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Air date: February 11, 2012
[2:09] Okay people, this is it, this is the Otherppl program, this is the broadcast, this is the fundamental nature of the exchange. My guest today is Ben Marcus. I’m very excited about it. He’s written several books, like The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, and now, most recently, The Flame Alphabet, which is causing quite a stir and creating lots of excitement in the publishing world. It’s a novel, it’s available from Knopf. Ben and I are going to talk about a bunch of things in just a moment, but before we begin I thought I’d let you know what’s going on.
[2:40] My in-laws are in town. They arrived yesterday after driving across the country from Minnesota, and they’re going to be in Southern California for about a month. They don’t know quite where yet; there’s been some talk of Palm Springs, some talk of Santa Ynez. Everything is up in the air. They’re improvising, floating around bohemian-style.
[3:21] My mother-in-law just showed up at our apartment with a shoebox with a variety of stuff inside. Maybe it’s not a shoebox, but it’s a variety of stuff including an old doll that my wife had as a child, a very creepy-looking doll that plays music when you wind it up, the kind of music that might appear on the soundtrack to a horror film. The kind of doll that might attack you in the night. And inside the box there were several rubber Smurfs and some porcelain Disney figurines.
[3:55] I should mention that this is a ritual: my mother-in-law likes to embarrass my wife by unearthing the artifacts of her childhood and then presenting them to me. And my mother-in-law keeps everything. I mean that sincerely. If it belonged to my wife in her youth than it remains to this day in their house in Minnesota.
[4:21] In this manner, my mother-in-law reminds me a bit of my paternal grandfather, my dad’s dad, whom I called “Pops.” He saved everything, too. I can remember visiting my grandparents as a boy, down in South Louisiana, in Bayou country, and I remember being bored one day and wanting to ride a bike.
[4:51] So Pops went to the garage and it was stuffed to the gills with everything he’d ever had, ever. There were no cars parked in there obviously. It was a storage facility of mind-boggling density and strange organization. There was a system to it, but nobody understood that system except for my grandfather.
[5:25] So he went in there and found, up in the attic region, my father’s bicycle from the 1950s. It was silver and rusty and antiquated, but it still worked and I was able to ride it around the neighborhood. My dad was amazed and horrified by the fact that my grandfather was still in possession of his childhood bicycle almost fifty years later. The thing hadn’t been touched in decades, but he’d kept it for an occasion such as this.
[5:58] Much the same is true for my wife. I remember being in Minneapolis a couple years back, visiting my in-laws. As I’m sitting on the couch watching television my mother-in-law walks over and hands me my wife’s retainer from when she was in high school, and a plaster mold of her teeth from the orthodontist. This is the level of curation I’m talking about.
[6:28] It’s a heightened level of saving, of sentimentality I guess. Some might call it hoarding or pack-ratishness. I have the opposite affliction. Rather than wanting to keep everything, I want to throw everything away, including valuables.
[7:00] I don’t care what it is. Nothing would make me happier. I’m generally made anxious by the accumulation of stuff, and by any kind of sentimentality I might feel about an object. It even goes so far that I have fantasies of shaving my head, which I’ve talked about. I don’t even want the accumulation of hair on my head. I want nothing.
[7:30] I want to live in my fantasy house, made almost entirely of glass, with polished concrete floors and almost no furniture. It will be like a museum, and I’ll be completely hairless, in a unitard and New Balance running shoes.
Is that an appealing image? Am I getting through to you?
[7:58] Anyway, that’s what’s happening. I’ve been up since 4:30 in the morning for some unknown reason. I think I’m a little punchy. My in-laws are in town, my daughter just inherited a vast collection of rubber smurfs and porcelain Disney figurines but I don’t think we’re going to keep the doll. She was a little frightened, and frankly I was too. Just to drive home this desire I have to rid myself of all stuff, I don’t know if you’re like this but when I go grocery shopping I always go through our refrigerator and all our cabinets and methodically dispose of any food that is anywhere near its expiration date.
[8:29] My wife teases me for my militance about this. But I’m convinced that I’m correct on this one and that my approach is rooted in deep wisdom. I do not want rotting food in my home. What’s worse than old food? But it does present some conundrums, some moral dilemmas.
[9:01] Let’s say the expiration date on an old bag of spinach in the fridge is two days away and I come home with a new bag I just bought. The old bag is gone! I realize that’s wasteful but it’s a calculation. It’s not going to get eaten in the next two days. Someone’s going to reach for the new stuff. So what am I supposed to do?
[9:31] Practically speaking, am I supposed to walk into the city of Los Angeles and find somebody to give this bag of spinach to? What homeless person really wants a bag of spinach, honestly? As much as it seems like the correct thing to do, it’s really hard on a functional level.
[10:02] I’m really opposed to the accumulation of perishable goods and their potential rotting. Therefore, I will dispose of it in cold-blooded fashion. Because there’s nothing worse in my mind than when a house or an apartment smells. That’s how I feel. Conscious of that. And I remember it distinctly from when I was a kid: certain friends of mine lived in houses that smelled like rotting food, putrefaction. They smelled unkempt.
[10:33] In contrast, other friends’ houses smelled like cinnamon or eucalyptus or blueberry muffins. It was pleasant. You wanted to be there. I don’t want my daughter bringing her friends over in years to come, and for her friends to think to themselves, “My god this place smells terrible. These people stink.”
[11:03] I don’t want that. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t want to smell bad. You know what I mean?
* * *
BL: Alright, welcome. We were just talking about David Markson—you interviewed him.
