The Rumpus Interview with Jensen Beach

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Jensen Beach’s home in the sleepy town of Belchertown, Massachusetts was a real destination for me and my wife in the two overlapping years he and I were in grad school together. During meals we shared with Jensen, his wife, and their children, what impressed me on these visits was how well he integrated his recent venture into fatherhood with his previously established personas of Jensen The Dude and Jensen The Writer. He was present and attentive with his kids, but never helicoptered. He was not unsettled by sudden screaming. A kindness presided. Then the kids would go to bed, and Jensen and I would shit-talk other writers over beer in the kitchen.

Eventually I moved away, he moved away (to Champaign, Illinois), and then we both got involved with Dark Sky Books/Magazine. I began editing the magazine shortly after the press accepted his first book, a story collection called For Out of the Heart Proceed. Of the book, writer Steve Yarbrough has said: “Pithy and pertinent, Jensen Beach’s stories reach out and grab you in the opening line, and they don’t let go until the final period. This writer’s not into wasting words. He makes every one count. His fiction is both direct and vivid, and I found a surprise or two on virtually every page. I feel tremendous enthusiasm for this young writer’s work.”

Now Jensen and I hang out over e-mail. In the following exchange, which spanned weeks, we discuss mad stats, organizing principles, Sweden, the Bay Area, benevolent lying, Biblical annotation, bighearted wickedness, and the Fatherly Moment.

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The Rumpus: Let’s look at the numbers: the book contains 22 stories in a total of 120 pages at an average of five pages per story. And the median’s gonna be lower than that because the book contains only three feature-length short stories. The rest are very short. What opportunities did the form of flash fiction afford you when you wrote For Out of the Heart Proceed? And what has drawn you into longer territory for the newer stories that have been coming out lately?

Jensen Beach: I wrote the first drafts of many of these stories a few years ago, not long after I first started taking my writing seriously, and I think much of the lengths are the result of my learning process. Shorter stories offer up a whole set of problems of their own, of course—good short-short fiction is just as difficult to write as a feature-length story—but they also present an opportunity to hold the whole shape of a plot and a rising action and character and conflict, all those craft issues we discuss in workshops and classes. With a shorter story, I’ve always felt I was able to manage the needs of the fiction a little better than in longer work.

As an editor at Hobart and a part of the online literary “community” (that problematic word), this is something I feel like I’ve had the chance to witness in a lot of writers in our generation. I’ve always kind of bristled at that assumption that short stories are really only good at preparing writers for novels, the form that really matters. And I don’t want to give the impression that I think short-short fiction is even lower down the chain, best suited to immature or inexperienced writers, but I think there’s something to the idea that short-short fiction (and the Internet’s willingness to publish such work) really did help teach me to write.

Now that I’m older and better read and have different interests—interests, often, that I don’t think I could have even started to explore without a certain amount of time passed, or a certain number of stories written—I’m finding that though I still like writing very short stories, I much prefer to work in bigger, sometimes messier forms. Many of the stories in the book I’m working on right now are really long, some just short of 10,000 words. I think the ideas I’m interested in writing about now, place especially—the stories are all set in Sweden—are kind of forcing my hand a little bit. Maybe that’s what writing a book is: sitting down and figuring out something new about the ways fiction can work.

Rumpus: The title of your book does a number of pleasing things: it first signals that we’re in for a book where the author’s aiming closer to the heart than the head. But then you read the terrifying Bible verse it’s based on and you have to reconsider the title—it’s pointing at our inherent wickedness. And it seems to me that’s a lot of what the book explores: bighearted wickedness. Struggling against the darker parts of our nature. How’d you arrive at the title? And what were the other contenders?

Beach: Thanks for articulating something I was having a hard time putting [into] words. I like the idea of “bighearted wickedness” a lot. The title comes from the last story in the book, which is a story I wrote and re-wrote for probably four or five years before I got it right… The story used to be called “Our Future on This Planet,” which is the last line. That title wasn’t really working because I don’t think it captured the story very well. The narrator in the story is basically kidnapping his own kid, but he’s doing it because he loves his kid, so I hope that though he is doing something terrible, it’s possible or even likely that readers will feel sympathy for him. None of this is a valid reason to kidnap somebody, and I think it wasn’t until I re-discovered this verse that I understood just how complex and story-ripe it is to act in terrible and despicable ways in spite of yourself, or even when you think you’re doing something that is right and just. This might be my Evangelical upbringing, but I’m really interested in the ways we can act horribly even when we think we’re acting nobly.

I think this is part, though certainly not all, of what I was interested in the book and in this story, especially in how this relates to being a father. I’m not at all convinced that in spite of my best intentions and efforts, I’m not just always doing the wrong thing. That when I think I’m acting selflessly, I have only my interests in mind. I think the fathers in this book act in such ways that they think they’re doing right by their children, but really they’re putting their children in danger or potentially hurting them. I’m not going to think too deeply about it, but I bet this all goes back to my childhood and the ways that American Evangelicals really stress (overly so, in my opinion) the sinful nature of people.

