A Conversation With Ben Marcus, Part Two: “You Make Your Character Out of Your Fake Flesh”

Marcus_Ben(C)Heike Steinweg

This is the second part of a conversation I conducted with Ben Marcus in January at Community Bookstore. Here, we continued our examination of certain parts of Leaving the Sea, and touched on Marcus’s other works, as well as some of the books for which he has provided introductions or afterwords. Miss the first part? It’s right here.

In the second section of the collection, there are two stories that are constructed as dialogues. One of them, I think I first encountered in Conjunctions. So much of my initial focus reading it is on the character answering the questions. But I’m wondering: when you’re writing the story, do you have as much a sense of the character who’s asking the questions? Or is the questioner a version of yourself?

These are two little stories, that are Q & As between an interrogator and an expert of a certain kind. The first one is a guy who’s a professional baby; he’s an adult baby, who takes a high kind of theoretical approach to being a baby. The second is a guy who’s advocating underground living. I have a bunch of these; I only put two in the book. It’s part of a much larger series. I guess I’ve always liked to write fake expertise; it goes back to The Age of Wire and String and before. Fictionalized authoritative fake essays about things that don’t exist. I picked those two for the book for reasons I can’t remember. But the questions in those are meant to be pretty antagonistic. I think it’s funny to have an aggressive, hard-ass reportorial set of questions towards somebody who’s got this demented worldview, and he’s being defensive, too. It’s a little bit of schtick, and I possibly could have left them out of the book, or put more of them in. Your question is giving me a lot of misgivings.

I quite enjoyed them, so…

It’s too late.

I wanted to talk about the story “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” where you have this fictional writing workshop. You go somewhat in detail into some of the students’ works that the protagonist is evaluating. I’m wondering: did these ideas come from things you yourself have encountered, or are they story ideas that you may have come up with at some point in the past?

The story is about a sadsack creative writing instructor on a cruise ship, teaching a writing workshop to a pretty mixed bag of students with a questionable degree of seriousness. And this teacher’s there against his wishes; he doesn’t really want to be there, but he thinks it’s going to help him keep his job. He’s fighting with his wife; it’s pretty gloomy, and he can’t really enjoy himself. I wrote this story because I, for a long time, and since I started making rules for myself as a writer, which was probably when I in college, when I started to say, “I’m never going to do that.” I essentially had a really amazing collection of all the shit I was never going to do. I was never going to write autobiographical fiction, because that was embarrassing and awful and really unimaginative; it was the worst thing you could do; I was never going to write about academic life… I had a lot of things I had sworn off, in fits of arrogance and fear and also, just, an almost complete lack of literary ability.

It was very easy for me to say, “I’m never going to do this, or do this, or do this,” because there was just so much I really couldn’t do. And some of those things turned into genuine aesthetic instincts, and others felt a lot less stable. But then, I became a professional teacher, and as the years went by it seemed kind of like playing in your own backyard–I don’t know what the metaphor is. Eating from your body? It seems sort of gross, and so obvious, to write about this thing that I do every day, and in some sense, I have a lot of suspicion and a lot of anxiety about material that’s really direct and really close to me.

I started writing with the notion that every single thing had to be invented, including the meaning of all the words I was using. “Well, you can’t just assume that the word ‘and’ is going to connect these two words–you’ve got to go back to the beginning of the beginning of the beginning.” And this can create really, really, really laborious writing, and I produced some of that, with this desire to reinvent. In any case, a couple of years ago, after I finished The Flame Alphabet, I really felt like I wasn’t sure anymore why I had sworn off a whole number of things. I knew it in a vague way, but I thought, what I really should do now is revisit, or force myself to do all of the things I said I was never going to do. I have a friend who’s a painter, and we’ve talked about this a little bit. For him, that would have been a certain kind of figurative painting; there were these things you would not even consider doing, because they would consign you to a certain kind of mediocrity, or middlebrow compromise; all these things, and he just said, “You know, I don’t believe that any more. I can’t say I believe in it, and I think all those philosophical positions I took up out of a kind of fear…”

