Recently, 9L staffer Aaron Burch spoke with vol. 7, no. 2 contributor Matt Bell to discuss, among other things, the advantages of constraints, creating story arcs, and the structure his book Cataclysm Baby, which contains the stories, "Meshach, Meshach, Meshach," "Rohan, Rohit, Roho," and "Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis" from the current issue of Ninth Letter. Enjoy!
9L: I guess question number one is: do we have any kind of announcement we can make?
Matt Bell: The book these three stories belong to is a novella-in-shorts titled Cataclysm Baby, and while it has been accepted for publication, it hasn't yet been widely announced. So I should probably keep the secret a little while longer. That said, I'm very excited about the publisher I'm working with, and I think it's a great fit for me and the book. I'm looking forward to sharing the news soon.
9L: I'll admit up front here, I'm at least, if not more, curious and intrigued by the book's structure and workings as a whole as I am with each individual piece. The larger project works as a series of 26 shorts, each with three names like these three in Ninth Letter, one for each letter of the alphabet. I'm curious if you can talk a bit about the genesis of the project . At what point did you know the shape it would take -- meaning, I guess, did you know from the get go that there would be 26 alphabetical sections; or did you write one, and then a second, and then keep going; or...?
MB: The first story I wrote is also the first in the book, "Abelard, Abraham, Absalom," which was later published in the Sleepingfish issue guest-edited by Gary Lutz. When I wrote that story, I didn't have any idea that I was beginning something larger, or at least not until I was nearly done with the first revision of it. There's a passage in that story that in, some ways, generated the larger book: "For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after the other. Sequenced failure." Once that emerged from the writing, I saw that it could be the structure for a series of the shorts, in which I could write out all these failed families, these futures that mostly didn't pan out. So from describing the project, it might sound like I had a "project" in mind that I then set about figuring how to write, and maybe that's partially true. But it was still a project that generated itself, from the first blind writing I did on it.
9L: Along those lines and as something of a follow-up, I know the pieces often got accepted and published at journals in a series or collection or whathaveyou. How much thought went into those groupings? Is there a specific reason why these three work especially well together, or was it more psuedo-random?
MB: Actually, they mostly got published individually: The only grouping that were published were the three in Ninth Letter, plus a set of three in Annalemma and two in Sleepingfish. If I remember right, it was only Annalemma that I actually submitted a set to, because they don't generally publish shorts in their print magazine, and so I needed to have a longer submission. For that one, I did put a lot of time into the selection and ordering, because I was submitting to a issue themed around "sacrifice," and so I needed to pick ones that added to something that could match the theme. I will say that when I was picking that grouping, I was very intent on establishing an arc of some kind with the shorts, so that while they would also have a life individually, something else would happen when read together, and again something else would happen when those stories were read later, in the context of the full book, which again has its own kind of arc over the course of the twenty-six shorts, even though characters don't repeat. I like thinking of the book and its stories in this way: That each short has an arc, and that there are groupings inside the book that make their own arcs, and that the book as a whole has an emotional and thematic arc even though there's no single character's storyline that reaches from the first page to the last. In many important ways, this is the same method I applied to organizing my short story collection, where it was very important to me that the collection as whole read best cover to cover, and that the ordering of the stories built something larger and more rewarding for the reader. Having already done that provided a helpful way to think of how to arrange the shorts in Cataclysm Baby, and to know when the book as a whole was done, as opposed to just getting each individual story working on its own.
9L: Finally (to some extent, these three questions are all similar and interrelated): I'm assuming in the full manuscript they will be ordered A-Z. I guess maybe I shouldn't assume that to start with. Should I? And, building from the earlier questions, is there anything about the composition of the pieces that you can share, knowing that there was something of a self-imposed constraint (there would be 26 sections; the order, if going alphabetically, was kind of predetermined; etc.)?
MB: I didn't write the stories in order: I wrote A first, and then D, and then M, and in those stories their place had more to do with names that I found to fit the content of the stories than with the right order of the book. Later I started to see how the mini-arcs I mentioned earlier were forming, and that steered the content somewhat, but not every story was generated in exactly the same way. Sometimes I had the names first, and wrote towards them, inspired by something I found in the lists of names that started with Y or X or N, some meaning or sound able to set the fiction in motion, hidden among all these awful baby naming websites. Sometimes I wrote the pieces, and then their content dictated a certain kind of name or even a series of names. And, of course, some of the names don't match up in a straightforward way -- I'd probably say most don't.
In the final manuscript, the stories are ordered alphabetically: I thought about doing it differently at various points, but never really tried it, in part because that structure of the advancing names and the advancing alphabet provides a sort of structure, a timeline for the book, and one I hope creates some kind of tension: When you're reading the book, the series of names becomes a constant reminder of where you're at, in the bigger scheme of things, and also a dwindling amount of potential. There's a place in the middle of the book where new families and new social structures are emerging to sort of deal with the diminished world that's left, and for me, it always seems a really hopeful part of the book, which I didn't know would exist until it emerged on its own from the writing: Despite all that's gone wrong in the book, families still find a way to exist, to take care of each other, to interact with other families. "Virigl, Virotte, Vitalis," the last of the pieces here in Ninth Letter, is already past that point. It's so late in the book, and in the world of the book. Despite what I see as the determination and the bravery of that story's father, he doesn't have any true hope to give to his daughter except what she might have felt elsewhere, away from him and the world she's known. She's the last living daughter in the book -- after that it's only sons, only fathers, only ghosts -- and as those last remaining letters tick off, I hope that the form of the sequence suggests to the reader that the odds against the remaining characters are getting worse, that there's less and less future to work with. Hopefully, this creates the stage for a kind of climax to the book that's separate from what happens in any individual story, and that allows the book to end powerfully, even though the form dictates it can only be ended by another self-contained short.
For me, this is often the great thing about constraints, and about honestly working with them: It seems like they should rob the vitality of a book, that they should tie your hands, that somehow they should inhibit your creativity. I think I used to believe that myself, but now I've come to learn that, for me at least, it's constraints of structure and language that help to produce much of what works best in my fiction. It's good sometimes to be backed into a corner. It's even better to be made to fight your way back out, and to find a way to succeed.
Thanks to Matt and Aaron for an intriguing conversation. To read "Meshach, Meshach, Meshach," "Rohan, Rohit, Roho," and "Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis" visit our webstore to pick up a copy of the current issue of Ninth Letter, vol. 7, no. 2.