Interview: Matt Bell and the Thrills of Appleseed
by Adam Zemel
Matt Bell’s third novel, Appleseed, follows three protagonists in three different time periods: At the end of the eighteenth century, Chapman and his brother travel the Ohio territories, planting apple orchards in the wilderness. At the close of the twenty-first, John seeks to infiltrate a corporation he helped found that has grown far too powerful––or perhaps just powerful enough to save humanity. And one thousand years into the future, C scratches out a meager existence on the icy expanse of glacial North America and dares to believe that he is not the last living organism on the continent. It’s tempting to call Appleseed a climate change novel, but that’s only true if we first accept that when we talk about climate change, we are talking about carbon emissions, but also: technology, capitalism, globalization, poverty, agriculture, our obligations to the future, the ongoing sins of history, and how to conceptualize (accurately and with some measure of humility) humanity’s role in the constant unfolding of the world.
We caught up with Bell (whose next book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, is slated for release in early 2022 from Soho Press) to discuss Appleseed’s thrilling character-driven cocktail of speculative fiction and mythological reimagining.
TCR: Art Taylor has a term he uses in workshop, “vectors,” a catch-all for the threads of plot across POV or place or time. Did you know that Appleseed was going to use three vectors of story from the start?
MB: I started with the Chapman part in 1799, but pretty quickly I felt like I was telling a longer story. One of the things that I’m interested in when I’m writing about climate change is timescale. These things are dispersed through time and history. How can you keep the complexity of that in the novel?
I thought it was a continuous story, one character existing over a long period of time. I tried to write a draft like that, and it didn’t really work for lots of reasons. I wrote about half of the first draft and then restarted. By then, I sort of knew the three time periods, but it still took me a while to get what each timeline was about. Like John’s, for instance, took a long time to come into focus, even after I knew about the geoengineering plot. I didn’t quite know how it all went together. And I feel like I discovered his through-line last in some ways.
And then how the three storylines come together in the book, I really didn’t know until I got there in the second draft, and I was like, “Whoa, right. Yeah.” Like a real pure sense of discovery. One of the things that I’m always looking for is that the resolution of the plot should be inevitable but surprising. Finding that way to turn the expectation of readers, to have it somehow still surprise in the moment––that’s really the trick in some ways.
When I was writing my first novel, I realized that you set up all these mysteries, and as you go about answering them or progressing through the book, you can feel the mysteries left in the book going down, and there’s less left to wonder about. I’m always looking for a way to reopen the book into mystery or surprise. Opening out, as opposed to hitting the last page and being, like, “Got it. That’s everything I wanted to know.” I want the feeling that the book continues past itself.
TCR: In terms of the open-ended nature of the ending of the book, would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Does that even have any bearing on the story that you were telling?
MB: I think I’ve become, weirdly, in the course of writing this book about climate change and the possible end of humanity, a more utopian writer. Not that I’m writing a utopia, but I’m trying to think about how things could be better. Like, “Can you imagine a better way of living or way to be?” My second novel, Scrapper, is kind of an angry novel, a problem novel: Here’s a thing I’m mad about. Here’s the problem depicted and zero solution. I think the book does what I wanted to do, but as I was finishing it, I was like, “There’s this other book I might want to write next.”
One of the things people tell me about Appleseed is they find it hopeful, which is kind of funny considering a lot of things that happen in the book. But I think it’s also a little bit true. One of the focuses for me was on wonder. When I was writing, I had this note on my desk that said, “Go big with wonder.” The wonder you feel toward the world is one reason to save it. So even in the places where things are darker or have gone badly, there’s still wonder in the world; there are still things that are beautiful or interesting. Trying to keep that up throughout the book in all three storylines was really important to me. So maybe that’s the part of the book that feels optimistic. Like, there are beautiful things happening on the farm, there’s beauty in a glacial North America. Whatever happens, there will still be beauty.
TCR: What is Chapman’s relationship with this idea that the wonder we feel in the world is what makes it worth saving? Chapman has a deep but complicated relationship with that wonder and then a much more complicated relationship with the more human aspects of his world.
MB: One of the ideas that made the book possible was Johnny Appleseed as this half-human, half-animal faun character. That allows him to exist in both worlds or to have access to both worlds in a different way. One interesting thing that I thought about early on was an offhand comment from a friend of mine, Will Chancellor, another novelist. He said something like, “There’s a point in history where people can’t be environmentalists because they can’t imagine us running out of things”––running out of resources. They can’t imagine extinction. Chapman exists in that time period. Thomas Jefferson famously didn’t believe in extinction. He went looking for mastodon because they found their fossils, so they must have been somewhere in North America.
It’s fascinating how your relationship to the natural world––toward settling it or transforming the land for human use, or whatever you’re doing––is going to be different if you don’t believe in extinction or that you could run out of trees or that the oceans can be despoiled. And we know that’s not true in our time––at least some of us believe that’s not true––which changes our relationship to the natural world. Chapman exists in a world where he can’t quite think the thoughts that we would think about what he’s doing. And then there are later Chapman chapters where the world is much more settled that are, to me, the bleakest parts of the book.