[11:33] Ben Marcus: Yes, I tried. I’m a huge fan of Markson, and this was a few years before he died. I’d written about him a little bit in an essay on lyric essays, I think for The Believer. When I was in graduate school at Brown I heard they were trying to bring him up to read, and he really didn’t like to do that. He didn’t like to come out of his house. I’d never seen him or met him. And he wrote me a little note, I think of thanks, for something I’d written about him. So I pitched an interview and called him and we talked.
[12:07] He’s very smart, very formidable. Like a lot of writers, he didn’t want to really explain much, which I think is fine.
BL: About his work or about his life? Or both?
BM: I didn’t really ask him anything about this life. He started writing in this list way in Reader’s Block: lists of people who either were anti-Semitic or who killed themselves. That summarizes what his books were about. It looked like a totally radical departure for me. It was.
BL: Here’s the thing, because I’m a Markson fan. I came to him a little bit late, but man, when I read it I thought This is really moving. Why is it so moving? Why do people latch on so emotionally to this work that seems on the surface so unemotional?
[13:06] BM: I remember there was a Times review of Reader’s Block that said there aren’t any real characters in it. I remember thinking Fuckers, man. Really? You’re going to apply that standard? It wasn’t like he was pretending, like he tried to have characters. That’s just not what he did. It’s fine not to like it, but to say “If only there were characters…” [Laughs]
But that stuff is mind-blowing, and it’s hard to figure out why it’s so poignant, so sad. Because you could read that information and probably not even care. I think it’s the way he wrote those sentences. There’s no syllable out of place. They’re so tight.
BL: His phrasing is beautiful.
BM: Yeah! Every line seems so carefully phrased.
BL: If I look at it like collage, which can so easily be misperceived as haphazard, slapped-together, accidental—
BM: Yeah, and some collage is.
BL: But you get the sense with him that there was quite a lot of care.
I think I read somewhere that he was doing notecards, that he kept everything on individual notecards he’d sequence.
BM: And when you read him you feel as though he’s this repository of really, really awful events and awful things people did or said. He’s this weird encyclopedia and he’s spitting it back. That book of his, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which was my introduction to him, is about the last man on earth, and he’s in a museum essentially trying to empty his memory of everything he has ever thought. It’s sort of elegiac, but it’s just data. It shouldn’t move you but somehow it really does. It’s all the things you’re not supposed to do when you write fiction. You’re not supposed to just give information.
[15:10] BL: Not too long ago I wrote a my-year-in-reading for The Millions and mentioned that I’d read Markson in a huge wave.
BL: One of the things that I kind of decided about it, that I landed upon, was that he’s sort of preparing himself for death in these books by cataloguing the deaths of others. He’s also trying to make sense of art in relationship to his life. One of the other things that strikes me about the books is how carefully and often and with such humor he catalogues how vicious artists are to one another, the awful things they say to one another.
BM: Well, no one seems to be spared, either. Let’s come up with a list of people Markson does not have some dirt on: is there anybody left?
BL: Yeah! You read Ralph Waldo Emerson saying something nasty and it destroys me because he’s, like, a literary saint in my life.
[16:08] BM: Did it ever occur to you that maybe Markson made some of that up? You read it and think, “All these things are totally true, right? But do you know they’re true?
BL: That’s a good point.
BM: I like to falsely attribute stuff, particularly to Emerson. So when you hear some bad thing Emerson said, I’m wondering… but it does seem with Markson that it’s true. But it’s rough! It’s a rough accounting with history, is what it is. In some sense his books are so different, but I’m reminded of the Nicholson Baker book about WWII. His approach is so mind-blowing. It’s a lot of short entries that essentially encapsulate what was going on on a certain date, in essence what you would have read in the newspaper if you were alive then. He puts you back in time. He doesn’t use any overview or larger perspective, but he’ll point out what The Times said on a certain day, and what Roosevelt was doing or Churchill was doing, and where he went or where Hitler was on a certain day, what somebody said. Impeccably researched little capsules you move through in a timeline. Now we have this big, broad overview of what happened, but you wouldn’t have while it was happening. You’d be somebody reading The New York Times. Baker closes everything down and gives you just a little bit of data. Of course, you can’t help measure it against the real data you have. When you see that Hitler’s having a meeting, you know it’s not just a meeting. It’s a grand evil plan. But that doesn’t even need to be said.
[18:14] I love the way that was written, and I feel like, like Markson, it’s just this beautiful attention paid to information. That’s it. And of course it’s totally stylized. Markson is an amazing stylist.
BL: He would have been great on Twitter.
BM: Oh man.
BL: I don’t mean to reduce him!
BM: Does anyone do that sort of thing?
BL: I don’t know. The thing about it is that it’s cataloguing, but there’s something artful about it and you have to be so unbelievably well-read. It’s not slap-dash; there’s a thematic consistency to the things he’s putting together. You can’t just find anything, you have to find certain things. It’s interesting.
BM: Going back to the Markson, that was going back and forth between people who were anti-Semitic or who killed themselves, it seems like he could write like ten of these! [Laughs] He’s just got so many examples.
[19:04] BL: It’s sad there are so many. Yesterday, Mike Kelly and Don Cornelius both took their own lives right here in Los Angeles.
BM: I heard.
[19:33] BL: Horrible news. A pitfall in the arts, to say the least.
BL: So we’re on the experimental fiction track, which obviously bears some relation to your work and your approach to everything else. Where do you place yourself in that whole argument? Do you place yourself in it? Do you feel like traditional publishers or media outlets don’t do a good job of embracing the idea of experimentation in fiction? Do you feel like there’s a stasis we need to break out of?
