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Surviving a dystopian present in "Scrapper," Matt Bell's new novel

Sep 29, 2015

Matt Bell's newest novel, "Scrapper"

Detroit has collapsed into ruin, and a man named Kelly is earning a living as a scrapper.

He picks through the thousands of abandoned buildings, stealing scrap metal and then selling it to salvage yards in Scrapper, the newest novel from Michigan author Matt Bell.

The New York Times describes Scrapper as, “equal parts dystopian novel, psychological thriller and literary fiction.”

Bell says he likes that description, but thinks of the novel also as a detective story.

“At least that’s an element of it,” he says. “What sort of sets the plot in motion is that Kelly, while he’s illegally scrapping for metal, discovers a young boy who’s been kidnapped in one of the houses he’s in, and then tries to solve that crime.”

Bell tells us Kelly is a Michigan native and a college dropout who spent more than a decade working in construction in the South. After the end of a romantic relationship he heads back north to Detroit just in time to see the economy collapse. Unable to find work, Kelly resorts to scrapping as a means to make a living.

“He was a really interesting character to write for me. I think he’s very, very complicated. I think he’s obsessed with the idea of being a good person, of being a good man and what that means,” he says.

Bell says that many readers have told him the novel feels as though it’s set in a near-future version of the city, and reviews have categorized it as science fiction or speculative fiction. But he tells us he wrote Scrapper with contemporary Detroit in mind.

“A lot of what happens in the book is based really specifically in real places. The buildings that he goes into in the early parts of the book when he’s scrapping, the churches, the schools, they’re all based on places that I went when I was researching the book,” Bell says. “A lot of the other crimes that happen around the main crime in the book happened in Detroit in the last five or six years.”

He thinks the way the book is written gives the story a “heightened, mythic, dystopian sort of feel,” but at the same time it is very grounded in a real world time and place.

Paraphrasing David Foster Wallace, Bell tells us that the role of realistic fiction writing has changed. Where once the fiction writer’s job was to make the strangeness of the world familiar to the reader, he says that now, in our interconnected and instantly-informed world where we are constantly confronted with reality, it is to take the familiar, “and make it strange so that we can see it again.”

“The reason to write a book about these things, these difficult subjects with violence and crime and trauma and these kinds of things, the reason to write about that is not to glorify those things, but I think it’s a hope that the world doesn’t have to be that way,” Bell says.

Bell’s first novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods was a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and a Michigan Notable Book.

His stories have appeared in a long list of publications, and he taught for a couple of years at Northern Michigan University. Today, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Matt Bell tells us more about the book and the important role of fiction in our conversation above.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside