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Tales from the Dark Side

Happy Father's Day

Matt Bell lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is an editor at Dzanc Books. His fiction appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2010. Cataclysm Baby is published by Mud Luscious Press.

Tell us about the title of your book. To what does it refer?

Cataclysm Baby is a novella made up of twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting narratives—each told by a different father—and so the title refers mostly to the book’s end-of-the-world setting, and to the children contained within. But I hope it also speaks to the book’s focus on parenting, on what parenthood might always be, no matter how happily it’s entered: A cataclysm isn’t necessarily the end of a world, as an apocalypse might be, but rather a momentous and violent event, after which everything is different.

Assuming you’re a parent, how has the experience colored your writing?

My wife and I don’t have any children, but I don’t think you have to be a parent to write a book about parenting. Parenting stories are, to me, as much about the fear and anxiety of loss as anything else—and what are we more afraid to lose than our children, than our spouses?—and also about the ways in which, despite our best intentions, we too often do harm to the people we love the most.

You are often praised for your vivid language. Whose language do you admire?

Denis Johnson was an important early influence on me, as were Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver, then Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Brian Evenson, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, and a host of other contemporary writers who taught me to write with their books. In the past five years, the books I admired most were written by Robert Lopez, Michael Kimball, Eugene Marten, David Ohle, Peter Markus, Horomi Ito, Amelia Gray, and Karen Russell, among others. Samuel Beckett and Cormac McCarthy are also major wells of inspiration, their books are never far from my writing desk.

What’s the best way to learn to write?

I think that if you read and write as much as possible, then you’re on the path. Now I try to read at least one hundred books a year, and to write every day for a couple hours, but six or seven years ago it was a book a week, and two hours of writing a day, five days a week. All the great writers I know personally read and write constantly, and their example has pushed me to work harder, to try to always be improving upon and expanding what I can do on the page.

Do you have a favorite part of your book?

One of my favorite sections is a series of narratives about two-thirds of the way through, where, despite the changing children and the failing world, these new kinds of communities form to make the best of it. I’m not a writer who starts from a plan or an outline, so I didn’t know that would happen, didn’t know I could feel so hopeful about what these families were, about what they could still be, no matter how bad their situation might get. One of my goals as a writer is to not only change the reader through my books, but to change myself by their writing. These kinds of surprises are one of the ways that happens.

What’s in the works now?

I’m in the final stages of edits on my first novel, a book titled In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. I’m very excited about the book, and I hope the readers who enjoy Cataclysm Baby will find even more to attach to here.

Matt Bell

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