Innovators in Lit #7: Matt Bell

Matt Bell is an editor at Dzanc Books, where his duties include running the literary magazine The Collagist. He’s the author of How They Were Found (2010) and Cataclysm Baby (2012), as well as three chapbooks, Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind. This fall he will be teaching writing at the University of Michigan. When I got the idea for this interview series, Matt was one of the first people on my list. I have long been impressed by Matt’s smarts and energy—in addition to producing great fiction and his work with Dzanc, he’s a tireless supporter of other writers and their books, fellow publishers, and is generally just an invaluable member of the literary community. He’s also darn good at poker. We had a nice long talk about goings on at Dzanc, how writers can create buzz, what it means to create something that matters, and thirty-hour days.

 Laura: Not long ago you joined the team at Dzanc Books. Can you talk a little about your role at Dzanc? What kinds of things do you do?

Matt Bell: Technically, I’m the Senior Editor, but as with most presses, that job consists of wearing any number of hats. While editing the books we’re publishing is probably my favorite part of my Dzanc work, I’m also happy to get to spend my days doing eBook design, reading submissions, running fundraisers, doing web design, editing The Collagist, our literary magazines, and doing general other kinds of general editorial and marketing tasks. Before I came on as an editor, I also worked in our Writer-in-Residence program, teaching creative writing in public elementary schools. That’s actually how I started with Dzanc, several years ago.

Laura: Several of the publishers I’ve talked to for this project operate presses with multiple “arms” (Publishing Genius, for example), as opposed to just being book-focused, though Dzanc takes this model to a whole new level. In addition to books, there’s The Collagist, multiple imprints, charitable programs, the rEprint Series, annual prizes, Best of the Web, and more. Do you think the vision of what a publishing house can be is evolving?

MB: On one hand, I think there is a new model emerging, of the Publishing Genius/Dzanc/Featherproof/Dark Sky variety, where presses are interested in having more streams of activity. Even the fact that you’re interviewing me for the Ploughshares blog is proof of that, in its way: Ploughshares has a beautiful website, and going back ten years you’ll find it was pretty solid from the start—but that doesn’t mean the editors then were necessarily ready or had the staffing for the added work that blogging and social media and multimedia have required of us all. (What literary organization isn’t already stretched, manpower-wise?) In many, many ways, it’s not enough anymore for a literary magazine or a publisher to produce two issues a year, or six books. Instead, to stay in our readers’ minds we’re asked to be constantly producing and publishing.

While Dzanc only does one of its own books every six weeks or two months, The Collagist publishes every month, giving our readership more writing more often. And then even inside that smaller umbrella, our blog editors are producing interviews with our contributors a couple times a week. So it hopefully keeps us in the conversation a bit more. But that maybe sounds too much like we started The Collagist because we were trying to capture market share, which isn’t really it at all.

The truth is, most of the Dzanc programs were started to fill some void we saw in publishing, or in our own efforts. Speaking for The Collagist, we started that because we realized that Dzanc getting to publish six to eight writers a year meant that we were interacting with a much smaller number of writers than we wanted to, and we also thought that we could do a better job of supporting emerging writers we admired—and discovering new ones—by working with them on individual pieces, even if we never got to do one of their full books. We also wanted to provide a new venue for reviews, since the traditional review venues have been diminished so badly, and to promote other small presses by publishing excerpts of their new books, with the idea being that not only would we get to publish some great writers that way, but also that the more the entire independent publishing world grows, the better off we are. So very quickly The Collagist came on the scene to attack several weaknesses we saw in ourselves, and in the wider literary community.

In the same way, we started the rEprint Series to get books back in print that we believe are still important parts of our literary culture, or that everyone just reads used, making the books hard to find and leaving their authors uncompensated. We started a new novel prize this year for mid-career writers, because so many contests seem to reward only first-book writers. We took on imprints so that we could offer better distribution to other small presses whose work we admired, keeping them editorially distinct while hopefully getting their books to a wider audience.

I think it’s this focus that makes Dzanc “innovative,” if anything does. Like every press, we want to sell more books, but more than that we want literature itself to be better: for our best writers to be able to succeed and thrive, for our best presses to grow in size and stature and readership, for the next generation of writers and readers to be given the support and access they need to develop. Despite all the doom and gloom in publishing, I like to think that we’ve taken the opposite approach: We don’t believe literature is a failing enterprise, but rather a vital thing, getting stronger and more exciting by the day, even as its shape changes, as its future shifts. I’ve been lucky to get to see that happen in small and big ways from my place in the independent press, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Laura: You’ve just put out Issue 25 of The Collagist, which marks the magazine’s 2-year anniversary—congratulations! How would you describe your experience as editor?