BM: That’s a bunch of big questions, a bunch of interesting topics. I sometimes would like to simply not play. There’s a part of me that wants to say, “Look I’m just writing what I like to write and it’s not some calculation or attempt to be something other than what I am or do anything other than write something that actually holds my attention and doesn’t put me to sleep or make me feel like a huge, burning fraud, which I might anyway.”
[20:42] It’s difficult, then, to say “I’m experimental” given the way I feel when I work. I also think the word has been used, sometimes, in a derogatory way. Writing is interesting in that there’s a specific kind of fence around material that gets no other label other than, let’s say, “literature.” It would tend to be the sort of novel Jane Austen wrote, and it still gets written today. It’s a great model, I think. I love reading those books. But I get confused when I start considering this question in terms of something like painting or sculpture or an installation—art or video art. Suddenly it’s like, “Wait, what? What’s the analogue?” In some sense, the ambition or desire, however foolish or idiotic, to do something no one else is doing is kind of a given in a lot of the other art forms.
BL: Or it seems more permissive. I was going to ask that in a follow-up question. You look at the other art forms, and then you look at literature, and it feels like literature is more resistant to that kind of experimentation.
[22:01] BM: And maybe, to do the devil’s advocate thing, language is a technology, a tool to make people feel things. We tell stories in order to satisfy all kinds of deep desires and maybe everything that had to be figured out about how to do that best has been figured out for a hundred and fifty years, so if you want to do it now you’re kind of an idiot to pretend that didn’t happen. It isn’t the best way to reach people. And you shouldn’t waste your time fucking around and trying to make up a new way because no one cares, no one wants to read that, and all the work’s been done for you. So join the team, put on the uniform, and start to play. But it’s sort of hard to really feel that. Though some people feel it naturally; they have kinds of stories to tell, so the way they’re going to do it isn’t something they wring their hands over that much.
[23:05] For better or worse, when I was first writing, I didn’t have a real native relationship to that approach, the sort of “John got out of his chair and left the room and drove to work and at work there was no coffee.” To me, that wasn’t what you were supposed to be doing. But suddenly if you’re not doing that, you’re called “experimental.” It all feels a little weird.
[23:30] On the other hand, I feel like I’ve been given a lot of great opportunities. I feel like I’ve gotten lucky and had my stuff published and had some of it reviewed. People do seem concerned to catalog it and wonder about it, and with my new book there seems to be some sense, because it’s more narrative, that I’m “forsaking” the experimental by writing narrative. I think we use language to make other people feel things. There are a lot of ways to do that. There’s a big tool kit. There are some things I hadn’t tried.
BL: Like what?
[24:08] BM: Like a propulsive story. A single narrator who has to tell the whole story so I can’t wrest the story away from him and suddenly go into another character’s head; I can’t restrict it. Time moves quickly. That kind of thing.
BL: Are you saying you were trying to embrace fictional conventions that might be associated with genre, as opposed to literary?
BM: Not even “genre” but maybe literary. I wonder if narrative belongs to realism. Does it belong to anybody? Aren’t there different ways, different strategies? I guess I like to think that you don’t have to decide. My first book, The Age of Wire and String, had a bunch of fictionalized encyclopedic entries. It didn’t have a story, per se, or characters. It had some recurring images and things like that and was considered by some experimental.
[25:17] It was essentially ignored when it was published, aside from some bad reviews. Then I published my second book, and I got a lot of “Oh your first book was amazing but now you’re already not as experimental as we want you to be.” I think there’s a kind of retrospective correction that goes on where people appear out of nowhere to praise something you did ten years ago and hope you go back to that.
[25:49] In a way I felt like I got kicked out of the experimental club, and I definitely was never invited to the conventional club. I just feel like I’m floating or buried, whatever the metaphor, between those two places. Honestly, I don’t care. As long as I’m trying to literally write to my absolute limit and make it good in the ways I want to make it good, I can’t care about what it’s called because I don’t know what to do with that information.
[26:18] BL: And you can’t sit down and think, “I’m going to write experimentally.” I mean, that’s absurd, right?
BM: I certainly don’t but a little while ago in an interview I was asked if I consider myself experimental and I said, sort of stupidly, “Does anybody actually call themselves experimental?” As it turns out, a bunch of people, at least on this blog, did, and they were pissed off! I didn’t realize.
[26:47] But I think if you say “I’m an experimental writer,” it’s like saying “I’m a super badass writer. I am so bad-ass.” Slightly arrogant, but on the other hand it’s probably a useful description for some people. It’s just been used so differently and sometimes so maliciously or dismissively that it’s just been harpooned and gutted. And bled. And burned.
[27:20] BL: Have you had the experience where you’re trying something you haven’t seen in a book before?
BM: That’s an interesting way to put it. Sometimes, though, I think of myself as woefully under-read. When I was younger I read compulsively but other things come up. You have to go to work. You have kids. You have to write.
[27:50] Sometimes I think, I could write today, or I could read a book. Unfortunately I feel like I’d better get my writing done.
I want to say it was Norman Mailer, who in between books would go on these reading binges. I think that’s super-healthy. I’m doing that a little bit now, and it’s super exciting. If I am reading a book I have to teach it’s one of the worst things in the world because you can’t just enjoy it mutely. I imagine I have to carry the ball in a discussion of it and draw people out and find out what they think. You find yourself reading, looking for little chestnuts to polish and throw at people. I feel like some of my favorite books have been ruined by having to teach them. “Aside from how you felt, [laughs] tell me what you thought.”
[29:00] BL: What books are those? Can you think of one that you loved but ruined by teaching it?
BM: “Ruined” is strong because I do recover my enthusiasm. But students are interesting. They should be honest about what doesn’t reach them. I’ve taught Markson and had him refused by people. I’ve taught Thomas Bernhard or Diane Williams. She’s a writer I love. Some people read her and are changed forever; others feel like it’s a foreign language they haven’t been taught. There are always examples of this. Almost every book I really love, there are always a few haters.
BL: Last weekend I was having this conversation with another writer. Some of it is a matter of taste: it just doesn’t hit you in the right way, and that’s it. But I think some of it is also a function of where you are in your life.
[30:05] Have you ever had the experience where you pick up a book and read it but you can’t access it? Almost to the point where it’s indecipherable. Then you pick up that same book five years later and it makes perfect sense.
BM: I think it’s totally true. In some sense you’ve hit on something that’s really interesting to me: reading the exact right book at the exact right moment. Sometimes I’ll read a student’s work and think, “What would blow this person away now?”
[30:34] I don’t know about you but it’s harder to have that experience. I can read things and admire them and get engrossed in them but it’s harder to have that almost life-changing experience where you’re destroyed and remade by a book.
BL: As a function of age, do you think?
BM: I don’t know. Maybe I’m not reading the right things, or maybe I’m trying to write, and I feel too protective and I don’t let something in.
BL: I’m the same way. I’ll use books I’ve loved in the past as desk references or touchstones but I’ll spin around in my desk chair and pick one up off the shelf and open it and feel, “It’s just not the same anymore.” It doesn’t diminish my love for it but I cannot get through certain novels that at fifteen or twenty-two…
BM: … you just ate up.
[31:31] BL: I think that’s just the way it goes. Or maybe we’re just old curmudgeons who can’t find our youthful enthusiasm anymore. I don’t know.
BM: We’ve damaged our attention spans with the internet.
BL: I worry about that too. That’s one of the things that’s almost tiring to talk about because everyone’s concerned. But you can’t escape it. I’ve been trying to wake up every morning and read a book first thing in the morning before I get sucked into the computer.
BM: That’s so smart.
[32:05] BL: It’s the only way I feel like I can get to it. At night, if I read before bed, I’m done.
BM: It’s a sleeping pill for me, too.
BL: Yeah. But it’s especially hard with kids. You know, you don’t have to make your kid, like, Amish. Nothing against the Amish. But to remove all technology to me doesn’t feel like the answer.
[32:40] BM: I don’t think it works. They’ll find it. They’ll create internet out of the toaster while you’re at work.
BL: Or they’ll turn eighteen and go completely nuts. It’s hard to know what the correct thing is, because you don’t want to irreparably damage your child’s attention span by giving them unlimited access. My daughter’s seventeen months old and she’s already playing on an iPad. It’s freaky.
BM: I know. My three-year-old doesn’t just play on the iPad; it’s also evidently his cookie plate. It’s become so disgusting. I’m never touching it again.
BL: We had a big photobook on the coffee table and she started swiping the photobook! Isn’t that depressing? [Laughs]
BM: [Laughs] It’s so awesome though.
BL: She gets frustrated because the thing doesn’t move and make noises and stuff.
[33:45] BM: It’s so horrible. We should all just hide in a hole.
BL: But back to the task at hand. The issue of children seems to be at the heart of The Flame Alphabet. Seems to be a theme. Were you thinking consciously about your own children when you were working on the book?
BM: My son had just been born when I was working on the book so he was zero and my daughter was four-and-a-half.
[34:12] You know, in some sense when I sit down write I like to think that I have some ability to access a self that has nothing to do with my real self. That used to drive me. Speaking of being young and stupid, I used to be disdainful of that approach, where you write about your own experiences and turn them into story. I had a lot of problems with that.
[34:40] BL: You felt like it was a shortcut?
BM: I admired Borges, Kafka, the approach where [the story] feels recognizable but isn’t about your quotidian experience. Maybe mythological and strange and compelling but not a memoir-y gush.
[35:15] But more recently started to wonder about all the stuff I was really dismissive of. I was talking about this with a painter friend—
BL: Can you give an example of a book?
BM: I don’t mean “stuff” as in “book” but as in “ideas” or “ways of writing.” Being dismissive of writing autobiographically or, because I teach writing, I would never be one of those people who’d write a story about a writing class. You don’t think you have rules against anything but suddenly you have these things that have piled up. Writing autobiographically, or writing a totally domestic short story, what I’d call a “teacup-and-flower story.”[Laughs]
My painter friend is in his late forties and has done well and in some sense he could probably continue to produce what he produces and do fine but he’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t want to do this.”
[36:14] We realized that all these things we’d dismissed, we were no longer exactly sure why we ruled all that stuff out. I was talking about it in terms of writing, and he was talking about it in terms of painting. He said it was just unheard of to do, let’s say, figurative painting, when he was coming up. It was so ridiculous, it wasn’t even discussed. It wasn’t done in certain circles.
[36:40] He said what I’d really been feeling, which was that he was going to systematically do all the things he thought he shouldn’t do. If I take on even the trappings of a conventional book there’s no fucking way it’s going to end up being conventional. It’s not going to look like a Jane Austen book, it’s still going to reek of me.
[37:17] BL: There’s no way around it.
BM: It’s not going to turn into a generic, bland thing that could be anybody. You’re not a chameleon. Those are just tools to unlock your sensibility. And that’s what you’re stuck with: your sensibility. With kids, the urgency and desperation and loyalty around them was a big thing. For some reason from the very first sentence I wanted to open this book with an almost impossible moral moment. I have a bit where a parent abandons his kid while she’s not looking.
