By Dave Groves, contributing writer
Even before Oakland University alumnus Matt Bell began his college career, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in fiction writing. He had been an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy and other literature since his early youth, and what he found in books gifted him with insight, inspiration and joy.
“I knew there were so many books I loved reading, and I wanted there to be more of them,” he said. “For me, writing is really about trying to extend the things that have power for you.”
With the release of his debut novel, “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods,” published by Soho Press in June, the Hemlock native and 2006 College of Arts and Sciences graduate has come to better understand the power of his own words. A growing audience of readers is delving into his unique brand of literary fiction tinged with elements of myth and fantasy.
On Bell’s website
, the novel is described as focusing on a newly married couple that finds residence on a remote lakeshore and plans to begin building a family. The bride, however, sees one pregnancy after another fail, and the groom begins to express rage over their fate. The woods surrounding the couple, creatures inhabiting the woods and even the history of the land become characters in a challenging tale about failed human relationships.
"It’s hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious,” Michael Schaub of National Public Radio wrote in a review. “His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable."
The debut novel has won still wider attention, with recent reviews appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast and other widely followed publications. Bell said the broad response to his work has come as a pleasant surprise.
“There’s something a little surreal about it all. In some ways it feels like it’s happening to someone else, but it really is fantastic,” he explained.
“The work has really taken off, and I think it’s because in writing the book, I tried to be honest about who I am and where I’m from. Whatever is in the book really comes only from that.”
Oakland University Associate Professor of English Annie Gilson, who first met Bell during a summer writing conference and then as an OU student, has been not at all surprised by his growing success.
“I had the feeling he would go on to great things. He was already a very good writer and an excellent reader and critic,” Gilson said.
“But it wasn't just that he had the talent to succeed; Matt was driven. He attended the spring writing conference we hosted for a number of years, Far Field, and was always looking to learn from every person he met.”
Gilson is particularly fond of Bell’s collection of fiction titled “How They Were Found,” but adds that readers will discover great writing not only there.
“All his work shows off his terrific talents. Students who want to be writers have to understand it's a long haul. They have to take advantage of every internship, every writer's group, every festival they can. That's what Matt did, and it shows.”
Bell is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Northern Michigan University, the senior editor at Dzanc Books and the editor of the literary magazine The Collagist. He attributes much of his success to maintaining this high level of engagement within the literary community.
“A lot of the good things that have happened to me have happened because I’ve paid my dues,” he said. “The more you do to promote the books you love, the more you will find a community ready to read the books you’ll write.”
This commitment to engagement manifests not only in Bell’s activities to promote love and appreciation of literature, but also in the very fabric of his writing.
“I think the best books are those in which readers can have an experience of their own – where they can bring their own intellectual and moral perspectives to the story,” he said.
“That’s the power of really great books – that you’re given an opportunity to be a participant in what you’re reading. You’re not just having something handed to you or being bullied into a particular perspective.”
Bell is presently at work on a second novel – one that he will only say departs from fantastic realism and focuses on contemporary Detroit. He’s also planning to visit OU to read from his work sometime next spring. The Department of English
will provide writers and fiction lovers in the campus community with additional details as plans are finalized.
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