MB: I’m not exactly running out of good things in my life, but The Collagist is one of my favorites. I’ve worked on a number of literary magazines—Mid-American Review, Hobart, NewPages, SmokeLong Quarterly—but The Collagist was my first time running a magazine. As time went on, we’ve brought on other people, including the invaluable Matthew Olzmann, who has edited the poetry since the first issue, and Gabriel Blackwell, who took over the book review section in Issue 14. I’ve learned a lot from working beside these two guys, and from working with our blog editors, past and present: Liana Imam, Marie Schutt, Ariana Lenarsky, and Tyler Gobble.

I ran The Collagist for about a year before I came on full-time at Dzanc as editor, and in that time the magazine really served as a place to continue to hone a lot of those editorial skills. I know some magazines are very hands off with submissions, just taking ones that are already ready to go, but I really prize reading for ambition and potential—I’m happy for polish too, but there’s something great about a writer whose attempted something so ambitious that maybe the writer’s gotten lost in the woods a bit too. I know some of my best experiences as a writer were when certain great editors—for instance, Sam Ligon at Willow Springs, Brad Morrow at Conjunctions, David McLendon at Unsaid—helped guide some story from “as far as I could take it” to something better than I ever could have made on my own. And they did it without taking the story from me, without making it theirs: All they ever did for me was help me succeed better at what I was already trying to do. I think about that constantly when I’m editing, whether it’s at The Collagist or a book manuscript: It’s not about taking what I’ve accepted and making it into what I think strong fiction should be. It’s about discovering the unique power of an individual writer, and finding ways to help them be even stronger.

Laura: In your most recent Letter From the Editor, you mentioned that The Collagist is now taking submissions for “creative audio” pieces. That sounds interesting. Tell us more.

MB: To be honest, I’m not sure I’m 100% sure what it means yet. It’s something our new podcast editor Bess Winters is interested in, and I’m happy to let her explore it. One of the things about The Collagist is that I try to articulate its vision primarily through the issues themselves, and when I bring on new staff, I try not to get in their way—I want them to carve out their own part of the publication. So we’ve left that category wide open, and are excited to see what comes in. The Collagist has purposely very spare submission guidelines, in order never to rule anything out that we might not know we’d love, and a category like this maybe requires even more of that openmindedness.

Laura: In last week’s interview with Christopher Newgent—inspired by Roxane Gay’s statement that “as booksellers struggle with how to stay alive, I think part of the conversation should center around how we can make people feel connected to books”—we discussed how people can become more connected to books. Christopher stressed the importance of bringing books to readers, as opposed to waiting for readers to find the books, which I thought was interesting and valid. How do you think we can help people feel connected to books?

MB: First and foremost, I think we need to write and then publish books that matter. That doesn’t mean the writing has to be about some huge social issue, but I think that if a person feels deeply and meaningfully connected to a book, it’s usually because the book has made them think or feel something new, has somehow made them a different person than they were before they read it, even if it’s only in a small way. There are books that woke me up out of my life, and those books are the ones I’ll never forget, far more than ones that were only technically brilliant or wonderfully entertaining, without going deeper. So that’s the first part of the answer, and in some ways the hardest.

But of course, that’s not enough. I’m sure we could list hundreds of gorgeous books that “matter” that struggled to find their audience. And it’s probably even harder today, with more competition for our attention and our energy. And if I can expand the conversation from one book or books in general to a writer’s body of work, I think that what’s really important in some ways is for a writer to have a champion, someone who supports and advocates their work over a length of time. There are writers I am constantly talking about, pushing on other people, reminding people to read, and I know that my personal connection to what the book was on the page has helped push it a little further out into the world. And I’m just one person with a limited amount of reach. But some of us have been given or will be given bigger and bigger platforms from which to talk about our work, and it’s absolutely crucial that we also take those opportunities to champion the work of others, to show our own readers and fellow writers and friends these books that have not just made us the writers and readers we are, but also the people they know and like.

What both of these ideas have in common, as would anything else I have to say about this: it’s not a logical connection we’re trying to make. It’s not technical proficiency or a critical argument about a book’s merits that will get it into a reader’s hands, and then into their heart. What writers and publishers and booksellers need to create is an emotional connection between the work and the reader, and it’s that connection that is hardest to make.

Laura: In addition to being incredibly active in the publishing world, you also recently saw the publication of your first story collection, How They Were Found, with Cataclysm Baby, a novella-in-stories, coming to lucky readers in 2012. You’re also revising your first novel. Do you tend to compartmentalize your writing and editorial worlds, to keep them separate, or does one bleed into the other?

