Ben Loory is one of my favorite writers. Period. He’s also a hell of a good dude. He was nice enough to let me ask him some questions, questions related to his entire body of work to date, and what’s more, answer them really, really well.
We talked about humor in fiction (and other places), Kafka, whether humans are doomed (Spoiler: yes), crafting the short story, and who the best living and dead writers are, exactly. It was a real pleasure getting to talk with Ben about all of this and more. I hope you enjoy the fruits of his effort to provide meaningful answers to my often bewildering and meandering lines of inquiry. Quite triumphant, especially in that regard!
Matt Rowan, ACM Editor Emeritus
One of my favorite stories of all time is Franz Kafka’s “A Knock at the Manor Gate.” I read it with my high school students regularly and it never ceases to amaze me how deep their interpretations of its meaning run. It seems to hit on something of the arbitrary nature of power in a very succinct way that they have all more or less experienced for themselves and can immediately relate to. I mention this as opener because I’ve found in different ways your short work to have a similar effect on students.
So I suppose to begin, are you the reincarnated form of Franz Kafka?
Yes! I mean No. I mean, Yes, but no more than anyone else writing today, I don’t think? And probably a lot less than some. I think of myself as more from The Far Side and The Twilight Zone– and maybe the 1,001 Arabian Nights– than I am from Kafka. Though I certainly love Kafka! I remember reading The Metamorphosis for the first time, in junior high, and that definitely had an effect– a big effect! Namely, that I immediately got into a huge argument with my dad about metaphor and whether or not Gregor Samsa “really” was transformed into a bug or not. Which argument then lived inside me for years. And is in fact still going on.
Would it potentially fan the flames too much if I asked which side you’ve landed on in the “Gregor Samsa is or is not actually a giant bug” debate? Does it matter one way or the other?
Oh, I definitely thought he was really a bug! (Which, I mean, he clearly was.) But to be fair to my dad, I was 12 years old at the time, and probably just misunderstood his argument. As for whether or not it matters– hell yeah it matters! If you can’t have a true metamorphosis in literature, where can you have it? And what’s the point of having literature without it? Might as well just go hang out at the mall.
Was there ever a moment, or series of moments, in your life when you realized storytelling was in your future? Like maybe a particularly abstract memory of something in your youth that didn’t necessarily mean much at the time but you kept returning to as you got older?
I wish I could say yes, but sadly the answer is the opposite: I never was much of a storyteller. As a kid, I read constantly, and lived for movies and television, but creatively speaking, I was, shall we say, inactive. I mean I daydreamt a lot and played a lot of D&D, but I don’t think I ever made up a story in my life until I was maybe 34 or 35. I always wanted to– I always assumed that someday I’d write a novel– but I never had any ideas, never understood how to do it, never knew where stories came from, how they were written, never felt that impulse. I was very closed off for a very long time; when I tried to write, I’d just sit there and stare at the screen and literally nothing would happen, NOTHING AT ALL. Then– miraculously–something suddenly shifted and I finally said fuck it and opened up and all these stories just came out. Surprised me as much as anyone. It’s still pretty strange how it all happened. I never would’ve thought I’d become a short story writer. Just seems completely bizarre.
Looking back, my parents insist that they always knew I was a writer, that I always expressed myself easily on the page, and maybe that’s true– in essays and papers– but that’s a different thing entirely from making up stories.
There is one thing, which is that when I was little, my sister and I had a babysitter who made us write stories. We’d sit together around the dining room table and we’d go around in a circle, each of us adding a sentence in turn. Then when we had a complete story, we’d divide it up into pages and each of us would do some illustrations, and we’d have a book by the time my parents got home. I really loved that process– but mostly the drawing part. And while I went on to draw constantly (without ever getting good at it), I never made up my own stories. It never even occurred to me to try. It’s a mystery!
