When an advance copy of Matt Bell’s new novella-in-stories Cataclysm Baby showed up in the mail a few months ago, I was immediately intrigued. Post-apocalyptic fiction is right up my proverbial alley, and the book’s conceit—Bell’s site describes the book as “twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting stories, all narrated by fathers, each revealing some different family, some new end of the world”—seemed refreshingly different than the “family issues” novels that publishers tend to send my way. I was not a jot disappointed in Cataclysm Baby either; in my review I write:
Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Matt was kind enough to talk to me over an exchange of emails. In the margins of our exchanges—those little quips that aren’t part of the interview proper—I found Matt to be a very nice, generous fellow. I enjoyed talking with him.
Matt teaches writing at the University of Michigan; he also works for Dzanc Books, where he runs the literary magazine The Collagist.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby is a highly structured work that follows a clear pattern. Where did Cataclysm Baby begin? At what point did you start using the alphabet as an organizing principle for apocalypse family fiction?
Matt Bell: The writing of Cataclysm Baby began with its first story, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” although I didn’t have that title for it then: I was just starting off to write a standalone short about this father, who was describing the birth of his son in what turned out to be fairly grim circumstances, and I didn’t know anything more than that—as is often the case with me, I was probably more interested in the voice than in the content or the character, at least at the very beginning. At some point in that draft, I wrote an early version of these lines: “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequence failure.” It was that suggestion of the baby name book that offered up that narrative’s title, and then alphabetizing as an organizing principle for more stories. Before that, I hadn’t intended to write a series, or this novella that they became, but the book’s structure was held in those lines, and that structure ended up driving a lot of the rest of the book’s drafting, by giving a shape for the other narratives to attach to.
Biblioklept: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” contains a horrifying image—the baby is born with a “furred esophagus,” and the dad must pull a hairball from the baby’s mouth. The following stories build on this horror: mutant offspring, forced-breeding, still birth, monster birth . . . You say that your initial concern was more with voice than content or character—but did you have any of these images in mind at the outset?
MB: It’s always a little hard to remember exactly—I wrote the first drafts of Cataclysm Baby in mid-2009—but I think that I would probably say that I didn’t have the imagery of the “furred esophagus” and that hair-choked baby before I started, but I might have had some of the others before starting their sections. Some of the sections were suggested by the names I chose, which in certain cases came first: Including the name “Cain” in the title of the third story, for instance, suggested at least a fratricide, if not exactly what that killing might entail.
For the most part, I’m typically not much of a planner, at the plot or situation level: I don’t have particularly good ideas, and so if I start there, I tend to end up with stories that are all surface, or that at least capture only the most surface stuff of me. By starting at the level of the sentence or the sound or the image—and then by staying at that level as long as I can—I feel more likely to dredge a little deeper, to discover something a little stronger. It’s in subsequent drafts that I do a lot of the plot and character shaping, and even some of the conceptual thinking. I need a certain critical mass of workable language before I can do too much story-work with it.
Bibliokept: Your language—tone, syntax, diction, etc.—inheres across the collection and works to unify the themes and images in Cataclysm Baby. Still, there’s a sense of disconnection of time and place between these stories, as if each one is its own discrete apocalypse or dystopia, even as they blend together.
In a sense, you seem to be playing obliquely with the tropes of end-of-the-world fiction, but resisting the heavy exposition and tendency for world-building we see in so much sci-fi. I suppose I’m pointing toward what I see as restraint in CB, but might have actually been editing on your part—how much of CB came from pruning and paring down?
MB: Generally I’d say that it’s my process to overwrite and then to cut back to the best version of any given story. That said, Cataclysm Baby was never a dramatically longer book, either as a whole or in its individual pieces. For me, many of these stories often operate more like fairy tales or biblical stories than contemporary sci-fi, and so have to do their world-building in different ways. I often write in fragments, and try to create useful spaces in the white spaces between—some regions of ambiguity or juxtaposition—and I think that when that’s working well those regions can end up standing in for what might otherwise require a lot of connective tissue and explanatory exposition.
Biblioklept: Why are end of the world stories are so compelling?
MB: The apocalyptic goes deep in us: Every civilization has its origin story, and also its story of how it’ll all end. Less of us might believe in more supernatural apocalypses now than in the past, but we’ve replaced those fears with secular ones, made all the more frightening for being manmade—global warming and constant war and economic inequality are the results of choices we’ve made, not the supernatural nature of the universe. We’re also within the first few generations that grew up during the environmental movement, taught to see the earth as something that needed to be saved by human action, from human action. All that adds to the gravity of certain kinds of apocalyptic stories: Our ending is now an act of agency instead of prophecy, and for me that changes everything.
Biblioklept: In what ways?
MB: What I mean is that if the end of the world is completely out of our control—if it’s the second coming or an unstoppable asteroid headed for earth —then we don’t bear any responsibility for it happening, and probably be can’t be tasked with stopping it. But if it’s a side effect of the way we live or the way we exploit the earth’s resources or of the way we treat each other, then I think we can be held responsible, both for what has already happened and our failures to make things better. The problem is that most of don’t actually have the chance to make a direct impact, or at least we don’t get to feel like we’re making one very often. It’s hard to make the links between our individual lives and our communal fates, in the biggest ways. But that doesn’t free us from the anxiety or the fear: If anything it probably makes it worse, because someone is making the decisions that might cost us everything, but it’s hard to pin down who it is, or to hold them accountable for their actions.