[38:22] In other words, the total opposite of what I would do, but I had to put myself in that role, to become that narrator who’d done that. In that way I was using my desperate love for these new creatures in my life against myself. I was sort of trying to attack it to see, I don’t know, if it was dramatic.
BL: The confrontation of fear, right?
[38:57] BM: Yeah. And it involved a lot of me wondering what a good first page of a book was. You know how you talk about opening the first page of a book and sometimes it’s just not there? I think about that a lot. You have half a second to get people’s attention, if that. What’s a good first line in a novel? Obviously I don’t know because I can’t even remember mine. What about it is so good? In some ways that’s why Markson is so compelling. I think there’s something so commanding and severe and scary that comes off the way he writes sentences, and it’s so ineffable I can’t really say. I could try to rewrite one of his sentences and it would just suck, like a piece of journalism. He does something with the cadence. I spend a lot of time wondering how to get the hooks in, I guess.
[40:00] So it did involve children, but in a kind of perverted way, poking at my own sense of desperation and loyalty and wondering what could ever make me leave them.
BL: When you talk about that first sentence, and trying to arrest people’s attention when you have such a small amount of time, it’s a language issue on one hand, I think sometimes writers err in the direction of language, but [there’s also the question of] what’s happening.
BL: It feels like the situation you set up is delicious. Like, Oh shit. Very strange but also primal.
BM: I hope so. It’s funny because I can look at it now and find nine different problems with the way things got set up, inconsistencies, etc. I still have an evolving notion of what that opening should be. I started writing some short stories where I actually think I was stripping it away even more, so you literally launched into something that was quite, let’s say, fraught. Without any pausing or backstory or describing a character’s face, no real setting. I think I was feeling even more interested in trying to see what would happen with something a little propulsive and also a little, almost, worrisome. There was something about writing this novel that was new to me, and a lot that I learned or half-learned on the job.
[41:36] I think I turned the book in on a certain day in August about a year and a half ago, and I had a good working schedule going. Suddenly I was done and I thought, I still want to work. I did more on the novel—little copy edits—because it would come back to me every few months but I had these leftover fumes, so I wrote some short stories. Part of it was [recognition that] these techniques still interest me but I actually feel like I didn’t quite nail them. A short story’s a limited sphere so you can focus way more carefully on the technique of it.
BL: And after a marathon, maybe it feels good to do some sprints for a little bit.
BM: Definitely. And oddly, it opened up a different way for me to think about short stories. It made me think about plot, and I never had. My short stories were a lot more about language and strange images maybe linked to strange situations than plot, and I really hadn’t written many stories with a ticking clock and things happening.
[42:40] BL: I’m sort of the same way. I was working earlier in my career, more elliptically. I was less concerned with the architecture, what it would look like as a whole solid thing.
BM: A little impressionistic?
[43:11] BL: Yeah. But the book I’m working on now is different, and I’m finding great pleasure in trying to build the actual structure. That part of it to me, I guess I’m challenging myself to do it because I didn’t do it before.
BM: I would say the exact same thing. When people say, “Well now you’re being less experimental.”
[43:44] To go back to how we opened, I kind of tune out when I hear stuff like that. I just have no ability to get any meaning out of what that is really saying. When you’re working, you don’t really assign some kind of approach to yourself.
BL: It’s just intuitive.
BM: You’re sitting there and you’re hoping the awful crap is going to start to pop a little. After the fact, you might say, “It was this and not that,” but it’s so hard otherwise to know. I guess I just wish it wasn’t such a limited idea of what a novel might be.
BL: I think it’s changing. Here’s a question. Because the business of publishing is clearly at some sort of pivot point, do you think maybe the concept of what a novel is will have room to grow and change in a way that’s positive, or do you think it could potentially be ruined?
[44:40] BM: I think it totally could, and honestly it could before this. There was a time, I guess it was in the nineties, when there was something called “hypertext,” which was essentially using the mode of a website to write fiction so you could have links within a page. It was a very new thing, to link out of your text and have forking texts with no particular set approach. I had just finished up my studies at Brown and my advisor, Robert Coover, got pretty involved in this. Some people got excited about it and there was a lot of manifesto-ing, which I think is a bad sign. Do the work first and maybe the manifestos come later.
[45:41] But people really thought this was going to unlock everything! To me, language, regardless of what you use to shoot it into somebody else’s body, is still an untapped technology. The idea of a sentence is still [being defined]. There’s someone in 7th grade right now who’s going to write sentences in some way that’s just going to shatter us.
[46:09] Technology is still interesting to some degree. We can’t just not pay attention to it. We’re in this business and we’re curious about it and there’s no possible way to limit the artistic impulse to move people with language. There are going to be people who are going to grow up with it as the norm, whatever we settle on, if we even do settle on a method. The fact is, language is still going to be something we can use to make each other feel things. In the end, that’s what writers are doing. I doubt it’s going to hurt. The commercial side of it is obviously going to change.
[47:15] BL: I agree with you. I don’t think it’s going anywhere. The design is too fool-proof and too fundamental to who we are.
BM: One of the questions is the marketing of all this stuff. My book has only been out for two weeks, and I’ve been lucky in that my publisher has always been supportive of it and has tried to market it a lot. But I’ve also gotten my ass handed to me with a lot of bad reviews, and I wonder, defensively, if it got over-marketed. Maybe I had my audience—and I shouldn’t even be saying this—but I shouldn’t have a big publisher who tries to make a lot of people read me. Maybe the people who read me are enough, but a lot of others will hate this so we shouldn’t over-market something they don’t like. It’s a weird thing to say because most writers say their publisher didn’t do enough for their book.
