A Conversation With Ben Marcus, Part One: “The Notion That You Control What Any Reader Does is Folly”


In early January, I interviewed Ben Marcus at Community Bookstore. The occasion was the release of his new collection, Leaving the Sea, which finds Marcus’s surreal wordplay run through a series of landscapes familiar and strange. In person, Marcus speaks knowingly about his own work as well as the broader literary context in which it rests; he’s also dryly funny, and sometimes (as you’ll see) self-effacing. Our conversation began with a discussion of Leaving the Sea‘s opener, “What Have You Done?” and moved to questions relating to Marcus’s overall body of work, the structure of the collection, and more. The second half of this interview will appear tomorrow.

In the first story in Leaving the Sea, one character says, “Show me how the whole thing works, now that everything’s changed.” I feel like that fits so perfectly in that story, but it also could describe so much of your work, where there are new ways of doing things in these unfamiliar environments. Where did a line like that come from?

First of all, thank you for having me; thank you all for coming. Thanks to Community Bookstore and Vol.1 Brooklyn. It’s nice to see you all on a really cold night. And the answer is: I don’t know. It may be easy to look back in retrospect and feel that it’s some kind of emblematic line. That question comes from the main character’s father, who looks at his son as somebody who is never going to really amount to much. Not only has his son returned with some degree of accomplishment, but he’s also playing in his father’s own backyard, by becoming a woodworker. I was interested in that feeling of pride, and also the mixture of feeling prideful and feeling threatened. The father is threatened; he feels vulnerable, he feels as though this world that was always only his has now been entered by his fuckup son, who knows much more about it than he does. How horrible is that? I think that’s often a guiding principle for me is, how do you get to that very, very horrible-feeling place that still feels authentic and organic to the story. I don’t operate with sentence tweezers, and put things in with a lot of calculation. At least, on a good day. So I’m hoping that these things arise without me thinking about it too much.

Going into that story more broadly, it’s gradually revealed, over the course of the story, why the narrator has become estranged from his family. Certain things are left more implied, and certain things are left more specific. When you were writing it, did you have a sense of, very specifically, what had happened at various points? Or was it more that things came up more organically as you were writing it?

In the first story in the book, “What Have You Done?”, there’s a main character who returns home. He’s in his, maybe, forties; I forget. He has no age, because he doesn’t exist. He’s going home for a family reunion. It’s clear that he’s been away for a long time, and in the meantime, he’s now gotten a wife and a small child. He’s not really saying much about that, and when he tries to, it’s pretty clear that the people around him…not just don’t believe it, but feel that this would be almost the biggest lie that he could come up with, that he would be incapable of that degree of domesticity. Yet the story really avoids any backstory. It stays in its moment.

So, the question: what did I know that wasn’t there? I wrote some versions out… Well, the title is “What Have You Done?”, and that is the unanswered question of the story. What did this guy do that was so fucking bad that people think he could never have a relationship, he could never have a child. Their estimation of him is really, really low, and it’s pretty shared. When I made explicit his past deeds, which I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t think you can handle it, the story just got boring. When you spell it out, all the tension seemed to really go away, and so I became really interested in what could be left out. Or, more specifically, in how the past deed, without being named, could be reflected on people’s faces and in their bodies and in the way people behaved around him. I didn’t want to be coy, because it could be really foolish and really writerly to withhold a lot of exposition. It looks like a game. On the other hand, every time I got explicit and expository, I just fell asleep. I lost interest, and I didn’t want to work on the story.

Often, when a group of people, students and teacher, are reading a story, one of the most common things you hear is, “I want to know more about this character.” And it’s the most fucked-up thing, because, while it’s true that you want to know more, knowing more doesn’t make the story better. Let’s say the writer then listens to that and says, okay, I’m going to feed the curiosity everyone says they have. The reader gets to stop and say, “Here’s my curiosity–come and satisfy it.” You go and feed that, and suddenly the story goes away. This isn’t really a universal rule, but I do always wonder, what happens if you satisfy the curiosity? Where does the story go; where’s the drama, and where’s the tension? This story, in some senses, is an extreme way to not explicitly satisfy curiosity, but actually try to make the curiosity just ache for not revealing x, y, and z. I have to face that music, I guess. But It was something I was interested in.

