The Beatrice Interview

Ben Marcus

"I wasn't trying to be cute and winky-winky metafictional."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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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 order.

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 more real.

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 movement there?

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 style.

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.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Sam Lipsyte | Complete Interview Index | George Saunders

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan