Books In Conversation
Matt Bell with Joseph Scapellato
“As soon as something upends the story you’re telling yourself, you have to find a new story, with the hope that the new story will be better, more honest and more life-giving.”
(Custom House, 2021)
Like so many others, I first encountered Matt Bell online. It was 2009. I was an adjunct professor at Susquehanna University, and was trying to figure out how to teach my “Editing and Publishing” students about literary magazines and the writing community. Google gave me Matt Bell: through blogs, social media, and lit mags, he was creating and contributing to important conversations about literary citizenship, a concept that has sustained me as a reader, a writer, a teacher, and a friend.
Over the next decade, I read Matt’s books, met him in person at conferences, worked with him at The Collagist (now The Rupture), and hiked with him past not-so-hidden rattlesnakes in the Arizona desert. A few months ago, I received an advance review copy of his latest novel, Appleseed, and was absolutely thrilled—and not just because we’re friends. This is Matt’s most spectacularly daring book yet.
In a note to readers included with the advanced review copy, Katherine Nintzel (Executive Editor of Custom House) has this to say:
If you’re not yet familiar with Matt Bell’s work, get ready: you are holding in your hands his breakout novel. … Appleseed … is about corporate power, wealth inequality, climate change, brotherhood, the idea of the word home and the importance of making a place home, manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, the power of the individual and the responsibilities of the collective. It is in conversation with Greek mythology, American mythology, Shakespeare’s witches, tech thrillers, and dystopian science fiction. It breaks apart our most foundational beliefs and makes possible our most impossible futures; it is a cerebral pleasure, a lesson on craft, and a treatise in the form of fiction that is deeply, deeply engaged with our world today.
To this exceptional endorsement I will only add that Appleseed is that most impossible of combinations: it is simultaneously a page-turner and a page-lingerer—it gives equal weight and power to narrative speed, thematic depth, character relationships, and immersive language. I don’t know how he does it, but there it is.
Matt Bell and I corresponded over email. We talked about research strategies, action in the age of climate change, and the power of the stories that we raise up around ourselves.
Joseph Scapellato (Rail): Appleseed tracks three storylines, all set in different time periods—a faun and his brother plant apple trees in 19th-century American territories, witnessing (and participating in) a violent transformation of the landscape; in the near future, a programmer-turned-ecoterrorist attempts to stop an agricultural megacorporation’s plan to control climate change; and in a post-apocalyptic far future, a 3D printed-and-reprinted faun explores an iced-over earth, searching for other survivors. Can you talk about where this book began for you, how you discovered these three incredible storylines, and when you knew they all belonged together?
Matt Bell: I really appreciate your ability to so succinctly describe the three timelines, which still feels like one of the endless challenges of this novel! I began the novel in the Chapman timeline in 1799, which began from the idea of retelling Johnny Appleseed as the half-human, half-animal faun, an idea inspired by a random thought I had while listening to the audiobook of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, where he calls the historical John Chapman a Dionysian figure, an idea I thought would be fun to render more literal. I think I started realizing the novel would extend into the far future pretty early on, although it worked quite differently in my earliest drafts. At some point, Chapman’s setting and C-433’s were pretty apparent to me, even if I didn’t have their whole story yet, while John’s world took a lot longer to come into focus—probably in part because imagining a near-future world is in some ways much more challenging than dreaming up a past one or a far future one.
As for how I knew they went together: I think for a long time I had the three names—Chapman, John, and C—without knowing how the storylines intersected or braided. But the names and the characters they suggested were generative and evocative enough to keep me writing about all three characters, trying to believe it'd eventually work out.
Rail: One of the many pleasures of reading this book is experiencing the ways in which the three timelines speak to one another. The more that I read, the more that I was delighted by the nature of this conversation, whether the touchpoints were very direct (such as the cross-timeline flickering) or less direct (such as when we detect the seeds of ecological collapse and Earthtrust’s ambition in the environmental devastation brought on by hordes of 19th-century settlers). I’d love to know—what were the most surprising discoveries that you made when it comes to connections between the timelines? The connections that most excited (and/or most confounded) you?
