“I certainly hope we’re all writing about those things that matter most to us.”
Pinckney Benedict is the author of four works of fiction, including the widely acclaimed Town Smokes, and, most recently, Miracle Boy and Other Stories, which is currently longlisted for the 2010 Cork City – Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. His stories are widely anthologized in outlets including the O. Henry Prize Stories (twice), New Stories from the South, the Pushcart Prize series, the Oxford Book of American Short Stories, and the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is a professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University. We talked about his writerly apprenticeship under the tutelage of Joyce Carol Oates, his love of genre, the literary politics of Appalachia, his departure from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday to publish with small presses, Christianity, graphic novels, and the possibility of future work in horror films.
The Rumpus: The first book of yours I read was Town Smokes, which was published to some acclaim by Ontario Review Press in 1987. Town Smokes was the book that was plugged on MTV and featured the story (“The Sutton Pie Safe”) that won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, plus the title story, which was anthologized in the Oxford Book of American Short Stories. It’s a book that holds up these many years later, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s not much like the books that followed it. The fiction, which started in this kind of Breece D’J Pancake realist mode, has grown increasingly weird with each book, and this latest collection, Miracle Boy, is the weirdest of all, in its flirtation with all sorts of genres, including (a surprise to me) science fiction. What happened?
Pinckney Benedict: I’m very happy with the notion that my work has grown weirder with every iteration, so thank you for that. Town Smokes was very early work of mine, and much of it was, as you mention, open homage to Breece Pancake, who was the strongest of the various literary influences I felt as an undergraduate, which was the period during which those stories were written. I was very much a journeyman writer, very much aware that I was learning my craft, and models like Pancake’s work were invaluable to me.
The strangeness that has crept in – or more recently come roaring in, I think it’s not wrong to say – is probably the result of my beginning to feel, rightly or wrongly, that I own the craft part of the work now, and so I can look through that part of it; the sentences and the paragraphs and the shapes of the stories have, to some extent over the years, become transparent to me, so more of what comes through is actually me. It’s one of the reasons I’m as pleased with this new collection as I am: it’s the work of mine that – again, for better or worse – looks most like me, most resembles the geography of the place between my ears.
Rumpus: When you were writing those earlier stories – which you seem here to be characterizing as apprentice work to one degree or other, an assessment that seems ungenerous to me – was there a person or an institution or an idea of literature you were trying to accommodate or please?
Benedict: Almost all of those stories were written when I was an undergraduate at Princeton, in creative writing classes led by Joyce Carol Oates, and I was very consciously writing to please her. I don’t mean to diminish those early stories, or denigrate them, because they were, and are, very important to me – I simply mean to acknowledge that I was more powerfully influenced by models then than I believe I am now. And my collaboration with Joyce on those stories – I believe it’s fair to call it a collaboration, because she was an astonishingly generous teacher, and I still hear her voice every day when I write, feel her editorial hand on my shoulder, as it were – was amazingly fruitful. I used to write four or five stories a semester! A level of production that, quite frankly, I’ve never reached again.
And since I was riffing on Breece Pancake so steadily, I didn’t begin to acknowledge my debt to “genre” writers – like Stephen King, from whom I learned the central importance of rock-solid sensory detail; or Kurt Vonnegut, from whom I took away the virtues of aliens and joyous (and not so joyous) sexuality – until much later. Joyce, I think, would have welcomed such material, if I’d been able to pull it off, in her classroom.
At Iowa, though, where I went for graduate school, it was made very plain to me that experimentation with “genre” was forbidden. In fact, anything that made writing or literature enjoyable or fun – collaboration, collegiality, humor – were strictly on the no-no list. (I even learned later that Frank Conroy had told Joyce that I would be a far better writer if only I would abandon “that backwoods stuff” – even the “genre” of my home and my life’s material was of questionable literary value!) It took me a long time to recover from the bizarrely Puritanical edicts of that place, and a good bit of my enthusiasm for my current material, for the outre, for the elements of horror and science fiction, probably springs from rebellion and resentment – doubtless against a way of thinking that has passed away. I hope so, anyway.
