I met with Ben Marcus just before his first public reading from
his second novel, Notable American Women, which describes the
adolescent experiences of a character named Ben Marcus, whose mother has
invited a cult of silent women into their Ohio farmhouse, which has resulted in
his father's banishment to a hole in the backyard. (You can learn more about the werid world of the novel at the author's official website.) But, he confesses, "I'm at
that point where the book's out now and I can't really read it anymore, or
even admit that I wrote it. So I'm trying to do everything else I can to make the
readings interesting." That means that immediately after our interview, he'll
share the podium at a packed KGB Bar with Aimee Bender. The room's so
packed, in fact, that I abandon any hope of hearing him that evening, so I wait
a few weeks and catch him at a downtown Barnes and Noble where, after
Shelley Jackson reads from her short story collection, The Melancholy of
Anatomy, Marcus walks up to the front of the room accompanied by a silent
man who stands just off to the side. Then, as Marcus reads from a section of the
book about the various mimes one can use to suppress one's excess emotions,
the man begins to perform the actions that Marcus describes. Similar
escapades are planned throughout the country.
RH: I noticed that you could read the book's chapters in just about any
BM: You think so? Some of the books that I've loved, I haven't always been able
to finish them. I start reading them, and then I skip ahead, I read around. So I like the idea
that a book might never be finished, if you might always wonder if there's a few pages that
you've missed, a story that leaves everything open for you.
RH: There's a strong internal consistency to the material as well.
BM: A lot of that came towards the end, when I really didn't know what order
the pieces I'd written would go in, or what would stay and what wouldn't stay. I tried to
see how it all held together, what it would meant to move through this book? I wanted
more connection between the pieces, so that was one factor in deciding what went into the
final version. If something in one piece referred to something that had already happened, I
could generally find a way to keep it.
RH: You've created a very elaborate alternative reality for this novel.
What was the first element that started the ball rolling?
BM: I read these 1950s reference books called Notable American
Women, done out of Radcliffe, I think. They were a grudging attempt to include
women in the historical canon of important people, so all the entries about various famous
women were condescending, patronizing, and a little bit mean. It was novel to encounter
such an antagonistic emotion in something that was supposed to be scholarly, and a light
bulb went off. I started to write corrective entries, stories that were the opposite of what I
had read, trying to be much more laudable, and wound up writing fantastical lives of
notable women. I wrote a bunch of those stories, and they never ended up in the book, but
that got me into the world of secret women's cults like the Silentists, and I started to build a
novel around that.
RH: At what point did Ben Marcus become a character in the story?
BM: He probably always was, since I was writing it in the first place. Any time I
make up a character name, I feel like such a liar. It's just made up, and I'd made up so
much in the novel already, the whole thing was so invented... Like a lot of fiction writers, I
wanted it to seem true. I didn't want people to think, "Oh, how fanciful! How odd to make
this world up!" So I thought that if I used my own name, and my parents' names, even
though what I'm writing about is so odd, so impossible, it'll make the story seem a little
We all know the old tagline about how the names have been changed to protect the
innocent. There's a typical kind of novel where you write about yourself and change all the
names. This is the opposite: I write about nothing I've ever lived or experienced or know
about and using real names. It's a completely dishonest memoir.
RH: In fact, you've never even been to Ohio.
BM: Right. I'm not proud of that, by the way. I'm sure it's a great place, I just
haven't been there.
RH: How does your family feel about appearing as characters?
BM: They're just now reading the book. They knew in generic terms that I'd
appropriated their names and attributed writing to them. And since I appeared as a character
in my first book, and I'd quoted my father in that book, too, I think they were accustomed
to the idea that I might do that. My dad recently told me, "Oh, don't worry. I know it's not
me." I guess that's the best possible way to respond. It would be weird for him to read that
character and relate to it--an angry father being kept underground. He's not going to read
that and say, "That's me!"
RH: As you were writing the novel, did you hit any point in the
narrative where you felt you'd taken the story in too extreme a direction?
BM: I wish I'd ever felt anything was too extreme. What I usually feel is that
what I've written is too boring, that it's not substantial, that it's not interesting, that it's a
dead end. So I wrote a lot of stuff that just got tossed... "Too extreme" is kind of
provocative. What did you mean by "extreme"?
