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My Mind Shuts Down: An Interview With Ben Marcus
Jess Cotton , May 11th, 2014 08:17

Jess Cotton speaks to novelist and short story author Ben Marcus about bending but not breaking reality, the dictatorial thinking of Jonathan Franzen, Leaving the Sea and why sometimes it's better not to know the answers

Ben Marcus is the author of four books of fiction, The Age of Wire and String (1995), Notable American Women (2002), The Flame Alphabet (2012), and his latest collection of short stories, Leaving the Sea. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications including Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer and The New York Times. He is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004) and the forthcoming Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. He is associate professor in the School of Arts at Columbia University, where he teaches creative writing. Safe to say: Ben Marcus is prolific.

The stories that make up the first part of Leaving the Sea take place in a recognisable American landscape with identifiable characters who move through space and time in a more or less conventional mode. As the collection progresses, the stories get weirder, the narrators more hermetic, the landscapes more allegorical, until we reach the final story, a 40-page episode narrated entirely from inside the head of a man walking down a corridor in pursuit of a female colleague with whom he is obsessed. These stories are less obscure though than the those found in The Age of Wire and String, in which people seem mere accidents of place and relationships are rendered in the most clinical of terms; or the female cult in Notable American Women, who perform a range of eccentric practices in an attempt to reduce the world to complete stillness and silence. Even in Marcus’s most conventional narrative to date, The Flame Alphabet, children’s speech has become a toxic substance which forces parents to flee for their lives.

Marcus’s pre-eminence as a short story writer has long been recognised, though his more experimental works have also been met with a degree of bafflement. Marcus himself has contributed to the debate about the competing demands of experimental and realist fiction in a 2005 Harper’s essay, in which he challenges writers like Jonathan Franzen who have publicly dismissed ‘difficult’ novels. If Marcus’s own stories have become more transparent in recent years – more readily housed in the pages of the New Yorker – that is not to say that they lack any of his earlier linguistic exuberance. It is the particular achievement of his latest collection that he is able to harness his peculiar brilliance (the syntactical jives, the odd, exacting tone, the disconcerting euphemisms) to narratives that surreally – and hilariously – explore generational relationships, guilt and sexuality.

The interview took place on a spring lunchtime in Russell Square. Marcus, who sits on the grass cross-legged, is gracious and generous in his responses. After the interview has finished, we discuss interview techniques, ungracious interviewees and interview faux-pas. He tells me how he once lost a three-hour recording of an interview with an eminent American writer, and how she has never failed to remind him. I look down anxiously at my recorder. Finally, we talk about what a collection of interviews with reticent interviewees might look like.

Your new collection, Leaving the Sea, contains interviews in various formats, with two stories composed entirely as Q and As. What was it about the interview as a form that lent it to these stories?

Ben Marcus: I seem to create these characters who are experts in something rather horrible and kind of unknown. I guess I was looking for a way to make a story out of a set of very crazy but consistent ideas, and it’s hard to write that as a story. Q and A seemed so perfect because the questioner presses a button and the answerer responds and you accept that. In other words, it’s a format where someone is actually supposed to talk about their ideas. But in a short story it’s often a really bad idea to have a character pontificate, it doesn’t seem natural. So I think I was looking for a form to contain these characters. They’re not stories really, but ideas that selves would maybe be entertaining. I like the idea of an aggressive back and forth: the interviewer suspicious of the subject, the subject, arrogant and crazy.

The Age of Wire and String seems such an audacious and original literary debut. Who were you reading at the time; could it be said to have any literary influences?

BM: I was just interested in trying to sound different then. I was interested in sentences and so when I read Borges, his technical, dry, yet cerebral, beautiful and strange approach interested me. I was interested in work that sounded like non-fiction, that was essayistic or journalistic or that was reportorial, but if you read it carefully, you saw that it was all made up. I think I liked the idea of fiction that was masquerading as non-fiction. I wrote fake definitions, made up encyclopedia entries, a catalogue of a fake world, as a sort of a way to use language illegally and irresponsibly, though I had no idea what I was doing at the time. So I suppose I was very late to something that looked like a ‘proper’ short story.

When did you start writing ‘conventional’ short stories?

BM: There’s a story in The Age of Wire and String called ‘The Weather Killer’ and that’s almost a ‘proper’ story. But maybe it was another ten years after that before I started writing them regularly. It wasn’t as if I had never tried writing proper stories – I was probably always writing them – but they never felt particularly special to me. I think I realised early on that I wasn’t any good at them, and so I was always looking to find something I was excited enough about, something I could accomplish. I think I’ve always just needed to be very interested in something in order to write it well, and not just feel like well I’m supposed to do this or I’m supposed to do that. I grew up reading fairly conventional American short story writers who I really loved, but they never clicked for me. I suppose when I finished The Flame Alphabet, I tried to write more narrative, and some of those tools were a little more available to me, and so when I started to write short stories it seemed more natural, more connected.