Anyway, the title itself is from that verse in Matthew and I came to it by accident. I happened to see it somewhere and it struck me as a good summary of the story it goes with and then later the collection itself.

In some ways, the Bible was my first experience with literature. My parents read a lot when I was a kid, and my brothers and sister and I were always encouraged to chase after whatever interests we had. But still, it’s not like I sat around talking about Dickens or Hemingway as a kid. I came to writing in college, really, after a childhood of always sort of just vaguely liking English class and reading, and so I don’t have memories of discovering the classics from my parents’ shelves and knowing at twelve that I was going to be a writer when I grew up or anything. But the way I read the Bible when I was a kid—for Sunday school, or that time I tried to read it cover-to-cover and made it to Deuteronomy and gave up—is not unlike how I read now. When my oldest son was born seven years ago, my mom sent me my childhood Bible. Just like some of my favorite books today, my old copy of the Bible is full of underlinings of sentences I liked, or ideas I thought were interesting, or questions I had. My favorite is on the inside title page. It says, “Who WERE the sons of Korah?” I still don’t know. It’s funny to see proof of how little we change, I think.

Rumpus: What about the sons of Korah, do you think, caught the curiosity of young Jensen?

Beach: I think the sons of Korah are mentioned both in the Old Testament and also in the Pslams. My guess is I wasn’t so much interested in them as I was confused. I Googled and it looks like the term “sons of Korah” refers both to Korah’s actual sons and also his descendants. Apparently, there were a lot of Korah’s. I’d love to say young Jensen was really into the idea of knowing more about these obscure Biblical characters, but it’s more likely that I was just confused.

My parents were here in town recently and I was talking to my dad about the book. He told me he was glad I titled the book after that verse because it had always been one of his favorites, and that he used to recite it to my siblings and I a lot when we were kids. Not in any humorless, stern kind of a way; just more like a reminder that the shit you do and say speaks to who you are as a person. Your actions reflect your heart, who you really are. I remembered this really easily with his prompting, but I hadn’t thought of it when I decided to use the verse for the title of the book. But I think [it] makes perfect sense that I titled the book the way I did. And it’s a lesson I try to teach my kids today.

Rumpus: A thing that I love in For Out of the Heart Proceed is the many times we see a father struggling to create—or manufacture—a moment with his son. Made me think of the time in high school that I was going to prom with a girl with whom I was mega-platonic and my dad went, “Remember who you are tonight.” He couldn’t resist the Fatherly Moment!

Beach: I love that. Were you thinking, “If only I could forget who I am for once. She just won’t let me”?

Rumpus: Ha! “Dad, let’s say there was this girl, right? And you didn’t mind having a little less integrity?”

One of your fathers tells his son that a nearby factory is “the weather factory,” basically because he likes the way it sounds, and then riffs his way to a mini-revelation: “I tell him it’s because of love. This confuses him, so I tell him love is a giant heart that makes people do things.” And in “The Dark is What,” the father gives poor Gus a hard time for basically suggesting there is no such thing as absolute truth. These are moments that don’t fit neatly into a sin/virtue dichotomy, do they? Even as they show that “the shit you do and say speaks to who you are.”

Beach: Partly, the narrator in “The Dark is What” is frustrated that there isn’t an absolute truth. This father would be frustrated by that. What I think he wants from Gus is to be told he’s wrong about the record player and his odd analogy about the fingers and the canyon. That’s what’s so fascinating to me about these issues. It’s very hard to tell, often in real life and fiction alike, where that line is between good and bad. How do we know what’s what? How do we even define those words? The fathers in many of these stories do try to manufacture situations that will reveal something to their sons, sort of hoping that their own confusion will be cleared up.

To answer your question: no, I don’t think those examples fit neatly into the sin/virtue dichotomy, but I think they show fathers who don’t really know what the best move is or why they’re doing what they’re doing, but who are learning that even in those situations how they act is a reflection of who they are.

Rumpus: In another story, “Wyoming,” we have a father who begins by having his son write a sympathy card to dying boy with whom he shares the same name, but then the dad wimps out and has his son simply write a card to himself in the future. And even though I said “wimps out,” I’m not so sure that’s the wrong call. Maybe that’s the guy’s intuition kicking in. There’s an ideal out there, The Dad Who Doesn’t Lie, but how bad would it suck to turn into a depressive realist?