[48:41] It’s a demented thing to say, so I should add that I love them there and I’m grateful for their enthusiasm. But sometimes with some of the bad reviews (I hate the premise, I hate this man, I hate his life etc). I think Well of course you’d hate it, why did you even review it?
BL: Did you find them mean?
BM: Yeah, I experienced them as mean, but anyone does. I try not to really read them but people will be like, “Congratulations on that Times review that ripped you a new one!”
[49:10] BL: You bring up an interesting point with regards to your audience. When you look at your own work—you’re holding your own book in your hands and you think about the world—you wonder, “Who are the people for whom this book will really register and how many of them are there?That for me is an endlessly fascinating thing to ponder.
BM: It’s easy to think If only more people knew about my work, they’d like it. But maybe not!
BL: Maybe it’s finite.
[50:13] BM: But you hear writers who suddenly have an audience of millions and it’s interesting to listen to because—I’m totally generalizing—but some of them say, “Now I’m responsible.” Once they’re being read by many, many more people it gets in their head: what kind of book should they write next?
BL: No shit. With this podcast, modest as it is, I look at the analytics and realize people are listening. I try not to let it, and one of the things about doing it out of my apartment is that it keeps things modest. I still feel a sense of responsibility, and, as modest as my readership is, as a writer. You want to make sure whoever you’re reaching is pleased.
[51:05] BM: I’ll admit that while I was working on this book, there were days when I thought the world would stop and there’d be this big Festival of Biscuits over my writing. A new cookie would get invented because of it. That little delusion, even though you recognize it at the time, keeps you working. It’s then sobering to discover there will be no biscuit!
[51:41] BL: I don’t think there’s ever been a book that’s been seen through to completion where the author did not have that moment at least once.
BM: I think that’s totally right. And when I talk to writers—and this is my feeling too—after the book comes out I want this part to end so I can go back in my hole and try to work again. Even a good review isn’t quite satisfying. Nothing will ever compare to working on whatever you were working on. That is much more interesting, and in a way gratifying. It’s nice to find that you reached people, that’s enjoyable. But it feels really ephemeral.
BL: There’s this tension when you’re working. I want to get the book done, I’m fixated on it. Eager to work every day.
[52:40] BM: That’s incredible. There’s nothing better than that.
BL: For me the thing is, I want it out of me. What’s funny is [when] it is, then eventually you get to the point you’re at and look back and suddenly or wistfully realize that was the good stuff.
BM: I have no advice about that.
BL: It’s just the way it goes! So how do you work? Are you an every day person? Are you extremely disciplined?
[53:20] BM: When I’m really working on something I have to work every day. I like to have long chunks of time. Sadly, what I’ve found is that if I go away for a few weeks to a place like MacDowell I work really well. There are no distractions, your meals are prepared for you, you walk to your studio, you turn off your internet.
[53:51] BL: Do they have internet at the MacDowell colony?
BM: They have wireless at the library but you have to walk there. Even my cell phone doesn’t get coverage at my studio so I can’t iPhone it.
BL: How do you get in there? What happens? Is this a place you’ve been once or someplace you return to?
[54:20] BM: I’ve been there a few times. You apply. It’s writers, composers, visual artists, and they have seasons. There are a lot of places like it, like Yaddo, all over the country and the world.
BL: I like the name “Yaddo.” It sounds Star Wars-y.
BM: It’s a nonsense word made up by the girl whose dad started Yaddo. He said what should we call it and this four-year-old girl was like “Yaddo.” Done. It’s actually supposed to rhyme with “shadow” but people are so uncomfortable with that because it sounds even worse. I’m just going to say “Yah-do.” Let’s bestow some dignity on it. But yeah, I like to get out of the house, put on those airport sound-blockers—
BL: Love those.
BM: Turn off my internet, and hope for the best.
BL: So you write at the library?
BM: I do, at the Columbia library. I live in New York, and I go across the street to Butler Library. I find a little private nook or cubicle. I really can’t do much at home. My son’s at home with his babysitter, and when there’s a playdate that’s three, four babysitters going nuts.
BL: Uh-oh. That’s coming. I’m already thinking, like, Where am I gonna go?
BM: Don’t do playdates. It’s just terrible. Just kidding, it’s great… for them. If you care about their needs at all.
[56:04] There’s not much mystery or interesting stuff to say about how I work, just like anyone else.
BL: I always like to ask writers about their past or their childhood. Did you always know you’d wind up in this racket?
BM: I was announcing at an early age that I was going to be a writer, though I had no idea, really, what it was.
[56:32] BL: How early are we talking?
BM: I have this memory of hanging out with my friend, Eric, when I was, like, eleven, and we got into a little bit of streaking. We basically took our shirts off and went running in our suburb outside Chicago and we got to talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I surprised myself and said I wanted to be a writer. That’s my origin tale. And I wrote the bad heart-on-sleeve love poems in high school, then nothing much. But in college I was a philosophy major, and I started talking writing classes.
BL: Was that at Brown?
BM: I went to NYU for undergrad then I got an MFA in Creative Writing at Brown.
BL: And you were raised in Chicago?
[57:20] BM: Up until eighth grade then I spent my high school years in Austin. Then after Brown I moved back to the city and waited tables for a few years while writing my first book, The Age of Wire and String. Then I took on some teaching jobs, one at UT Austin, one at Old Dominion in Virginia, then a job at Brown for a few years. Then finally I left Brown to go to Columbia for eleven years.
BL: Oh wow, so you’re tenured there?
BL: Do you see yourself finishing your career there as a professor?