To bring it back toward Cataclysm Baby: The fathers in the book are rarely if ever responsible for the situations they and their families are in, and they aren’t generally given opportunities to improve things in a large-scale way. All they can do is focus on themselves and their families—which is, of course, what most of us do too, no matter how badly things are going outside our doors. This tension between what we know is wrong (climate change and oppression and war and every other kind of global problem) and what we are best suited for (caring for ourselves and the people closest to us) is problematic, and the solutions to that closing that gap aren’t particularly obvious, or at least they’re not obvious to me.
Biblioklept: I think that Cataclysm Baby has a positive ending—not necessarily a happy ending—but a positive one, or at least one that points to a future and generative capability. I’m curious if you tried out other ways to close the collection than those last few lines of “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.”
MB: I’m so glad you read the ending that way: It’s definitely not a happy ending—and couldn’t be, after what’s come before—but I’d like to think that it at least leaves open the possibility of hope. That seems like such a slim solace, but it’s something, and sometimes enough.
As for whether there were other ways to end the novella: As I said above, I’m not generally a planner, and I ideally like to reach the final pages of a book or story in a burst, writing headlong, possessed by a sort of measured recklessness, in hopes that by moving as strongly as possible from sentence to sentence in a controlled sprint I might arrive at the end surprised and invigorated by what I find there, rather than overthinking or over-determining it. The final sentence of Cataclysm Baby was almost certainly tweaked through the rewriting process, but I arrived at its basic shape for the first time in much the same way I imagine a reader might, coming out of that run of repetitions and endings into something else, some possible future. I was glad that it contained that hope you felt, glad to know that was the way I instinctively responded when I reached the last page.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby bears two epigraphs; one from the King James bible, and one from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The content of both quotations resonates with your work, as does the style.
McCarthy has said that “books are made out of books.” What writers or books were especially important or influential when you were composing Cataclysm Baby?
MB: I love that McCarthy quote, and couldn’t agree more: I think that for me a lot of my formative experiences didn’t happen in “real life,” but inside of books, in that space between what’s printed on the page and what happens in the reader. So the books I’ve read are at least as important an influence as the things I’ve done.
The Bible is obviously an influence on the voice of the book, but it also owes a debt to texts like Beowulf or the Greek myths—there’s a purposeful attempt here to use a more archaic-seeming way of speaking to talk about these futures. Fairy tales are an important part of how I structure stories and character development, and I think that way of thinking was a huge help when working with all of these compressed narratives. And of course there are all the end-of-the-world tales I read when I was a kid or a teenager or more recently: I grew up almost exclusively on science fiction and fantasy and horror, and so much of that still filters into the work. It’s some of that stuff from when I was younger that sticks with me the most, the different world-ending plots of Swan Song and The Stand and Robots and Empire and so on. And then there’s stuff I read later, like Beckett’s Endgame, like Shirley Jackson and McCarthy and Brian Evenson. But of course all of this is over-simplifying, or choosing only the most direct or obvious choices, the ones I couldn’t deny anyway: As I said above, I’ve lived a rather large part of my life inside the books I love, and so it’s no surprise that part of my books would end up being set in some combined world, some landscape they’ve all been mashed into inside me.
Bibliokept: You work as both an editor and a writing teacher. How do those jobs overlap or contrast or influence your own fiction writing?
MB: By the time I finished grad school I was doing most of these things in some form: I was teaching writing there too, and I’d started The Collagist and was just about to join Dzanc full-time. I truly love my teaching and my editing, and am very grateful to have them both as part of my daily work. I think that more than anything they’ve allowed me to see all of these pursuits as part of a bigger literary life, and that this life was the real goal I wanted to realize. I’m very lucky to get to spend my days as a writer and as a reader and teacher and editor and reviewer and whatever else, and I think that all of these different activities add up to one satisfying whole. If there ever came a time when I couldn’t write—where I lost my nerve or my drive to create—I’d like to think that these other activities might sustain me through that loss.
Biblioklept: What about just plain old writer’s block? I seem to be suffering from it these days. Any suggestions you offer your students?
MB: First, my sympathies: I know how frustrating that sensation can feel. Personally, I think I rarely have true writer’s block, the kind where I don’t write. Instead I have days where I write only badly, and sometimes miserably so —and sometimes those days stretch into weeks. When I’m working on a project, there’s almost always something to do, so if I can’t go forward I just move backward in the story and try to revise my way into forward motion again. If I’m between projects, I try to start something new every day until one catches. Immediately after finishing Cataclysm Baby I must have written the beginnings of a dozen terrible short stories, not letting myself abandon one before my writing time was over for the day. So maybe I spent a month writing three or four hours a day on work I wasn’t going to continue with—but at least I was writing. That’s the only way I know to get past writer’s block that isn’t dumb luck.
Biblioklept: Obviously Cataclysm Baby is just out, but do you have any other books or writing projects on the horizon?
MB: I do, thankfully: I’ve been working almost exclusively on a novel for the past three years, and am in the very final phases of that book. I can’t say much more about it yet, but hopefully soon. Once that’s finished, who knows? I’m looking forward to getting back to that place of surprise and uncertainty, after a couple years of knowing what to work on every day.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MB: Not from a store, I don’t think. Mostly, I probably have some borrowed books I never gave back, and after some number of years those have become something like a theft. When I was 21 or so, I believed someone lent me a copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, which absolutely blew me away, and was hugely influential on me as a writer. I had no idea who Lipsyte was, and at the time there weren’t any other books of his to read. I was sure my friend Irene had borrowed me the book, but she said she hadn’t, and later I tried to return it to a few other friends, but they wouldn’t claim it either. So maybe I did buy it, but I don’t remember doing so, and every time I see it on the shelf I wonder who it really belongs to. Assuming it does belong to some friend of mine, I owe them far more than the cover price: I wouldn’t be the same writer without having found Lipsyte then, or even the same person.