry Graham, plus my many fine classmates in my MFA program.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

I get “stuck” like anyone else, but since the first day of 2008, I’ve been writing nearly every single day, for at least two or three hours a day. At the time I was working fifty to sixty hours a week, and so I would take my work schedule and schedule writing time around it so that I knew that if I stuck to my calendar I would get fifteen hours of writing in a week. That alone has been enough to break the wider kinds of writer’s block, and so the kind of stuck I get now is more often that of not being able to figure out a certain scene or sentence rather than not being able to write at all. If you honestly write a couple hours a day, you’re making so much language that it never seems hard to just make more, or to go work on something else while the stuck idea simmers.

Beyond that, the secrets aren’t secrets at all: I read a lot. I’m on pace for 80 books or so this year, plus all the lit mag reading. Plus the reading I do for The Collagist. I also find it incredibly rewarding and instructive to work with my writing group partners, to work close with Collagist contributors on edits, and so on. Writing a book review will help me learn what makes a book tick at a little higher level than just reading it would. All of these things keep me fresh, and keep me from feeling stuck in my own work.

One thing we rarely talk about as writers is the effect of service upon on our own work, but I think it can’t be underestimated. For me, doing things like editing journals and volunteering at DCWS and teaching my writing residency students and editing other people’s work and writing book reviews and blog posts about other people’s stories, these are all the things that inspire me and help me create my own new works. Being a writer can be such an inward-facing way to go through life, but for me I’ve always found more inspiration in service than I have in introspection. All those other activities feed the part of me that writes, and keep me from feeling jammed too often.

What are your favorite websites?

I assume you mean writing websites? I “grew up” in some ways on Zoetrope, and met a lot of my first writer friends there, even some that have become both close personal friends and professional peers, like Aaron and Elizabeth. I used Fictionaut a lot during its beta period, and have a little less since it opened up, but mostly just due to time constraints–I’m very curious about the site, and how it’s going to evolve (both in purposeful ways and in community-driven ones). It seems like a positive thing, and I’m glad to see anything that brings more writers together, because so few people have the peers they need. Hopefully it continues to be as positive an influence as it already has been.

As far as literary reading, some of my favorite journals that are either exclusively or partially online include: Conjunctions, Hobart, Barrelhouse, PANK, Keyhole, American Short Fiction, Monkeybicycle, elimae, Wigleaf, Guernica, Failbetter, Memorious, FRiGG, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, JMWW, Everyday Genius, Necessary Fiction, Storyglossia, The Quarterly Conversation, Night Train, Lamination Colony, NOÖ Journal, and Juked. I hate to even make a list like this, because I’m sure I’m leaving off places I read all the time simply because they won’t immediately come to mind, but those are all ones I visit regularly and read most of what they publish. It’s a big list, and so maybe doesn’t fit into “favorites,” but there are 1200 online lit mags or so, so I guess picking 20-25 is still a pretty good narrowing.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a novella-in-shorts I’ve been working on since July. It’s a series of parenting stories, all of which are cataclysmic, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic in nature. A number of excerpts are forthcoming already, in magazines like American Short Fiction, Unsaid, Sleepingfish, and Annalemma. Beyond that, I’m back writing some stories for a while, which is great. I was working on a novel revision then a new novel then this novella for most of 2009, so it’s been a while since I made an unrelated new story, and I’d definitely missed the process.

What music can you not live without?

I’m an obsessive music listener, probably listening to eight hours of music a day, at the very least, and often all night as well. My favorite album of all time is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, so that’s one I couldn’t go without. There are other bands that I’m always listening to, like The National, Okkervil River, The Hold Steady, Why?, Wintersleep, Wolf Parade (and the various members’ side projects), Murder by Death, The Mountain Goats, etc., etc.

There was a month or so this year where every day I listened to The Antlers’ Hospice for the first part of my writing time, and then The Handsome Furs’ Face Control for the next. I often end up with little twin writing music obsessions like this: One quiet or droning to start my writing with, and then another more upbeat or excitable band to get the second half of the day started. I write in the mornings as soon as I wake up, and I find this to be a pattern that fits my brain that time of day: Quiet and dreamy to begin, then loud and driving as I settle into the groove whatever I’m working on.

If your current life (the last 4 mos. of 2009) were a reality show, what would you title it?

Well, no one would probably watch a show unironically titled Happiness, but it’s been a pretty good year. Probably my best year, actually. I really can’t complain about any of it. I’m feeling pretty lucky and thankful these days, but that wouldn’t make a good show either: Who would watch These Lucky and Thankful Days? Where’s the drama in that? Not even Lifetime would show a series that sappy.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a ton of things when I was a kid, but I definitely had a prolonged astronaut phase.

This is an exceedingly embarrassing story, but as I recall it, I didn’t learn to tie my shoes until I was in the fifth or sixth grade, when I started being teased constantly for wearing Velcro shoes. I just couldn’t understand why everyone was picking on me: Didn’t they know that ASTRONAUTS wore Velcro shoes? What could be cooler than astronaut shoes?

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at

  1. Michelle Reale

    Great interview! And regarding music, I quite agree, Matt: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—best album ever!

  2. mike young

    Astronaut shoes! Yes!

    Good interview. Agreement and kudos re: the service stuff.

  3. Jim Hanas

    Another vote for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That album will outlive us all. I remember when it came out — 11 years ago! — it melted the detachment and self-protective irony of the ’90s away in an instant. You could ask the most jaded, posturing hipster about it, and he would say, simply, “It’s beautiful, man.” No caveats. No comparisons. A great record.

  4. Matt

    Thanks for checking this out, everyone. Michelle and Jim, always nice to find some more Neutral Milk Hotel fans. I spent most of last year writing two drafts of a long, long novel heavily influenced by NMH. It’s shelved now, but several excerpts of it appeared, including the most recent one in the last issue of Mike Young’s NOO Journal (others at SmokeLong, elimae, Lamination Colony, and Juked.)

    Mike, I’m glad you’re with me on the service stuff, and of course I already knew you were. Keep up the good work.

    I hope you all had a great holiday!

  5. Matt DeBenedictis

    Really enjoyed this. Thanks for answering these qs Matt.

  6. Kathryn Sanders

    Great interview, Matt! Also in agreement on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Has anyone checked out the book about the album by Kim Cooper? Miranda July just mentioned it in her “reading list” for Vice magazine.

    Happy 2010 to all!

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