TCR: If I had set out to write this story, I would have needed to research dozens of different academic areas and scientific topics. How do you approach research?
MB: I did a lot of research, read a lot of environmental books and a lot of climate change books and environmental philosophy. I read a fair bit of history, although it’s easy to get overwhelmed there. And I think, in some ways, because I was doing this sort of mythological retelling, there was a limit to how much of that history research was useful.
But when I research for fiction, I don’t take separate notes because they stay very sterile and hard to incorporate. I might dog-ear a lot of pages, but my real rule is: if I read something that I want to use in the book, then I try to use it directly. I write a scene in which that fact is incorporated, or that word, or that kind of action. Researching how you would clear land in 1799, for example. Don’t take a bunch of notes. Just write a scene where people clear land in 1799. Then research becomes generative. You don’t get stuck in it. Instead, it’s: “what from the research inspires you to write today?” The book ends up with its own form of attention.
Some of that late Chapman stuff came out of some books I was reading about the Ohio frontier, anecdotes of people talking about their life. Like, people ruin a plot of land and they move over to the next one. Or spoil a stream that they were using for freshwater. The book was interested in that, but maybe not some other stuff, like how long the mail took to get somewhere. In the beginning, you have a hundred books and you don’t know what’s useful. But you’re learning how to care about what the character is preoccupied with. And that’s where the writing comes out of the research.
TCR: Yeah, like Chapman needs to taste every apple. It felt like there was a reservoir of information that you had about apple trees and grafting and the history of agriculture, and I’m reading and thinking, “That’s in Matt Bell’s brain, but here in this book, it’s creating some really interesting moments.”
MB: I think I’m an over-writer who cuts back. And I really believe that you feel the bigger book even though you don’t have to read it. Like you were saying, “Matt’s thought about this.” Or a glancing reference to something that feels like it could be a whole other book. And that makes the world feel real and big without you having to read a fifteen-hundred-page version of this novel.
TCR: How do you approach filling your novel with complex ideas such that a professor could teach ecocritical theory from Appleseed and then balance that with the possibility that message writing can come off as really stale?
MB: It’s hard not to be didactic. It’s one of the reasons the novel’s version of the politics is messy. Our personal politics are messy, and then the novel’s versions are inherently messy because characters are carrying them around. I think one of the interesting parts is letting characters have beliefs that aren’t exactly yours so that they can bounce off each other. Like the speech Nathaniel gives early in the book about “one day, all this will be cities.” It’s a funny way to open the book because I disagree with the first person to give a big speech. That guy is wrong. We shouldn’t do this at all. Leave the trees alone. But that’s part of how the book works. It can’t just be everybody going around saying the exact right thing all the time, whatever that even means. I think theme develops out of character in that way.
One of the interesting things thematically in this book from a craft point of view was thinking about the relationship between John and Eury. Realizing that Eury is the antagonist of John’s life and storyline, but she’s not a villain. She’s doing what she thinks is right in a very techno-utopian sort of way. She’s kind of like Elon Musk. Andrew Yang ran with geoengineering in his presidential plan. There are these real ideas people are going to try. These other types of leaders we elevate in America. But she’s not really a villain; she’s a person trying to do well from a point of view that I don’t share. And that John doesn’t quite share either, or doesn’t know if he should. It’s letting someone have an idea fully, expressed very well. That is not what I want to happen to the world.
TCR: Right. So as you’re reading the book, you’re asking, “Oh, is the goal here for everyone to be equal, a justice that also entails destruction, or is the goal survival, which entails inequality?” Or other complicated questions that we’ve been discussing for my entire lifetime.
MB: It’s sort of the heart of the environmental justice question, right? How do you take care of everyone equally? And how do you make the people who caused the problem bear the brunt of fixing it––and that has a historical component as well. One of the reasons it’s complicated, whether we’re talking about slavery, or climate, or any sort of reparations and injustice, is because it goes through time. Which is another reason those long timescales are attractive to me. Because it’s just not a present moment. The problem exists after we’re gone and began before we got here, and we still have to do our best to deal with it.
TCR: How did you approach pulling conversations from “the discourse” into Appleseed?
MB: One of the touchstones for me with Appleseed was Ursula Le Guin. Her work is really important to me, and I read a lot of it while writing this. The way that she structures plot around an argument or allows people to work through ideas as plot, as opposed to just pure action. It was really helpful to me. A big part of the middle storyline is a dialogue between Eury and John. Eury makes a case for one way of saving the world, and John isn’t sure if he agrees with it.
John took me a long time to understand. I think he’s a person who wants to be told what to do. He wants to do the right thing, and that matters to him, but he doesn’t know what it is. He struggles to believe the competing narratives. I think a lot of us feel that kind of paralysis. If we knew “this is the right thing to do. It will work out for everyone,” then we’d be done.
