Hybrid Interview: Matt Bell
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Matt Bell and Jesse Motte, who also essays about Bell’s Appleseed. —CRAFT
Essay by Jesse Motte •
Matt Bell’s new novel, Appleseed, explores the climate-disaster subgenre through an interlocking system of storytelling whereby myth, legend, and Bell’s own originality converge. The novel follows three characters as they navigate the spaces between worlds and their motivations. The culmination is a sci-fi thriller that questions the fate of humanity and pushes the bounds of storytelling.
Bell sets an early thematic precedent by immediately homing in on the novel’s central symbol: the apple seed itself. The image of the seed constantly evolves throughout the story, creating an elasticity underpinned by the concept of story. It becomes a crossroads for different forms of storytelling as well as a domain in which different stories can interact and create meaning. For instance, the Johnny Appleseed legend connects with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth which, in turn, links to the Garden of Eden story through openings in each timeline. In a web where stories, themes, and ideas are interwoven, the apple seed sits at the center.
Zooming out of this first image, we find apple seeds in the hands of John Chapman, a half-man, half-faun Midwestern settler in the early eighteenth century. Chapman’s physical nature itself is a hybridization of story: the Greek/Roman myth of fauns/satyrs and the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Chapman roams the Midwest with his brother, a human named Nathaniel, planting apple orchards in hopes of profiting in the future. Nathaniel’s plan converges on manifest destiny, a recurring theme in each timeline. As its effects ripple into the future, here, in Chapman’s, they ignite his internal conflict. “What is it Chapman desires, in this moment and every other like it? He wants his brother to choose him. Fair or unfair, that’s all. There are two worlds he knows he can’t fully join, the human and nonhuman.”
Chapman’s desire to become fully human is at the heart of the conflict of Appleseed. He must reject the part of him most closely aligned with nature itself, his faun-self. This self-rejection is symbolic of humanity’s rejection of nature, which is embedded in the second arc in the book—climate crisis.
Hundreds of years later, in 2070, climate change has devastated the planet. In what’s left of the Midwest that Chapman and Nathaniel once roamed, now the “Sacrifice Zone,” are stragglers, rebels, and crumbling buildings. Here we meet John, a genius programmer turned rebel, seeking to thwart the out-of-control efforts of Earth Trust, a company he’d helped build to combat the effects of climate change. A new, metamorphosed version of manifest destiny has taken hold within Earth Trust’s leader, Eury Mirov, the novel’s antagonist. When John finally confronts her, she says: “You want to save the world, John. What do you think saving the world is, except deciding for everyone?”
It’s not just ideological impressions from the past that make their way into the future, but consciousnesses too. John can be seen almost as a reincarnation of Chapman, inextricably entangled in the fate of the planet. We see this idea culminate most vividly in the final character C-432, a half-faun, half-3D-printed organism capable of self-recycling.
C-432 traverses the now frozen Earth in a glass-domed spaceship one thousand years in the future, searching for any remaining biomass. When he obtains a large sample at the bottom of a glacier, he damages himself beyond repair and must recycle both himself and the sample simultaneously. Reborn now as C-433, the biomass begins to take over, leaving him part faun, part 3-D printed cyborg, and part tree struggling to survive. Again, we see a physical dichotomy, not dissimilar to Chapman’s, wherein nature struggles to persist within a character.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Appleseed isn’t its hybrid characters or mythical retellings, but the vessel it provides for mythos. Inside of an apple seed is a story. It’s the story of the apple tree, the orchard, the apple. Similarly, inside the seed of humanity is the story of the Garden of Eden, of Orpheus and Eurydice, John Chapman, the climate crisis. And just underneath that story is the mystery. A “desire,” as Bell words it, for life, in one form or another, to express itself.
Jesse Motte: Appleseed is a convergence for different genres and forms of storytelling: folklore, myth, sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller. Did you have that connective tissue figured out before you started writing or was it determined during your process? How did you know that the novel was the right container for this story?
Matt Bell: I don’t know if I had any of the connective tissue figured out before I started! I tend to write exploratory and generative first drafts, discovering the story and structure as I go. For Appleseed, I began with Chapman’s storyline, then slowly found John’s and C-433’s—and even then I didn’t know exactly how they connected. So many of the moments that likely feel preplanned weren’t—I was as surprised as anyone by some of the novel’s plot twists.
As for why Appleseed is a novel instead of something else, it’s really as simple as the novel being the medium I mostly work in: my ideas come to me first as novels, on that scale, rather than in other formats. It’s possible this could have become a short story instead, but I probably would have gotten there from a novel attempt.