Anyway, this is a lot more than you asked. The students in this class are writing some stuff that, obviously, it’s no good. And this happens, when you teach: you read a lot of stuff that’s no good. And you read some stuff that’s okay, and some stuff that’s really good. The examples are totally made up. I think there are maybe only three examples of writing that get discussed, and two are laughably bad, and one sounds passably interesting, maybe. They’re there to create a problem for the main character, because I think, in some sense, that’s what makes stories interesting. You make your character out of your fake flesh, and you throw him into the room, and you open up the problem hatch: let’s pour some problems on this guy. These bad stories are his problem, right? What’s interesting about teaching is that a couple of people in the class will simply take the role of saying, “This is just the worst piece of crap I’ve ever read.” And then, as a teacher, your problem is the writer, who has to listen to this…attack. What do you do? You need to help them, in some sense, not feel like shit. On the other hand, if you help them too much, the people launching the attack think, “What a fucking philistine idiot he is, for going to the rescue of this hack writer.”

So in some sense, your role becomes kind of social. On the one hand, it is important to make the class an actual exchange of actual, really strong, criticism, because otherwise, the whole thing becomes really questionable. But then, there are people’s feelings at stake… Anyway, he’s in this role, and there are people saying really inconsiderate, mean, funny things–that are also possibly true–and then there are people  coming to the rescue. A lot of that, I’ve seen and experienced in small doses. I’ve been really lucky in my teaching experience, because for the most part, the people who show up really, really want to be there, and they take it very seriously, and they work really hard. It doesn’t mean they’re always at a very advanced level, but–the way I wrote about it, I really have rarely had that actually comically bad experience.

A lot of the work in this collection, and a lot of The Flame Alphabet, has this very intense sense of dread, and an intense sense of familial dread. Whether it’s a story featuring a chronically ill child or another dealing with the aging of parents… When you’re writing these, do you know that this is what you’ll be focusing on, or does that emerge after the setting or a basic plot?

I don’t know if I know it in a topical sense, but I think that I won’t keep writing a story unless I can start to create a certain degree of feeling in myself. I have to feel really strong feelings, and it might be fear. I think dread is a good word; a kind of foreboding. I think of it, sometimes, as pressure, this sense of looming conflict. I think that there are probably only very few ways I know to start to generate that. Sometimes, often, it’s about tweaking and twerking and leveraging familial relationships. It’s really difficult to do if you’ve got a character all by himself. Once you start bringing in other people–let’s say one character feels responsible for another. Suddenly, there’s a problem. I like finding these problems and then making them really worse, as bad as I can make them. With logic, with narrative logic, with dramatic logic. People keep saying this to me, about this book, that it’s just a lot of fucked-up parent-child stuff, grown-up people and their aging parents… I was just living in Germany, and the moderator asked me, “What is it going to take for you to stop writing about family?” And I was like, “Just ask politely.” No, but there’s a way, I think, now… It’s hard for me to find a lot of drama outside of these primal relationships. It’s a territory I look to. But when I’m writing, it feels a lot more elemental.

I was speaking about this the other night, somewhere else, that I sort of feel as though I’m creating a drug out of language that’s going to give myself these feelings. And if it doesn’t, then I have to keep changing it. I have to make chemical alterations. I really want to feel it right away. I want to feel it in the first sentence. I want to feel on edge, I suppose. I guess it’s something I like to feel when I read, too. In the end, I’m trying to give myself an experience, and I’m hoping that maybe that’s something other people will want to have, too. But I don’t know. That’s a big mystery.

One of the stories that came to mind was “Rollingwood.” The child in there is referred to constantly as “the boy,” rather than by his given name. That, in particular, gave such a huge sense of the relationship between the child and his father. If he had been referred to as Alan throughout, it would have been a very different story.

That’s interesting. It’s a single dad who’s taking care of his son, who has something wrong with him, and it’s not specified. He has to go to work with this kid, and then put this kid in a kind of child care, and the child care’s closed… He meets a lot of obstacles: his ex-wife leaves town and he can’t reach her. On the one hand, he has absolute loyalty and love for this kid, but there’s really no reciprocity, because the kid is kind of too young to see his father even as human, really.