You’ve written about Raymond Roussel for Harper’s. Have you ever used any literary constraints in your own work?

BM: When I first read Roussel, at 21 or 22, I was blown away and fascinated, though I didn’t know about the constraint at the time. But learning about the constraint didn’t open up anything to me. To me constraints never look like some kind of doorway. Maybe they should and I knew writers at the time when I was in college who were very much involved with that. I suppose I just never got excited enough for myself to really try anything like that. I used little tricks though – I would find old reference books, yank out a sentence and then distort it. I would read things and then try to write, but there was never a big system, and if I got bored of that I would change tack. So whatever the system was, it was always subservient to my own interests, for better or worse.

The stories in Leaving the Sea have been published previously in magazines and other smaller publications. Have they been edited much for the collection?

BM: ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ came out in Granta in a version that I really didn’t respond to once I was reading it again. I had struggled with it in the editorial process with them and I felt that I was either going to not include the story in the book or really need to revisit it, which I did. ‘The Father’s Costume’ had come out as a limited edition art book. People ask me why it’s in the book, and the main reason is actually that, of all the pieces in the book, it’s the one I feel most proud of and connected to. It just wasn’t available anymore and people would ask me how to get it, and I thought it is a story, as much as anything else in the book is a story. It still felt like a very haunting story to me, very emotional.

It is, to my mind, the stand out piece of the collection, and it seems to almost fit in more naturally with the newer stories, than the ones you were writing a decade ago. Why do you think that is?

BM: I always, at least back then, struggled with emotion in writing. I felt like I could do odd, unusual things, but there wouldn’t be enough feeling in them, and maybe if there’s a progression at all to anything that I’ve done it’s that I’ve always wanted to have a high – an almost overwhelming – degree of feeling in what I write. Some of the nastier responses to The Age of Wire and String was that it’s cold and technical and has no feeling in it. To me, I guess, I had never seen it that way, but it’s a fair response for reviewers.

Themes of generational conflict surface repeatedly in your fiction. What draws you back to the family unit?

BM: Family seems so rich and complicated to me. There’s meant to be this unfailing biological loyalty and yet at the same time it’s this theatre for various kinds of cruelty. I know it doesn’t always work out that way, but the worst possible behaviour is sort of allowed for. It looks to me like an endlessly rich container for really terrible drama, but also pretty grand love. It accommodates such a variety of feeling in such a natural way, and it feels so relatable, and yet it’s such a funny construct, socially, the family. My first child – she’s a great kid – but she would launch these tremendous, explosive tantrums when she was younger, and when we would talk to her teachers, they would say she’s so great and she’s never done that at school. You just feel like you can see the family as a setting that welcomes really extreme kinds of behaviour and makes them plausible, and people can test out horrible things and yet always be forgiven.

You frequently make use of fantastical, obscure or improbable locations in your fiction; landscapes that are dystopian or on the brink of apocalypse; and in sharp contrast with the domestic rituals that unfold. How do real and imagined places figure in your work?

BM: It’s a very good question. I have to say that I don’t like real places, but I don’t like imagined ones either. I feel like I’m looking for some mixture and it’s very hard for me to say because I like to occasionally use real place names because there’s an uncanny feeling to them, but at the same time I don’t ever really try to make them plausible. Sometimes I like to use them as a way to just hide in plain sight a little bit, because to me a very exotic or imagined setting has a lot of weight and a lot of burden to it, and I’ve done that, and as a way at the moment it doesn’t suit me, but a real place seems to have its own weird legacy, so I don’t know what the choice is? Some weird mixture, because I do feel I’m often relying on setting, but I like the feeling to be coming out of it to be a little queasy and unsettling so that something doesn’t feel quite right.

In ‘What Have You Done?’, the setting seems both to be an identifiable Cleveland, Ohio, and at yet also an imagined location?

BM: When ‘What Have You Done?’ was being fact-checked by the New Yorker, they were disturbed by a number of things because there are references in the landscape to buildings that don’t exist in Cleveland, and they felt disturbed by that. They knew I was inventing within Cleveland, but I had inadvertently used a real Cleveland street name. The fact-checker argued that the street wasn’t in a part of town that this story would be happening in. So I said but you know it’s not happening in any part of town, right? But it was difficult to come up with a larger scheme because there wasn’t one. I think they just wanted to understand because a certain kind of fiction is not looking to make a jumble out of these things – maybe most kinds of fiction – and this is merely a long way of saying that I’m still really working it out.

