Answering Questions With Quotes: An Interview With Benjamin Lytal

Benjamin Lytal.Credit Annie Bourneuf

“Thanks Josh.  Let me know if you want me to write a quick intro, to explain that these are quotes.  I don’t want to come off as too arch. Cheers.”

That message is from Benjamin Lytal, just a few weeks ago in response to some questions I sent him for this website. He apparently didn’t want to answer the questions directly; that’s fine — I don’t think anything below was too groundbreaking and may border on trite in some places, but still a little more interesting in my estimation than “Did you ever feel a strong temptation to return home after moving away? Do you ever still?” from the Gray Lady.

But the cycle gets depressing for sure on  the endless email flow of a “book junket” (not that I would know), so I’m guessing he was looking for something different. I shouldn’t be harsh really; his approach of taking passages from other works to fit the questions probably took more work than just the casual boilerplate that he could have copied and pasted on his phone quickly. For that, I should be appreciative. (I shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Lytal possessing an encyclopedic mind, and maybe he does maintain the ancient art of literature memorization and recitation, and someone with a more prophetic disposition could have questioned him about that).

No matter the tact on asking or answering questions, A Map of Tulsa has that enviable quality of being so small and so big simultaneously, a feat that only the best can accomplish. The most recent contemporary work that affected the story in the same way is Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. I also became enchanted with Map’s Great Gatsby sort-of class vibe, which is probably not correct,  so perhaps Updike’s Rabbit series would be a better comparison.

After years of study and now working in some capacity with books everyday, it’s harder to pierce through and I give up on more literary fiction than I care to admit. But I read this in a weekend, you know one of those glorious sessions that you wish would happen every time you picked up a book, but so rarely does. But Map of Tulsa did it for me.

Here are questions and answers from Benjamin, with references after the answers.

This book doesn’t feel like other ‘coming-of-age’ stories though it quickly could be categorized that way. Instead, to me it’s a love story. Were you consciously trying to go against those stereotypes of  Bright Lights Big City / Less Than Zero, etc.? [1]

“In some regions these passages from childhood were vague in structure, mild and diffused, though they usually involved some form of ritual self-abasement to invoke one’s guardian spirit, whose presence would ever thereafter be represented in the pouch of charms one carried with one.  In other regions, however, puberty rites were rigorous and severe.  Nothing could be more demanding than the Powhatans’ huskanaw, a process required of adolescent sons of leading families that could last for several months and was calculated to be so physically devastating as to wipe out all memory of earlier life, with its emotional ties of dependence.  Some did not survive the ordeal of beatings, starvation, drug induced bouts of madness, confinement in narrow “sugar-loaf” cages, and tortuous recovery through contrived setbacks.  Among those who, at the end of it all, failed to show the expected marks of total transformation and were made to repeat the procedure, death was not uncommon.”

What were hoping to depict with the character of Adrienne and the “stayed-at-home” crowd? [2]

Tragedy is a representation of people who are better than ourselves.

The split time format was frustrating to me at first, because I really wanted there to be some ‘in-between’ moments. Is there a lost novella out there somewhere? [3]

“What perfect nonsense,” he repeated, as he stopped at the corner, and stood there, with knitted brows, in the way of passers-by.  He had the obscure sensation of everything’s being suddenly turned the other way round, so that he had to read it all backward if he wanted to understand.  It was a sensation devoid of any pain or astonishment.  It was simply something dark and looming, and yet smooth and soundless, coming toward him; and there he stood, in a kind of dreamy, helpless stupor, not even trying to avoid that ghostly impact.

Also, the role you chose for Adrienne in the second half of the book was also very surprising. At one point, did you describe the accident in ‘real time’ for lack of a better word, instead of making it more past tense? [4]

Harris met the train with his body, offered it his body.
The train drove into his body.  It drove against his body.
It sent him from his body.
The conductor went down onto the track and touched the body and lifted and carried the body.

While I was reading, I kept thinking of The Great Gatsby. Your sentences are very reminiscent, in their cursory, but intense way. Also, there were lots of observations about about class. Jim didn’t want to be part of that world, but then slowly sees the benefit without diving all the way in. What was your goal in portraying class in that way? [5]

We haven’t got a cent, we eat boiled stew at Momma Vauquer’s but we prefer fine dinners in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, we sleep on a straw bed and wish we had a mansion!

That’s fine, I’m not criticizing you for dreaming.  Because, my fine young friend, it isn’t everyone who’s blessed with these longings.  Ask women what sort of men they’re looking for, and they’ll tell you: the ambitious ones.  Ambitious men have the strongest kidneys, there’s more iron in their blood, their hearts beat warmer than other people’s.  Women themselves are so happy, and beautiful, when they’re strong, that they naturally choose powerful men.

It’s weary stuff, this wanting and wanting and never getting.  If you’re bloodless, with all the fire of a clam, it won’t bother you a bit, but our blood’s boiling like a lion’s and we’re hungry enough to gobble down twenty idiots a day.  This agony will get to you, because it’s the most terrible torture our good God’s devised for his living Hell.

1.  Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years.  p. 8
2.  Aristotle, Poetics, 1454b
3.  Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark. p. 220
4.  Sarah Manguso, The Guardians. p. 11
4.  Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot, trans. Burton Raffel. p. 85

Photo: Annie Bourneuf

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