MB: I find that writing and editing tend to take exactly the same energy and talent. A great editor is, in many ways, a writer too, but with the additional constraint of having to think in someone else’s voice, and with the responsibility to preserve and protect that voice’s integrity. And because it takes the same energy, I keep my worlds somewhat separate mostly by prioritizing my own writing in my daily life. I write in the mornings, unless I have other obligations like teaching, and so my first hours of every day go to my own work. Then I’ll tend to do active editing of manuscripts or other heavy lifting in the afternoons, and any submission reading (which I don’t do every day) later at night. Mostly there isn’t a lot of bleed between the two worlds, except, of course, that I’m always learning how to do one better by doing the other. My writing has been greatly improved by a couple years of near-daily editing, and I’m sure my editing improves in a similar fashion from my constant writing.

Laura: As an emerging author, it can be daunting to figure out how to help your book gather steam—there’s so much out there, limited review space, etc. What do you think helps a book get that elusive, ephemeral thing we call buzz? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts from the perspective of both a writer and an editor.

MB: For most books—those published by small presses or by bigger presses, but without a full marketing department behind them—it seems like a great deal of buzz is very writer-based. Yes, the book has to be very good, but also it helps if the writer is willing to be out there behind it in some way, either through doing readings or interviews or whatever. It’s the people you reach through those kind of community activities that are really going to do a lot for the book’s buzz, as much as any review is going to.

I think the big mistake most writers make is thinking that becoming involved in your community is something you do after your book is published. Instead, I urge writers to become involved as early as possible, in a genuine, non-book-related way. It’s always a little off-putting when a person suddenly becomes interested in book review venues only once they have their own book. In a similar way, it seems false to only be interested in independent bookstores when you’re trying to get your own book stocked. The better solution is, as a part of your daily work as a writer, support the communities you wish to be a part of, by reading books, writing reviews, promoting other writers or bookstores or whatever in your social networking. It’s a small but old truth, but the more you give, the more you will receive. And this isn’t any kind of slimy networking. This is every writer’s responsibility, and the writers who create the most buzz for the good work of others will find that same energy waiting for them, when their own excellent book finally comes out.

Laura: You—along with many Dzanc authors, myself included—toured in support of your collection, so articles like this one in the Observer have caught my eye. What do you think the value of in-person author events is? How can authors make them more engaging?

MB: As an additional answer to the previous question, I think one of the values of in-person events—even before you actually do them—is that they can create a bit of buzz around your book, just because the appearance of you being out on tour is almost as good as actually being there, as far as the perception of your book goes.

The events themselves are, as we all know, kind of hit or miss: not every reading is a great one. I think writers need to think long and hard about whether they’re the kind of person who is also comfortable as a performer, and, if they’re not, then maybe try something else. That said, most of us want to be good performers, and so I think the best way to get better at doing readings is to go to a ton of them. Just like reading will teach you to write, going to readings will teach you to perform, and what to read when you do. For instance, pick something that’s acoustically interesting, so the sound of you reading will be enjoyable even if meaning is lost along the way.

One thing writers can do long before they ever publish the book: Read your work out loud as you’re writing it. So many writers never try to utter their work before they publish it, and so it lacks a lot of the qualities of spoken language that are so pleasing to hear at readings. If you’ve never heard your own work aloud, why would you think anyone else would want to?

The number one reason to do readings is, I think, to make personal connections with readers and other writers. The act of writing and reading is a solitary endeavor, perhaps more so than any other art. We get glimpses of the author as we read, as we detect the kind of person we’re spending these many hours with through their book. It’s great to meet the human being behind the art, to hear the additional nuance their voice can give a book we love, especially if the writer is a skilled reader. I’ve been to an immense number of readings in the last ten years, and the best ones are often to hear an author read from a book I’ve already read—and more often than not it’s led me to like the book even more.

Laura:  What’s been one of your most exciting moments or experiences with Dzanc and/or The Collagist?

MB: There really have been a lot of great moments at both, but the best moments for me are always related to spending time editing with a writer, going back and forth on making a book or a story or an essay the best it can be. I learn so much from the writers and their prose, and getting to spend time down in the trenches of their writing process with them is a consistent joy. One of the first books I edited for Dzanc was Roy Kesey’s Pacazo, and before we began I’ll admit I was intimidated by the task. Roy’s long been a favorite writer of mine, and I was a new editor sitting down to work on my first big project. Among other issues, I hadn’t even finishing writing a novel yet then and wasn’t sure I was qualified. But I dove into the job, and I did my best to prove to Roy that I was up to the task of helping him make Pacazo the best book it could be, according to what I believed he wanted it to be. We must have sent dozens and dozens of emails between the two of us in response to my comments and edits and his rewrites, and Roy was incredibly kind and fun and dedicated to the task. It was a great couple of months and an experience that reaffirmed how much I love editing, how dedicated I want to be to getting better and better at the job. I’m lucky to get to work with such fantastic writers, and I’ve learned as much from their manuscripts as I have anywhere else in my career.

