If I had to do a free-associating list of all the things that I think of when someone says the word “cool”—and my mind didn’t latch onto the physical meaning of the word, sending me on an extremely boring tangent that would include words like snow, ice skating, and Zambonis—then I would probably list a Calvin and Hobbes strip, where Calvin is leaning against a wall with sunglasses on and tells Hobbes that, “life bores you when you’re cool”; Snoopy’s alter-ego, Joe Cool; and possibly, Fonzie from Happy Days.
To be cool is to be in control. To be cool is to be detached, removed, above the fray. It’s also an overly simplistic, and if applied aggressively, smug way of being. Things don’t thrill you or bring you joy. You are too in control to be submit to such emotions. Cool people are fun to witness from afar, admiring them like statutes, but they aren’t very satisfying to be friends with. At least that is what I used to think when I was younger. My definition of cool has changed as I’ve gotten older, rejecting any adolescent notions of the word.
With humor and frankness, Ben Tanzer grapples with these broad ideas of coolness in his new book, Be Cool, a collection of essays that follow Ben’s life from middle school to adulthood. The topics of the essays range from riding the New York City subway, the books that meant the most to him in childhood, kidney stones, his sexual desires, and suicide. Each section, which is organized by decade, opens with a story about Ben running, one of his lifelong habits and obsessions.
Be Cool is Ben’s second memoir, following Lost in Space, which focused on his experiences as a father. Also, Ben is the author of Orphans, a science fiction novel set on Mars that won the Midwest Book Prize. Ben released a collection of short stories, Sex and Death, at the beginning of 2016. He also writes the blog This Blog Will Change Your Life, and hosts its sister podcast, This Podcast Will Change Your Life.
Ben and I talked over the phone in the early evening on a Wednesday. What this transcript doesn’t show (in case, even for a moment, you mistake Ben or I for are particularly reserved people) is a lot of laughter, many times at ourselves, and geeky excitement in our discussion. We are cheerfully, unabashedly uncool, which makes us super-way-cool and rad. Oh, the joy of paradoxes!
The Rumpus: I want to take a moment to talk about Jim Carroll and The Basketball Diaries. When I was young, I read it over and over again, and I love Jim Carroll.
Ben Tanzer: That makes me happy to hear that out loud.
Rumpus: Reading your chapter where you describe meeting both Jim Carroll and Allen Ginsberg in the same evening, I realized that you and I are very kismet. I think I’ve never been more jealous of someone in my entire life. Allen Ginsberg—I love him. Why do you think more people—in spite of the movie—don’t talk about Jim Carroll or seem to have a fascination with him?
Tanzer: It’s funny, though I say this poorly, I think a person has to have someone introduce them to Jim Carroll. I think he’s just off the grid or off the radar enough that it’s helpful to have someone cool in your life or is wisely aware. I know I refer to this in the chapter. I had a friend like that. He was my age and he had no siblings, but he had very young parents and cool uncles. He introduced me to that book. He also introduced me to Rocky Horror Picture Show. He introduced me to The Ramones.
So I think when people don’t have friends or siblings like that, if you are someone on your own—or with great friends, wise, well-read friends, but who aren’t freaks and are more mainstream—I don’t know that you get the same exposure. Also, I don’t think after a certain point—I don’t know if this totally accurate—but at some point in the eighties, he was not such a presence anymore. When I saw him the second time in Chicago, which was only three or four or five years after the first time I saw him, there was barely anyone there.
So I think it helps being in New York; I think it helps having interesting, freaker friends. I think all those pieces have to come together, because he never quite went mainstream. Those are my theories.
Rumpus: I like that theory. It was just something that excited me so much. In that chapter, you also discuss The Chocolate Wars and The Outsiders, two other books I loved in my youth.
Tanzer: I love The Chocolate Wars. I’ve always read a lot, but at that age I read an unbelievable amount, so, so, so much, everything. Everything from alternative Jim Carroll-type books to very hardcore young adult books, like The Outsiders, which I read twenty-five times, to adult books and random books, like Flowers in the Attic, which I read a hundred times. I used to read everything by Jackie Collins, who I loved. So I read everything. I still try to; unfortunately now I have to work, which is a drag.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s get into the questions I have actually prepared. My first is broad, and I think it’s fun. What is your personal, down and dirty, definition of cool or coolness? Feel free to provide examples to elucidate your point—cool things, cool people.
Tanzer: That’s a good, fun question. I think the definition—or the version—I’ve spent much of my life striving for—and it’s embarrassing to think about, but fun to write about—is this sense that the choices you’re making, the things that are important to you, the way you want to live or could live, are things that are recognized by the public as things that seem cool.
I’ve always been interested what I’ve been interested in, but I’ve also been interested in being cool, for sure. I feel like as a young adult, I moved away from a lot of what I loved. Consciously, I didn’t think they were cool enough, and I tried to figure out what was cool. Now, I think the important part is that the people you intersect with see you as cool. That’s my personal definition. I think the definition is really the ability to be in your own skin wherever you are and trust and know that whatever version that is that you are living and breathing it and you are unbothered whether people are reacting to it. And that’s what I have tried to do as I’ve gotten older. I’m very fanboy about things that I get excited about. I’m not able to be cool about it. For long time, I suppressed that as an adult, and I decided to drop it. If I’m excited about something, I let myself be excited about it. It’s very freeing. So I think a part of being cool to me when I was younger, was trying to figure what people respond to in a way that gives you a sense of adulation. And now I think being cool is understanding what you love or makes you feel good and embracing it, regardless of how you think people come to it. How’s that?
Rumpus: I like that. That’s what I think of when I think about people being cool—it’s a lot about confidence. Someone that is really cool to me is someone who is confident and enjoys who they are and what they like. I want to use this to segue into one of the things I love about your writing—that you write about running. Not just in Be Cool, but in your proceeding memoir, Lost in Space, too. You have that great chapter, “Race Matters,” about your son and wanting him to run the dash. Can you describe a little more how in your personal life, outside of your writing, running has helped you? Does running bring you confidence?
Tanzer: It’s funny, because for a long time running was a very unconscious experience. As I’ve gotten older, it’s given me a sense of balance. It allows to some extent to manage anxieties or things I’m struggling with. And in a way, it allows me to sluff off those things. If I’m upset about something, if I’m confused about something, or stuck, it lubricates that experience.
It’s so obnoxious to talk about your own work, even though it’s an interview—but I have a book, Orphans, a science fiction novel, and I had this idea that I wanted to write about a father and son, which I do a lot. I wanted to write about the conflict of family and work—that was the idea I had in my head. Then I went out for a run late at night—I like to run late at night—and I was running along the lake, and I remember thinking, You can’t repeat yourself. That’s not interesting for people. How do you evolve? That’s what I was struggling with. I didn’t want to tell the same story again—even though I don’t have a story exactly like that, it’s close enough. As I was running, I looked up at the sky—it’s so cheesy, I apologize—and I thought wow, what if that guy was a real estate salesman but the real estate he sold was on Mars. What would that book look like. That happened while I was running—it might have happened elsewhere—but the reality is it happened for me as I was running along the lakefront, in the dark, looking at the stars. The whole idea opened up in that moment. The running allows for that, for the calming, allows that lubrication. I always tell this story, when I was fifteen—now you’re going back thirty plus years—I don’t remember exactly what was going on, but I went down to the track by my house. I ran ten miles on the track at ten o’clock at night. I ran ten miles in like an hour and it was electrifying for me, freeing, and all Zen, and then I jogged home and it was really late. And my parents—I don’t know if they were home when I left the house but they were home when I got back—were like hey, have you been out of the house? I don’t know why that seemed so weird, because I was definitely unsupervised. There was something about that night though. I was into running before then, but after that night, I realized, wow, this is a way to feel better. Then I definitely got hooked.
That’s why I write about it. It’s less about being cool. It’s about how to feel good enough to do other things and not just be stuck in your head, which I’ve always fought against.
Rumpus: Can you describe your writing process?
Tanzer: I made a decision, it was a conscious thing—based on what, we could probably unpack—that I decided almost immediately that the only way I thought it was going to work was that I wouldn’t be precious about my writing.
I was really worried. I was already working, and I didn’t write my first sentence until I was thirty. I thought to myself, I’m not going to be able to do this, like an artist—my dad was an artist and he painted all day long or painted when he wanted and my mom was really into that. On some level, I knew that version of being an artist was not going to be an option.
My experience was daily regimented, which is how I try to do everything, even though I’m not super-regimented. I think part of it was being an athlete up through high school and somewhat into college. Regimented is the way you do things. You just get it done that way. So right off the bat, I thought to myself, It’s not going to help you to be precious right out the door. It can’t be the perfect time of day, the perfect music, the perfect cup of coffee. You are going to have to write when you can make it happen, which is how the writing works.
The second thing I thought: You are not going to wait for inspiration. Some people only write when they get on a writing jag or when they feel inspired. Early on, I decided that’s not the way I was going to do it, which for the record, is not a judgment. It’s just my personal choice. So right off the bat, I thought, the process, in a way, is not going to be a process, even though it’s obviously a constructed process.
I will write once a day, every day of the week. So there will be no breaks. I will not wait for inspiration. I will sit down every day and when I sit down, it will be for at least thirty minutes—because I feel like that is the right time for running. And if I get interrupted in that thirty minutes, then I have to start again from scratch. So it becomes compulsive. I have been, more or less, following that model for the last eighteen years. I write everyday, plot it in my head, know what you intend to write, don’t wait for inspiration. Now, the caveat is sometimes—like with collections like Be Cool—some nugget or slice of an idea will be in my head and then I will spend time collecting stories or ideas that will allow me to turn that nugget into something. So in that way, I’m gathering things for inspiration. I’m just using them on a day-to-day basis to write. I’m really trying to plot it out. In the same way that I could tell you now, what I’m writing this week and next week and which routes I’m going to run. My running is not spontaneous or inspirational either.
I treat my writing likes it’s just part of the day, like it’s a slot. That might sound really unsexy. But that’s really worked for me. It’s like saving money, which makes me sound even less sexy. I would love to have more time and freedom, but I don’t know that I need to write more than I do. I would just like my days to look different. It is process and sometimes I stretch it out or write in the evening like a second shift, but it’s very regimented.
Rumpus: Be Cool is not like a traditional memoir. It is a collection of essays about your life that are organized in chronological order. Why did you choose to write it this way?
Tanzer: With Be Cool, there wasn’t a conscious effort to build towards something. I thought about if I were to write an essay collection, what would I write about. And then I made a list. When I went back to editing, so much of the book was building blocks and that wasn’t planned. So when I first wrote it, I didn’t even think about it as chronological. I organized it by decade, but it’s kind of funny, in a way it looks like I consciously tried to tell a story from A to Z. But all I tried to do was write a book about things that I thought were the most interesting to me. I thought I was writing about being cool, but I was also writing about my compulsions, one of which is Los Angeles, which wasn’t so clear to me at the time, and running, and how you become a writer. I didn’t plan for it all to hang together—not that an essay collection has to—but it does. And that was sorta unexpected and kinda fun.
Rumpus: Another thing I enjoy about your writing is that you write about sex and your lusty desires in a very funny and candid way. In the essay, Be Cool, from which you get the title of your book, you write about masturbating to Natasha Kinski’s picture as a young man and then getting hard-on when you saw her as an adult in LA. Also, your short story collection, Sex and Death, which was released earlier this year, is all about fantasies and desire. You obviously think it is important to write about sex in an honest way. Why do you feel that it’s important?
Tanzer: From a non-fiction perspective, it feels like I have an obligation to lay it out. If I’m going to tell you, whoever you are, that I want you to read what I’m writing and that I’m someone—this is very inspired by The Basketball Diaries—who tries to write in real-time, tries to write what it feels like to be alive. And I want you to know what I am thinking. And those things are in my head and they are among my compulsions, which I am self-conscious about it, but I don’t feel I shouldn’t write about it. It would be much harder for me if I just met you in a bar and we were just talking—it would be weirder if it was casual. I don’t act like that in my personal life. So that is what is funny too, because that’s not how I talk, but how I think. I’m much more conscious of embarrassing a person, male or female. In my writing, it feels like an obligation. The other thing is that every draft I write from start to finish—however a long it takes, a couple days—if that is what is in my head, then I’m putting it on paper. Then I go back and look and if it feels like I shouldn’t strip it away, I don’t. Again, with the nonfiction, it feels like there’s an obligation to let you know what I am thinking. I’m not especially repressed or prudish, but I didn’t I grow up with people who talked about those things. People didn’t joke around about sex. And later in my life I met people, males and females, who grew up around that. That’s not my experience. Personally, to go back to your question, this also about my effort to be comfortable in my skin. That is what Natasha Kinski meant to me at thirteen, because I would never have said that at thirteen—that would be so not cool. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s cool to admit that now, but it’s important to me now to feel I’m in the moment.
On the fiction side, that book was very consciously an effort to write stories that felt realistic but like dreams. The version of me and my friends that is how they and I and we talk. So I specifically was trying to channel that kind of energy. But my experience—my mom and I have gone back and forth on this—the people I’m drawn to, male and female, talk about sex all the time. So clearly I was looking for those people. And so to me, I feel like when I’m writing fiction, I’m reflecting back and trying making sense of what feels like a story. I think that’s part of it—those are the types of people I gravitate towards. But I will say for sure, I have a series of compulsions I’m always managing that’s about the culture of sex. I mean that’s running thing for me, as with running, as with reading. I think they all come from a very similar place for me even if I can’t understand the etiology of it. I sorta hold them in the same place.
