Author Matt Bell grew up loving Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy and science fiction novels, but found that other kids didn’t exactly share his interests.
“I didn’t know other people who were reading fantasy novels or science fiction,” Bell says in Episode 377 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I remember reading Dungeons & Dragons manuals on the bus, and other kids either thought it was weird or picked on me for it, so you just kind of learned to put that sort of stuff away.”
Years later Bell was excited to work on an officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons novel, The Last Garrison, with fellow author Matthew Simmons. But fears about what other people would think—fears he knows were silly—made it hard for him to fully commit to the project.
“That weird childhood shame was still part of my makeup,” he says. “It was like my book was going to come out and people were going to tease me for being into Dungeons & Dragons. I’m 39. I’m 39 and somebody’s going to tease me about it? No. No one cares.”
After years of downplaying his fantasy and science fiction influences, Bell finally embraced them, a journey he explores in his nonfiction book Baldur’s Gate II from Boss Fight Books. “So much of your imagination comes from the art you love and the art you’ve taken in,” he says, “and I was essentially trying to start at 20 as if I’d never read another book, by giving up everything I’d read to that point, and it just didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Bell recently completed a science fiction novel about climate change, and has even gotten back into Dungeons & Dragons. For his birthday his wife bought him a copy of the D&D Essentials Kit.
“It’s interesting to be 15 years into my marriage and be like, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll play Dungeons & Dragons together,’” he says. “That these things are back in my life feels like a joy to me. I really do like that part of my imagination, and it’s nice to get to engage with it again.”
Listen to the complete interview with Matt Bell in Episode 377 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Matt Bell on literary influences:
“I’m often trying to make something I like from another book—it’s very readerly, I think—[happen] in the book I’m writing. Beckett‘s style of repetition I find very enjoyable, and so there’s a passage in The Last Garrison when they’re going up a mountain, sort of trapped with these illusions, and the movements that they’re doing as they’re coming in and out of it, it has a very humorous repetition to it that I found really pleasing. I wrote a couple other imitations like that into the book, but they didn’t survive. There was a retelling of a very Cormac McCarthy fall of the elves, and the editor was like, ‘No.’ We couldn’t Blood Meridian the middle of my Dungeons & Dragons novel. But that was fun to write too.”
Matt Bell on Gordon Lish:
“He’s famous in class—and he did this in ours—he makes everybody read something they’ve written, and he just stops you when he feels like you’ve made a mistake or you’ve flinched in some way, so to get through a paragraph in class was sometimes difficult. There’s a lot of myth around it. I learned a lot in that class … Partly people go there for that. There’s a trial-by-fire-ness to it. He would call his teaching a performance—himself—and I think that’s really what’s there. You’re partly there to learn and you’re partly there for the show. People want the chance to survive that. Creative writing classes don’t work that way very often—and for good reason; I would never want to teach that way myself—but people were very, very proud of it.”
Matt Bell on English professors:
“I think the prohibition [on writing fantasy] is partly writers thinking that stuff is dumb in some way, or that [students] should be doing ‘serious’ literature—with all the air quotes applied there possible. I think really it’s often—this isn’t always the case, sometimes—it’s the professor covering up a lack of their own reading. If you say [students] can’t write fantasy stuff, then you’re not responsible for knowing how that works. If you don’t read any fantasy novels, if you don’t read any science fiction, it’s really hard to help people write it. You just don’t know that genre. So by saying that stuff isn’t any good, it frees you from the experience of having to learn it … I feel like my job as a professor is to read really widely and to meet [students] where they’re at, be interested in what they want to make.”
Matt Bell on fantasy maps:
“The heartbreaking thing about The Last Garrison was that we were hired to write it when they were trying to make the 4th edition [of Dungeons & Dragons] happen, and it came out when they were abandoning it, and they were like, ‘OK, we’re going to move on as fast as we can. This isn’t working for people.’ And our editor told us that because they were winding down 4th edition, they were cutting the map budget for our book, so we didn’t get our fantasy map in the beginning of the book. And I kind of feel like there’s no reason to write a Dungeons & Dragons novel if you’re not going to get a map. I was like, ‘Could we pay for it? What happened here?’ I remember that being a particularly big blow. I was so excited to get my own map in the front of a book.”