Mary Akers: Hi, Ben. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I just loved your story “Runner.” We’re honored to have it as part of this issue. I’ve been reading through some of your online work (links follow the interview, below) and I would love to talk with you about form for just a bit. You have some very unusual forms for your short stories. How do you decide on the best shape for a short story and do you find inspiration for form in the work of any particular authors?
Benjamin Buchholz: Well, Kerouac hit me like a bombshell about five years ago. And, by bombshell, I mean that with a little bit of a negative connotation insofar as it set me back in the writing of longer work (I tried, unsuccessfully, to place two full-length stream-of-conciousness novels) and had to relearn much of the art of writing-under-control in order to produce One Hundred and One Nights. Although, come to think of it, OHON also plays with form, albeit in a longer and slower way, taking the framing device from 1001 Nights and using it as a starting point until it eventually drops away as the narrator evolves (or devolves) inside the story. Now I find that short fiction often gives me an outlet to just riff, to let that wildness and associative fun explode and go where it may. One must adhere to Poe’s dictum, though, that every word — and also every structure — ‘tells’ in a short story. I think that is the older denotation of ‘tell’ too, not the ‘show’ vs. ‘tell’ debate of modern writers’ clinics but the telling of churchbell, resonance. Every word and every structure is precious and should therefore be applied to bring about a state of feeling or understanding in a reader. I hope the structures that some of my stories take contribute to that feeling and understanding. I’m not sure I conciously decide on form, certainly not at the outset of writing. Maybe afterwards, if something strikes me as worthwhile, as contributing to the overall expression, then I’ll add or sharpen a form.
MA: What is it about the use of numbering in your fiction that speaks to you? I find it fascinating. Is it the ordering? Is it the juxtaposition of two ways of making meaning out of a crazy world: letters and numbers? Is it driven by your character’s mind? Tell me, please, what’s up with Ben Buchholz and numbers? 🙂
BB: Numbers make the mind stop and shift into a different mode. They break the stream of scansion and signify something, in different stories and in different places different somethings. A lot of my characters struggle with various amounts of war-induced suffering and often are, like Bill Murray’s “What about Bob?,” trying to piece just little simple snippets of their lives back together again, one thing at a time, one thing after the next, baby steps to the door. Numbers show that chronology and that simple in-the-now fixation that is necessary for a lot of people to move through shattered lives. Numbers add chronicity to a tale and they do it in a way that is incremental rather than gradual, jerky, freeze-frame. They help me, sometimes, delimit and parse a story into only its essentials.
MA: I love your use of stream-of-consciousness and inventive word play. I was especially moved by “Mixtape for Annie Purpose” which includes the passage: “…no, hands out, show me, and the circus trick, gone, gone, headshots, all of them, in series like a photobooth confessional, palms up and empty, he’d seen her eyes, flashpoint, the facsimile of them, blank, folded in a motion into the inner crease, into the sleeve, nowhere and free and they were his, all his, on his heel, saluting, out and down the dustmote hall, clatter-waxed footfall, not knowing who but wanting, yes” That clatter-waxed footfall just absolutely sends me. Where do these onomatopoetic word-mixes come from? Do you wake up at night and have to write things down that bubble up into your subconscious?
BB: The writing doesn’t happen unless I make myself write. So, nothing bubbles of its own in the middle of the night. But, once it starts very often it doesn’t stop until its done (or I’m exhausted) like a possession. If I’m writing in the SOC mode then there is a big alliterative suggestion that helps move the sentences from word to word and sometimes the ‘graphs from sentence to sentence. I also find a lot of tension in word choices, where one word can be made to say two things and leave two impressions in a reader’s mind, thereby confusing, troubling, wrapping the reader into a state they might not otherwise experience. That one word then becoming, later, a source for follow-up impressions of the same dual nature. “Clatter-waxed” is on the precise and onomatopoetic side of this equation, whereas when you look at something earlier in that same sentence, like “headshots . . . confessional” I hope the reader has to back-up, break scansion, reread, and decide whether to prefer the image of the photobooth, or of the flashpoint, trigger-like, guilt-ridden undertone of an action this narrator might have done, an action in the background of his deliberations and regrets. Mixtape, especially, rewards additional close reading of this sort. By the way, these photos are somewhat autobiographical (isn’t everything?) because the first time I saw my wife it was when I pulled a strip of photobooth headshots from a garbage can in the building where she and I both served as ROTC cadets. She was new. I found the photos, took them, kept them in the drawer of my desk. Love at first sight.
