Ben Greenman: Interview

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ben Greenman’s new collection of short stories, What He’s Poised to Do, is filled with lonely and heartbroken characters. Mourning lost loves, contemplating breakups, and estranged from family, they try to reconcile their differences by writing letters, a lost art that Greenman believes can be both intimate and fraught with misunderstanding.

What He's Poised to Do
By Ben Greenman
Harper Perennial 

Greenman has written several works of fiction, including the novel Please Step Back and four other collections of stories. One of those collections, Correspondences, was published by Hotel St. George Press as a limited edition box that contained six stories, with a seventh incomplete story that invited readers to return postcards to finish it. Those stories are now included in What He’s Poised to Do, along with nine new ones.

I spoke to Ben Greenman on the phone recently while he took time out from his day job as an editor for The New Yorker.

TriQuarterly Online: I was curious about the history of What He’s Poised to Do. It started out as a collection called Correspondences, right?

Ben Greenman: A portion of it, about a third. In the summer of 2008, while I was finishing up the novel called Please Step Back, I was approached by this small press here in Brooklyn called Hotel St. George. They were trying to figure out whether they were going to do traditional books or more experimental forms. I don’t think they wanted the writing to be experimental, but they were struggling with what all small publishers struggle with: how you make a book that profitably competes with all the other books and get noticed and do something interesting.

I had a set of stories that were about letters and letter writing, and they designed that box.  That came out in November 2008. I think five of the stories are repeated between that and What He's Poised to Do.  My current publisher at Harper Perennial and his boss both saw Correspondences in a bookstore in Los Angeles, and each noted it mentally and thought, “Oh I’d love to do a book kind of like that.” They brought it back with them in their minds to New York, and I think they each bought a copy.  Then at some point there was a romantic comedy moment, where one went into the other’s office to tell her about it and saw it on the desk already.

TQO: What was behind that decision to continue in the same theme and turn it into more of a traditional book after you’d already done Correspondences?

BG: When my novel Please Step Back came out in April 2009, I did a pretty big book tour. Melville House published that and I think I went to eight events in eight days up and down the West Coast. I was on the road, for me, a lot. Normally I have a day job at the magazine and I come in every day, so for me that was the equivalent of a two-hundred-night rock star tour.  I wrote a lot of emails back to my wife and to friends from the road. They weren’t letters, but that was on my mind because Correspondences had just been published. A lot of those became other stories, and those themes that were in the initial five stories from Correspondences were very present in the trip, the sort of distance and misunderstanding and the romantic disconnection and loneliness.

TQO: Now you just said something that was part of a question I wanted to ask about misunderstanding or distances between people. It seemed like a lot of the characters in What He's Poised to Do were alienated from a loved one, whether it’s someone they had lost or someone they were still trying to connect with. Is there something about writing letters that expresses that distance between people?

BG: You mean something about the letters that specifically speaks to that problem?

TQO: Maybe not the content of the letters. I was thinking more like the idea of letter writing in general.

BG: Oh yeah definitely. I always thought that letters were a great writing exercise because they compress so much of what becomes fiction: voice and setting and motive. You have all the things that you need to catch up quickly.  You imagine your audience very, very clearly, and so it’s a great way to look at that, the way language can be communicated clearly. Even with that there’s always misunderstanding, because the things people are writing about are relationships and desires that are never simple. 

The second part of the answer is that it’s changed so much. As a kid and when I was in college I wrote letters all the time. Now of course I don’t, and no one does. It’s all moved over to email and microblogging and everything else.  I’m not making any huge philosophical claims, but I’ll make one medium-sized one, and that’s that I think people’s identity used to be more stable. Because you said something—you told me in a letter that you were upset about something or happy about something. When it got to me four or five days later it still had to be true, for you and for me. Now, you can be happy one minute and put it on your status, and fifteen minutes later something can aggravate you and you put that on your status. So I think that’s the set of issues that letters are working with. 

TQO: You said that some of the stories in this book came from the experiences that you had while you had while you were traveling. Are there specific ones that stand out?

BG: I think "Bunch of Blips" is one, but that’s a mix of things. I like the idea of people going somewhere else and sort of putting their life on hold, or temporarily suspending it and going somewhere else. You have no choice but to live when you go to that other place, but you’re keeping track of it and you know you’re going to reenter the stream when you return. So in that story she goes to Paris and she has time out of time. She can experience all these things and believe that she’s building a better version of herself, a more complete version. You go out on the road and you take time off from your life, and you get to work things through. You get to experiment with things and take different risks than when you were trapped at home.

TQO: That also happens in “To Kill the Pink,” about the man who decided to leave his wife and take off for Malawi.

