“I am very rarely sexy or funny in my writing,” Matt Bell says, but his students seem to disagree. His student Maria Alverez introduced him by saying she had never laughed so hard while trying to interpret Gertrude Stein or discussing the complexities of The Sound and the Fury. Even though this is Matt’s first semester teaching here at Arizona State, it was apparent that he is already well loved by his colleagues and students. As Maria said, “In Matt’s class, we do not only read, we experience literature.”
Luckily, all of us at the reading last night had the same opportunity: we were able to experience Matt Bell’s words through his, very literal and real, voice as he read sections from his forthcoming fourth novel Scrapper, out Fall 2015 on Soho Press. I had a visceral reaction to his reading, feeling a sinking in my stomach as he described the process of force-feeding from the perspective of the one being fed or a heightened heartbeat as he described a harrowing fight in the dark of an abandoned school.
We sat down with Matt to discuss his approach to writing, to education and how he’s been influenced by both his teachers and students:
How do the creative processes of teaching and writing interplay with each other in your experience?
One thing that happens when you start teaching writing is that you really have to investigate your own process a little closer, in an attempt to find out what's teachable about it: What aspects of your own experience of a writer can be offered to your students? I think that self-reflection can be very valuable, and can be a way of not letting yourself get away with things, if you take it seriously. I also think that I very frequently find the solution in something I'm working on in the stories or books I'm teaching for class: The close attention to a text necessary to teach it almost always pays off in my writing, one way or another. And of course there's something energizing about being in a room with ten or twenty smart writers for a couple hours each week.
Who has been the teacher who has influenced you the most, either as a writer or as an educator?
I've had a lot of good teachers, but one of the best was Michael Czyzniejewski, who was my MFA thesis advisor at Bowling Green State University. He gave me an incredible amount of his time, reading untold pages of my fiction for me, and in addition to the kind of smart and generous advice he gave me on those stories, he also helped teach me how to conduct myself as a writer, as an editor, and as a member of the literary community. I really felt like he was helping to bring me into the profession, and I feel very lucky to have him as a friend and a mentor.
On the flip side of the last question, has there been a student who has made a significant impact on your perspective?
Maybe not in exactly the same way, but there are certainly students whose talent and drive make a serious impression on me. I've been lucky to have students at both the undergrad and the grad level who are serious writers, whose dedication to reading well and to the craft of writing inspires not just their classmates but me as well. It's also a good reminder that there are students coming through writing programs right now that are working harder and faster than many of the older writers I know, and if you want to keep up with the next generation coming up, you have to keep constantly moving forward.
If you could only teach your students one thing, what would it be and why?
I'm proud of a number of things I teach, but one of the most important is how to read like a writer. Most of the training we get in literature classes isn't craft-based, and for most students that's the only formal reading training they've had. I'm constantly trying to teach students to ask two questions: First, what is it about the story that moved me intellectually, emotionally or morally? Second, how did the writer create that effect and how might I take that technique into my own work? Once you get in the habit of reading this way, the mechanics of books start to open up for you, and you're able to learn new techniques much more quickly than before. It can be hard to get under the hood of a story you love, but this is one way to get there.
We’re so excited for Matt to be teaching here at Arizona State, and even more excited to announce he is the new Faculty Advisor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.
- Philip LaMaster