Leaving the Sea comes from a short story of the same name. How did you settle on the title?

BM: The phrase ‘Leaving the Sea’ to me seems so placid and safe and almost pastoral. It really felt like a very unsuitable title for one of my own books. But if you read the story, the phrase to me, at least, turns quite dark because the narrator is sort of reflecting that everything went wrong for the human species when it left the sea, that’s where the trouble began. So I think I like the idea that there was a phrase that seemed kind of flowery and if you’re reading that story and you encounter that phrase it suddenly looks like a very bleak title, so that was what I was hoping was going on.

‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’ is ostensibly a campus story on a cruise ship. It seems like an unlikely setting for one of your stories. How did the idea come about?

BM: It came about because I had vowed never ever to write it. I never liked campus novels and always thought that it was an easy shortcut to rely too much on my personal experience. In fact, I never really wanted to write directly about my personal experience at all. I remember feeling that the autobiographical first novel was kind of the worst and most obvious trap one could fall into. But after a certain point, a couple of years ago, I started to think about all the things I had rejected or refused or rebelled against or just decided I would never do, and it occurred to me that I could possibly create some new writing by revisiting all these rules, because I couldn’t quite feel the fury or rage that I once did. In fact, I couldn’t really connect to it at all, and no longer really knew what I was afraid of, or was no longer really afraid of it any more. So the story of the creative writing teacher on a cruise ship suddenly came to me as a way to overturn my rule, and I think I thought partly just because you write these stories, doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a different writer. I wanted to think that I would still come out in it, that whatever my larger literary interests were, they would still appear. So it’s been a way in the last few years to create a bunch of new work, revisiting everything I’d forbidden myself to do. ‘What Have You Done?’ is partly down to the same thing. It’s a basically domestic story which I never really thought I wanted to do. On the other hand, it’s not really a story about my own experiences – there’s quite a lot of misery in that story and the students are sort of treacherously ignorant. So I’ve turned up the volume on a lot of those experiences in order to write it.

You’ve been teaching creative writing for 20 years now. How, if at all, has it influenced your own writing?

BM: Teaching is all armchair. I learn about writing by writing and thinking about what I’ve written and throwing it away. But it’s a good question. Where does learning ever happen? Heidi [Julavits] and I go for lots of happy stretches without talking about writing. We can all say pretty fancy things about it, but to really do it line by line and to make it come to life still feels very private and solitary. There’s something a bit oppressive about feeling you have to constantly walk through something. With students, one is often in the position where you have to be authoritative about what they’re doing and connected to some principle. I prefer not really knowing the answer to anything interesting and I try to encourage that in teaching. If I start to feel certain about something my curiosity goes away, my mind shuts down. I’m sure that’s not always true, it’s stupid to generalise. You see I’m uncertain even about my uncertainty principle.

‘The Moors’, the final piece in Leaving the Sea, is narrated entirely in the head of a man following a female colleague down a corridor to a coffee stand. What made you experiment with this kind of interiority?

BM: The story was first almost explicitly just an attempt to see how far into someone’s head you can get without destroying them. I think with that kind of close third person, I was curious to see whether there was some kind of dramatic pressure that resulted by showing just how crazy someone’s thoughts could be and what sort of pressure it put on them when they hold that back. To me one of the amazing technologies of writing is the way it can listen in on thoughts. I don’t feel that that’s natural to other art forms in the same way. It’s very awkward in film, and yet, thanks to Henry James and Jane Austen and Freud, we really accept this mode of rendering consciousness, of listening in to thoughts, in fiction, and it just seemed like a big territory for me to explore.

Your 2005 Harper’s essay, ‘Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it’, has been much commented on and the subject of some controversy. Given the changing direction of your own writing, have your views about the relative merits of experimental and realist fiction changed in any way?