Bell: It’s tricky to talk about this without spoiling what I hope are some of the pleasures of the book! But I do think that some of what I looked for were chances to reuse objects and actions in the world building rather than invent new ones for each storyline: it’s often more interesting to see something iterated through time or across storylines than have constant novelty thrown at you. I think a lot about Charles Baxter’s essay on “Rhyming Action” or Robert Boswell’s on “Narrative Spandrels” or Lucy Corin’s “Material,” all of which get at the joys and benefits of this approach, and the ways that what you’ve made can tell you what to make next.
So it’s not a total dodge: one of the elements you see early in the book is the Loom, the 3D bioprinter that C uses to reprint himself at the end of every lifecycle. I’d invented it to solve a problem in his storyline, but then I found a way to have a version of it appear again in John’s, where it serves a slightly different function, at an earlier stage in time. Even once I’d written it in, I didn’t have all the implications of it: what did it mean that it was in both timelines? How did its early use become its latter one? Answering those questions wasn’t something I had in advance, but a reason to write.
In the more mythic components of the book—my version of the folktale of Johnny Appleseed and the retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially—it was fun to try out some of those elements in different timelines from where they’d first appeared, just to see what happened: a name got timeshifted here and there, a symbol that didn’t work in one time period got planted in another, to see if anything would grow from it. For several years, all of this work was intuitive, experimental, exploratory: I could tell you why things are the way they are now, but back then I was just trying to make things happen.
Rail: I know from our conversations over the years that Appleseed was deeply and diligently researched. I found the book to be packed with genuinely horrifying visions of increasingly likely climate change catastrophes—for example, there’s a moment describing the disintegration of Ohio’s once-fertile topsoil that truly terrified me. What was your approach to conducting research, as well as your approach to converting (though this may not be the appropriate verb) that research into fiction?
Bell: That moment where the topsoil blows away terrified me too! And probably more so when I think about how the topsoil left to blow away in the late 21st century (or in our time, 50 or so years earlier) is already so degraded compared to what existed in Chapman’s time in the 18th century.
I did a lot of climate change and environmental research in general—part of the reason to write a book like this is the opportunity to immerse myself in its subject—as well as historical research into the colonization and settling of the Midwest (and on Johnny Appleseed), research on geoengineering and CRISPR and so on, plus so much of the kind of random detail-hunting research that every novel requires.
I’ve got two basic rules for novel research that work for me: the first is to rough in the research in a first draft, relying as much as I can on being a well-read and intelligent human doing just enough research reading to keep going, then to research more diligently in the second draft, once I know what the book cares about.
I also don’t take traditional notes: I don’t have stacks of notecards full of facts or anything like that. What I’ve found is that those kinds of notes quickly become sterile and unusable for me: the language of scientific journals, for instance, is too far from my novelistic prose. So what I do instead is use research generatively: the only way I let myself write down something interesting is to immediately use it in a sentence or a paragraph or a scene. That way the research instantly becomes productive, rather than remaining separate from my writing process.
Rail: Can you give us an example of a tidbit of research that you immediately wrote into a sentence, a paragraph, or a scene, and how it blossomed?
Bell: Most often it’s something really small, to start. I only read half of two biographies of John Chapman—once you make him a faun, the precise history of his life stops being something entirely useful, given that you’re already doing a more mythic take—but there was a reference in one of them to his returning from the wilds to buy a gimlet to replace one he’d broken. That broken gimlet got written into a sentence, and that sentence grew into the impetus for an argument between my Chapman and his brother Nathaniel that temporarily breaks their fellowship and creates the conditions for the end of the novel’s first act.
It’s not always possible to know what research will be the most generative. It’s often not the things that would seem obvious to an outside observer. The trick is, for me, just to pay attention to where I’m moved and then to honor that feeling by writing out of it.
Rail: It’s not uncommon for a work of art concerned with dire contemporary issues to be referred to by reviewers as “a call to action.” There’s a brilliant moment late in Appleseed that seems to anticipate this, when John has to make a very big choice in a very small amount of time. At this dramatically intense decision point, the narrator explores the idea of action: “Did you act while you could? This close to the end, you might not get to know if you did the right thing. A moment passes, a moment passes, a moment passes. In how many of these fleeting moments did you do nothing?” In doing so, Appleseed perhaps becomes not so much a call “to” action, as a call for action—any action—right now!