JM: The core meta quality of the novel seems to have something to do with storytelling itself. Chapman, John, Eury, C—they all have specific stories they tell themselves. Do these stories have an impact on how Appleseed unfolds or is there something else at play?
MB: Jim Shepard, I believe, said something like, You need to know the story the characters are telling themselves, and then you have to know the story your characters tell themselves about the stories they tell themselves. I don’t always have all of this at the outset—I almost never do—but if I keep the characters acting, eventually I start to understand some of the reasons they act the way they do. I rarely rely on flashbacks: the backstory I’m more interested in is uncovering these stories the characters are telling themselves, rather than scenes of their past.
JM: I think readers will be surprised at just how multifaceted the apple seed is as a symbol in this book. It evolves as the narrative does, changes meaning from character to character and timeline to timeline, and manifests physically in a variety of forms. What was it about the apple seed that allowed it to become the novel’s central symbol? How much did that decision have to do with the Johnny Appleseed legend? Or did it have anything to do with the legend at all?
MB: I suppose that once you set out to write a Johnny Appleseed retelling, it’s inevitable that seeds and trees will become central symbols! I’m always looking for opportunities to reuse potent objects or symbols or actions rather than constantly introduce new ones: there’s a lot of power in the repetition of objects or in rhyming actions (as Charles Baxter would call them), letting an object or an action appear again and again, slightly transformed or in new contexts, each repetition allowing another facet or effect of the object/action to become visible. I find that almost every story I write is in want of some such durable object, something that will be further illuminated by appearing again rather than worn down.
JM: What’s scary to me about the climate catastrophe subgenre is that there’s so much scientifically specific and accurate detail that often comes along with it. Unconsciously, I think I want to believe that this will continue to be fiction. Yet it’s the specificity and research keeping me on the page and making our climate crisis fathomable. You’re certainly not sugarcoating anything in Appleseed. How important was the research phase for you in general? Were you surprised by anything you found or did research significantly change how you saw the moving parts of the story?
MB: I did do a lot of research, but usually concurrent with the writing: it’s pretty rare for me to have a phase where I’m reading lots of nonfiction before I begin writing a story or a novel, although sometimes something I read without any intent to use it in fiction does spur an idea. One interesting surprise in doing the climate research is that as alarming and terrifying and maddening/saddening as it is, actually facing into the problem and trying to learn as much as I could left me calmer than I was before I began, in the same way that avoiding going to the doctor when you’re sick can make you increasingly anxious, until the eventual diagnosis comes as a relief, no matter how bad it is.
The most important thing I learned is that the broad conceptual solutions to the climate crisis are already known, as they often are for the most pressing problems: we have only to begin to take those actions, as a culture and as individuals. In most ways, the climate crisis seems to me to be more of a political and cultural crisis than a scientific one.
JM: When you draw on myths and legends in this book it always involves a degree of retelling. How do you, as a writer, determine what stories to use and what spots within those stories to start reimagining? Is it something that comes naturally with time or is it sometimes a bit of a jigsaw puzzle?
MB: I think the best place to start with a retelling is the part of the story that’s most interesting or evocative to you. It’s not about repeating every beat of an existing story, but inhabiting or leaping off from whatever you find most moving.
JM: And let’s just home in on one of those retellings: the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Appleseed wouldn’t be the same without it. In fact, it wouldn’t be the same without one of my favorite characters, Eury Mirov, who actually gets her name from the tragedy. How do you see her fitting into the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice? What is her hamartia?
MB: In some ways, this is a good example of what I said in response to the last question: I began folding in Orpheus and Eurydice only because I was writing about Johnny Appleseed as a mythological faun, one of whom plays a role in one version of Eurydice’s death. Eury’s name was suggested by that, without my knowing why yet, with the rest of her links to the myth coming much later.
I feel like a lot of my answers to your how and why questions are “I accidentally discovered this by playing around,” but that wouldn’t be inaccurate! There’s a long phase of generative not-knowing in my drafting process, and then an attempt in revision to be more structural and systematic about how things work. The reader gets the illusion of a well-planned book; I get the experience of being curious and ready to be surprised.
JM: We follow three different timelines: the settling of the Midwest in the past, the destruction of North America and different parts of the world in the near future, and finally, the post-post-apocalyptic, new ice age in the distant future. And yet time isn’t exactly set. It becomes elastic, it “flickers” (to use the story’s phrase), and, in many moments, is almost transcended completely. How did time figure into your vision of the story? What allows it to take on and shed its typical properties so easily?