Beach: I started writing a whole series of these geographically-based stories, but lost steam. I think I made it to about ten, six or seven of which made it into the book. In that story, I think you’re right. The narrator’s intuition kicks in and [he] understands that what he’s asked his son is probably a bad idea. The moment he wimps out is the moment he gets that he’s let his sentimentality or whatever get the better of him. While writing a note to a sick kid is a nice gesture, sure, involving his own son the way he wants to is kind of odd and potentially hurtful, or at least very confusing to the son. But, yeah, definitely it would suck to turn into a depressive realist. Maybe that’s what this guy sort of comes to at the end of the story—in other terms, of course—but he’s sort of understood. He says he can’t figure out how to say it to his son, and I do think he’s confused about it, about how he got to where he is, but he’s glimpsed, however clearly and however briefly, that talking to his son about death or whatever big issues they were moving toward in just that way, was a little strange.

Rumpus: But of course a number of these stories are doing very different things than the thread of paternal realism. How do you see, say, “The Sorry Teds” fitting into scheme of the book?

Beach: For me, it’s easy to look back and see certain stories representing certain times in my development as a writer or at least to see certain things that I was interested in, but that’s probably not all that interesting in an interview and strikes me as kind of a cop-out answer. “The Sorry Teds” is an older story and as I re-read it to answer your question, I realized that it works differently than a lot of the other stories, especially the father stories. “The Sorry Teds” is an apology. Many of the other stories are about actions or events that would, more than likely, cause an apology to be necessary: the “kidnapping” in the title story, the weird conversation in “Wyoming,” the events in “Peafowl,” etc.

That story, and a few others, do seem to be more about different sorts of relationships (a romantic relationship in this case) than the others. I’ve never been able to get very far from writing about relationships. If I have a central concern to my writing—and this isn’t something I think much about, really, apart from after the fact—it’s the family and the various representations of the types of relationships that are found inside that particular unit. I’m not all the interested in work, for example, or even really friendship or larger social groups, or all the other things that people write great stories about. For me, it’s families. In some ways, I think “The Sorry Teds” and “Their Future…” and a couple other stories might hint at similar ideas.

Rumpus: Let’s go back for a second to “that problematic word”: the online literary “community.” I tend to murmur in agreement when somebody mentions the limitations of the term, but I want to hear it from you: what’s so bad about community? I mean, do you just hate everyone or what?

Beach: I don’t think there’s anything bad about the word “community,” it’s more just that I think it can get really insular and self-congratulatory and because of that, limiting. There a lot of people doing a lot of really great work, and I think more people outside of the 300 mutual Facebook friends we all have might like to read it and have it available.

That’s snarky, I know. What I mean is, while it’s great that the writing community, especially as it presents/manifests/whatever itself online, is really supportive and friendly for the most part, especially when you’re in it, it can also be really focused on itself, turned inward. To me, novels, stories, essays, poems—all of it should be accessible for anyone. I think as writers we should make an effort to help our work reach a wider audience. The Internet is perfect for this. Folks who don’t normally read literary fiction might not be very inclined to shell out $15.95 for a trade paperback of that great and exciting new novel, but providing links to stories and excerpts and poems online isn’t very hard, and it keeps writing alive and working, taking the best parts of community and expanding it, while avoiding the traps of insularity. I’d hope that that might eventually turn those non-readers into readers and encourage them to support writers financially by buying books, too.

I think a lot of us (I include myself in this) should be working harder at making that possible. Obviously, tons of people do this. Vouched Books, Lit Pub, here at The Rumpus, and so on and so on. I just think we should all work even harder at it: by teaching books in our classes that excite us; recommending stories and poems that we read that we think non-reader friends might like; by participating in the conversation, such as it is, excitedly and with vigor. I don’t know. I don’t want to give the impression that I think community is a bad thing. I think it’s great, or can be anyway. It’s just I want the audience for good writing to be broader and more diverse than just a community of other writers. But also, I hate everyone.

Rumpus: Book #1: California stories. Book #2: Sweden stories. Book #3: Massachusetts stories?

Beach: I often find I can’t write about a place until I leave it, but this isn’t something I really understood until recently. Many of the stories in For Out of the Heart Proceed do take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up and lived until I was twenty or so [Beach is originally from Napa], but I’d say I was less consciously writing about place and more just setting stories in a place I knew well. In this second book, some of which you’ve seen at various stages, I’m more actively pursuing ideas of place and geography. The book is mainly set in Sweden, though there is one story about a Swede in San Francisco. If the next book ends up being set partially or fully in Massachusetts I wouldn’t at all be surprised.

Rumpus: How did the Bay Area affect your writing, do you think? And as a setting, what makes it so appealing to write about? Where does the grist come from?

Beach: I lived in Oakland from 1999 to 2001. I moved to Budapest, Hungary three weeks before George W. Bush was inaugurated (I wish so badly I could claim my move was related, but alas…). I don’t know that living in Oakland affected my writing directly too much, because I wasn’t writing very much or very well then. But I did, for the first time, start meeting people who were writing and who were painting and writing plays and making music and putting on puppet shows and making clothes, and all of that was accessible to me, and immediate. It kind of blew my mind seeing people who took that lifestyle seriously and who valued things that I also thought were important. I guess this might speak back to what I was saying about community.