I’m a huge fan of your short story “The Shield: A Fable” which originally appeared in the late, great literary journal Twelve Stories and is included in Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. It’s hilarious, as are most of your stories. They’ve also got a touch of foreboding to them. Would you say humor is funnier when its on the blacker side of comedy? Does humor have a way of saying something other forms don’t? Like, e.g., we’re all living at the whim of a mad(wo)men (whichever the case may be)?
I don’t know. Humor isn’t something I like to think about. It’s just something that’s there, a kind of widened perspective, a recognition that all these problems we all have and obsess over all the time are really just so small and ridiculous when you step back a little bit. I know it sounds weird, but I don’t particularly like jokes (comedies mostly I find kind of painful), but also I can’t stand “serious writing,” where someone goes on and on about their life and problems like they’re the most interesting thing in the world. The thing is, we’re alive! We’re in this place– whatever the hell it is! Who knows where, who knows why, what is any of this– what is language, life, death, thought, whatever… it’s all so huge and unknowable and mind-boggling and then someone over here is droning on about their daily problems like black holes and manta rays and ancient buried temples don’t even exist. It just amazes me that this kind of writing exists, let alone is read! It gives me suffocating terrors just thinking about it. If your writing isn’t infused with the grandeur and horror and absurdity of existence itself, I have no time for it– and if it is infused with those things, it’s probably pretty funny! At least in my book.
Hopefully some of this is answering your question.
It is, I’d say! I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve gravitated toward humor myself in the fiction I read — that unknowable quality you mention that exists in pretty much everything, even humor itself. I’ve always found a lot of merit to the idea that laughter and identifying things that are funny are just one beautiful coping mechanism, one way of reconciling are smallness in relation to all that vastness. I think what’s hitting me hardest is the encroachment of everyday political systems on that coping mechanism. There’s an unfortunate feeling that humor won’t be enough, might even be harmful, to dealing with a bad government, such as the one America is presently dealing with in 2017. Satire will be ineffective, which is starting to feel true based on how little joy I’m taking from usual outlets like The Onion, SNL and The Daily Show in the last couple years. How do you feel about the prospects of humor in dealing with life’s absurdities in the new oppressive world order? Bullish or bearish on its palliative effect?
I don’t feel positive about anything. Forgetting the government (which I wish I could), the human race is headed into some disgustingly dark times and nothing in popular culture is going to help us with that one way or the other. When it’s 120 degrees out and half the country is underwater, it doesn’t really matter what kind of government you have or what’s on TV or if anyone’s laughing or crying or knows a damn thing about anything at all; the whole thing’s going down the tubes. Not to be alarmist or anything! But yeah, I do believe we’re absolutely fucked. That being said, I do like to laugh. But I mostly just do that to old movies.
I also love the monomania of the main character in “The Shield.” It reminded me of what I’m like when I get stuck on something, for better or worse. And that got me wondering, how much of yourself do you see in your characters? And of the many camps an author can fall into regarding this notion, where do you see yourself — are stories pulled from someplace apart from one’s individual experience or does who you are and where you’ve been invariably play a role in your fiction?
All of my stories are me. The characters are me and the objects and things they encounter are me, the villains are me, and the desires and fears. Nothing I write is ever not me, or if it isn’t me in general, it’s at least me at that moment, in that story, under those conditions, which is still entirely me. Never trust anyone who says they aren’t in their characters. That’s some weird delusional narcissistic bullshit. What can you possibly write about that isn’t you? It’s all you, it’s all born inside and filtered through you; you are the sole determining factor. The only way to write about something that isn’t you is to have someone else do your writing.
As for my process, I don’t write knowingly based on real life experiences– usually my stories begin with flashes of images, just things that come to mind, objects or situations, maybe a line of dialogue– then I take that and run with it, bring a character in and follow them, then it’s like chasing some weird animal down a street with a camera. Feels completely disconnected from me and anything about me. But then, afterwards, when the story’s all done, or at least rapidly approaching completion, I can usually trace it back to some important life event, some central conundrum or problem I’m dealing with, some transmission from the subconscious, a particular experience or memory or some movie I watched when I was seven or a line I overheard at the grocery store last month. I don’t begin with that knowledge, but I always end up there. And in the end, I’m always saying, Oh God, How can I publish something so personal? And it’s that moment of arrival that lets me know the story’s for real; that it’s actually about something and not just some wacky made-up goings-on.
Another prominent thread of your pieces in Stories for Nighttime and Tales of Falling and Flying is characters are referred to without proper nouns. This created for me an immediate sense of their detached nature, they seem so apart from themselves and their surroundings, but often they likewise seem as though that’s anything but what they desire or seek. What is it about this definition of the characters that suits you? Why no Bill Sanders? No Sandy Williams? (or interesting, good names for characters)? Just the man or the woman, stuck in their strange circumstances.
Well, in fairness, I do give my characters names sometimes, but it’s usually only when other characters refer to them by those names. So it’s not so much that I’m against names as much as that I’m against the kind of easy familiarity that introducing characters by name creates. 99% of the people I interact with in reality, I don’t know their names; I glean a sense of who they are from the way they look and talk and dress and act– by action and appearance– and that’s how I like to get to know characters in stories. Introducing a character by name to me creates this weird bridge, this false link that I always find strange and disturbing.
But it’s true that oftentimes I never give characters names, even by the end of the story. And I think that’s basically the same thinking in action. I think in general there’s a real confusion these days between character and characterization. Character I see as essential; it’s what we are at rock bottom, inside; it’s what comes out under pressure. And that’s what I think stories are about (or should be about). Characterization, on the other hand, I see as just an outgrowth of verisimilitude, which is just some weird 19th century OCD-like offshoot of the scientific worldview. Characterization– what people think about and eat and how many freckles they have and what languages they speak and whether or not they eat oatmeal or pancakes in the morning or what names they have– that can all signal towards character, but what’s the point of signaling towards character? Just show the character in action and the character will be clear. I personally don’t need all the rest. It’s like when they work up a symphonic version of a song, like The Beatles’ “Yesterday” or something. The melody is there, the words are there, the emotion is there, it’s already all there; what are you possibly going to add? So usually you just end up with a bunch of filigreed nonsense that bores and/or embarrasses everybody listening. If you want to write big and complex, that’s great, but you have to start big and stay big and buoy it all up with a huge cast of characters and multiple levels of storytelling. But I don’t do that; I’m interested in compact, focused, laser-sharp stories that knock on the door and then shoot you in the face. So for me, characterization only weighs the whole thing down. And names are just one part of that. THE END!
“Hadley” from Stories for Nighttime read to me like the distillation of a cross between Invitation to a Beheading and The Shawshank Redemption, with something Kafka-oriented entered into the mix, also. How have other stories and so forth influenced you? I know you’ve said you’re a great admirer of Philip K. Dick. Are there any particular aspects of his writing that you could call inspirational, any PKDian characteristics that maybe you don’t ape but in subtler ways have rubbed off on you?
The thing I love about Philip K. Dick is his style, which is funny because everyone always talks about how he was a crappy writer with no style who only got by on his ideas. And his ideas are great, don’t get me wrong, but what I love is how you can never tell if he’s kidding or not, when he’s serious and when he’s being satirical or just plain goofy, whether he’s ridiculing himself or the character or the book or the entire notion of storytelling or all of life itself, or if he’s actually taking it all perfectly seriously and is maybe about to die from the horror of it all. He’s straddling all the lines, all the time, and I love that, I love the feeling it engenders in me as I read it, so I suppose it’s possible I’ve adopted some of that. On the other hand, I came to PKD pretty late in life (I was in my mid-20s), so probably any similarity on that score is coincidental. But, who knows, maybe not?