Rumpus: It is interesting to hear this talk about “that backwoods stuff.” I’ll confess that I came to your stories first because I was much enamored with a writer from Haldeman, Kentucky, named Chris Offutt. At that time, I was trying to teach myself how to write, and one way I was doing it was by reading whatever good thing I could find, then looking up interviews with the person who wrote it, essays about their work – anything, really, that I could find in my haphazard way. And since Offutt was writing about the part of the country where I spent part of every summer with my wife and her family, and because he seemed to get it so right, I was astounded to learn that there was this whole backlash from a subset of scholars of Appalachia who seemed to object to any work that portrayed people as — well, from all I can tell, less morally upright than educated upper middle class white people from the East Coast. This seemed very curious to me. And since the other likely targets were Breece Pancake and you, I figured I ought to start reading both of you. Has this kind of talk found its way to you, and what do you do with it?
Benedict: Ah, yes, I’ve felt the lash of the Appalachian literati a number of times. My wife and I have a term for any work of fiction, and for some films, too, that fit the pre-made model of “proper” Appalachian writing: it’s all “The Quilt.” If I’d had more quilts in my early work, I’d have fared a lot better with those folks, I think. Some Appalachian scholars, I have to say, were most supportive. I think in particular of the great Jim Wayne Miller, who wrote a very generous and simpatico article about my story (from Town Smokes) “The Sutton Pie Safe.” That article helped some folks in that community see what I was up to more clearly than was possible amidst all the Sturm und Drang, and to see that it wasn’t bad, or libelous, and cruel, or mocking, as it was sometimes thought to be.
Interestingly, my more recent work seems to have found wider acceptance among at least a few of the folks who earlier didn’t much care for it. I’ve published a couple of the stories from Miracle Boy in the influential journal Appalachian Heritage, and even won their prize for best fiction in the magazine in 2007, for my story “Joe Messinger is Dreaming.” I’m not sure if the difference is in me or in them – we’ve all grown older, perhaps wiser, perhaps our teeth have just grown more dull – but I’m happy about it.
Rumpus: I’ve been wanting to ask you about the strange trajectory of your publishing career. In some ways, you’ve lived the charmed life: Esquire, Zoetrope, Tin House, twice the O. Henry Award Series, New Stories from the South, two Pushcart Prizes, a couple of books from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, and the promise of two more, a novel and a story collection. But when the story collection arrived, it came from an unexpected publisher – tiny Press 53, out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and, across the pond, the independent Salt Publishing. It is easy to imagine all kinds of scenarios – everything from betrayal to aesthetic boldness (the freedom the small press can offer.) But I don’t want to imagine. I want to hear it from you: What happened?
Benedict: In its simplest form: I’m a slow-ass. I had a two-book contract with Nan, for a novel and a story collection, based on the manuscript of the collection as it was back in 2006 (I think), which is quite different – smaller, more conventional – from what Press 53 has brought out. Nan wanted, for what I believe were very sound marketing reasons, to publish the novel before the collection, so the stories languished while I worked on the novel manuscript, which is still incomplete.
When the great crash hit the publishing world (as it hit pretty much everything else), Nan – and many other publishers, I imagine, or at least comfort myself by imagining – had to drop incomplete and overdue contracts. Mine was one of those. She handled the whole thing quite honorably, and I was of course woefully behind with the novel.
So my agent went out with the story collection, to every house that we could think of in NYC and some other places, high and low and in-between. Nobody bit. It was a terrible time for story collections. And as the rejections came in, I thought to myself: Laura (my wife) and I have done two anthologies with Press 53, and they were both highly enjoyable experiences that ended in the creation of what I believe to be worthwhile collections of literary art. They were fun! None of my publishing experience with Doubleday was ever what I would have called fun. So I withdrew the collection from the small number of folks who still had it and sent it to Kevin Watson, who seemed pleased to receive it. And we began to figure out how we would publish the book.
What I’ve ended up with beats every publishing experience I’ve had since Town Smokes came out – also from a small, dedicated publisher – all those years ago. It’s a robust book of stories, the cover looks wonderful (one of my great friends took the photograph and my wife helped design it), and I feel pleased whenever I talk to my publisher, because he’s truly happy to have me in the Press 53 stable. I don’t have to feel apologetic for having produced a book of short fiction that will obviously have quite a limited audience. And I don’t have to wait for the novel to be finished (in my slow-ass way, I have to admit: when will that be? I don’t know) and the whole publishing cycle to run twice before I saw this book come to fruition.
Hope that doesn’t sound like protesting too much, but I feel like a fellow to whom has happened what he would once have considered the worst possible fate: to be dumped by a prestigious publisher for a failure wholly on his part. (Once upon a time this occurrence would have made me, quite literally, suicidal.) And come to find out, it’s really quite a blessing. I love it when a story has a sticky sappy happy ending, don’t you?
Rumpus: A few weeks ago, I participated in an online roundtable sponsored by Dan Wickett’s Emerging Writers Network, about Miracle Boy. I was there, I’ll admit, to throw around phrases like “mechanical rabbit” and “Chaucer-meets-Gogol-meets-Donne-meets-Ray-Bradbury-meets-Albert-Goldbarth somewhere in the back corner of the library, where Jim Shepard is crouched empathetically over his history books and Nabokov runs his magnifying glass over his butterfly collection.” So I was surprised when the talk quickly turned to what seemed to many of the readers to be the explicitly Christian themes in many of the stories, to which there seemed to be a knee-jerk response that somehow precluded good reading. I’m susceptible to that kind of thing, too – evangelicalism is the community I fled – but your work doesn’t seem to grapple with these matters in the reductive sort of way about which even a reader as grumpy as me might gripe. Since the stories clearly have invited the conversation, I’d like to hear more about where the interest in these themes – which seem to have been deemed universally unsexy by those who declare what literature is – might have come from, and what it is you might be saying or not saying.
Benedict: First of all, bless Dan Wickett for all the good he does in the world, and bless you for taking part in that panel. I was a bit surprised, I have to admit, by the vociferous objections to the Christian material picked up by the keen noses of some of the other panelists. I think one guy even said that the ending of “Miracle Boy” was so saccharine that it would have made Flannery O’Connor puke, or some such! I got a big laugh out of the notion. The story was, of course, originally published in that great evangelical Christian magazine Esquire, edited by the Right Reverend David Granger, and plucked from obscurity by Sister Adrienne Miller . . .
To stop being snarky for a moment: I am a Christian, for what it’s worth, and that’s not an identification I shy away from. It’s not surprising, then, I don’t think, that my most deeply held beliefs influence my work. How could they not? I assume the same is true of other folks, whatever their beliefs may be. I certainly hope we’re all writing about those things that matter most to us. And, of course, the part of the world in which I grew up is steeped in traditional American evangelical Christianity, so it’s not just a concern of mine: it’s the milieu in which all my characters have spent all their lives. It would be bizarre if they didn’t frequently think in the language of the King James Bible. It would be bizarre if they didn’t frequently think about Jesus as a real person, as a being who has an intense and personal interest in their lives. How could they not?
I hope, though, that my thinking and writing on the subject is not reductive, to use your (very good) word. I’m not a simpleton (however much I may come off as one, and however much I might at times prefer to be one), and neither are my characters simpletons. They’re complex folks who come from a very specific background, and they reflect the influences of that background. Since it couldn’t be otherwise, I can’t worry all that much about the gut-level reactions of folks who, for whatever reason, hold unpleasant opinions of Christians generally, and simply don’t care to read about them. God knows, Christians have done much to earn the distrust and disdain with which much of America (and particularly the highly educated and the literate) views them.