With the question of what’s withheld and what’s not withheld, I was thinking, in the broader sense, of some of your novels–Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet–where they’re set in a world that seems to, at first, be our own. But it’s gradually revealed, over the course of the novel, that this is not the here and now that we live in. Does that come from a similar place, as you’re writing, or does that have different aims?

That’s an interesting question. I’m made very nervous by setting. I notice sometimes, when I read things, that setting is a kind of placeholder. Someone says, “This is Chicago,” and you expect that, well, the street names are going to be the ones you might find in Chicago. There’s a kind of very easy, helpful scaffolding that can be provided when you cite a familiar place name. For some reason, it’s always been a very wobbly territory for me. In fact, that story that you were just asking about, “What Have You Done?”, when that was getting fact-checked… It’s set in Cleveland, nominally, but there’s some landmarks given: there’s a black glass bank tower. The fact checker said, “Well, there’s no such building in Cleveland, and in fact, the street names you’ve used–I can’t seem to find them on a Cleveland map. Although one of them is in a weird place that this story wouldn’t take part in.”

There was a lot of concern about this, and I was trying to picture the kind of reader who would read this and say, “Hey, man! I know Cleveland, and there’s no Holiday Inn downtown, where this reunion could be!” In some ways, I’m guess I’m just not the kind of writer who’s going to make this dutiful tapestry of the actual world. I lose interest when it comes to really doing it. It’s some kind of failure of heart. And so, on the other hand, a really exotic setting with a made-up name–let’s say that story was set on the moon. A lot is lost. I think it’s probably bad, but in some ways, I want it both ways. I want to just say, “It’s Cleveland–fuck you, forget it, just don’t think about it too much. I’m just going to give you Cleveland; now, stop thinking about it.” Because I haven’t been there, and I have a vague idea that’s just the right degree of misinformed, that works for me. So in a certain sense, it’s just that these are all really private gestures. Lately, I’ve written in much more explicit real-world settings, just because… Maybe just because I couldn’t set it in the here and now any more than I did. Sometimes, if I’m feeling self-critical–which I really always am–I think, “Well, that’s a crutch. Maybe that degree of fictionalization is not actually helpful.” The really interesting example of that, who writes the occasion dystopian book, would be Ishiguro, with the cloning book…

Never Let Me Go?

Yes. He’s got pretty interesting strategies with his futures. A real kind of domestic fidelity, enormously detailed, high-realist material, and so I’m interested in that, but it just didn’t shake out in The Flame Alphabet. And Notable American Women, God knows where that was set.

I wanted to talk about the structure of the collection. It begins in a very realistic way, and then goes through several stages… Did you have the structure in mind from the outset? How long did it take you to put these stories together into this particular order?

I thought about it for a long time, probably a year. I thought about how I read when I read a short story collection. When I read Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, I don’t think, “Those are just brilliantly organized.” Each story is such a killer. And you could just swap those stories around, and there would be no problem. With the really iconic collections–Airships or Jesus’s Son or Twilight of the Superheroes–you just pick them up and start reading around, and that stuff stops mattering. But when you happen to be the poor writer yourself, and you’re looking at your piece of really vulnerable, quite questionable material that has glistening, moist weaknesses all over it, and wounds, and it’s leaking… You’re doing this insane patchwork. You’re saying, “How can I pretend that this is a real book? What can I do to pretend that this isn’t textual fraudulence in the highest degree?” “Well, I’m going to organize these stories to fool everybody that this is a real book.”

Writers always say that each thing they do is kind of different, so I’m wary of saying it. There are stories in here that I think are different from other ones in there. There are some older ones that are a lot more intricate in language, I think, and a little harder to read; there are some that are more transparent and a little more plotted. In the end, I have two or three interests or compulsions and fascinations, and I seem to write about them no matter what. Maybe the denser ones that are harder to access, maybe I need to guide people into a place where they can see that this isn’t just word salad. Although it may be. And if I can gallop along a tiny bit, they might have more patience with something that looks like an invented language, or something that’s much more unfamiliar syntactically, semantically, all of that. I don’t know. Maybe that’s patronizing. Maybe the harder stories go first, with a big “fuck you,” and then you have something easier later. I don’t know. People open a book up in the middle; they start in the middle of a middle story. The notion that you control what any reader does is folly. I did all these things, and yet simultaneously knew that everything I was doing was futile.

The second part of this interview can be read here.

Photo: Chris Doyle

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