When I lived in Oakland, there were no clear lines between the various arts communities. There’d be a puppet show, for instance, at an abandoned warehouse on 41st or something on a Saturday night, and the audience was full of people who were musicians and painters and poets and graffiti artists and other types. It always felt bigger than itself to me, and inviting, and accepting. I never got the sense that gallery shows of paintings and photographs were only for the artists and art students, or the poetry readings only for the poets. It all just felt exciting and useful. In some ways, I guess, living in the Bay Area gave me permission to someday pursue my own life dedicated to writing and teaching, which, as you know, isn’t always easy or financially rewarding.

I love the Bay Area. It’ll always be home to me in some ways, but I don’t know that it’s any more appealing to write about than anywhere else. It’s just that I know it well and when I moved away from it, writing about that place helped me figure out my relationship to it. It has its gritty sides, of course. It’s a big place, both geographically and population-wise. And it’s drastically different in its various parts. I mean, there are huge distances (both geographically and metaphorically) to be covered between the, say, hipsters in the Mission and the tech people in the South Bay and the rougher parts of East Oakland and so on. So there’s a lot there. I think that kind of thing is exciting for writers. There are opportunities to watch so many different kinds of people crash into one another.

Rumpus: For those who aren’t familiar, what’s your connection to Sweden?

Beach: My wife is Swedish and we lived there for several years. I went to college and graduate school at Stockholm University. We moved to Sweden when I was twenty-two, right after Hungary, so in some ways I learned how to be an adult in Sweden—pay bills, have a mortgage, balance work and school, etc. When I moved back to the US to go to UMass, I had to kind of learn a lot of stuff over again. Two of my kids [were] born in Sweden and I became a citizen before I left. In some ways I have a Swedish identity—we speak Swedish at home and we keep a lot of Swedish traditions around the holidays and that kind of thing.

But in other ways, of course, I don’t feel Swedish at all. I look Scandinavian, so it was really easy for me to be accepted in that way in Sweden. I never faced a lot of the challenges that other immigrant friends of mine did, but at the same time, that kind of highlighted my outsiderness. It was easy for me to get fooled (and to fool other people) into thinking I was equally a part of the culture as people from there, and then some difference would rise up—even something small like the etiquette of introducing yourself to new people at a party—and I’d find myself feeling really, really clueless and frustrated about how little I really knew about “being Swedish.”

The same thing happened for me with the language. I learned Swedish pretty quickly and I worked really hard at getting the pronunciation down right. So even before I could speak the language all that well, I sounded like I could. Once, I was at a bar with some friends and it was my turn to buy a round of drinks, and I went to the bartender and ordered the drinks, feeling very proud of myself for having done so in Swedish, but then the bartender asked me a question—he wanted clarification, I guess, on one of the drinks—and I couldn’t answer him. I had no idea what he’d even said. I fumbled around for a little bit, asking him to repeat himself and telling him I didn’t understand, etc. It was loud in the bar and I tried to explain that I was just learning Swedish and that I hadn’t understood him, and would he mind if we spoke English. The problem was I looked Swedish and sounded Swedish, so for the bartender, the only answer to his confusion about me was that I must have been really drunk, and he kicked me out of the bar. It was embarrassing and frustrating because I was trying hard to blend in with this new culture, using the strongest marker we have for that—language—and instead I got completely rejected, closed out. And it reminded me, or maybe taught me, just how hard it is become a part of some new culture, how mysterious and sometimes rigid the parts of us that signal our lack of or limited membership in a particular culture.

One of the things I’m interested in with this new book is exploring some of those collective memories that people of my generation in Sweden share—the ideas and experiences that as a person who has adopted this culture, I don’t have access to. There are a lot of historical events in the book, for example, and cultural behaviors that I think are interesting, and part of my goal in writing about Sweden through Swedish characters is to try to understand all that a little better.

Rumpus: It’s summertime. How did you celebrate our nation’s independence from the shackles of Great Britain?

Beach: I have this British friend I used to know in Sweden and every Fourth of July, he’d thank me, on behalf of the Commonwealth, for leaving, like the U.S. was that kid they just couldn’t wait to be done with. This year, I went to a BBQ with some friends here in Champaign. It was 105 degrees, so mainly we sat inside. Then, after dark, we went up to the community college campus here in town and sat with hundreds of other sweaty, drunk people on a dried patch of grass and watched fireworks. God Bless Us All.


Gabe Durham is the author of the novel Fun Camp and the editor of Boss Fight Books, a series of books about video games. He and his projects have been featured in The Onion A.V. Club, Nylon Guys Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, BuzzFeed, and Kotaku. He lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →