This interview references an excerpt from Matt Bell’s Appleseed, which you can read here.
I FIRST MET MATT BELL when he was backlit and phantasmal, standing on a wooden table in an underground bar, reading from this then-new short story, “Wolf Parts.” This was in Chicago or New York or Boston or Philly—it doesn’t matter. It could have been any city, or every city simultaneously. What I do remember is being blown away at Bell’s seductive drive to interrogate the parameters of received narratives—to get at the gooey inner holiness or horror lurking within them—and then to restructure them not only for the sake of formal refreshment, but also to tether them to aspects of our contemporary moment. This happened a dozen years ago, but it feels like it could have been yesterday.
His brilliant new novel, Appleseed, employs this drive to tell the most epic story of his career. Comprised of three timelines that become more intertwined (and even twinned) as the novel progresses, Appleseed follows the faun Chapman, and his human brother Nathaniel as they “steward” the Ohio Territory in the eighteenth century, planting apple trees (in a far-out re-seeing of the Johnny Appleseed legend). It follows John, wandering an America devastated by climate change fifty years from now, an exile from Earthtrust, the dictatorial bioengineering corporation he helped found. And it also follows C, a hybrid creature, marooned in his crawler atop the massive ice sheet that covers North America 1,000 years in the future, his sole companion being a disembodied, ever-wailing voice that may or may not be Orpheus digitized.
It’s too easy to call Appleseed an elegy for the earth as we know it, though there are many elegiac passages. It’s too easy to call it an indictment of extractive capitalism and the rapaciousness of Manifest Destiny and corporate greed. It’s that, and more than that. The book manages to be both a love letter to the earth and a plea to humanity—desperate, earnest, empathetic, and urgent—for a more generous way of living upon it. It manages to feel timely and timeless, while also being one hell of a wild ride, modeling such generosity with a nuanced and clear-eyed hopefulness, and a willingness to entertain even as it inspires our activism.
Who gets to tell the human story and its relationship to the earth? Appleseed becomes a meditation on this question, and on the act of storytelling itself, and choices made by us humans (or fauns, or galactic nanoswarms) as we spin our tales. In one profoundly affecting chapter, in an act of such whimsical daring, Bell engages with the “simultaneity of myth,” and thereafter, the three once-distinct timelines that the book so carefully delineates, begin to slowly evaporate and braid, and seem to occur simultaneously, amid echoes. Bell creates a “space” of sorts called the flicker, unhitched from time—it is every time and no time, everywhere and nowhere. The effect is beguiling, a profound commentary on the interconnectivity of human action upon the earth, and the fallout therefrom. Our stories, like our actions, have legs. I found the effect deliciously inescapable and so—if only in the flicker—I am still there, in that subterranean bar, listening to Matt Bell read from his work for the first time, just as I am still finishing Appleseed, again and again, ever newly gobsmacked by its impact. In this way, and some other, I will always be reading this book.
MGF: In the excerpt, Chapman, only part-human, mutters in response to his brother’s manifesto, “You wish to be like a god.” It seems as if this indictment can be applied not only to Nathaniel, but also to all of humanity. How did you negotiate, here and throughout the book, the application of said indictments?
MB: It’s always a trick to get away with this kind of accusation between characters, especially when I want you to like both of them. Nathaniel, for all his flaws, is also Chapman’s beloved brother and sole companion for much of his life, so I need the reader to come to care about him as Chapman does.
I think the only way to get away with such a seemingly dour assessment is for Chapman to be obviously nervous or unsure while making it, in part because it indicts him too. On one hand, he’s not wrong in his assessment of Nathaniel, who endeavors to remake the Ohio frontier for his fellow settler’s purposes. He wouldn’t be wrong if he said about himself, with his ambitious, mythmaking dream of planting a new tree like the one in the story of the Garden of Eden.
But the perception brings with it a moral problem: if Nathaniel is doing something wrong, then why is Chapman helping him? What does it say about Chapman (or us) when we know that we’re making a mistake, and then we knowingly keep making it?
I’ve been thinking and writing about complicity a lot the past few years, in a variety of contexts, in part because it feels like such an inescapable part of living inside our culture: it’s one thing to recognize the harm of the fossil fuel economy or extractive capitalism, another to actually give these things up entirely or absolve yourself of responsibility for them. So even as we advocate for change, our complicity remains, especially for those of us in places like the U.S. who continue to benefit the most. Octavia E. Butler’s fiction was a guide here, in books like Wild Seed and Kindred, and in her story “Bloodchild.” I think complicity was one of her great topics, and I learned a lot from her about how to be honest on the page about such matters, and how to bear down on them in plot, wherever I could.
MGF: Toward the end of the excerpt, “Chapman dreams again of re-creating one such unique specimen” of apple tree, the fruit of which will bestow upon him the ability to forget all the things he wishes to forget. So much of the book, whether overtly or implicitly, engages the burden of memory—oftentimes across generations—and our complicity in the sins of our forebears. The ever-evolving bodies of your characters become vessels for making and carrying story. Can you talk a little bit about the role of memory in the book, and the ways in which it exerts itself on your characters?
MB: One of the opportunities that the long timeline of the novel allowed for was exactly this kind of consideration of how we reckon with the actions of the past. Later in Appleseed, one of the other protagonists says, in a time closer to our own, that “there’s no crime in being born into a harmful story but surely there’s sin in not trying to escape.” It’s the same problem I’m talking about above, regarding complicity. It’s not your fault in the present that someone in the past did something wrong before you were born, but to allow the wrong to continue or to go unaddressed is to continue to perpetuate it, which does, then, become your fault.
But even knowing that intellectually doesn’t make it easy to deal with. This is where the novel can give us an experience that’s different from our lived life. While we’re all necessarily looking at the world from a narrow tunnel vision of the self, a novel can take a wider view, giving different perspectives, moving to different locations or different times, drawing connections between them or juxtaposing different ways of looking at the world.
The characters in a novel are generally as limited as we are, trapped inside their own heads and their one lifetime—although even that limitation gets tweaked a bit in Appleseed—but the novel doesn’t have to be so constrained. It’s exciting to play with these possibilities.
Here’s an example:
Early on in my research for the book, I realized that in Chapman’s time, it wouldn’t have been likely for most of the characters to even concern themselves with the exhaustion of natural resources or the extinction of a species: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, a contemporary of Chapman’s, opposed the idea of extinction—preferring instead the unbroken “Great Chain of Being”—famously arguing that the wooly mammoth must still be alive somewhere in North America because nature would never “allow” it to go extinct. So Chapman and Nathaniel’s transformation of the wild world into only what they think humans desire—in their case, apple orchards—isn’t exactly the same thing, morally, for them, as clearcutting a forest would be today, for us. They don’t know what they’re doing is wrong, at least not by modern standards. But we do. And so would the other protagonists in Appleseed. Letting their perspectives ride alongside each other in the book should be discomfiting, in the best way.
MGF: I love this. Speaking of which: Through Nathaniel, you provide such essential critique of the tenets of “settler colonialism,” and a “God-given” drive to “steward” the earth. And yet, you also write with great empathy for these characters and their drives, however misguided and violent. How did you find the balance between empathy and critique here?
One clarifying realization I had writing this book was that the antagonists aren’t villains at all, in the traditional sense: Nathaniel, as above, is in line with other settlers of his time, even if his conception of his role in Manifest Destiny is off-putting to me; Eury Mirov, the antagonist in the near-future storyline, has spent her entire life trying to save humanity from the worst of climate change, just not in the way I want it done.
In August 2019, just as my agent Kirby Kim was reading the manuscript of Appleseed for the first time, Cara Buckley published an article in The New York Times pointing out that Hollywood had delivered a slew of villains whose motivation for destroying humanity was to prevent human-caused destruction of the environment. Buckley, wrote that these movies “imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.” Kirby and I both liked that article, and talked a lot about how I was ensuring that Eury especially wasn’t a villain. One of the reasons John finds her arguments so compelling is that her motivations are nearly entirely correct—it’s what she chooses to do because of those correct motivations that the resistance movement he belongs to opposes her.
MGF: This excerpt serves as a great example of allowing your myriad writerly obsessions and influences to collide. Oftentimes, it’s in your taking the time to telescope in on the minutiae of our natural world that Appleseed seems at its most audacious. Can you talk about some of your influences and obsessions here, and were there places in the book when marrying them on the page seemed almost too difficult a task?
MB: I joked once that Appleseed is like an episode of Westworld written by Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard, plus fauns and witches—and while that’s not exactly right, it’s not that far away either, perhaps!
Dillard and Berry were deeply important to the novel, among many other environmental writers, including Paul Kingsnorth, Donna Haraway, Linda Hogan, and Amitav Ghosh. Ursula K. Le Guin was a major inspiration in the book—during one of the years I was working on the novel, I read at least twenty-five of her books—but so were Octavia Butler, Jeff VanderMeer, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Chiang, Iain M. Banks, and others. Then there are the myths and folktales that the novel relies on, including Genesis, Orpheus and Eurydice, the Fates and the Furies, and, of course, Johnny Appleseed.
I know some writers claim to try to avoid influence, but I think I’m the opposite: I crave influence, want as much of it as I can. I noticed years ago that the writers who seem the most original are almost always the most well-read, which allows their work to draw on so many influences that it’s hard to track where any one technique comes from. That’s the goal: to have a thousand brilliant voices in my head, there to help whenever I sit down to write.
MGF: The language and pacing of Appleseed—the pleasure of navigating some of the long, unspooling sentences—sometimes put me into a sort of ecstatic trance. On one page, in the margin, I scribbled: Praise be our best intentions, born of what we may be mistaking for our good-heartedness! Woe unto us the unintended consequences of said intentions when put into action, especially if our need to control the outcome of those actions usurps the needs of those who are most affected by them. Do your characters consider themselves to be good-hearted? Do you consider them to be?
MB: I love your marginal note so much! I do think almost all of my characters would consider themselves good-hearted: even at their most dangerous, they would see themselves as pragmatic, not bullying or destructive. That’s not so different from most of us, I imagine. It would be a very rare person who could see themselves as evil and then revel in it. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone like that, not truly. One of the hardest things to remember, in our deeply polarized times, is that the people we disagree with most, the people who are dangerous to us and to others, see themselves as good people.
Appleseed is full of devoted and good-hearted people who want to better the world, in whatever way the think is available to them. They are all flawed, constrained by the possibilities of the times they live in; despite their best intentions, they make mistakes, choose complicity over complication, fall prey to momentary weaknesses or temptations. If our world is to be made better—or even saved—it’s going to be done almost entirely by the works of good-hearted but flawed people, trying their best to rise to the occasion.
MGF: One last question—a guilty pleasure question: At what point in the writing process did Chapman become a faun?
On my morning runs, I’d been listening to the audiobook of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, where, among other things, Pollan unpacks the domestication of the apple. One day, I reached the part where Pollan calls Johnny Appleseed an “American Dionysus”—and as soon as I heard that, I thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to recast Johnny Appleseed as a literal Dionysian figure, an even more wild character than the one from the folktale we grew up with? I ran home as fast as I could, ducked into my office, and wrote what was for a long time the novel’s first sentence, all the while seeing in my mind’s eye a furred hand stretching toward dirt: Chapman plants an apple seed…
About the Authors:
Matt Bell’s novel, Appleseed, is out now from Custom House in July 2021. He is also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s latest nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers (2021) is about, among other things, the ways in which carrier pigeons are used by diamond smuggling rings. He is also the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast, Preparing the Ghost, Pot Farm, and Barolo, and three books of poetry. He persevered through the past two years via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind. Here’s an Orion interview with the author.