Discomfort, Desire, and Drugs: Talking with Ben Gwin

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Ben Gwin’s debut novel, Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Regan Middleton, is a sharp satire. The story follows (you guessed it) Ronald Regan Middleton through strung-out days, parties, a writing class in jail, a televised rehab facility,  strip clubs,  AA meetings, parking lots, etc. Readers are introduced to recovered and not-so-recovered addicts, evil pharmaceutical companies, corrupt jail programs, and academics. The book is fast-paced and funny, but not haha funny—more like nervous-giggles-as-you-scan-the-room funny. Ben’s first book is ambitious in narrative and structure while remaining a complete pleasure to read.

I spoke with Ben in April about the novel, which is forthcoming from Burrow Press on May 29.

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The Rumpus: Let’s start with the title. Clean Time—what does the phrase mean? What does it mean to you?

Ben Gwin: It’s a loaded phrase for me, certainly as it applies to the book. I focused on negative aspects of recovery culture in the book for the sake of the story, but I think it’s awesome that clean time is celebrated and acknowledged.

Quitting drugs is hard, and most people can’t quit. But I also think there is an over-emphasis placed on consecutive days without using mind- or mood-altering substances and that can lead to ostracizing people who can’t get it. Also, there’s nothing preventing someone from just lying about how long they have clean, or what someone in recovery considers clean. There is something off to me about counting clean time and treating it as the be-all and end-all of what it means to recover, instead of a means to be a better human being.

Rumpus: Something I noticed immediately about your book is the structure. In addition to being a satire, the form is completely unconventional, which is ambitious for a first book. Did you start Clean Time knowing that you wanted to play with form?

Gwin: Books like Pale Fire and A Visit from the Goon Squad inspired the aesthetic. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I first incorporated the different mediums, but I wanted to figure it out.

The very first drafts I wrote in undergrad had a screen-written commercial for the fictitious drug Nedvedol that we recently turned into a book trailer. Eventually, I figured out how to use the different elements with a purpose.

I had to either really commit to it and give Swanger more of an arc and have him do more work for the story overall, or I had to just go with the first-person narrative. I almost scrapped it a couple times when I was in the midst of a ton of rejections, but I’m glad I stuck with it. I think the payoff is there. I really wanted to avoid coming off as self-important, a look-what-I-can-do sort of thing. I wanted the work to be a kind of commentary on the form itself. I tried to make it engaging and not have the structure get in the way of the story, but instead work to propel it forward. I think a lot of postmodern stuff can be overly dense, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking the reader to do some work, but I wanted to take those structural risks with a book that was otherwise pretty direct in its main narrative.

I think it works to break up the story and to give it another layer or two. It can be read with or without the endnotes. The form also gives Harold Swanger, the narrator and curator of the work, more of an arc. He is the type of person who would put the book together like this. I’m happy with how his character turned out.

Rumpus: One of the scenes that stuck with me is from part of the television transcripts: the section when Althea, Ronald Regan’s “pretend” girlfriend, sets the flamingoes on fire. The moment captures so much of the addicts’ hopelessness and the absurdity of their situation. Where did you come up with the idea?

Gwin: I was researching fancy rehabs. I found this one in Malibu that kept animals on the grounds, which was a perfect model for the ridiculous nature of the institution and show. I decided, in this world, it would read as funny and absurd instead of just gross and sad that the flamingos were burned alive.

Althea’s a pretty cerebral character who has been stuffing a lot of emotions, and I thought her frustration with the TV-rehab situation would manifest itself in desperate, violent actions. She loses it for a variety of reasons and justifies it as an attempt to get kicked off the show and leave rehab.

I don’t have a problem with flamingos, personally.

Rumpus: I know that Clean Time has moved through a lot of iterations. You began writing the book in 2006 and really finished the first draft in 2011. The world has changed so much in that time. How did this affect your story?

Gwin: During revision, I made a few allusions of varying directness to our current president, but the story is fundamentally the same. The pills and the protests and reality TV shows were there in 2011. I think it probably reads differently than it would if we hadn’t elected a B-list celebrity, or if there weren’t millions of pills dumped in small towns in West Virginia, etc. I basically guessed right on a few terrible events that actually happened. I didn’t try to make it more overtly political after the election—the main character was already named Ronald Reagan—but I think a lot cultural stuff seeped in during revisions, especially in relation to the book’s critique of privilege and class and to a lesser extent deregulation, for-profit rehabs, etc. I definitely wrote with more urgency. Hopefully, there’s a sense of that energy in the story.

Rumpus: There’s definitely energy, and I’m curious where the initial energy came from; that is, what made you want to write this book? The character of Ronald Regan Middleton?

Gwin: The energy is probably proportionate to the anxiety in my life. I had gotten into some trouble as a kid, I had quit drinking and been to rehab as a teenager, and I think a lot of the book was me trying to figure out that anxiety, and why I couldn’t just take advantage of the head start I was given as a kid who lived in the suburbs with a loving, middle-class family.

I made RR’s parents much richer, mostly terrible, and largely absent because that made sense story-wise, but, like RR, I really have never been very comfortable in my own skin, and I think that’s where the desire to write comes from, that discomfort. Also, the book is not at all based on my life on a micro-level, just the big picture ideas. I tried to take things that bother me about America and American culture that I feel qualified to discuss and use them in the book.

Rumpus: Clean Time is a bit different from your short stories in its hyperbolic and satirical criticisms. What was it like to work on a project so different from your typical work? Do you think you’ll continue writing satire?

Gwin: With Clean Time, I felt that the criticism and hyperbole worked with the content of the story. The subject matter is pretty heavy, and I felt that using humor and form to balance that subject matter was necessary. Otherwise, it would have just been a rip-off combination of Jesus’ Son and Traffic. So, I felt there was room to write about addiction in a different way. It was fun. I also didn’t feel as constrained by reality, which helped.

I worked hard on having it function as a story, and not just blindly attacking things and then saying, “Yeah well it’s satire! You just don’t get me!” Which, I think that defense is mostly used by writers who’ve failed to write effective satire and an engaging story, not because their audience is wrong. Though I am sure there are exceptions. If I’ve failed as a writer, it’s my fault. But everything that’s in the book is in it because I think it serves the story. Ryan Rivas, my editor, was a huge help in focusing the humor and satire in a way that wasn’t static. I’d been looking at the manuscript for so long; it was hard for me to be objective about what was only funny to me, and what was necessary for the book.

I think I’m little burned out on satire, but I’ll probably write more when I have an idea that lends itself to it. It’s also harder to satirize right-wing nut jobs now because it just reads like InfoWars.

I’ve also thought a lot about what I have to add to the bigger conversation, lately, and nonfiction is the only thing I can come up with that feels like it has even the smallest impact. I’ve been writing a memoir. I think if I do it well, the book could be helpful to other single parents and other people who have dealt with addiction. It’s not as fun though.

Rumpus: Not as fun, that’s an interesting way to put it. Fun isn’t something I hear authors often say about their writing process. What about writing Clean Time was fun?

Gwin: Don’t get me wrong, it’s mostly an agonizing exercise in self-doubt. But I enjoyed the surprises that happened with world building and the process of figuring out characters as I wrote. I also had fun with the satire, especially the poetry reading. That was silly, a little self-indulgent, but fun. Once I got going, there were enjoyable moments, or at least moments of relief when I figured out how to solve a problem I’d created. Those solutions would sometimes open up other avenues and it would kind of build on itself in a way that was unexpected. That process was fun at times. It also leads to a ton of work having to make sure there weren’t any contingency problems and that the solution I posed worked retroactively in earlier parts of the text that had been written to set up a different payoff.

I don’t have an extensive background with nonfiction, so I’m hardly an expert, but when I write narrative nonfiction, I am basically just trying to remember events and arrange them in the most engaging way to present a compelling story. I don’t enjoy solving those problems as much. I think it’s less enjoyable because I place different, unfair expectations on myself and the work because I don’t have to create the stories from scratch. When I get it right, I feel like I haven’t really done anything but transcribe some ridiculous thing I’ve had to deal with, instead of bringing new characters to life. This isn’t a good way to look at it, I’m sure, and it’s not a conscious thing.

Rumpus: You mentioned your editor being a big help earlier. Can you speak more to that relationship and about doing such extensive revisions?

Gwin: Ryan [Rivas] was awesome. After the manuscript was accepted by Burrow Press, we spent almost two years editing. I was willing to change pretty much anything accept the protagonist’s name and the overall concept of the found documents and the meta-narrative. There was no contention with any changes he suggested. We went from macro to micro, then the end notes. Then we did a round of edits just for continuity and timeline.

We cut about 20,000 words, and I wrote about 10,000 more. It was really liberating to cut so much. Huge swaths. Hopefully the world still benefits from having all those settings and characters that exist off the page.

We expanded the world and made the characters respond to events in ways that were more consistent with their personalities and that worked better for the overall narrative. With such a complex structure, we did a lot to simplify the plot and clarify the various threads as much as possible. This helped the pacing quite a bit. It was a grind, but I enjoyed the opportunity to write new scenes.

The other challenge was to make the plot move ahead organically and have RR make decisions that would propel the action forward in interesting ways. An addict is always going to go for the drugs, so to write over three-hundred pages with an addict protagonist we had to stay true to RR’s addiction in a way that wasn’t too repetitive. The revision process helped in this regard.

I’m incredibly grateful and fortunate that Ryan was willing to take on the project knowing that it would entail this kind of effort.

Rumpus: Ronald Reagan is a lovable fuck-up. How did he develop over time?

Gwin: I’m glad you found him lovable!

At first, he was really just a shitty drunk guy who had been to jail and rehab and thought he could write a memoir and get famous. Basically, a caricature, which can work in satire, but not as the protagonist, I don’t think. I didn’t give him enough of an inner life at first. I had just gotten sober myself, and I was too concerned with making fun of the idea of writers needing to drink to write, and that whole persona of the writer as alcoholic/addict.

I felt that there wasn’t enough happening in the earliest drafts. I wanted to be as simple as possible in creating physical objects for him to want and attempt to attain, and to have him want things that were in opposition to each other. Like wanting to leave home but also wanting the comforts that he found in his old life. I feel like I’m veering into weird writer conversations about characters coming alive, but I really didn’t care enough about him. I think a lot of the reason for that was not trusting myself as a writer and lacking confidence in my ability to create a “real” person even in the weird hyper-reality in which he operates.

I had to have really over-the-top shit happen to him and get into his past in order to elicit any sympathy and figure out what I liked about him in order to have that come across better.

Rumpus: What do you think Ronald Regan is up to now?

Gwin: I think he’ll be the next head of the DEA.

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Author photograph © Jared Alan Smith.


Christine Stroud is the author of two chapbooks, Sister Suite and The Buried Return, and her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cimarron Review, Hobart, and many others. Stroud is the Editor-in-Chief of Autumn House Press. More from this author →