Who Thrives, Who Survives, Who Suffers: Matt Bell Interviewed by Allegra Hyde

A novel that chronicles climate change by interweaving an eighteenth-century apple-planting saga with visions of our global future.

Appleseed3

Of all that I have learned from Matt Bell over the years—as a teacher, friend, and fellow writer—one piece of wisdom that stands out is the idea that literature is a long, ongoing conversation. To paraphrase Bell: Every sentence we write is in dialogue with sentences that have come before.

For this reason, it was exciting to read Bell’s new novel, Appleseed (Custom House), and see just how far such a conversation could be pushed. The novel traverses a vast range of genres, subjects, traditions, and research, combining the historical reality of Manifest Destiny in the Americas with elements of myth, magic, speculative technology (e.g., a “Loom” that can print live organisms from bio-matter), and a vision of the future that is dizzyingly original in its depiction.

To see this book in the world is thrilling not only because it has the informational depth and imaginative reach to offer new insights and understandings of the climate crisis, but because the novel tackles craft and cultural questions Bell and I have been discussing for some time. With both of us publishing environmentally charged novels in the coming year—novels that overlap in some respects, while diverging in others—we decided to dig into Bell’s thinking around Appleseed, and perhaps help set the stage for conversations to come.    

—Allegra Hyde

 

Allegra Hyde I’d like to start with the elephant in the room. Or maybe I should say: the goat in the room? There’s a faun in your novel. This feels surprising for literary fiction, where magical creatures tend to make fewer appearances—though, of course, Appleseed is a novel without a straightforward allegiance to genre. Historical fiction is interwoven with a tech thriller thread, as well as with speculative elements. The faun ties everything together in a way that is at once elegant and wholly unexpected. How and when did the faun become a part of your process?

Matt Bell The faun was the beginning! I’d been listening to Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire while out on my runs, and there’s a part of the book where he talks about the history of the apple, structuring his narrative around the folktale of Johnny Appleseed. I loved that folktale as a kid, so when Pollan called the historical John Chapman an “American Dionysus,” something must’ve clicked. I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to retell Johnny Appleseed as a literal Dionysian figure? By the time I got home from my run, I had a first image of my half-human, half-animal faun named Chapman, bending low over his hooves to plant an apple seed with his furred, clawed hands. Everything else the novel grew from there, a little at a time.       

As you said, it’s pretty agnostic about its genre affiliations. One of my generative rules is that any ideas I think up while I’m working on a novel goes in the novel, instead of being “saved” for later: a novel needs so much material to survive, and I usually can’t afford to waste anything that comes to me. So, something like C-433’s translucent photovoltaic bubblecraft a thousand years in the future lived next to faunish Chapman planting seeds in 1799 for a long time before I understood how they worked together. I think that’s part of the fun! But one thing that did require calibrating as I wrote was how much magic the novel could hold: “Johnny Appleseed as faun from ancient myth” takes up a lot of space in the room, and it turned out other elements had to be made more mundane for that to work.  

AH I’m struck by this idea of intentional mundanity. Can you speak a little more about that—especially since it seems anathema to typical craft conversations? Your novel is far from mundane, but I’m curious about how you approach “calibration.”

MB I love your coining of intentional mundanity! It makes me think of Karen Russell’s “Kansas:Oz ratio,” which is what she’s called the juxtaposition of fantastical and realistic details. It’s very hard to understand a story where nothing corresponds to our known experience: it may not be entirely possible to enjoy such a story.  

Most of what I’m looking for is contrast and relief: how can I make the magical seem more magical, by contrasting it against the mundane? In the Chapman storyline in Appleseed, I think that’s done in two main ways: one is trying to render the natural world the faun experiences in precise, concrete terms; the other is his relationship with his brother Nathaniel, which grounds his humanity in a recognizable sibling relationship and gives the brothers fairly ordinary problems to solve together. 

I think calibrating all this is mostly trial and error. Early on, I tried adding more folkloric elements to Chapman’s storyline—in one early version, there was a race of giants wandering my eighteenth-century Midwest called Bunyans, each with their own attendant megafauna—and then I wrote another try with all the magic except Chapman removed: no witches, no retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, no flicker or shapeshifting. Eventually I found a kind of magic/mundanity equilibrium that seemed sustainable and story-producing, which then also had to match the invention/everyday balance in the future sections. All of which I suppose might be called the Tatooine:Oz ratio. 

