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Embracing the World, from High to Low: An Interview with Benjamin Hale

Benjamin Hale, credit Pete MauneyIn his first story collection, Benjamin Hale introduces us to characters who inhabit the margins of society:  an expat outlaw revolutionary trying to find her way home, a dominatrix confronting a new possible role as mother, a performance artists eating himself towards death. What at first may read as absurd becomes meaningful and then moving through Hale’s skillful and playful storytelling. We reached out to Hale to talk about his writing process and his new collection, which was published last week.

Anabel Graff: How did this collection come about? How did you approach the transition from writing a novel of epic scope (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore) to these stories?

Benjamin Hale: These stories slowly formed over the course of the last ten years or so. I wrote the first draft of “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day” in my senior year of college. The first story, “Don’t Worry Baby” is almost as old. I bet those two have gone through hundreds of “drafts.” I would take them out and work on them some more every once in a while. So, I wrote the first drafts of those two before Bruno. I think I wrote the first draft of “The Fat Artist” concurrently with Bruno (he has a Bruno-like voice, and also I was thinking constantly about Kafka at the time). I think I wrote the first draft of “Leftovers” in one day in the summer of 2009.  “The Minus World” I also wrote pretty quickly, sometime in 2011 (it’s the last story in the collection because I like its final note. “Venus at her Mirror” I first wrote in 2012, and “Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Boy” grew out of a theater project I was working on with some collaborators in the spring of 2013—the play never really materialized, but I salvaged that story out of it. With all these stories, I wrote the first drafts fairly quickly and then spent years tinkering with them.

AG: I found myself really interested in finding connections and progressions and foils between the characters and stories in the collection. For example, Fred in “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day” is a “fat artist” who precedes the “Fat Artist”; Peter from “The Minus World” has echoes of Julian, who never gets a chance to really speak in “The Leftovers.” How did you approach ordering the collection? I think I read that you said the order was chronological, but how did you arrive at that final decision?

BH: It’s basically chronological. “Don’t Worry Baby” I put first because it’s suspenseful—it’s an aggressive bang of an opening, like beginning an album with your loudest, fastest song. And “The Minus World” I put last because I wanted the last paragraph of that story to be the end of the book. Other than that, it’s chronological. And although I’ve been continually messing around with all the stories since their inception, I can see myself getting older from one story to the next. When I was really young, my fiction was more concrete, very focused on dialogue and action. As I’ve gotten older, my fiction has become quieter and more interior. And I’m not that old. I’ll turn 33 later this year. I think one changes a lot between one’s early twenties and early thirties . . . As to certain thematic similarities? The black sheep middle brother of the family definitely is a recurring theme in my stories that I’m aware of; that there happen to be two fat artists was a complete accident that I hadn’t thought of until you pointed it out to me.

AG: I want to talk about “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day,” the second story in the collection, which follows many different characters and is told through different points of view, styles, and narrative strategies. How did you approach writing (and revising) “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day”? Was it always in this current form? Why did you feel it was important to adopt so many different styles and viewpoints in order to tell this particular story?

the-fat-artist-and-other-stories-9781476776200_hrBH: That story was very loosely based on something that happened to a friend of mine a long time ago, in Colorado, where I grew up. The whole story line with Kelly, Maggie, Jackson, and Caleb more or less happened that way, and my friend had to testify as a witness in the criminal trial that followed. He didn’t know them—he just happened to be there when they were arrested. And it happened just like that—they beat a guy up and left him for dead in the woods and later got caught because their getaway car was out of gas. And the other story line was based on (one) a boss I had once, a very memorable character (Fred), and (two) a girl I knew in college who had let her uncle take nude photographs of her when she was a teenager. The story sounds skeezy, but she insisted there was nothing untoward going on. She may even have believed that, but I’m not generous enough to that uncle to believe he didn’t on some level want to fuck his teenage niece. And I took the two story lines and braided them together.

There’s a technique in some fiction—usually novels, and “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day” is more of a novella than a short story—which can work beautifully: take two different story lines, beginning in very different places but happening at the same time, and gradually drive them into each other.  I learned the technique from T.C. Boyle, but it’s a very old trick—Tolstoy liked it: both War and Peace and Anna Karenina use this plot structure. This story has gone through a lot of reformations, but it’s always been more or less like it is in the book on a structural level. I wrote Jackson’s chapter when I was really high on Russell Hoban’s magnificent novel Riddley Walker, and it was originally written in a sort of hyperstylized pidgin English, which I toned way down over the years. As for the multitude of styles, voices, points of view, and so on: I had a professor, William Melvin Kelly, who divided all writers into “Jamesians” and “Joyceans.” That is, between the Henry Jameses and the James Joyces. The Jamesians are the writers who hone a very identifiable style—their style—and then doggedly write everything they ever write in that style. Cormac McCarthy, for example, is one of those. The Joyceans are the experimenters: those without a shtick or a “house style,” the ones willing to try anything, to attempt to morph from one consciousness to another, adapting their style and language to suit the story. I think some writers who fall into this category are Faulkner, Anthony Burgess, Alasdair Gray, the above-mentioned Russell Hoban . . . I admire the latter kind of writer more, and that’s the kind of writer I want to be.