[58:10] BM: It’s hard to imagine leaving; on the other hand, we have two kids and the city is super expensive. We talk about moving but then you look at your overhead. You can’t just move without a job. It would be interesting to move at some point, but it’s nice having job security.
BL: Absolutely. And it’s a great school. Not a bad place to be!
BM: Not at all. I like it.
[58:42] BL: Take me back a little bit. You announced early that you were going to be a writer. What kind of kid were you?
BM: I think I had some inner life, but my brother and I, a year apart, were really athletic, and I always wanted to have a lot of friends around. We pretty much played the seasonal sports: baseball, football, basketball, track. Then in Austin, in high school, sports were even more important. I played football—
BL: What position did you play?
[59:25] BM: See, I was really bad at that point. Up until eighth grade, we were in Evanston and tackle football with pads didn’t start until high school. So when we moved to Texas I was in ninth grade and I was so excited to finally play with pads because before we’d essentially been playing sandlot tackle football—
BL: Which can be pretty rough
BM: True, we were getting to the size and strength where you can actually start getting hurt. I remember once there was some kind of peewee league you could join, but it was far away or something. We were playing our padless football in this playground, and some other kids wanted to play, so we got this big game going and some of them were already playing tackle.
[1:00:13] I remember getting tackled by one of them. There was nothing to learn; you just played football. He just creamed me, and it hurt. In Evanston there was also this rumor that you shouldn’t lift weights too young or it will stunt your growth.
BL: I thought that was true!
BM: Is it true? Well, you could start in ninth grade, the same time you started with pads. But when we got to Austin, the kids had been lifting weights since third grade, and playing tackle football with pads. My brother and I were fair enough athletes in our world; we would not be picked last, but we were just a whole different species. Other ninth graders in the locker room had these huge hairy chests—they were just monsters!
[1:01:28] So that’s the backstory. I was just a joke on the field, and I never caught up.
BL: Do you think that’s what threw you into writing?
BM: What it threw me into was water skiing. I got really into it, and competed and actually did pretty well.
BL: You’re kidding me. Jumping and stuff?
BM: I did the slolems: jumping, and barefooting. I’d go to these waterski camps, these calm manmade lakes in the middle of nowhere, Texas. The water would be brown from the mud, and you’d learn jumping and barefooting and all this stuff. I was actually so serious about water skiing that I wanted to go to college for it and my mom was just horrified.
BL: I would never have guessed that!
[1:02:15] BM: Maybe I should go back to that because I don’t know about the writing. But I don’t think at this age I could have a professional water skiing career. There was a school in Florida called Rollins College, and I really wanted to go there. It was a crazy party school where they were really good at waterskiing.
BL: What do you do with it though? Is there actually a way to make money through water skiing?
[1:02:53] BM: What do you do with a philosophy degree? To me it’s the same. [Laughter]
BL: Point taken.
BM: No, it’s obviously a terrible idea. Even if you’re the best in the world you’re gonna be making, like, $5 an hour. Nothing against any professional water skiers out there.
BL: It’s not an Olympic sport, is it?
[1:03:08] BM: I don’t know. It’s funny, because I realized a few years ago once YouTube got really rampant that I was out of touch with what people were even doing. Water sports technically change, there are different techniques. It was fun to catch up and see what people had figured out. Barefooting jumping, for instance: you go over a very shallow ramp. I never did this because it was considered really hard and really scary, but the guys would get really rigid and jump just twenty feet, thirty feet. You’re going fast, but their bodies just stayed in position.
[1:03:57] One thing I noticed is they had a da-Vinci-level breakthrough where you go into the jump throwing yourself into a flying position and just flop into the air, still holding the rope, feet behind you. You just arch and get way more distance, and at the last minute, you bring your feet under you and you land. And suddenly they’re jumping three times further. I don’t know if you get, like, a MacArthur for that? I wonder if any water skiers have gotten that. They should have a year where they only give it out to really superior athletes.
[1:05:01] BL: [Laughs] Now I want to know how you conceive of your future as a writer. And by that I mean: are you a person who plots your course going forward or are you just focused on tomorrow or today?
BM: What’s funny is, having a book out, getting a lot of attention, positive and negative, talking a lot about writing all day, every day on a book tour—in a weird way, it makes me long for writing itself, free of all that. It’s giving me a longer view. If you see yourself getting criticized for something over and over, I have to admit I’m not someone who doesn’t care about it, I’m not like “fuck them, those fuckin’ morons.” I’m more like [pitiful sound].
BL: I’m more susceptible. I’m always like, Maybe they’re right.
BM: I don’t traffic in that level of confidence, but on the other hand I don’t think it really works to address some random person’s concerns.
[1:06:02] BL: And it also doesn’t stop you from working.
BM: The question is, if people have all these problems, how does that end up resonating in the long term, is it really going to change what you do? I’m finishing up a collection of stories I’m really excited about. It’ll come out with Knopf sometime in the summer of 2013.
[1:06:34] Since now’s such a busy time I want to take some time in the summer to cut some stories, revise some stories, maybe write a new one, two, three ones and see if I can make it better. Doing that might help me refine my idea for another novel. I feel a real urge to continue and to try something different and to see what I can do, in some sense, so I can return to that space and feel a little excited about something again and not feel like I’m judging myself or others are judging me.
[1:07:06] It’s just impossible to stay happy. You can’t. If you’re working and no one can see it for a while, there’s just a time when you can maybe take what you’ve learned or thought about and possibly process a little it, or ignore it, who knows. I feel excited to work. I had this vague idea for a novel and I’d written some pages, and I was sort of testing out what I’d like it to be but it’s super-seedling.