There’s a slight autobiographical element, a kernel, at the very beginning of that story. I have two kids, and with both of them–they’re older now–there were nights when they would get up at 4:11 in the morning, and they’re up. And that means I’m up, too, no matter what I have to do that day. And I remember being in a cold apartment with a kid who was screaming so loud that I would have physical nausea. As opposed to the other kind of nausea. But then, if you feel that way, you feel really horrible for feeling that way, because it’s your child, and you’re not supposed to feel repulsed by your child. Or are you? You’re not going to smash its head against a cabinet. That story, I think I wrote the first page of it a year or two before I ever returned to it. I just didn’t know what it was. It was just…a guy whose kid is crying, and that seemed like a big fucking snooze. It didn’t seem like there was a story there at all. And then I got him out the door, and I sent him to work. And then, at work…I’m going to send him to his ex-wife’s house. In a weird way, I felt like–and I don’t think I’d ever written a story where anyone had done anything–I thought, “This is like a thriller! This is crazy. I’ve got a character who went to work.” I thought, this is nuts; Steven Seagal’s going to be in this. Just to speak to the kind of delusion you can have when you’re working.

Maybe I’m accentuating the coldness of the feelings there a little bit. At the beginning of the story, there’s a little break, and it’s “The boy’s name is Alan.” I realized, I wanted to name him, but I wanted to pull back and still call him “the boy.” I don’t know; I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that.

I was reading the interview you did for The New Yorker’s website when “The Dark Arts” was published. You said that you realized “how many other kinds of stories [you] wanted to try to write.” Is this collection a representative group of that, or are there others that you want to try that you’re working on now that we’ll see in the future?

There are a lot more, but that’s true of anyone–the things you hope you can do that you can’t yet. I feel a lot of technical limitations when I write. I feel like I can picture something… There’s a line in the last story in the book, “The Moors,” where the main character is thinking. He can picture this really vivid imagery, but he can’t draw at all. He’s got an imagination of someone who can draw; in fact, he can look at somebody and what he can picture is, with perfect accuracy, exactly what their genitals will look like. This is just his talent. It’s not a really bankable talent, but he’s convinced that he’s 100% accurate; if he looks at someone’s face, he could picture, in really, really high-definition, every feature of their genitalia. But he can’t draw.

How do you get the ideas, this really, really imaginative material, out there? I feel that way with writing. That, in a lot of ways, linguistically, I’m not sure how to extract in a way that works. I feel that’s just ongoing. Sometimes, I think, I come with a set of tools, and it gets something out. But then, I’m still having dim visions and urges and little sensations that, to me, count as the beginning of a story. But there’s very often a technical problem, and that material’s locked away, and I don’t know, really, what to do about it. I have my little tricks, but… The answer is, yes, there’s a lot I’d like to do, God knows.

Are you working on anything book-length right now?

I’m working on a novel. It’s not book-length. It’s page-length. I’m finding that first page to be, really, a pretty expansive space. I’m at the very beginning of something. I find that it’s a really boring topic for me, because what can any of us say about the books we might write? I could make it sound a lot more interesting than it is, for sure, but I guess I have to learn a new language to write it, and I don’t know what that language is. I don’t know, stylistically, what it’s going to be, and I have a lot of big conceptual ideas, which really make me nervous. I think I don’t want a book driven by a big conceit. I feel like it can be a real liability, and I feel like it was for The Flame Alphabet. It was a real liability: “Oh yeah, that’s the book about language being poisonous.” I feel like that’s something I did. And so I’m trying to ignore the larger conceptual ideas.

I really enjoyed the introduction you did for David Ohle’s Motorman a few years ago, and I was wondering: are there any books that you’d love to see back in print, that occupy a similar space for you?

I wrote an introduction to another book that I always associate with Motorman, called The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, by Stanley Crawford. That was something, too, that was getting reprinted. There’s a writer I really love named Jason Schwartz, whose first book, The German Picturesque, is out of print, and I’m sort of trying to talk to some people about reprinting that. There’s a book of stories that was published in the 60s by a writer named Barton Midwood, called Phantoms, with a Ph. Because…that’s how you spell “phantoms.” Gordon Lish turned me on to this guy; he’s a realist story writer, but really good; he was in Esquire. There’s so much good stuff that comes and goes. I wish I had more time to chase down things like that. But yeah, that’s what comes to mind.

Photo: Heike Steinweg

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