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Matt Bell knows the importance of a sense of place. A native of Hemlock, Michigan, a small community about two hours outside Detroit, the ASU associate professor of English noticed how strongly it influenced him only after moving to Arizona five years ago.
“Something that surprised me when I moved to Arizona was I realized how much more Midwestern my imagination was than I had previously thought,” he said. “I didn’t really think of myself as a Michigan writer, even though (my second novel 'Scrapper') is obviously set there. But it just became really apparent that this landscape is very different and that if I’d grown up here, I’d have written completely different kinds of books.”
NonfictioNOW, a regular gathering of more than 400 nonfiction writers, teachers and students from around the world, shares that sentiment about place. At every instance of the conference, honoring local communities and traditions is part and parcel of the festivities — following 2017’s conference in Iceland, the event adopted the Icelandic custom of húslestur, gathering after dinner to read and discuss ideas.
This Thursday through Saturday, NonfictioNOW will take up residence in downtown Phoenix, with Tucson author Francisco Cantú serving as the opening keynote speaker.
“It’s really exciting to have this national and international focus but still have a local identity that’s specific to Arizona,” said Bell, who was recently named director of ASU’s Creative Writing Program.
Bell and colleague Angie Dell, event director at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, lobbied hard to bring the prestigious conference to the Valley of the Sun after joining the board a couple of years ago.
Bell considers it part of his new directorial responsibility to create more opportunities for creative writing students and faculty to engage and strengthen their community, as well as create more of a connection between the program and other parts of the university and the community at large.
The author of two novels, two short-story collections, a nonfiction book and several stand-alone pieces in leading literary journals, Bell’s work tends to explore such themes as parenthood, marriage, the environment and climate change. He serves on several thesis committees, for students with majors from sustainability to literature, and believes in the power of the humanities and combining disciplines to envision a new future.
He has also served as an editor for national literary magazines and as a faculty adviser for ASU’s Hayden’s Ferry Review.
With a third novel in the works, classes to teach and an international event to oversee, Bell somehow found time to chat with ASU Now about the upcoming conference, his philosophies about why and how we write, and the things he has learned along the way.
Question: What are you most looking forward to at NonfictioNOW 2018?
Answer: I’m really looking forward to all the keynotes. The conference is sort of Arizona-focused, so Francisco Cantu is giving the first keynote on Friday night. I thought his book (“The Line Becomes A River”) was really fantastic and I’m really excited to have someone writing and working in Arizona kick off that first big event. Panel-wise, one of the things that’s really exciting to me is the breadth. There’s panels on how writing and the #MeToo movement have influenced each other, there’s panels on writing about place, writing on disability … there’s some performative sorts of things, the idea of nonfiction as bodily performance. So a lot of really different modes of thinking about what nonfiction is. Anything that can make your sense of what writing is larger seems really thrilling. And I’m glad so many people here will get to be a part of that.
Q: Why is it important for writers to be involved in their local literary community?
A: One of the biggest mistakes writers make is they don’t get involved in their local community until they need something from it. They don’t go to their local bookstore and they don’t go to readings and they don’t work on the magazines or help other people with things. And then one day, they have a book come out and they want the bookstore to carry their book and they want people to come to their readings. I think you build that goodwill in part by participating. Be a part of the culture that you want to exist, and then it’s there for you when it’s your turn.
Q: Why do you write?
A: One of the reasons to write is to find out how you really feel about something. For me, it’s sort of an avenue of learning and research. I’ve had failed novels where it just didn’t turn out, but the year I spent thinking about that thing was super valuable and I was changed by it anyway. I think there’s also an escapist kind of writing, where you’re trying to get away from your life. The kind of writing I admire more is that which is trying to get closer to your life and find out what your real feelings are and your real emotions and thoughts are.
Q: You’ve written everything from novels to poems to criticism. What’s your favorite form of writing?
A: I really do like doing a lot of different things. In some ways, I don’t ever want to be too sure of what I do. You want to be adaptable. But I think the novel takes most of my time and attention. It seems to me that the novel is capable of the kind of big-scale complexity that you want for talking about something like climate change, but also something like family, which is endlessly complex.
The other thing I really love about novel writing is the deep dive into a subject or an area of research. I’m working on a book about the environment and climate change and the wilderness right now, and it’s probably the most research I’ve ever done about anything. The privilege to get to learn about something for a couple of years while you work on a book is really exciting. And I think maybe unique to that form. At least for me.
Q: How did you come to write about themes like the environment and family?
A: I didn’t know when I was starting to write that I would write as much about family and parenthood as I have. But I come from a big family and I think some of it is thinking about that. I’ve been married for almost 15 years, and that’s the central relationship in my life, so it’s not surprising to write about that a lot. As for the environmentn … the experience of climate change is so difficult to think about or even really feel; it’s hard to think through. So I think if you can create felt experiences on the page or a smaller-scale model that people can sort of apprehend a little bit easier, that seems useful. But it’s got to come in a good story and beautiful language, and it’s got to move people emotionally. I think if it moves people, they’ll remember it and they’ll keep thinking about it. So that seems to be the goal.
Q: What kind of challenges have you encountered as a writer?
A: The first year I lived in Arizona, I really struggled to write, and I thought, well maybe it’s just because I’m starting a new job and I’m in a new place. At some point I realized I hadn’t dreamt in like six months, and I had this weird feeling like time wasn’t passing because the weather was the same every day. Eventually I realized nothing was reminding me of anything; the part of your imagination that is memory being triggered was just not happening. You don’t look at the desert and remember Michigan.
Then the second year here it got better, and then I was fine. But I had to almost rebuild memory triggers after moving here. I got like a weird melancholy about it always being the same day. It felt like the semester just sort of ended. It was really strange. And now, of course, I’m used to it. After you spend a lot of time in the desert, you start to see how it changes. But yeah, that first year was weird.
Q: What has writing taught you about yourself?
A: Something that surprised me when I moved to Arizona was I realized how much more Midwestern my imagination was than I had previously thought. I didn’t really think of myself as a Michigan writer, even though (“Scrapper”) is obviously set there. But it just became really apparent that this landscape is very different and that if I’d grown up here, I’d have written completely different kinds of books. So the environmental writing I’m doing now is still very much set in the Midwest and trying to think of these issues in the places that I know and I’m from. And I’m sort of starting to bridge those two worlds. But that was really interesting, to discover that there’s a sense of place that’s thematic for me that I didn’t really understand until I moved here.
Top photo: Associate Professor Matt Bell on Oct. 16 talks about his writing career and his work in bringing the international writing conference NonfictioNOW to the Valley in early November. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now