Rumpus: For awhile I was reading the MySpace page you operated until last year or so, and what I was following the most was the progress reports about your work with computer-assisted comic-book-style storytelling. I’ve seen a couple of finished pieces, most recently in the online noir magazine Plots with Guns. How committed are you to this new (for you) form of storytelling, and do you have any ambition to make something book-length?
Benedict: I greatly enjoy making these graphic fictions, for which I both write the scripts and make – perhaps “cobble together” is a better phrase – the pictures. I’ve always loved comic books, and I’ve been pleased to see how fine many graphic novels are: at least the equal of more conventional prose novels, in the best cases. That said, I see these pieces as diversions from the principal body of my work, which is my stories, in much the same way that I see the work I’ve done on film scripts as a (sometimes quite lucrative) diversion. I learn something with every new project that I then take back to my “legitimate” work.
It’s also vastly painstaking labor. As slow as I am with prose, I’m that much slower with the graphic stuff. I’d love to do something full-length, yes, very much so, but I’m realizing as I go along that, to make that work, I’d have to have a collaborator, someone to undertake the graphic side of things for me, or at least to handle the bulk of that work. Ten pages I can do. Even twenty or thirty, as in the case of “Orgo VS the Flatlanders,” which is the longest and most ambitious graphic work I’ve done so far; but more than that would lay waste to me.
But I do love the way the form frees me in some magical way from the more linear expectations of my fiction. I love the feeling that I can mix many different elements together, as I conflate medieval Japan and eastern Kentucky in “Kentucky Samurai,” for instance. That’s a sensibility that I want to keep taking back to my stories: the freedom! We can do anything. There’s nobody there to stop us. Nobody cares enough to stop us! Isn’t that great (in kind of a sad way)?
Rumpus: Given the state of publishing now (whatever that is or might soon become, but I’m thinking of the decline of print that has been so widely forecast, and the rise of the independents, and the new vitality or new decline all of this will cause in literature, depending upon whom you ask), it seems to me that you’re in a space of extraordinary freedom, since you’re beholden to no one, and since Southern Illinois University is paying the bills, and since you have a readership that has already proven itself willing to follow you to unexpected places. What do you plan to do with this freedom? What’s next for you, I mean, and what’s next for your work, and what are the big or small things you still want to achieve as a writer, or, more broadly, as a maker of things?
Benedict: You’re right about the freedom I enjoy, although the parlous state of Illinois’ finances right now ($12 billion in the hole – or is it $13 billion?) makes me wonder how long such a condition can last. The worry of freedom, of course, is that we can waste it or fritter it away, and I often curse myself as I go to bed at night for not having done more with all the resources at my disposal, and I rise up each morning declaring that today I’ll make good on all the excellent fortune that’s befallen me.
The project I’m most immediately interested in right now is a low-budget Canadian horror film that’s in prospect. It’s with Cite-Amerique in Montreal, the production company that made the one film that’s been made from a script I’ve written. (I’ve done a number of commissions, mostly literary adaptations, for Canadian, British, and American film companies, but only this one has made it to the screen – Four Days, with Kevin Zegers, Colm Meaney, William Forsythe, and the astonishing Lolita Davidovich, on whom I will forever have a schoolboy crush.) I suppose I’ll hear this week or next whether I’ve got that job. It’s a bit tough, given laws in Canada regarding Canadian content, for them to hire an American screenwriter.
But low-budget horror, with an imaginative director (and the director they’ve got for this film seems very bright to me), seems like a pretty good fit. I gather that my long story “The Beginnings of Sorrow” (which ended up in a massive horror anthology) impressed them with my my “horror” chops. I’m a low-budget kind of guy, an appreciator of exploitation films of even quite a squalid kind.
I’ll finish this novel one day, but I’m not – and certainly the world doesn’t seem to be! – in any kind of rush. For now, I’m taking the next thing that looks likely, the next thing that will pay even a little bit, the next thing that will teach me some discipline or new approach for my fiction.