Matt Bell is the author of two chapbooks, The Collectors and How the Broken Lead the Blind, and has fiction published or upcoming in Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, Meridian, Monkeybicycle, and Keyhole. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI, and can be found online at www.mdbell.com.
what are you reading now
I’m reading David Ohle’s The Age of Sinatra, a sequel to his brilliant novel Motorman. It took me a little while to settle into it, and while I’m not sure it’s quite as good, I do like it better now than I did initially. It’s in a very different style than Motorman, which is surprising for a sequel. That said, there’s a lot of funny, bizarre stuff here, and I’ll hold off final judgment until I’ve finished it.
I’m also reading Barry Hannah’s collection Airships, which I’ve only just begun. The first couple stories are fantastic, and there are lines of Hannah’s that get stuck in my brain and refuse to dislodge, which are perhaps the best kinds of sentences. There’s a particular one from the last story I read that I’ve been carrying around all week: “It’s just arms and legs. It’s not worth a damn.” It looks so plain by itself, but I remember getting walloped by it when it appeared in the midst of the story. That seems to be the secret to his stories—I keep hearing people talk about his language, and while it is great, it’s so simple too.
I’ve also been reading a number of individual stories from recent collections and magazines, since it’s Short Story Month. There’s so much good stuff happening with the short story right now, and it’s exciting to read as much of it as I can.
classic you’ve been meaning to read
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Every summer, I tell myself I’m going to read this, and every summer I can’t bring myself to give up the ten books I could read instead. Maybe this year!
last book to bring you to tears
I feel like it’s been a while, for whatever reason. I will say this: Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody broke my heart more than any other book I read last year, and I can remember being powerfully touched by it the first time I read it, on a train home from Chicago. I read it cover-to-cover, and then my wife read it cover-to-cover, and by the time we ate dinner that night we were discussing the poor doomed Jonathon Bender like he was a close friend who’s funeral we’d just came from. It was one of the most interesting shared reading experiences I’d ever had, and a great conversation with my wife.
book you borrowed and never returned
While I have at least half of the Stephen King books that once resided in the small town public library near where I grew up, I feel like you probably meant a book I loved so much I never gave it back, instead of ones I just stole because I’m lazy. Unfortunately, I hardly ever borrow books from people, for reasons like the above. Plus, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and like having my own copies of things.
I do have a small pile of Aaron Burch’s graphic novels. I should probably give those back soon, before they become part of my permanent collection.
guilty pleasure reading
Is there such a thing as a guilty pleasure? I don’t know—I read what I like, and always have, so I’ve read a lot of books that aren’t very literary, I guess, but I don’t care for that term a lot. I’m not very interested in genre lines, especially as they’re used to exclude writers from some sort of “good writing” sphere. People should read what they like. I’ve read a Dungeons and Dragons novel that nearly moved me to tears, but have never read an Alice Munro story that did the same.
worst book-to-film adaptation
It don’t know if I have a “worst” adaptation, except to bring up really obvious ones that are out there, but I will say I was pretty disappointed with the recent adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, which is one of my favorite novels of his, and I think a pretty wonderfully subversive book. The movie, by contrast, was so safe and tame and spectacularly mediocre—I mean, there’s a rape role-play scene in it that’s really, really boring. That shouldn’t really even be possible.
most scribble-ridden book in your collection
I don’t write in my books, but not because of any fetish for clean books or because of the sacredness of the text or anything like that. I just don’t like reading the book again two years from now and realizing how juvenile my thoughts are about nearly every book I’ve ever written. I’m trying to live under the illusion that I’m a sensitive, intelligent person. Writing my thoughts down does not help.
book you’ve planted on a coffee table to impress someone
I don’t know if I’ve ever tried to impress someone with a book—that seems ridiculously unlikely—but even if I did it would be doomed to failure. I used to try to have the “right music on” when people came over, but I always tried to impress them by playing bands they had never heard of, so that my brilliant and hip (and obviously self-delusional) taste might show through. That does not, as a rule, work—People just wonder why you’re playing music they’ve never heard of at an unacceptable volume. Books would be even worse.
best american short stories, pen/o. henry prizes, or the pushcart prize anthology
Are these the only choices? I’d generally pick Best American Nonrequired Reading, but if pushed to pick one of the above, I’d pick BASS, but only on certain years, when someone more open to new writers and new kinds of stories edits it. Michael Chabon’s year is (to me) the best out of the last ten years or so, and his introduction (which is reprinted in his excellent Maps and Legends) is one of the most inspiring and reassuring essays a writer like myself could ask for.
collected stories of
J.G. Ballard? That might be the only “collected stories” I’ve read cover to cover. I’d take Flannery O’Connor too, although I haven’t read all of hers yet.
if you could subscribe to only one literary journal
Hobart, although I’m probably biased. The only literary magazine I own every issue of is Keyhole—I’ll probably try to keep that streak up as well.
best thing you’ve read online recently
Matthew Derby’s “January in December” in Guernica was fantastic (and part of a great issue guest-edited by Ben Marcus). More recently, I really enjoyed Scott Garson's story "Premises for an Action Plan," published online at American Short Fiction.
most anticipated upcoming release
I’m picking three! Fugue State by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg all look great, or are great (some of these I’ve read at least partially in galleys).
Ten Books Everyone Already Knows About, But I Didn’t
I grew up out in the country and went to a series of small public schools and then small universities, and I didn’t know anyone who was a serious reader or writer, and so I was always “discovering” writers I didn’t think anyone else knew about. Some of them were very well-known, and some not quite so much, but all of them were certainly books that had gotten some level of press and attention that would have reached me if I was even the slightest bit aware of what was happening in publishing. Perhaps it’s a testimony to the fact that I don’t put a lot of stocks in reviews or in blurbs, or perhaps it’s a reminder of how much I used to want to be the first person to know about something, and so tricked myself into believing I was, despite what now seems like overwhelming evidence that I was not. (I mean, the back cover of most of these books—which I overwhelmingly read in paperback—would have been enough to prove me wrong.)
In any case, here are a few of the books I thought I was the only person who knew about, for a period that lasted at least between 1999 and 2003 (to make a rough guess):
- David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
- Dennis Cooper, Guide
- Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
- Sam Lipsyte, Venus Drive
- Craig Clevenger, The Contortionist’s Handbook
- JT Leroy, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
- James Tate, Return to the City of White Donkeys
- Etgar Keret, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God
- George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
- Amanda Davis, Circling the Drain
These are just ten of the many, many writers I found while browsing bookshelves and such when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It really is amazing how long I stayed completely ignorant of the world of literature, and of what other people with similar aspirations as me were reading. The good news is two-fold though: First, I read all of these book’s independent of other people’s criticism or the writer’s biographical information, and so was able to form my own opinions. Second, by the time I realized that my reading tastes were not really that eclectic, I was able to find people who liked the same books as me and use my taste to connect with theirs and then just mine the lists of books they liked, leading me toward more and more great writers and great books. Now when I review books or write about them on my blog, I’m just hoping to do the same thing for others, by saying that these are the books I love now, and that they might love too: The review as a way to start a conversation, to form a bridge from this book to the next, and from myself to another.