RH: I suppose I meant that as you're writing about this fictional you,
maybe you stopped at some point and said, "Oh, I can't do that to
myself." The sex scenes seem as if they might dance along the edge of that
line, if it existed...though it doesn't sound like it did.
BM: I see what you're getting at. With the sex scenes from "Failure to Mate,"
when he's a sire for all the Silentist women, I didn't think of it as myself. Notice I just said
"he." I'm using my name, but there's a lot of distance and alienation in that. I wasn't sitting
there, picturing myself holding a clay head of Jesus while women hung upside down in
harnesses waiting to receive my seed. I just found the image provocative enough to try to
write, and he happened to be my character at the time. I didn't feel like I was trying to say
that this was me having sex with all these silent, motionless women. There was just an
oddity to it that stayed odd, which is a sign to me to keep writing, keep working in that
space. A lot of things got thrown out because they didn't measure up in that way.
RH: The novel has a very surreal situation, but the language is very
concrete, and when it's rooted in characters like your mom and dad, the
realness of their voices makes the unreal situation sound very convincing.
BM: Borges was great at that. He would take outrageous concepts and speak
about them like an old professor, someone you'd been trained never to doubt. I think there
are these voices of authority so ingrained in us that when we hear them... it's like reading
an encyclopedia. You don't expect it to be full of shit. If it's in the encyclopedia, it's got to
be true, right?
I'm attracted to those voices because the concepts I write about are so outlandish, certainly
not possible in the real world, and the voices are an opportunity for me to make the
concepts seem like they might be possible after all.
RH: The voices are often self-referential, but not in a way that calls
too much attention to itself and interferes with the storytelling.
BM: That's good to hear. I wasn't trying to be cute and winky-winky
metafictional, I was trying to describe the sense of lack I feel after I've written
something.The metafiction, to me, was an attempt to reflect how we feel when, as intense
as we feel when we read a book, the book always has to be closed. We always have to
leave that space. No matter how vivid or powerful the book is, we always have to close it
and go back out into our dull life. It's about how we feel when we read, how private it is,
and also how disappointed a writer can feel at the end, when you realize that all you've
done is written a book, and it can be thrown away, ignored, dismissed. That's really
frustrating and sad.
RH: How long have you taught writing?
BM: Eight or nine years, in different places. I was at Brown for four years, now
Columbia for two. Before that I was at Virginia and Texas.
RH: When you were at Brown, were you involved in the hypertext
BM: I was an audience member at some of the hypertext festivals, and watched a
lot of things get demonstrated. I heard a lot about it, and know people who did participate
in it, and I argued with Robert Coover quite a bit about it. I'm really the naysayer, almost
hostile and negative about hypertext.
One of the things that struck me as interesting about hypertext was how it came equipped
with its own manifesto and chestbeating argument for its own importance, which laid it
open to ridicule since there wasn't much work to back it up. Michael Joyce was writing
books of theory that were very eloquent academic defenses, but there'd only be one or two
pieces to show, and they'd be very sketchy, and the writing was often atrocious. So I was
a bit of a gadfly about it. I'm not in touch with that world anymore, and I'm not really sure
what's happening with it, how it's changed since then.
RH: Let's talk a little bit about your work as a teacher. I assume
you're not trying to get your students to replicate the Ben Marcus writing
BM: I would be a failure if I tried to get people to write like me, and I'm not
interested in that at all. I don't teach a specific way to write. I try to see what people want to
do and then offer myself as a really serious reader of what they're pursuing. I'm as
challenging as I can be, but on their terms. I think every writer has a fantasy of what their
piece might be if everything went well; I try to help recognize what that is and give
constructive responses that help the students get to where they want to be.
It's funny, but I think because of the way that I write, almost everyone I've talked to about
teaching, like for example at a job interview, assumes that I can't possibly be a teacher for
someone who writes realist, Alice Munro-style fiction. Well, I wonder, how can you then
be a teacher for anybody who doesn't write the way you write? How does anyone
do it? What does Richard Ford do if he gets a young student who writes like George
Saunders? Does he say, "Well, I can't teach you"?
RH: What we call teaching creative writing isn't really about teaching
people how to write, but about giving them a space to do it in.
BM: You teach a writer to read himself or herself as closely as possible,
and let that scrutiny lead to more complicated, stronger work. That's how we
get better--by reading ourselves and finding things we want to work on.