AG: Other texts, artists, writers, plays, and songs often find their way into your stories. Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” for example, becomes a model for “The Fat Artist.” At times, other works are references that enhance character or are a wink to the reader; other times they speak directly to the theme, form, and content of the story you are telling. Can you talk a little about how you approach intertextuality in your writing?

BH: To begin with, I think about Kafka a lot. My first book was a riff on Kafka (it was basically a novelization of his story, “A Report to the Academy”), and so is “The Fat Artist.” Also, both Bruno and “The Fat Artist” (and this new novel I’m working on right now, which is one reason why these ideas are on my mind) are experiments in mixing novelistic realism with surreal/satirical elements.

A couple of years ago, my friend Eleanor Catton [1] published her novel The Luminaries [2], for which she won the Booker Prize; I invited her to come up to Bard to do a reading that fall. After her reading, my colleague, (the (brilliant) poet) Robert Kelly, complained offhandedly to me that he thought her sentences were a bit dull. A couple weeks later, he told me that he’d been reading the novel and had changed his mind about her writing. It’s a lucid, plot-driven novel set in the nineteenth century, written in sentences as transparent as water; sentences with a lot of linguistic fireworks in them would have been completely out of place in that novel. Robert said, “One wants a clear window for gazing into fairyland.”  Some writers write stories set in “fairyland”: entering the story is to enter a dream, an alternate reality. Middle Earth [3] for Tolkien. The village of Macondo [4] for Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez couldn’t have mentioned Kafka in a novel. Kafka doesn’t exist in that universe! Neither does the Internet, or George Clooney, or Marvel Comics.

And then, there are other stories that are set in the world that we actually live in. I’m not saying that one approach is better than the other, just different. Saul Bellow’s characters inhabit our world (or at least, Bellow’s world at the time they were written). Characters who inhabit our world—the one we live in, America, 2016—can do anything we can do: they can read Kafka and think about it, they can waste time on Facebook, they can send text messages. Right now I’m reading a pretty interesting J.M. Coetzee novel, Elizabeth Costello [5]. In it, a fictional character reads a real book by a real person—the writer Paul West’s novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg [6]—and she has opinions about it. Paul West died last year, but he was very much alive when that book was published a little over ten years ago. I like that. Even though I love to get lost in a dream-world as much as the next guy, there’s something about fairyland fiction that strikes me as a little disingenuous. Think about Gabriel García Márquez’s life must have been like: flying around all over the world, staying in hotels, speaking at conferences, receiving awards . . . Imagine García Márquez in an airport. Do you think he ever ate a Cinnabon? Surely he must have at least seen one at some point. But there can be no Cinnabons in the village of Macondo. And that’s fine, but . . . I really like fiction that takes in the entire world—Kafka, Paul West, Cinnabons and all.

That’s one thing I absolutely love about Nicholson Baker. Once, I was reading a Nicholson Baker novel—The Anthologist, which is my second-favorite of his books next to The Mezzanine—and the narrator, Paul Chowder, opens up iTunes on his laptop and plays a song by the Damnwells [7]. Now, the Damnwells are successful for an indie rock band, but they’re not hugely famous or anything. Their lead singer, Alex Dezen [8], just happens to be a personal acquaintance of mine. It was astounding to me to see his name in that novel. There he was, my not-very-famous friend, existing in the universe of a fictional character just as he exists in my universe. In the same novel, the narrator rambles about poetry and egg salad sandwiches and Debussy and the bassoon—anything. (Actually, I think the bassoon stuff is in the sequel, Traveling Sprinkler.) Paul Chowder lives in our world, and he is free to talk about absolutely anything in it.

I think Nicholson Baker is one of the most genuine writers around. Some people criticize him as being “trivial”—as if semi-obscure contemporary rock bands and egg salad recipes don’t belong in “serious” fiction. I’m not a big fan of “serious” anything. Or “important” anything, either. It’s one of my least favorite adjectives to apply to, say, a work of art. That was an “important” piece. It makes me think: What the fuck are you talking about? Is anything a human being has ever done “important”? Maybe Einstein’s formation of relativity—I’ll consider that one. But come on—Yves Klein’s monochromes [9] are not “important.”

“Fairyland” stories can be exquisitely gorgeous when done well (i.e., García Márquez), but quite often they strike me as disingenuous. I can’t stand Cormac McCarthy, for example: I find it so humorless, so adolescent, so affected, so cringe-inducingly pretentious. I have no desire to spend any time in his fairyland. Blood Meridian is so bad it’s funny, which is the most embarrassing thing one could say about a piece of art if the author doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, as with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room [10]—which is fun to watch because your friends are laughing with you; but when such a work is widely lauded as “great literature,” it feels disheartening.