TCR: I really love the moment when you first break the established Chapman-John-C chapter pattern. We enter the Mythic Earth to learn about the first faun, and you introduce this concept of mythic time––the entire myth is happening all at once to every character, very different than the linear flow of events that constitute our experience of the world. How did that emerge in the writing? You could have just told us the story, but instead, a lot of our attention is getting directed to how the characters experience time within the story.
MB: I think as soon as I started writing that “First Faun” story, it kind of worked like that, and I’m not sure if that’s just an artifact of the sentences or if I knew in advance. One of the reasons to tell a long story is to explore cause and effect. The story is continuous, and the choices we, as a culture, made in the past affect the choices we have available to us now and effectively in the future. But I’m not sure that’s the experience of time for most people.
There’s the cause and effect chain in the book where settler colonialism and genocide create the conditions for capitalism and climate change, which creates this future—all these causal links. But also, these stories are simultaneous because the stories aren’t finished. The history isn’t done. The future is being made right now because of the climate decisions we make in 2021.
Something about that first faun story connects to C’s experience of getting rebooted. Until he leaves the crawler, he also has a sense of stasis. He’s living this basic life four hundred times, mostly without differentiation. It’s a diminished myth. C’s mythic time is sad and grim. And this is his attempt to escape that story. Somewhere in the book, it says this explicitly, the idea that it’s not your fault if you’re born into the story of settler colonialism, or capitalism, or climate change. But maybe it is your fault if you don’t try to get out of it or change it or do anything. Each character finds themselves in a different point of this long story. And what they do in their part of it matters. Showing the length of time that’s available to us culturally, contrasted with the slice you get individually, feels important.
TCR: Engaging with myth or fable is a motif in your work. What is your relationship to myth as a writer and a reader? And then how do you think that ended up finding its expression in this book?
MB: In some ways, it’s just a lifelong love of fairytales, folklore, and myth. Even my interest in Johnny Appleseed came out of loving that story when I was a kid. You know, American folktales and also Greek myth and fairy tales.
Retelling myths is interesting because they seem inexhaustible—stories that can’t wear out. And Appleseed began from the idea of Johnny Appleseed as a faun. That’s the originating idea, so the myth was already there. And once I started thinking about the timeline of the book, I liked attaching this thousand-year-long story that I’m telling in America to Greek or Roman myth. And then, the story of Appleseed becomes attached to the beginning of Western civilization. In some ways, there’s a weird ambition there, like, “I’m gonna use this one chapter so that I can tell a story that’s three thousand years long.” But that’s kind of the goal.
TCR: In terms of this inciting idea being Johnny Appleseed as a faun, what about that was compelling for you?
MB: The way I started, I was running and listening to Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. He talks about Johnny Appleseed, in his chapter on apples, as a Dionysian figure. It’s a great chapter, and I thought it would be funny to write Johnny Appleseed as a literal Dionysian figure. So it started as almost a joke. But this sort of half-human, half-animal character just really appealed to me. And it had potential for doing fabulous or mythic writing in the Midwest. I’m from the Midwest. My emotional landscape is tied to that landscape.
And some of the rest is just stuff I like. One of my favorite faun stories is the faun at Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding. I had the Orpheus and Eurydice connection for a long time before I figured out how it manifests in John’s storyline. It just didn’t have this other piece to fit it with yet.
TCR: That was a real masterstroke to me as I was reading, that sort of cohering-of-elements that makes you say, “Wow, what did it feel like? For him to stumble upon this idea?”
MB: I think stumble is the right word. If I have an idea, I put it in the book. Some of that means the pieces don’t fit for a long time, and other stuff comes out, but some of it eventually finds its other piece. The proteins match up and interlock––“Oh, that’s alive now.” And that’s part of the process: just the wrongness, for a long time. What are these witches and this Orpheus stuff doing in the book? And then they find their place, and that suggests something else, too.
Allowing wrongness or mismatching, as opposed to too early deciding what the book is and what it isn’t, that’s hard. It’s two different things: what’s best for the writing and how best to revise or rebuild it for a reader. You can probably imagine, there were times when I was writing this book that I said, “This is a mistake. I’ve got seven hundred pages of Johnny Appleseed as a faun planting trees, and maybe this wasn’t the best idea.”
My books change shape a lot as I’m writing them. And that feels daunting sometimes, but also just part of the process. I’ve never had it like, “Oh, got it right the first time.” I don’t think that’s going to happen.
TCR: I ordered Scrapper last week and started it yesterday, and even thirty pages in, I was thinking, “I wonder if Matt’s kind of reinventing how he writes a book every time he writes one.”
MB: One of my career goals, maybe, is to write a book in every genre I like––maybe Appleseed’s like three genres. There is a sort of joy in writing different kinds of books. I remember seeing Anne Carson talk maybe fifteen years ago in Ann Arbor. Someone asked her a question: “You do all this different stuff. You write criticism and poetry, translation. Why are your books all so different from each other?” She said something like, “When you write a book, you learn to write that book. And then why would you write it again? You write another book, and you learn to write that book.” Enjoying that learning-to-write-each-book is one of the reasons to write them.