MA: I love that. What a wonderful story.
Hey, congratulations on the publication of One Hundred and One Nights! The cover is fantastic. I can’t wait to peek inside. Can you tell us a little bit about what the process of publication was like for you?
BB: Thanks! Outside of the massive Toyota! high kicking Irish-jigging moments involved in pitching and having the work accepted by Little, Brown, the process itself involved a lot of very careful and prudent and wise reading, both close and thematic, first by my agent, Jon Sternfeld, then my editor Vanessa Kehren, and then the copyeditors at Little, Brown. I can’t say how much this improved the novel, changed it, massaged it, reined it in. And I have to say that being open to revision on micro and macro levels is important for any author. Striking a balance between preserving an artistic vision and making a manuscript really work on multiple levels (as I hope One Hundred and One Nights actually does) is tough but it is best, in my opinion, especially for a new author, to put aside ideas of ‘artistic vision’ and trust the professionals teaming with you on the project. I was in Oman for most of this time, so the work occured long-distance, through the miracle of our modern communication networks. Due to the time-zone change and the fact that the Omani weekend is Thursday-Friday, the overlap in working hours was strange to deal with! Overall, a really great experience and one I hope to duplicate with my next novel.
MA: Have you been doing readings for the book? What reaction do you get from your audiences? Do veterans come up to you to talk and tell you their stories?
BB: No readings so far, although I’ve done a number of interviews. I think I’ll have some readings in the future, including one at Princeton’s Labyrinth Bookstore in April. For my first non-fiction book “Private Soldiers” I was priveleged to address a number of veterans groups, including a reunion of the WWII veterans from a unit in my brigade. It was fabulous to talk with them about the enduring similarities of war and the startling contrasts between how they fought and how we fought (no email for them, no video chat, no phone calls home, no mid-tour leave to visit families in America!) Also, at one such reading for “Private Soldiers” the father of one of my soldiers from the Iraq mission approached me to say that he appreciated the book but that, as a straight history, it lacked insight into the emotional aspect of war. That comment stuck in my mind and helped me when I started writing One Hundred and One Nights.
MA: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
BB: I think there must be some sort of imaginative longing embedded in the word ‘recovery’ — a sort of grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side falsehood. I really believe that there isn’t any point in living in the past, except insofar as it improves our present, teaching us, allowing us to learn and be better people. Likewise for the future. So, to recover something implies that there was, at one time, a better state than the ‘now’ to which we are all, all the time and without exception, immediately subject to. Maybe a person really enjoyed a better time, a better life. Maybe they only imagine it was better. Either way, it does not improve the present. A person — soldier, addict, bereaved, ill, wounded — might be changed by the specific instances of war, loss, longing, need or physical incapacity that occur in their lives, but still that person cannot live in the past. It’s now or never, always. Whatever we were we will never be again. We change. Eventually our time runs out. As Coca-Cola’s ubiquitous branding proclaims, there is only one way to go, recovering or not, and that is, quite simply: “Enjoy!”
MA: Brilliant. I never once thought of the notion of recovery in that light. You just opened up my mind and let a little light in. Thank you.
Here’s a great review at The Washington Post.
And some links to stories with the same character in them:
“Mixtape for Annie Purpose” at Storyglossia
“Oedipus Simplex” in Mad Hatters Review (R.I.P. to the extraordinary Carol Novack, editor and champion of everything experimental and edgy.)