BM: In the Harper’s essay, I thought I was advocating something really simple and almost embarrassingly small, that is you should not tell other people what they can or can’t enjoy. Or you shouldn’t say that something has no pleasure in it just because you don’t understand it, and that there’s room for all these different approaches. I felt that Franzen was saying that because he doesn’t like Gaddis, that no one does, or anyone who says they do, is pretentious and they’re only saying it as a kind of posture. I think that was a really dangerous and conservative and crazy idea, and I really wanted to suggest that these obscure writers might only have 10 people excited about them but this is good for literature. People are always testing impossibilities and just because something is not aggressively trying to please the entire world does not mean it doesn’t have value. It wasn’t so much about my work or his work as it was the cultural stance that writing that might be difficult to comprehend is doing damage to the body of literature. But now some people feel that I’ve sold out because I’m writing more accessibly, and in the end, I don’t know. I do see that suddenly I’m in the New Yorker. The thing is I was getting encouraging notes from them for a long time, but they were only going to publish something that they thought their readers would want to read. I think I have little waves of getting excited about something and so there was a certain kind of story I’d always loved, but I had not found my own way to do it, and I was glad they wanted to publish them. Does that mean I think it’s more artistically valid than something else I’ve written? Probably not. But on the other hand, I’ve never tried to decide that anyway.

You’re currently editing the Vintage Book of American Short Stories. I was wondering whether you have noticed any changes in American short fiction since you edited the last anthology in 2004?

BM: It’s a really good question and I’m sort of trying to figure that out. I suppose when I did the last anthology, one of the things I wanted to do was not to put in five writers who were all working in very similar ways, so I really strove for variety and that’s hard to do because there are excepted approaches. You can find good versions of similar things. When I did it last time, I was a little more in touch with the younger, weirder stuff that was not really very mainstream at all, but was really vigorous and funny and strange and beautiful, and I’m working a lot harder to find that. I’m older, I’m less in touch with some of it, and also when I did that last one, those interests were pent up because I’d been reading these people for ten, fifteen years, in some cases, and really knew their work very well, and so when I laid out the table of contents, there were just some things I was really excited to share. I did a lot of reading and exploration then, but more on the mainstream side. I had not really read Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kate Braverman, and there were writers – Anthony Doerr – who were more realist, and those were my discoveries then. Now I feel a little more aware of the realist writers out there and I’m trying a lot harder to make discoveries of the lesser-known ones and so I’ve been asking tonnes of people who do I have to read, who am I missing, who is nobody reading but everybody needs to? I’ve got piles of books on my desk.

Which writers would you recommend, as you say in your Harper’s essay, to train a reader’s muscle?

BM: Alissa Nutting, Amelia Gray, Blake Butler, Joshua Cohen, the poet Mary Ruefle – there are a bunch of writers who are challenging, but they’re also terrifically entertaining. They’re not challenging in the way that you bang your head against it and get nothing out of it. It’s funny though, the question of what is challenging and what isn’t, because I no longer know. If you don’t read at all, you’re going to pick something up and it’s going to look like a foreign language. If you read a lot, to me there’s nothing difficult about it, so I have to remind myself, oh yeah but other people might find this unintelligible. To me it’s a bit baffling, and one nice thing about doing an anthology is that you can lure people in and say here’s a beautiful realist short story – say by Deborah Eisenberg – and then you can show a story that might be covering a similar territory but that is stylistically very different and you can put these things alongside each other and show that there are so many different languages within the English language to produce feeling.

Did you specifically curate Leaving the Sea to ‘lure readers in’ as you say?

BM: I’ve talked to different people who’ve put their collections together and everyone agonises other it and spends months on this decision and in the end thinks well it’s not like it’s a different book if we rearrange the stories. When I look at them funnily – or not so funnily – I think I have many different ways of getting at a common space. It’s not as though the space I get to, or even the feeling it gives, is that different. So I can start with a kind of open, transparent story that gallops along a little and maybe people will start to get accustomed to the way I write and so the denser things don’t look so forbidding. At the same time, it’s not as if I think that that’s going to suddenly make somebody read something they don’t want to read or don’t understand.

You’ve produced an excellent novel and short story collection in quick succession. What should we expect next?

BM: I’m working on a novel and some short stories at the moment. I was hoping to capitalise on whatever momentum I had since Leaving the Sea came out so quickly after The Flame Alphabet, but I think, in general, I’m a fairly slow writer and I’m regrouping a little at the moment. I’m excited about this novel, but there’s nothing to say about it yet, and I think what I’m writing now will very likely get scotched in place of something better. Some of it is just sort of like shopping for a relationship, trying to find something that you want to spend time on for a long time; figuring out what I care about, what will interest me so that I’ll work very hard to make it exist. The Flame Alphabet had built up for a very long time, I feel like I wrote it very late in that I had written other things, like Notable American Women, even in The Age of Wire and String, where language is a toxic substance that hurt. When people were asking me what I was working on, for a long time, I just sort of lied and said well it’s a book where language kills people and so, in some sense, I had to turn the lie into a truth.

Leaving the Sea is out now, published by Granta Books