[1:07:39] BL: I was gonna ask: do you feel like most of your books have begun in a similar way, or does it change? Like, sometimes it’s the character, sometimes it’s the title, etc? Do you start with a question?
BM: I think in some sense I have to start with language that feels resonant, that can grow and be built on. But at the same time I think I’ve been thinking a little more situationally, a little more story-y than in the past.
[1:08:11] Notable American Women was a very episodic book with sort of discrete chapters about how to feel less. It was like a faux- nonfictional book about processes and concepts and fake ideas. So in some sense it was a lot harder to write because I couldn’t just pick up every day and continue. I would finish a little nugget of it and then write another one and have to start the process again. I felt like I kept starting and finishing little books.
BL: And they had to be completely different at the level of voice.
BM: And self-contained and oddly, I don’t really know why, I felt like I was publishing them as I went. That was just what I wanted to do, I guess. I always have a fantasy of working in some different way that’s faster or more efficient or better but then you’re suddenly just working the same way you always did.
[1:09:24] BL: I’ve had that fantasy too, of a book that just shoots out of me in three weeks or something crazy.
BM: That never, ever works. Can you think of any examples?
BL: On the Road theoretically was written quickly but I think he was working on that book for a long time.
BM: Yeah. But I think it’s fun to draft quickly. I drafted this one quickly.
BL: How long did it take you?
[1:10:03] BM: I finished this draft in about a year, which is really fast for me.
BL: I think that’s also within the range of normal.
BM: Some people say “Write a thousand words a day.” Well, then you’d have a novel in eighty days. And then there’s the National Novel Writing Month.
BM: Oh man, I have a really embarrassing story. They ask you to do pep talks if you sign up, and I agreed. While people were doing this month of intensive work, they email them pep talks from people like me and my pep talk was rejected.
BL: Was it? [Laughs]
BM: I’m actually really proud of it. In essence what I said was, “Look, word count is such a ridiculous criteria. Maybe it’s helpful, go ahead and do a lot of work, but know you’re going to throw a lot of it away.
[1:11:07] My pep talk was to get stern, strict outside readers who aren’t family members or friends or people incapable of saying critical things. Find someone who’s not afraid to give a critical read and build in time for revision. It was kind of nuts and bolts, but I take a big knock against this idea that so long as you have word count, you’re fine.
[1:11:36] They said that’s kind of the big idea; you can’t criticize it. So I said “Okay, let’s just go our separate ways.” I actually think it’s a neat way, probably, to get a draft out for a book. I have no problem with it. But I found in my pep talk that I was really not able to condone it.
BL: Well, for lack of a better way of putting it, you were trying to keep it real. You’re writing all these words in a month, it’s likely 80 percent of them are going to be excised, right?
[1:12:12] BM: It’s hard not to think all that stuff’s going to survive.
BL: If you ever wind up writing a book in a month—any of you out there—let me know if this happens to you. I want to talk to you.
BM: You’re going to get like ninety emails.
BL: [Laughs] Ben, it’s been great talking to you.
BM: This was fun.
[1:12:46] BL: Best of luck with the rest of the tour.
* * *
Okay folks, there you have it. That’s it, that’s Ben Marcus: what a terrific guest and what a terrific writer. Go get his new novel; it’s called The Flame Alphabet. It’s out there now, available from Knopf. It’s the rare literary page-turner. It reads with the propulsive energy of a thriller, but it carries the depth-charge of ancient poetry. How’s that for a plug? Ben can be found on the web at BenMarcus.com. He also has a Facebook presence.
[1:13:14] This show has a website. It’s otherppl.com. It has a Twitter feed: @otherppl. I have a twitter feed: @bradlisti. This show has a [now defunct] Facebook presence, and if you want to email me, the address is email@example.com. You can tell me what you think, whatever you like. Don’t forget to check out thenervousbreakdown.com, my online culture magazine and literary community. You can follow it on the Twitter at @TNBtweets. And here, quickly, is my pitch. If you enjoy the show, if you’re a regular listener, I kindly ask that you consider joining the Nervous Breakdown Book Club as a show of support.
[1:13:50] For only $9.99/mo you get a brand new book delivered to your door every month. That’s less than the cost of a book. And you get a book delivered to your house. The titles are hand-selected by myself and my buddy, Jonathan Evison, and better yet, I interview the authors on this program so you can read the book and join me in conversation with the person who wrote the book. If you have the dough and you’d like to help the cause, you can pay via credit card or PayPal, and if you do this, I will love you for eternity.
[1:14:24] But before I go, I’d like to add a little clarification to the rotting food argument I made at the top of the show. I don’t want you to think that I’m throwing away pounds and pounds of good food every week or that I’m completely obsessive compulsive about it. I feel like I’m moderate. I’m just trying to hold down the fort and run a good household. It’s nice when things smell nice.
[1:15:00] That’s all I’m saying. But what’s interesting, as kind of a side note, is that I don’t like it when people smell too nice. I’m not advocating for perfume or cologne. With people, I don’t want to smell them at all. And if I do smell them, I just want them to smell like soap.
[1:15:30] But with a house I want flavors, scents, some kind of production value. I always try to have a scented candle burning when I tape the show. (Ben, if I didn’t light one for you, I’m really sorry.)
[1:16:09] These days scented candles are expensive. You can pay like $30. It’s just wax, it should be subsidized by the government. That’s my position. If I’m president, every home in America would smell like eucalyptus and sandalwood.
Okay. My thanks to Mr. Ben Marcus, and to Kill Rock Stars for great music.
[1:16:43] Be sure to check out killrockstars.com. I will be back again soon with another author just for you. In the meantime, please go clean out your refrigerator. Light a candle and make the world a better place.