Ben Marcus Q&A

Ben Marcus is an American author living in New York City, with two books, The Age of Wire & String and Notable American Women, as well as two minibooks, The Father Costume (a collaboration with artist Matthew Ritchie),  and recently, The Moors. He will publish a new novel, The Flame Alphabet, next year with Knopf. His short fiction and editorial has appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Tin House, &c. and besides an important selection for Conjunctions in a folio titled Sticks & Stones, Marcus wrote an influential essay in 2005 for Harper’s Magazine titled,

Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it:

A correction

in which Marcus heartily chides those who might agree with his cheeky title and “defends experimental fiction against critics, Jonathan Franzen in particular, who disparage it.” It seems American culture is very concerned with the “value” of fiction. I’ve always agreed with Marcus that experimental fiction has no more or less value than any other kind. Social realism has its value stitched right into its face like a baseball. Experimental fiction has something more like the value of a campfire.

This email was conducted by e-mail.

Q The reason I felt prompted to ask you some questions was the publication of your new work, The Moors. I was itching to read some new fiction from you. It always feels like it’s been a while, because the work you publish between book projects is so compact. How did this mini-book come about?

It was first published in Tin House, and then Madras Press asked if they could issue it as a small book, with proceeds, several million dollars, no doubt, going to charity. I chose the library in Brooklin, Maine, where I live in the summer. An amazing library run by terrific people.

Q What other recent writing have you published that I might have missed?

Not so much. I’ve spent the last two years working on a book, so I didn’t publish much other than reviews.

Q The Moors is about a fraught interaction between employees in a section of an office so creepy and ‘misconceived architecturally’ that all it’s good for is stashing a coffee cart. What attracted you examine the reveries compacted in this awkward moment?

I wanted to write as close into a character as I could. It started that way. A man crippled by the smallest social encounter. Not just crippled, destroyed. I wanted to listen in on his thoughts and find the story’s conflict inside his head.

Q Some people thrive in office environments while others suffer, and architecture and sociability have so much to play in this success. Do you hope the kind of strenuous inner life your main character has offers him an escape from office life or is his language and fretting a symptom of the deep office doldrums?

I don’t see much of an escape for him. His inner life is just so assaultive and not nurturing at all. And then there’s his situation at home, which you only learn of at the end.

Q Which great architect created the cruelest offices spaces, in your estimation?

Who designed the Roman Coliseum? That guy.

Q What was the best office you ever worked in?

I worked in an office where the bathroom was out in a shared hallway, for which you needed a key from our receptionist. That was back when I ate a lot of soup, chased with bottled water, and I had to pee every twenty minutes, which meant I had to keep going back to the receptionist’s desk to get a key, undergoing her highly curious stare. And then everyone in the office would see me leaving, and returning. Fairly high scrutiny. I didn’t last very long there.

Q Who are the writers you admire for the structure of their internal narratives?

Donald Antrim, Nicholson Baker, Lydia Davis.

Q You wrote an important essay for Harper’s on the current conditions of the literary enterprise in which you defend an approach to fiction that is other than a giant social contract with America. Since the essay was published, can you give an update on what you’ve seen lately in publishing?

I packed my radar away for a little while after writing that essay.

Q I wonder if you care to say anything about Franzen’s novel Freedom I’d be very interested to know if you felt the need to read it, and a thumbnail of what its publication might contribute to your thoughts?

I haven’t read it but I hope to, soon.

Q What’s your favorite decade in literary history?

This one, so far.

Q If I were to ask you to suggest some living writers for an anthology, like you’ve done in the past for Conjunctions and Anchor, what are some stories or authors you would want to include that you’ve never before had a chance to select?

There’s a pretty long list, and I’m sure I’ll forget a lot of great people. Jane Unrue, Blake Butler, Doug Elsass, Deb Olin Unferth, Matt Derby, Gabe Hudson, Tom McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Mark Doten, Chris Adrian, Lynne Tillman. It’s impossible to name everyone. That book came about from eighteen months of concentrated reading. When I couldn’t forget something it went into a pile. I asked everyone I knew what I should read, and I bought hundreds of books and sat and read through all of them. So, to be honest, I’d want to do that again, and listing names here is too much of a short cut. I love the writers above, and there are so many more that I also love, but in the end I’d want to lock myself away with a new roomful of work and see what would happen.

Q The claim made by a critic recently that American fiction is too insular…does this argument hold any water with you?

American Fiction isn’t an organized sports team with a single, driving purpose. There’s no single it about it. If I say that Canadian bread is too dry, I’m overlooking some terrific bakeries in Montreal, and elsewhere. Calling American fiction too insular is not, by the way, an ‘argument’. It’s a display of monstrous stupidity. Plus, just to be thorough here, let’s remind ourselves of some great insular fiction by writers such as Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Jane Bowles, etc.

Q: On the back cover it says you’ll publish a new novel The Flame Alphabet with Knopf in 2012…what can you reveal about it?

It’s a book about language toxicity and what happens when children are the only people who can speak without getting sick. This gives them tremendous power, which they promptly abuse. It’s also a book about a family falling apart. And, among several other things, it’s about a little-known strain of Jewishness that is rigorously private, unadvertised, and conducted primarily alone in the forest.

Q How much time or silence or language or image did you need to write The Flame Alphabet? Are you still writing it?

It’s done. I wrote it in about eighteen months, after thinking about it, and faltering at it, for four years. For the first time since I had kids I went on a few residencies (I was on leave from teaching), and those were, sadly, crucial for concentrated writing time. Very great to work day and night without having to read Thomas the Train books, and yet at the same time very sad not to get to read Thomas the Train books each and every day to little, warm people who don’t hate me.

Q Is the cover going to be something special?

Haven’t seen it yet. Any day now.

Q Wire & String was kind of a father-inspired book. And Notable American Women was rather more mother-inspired. The Flame Alphabet is inspired by your other guardian, language?

This I don’t know. I don’t really think of my books as inspired by specific people or entities.

Q: Did you give yourself a specific constraint in writing The Flame Alphabet?

It needed not to deeply, horribly suck. That was a big constraint. Actually, for some reason, after finishing my last book, I decided I couldn’t write again about birds or cloth or wind, but somehow they got into this book too.

Q Do you have a process for revising your work? How do you know something needs fixing?

For me there’s always something that needs fixing. Sometimes I have to reckon with what I can’t fix, but, in general, everything can always be better, a lot better. The trick is not to go completely mad in the realization of this. But my process is as sexy as editing gets: I read what I’ve done and note my misgivings, which blacken the page. I line-edit, reading for sense and sound, and I try to cut what’s weak. Sometimes, if a whole scene is offensive, I re-write it from scratch. This is almost always a good idea, working from roughly the same content but attacking it with some different stylistic modulation. Once my own misgivings have been aggressively handled and I suffer the momentary delusion that I’m finished, I turn the work over to another reader, who usually waits a few weeks before somberly telling me that, as I suspected, there’s something treacherously rotten and flawed at the core of my project. I mourn and grieve and protest this, but days later I feel as happy as I’ve ever felt, and then get back to work. Pretty sexy stuff.


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