Anyway—my favorite approach of all is a hybrid of the two: to playfully smash together “our world” and “fairyland.” Jorge Luis Borges was a master of this. (So was Kafka, although Kafka wrote in fairyland sometimes, too.) His story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote [11],” begins with a bibliography of the fictional writer Pierre Menard that is peppered with references to other authors, a mixture of real and fictional ones. For instance:

p)  a diatribe against Paul Valéry, in Jacques Reboul’s Feuilles pour la suppression de la realité (which diatribe, I might add parenthetically, states the exact reverse of Menard’s true opinion of Valéry; Valéry understood this, and the two men’s friendship was never imperiled);

Paul Valéry was definitely a real person; the editor and the journal (Pages for the Suppression of Reality) are not.  Because Borges’s reality is so dry, so matter-of-factly real, it’s fascinating, incongruous, and hilarious when his fiction departs from capital-R “Reality.”

So, coming around to answering your question. I want to write fiction that mixes realism with fantasy. A talking chimpanzee who exists in a world where everything is loony or dreamy is much less interesting to me than a talking chimpanzee who has read Kant and can tell you what he thinks of it and who can also describe Penn Station. Tristan Hurt, the Fat Artist, is an unreal character, but he lives in a world in which he is as free to blither about Baudrillard as he is to eat Hostess CupCakes. I love honest fantasy and I love honest realism, but I detest romanticism.

AG: One thing I find fascinating about your characters (including Bruno) is that they often live outside accepted social norms and because of this gain more freedom in certain arenas and, well, less in others. It seems to me at least, in these stories, each character’s fate is completely wrapped up in his or her struggle to integrate into society. The outsider is a common trope in fiction, but your characters seem to push this trope to the extreme. They remind me of modern descendants of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. What is it about these types of characters that you find compelling? How do you think your characters speak to and evolve this trope?

BH: A vulnerable character is an interesting character: a character who is afraid of something and/or wants something. The more concrete a character’s fears and desires are, the more ready the reader will be to invest in him or her or it. A character who feels content with his position in the world is a character with no reason to move. Some fiction cares more about story than character. Some fiction is more interested in ideas than either. Some fiction is more interested in playing around with language than anything else. But of fiction that cares about character, the characters that make me feel the most deeply are, for example: Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster, Pinocchio, The Tin Drum’s Oskar Matzerath. They’re characters who not only can’t get society to accept them—they can’t even get people to acknowledge them as human. Their reaction to their marginalization is to turn against humanity. They’re bitter about being excluded and then mock the party they only a moment before wanted to join. It’s like the Mark Twain/Groucho Marx/Woody Allen line, “I would never belong to a club that would have me for a member.”

AG: There’s a line in your title story, “The Fat Artist,” that I couldn’t help but read as somewhat referential to your own work in which the narrator remarks that: “Critics praised my work as ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman.” Your writing obviously pushes the boundaries of what’s accepted as a more, let’s say, “conventional” literary tone, subject matter, and style into what could be interpreted by some as “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman.” How aware are you of this when you are writing? How do you think these choices affect your stories?

BH: Much of our contemporary literature bores me—especially “great” literature, to quote John Berryman. So much of it is so self-serious, so unopen, so unwilling to play, so timorous to offend, and above all, so punishingly dull. My taste appears to me incredibly out of step with what most people in publishing apparently think most readers of contemporary literary fiction want to read. I have no desire to make “high” or “serious” art. I want to write fiction that embraces the world, from high to low. I like grotesquerie. These are some of my favorite things: carnivals, marching bands, county fairs, Vaudeville, Weimar Republic Cabaret, cartoons, drag queens, fart jokes, Monty Python, South Park, Ren & Stimpy, Fellini, Aristophanes, Falstaff, Animal House, rowdy bars, wild parties, turduckens, Bulgakov, Kafka, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Borges, scientific reasoning, and Satan. These are some of my least favorite things: sugar-free gum, vegans, anorexic people, people who enjoy disciplining children, Buddhism, Fascism, responsibility, and clean, drafty Protestant churches with uncomfortable wooden pews and a stark cross at the front of the room so lacking in feature it doesn’t even have a goddamn Jesus on it.

Be on the side of life.

