June 12 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan author launches tour of dark fable set in magical woods


Mat Bell’s debut novel, “In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods,” is popping up on some impressive must-read lists this summer. Flavorwire, the hipster’s online bible, listed it in its weekly “Favorite Cultural Things This Week” and The Chicago Tribune, in its summer reading review, placed it next to Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed.”  

Bell’s dark mythic fable is about a newly married couple who moves to a secluded, Grimm-like forest where they meet up with a symbolic she-bear and a squid. Even if you continuously remind yourself that this book is magic realism, it’s still surprising when the couple’s stillborn child is consumed by the father and that the mother lights out to the woods to bring home a foundling. 

Even Bell, 32, who teaches writing at Northern Michigan University, admits that he didn’t see that part coming. 

“I didn’t know the husband was going to do that,” Bell said by phone from New York, where he’s starting a national book tour. “I didn’t know where it came from, but once it happened, it changed the landscape of the book.” 

It also changes how the reader feels about the protagonist, who is never named.

“He becomes estranged (from the reader) and what he did was the worst possible thing he could do,” Bell said.

Bell readily admits that the post-partum snack is awful, but it isn’t the most terrible thing the protagonist does throughout the book. Bell says he wanted to create “complicated feelings” about the protagonist, who in most modern novels the reader gets behind or at least expects some redemptive outcomes from. Don’t expect that sympathetic falderal in “In the House.”

“We want to see Hannibal caught,” Bell said. “We want to see a bad person punished.” 

At its core, Bell says his book is about fatherhood, but not the kind you celebrate on Father’s Day. When Bell talks about his work, he uses phrases like “biblical proportions,” “archaic diction” and “acoustics of the book,” all of which he attributes to his fascination with science fiction, fantasy and Greek mythology, which he devoured growing up.

Bell edited books and read hundreds of manuscripts in his previous job for Dzanc Books in Westland.  He said his book’s title is “memorable, once you remember it,” but he always believed someone at the publishing house would change it. (He likes to say that the lengthy title is “un-Twitter-able.”)

It’s easy to forget that it’s not just the protagonist who is a little different in “In the House.” The protagonist’s wife, also with no name, has a heck of a singing voice. So powerful — and magical — in fact, that she can sing things into existence. Decorating a new home in the woods comes easy for her.

It seems appropriate that the author, who grew up in the small Michigan town of Hemlock, likes the sound of words. He reads his drafts aloud to himself so he can hear how the acoustics of words interact.

Bell likes being from a place like Hemlock. It’s not only the name of a poison, but it also has that biblical/gothic thing going for it. It also once had a glut of deformed chickens, right out of a Stephen King novel, but Bell said he was too young to remember it.

The story of a young couple’s plight of being childless could have have been told in straightforward, narrative, almost romance-lit style, but Bell’s experience with Dzanc books told him that he didn’t want his book to be typical. Bell’s experimental fiction closely resembles some of the fabulist short stories of George Saunders, especially the collection of short stories “The Tenth of December.”

“Reviewing manuscripts, you not only see the things that people are bad at, but you see creative moves that are common,” Bell said. “I didn’t want that. I always remembered that I was always scared by things that were new. That’s where I wanted to go.”

Bell knows that not everyone will like his book. 

“There a lot of rooms in the house of art,” he said. “We don’t have to like one thing.”

Bell’s book is a complex gem, sort of Greek mythology for grown-ups. He is among the first generation of writers who came of age in the Internet era. 

“The first writers I met were online,” he said. “I shared my first work online, so the virtual space is very comfortable for me.” 

He says this gives him a step up on older writers, whose publisher may tell them they have to get online.

“(The Internet) is part of our lives,” Bell said. “It’s another neighborhood we visit, and I don’t need to think about it. It is a place I live.”

And that’s good, because online is a safer world than the one Bell creates in his imagination.

Matt Bell book signing
“In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods”
7 p.m. June 19
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing
(517) 316-7495