Matt Bell Author Photo Credit Jessica Bell

Photo of Matt Bell by Jessica Bell.

AH I’d like to turn to the environmental aspect of your novel. We both believe (I think) that fiction has the capacity to shift real-world behaviors and belief systems. To that end, would you be willing to share any particular concepts—or even paradigms—that you aimed to communicate with this novel?

MB If I recall correctly, you and I were both fans of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement when it first came out, and my guess is both of our novels were shaped by it to different extents. I was never exactly the kind of writer Ghosh was critiquing there, but he still helped clarify some of the problems I wanted to solve in my own fiction. It seems to me that one of the persistent traps of the novel is the way that point of view characters often become a kind of tunnel vision: if you restrict the novel’s concerns only to those that the protagonist is able to imagine or think about, you end up working on a smaller scale than that of the problem you’re writing about. So, what could I do about that?

Again, much of what I chose was worked through over time and trial and error, rather than known from the start. But I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted to tell a long story, that I wanted to draw links between ideas and events I saw as driving the past, defining the present, and creating the future. All this was aided by Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, which he defines as “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans:” climate change is absolutely one of those, as are capitalism, manifest destiny, colonialism, sexism and racism, and so many other problems. These are things that cannot be known by their signs in any given time and place: climate change doesn’t only happen on one Saturday afternoon in Connecticut or whatever, which is part of the reason it’s hard for the realist novel as we’ve known it for some time to deal with it. But if you can find a way to expand the timeline or the scope of the novel beyond the individual experience, then maybe you can approach it in a different way. 

Here’s one more. Twenty years ago, I read Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older than Words, where he writes about hydroelectric dams killing salmon in the Pacific Northwest, at some point saying: “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. Every day I tell myself I should continue to write.” I’m like Jensen too, at least in that I spend many more of my days writing rather than in direct action. In John’s storyline, especially, I wanted to explore a world in which such choices continue to narrow. As climate change ramps up, if governments and corporations still won’t protect people or landscapes or biomes, what might individuals be driven to do in response? I won’t pretend to know the answer to that, but I suppose it’s telling that no one in any of my imagined futures spends their day writing books. 

AH That is such an interesting point, because in my novel, Eleutheria, the writing of a text is a central part of efforts to forestall catastrophe. I wonder if this felt plausible because my novel is set in the nearer future, when choices haven’t yet narrowed to the degree they have in yours, at least by John’s storyline? Either that, or I’m more deluded? (Though to be fair to Eleutheria, an explosion does occur by the end).

Returning to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement—yes, it certainly shaped my thinking around the potential “complicity” of the arts and literature in the climate crisis. Appleseed does admirable work in the way that it pushes back against many of the literary traditions Ghosh highlights as in need of reconsideration. By spanning one thousand years, for instance, the novel offers a complex expression of geologic time rather than a reductive glimpse into a “Saturday afternoon in Connecticut.” Also with respect to time, Appleseed seems invested in the concept of recursion—whether as an apple tree producing fruit that yields more trees, or as a partly-synthetic being recycling and re-printing himself—and I wondered whether this was a response to Ghosh as well.  

MB I so admire the way Eleutheria approaches the climate crisis and the cultural crisis that accompanies it, and I think your characters’ approaches, complicated as they are by your plot, are a more hopeful way of trying to respond to the world they live in. As the timelines progress in Appleseed, my characters are increasingly bereft of or beyond culture in certain ways, at least any meaningfully shared one; your future in which people believe that texts and communal action or gatherings can make a difference is probably a better one than any timeline where people have given up on it. I’ve always admired your interest in and understanding of utopian communities and utopian-leaning thought, and that’s something that I became more interested in as I was writing Appleseed, although maybe that doesn’t directly show in the plot. 

Without indulging in too many delusions of grandeur here, I know we wouldn’t be writing novels about the climate crisis if we didn’t think they could do something. I don’t know yet what Appleseed will do in the world, but I know it changed me to write it, and that I’ve come out the other side of it with ideas and emotions I didn’t have going in. I have to believe that it’ll do some version of what it did to me to readers, even if that’s just preparing them to be ready when some stronger catalyst arrives. 

As for responding directly to The Great Derangement as I wrote, I’m not sure there’s anything as cut and dry as you suggest, but that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t working on me in the background. One thing the book did do was give language to some of the things I’d been thinking for a while about how novels work, especially how they work as models of the world. If you believe, as I do, that novels are one way we might think about how the world works, what does it mean if the model of the novel you make is too much simpler than the world? It seems obvious to me that Freytag’s Triangle isn’t the shape of the world, and neither is the three-act structure, even though both models produce satisfying stories. What other models might feel truer? (This is part of what was so exciting about Meander Spiral Explode coming out a year or two ago: more possibilities, clearly explained!) The recursions in Appleseed feel truer to me in this case than linear progress would, but of course they must create their own blind spots too.  

AH Also, on the topic of recursion: are there topics or themes that you keep returning to as an author? As you noted, I’ve been fixated for a long-time on utopian-thinking. Whether I like it or not, utopianism will probably keep showing up in my fiction. A reoccurring theme I’ve noticed in your work—novels as well as short stories—is that of imprisonment, both in a literal and figurative sense. One way we see this in Appleseed is via the “Volunteer Agricultural Communities,” which are essentially agricultural prison camps. Are there other persistent themes, questions, topics that come up for you—and that perhaps you’re carrying forward into future projects? 

MB I hadn’t thought about “imprisonment” as one of my themes, but now that you say it, I think you’re right. One place where your utopian leanings and my more nascent ones might line up is in thinking about how easy it is to design a utopia that becomes a kind of prison, or at least limits other better worlds from emerging: the VACs in Appleseed are designed by Earthtrust to be more benevolent than you and I in practice find them, but I do think they’re not too far off from the kind of thing a lot people would willingly sign up for, in similar circumstances. I wrote this book starting in the fall of 2016, and it’s probably pretty easy to see that my writing about people willingly choosing to give up their freedoms to an autocratic leader for a pale promise of safety and prosperity in hard times isn’t exactly invented.  

There are probably a lot of themes or images that carry over between my books: one that comes to mind is the changeable body, as my books are full of transformations and shapeshifters and probably always will be. Perhaps you’re feeling this as you work on your Eleutheria follow-up, whatever that turns out to be: I realized pretty early on that you could either decide to never repeat yourself in even the smallest ways (good luck!) or you could accept and even explore how you’re writing a body of work in conversation with itself.  

AH I was struck by your earlier comment that writing Appleseed changed you. As writers, we spend so much time considering ways to impact readers without necessarily dwelling on the fact that devoting oneself to a novel will invariably alter us. Of course it does. It has to. Knowing this, are there topics or questions you are intentionally pursuing in your current writing project(s), recognizing that they’ll end up shaping a future version of you?  

MB One of the most helpful things I’ve realized is that the published books are for readers, but the book-in-progress is for the writer. So much of what I make on any given day would fail to affect a reader, even if they had access to it: it’s too imperfect, too stilted, too indulgent or wrongheaded or long winded or whatever other pejorative you might insert there. But that’s probably the phase that does the most for me, personally: spending time thinking your own thoughts and feeling your own feelings while also telling yourself a story and trying to make some beautiful sentences is a pretty lucky way to spend a significant portion of your life. 

As for what gets carried forward: every novel I’ve written has eventually surfaced questions the current book is incapable of answering, or maybe even acknowledging exist. Those new questions usually fuel the next book, one way or another. For instance, one of the things I became most interested in while writing Appleseed, in both literary utopias and in real climate futures is: who survives, who thrives, and who suffers for their surviving and thriving? That’s the central thought problem of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” right? No matter how many people a utopia includes, if its existence costs even one person’s suffering, it’s not perfect enough. And of course nothing we’ve come up with yet in real life gets even close. 

One of the questions that Appleseed asks but can’t sufficiently answer is this imperfect utopia problem, the problem of how making a better life for some people is usually at someone else’s expense. I’m still thinking about that, in terms of climate and in terms of many other issues, because the prosperity of a few being dependent on the deprivation of the many seems so entrenched. I want to get better at imagining worlds in which people communally seize the chance to make things better for everyone, whatever it costs, because I want to imagine that it’s possible that we might actually choose to do that, that I might be one of the people who so chooses.

Appleseed is available for purchase here.

Allegra Hyde’s debut story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Story Award, through the Iowa Short Fiction Award series. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, The Best Small Fictions, and The Best American Travel Writing. Her first novel, Eleutheria, as well as a second story collection, are forthcoming from Vintage. She currently lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

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