Interviews

For ASU Professor Matt Bell, Writing Novels Are All About Revision

Appleseed and Refuse to Be Done author Matt Bell.
Appleseed and Refuse to Be Done author Matt Bell. Jessica Bell
Kill your darlings. Trim the fat. Put every word on trial for its life.

The language of revision loves violence. A writer spends time tending to their creative garden, patiently cultivating the fruits of their labor, and then it comes time to rip out the weeds and tear away excess branches. Sharing his own process for writing and revising novels in his new book, Refuse to Be Done, Matt Bell offers a few more classic ‘editor-as-exterminator’ bon mots — encouraging aspiring writers to hunt down the “weasel words” padding out their word counts and “pull up widows.”

Published this month, Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts is a compact and invaluable resource for anyone looking to knock “writing a novel” off their bucket list. A Michigan native, Bell is a familiar face in the local literary scene as both a creative writing teacher at Arizona State University and as an accomplished novelist, short story writer, and poet. His 2021 speculative-ecological novel Appleseed made the New York Times Notable Book list, and his short fiction has appeared in well-respected journals like Tin House and Conjunctions. A regular presenter at ASU’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars literary conference, Bell isn’t shy about talking shop — which he’ll be doing on April 2 at Changing Hands in Phoenix when he presents an interactive lecture based on Refuse to Be Done.
We talked to Bell recently about the publication of his new book, his thoughts on the Arizona lit scene, and an important lesson he learned from legendary editor Gordon Lish.

Phoenix New Times: Let's start with the book's origins. Did you come up with the idea while doing your craft newsletter or did it come before it?

Matt Bell: The book was done before I started the newsletter. It really started as a craft lecture I’ve been giving for the last 10 years. It’s my traveling show when I’m asked to be at a writer’s conference or a low-residency MFA program. It began out of my own needs as a novelist who didn’t know how to revise 300 pages of material. Eventually, it became some of the material that I was best at teaching — it’s very practical and action-oriented. When I’d give the craft lecture version of it, people were just so happy to have these exact direct activities to do as opposed to the idea of “make your book better,” which always feels so vague.

I kept revising the lecture and eventually hit on this three-draft structure to organize all the material. I gave it at the University of Alabama a couple of years ago and Heidi Lynn Staples came up to me afterward and was like, “You know, this should be a book.” It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be developed into a book, so I was really glad for that push. I did most of the drafting of this between drafts of Appleseed, so it got written alongside my last novel.

As somebody who writes novels, short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, do you find it hard to switch gears from one medium to the next?

Sometimes it’s a delight to shift gears. One of the hardest parts about novel writing is that you get stuck in the voice of the novel for a very long time. It’s nice getting to have something else to write than the novel you’re working on. ... Having that other way of thinking about the problems of writing fiction — other than just writing fiction — is surprisingly helpful. It’s one of the things I get out of teaching, as well — going to class and talking about other people’s fiction is very helpful for my own. ... You get too close to it sometimes, so it’s a nice way to kind of come sideways at your problems.

There’s a bit in Refuse to Be Done where you talk about how you felt when you first moved to Arizona. How you had trouble connecting to the landscape in your writing, and through that realizing that you’ll always be a Midwestern writer — like that is the region whose imagery and environment is most present in your work. As someone who teaches classes in Arizona and works with writers from here, I was wondering if you’d notice any hallmarks for a Southwestern style? Like, are there any signifiers you’ve seen that make you go, “this writer is clearly from Arizona”?

Our grad students tend to come from a more national audience, although some are from Phoenix and Arizona. It’s really interesting to see in their fiction what an Arizona childhood looks like. That’s something I don’t have as an experience. Even things like students writing about riding their bikes along the canals, and my childhood was more riding bikes in a small town like Stranger Things — this vague Midwestern-American life and they have these different versions of it.

I think of a writer like Denis Johnson — he's one of my favorite writers — who spent a lot of time in Phoenix. Several of his books are set here at least partially, including Angel and Tree of Smoke — which was a Pulitzer finalist. When I read those books in Michigan, the Arizona stuff obviously didn’t resonate the same way. Reading them here made me realize they’re deeply Arizonan books. The effect of the desert landscape and the proximity of the border is so different, but you know, Michigan is a border state in a completely different way, right? Our relationship with Canada and the Great Lakes is very present in a lot of our literature. So it’s interesting to find the analogs between them as well.

I think it’s really exciting to get to know this place. Seeing it through the lens of my students, as a person from rural Michigan, the students I get who come from the rural parts of Arizona — I feel there’s a lot of kinship between those kinds of works, even though the environments are very, very different.

One thing I was wondering about the three drafts system in Refuse To Be Done: Is there a point in that process where you’d bring in an editor, or do you wait to finish the three drafts before showing it to other people?

The process outlined in the book is what I do before I share it with anyone. I might play my cards a little closer to the vest than most other writers. Like with Appleseed: I worked on it for three and a half years before I showed it to anyone. That’s actually one of the reasons that I read craft books when I was a younger writer is because I didn’t have a support system of other writers yet — or workshops or an MFA program or anything like that.

This book contains a revision process that you could do almost entirely on your own. My goal is to go as far as I can before I get outside help—that way the outside help takes me farther. I also try to wait before I show it to someone else because I write kind of weird books and I think my books sound like bad ideas before I start them. If I called my agent and I was like “I’m gonna write a book about Johnny Appleseed but he’s a faun,” he’d be like “please don’t.”

There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter recently about the publishing industry and how overworked editors and editorial assistants are, to the point that I’ve seen multiple writers and editors basically say that the current expectation for manuscripts is for them to be as close to publishable as possible when they first get it because they don’t have time to actually do proper editing anymore. Has that been something you’ve experienced?

My own experience with editors has been very hands-on and they’ve spent a lot of time with me on my books. Hopefully, you’re giving them good material to work with, you know? I also worked as an editor for a long time. I know books come in in wildly different shapes. It does seem like it benefits you to come as close as you can on your own, because even if an editor is very hands-on they probably don’t have the time to do, like, 10 drafts with you. You’re gonna get an editorial letter where you get a big picture look — "here are the structural things or big things that maybe you’re gonna work on on your own." And then you’ll probably get one round of line edits if you have a good attentive editor. Books transform in that process. My novels are so much better for having gone through that, but I think if you’re not in good shape when they start that process then they’re just going to get it to “publishable” instead of getting it to some higher level of quality than that.

I do think it is true that editors are probably overworked. The publishing industry sometimes feels like an idea more than an industry.

In some of your other interviews, you’ve talked about how one of your goals is to write a novel in every genre you enjoy. I was wondering if there’s a genre you do enjoy but you feel like, “I don’t know if I could work in that genre.”

On the one hand, they’re all problems to solve. I think you can learn to do anything if you want. One thing I talk a lot about in class is romantic comedies. Rom-coms are really structural — there’s a design to them. They’re formulaic in a way that is pleasurable to a lot of people; my wife and I watch a lot of rom-coms. I’ve liked learning about how they’re built. So every once in a while I’m like, “What would a Matt Bell rom-com look like?”

Sometimes it’s really easy to think clearly about a genre you don’t write in because you’re not competing in it, you know what I mean? John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats used to write this great blog about death metal, which is totally different from the kind of work he does. Part of the attraction for him was his songs weren’t competing with their songs and the problems in his songwriting weren’t the same thing they were dealing with. So he could have a bad day working in the singer-songwriter space and then go listen to some Norwegian death metal and just appreciate it. So I think there’s something to be said for the genres you don’t write well in to be important parts of your life.

Speaking of genre: As someone who’s comfortable navigating the line between literary fiction and genre fiction, do you feel there’s less of a bias these days toward crossing that line? In the past, it felt like SFF and lit fiction occupied these very different neighborhoods.

I think so — and that bias does go both ways … The biggest entertainment in the United States is genre entertainment, right? We’ve all been going to nothing but superhero movies for 20 years now. Science-fiction and fantasy are the language of our culture in some ways. I don’t think it does us any favors to put ourselves in camps and be like, “This is the only thing we do.”

I teach classes in world-building and science fiction and fantasy, and I also teach classes on sentence acoustics and linguistics. Neither of those seems higher or lower than the other one to me. I’ve long wondered if the bias in academia against genre writing in creative writing is because the professors were not familiar with it. One way to not have to be responsible for learning about something is to ban it. So you say this side isn’t work that matters and then you don’t have to know anything about it.

I try to read widely because my students are doing so many different things. I'm not a YA writer, but I read some YA novels from time to time because my students are talking about them. I need to know what they're doing. If they want to be YA writers, I want them to be YA writers, and I can't help them if I don't understand the genre at least a little bit.

As someone who’s traveled to other lit conferences and worked in different communities, I was wondering how you’d compare the Arizona literary scene to other cities in the country that are more renowned for their literary culture.

I was just down in Tucson for their Festival of Books, which was great — and it’s the third-largest literary festival in America. There’s clearly a lot of readers and writers in Arizona. Of course, we’ve got a thriving MFA program at ASU, but the programs at NAU and U of A are just as stacked with great people. It feels like the students are not only doing great things within the program but are increasingly staying in Arizona and continuing to build things. All three cities have really strong poetry scenes and you’ve got local presses like Cardboard House in Phoenix that are publishing in Spanish and doing bilingual publications — we have all sorts of different kinds of literary scenes here.

I think it’s easy for people to think that Phoenix doesn’t have the culture of L.A. or New York, but it has a different culture and I feel pretty blown away about how many good writers are in this town or are from Arizona. It’s a pretty vibrant time — I feel like there’s more literary stuff going on than I can possibly go to, which feels like a sign of health.

One more question for you, Matt: If you were the Highlander and you could absorb the power of any other writer, who would it be? Who would be your Kurgan?

The two writers who I’ve probably read the most are Denis Johnson, whose work is deeply formative to me and I go back to all the time, and Ursula K. LeGuin, who I think really has shown me a way forward — not only with my work but in terms of thinking about what I want to do in the world. To be able to think with half of her sort of moral clarity would be astonishing.

I would say I feel like the idea of absorbing someone’s power and taking their place in the world seems really bad — I’d rather just have more Denis Johnson books and more LeGuin books. But maybe in some ways we already do a little bit of that, right? I had a teacher years ago, Gordon Lish, who said that the advantage you have over whoever your favorite writer is that you have their books to write on top of. Don DeLilleo didn’t have Don DeLilleo to build on. Whatever you admire in the books of the past — those people wrote them without knowing what could be done in those books, so you can learn from them and build on what they made possible in art.

Matt Bell will be doing an author event at Changing Hands, 300 West Camelback Road, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 2. Tickets are available via Changing Hands. Refuse to Be Done is available now.
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Ashley Naftule