Web Exclusive Interview: Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

David Foster Wallace said that fiction is “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” In our March Web Exclusive story, “To God Belongs What He Has Taken,” Jensen Beach deftly places us in the mind of a Stockholm woman caught up in a fantasy about a stranger. It is a subtle and detailed snapshot of a form of loneliness so universal that, in its confrontation, we find some relief. We talked with Jensen about how that’s done by writing other people, other voices, other cultures.

Erin McReynolds: You have a collection of stories coming out soon, of which this one is a piece. Is there a link between them that we can see in “To God Belongs What He Has Taken”?

Jensen Beach: The stories are indeed linked. Mainly by character: Marie, her daughter, her partner Lennart, Lennart’s dead grandfather, and the apartment, which, I guess, we really only see off stage in this story. Many of the stories in the book are kind of thinky, in that they are very internal, trying to map or track thought and the ways in which thought and consciousness are often untethered to time, or at least loosely tethered to it. That’s always fascinated me in fiction. Very little happens in the story in the present time, but I enjoyed jumping into memory and routine in contrast to the quiet narrative present. Many of the stories do something similar, and maybe this is one of those ridiculous things writers say about their own work, but I think that process is somewhat paralleled in the ways the book is linked and interconnected generally.

EM: What’s your connection to the story’s setting in Stockholm?

JB: This isn’t mentioned specifically in the story, but it’s set in the western suburbs; I lived in Sweden for six years. My wife is Swedish and my kids were born there. Actually, my daughter was born in Massachusetts, but my sons were born in Sweden. We lived in—and later outside of—Stockholm. The metro Marie takes is the same one I used to take into town to work and school. I conflated two stations on the green line: Blackeberg, closer to the city, is built up higher than the one at Vällingby, between the apartment blocks, and I remember that station as being windy, a detail that struck me as right in this story. But the Vällingby is closer to the shop Marie uses.

EM: Marie’s got her quirks, but she feels familiar: The conflicting desires to connect and yet harbor someone else’s life as a personal, internal experience. And the disappointment when she actually makes the attempt! What draws you to this kind of dynamic, and is it also a theme in the collection?

JB: You know, I started writing the first stories in what would become this book when I was in graduate school, right after we’d left Sweden and returned to the U.S. Partly, I think I was trying to come to terms with my own identity as a person who had adopted, as much as this is possible, another culture. Much of the book deals with historical events or social realities in Sweden that I wanted to know more about. So I wrote about Swedish characters, rather than American ones in Sweden, to explore that to a greater degree. Like Marie, I think I’m interested in imagining lives for people (and cultures it turns out, yikes!). But in spite of my interest in this, I recognize its folly; I was drawn to that notion of being disappointed that your assumptions about another person are wrong. That feels so enormously selfish but also really human. I think we’re doing this all the time. Once I had Marie start thinking like this, the idea struck me as one I wanted to pursue.

EM: Have you identified any interesting differences between writing from the perspective of born-and-bred Swedes and writing Americans?

JB: This is an interesting question. It’s so hard to generalize, but I guess I know Swedish-born people less well than I do American ones, so I think maybe I’m more conscious of the quirks and oddities of personality in a Swedish character. Like I might find myself thinking, “Is this a cultural particularity?” more often when writing Swedish characters than American ones. Maybe? I don’t know, there probably isn’t anything especially Swedish about Marie, nor anything particularly American about her. She just seems like a person to me. Or like a person I know well. That is to say, me. I will say, though, that part of the project in the book generally was to get a closer understanding of Sweden and Swedish culture.

An anecdote I share often is about a historical event that’s not in the book anymore. In 1993, there was a plane crash in the middle of Stockholm. A SAAB fighter jet crashed during an airshow. No one was hurt. Which seems sort of comically Scandinavian, right? Like, even in tragedy, they’re too good to be true! But what struck me about this is that it happened at a time that I was a young teenager. I didn’t live in Sweden then, of course. But all of my friends in Sweden remember this event very well. Many of them were there for it. It’s these small instances of collective memory that fascinate me as a marker of the ways we’re not ever really a part of an adopted culture. Those who are outsiders will always lack something in their culture DNA, or whatever the metaphor is (science!). The book was my chance to try to look at that—mainly for me, of course, but I hope it resonates with readers, too. In this story, I’m not sure that’s so much at play—though there are cultural indicators that might be worth pointing out in terms of geography, or the ways in which Marie and the woman interact, the lack of understanding for the religious or spiritual elements present in the way the shop employee responds to Ahmed’s death, and so on.

EM: What have you been reading/inspired by lately?

JB: Ordinarily I don’t read a ton for pleasure during busy teaching times. I should, but I find it difficult. Luckily I teach a lot of courses that I can design around things I’m interested in, books I want to read. This semester I’m teaching Peter Stamm, Yoko Ogawa, Tove Jansson, Joy Williams, and that Ben Marcus-edited New American Stories anthology. There’s enough in there to inspire me every day!

Jensen Beach is the author of the forthcoming Swallowed by the Cold, as well as a previous collection of stories. His work has appeared or soon will in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and online at N +1 and Tin House, among many others. He teaches in the BFA Program at Johnson State College, where he is fiction editor at Green Mountains Review. He lives in Vermont with his family.


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