An Interview with Benjamin Reed
By Kiara Huertas and Jenny Prucnal
Benjamin Reed has been a longshoreman, a bartender, and a delivery driver for a bakery. His stories have appeared in Sou'wester, Blue Mesa Review, The Southern Quarterly, and other journals. He won Avery Anthology's Small Spaces Prize and West Branch has nominated his short story "The Weigh-In" for the Pushcart. He will have a story in [PANK] 8, and will be guest editor for the fall issue of Arcadia Magazine. Benjamin is an MFA candidate and Instructional Assistant at Texas State University, where he's teaching Gilgamesh to undergraduates and finishing his first novel. He lives in Austin with his wife and their son.
"The Weigh-In" appeared in West Branch 70, Spring/Summer 2012.
West Branch: In your story "Speechless," people are no longer able to speak. Everyone is voiceless, the narrator is nameless, and the one moment when a girl manages to sing is both hopeful and heartbreaking, neatly illustrating a central paradox of the human condition: that hope and everything truly worth appreciating in life seems to be tied up with some kind of suffering. How do you go about creating the situations your characters are up against?
Benjamin Reed: I think that is a sound and totally fair reading of the story, but it's not precisely what I had in mind. For me, "Speechless" is about communication and exploitation. But first let me get to your question.
This story started as a dream. This very rarely happens to me—in fact, "Speechless" is the only story I can recall in which I was able to use dream material to any degree of success. The dream was basically just the initial image, the first half of the first paragraph—men in overcoats standing on a foggy street corner, writing to each other on scraps of paper with little pencil nubs. Beyond that, I made little progress until I realized I needed the story to be about something. At the time, I was fascinated by how text messaging and pornography had affected our cognition of both sex and discourse. I had a couple male friends who were hardcore porn addicts (though, I'm now uncertain to which noun the modifier more aptly applies—"addict" or "porn"), and one of them once pointed out that a person could watch hundreds and hundreds of hours of online porn and never see the same woman twice. To me that said a lot about the nature of the industry. I don't mean to claim that all adult film actors are "exploited" by definition, rather that this endless queue of amateur talent, used to create grotesque narratives of fantasy, parallels the supply-side economics of exploitation in a greater sense. (My friend Nadia recently made the most astute statement I've heard on the subject: "The main fantasy of porn is that porn is not a fantasy.") Text messaging and email have created a similar affect, just in a different mode of intercourse. There's a certain Law of Conservation of Energy that applies to all communication. By making interpersonal communication so rapid, easy, and ubiquitous, there's a necessary diminishment of the maximum potential of depth and clarity. We've become so invested in new means of verbal intercourse that we tend to focus on what they offer instead of what they strip away. We get tunnel vision. We use terms like "constant contact" to describe conditions created by new technologies, but really the situation can also be seen as radical isolation.
As you can probably tell, I'm into fiction that is invested in a sense of "aboutness." More mechanical issues like plotting, especially creating conflict, are things I continue to have problems with. Unchecked, I seem to prefer to write these dense and complex first drafts where everything's in decent proportion and a lot of interesting stuff happens, but it's unclear what the central conflict means to the primary or secondary characters. (I know, but my early draft readers don't.) This isn't an issue for me all the time; I'm getting better. But, probably because I took several years off between my undergraduate workshop years and starting my MFA, learning to "put story first" is like recovering from an especially self-indulgent addiction. What's been helpful is realizing how conflict itself is not something I can simply alight upon discretely. Conflict is a machine with moving parts. Much more simply, desire or need has to come beforehand or at least in tandem. Although I should add a huge asterisk to all these notions about process or approach—they refer to my outlines, sketches, and rough drafts. By the second or third revision, I'm looking for the story to demand sudden changes, to tell me where I went astray, where it wants to go, or which passages are laughably incongruous to the rest of the story.
WB: The protagonist in "The Weigh-In," is motivated by her desire to reject the stigma attached to being overweight. The tension and ultimately the action in the story arise from that. Is this an example of what you mean by desire and need propelling the story?
BR: At the close of the story, definitely. However, the specific desire you name was meant to be a counterpoint to the story's first three-fourths or five-eighths, or whatever large fraction—where Theresa's really only propelled by the commonplace and relatively uninteresting necessity of a teenage person hungry for acceptance. In fact, she's already found it, before the story begins, in Haylie and McKenzie. But Theresa accepted their overtures before she'd fully developed a system of social discrimination. The story is partly about the moment when a person learns to be less indiscriminate about whom she lets herself gravitate toward. It's a quietly hard lesson, one I personally came to rather late. But to get back to desire and need, the first large chunk of the story is meant to be fairly unremarkable, psychologically speaking, wherein Theresa's rather banal and somewhat passive inclination to let herself be adopted by the popular girls—who for all we know aren't actually that "popular"; they're wealthy and attractive but they certainly aren't intelligent or kind—is only episodically interrupted by her curiosity, her sadness, and her mercurial recalcitrance, which all become key elements in the story's reversal over the final five scenes.
WB: It sounds like the premise of this story was rooted in a coming of age experience, but the story eventually becomes a comment on current social trends and enacts how they might play out in the future. So which comes first, the human element or the social commentary? What is your process in fully developing a story with complex themes that work alongside one another as they do in "The Weigh-In"?
BR: Humanity always comes first. I firmly believe in the moral purpose of fiction. This morality isn't a concerted project so much as something I'm always at least dimly aware of. I feel free to write whatever I like, but whatever that may be definitely revolves around a kind of sacred covenant with the reader: I'll try my best to tell the truth, to show you something new, to not waste your time, and to not run away from the monsters of my own creation. In other words, to be contributive. I take it for granted that progress and the greater knowledge of self are inextricable. A person picks up a book for the same basic reason we send probes into interstellar space: we want to find out what's out there, we want to find out what's in here, "here" not being the story in the book but the subconscious of the reader.
Generally, my stories try to "do" at least two things. I guess "social commentary" so often crops up as that second thing because I'm often trying to relate the micro to the macro. The first story I ever published was about a teenage girl in a Midwestern suburb in 1995. She breaks down sobbing at her first attempt to have sex with her boyfriend. She's not entirely sure why. But in the background of the story, from early on, is news of the imminent fall of Grozny to Russian troops. Of course, these two things aren't "parallels"; the analogy is only effective in one direction. But in that direction, we can consider one person's hesitancy to lose her virginity in terms of a city holding its walls against a vastly superior military force. By not forcing the analogy into parallel, it does nonetheless lead to a parallel: both struggles continue even though both are doomed to fail. So my process, in this sense, is really just trying to maneuver readers into a vector that matches this direction, an angle of approach that lets them see the big moments and objects and other elements in the story the way I want them to be seen. My job is to get the reader only this close. They have to cover the final distance alone, even if it's the narrow breadth of a synaptic cleft. There just has to be something there for the reader to find—something specific, if only to me—which brings us back to the idea of a covenant, and of humanity. Every time I work on a story, I'm really just trying to not let the reader down.
WB: The "Weigh-In" is, in at least some sense, a science fiction story. "Speechless" has some science fiction undertones as well. What is your relationship to genre writing?
BR: I usually begin by mulling over whatever a story-idea's instigating element happens to be (an image, a phrase, something I saw on the train) and wait to see what else in my mental or physical environment this first thing feels attracted to. Ideas accrete and develop into a narrative form which pretty quickly falls into one of two basic orientations: a 'concept' story, or an 'event' story. My event stories end up being more conventional and "literary" because they focus on causation, human relationships, and things like loss, frustration, and embarrassment. The concept stories however always end up looking a little like science fiction because they come with a pre-packaged "aboutness." There is some conceptual premise or question that must be conceded to. "The Weigh-In" was a bit different. It began as an event idea but morphed into a concept story. I wanted to write a story about a modestly overweight girl at a funeral, who's so pathologically obsessed with weight loss that she tries to calculate how many calories she burns by crying, which she intends to log into her phone's weight loss application as "exercise." This scene sat idle for a long time, until one day I saw this slightly chunky undergraduate student walking across campus in a red robe, with a turquoise Jansport backpack on, her dirty blond hair pulled back from her face. The robe was puzzling. I couldn't tell if she was in a choir, or on her way to be in a skit or something. She looked at the ground while she walked past me, totally dejected. Maybe her Quidditch team had just gotten trounced. I could see the toes of her old, dirty tennis shoes just poking out from under the hem of the robe at the furthest limit of her stride. She was obviously having a bad day, and the robe, whatever ceremony of festivity it signified, made her an ironic, mocking contradiction. Anyway, this was near the end of my first year in the MFA program at Texas State. That week I told my friend Cedric, who writes really excellent concept-driven fiction, "I want to write a near-future story where everyone who's slightly overweight has to wear a robe. Only they call them 'modesty gowns.'" Cedric laughed, and because he laughed I decided to write the story. But I was also using him. I was feeling unmotivated and buried in coursework and I knew if I said it out loud I'd have to actually do it.
WB: What authors have been influential to your work?
BR: I'm not really sure how to answer this honestly. I'll just give you a snapshot of my big writer crushes right now, today, at this moment in my my life: Alice Munro, Percival Everett, and Etgar Keret. Ben Lerner's also a fixture on my shrine of living American writers. Right now I'm reading and loving Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I really thought I'd dislike this novel, based on the premise, but so far it's fantastic. The book has gotten all these comparisons to Catch-22, but I find Fountain a bit closer to Tim O'Brien, in that picking up his book and reading fifty pages straight is almost effortless, which for me is more a question of beautiful language than compelling plot or character.
WB: What is the best piece of writerly advice you've been given? What advice would you offer to younger writers?
BR: Doug Dorst is a big proponent of writing uncritically. To just sit down and start each work day by writing for twenty or thirty minutes without pausing to read what you've written, or edit or revise, or even use the spellchecker. This is bitter medicine for perfectionists, slow thinkers, lexicon fetishists, and writers who prefer to focus on the level of sentence-building—all of which I am, at different stages. But it's been a big help for me, as I've recently waded past the halfway point of my novel and have long since awoken to the same project every morning, and will continue to do so for a few months more. This practice doesn't always lead me to amazing prosody or even useable ink, but sometimes it does. And that's good enough. To quote Clint Eastwood in The Rookie, "If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster."
My advice to writers is to always check that your default concern is with story. Whatever you're working on, the story of the thing is what's most important: desire and conflict that are both enchanting and comprehensible, and maybe a little bit beguiling. Not clever dialogue, not interesting situations, not exotic locales. If you have those things, great. But they come second. And don't worry if your story is too long, too short, if it fits better into Genre X than Sub-genre Y, if the jokes aren't funny enough, if your friends will think it's dumb or too smart, or if it's too much like George Saunders or not enough like Lorrie Moore, or if it's good enough for The Paris Review—just let the world dim out and commit to your story and try to do right by it. Ignore the extraneous. We absorb decades of reading and education and experience and other people's stories precisely so that we may forget it all, and find it again in new forms when we ask age-old questions in new, specific ways. And these questions will invariably be some form of "What do I do next?"