Then Disappear & Then Rise Again: An Interview with Ben Loory
Ben Loory’s first book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, will be published next month.
Shane Jones works in an office building 40 to 50 hours a week in Albany New York.
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Shane: After reading your book I got really excited because it’s very fairy-tale land, weird, new, and a major press is publishing it. How did it come about that Penguin accepted it? Were you surprised?
Ben: Well, maybe it’s strange, but I don’t think of my stories as weird. I mean, they’re classically structured and very straightforward. In my mind, they’re a mix between Aesop’s fables and The Twilight Zone; I’ve always seen them as a very mainstream thing. The new stories I’ve been writing, the first-person ones, I think are much, much weirder. But for some reason they seem to be read as more “normal.” I haven’t yet been able to make sense of the whole thing.
As for the story of how it happened, it’s actually pretty boring. I got an agent (my friend Sarah Funke Butler) and basically she did everything. She got the book to Josh Kendall, now my editor at Penguin, and at the same time my TV story to The New Yorker. They both expressed interest, and by the end of the week I had a book deal and the whole thing was over.
It was, of course, an amazing thing. But I won’t actually say I was surprised. Not by the Penguin part, at least. I was pretty shocked by The New Yorker. I’d always thought of “The TV” as my craziest story, and The New Yorker as the sanest market in the world. I laughed at my agent when she said she wanted to send it there. Luckily for me, she’s smarter.
Shane: I’m curious – did the acceptance at The New Yorker influence Penguin enough for them to accept the book? The reason I ask is because I feel like a major press sometimes needs a “sales/marketing reason” to take a book of fiction on. For me, it was Spike Jonze taking the film-option out on Light Boxes that created the push and interest. With the way your book is structured, with the TV story at the end as this kind of “bonus,” and the press release mentioning it as being in The New Yorker, it seem very important to them. Maybe I’m wrong. Thoughts?
Ben: Oh, absolutely! It was a tremendous bit of leverage. Doesn’t come any better than that, I suppose. I mean, yeah, without Spike Jonze coming along. Or me being Snooki or something.
It actually presented a bit of a problem for me, because “The TV” had never been part of the book. It was a stand-alone story, written according to different rules. Which is why it is included as an appendix.
The book was also originally 101 stories (it was an Arabian Nights kind of thing). So the book as it stands is not quite the book I wrote. On the other hand, now it will exist.
Shane: “So the book as it stands is not quite the book I wrote.” That’s an interesting sentence. How was the editing process? Did you receive edits one day and scream and throw a bottle of scotch against the wall or anything?
Ben: Oh, no; the editing process was a dream. We never even had a single argument. The only hard moment for me was when they told me at the beginning that I’d have to cut the book down. Apparently a 500-page collection would have been, um, not cost-effective. But once we got past that, it was all smooth sailing. Every word in the book is exactly the way I want. I just tell myself that I now have another 62-story book sitting here waiting for its chance. And I come from the world of screenwriting, so comparatively speaking the whole thing’s been almost ridiculously marvelous.
Shane: I think a debut 500 page collection would have been neat to see. Critics would be like “what the fuck is this? this must be really important.” So from all those stories, do you have a favorite? During the editing process did you know right away which stories to cut?
Ben: No, I had no idea. It took me a couple months to finally do it, and even then I could only get it down to fifty. I tried lots of different methods (cutting it directly in half, cutting it randomly in half, cutting out every other story (and then every other other story), cutting out any story that was even slightly like any other (the 101-story version was kind of symphonic; images and themes would appear and then disappear and then rise again, transformed from tragedy and horror to comedy and whatnot). I polled a lot of readers to see what the favorites were and it turned out there were only two stories the majority agreed “were clearly the best,” otherwise everyone insisted rather vehemently on different ones. Eventually I just did my best to capture the shape of the original, and cut out those stories first that I knew still needed work (which in retrospect I am so very glad I did, because even editing only the “already totally done” 40 stories was a helluva job). So finally I got it down to fifty and then gave up, sent those in and let my editor pick from there. Which he did, and we had a little conversation about a few, did a little trading, and that was it.
As for a favorite… I don’t know. They’re like my children; I’m sure every writer feels that way. Some of them I love because I just think they’re great, some of them I love because they’re “like me,” some of them I love because I they’re nothing like me, some of them I love because they’re kinda funny-looking, or have a moose or a duck in them or something. Some of them I don’t understand at all– those I’m always staring at and think they must be VERY IMPORTANT. But I guess if you put a gun to my head, I’d say “The Girl in the Storm” is my favorite. But it’s not that I like it better than the others (I think I most enjoy the one called “Bigfoot,” for what it’s worth), it’s just the one that I think best represents what I do. Or what I do in this book, anyway.
(And yes, I thought a 500-page book of fables would’ve been pretty awesome, too. I just pictured it there, lying on the table in the bookstore, freaking everybody out.)
Shane: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what influences your work that is not a fable or fairytale. That is, what are your “outside” influences?
Ben: Well, to tell the truth, I almost never read fables (does anyone even write them but Aesop?), and I don’t even like most fairy tales; I tend to find them confusing.
And in spite of the fact that I only write stories, when I think about it, I mostly read novels. My favorites tend to be the weirdest ones (I go for unique visions)… Philip K. Dick, Richard Brautigan, Jean Genet, P.G. Wodehouse, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Rhys, J.F. Powers, Samuel Delany, Patricia Highsmith, Erskine Caldwell… There’s a book called The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards that I really love. My favorite book is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which is about as far as you can get from my own stuff.
When I’m working, I’m not aware of any literary influence; I mean, I’m sure it’s there, but it’s not conscious. I get an idea and I sit down and write, and I never think about anyone else. There are a few sort of mantras I keep in mind, and those tend to keep me focused. But they’re not other books, mostly they’re sentences, and some of them are kind of weird.
For instance, there’s a sentence Noam Chomsky once wrote, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” It was written to illustrate a linguistic point (that grammar lies outside of semantics). I don’t know why, but I find that sentence thrilling, and I’m always trying to capture the feeling it gives me. It’s so clear and wonderful and the same time mysterious, I sometimes chant it as I write.
There are a few other things like that I keep in mind– one by Ray Bradbury, about jumping off cliffs, and another (which I think is maybe Richard Matheson?) about how details ironically fracture the readership.
But I think by far my biggest influence is simply an understanding of three act structure. People always tell me my stories are beyond logic, but for every one, I could draw you a diagram. I see them in my mind, almost diamond-shaped, and in the middle, the widest part is the midpoint. It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but Syd Field’s books on screenwriting changed my life.
Shane: I’m not sure how to phrase my next question, and I’d like to end on it, but do you ever feel guilty about ‘being a writer’? Do you ever just sit at your desk and think ‘my god, what am I doing here?”
Ben: That’s pretty much all I ever think. (That, and “Where the fuck are we??”) But it’s not really a matter of guilt for me; mostly I just get lonely.
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Stories for Nighttime and Some For The Day is available for preorder now.