BG: That’s interesting. I had a draft of that when it wasn’t Malawi. That was drafted on the road. I didn’t have this setting for it. I didn’t know that it was going to be Harlem in the 60s but it was exactly that. He was leaving notice that he was going somewhere to change, that if he stayed where he was, bad things would happen.

There’s this Australian journal, this very sort of inventive journal called The Lifted Brow, and they do things like where they found a foam-core fake bookshelf on the street, and it had titles of like a hundred fake books, so they had this assignment where they assigned fake titles to people and we all had to write fake stories. Then for the next one they did an atlas, and I got Malawi. I looked and the story wasn't done but it was in progress and I was looking for a hook for it. When I saw that on the list of countries I thought “Oh this is perfect,” and the rest of it fell into place. I thought this has to be a guy in a certain time in American history where he’s rebuilding his sense of himself.

TQO: Is that part of your normal process where you’ll have a basic idea and you’re waiting for the right thing to trigger it?

BG: Yeah, I would say that for every story that sees the light there’s fifty that are somewhere in the bowels of the computer that are somewhere around six paragraphs that taper off, or it’s a great beginning and a great end but nothing in between, or it’s a finished story that’s clunky and isn't moving and I don’t know what to do with it. I’m trying to write these things all the time, so what you're seeing at any given time is a fraction of what’s started. I like that much better than going to the well and there’s nothing in the well.

TQO: Do you have a subset of those ideas sitting there that you're working on and maybe one will pop up, or do you even remember a lot of the fits and starts?

BG: They’re all in a big folder on the machine, and I hit a place where I’ll go a couple days and nothing is happening in my brain. It just seems like a bad period. Sometimes it’ll happen the normal way when I read other people’s work. Between books I’ll go and read all the ideas pretty quickly and pretty aggressively and I’ll get ideas, but other times I’ll go back through that big folder and think it’s really interesting to not remember writing things. That’s maybe the most interesting process, that I’ll go and read fragments and think, “Really? I was going to do a comic story about a small town where the guy’s wife leaves for the car dealer? Seriously?” I have no memory of that, but I know it’s me because I wrote it.

I think one of the things I’ve said in the stories is there’s always a little sidestep, a little weird alienation. That first push happens, it gets set aside for a little, but I go back six weeks or six months and finish it. If you brought me things I wrote when I was twenty, I’m sure there’s something in there. I’m more likely to be inspired by me. I don't mean arrogantly in the sense that the work is good, but for the set of concerns that I have, it’s more likely that the things that will strike a note are mine at twenty than someone else. It’s interesting to find those things. Some of them don’t work at all and they get discarded, but it’s funny to find those fragments and try to replant them.

TQO: Now are you one of these people who will just bolt out of bed because you have an idea and you have to scribble it down right away?

BG: Yeah, but this is one good thing about technology. It’s really helped because all of the kinds of tools. It used to be that you had pen and paper next to the bed. Then it was a microcassette recorder, which is embarrassing, like, if you have a new girlfriend. But now with the iPhone there are certain things that technology has done that really help, like that little note thing on the iPhone, just the stupid little notepad? That’s great, because I can just wake up, it’s silent, I don’t have to flip on a light, it’s lit, and I can just type, just a couple words just to leave a trace of it. I don’t know if this will end up being good because I’m probably retaining a lot of things that are stupid, but this is a much more efficient retention of ideas than there was before.

TQO: And at least they’re there. If you go back and decide it’s junk you can just throw things out. I guess that’s better than feeling like you’ve missed something because you didn’t have that tool available.

BG: But in that area where I would wake up and think, “Yeah, that was a really good idea for a story, I better not forget this,” and two steps between the bed and the bathroom it’s gone. I’m sure everyone in any creative discipline has had that experience a number of times. That’s kind of interesting because you can create for yourself the impression the idea you’ve had but lost is great. So that’s good for ego building. Who knows, probably 99% of them are not great but then you can go through the rest of the day thinking wow, it’s like the one that got away.

TQO: What are you working on next? 

BG: Well there’s a couple things. There’s another book in mid-October. It’s short fiction but it’s sort of high concept short fiction. It takes Chekhov’s stories and takes out the characters and puts in celebrities. So that’s a totally different project, but something that I thought would be fun. It’s more like literature humor. We’ll see how people receive it. I think there will be a mix of people thinking it’s a great idea and people wanting to come with torches and dispose of me.  And then there’s a novel that won’t be in and done soon, but I can’t say much about it because I don’t know exactly. There’s always stories. I always try to write a decent number of stories whenever possible. Like I said, they’re always sticking around. They get done at some point.