Bell: One of the most acute realizations I had while writing this novel, and while doing all the related climate change research, is that while the problem of climate change is daunting in its enormity, the solutions are more or less already known, at least on the broad conceptual level: we need to eliminate our use of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, transitioning to cleaner renewable energy sources; we need to find a way to remove or mitigate the emissions already in the atmosphere and to repair the other damages we’ve done to the planet; and we need to reshape our economies and our ways of living to use less energy and to be less destructive of the natural world and less exploitative of both human and nonhuman life. Even many of the small steps that make up these big tasks are known: we don’t need to discover what to do, just whether or not we have the will to do it, as a civilization and as individuals.
To me, John is a good person willing to give his life in service of the world, if only he knew he was doing the right thing and that what he chose would truly help. But every moment of indecision and inaction makes the problem worse, in his world and in ours. In many ways, John’s storyline is about coming to a place where there is no longer any choice not to act, forcing John and his companions to make the best choice available, despite all the doubt and complexity—and if we are not yet in exactly as pressing a moment, it’s hard to imagine ours is much farther off.
Rail: Your answer reminds me of another element that I admired in Appleseed: the need to be aware of the story that your culture is telling—to revise your role in this story, when necessary, and/or to dare to tell a different story. This idea appears in richly varied ways in every timeline (for example, Chapman points out that story is the most powerful tool used by 19th-century settlers); in my reading of the work, this thematic throughline builds to an explosive climax when the Volunteers revolt:
It isn’t always possible to know what other story might be better for everyone. But it must always be possible to refuse to be a bit character in the wrong story someone else is telling, to refuse to do your part to enact the last chapter of a tale so destructive it’s about to cost the world.
What did writing this novel reveal to you about story, if anything?
Bell: Maybe there are two parts to this. One is the somewhat obvious idea that we are all living inside a story we’re telling ourselves: about who we are and how we became that person, and about our place in our families, in our workplaces, in our town or cities or countries, even in our relationship with the nonhuman world around us. These stories are at their most powerful when they’re unacknowledged, which means when they’re unquestioned, as anyone who’s ever left a religion or a marriage or moved to another country knows. As soon as something upends the story you’re telling yourself, you have to find a new story, with the hope that the new story will be better, more honest and more life-giving—even as we know, because of the experience of losing the first story, that the new one probably won’t be the last one. This happens over and over, sometimes by trauma and sometimes by choice, but hopefully eventually leading us toward a better way of being in and with the world.
Appleseed is absolutely about that, in ways both big and small, but I think it’s also about who’s included in a culture’s story and who’s not. Again, that includes both people, as the dominant culture’s story is rarely meant to serve everyone in the culture, and the nonhuman world, which that same story is almost never really concerned about, at least not in the culture I’ve lived in my entire life. Ursula K. Le Guin was an obsession of mine while I was writing this book, and I think her thought-problem story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (as well as N. K. Jemisin’s response story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”) is a good illustration of the problem with most stories cultures tell themselves. In Le Guin’s story, Omelas is presented as a utopia, but it’s revealing that its seeming perfection is dependent on a scapegoat, in this case a child who must, for some reason, suffer so that everyone else can live a happy life. In our own culture, the suffering of some for the good of others is much more pervasive, but just as corrupting: What does it mean to live in a society in which other people (or other beings) suffer so that you can live the life you desire? What can you do to reduce the amount of suffering your life costs others? What would it take to reduce that number to zero?
My novel doesn’t contain the answer to that question, obviously. But it does want to answer it, and to see us all arrive together at the new story that embodies that answer.
Rail: What are you working on now? And how has/hasn’t it grown out of Appleseed?
Bell: Next March, I’ll publish my craft book Refuse to Be Done, about novel writing, rewriting, and revision, so that’s the next you’ll hear from me. I’m also working on a new novel—I know you know this, because I came up with the title of it while you and I were hiking in the desert together—but it’s probably not quite time to talk about it in public yet. I can say that Appleseed was an emboldening project, in that it’s so many different things at once, and really rewarded my being willing to follow my joy and my wonder on the way to putting in absolutely anything I wanted. I think that freedom still feels very present, and I’m hoping to use it to get to even bigger, weirder places in books to come.
Rail: And finally—what books have you been enjoying, lately?
Bell: So many good books! Some favorites from the last year would include The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor, The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender, The Removed by Brandon Hobson, The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck, and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.