MB: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write a book that takes place over a long expanse of time, because climate change (or manifest destiny or settler colonialism or extractive capitalism) isn’t an event located in one place or one time—it is, as in Timothy Morton’s idea of the hyperobject—dispersed across time and space, impossible to know all at once. I wanted to be able to reach these problems in many different places, and to try to tell a story in which these times in history weren’t separate moments, unable to interact with each other, but all part of one larger timeline that’s merely difficult to see from within a single life.
JM: There’s another powerful symbol in the book: the Loom, an invention by Eury Mirov that recycles biomaterial to recreate something destroyed in its “original” form. It’s almost like the sister theme to the apple seed. Where the seed carries power from the earth, the Loom’s power comes from technology, from the human mind. The Loom introduces the idea of shared consciousness, gives us that incredible hot-pink acid shower scene, and highlights the pervasive theme of cycles. What is it about the Loom that makes it such a powerful force, symbolically and physically, throughout the story? Is it really the sister theme here, or am I forcing a dichotomy that’s not there?
MB: I don’t mind your symbolic reading of the Loom at all, but it began as a purely pragmatic device: there had to be a method for C to regenerate his body every lifecycle, and this was it. One of the interesting things about being a writer as well as a reader is how, as a writer, I very rarely design a symbol: the objects that the story needs to function are in the story, and then their symbolic weight, if any, emerges from their use in the story. It would be very difficult for me to start from the other end, with a symbol in search of a story purpose.
JM: You’ve been publishing for over a decade now. Over the years you’ve kept a log of all the books you’ve read, and you read a story a day last year. You’ve have an incredible range of influences. How did those influences resurface during the writing of Appleseed? Did it require you to look back through your reading history or did you already have authors and stories in mind?
MB: Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books, the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” I couldn’t agree more. Every novel—even the ones that fail—eventually accrues its own foundation of other novels (and movies and music and video games and and and) that it stands on. In the same way that writing a novel is a great excuse for obsessively doing scientific and historical research, it is also a good excuse for exploring genres, eras, and subject areas in the novel.
As for the range of my influences: I truly believe that the writers who seem the most original are most often merely the ones influenced the most widely. It’s only when influence is narrow that the lineage is too obvious. The best thing a writer can do to seem “unique” is to seek influence from everywhere they can, all at once.
JM: Chapman’s character is somewhat caught between two myths. The faun/satyr of Greek and Roman mythology and, as we talked about earlier, the Johnny Appleseed legend. And with that intersection of myths comes another interesting intersection, that of The Fates—seen in the novel chasing Chapman down—and Manifest Destiny, the reality of American imperialism that Chapman is somewhat reluctantly caught up in. Can you talk a little bit about why these two ideas converge so vividly on Chapman? Is it his faun-nature that creates such a strong sense of cognitive dissonance within him (something that eventually manifests within him physically), or fate itself? In what ways do these two ideas impact the trajectory of his character? Of the novel?
MB: As above, I think a lot of these thematic concerns emerged from simply working the material of the novel the best I could. The historical John Chapman was, despite the whimsy of the Johnny Appleseed legend, a deeply pragmatic businessman: he was trying to make money planting apple trees, and eventually did. But once I’d recast him as a half-human, half-animal faun, an inevitable tension appeared between his historical self—a settler and a capitalist through and through, and a planter of invasive species—and the wilder part of him that would be at odds with such activities. It was a lucky thing, to have this internal conflict built right into his physicality, as it inevitably led to exploring the gap we’ve created between the human and the nonhuman, between the lives we want for ourselves and the cost it inflicts on everything that isn’t us.
It’s one of the great joys of writing fiction that sometimes a possibly dumb idea—wouldn’t it be funny to write Johnny Appleseed as a faun?—turns out to be a key that unlocks a door to somewhere you’ve been trying to get to for a long time. I was lucky to stumble upon this way in, and I can only hope my faun-shaped door works as well for readers as it did for me.
MATT BELL’s latest novel, Appleseed, was published by Custom House in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, and revision, will follow in March 2022 from Soho Press. He is also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a nonfiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
JESSE MOTTE is an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. He’s a reader for Witness, the assistant fiction editor at Word West, and reader, editorial assistant, and an interviewer for CRAFT. He’s published CNF with The South Carolina Review and a book review with DIAGRAM.