The main influences I see in my writing are Richard Brautigan– as I teenager I really just went all-in on his kind of cloudy, grief-stricken whimsicality– plus The Catcher in the Rye, The Twilight Zone (the Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont episodes specifically), Warner Brothers cartoons (especially the Coyote and Roadrunner), plus Aesop’s fables, Greek and Norse Myths, and Hitchcock movies (you can see Vertigo and North by Northwest popping up all over (the story “The Girl in the Storm” is just pure Vertigo beginning to end)).
It’s funny you mention “Hadley” because that’s probably one of my most true-life-inspired stories. That came out of a tour I took of Alcatraz one time when I was in college. I remember seeing those dummies that the guys who escaped had made of themselves out of paper mache and put in their beds to convince the guards they were still there, and just being so stunned by that– like, physically shocked, almost sickened by the reality of it, by the time they’d put into it, the thought, the care. Those dummies made those men and that prison so real to me; it was like they took up permanent residence in my soul. It wasn’t until 10, 15 years later that I finally wrote that story but I think it had been growing inside me the whole time. And then when it came out it was somehow married to Lost Highway, which is one of my favorite movies (and also involves a prison escape). But of course none of that was planned, it just kinda happened. The thing about influences is that you don’t see them. If you see them, they’re not influences, they’re just intentions. Which are important as well, but a whole ‘nother thing.
Your fiction has a way of eliciting or provoking thought but, like Kafka, sort of eludes being pinned down by any specific terms. Dream-like is a quality I’d use to describe it, fabulistic, too.
I like the term fabulistic (though I think I like “fantastical” better). “Dreamlike” to me reminds me of my dreams, which are usually maddeningly repetitive, nonsensical, and incoherent; I’ve never written a story based on one of my dreams and I doubt I ever will– I wouldn’t even know where to start. When I wake up from a dream it’s usually with a sense of, “Oh, thank god that’s over!” Which is not what you’re generally looking for in a story.
But it’s true that my stories do work through what people often call dream logic. I don’t really know what “dream logic” is, though– I always have a suspicion it’s just “storytelling.” One thing leads to the next and then so on and so on. The only difference I see, once again, is that I don’t go in for verisimilitude– whether of this world or any other– so there’s no “hey, you can’t do that!” from whatever “reality” is there to hold me down. The laws of physics in my stories are poetic. So they don’t complain when I break them.
Man, that’s interesting. Sometimes my dreams have a very weirdly structured narrative-like quality to them. I’ve written a couple of stories based on dreams I’ve had, actually. My dreams started becoming so much more vivid, too, when I started taking Zoloft regularly. I’m beginning to feel like I’m rambling here, but I think it’s so fascinating and bizarre how we have such vastly different experiences with things that are intrinsically a part of the human experience, like what our minds do (or seem not to do, depending) while we sleep. That’s just one example, though. Do you think writing can play a role in maybe bridging the gap there, a little — helping us to see what others see, even if only in the most abstract ways?
Well, yes, of course! I mean, that’s the point of language. I’m not really interested in that when it comes to fiction, though. I’m always opening up my computer to find that, once again, someone’s posted some article about how reading fiction increases empathy or whatever– which I’m sure is true, by the way– and it always just fills me with such a sense of annoyance and hopelessness. I don’t read stories in order to improve my empathic abilities, or to find out how other people see or experience the world. I read stories in order to have an experience that I simply can’t get any other way. I want to see what can be done with the form, and go through something I’ve never even dreamt of.
I certainly would like it if people were more empathic, of course. But the people who need to be will never read stories. They’re too busy running the government.
What’s been different for you in putting together Tales of Falling and Flying vs. how things went with Stories for Nighttime? Or simply put, what have you learned in the meantime?
I don’t know that I’ve learned anything, to be honest. I got a little faster, a little quicker, a little smoother as a writer, maybe. I know my way around my particular territory a little better. But it’s not like the stories have gotten easier to write– it feels like I just run into the problems more quickly.
The only major difference between this collection and the last was in the organizational process. The last time out, I just put all the stories in chronological order (with a few minor exceptions); whereas this time out I actually ordered them all. But there’s not really much to say about that process, as I did it all by feel and without any kind of conceptual apparatus.
That’s probably not a very interesting answer, but it’s the truth!
That aspect of arranging pieces of short fiction in a collection, it being on some level the result of just plain old intuition, is one of the more underrated but nonetheless fascinating aspects of craft. And while not a perfect segue to my last series of questions here, I think considering how other authors organize their work in an appealing way is close enough to their spirit.
So with consideration for all different kinds of writing (novels, nonfiction, story collections, etc.): what are you reading now? Are there contemporary writers you love? Are there any writers you find yourself envying?
I’ve read a lot of great stuff this year, though most of it, admittedly, isn’t new. I finally started reading that multi-volume Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson– the one my dad’s been telling me to read for 20 years– and all I can say is, Hey Dad, you were right! Last time I felt like that about a book was a couple years ago when I finally read Bleak House— like I didn’t actually know that books could be so good. I don’t have any interest in politics, history, Texas, FDR, the New Deal, farm life in the early 1900s, the coming of electricity… pretty much anything the book is about! But the writing is flawless and the storytelling is amazing. It’s 500 pages without a wasted word, just rockets right along and you can feel yourself getting smarter and wiser with every page. Haven’t gone on to the second volume yet, but I’m thinking maybe January, I’ll head back in.
Beyond that, I really loved this book by Yoko Ogawa called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (which is a confusing title because it’s 100% a novel, though presented as interlocking stories). Ogawa’s huge in Japan and has written over 40 books, but only I think 4 have been translated into English, so she’s been a bit slow to catch on. She’s a little like Murakami, if you stripped away the cats and the romantic sensibility and the cooking and the jazz, and replaced all that with the eerie certainty that someone’s about to stab you in the neck. Or maybe has. Anyway, I loved it– the way the stories interpenetrate and come together is just frighteningly great. I’ve never seen it done anywhere near so well.
Beyond that I’ve been reading a lot of Octavia Butler and Marcy Dermansky and Michel Houllebecq and Willa Cather. Enjoying that Rachel Cusk soon-to-be trilogy. Finally read Giovanni’s Room— I have to take Baldwin in little doses because he’s too powerful to read in a sweep. Also been enjoying a lot of Philip Fracassi, Mariana Enriquez, Kevin Moffett, Elinor Lipman, Rion Amilcar Scott, Lisa Tuttle. Loved Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others: New and Collected Stories– he writes at the scale of geologic time, which takes a little getting into, but once you’re there, there’s nothing like it, and it really burns the stories into your brain. Also loved The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (which paired nicely with Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne). It was not the kind of book I’d ever think I’d go for, but really transcended its Wes Anderson-y outer trappings. Plus I read Yoko Ono’s Acorn, which I think I liked even better than Grapefruit, if that’s possible. It’s been a good year for reading.
As for envy: I envy a lot of writers! Almost always for their success. You see people getting reviewed here or winning that award there– whatever, it’s often hard not to be envious. But I never envy writers whose work I admire, and when I sit down and actually read people’s work, I almost always find something to admire. So my rule is, when I envy someone, I go and read their work. Usually I come out of it feeling better about everything, like I made a friend and that ghost turned out to be a bathrobe on a hook. Writing’s a hard job and so few people read anyway, I figure the better the books are, the more likely people will start reading, the more likely all of us will benefit. It’s a ridiculously hopeful theory, I know, but it makes me feel better. It does take an effort, though, sometimes.
My favorite writer right now is Scott McClanahan. You read even just a few lines of his stuff and it feels like you’ve grabbed hold of an electric cable and all the power of the world is just rushing madly through you. Plus it doesn’t kill you! Which is an added bonus. Though it sure will make you cry, if you have a soul.