Also, that story in particular has something to do with the mixed feelings of fascination, irritation, (sometimes) admiration, and moral repulsion I have toward some “shock art”: Chris Burden, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Karen Finley, Dash Snow, Wim Delvoye, and so on. Take, for example, Wim Delvoye, someone I’ve been reading a lot about lately. One of the pieces he’s most known for is the “Cloaca [12]” machine. I was just the other day reading a review of his American debut of the piece in 2002, at the New Museum. Delvoye’s Cloaca is a machine that replicates the human digestive system: you scrape food into a funnel at one end of it, and watch it get pumped through tubes into beakers full of chemicals approximating human digestive enzymes, and at the end of the enormous, Rube-Goldberg-like machine, a metal pipe deposits artificial turds that resemble in every way (including smell) the real thing. I think that’s a brilliant, hilarious project, as long as you don’t take it seriously. But you have to take it seriously for such a project to be “art,” instead of, I don’t know, an interesting science project. Or a joke. William Grimes wrote this about it:

Mr. Delvoye is a conceptual artist. The concept, as he explained it to the news media, is something like this:

Everything in modern life is essentially pointless. . . . Cloaca, he said, was not a scientific experiment. Science implies usefulness or purpose. “I like the beauty of doing all this work for nothing,” he said.

In the crowd were several chefs from Markt, Jerry’s and Savoy, which, with other restaurants yet to be named, will be feeding Cloaca in the coming weeks. When Mr. Delvoye began talking about the utter futility of eating, I could see troubled looks pass over the chefs’ faces. . . . The language Mr. Delvoye was speaking to the chefs might as well have been Martian. Food pointless? Eating futile? The chefs shook their heads in sorrow.

The chefs would shake their heads in sorrow, wouldn’t they?  Food, obviously, is not pointless. Art is pointless! An artist ought to feel embarrassed calling anything pointless in front of people who actually do something useful for a living, such as, say, cook food. On the other hand, I don’t think Wim Devoye actually meant what he said. It’s only that the context an art museum required him to play it straight. It’s a Duchampian wink over the head of the critic. Is it brilliant or is it bullshit? If it’s bullshit but it knows it, does it circle back and become brilliant again? I both love and hate this sort of art, and these feelings and ideas are definitely floating around in “The Fat Artist.”

AG: Despite these risks with style and form, and despite the characters who live in the margins of society, it seemed interesting to me that the ending of each story is rather conventional. Your two female protagonists are able to reintegrate into society because they recognize their role as mothers. And the male characters attempt to find redemption through the women they care about. Was this a conscious thread you were playing with throughout the collection?

BH: Not at all! I had not noticed that until you just now pointed it out to me. I hope the motherhood thing is just a coincidence. In “Venus at her Mirror,” that element of the story was a fairly late addition.

As for redemption? I once heard someone say of Flannery O’Connor’s central characters: “Redemption is always offered, but never deserved.” But she was a Catholic, and the ideas of sin and redemption were deeply important to her. The concept of “redemption” is honestly an opaque and foggy thing for me. When I hear the word, the easiest thing for me to picture is redemption in Dickens (the great moral cartoonist): a bad character who saves the day by doing something good. Sin and redemption are concepts I almost never consciously think about, as I don’t believe in them.

AG: I read the other day on NPR that Yann Martel (Life of Pi) is delving into what the writer Barbara J. King calls “Chimpanzee Fiction” in his new novel The High Mountains of Portugal. Any comment on the future of the “Chimpanzee Fiction” genre?

BH: I read that review of Barbara’s. Barbara J. King [13] is a primatologist and anthropologist, and I was a big fan of her work—especially her book Evolving God [14], about speculations as to the evolution of religion in humans—before I even knew that she also reviews books for Bookslut and NPR. She interviewed me back when Bruno came out, and the fact that an actual primatologist read that and liked it was one of the highest compliments I felt I’d ever been given.

As for the emerging genre of Chimpanzee Fiction, I suppose I think it’s a good thing. There has for much too long been a vast overrepresentation of human perspectives in our fiction, which is ridiculous, considering the number of animals out there.

And in all seriousness: the art I tend to love the most is the art that looks beyond merely human concerns. The universe is so much bigger than us. Fiction that is written exclusively by and for humans seems terribly insular to me. Earlier today I heard a string quartet play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 [15]. It was one of the last things he composed, and supposedly he said it was his favorite composition. The cellist, introducing the piece, said that Beethoven, totally deaf, had sawed off the legs of his piano so that he could lie on the floor and physically feel the vibrations of the notes as he played the melody, the only way he could still “listen” to music. He also mentioned that the piece had been included on the golden records [16] in the Voyager space probe that Carl Sagan convinced NASA to randomly shoot into the cold black oblivion in 1977. It was a sort of care package from the human species circa the late ’70s, with an alien audience in mind. The chance that anyone will ever find it is beyond infinitesimal, but I very much like that it is not zero.


Benjamin Hale is the author of The Fat Artist and Other Stories and the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. He has received the Bard Fiction Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Award, and nominations for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, among other places, in Conjunctions, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dissent, The L Magazine, The Millions, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. He is a senior editor of Conjunctions and currently teaches at Bard College.