This can be published or not—having engaged over the years in a series of escapes to get out of my own head, I think you could trace a line from reading, which is basically my first escape, to masturbation to running to drugs to therapy, and you would have a pretty good line to the thing that I have consciously or unconsciously pursued to get out of my head. I think what has happened with age, which is great, is that some of the less healthy activity I have left behind or boxed up or managed. To me, there really is something almost linear in my experience with those things. They are escapist, not to dull myself to the world, but to get out of my head where so much is going on that I cannot bear it.
Those things hang together for me. And they are equally important to me, but some are more embarrassing than others.
Rumpus: It’s nice to hear a man to talk about these things. I mean it. I think women talk about these things all the time. I was just talking to my husband about this, about how I was stuck in my head, and I need to clean or do something to get out of it. It’s refreshing to hear men discuss these things, because there is still that stoicism in our country. Men don’t want to talk about how they experience anxiety.
Tanzer: So good. That’s tricky. In my head, writing aside, I have really tried to consciously fight against that stoicism or embracing that or that it has to be a part of being male. I don’t think that’s what being male is.
Rumpus: I want to talk a little more specifically about Sex and Death. One of my favorite stories in that collection was “Taking Flight.” It really felt authentic to me. It is a about woman looking for an affair on Facebook and when it becomes real, she pulls back. You chose, along with almost all the other stories in this collection, to write it in the second person. Which is pretty gutsy, man. Most people don’t like second person. Why did you choose to write it in the second person?
Tanzer: The first thing, which is not a good answer, is that I love the way it sounds in my head. To me, it’s got such an interesting vibe to it—it’s got a different beat—so part of it is the rhythm of the you, the you, the you. So in part, it’s an aesthetic choice. It’s got nothing to do with anything based on theory or science. But, going back to an earlier thing I said to you, the idea of with these stories is that they should almost feel like they are in a dream-state, though they are not supposed to be in a dream-state. So, to me, when you are sorta moving in a dream-state—like this woman, the Facebook woman from the story, she’s stepped outside herself—the use of the second person allows for the narrator to be watching themselves. And I thought that was really important for these stories. That these people, in a sense, were watching themselves and not quite connected to the experience. And I think too, that disconnection is so tied into how myself and others experience the idea of having a fear or watching someone die. You are not totally in your own body—you are slightly out-of-body—so by using “you,” it allows for creating that vibe. It feels more like fantasy and dream in the second person.
For example, I was sitting next to my father when he died, which I write about in this other book of mine, Lost in Space. We knew he was dying, he’d been in and out of consciousness for a couple days. I was the only one in the room and I was sitting next to him, and I was working on his obituary. He just stopped breathing. He had been struggling with breathing and he just stopped and was incredibly still. When it happened, whatever else was going on with me, whatever else our relationship was to him, part of it was being in the room but then watching myself in the room. It was a little dream-like, it was in the middle of the night, it was so abrupt that it woke me up. That while he was still alive, I was experiencing an out-of-body thing—maybe because I was sitting in the hospital all day long—and then I was snapped back to reality. That’s a long way around of talking about using the second person. The woman in “Taking Flight” has got an idea in her head that she has to pursue and then to your point, once it’s a real thing, a really real thing, it’s impossible, right?
So like the woman, later in the book, who decides to go talk to her dead husband’s mistress, but decides not to, that’s part of the reason. I really love this idea, that no one knows her dead husband like she does, except for his mistress. Again, as soon as that becomes a real thing though, meeting the mistress, she’s not going to do it. In there, I think too, is an interesting part of being alive.
Rumpus: I think what’s so interesting is how you play with transgression, how we want to play with things and push boundaries in ourselves, but then a lot of times we come to crossing the boundary and think, Whoa! That’s not what I want in my life. The “you” brings the reader in, making them complicit by reminding them that even if this isn’t their particular story, that they still do it too. I think everyone has had a time that they were being transgressive in some way, even if it’s not an affair or sex.