Laura: Anything in the pipeline over at Dzanc that you’re especially excited about?

MB: We’ve got a lot of great books coming out, of course, but I just finished editing Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife, a gorgeous debut novel coming out next April, and Eugene Cross’s Fires of Our Choosing, a debut collection coming out a couple of months before. Both books are excellent in very different ways, and I’m incredibly excited to share them with the world. Before that, our next two books are Peter Markus’s We Make Mud—a book I’ve read probably five times this year—and Pamela Ryder’s A Tendency to be Gone, both filled with some of the best sentences anyone will publish this year. To my ear, Markus and Ryder are both speaking new kinds of American language, and listening to their voices rise off the page is a stunning experience.

Laura: What are some other publishers or literary entities you find inspiring?

MB: How to narrow it down? There are so many good things happening in publishing and literature today—if this is, as so many pundits claim, the waning days of literature, I can’t imagine how great it was in the past. Here are five organizations people should check out:

Annalemma: Every year at AWP, there seems to be one magazine that explodes with a bunch of buzz, even if it’s already existed for a few years. A couple years ago in Chicago, Annalemma was for me one of those magazines, its name suddenly on everyone’s tongue. It’s the best-looking magazine anyone is printing, full of illustrations and full-color art, the writing is always great, and editor Christopher Heavener is a fantastic member of the community. He also extends the magazine nicely onto the internet with web-only content, short movies drawn from the issues, and more.

Two Dollar Radio: One of my absolute favorite independent presses, publishing writers like Joshua Mohr and Grace Krilanovich. Consistently excellent books, a fresh look, and a tireless promoter in publisher Eric Obenauf. They’re publishing books faster than I can read them, but I’ve yet to read one I didn’t love. This is a press I expect to have a bigger and bigger voice as time goes on.

Fiction Writers Review: Edited by Anne Stameshkin and Jeremiah Chamberlin, I think Fiction Writers Review has one of the highest standards for literary journalism on the Internet. One of the few places that consistently covers both small press and big press publishing, they do a great job with interviews, book reviews, and original essays. They’re also some of the nicest folks around. I’ve never heard anyone associated with the publication make a single negative comment about anything or anyone in literature.

Harper Perennial: Calvert Morgan’s done an amazing job with HP over the past few years, and is, to me, one of the finest examples of how a big press imprint can not only produce great work but also engage with the wider Internet community. Between the many writers he’s published online at Fifty-Two Stories and the innovative writers he’s chosen to print in books (like Blake Butler, Dennis Cooper, Justin Taylor, Kevin Sampsell, and Elizabeth Crane), he’s promoting a particularly vital strand of fiction. Erica Barmasch, the publicist there, also does amazing work—one of the best in the business, both in her approach and her effectiveness.

Vouched Books: I know you’ve already had Christopher Newgent as part of this interview series, but he’s doing great work getting books into readers’ hands, and I couldn’t be more appreciative for his efforts. He’s a fantastic example of someone who is actively taking literature to the readers rather than just sitting around moaning how there aren’t readers left. His events have been among the best I’ve been to, and he does a great job of marrying a physical presence with an online one, creating a cohesive whole that’s an excellent example of how the two realms aren’t really that separate anymore, and a great literary organization needs to exist in both.

Laura: You live in Ann Arbor. What’s the lit community like there?

MB: We really have a lot of great people in the area. The University of Michigan brings a lot of great writers to town, through their own writing series, which is thankfully open to the public, and of course, there’s all the fantastic students and professors working there. We’ve also got a number of literary magazines housed in or around town as well, including Hobart, Unsaid, Absinthe, and Midwestern Gothic. When Shaman Drum closed its doors after almost thirty years, we lost a great venue for readings, but that hasn’t stopped people from holding events or from founding reading series in other places. Honestly, it’s a community I wish I saw more of. There are so many incredibly talented people in town, but we maybe don’t see each other quite as much as I’d like, in part because we’re all so busy working. It’s definitely not a community of people posing as writers and editors and publishers. We’ve got the real thing in abundance in Ann Arbor, and the years I’ve lived here have really given me access to the friendship of some fantastic people.

Laura: What do you wish existed in publishing that hasn’t been invented yet?

MB: The thirty-hour day? Another six hours a day would do me a lot of good, even if I just spent them sleeping. There’s a lot to be done in publishing, and so many great people doing everything they can. I wouldn’t mind giving them a little more time to do so—or just to take a rest after their good labors.

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