Tanzer: Yes, I think absolutely. And I also can say this about myself—and a therapist once said this to me, so I can share that—I can be fairly rigid in my real life or my personal life, so I spend a lot of time preventing myself from even thinking transgressively. So I know that, in part, these stories too are my way of playing out things that people tell me. Again, going back to the Facebook story, I felt like I kept hearing urban myths about people meeting up with exes on Facebook, that affairs were launched or potentially launched that way. I kept hearing that, and it made sense. That, to me, is exactly how the world operates, yet it still seemed unreal, because I hadn’t met anybody that had done that and I personally wouldn’t allow myself to do that. Then I was at work one night and this woman, who I’m friendly with, told me that one of her friends embarked on a Facebook affair. As soon she said that—and it wasn’t just something that I heard about—I went and wrote that story, literally almost start to finish. I know nothing about this woman’s friend, except that the guy started taking the bait and got excited and the woman thought, “Oh my god, what did I trigger?” I don’t know how that story ended.
What I found interesting was the “what did I trigger?” and “I need to get out of it” part. I took that for the story and then layered it that my character and the man had this whole history that she didn’t quite remember. That is also something that I find fascinating—how often I talk to someone and they don’t quite remember the whole story. I wanted him to be really hurt by her and she didn’t remember it. Because, for her, what makes the experience especially real, is that there is already something broken there. You don’t go on to an affair to try to get into another complicated situation. You are trying to go into a situation that is freeing and whole and this guy is damaged goods. She’s already got damaged goods at home.
Rumpus: Because you are such a funny writer, do you have any favorite comedic writers or writers that you turned to for inspiration?
Tanzer: When I first started writing, it’s clear that the David Sedaris of the late 90s and early part of the century had a huge influence on me. Another writer for sure, who is a lot less famous, but maybe not for long, is Samantha Irby, who is an essay writer and storyteller from Chicago. She wrote a kickass book, Meaty. It was the first essay collection published by Curbside Splendor. That book had a tremendous influence on Lost in Space, which in my mind, was the trigger for me writing Be Cool.
The founder of Curbside, who has been a longtime friend and drinking buddy, was telling me about how much he loved Meaty—that it was written by a woman who was funny and sexy and had pain—and he told me that they’d love to have the boring, male dad version of that book. That book became Lost in Space. After I had written my first draft, and I was taking a break, I read her book, which I hadn’t read before. I realized how beautifully she had balanced humor and pain, so I went back during my last edit, and I asked myself if I was hitting that sweet spot of balancing humor and pain. So Samantha had a huge impact on me. I don’t think outright humor writers have much of an impact on me, but I think there are essay writers, who are conscious or clearly able to write about pain. Another one is Chuck Klosterman, who doesn’t write personal essays in the same way—they’re a little more academic or pop culture—but they hit a certain vibe. I would love to write some of the things he’s written, because he also raises the question of how pop culture works. I don’t know that I have that gift.
Also, there’s a lot of personal essay writers that aren’t necessarily funny that are big influences. Megan Stielstra, a Chicago essay writer and storyteller. She’s a huge impact, she’s a friend. I really admire her. Wendy C. Ortiz. Just raw and dreamy. Chloe Caldwell. She has a book, Legs Get Led Astray, from Future Tense. She’s a young woman, but she makes me want to carve out a part of my life the way she has. Those are all people over the last several years that have inspired me.
And the The Basketball Diaries. It was written as a memoir, but it is very funny. If you go back and reread it, you’ll realize it’s really funny. I have aspired to writing something that might impact someone’s life like Basketball Diaries has impacted me. It has had a lifelong impact. Whatever he does or how he does it, I would like to do that.
Rumpus: In fight between green and blue, which would win and why?
Tanzer: Green and blue?
Rumpus: Yes, the colors green and blue.
Tanzer: Oh, I love that. Let me take a moment. In a way, it strikes me as a battle of nature. Also, it reminds me of the movie, Sky High, where there is this character that can control nature. It would seem to me that blue would have to win. Because if blue could summon the energy of the sky and/or water, it would be able to drown or smother anything green. So, at a minimum, to do a WWF reference, green would probably have to tap out at some point, because it would just be overwhelmed. From the nature perspective, blue dominates.
Rumpus: That is a great answer. I love that. Last question, are you working on anything new that you would like to share with us?
Tanzer: I’ve been playing around with a novel about memory and time, like how we think about time. And I’m filtering it through a long-term relationship. I like to work fast and short and punk. A lot of the books I work on transpire over a short period of time, a couple of months or a year. I wanted to see how a relationship would look over a couple of decades.
So, I’m playing with that, and I’ve been working on the follow-up to my novel, Orphans, which is called Foundlings. That picks up near the end of Orphans, but the point of view shifts. The first book is from the husband’s perspective and the second book picks up with the wife’s perspective. It’s always been a trilogy for me, so the third book, following chronologically, would be from the perspective of the son.
Author photograph © Jacob S. Knapp.