The Rumpus Interview with Ben Marcus
Although the year is young, it’s not a stretch to say that Ben Marcus’s new collection, Leaving the Sea, may well be among the finest books of short fiction released in 2014. Relatively close on the heels of The Flame Alphabet—released in 2012—Leaving the Sea represents a departure in some regards from Marcus’s typically metaphorical style. Although those stories are still present—“The Father Costume” was published as an illustrated chapbook in 2002—they are balanced by more linear narratives that explore despair, alienation, and man’s inhumanity to man. You know, the fun stuff.
Leaving the Sea is split into six distinct sections, each with its own narrative or formal mode. Among the highlights are “The Dark Arts,” a story about a man with an autoimmune disease seeking treatment in Düsseldorf; “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a (fictional) account of teaching literature on a cruise ship; and “The Moors,” a sixty-some-odd-page dissection of a walk down the hall to get coffee. Marcus adopts a range of styles and voices but the hand is unmistakably his—the effect isn’t of an amateur trying on a lot of hats to see what fits, but an accomplished writer deciding that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat.
The Rumpus: Your work is heavily metaphoric. Maybe a little less balanced towards plot or character than other writers. When you’re starting a project or a book, what does that look like? Do you have a sentence or concept that you’re working around?
Ben Marcus: A lot of times it’s a feeling that I want to try to create in someone, that I want to bring out on the page. It’s really hard to say. I look for something that excites me or scares me or worries me, and I just try to build on it. A lot of times I’m hoping not to think too much or to analyze too much, so I can get some lines down or some paragraphs and see if I can get something that moves or has momentum.
I think I also look for a way to set something up that can keep changing or keep escalating. Maybe the predicament that a character is facing worsens over time. I’m looking for something that doesn’t bore me. That stays with me. I feel the need to think of a test. I don’t have some kind of different philosophical aim that’s making me try to be different for its own sake, or any of that. I could boil it all down and say that I’m trying to write something that I really, really want to read. And something that I haven’t read before, and I’m trying to take the feelings I have inside and make some kind of language that carries it to the reader.
Rumpus: It seems like you’re interested in coming at language, in attacking our basic structures of reality and how we look at them through slightly different uses of language than so-called “realist” writers.
Marcus: Sometimes I worry, for myself, that I’ve stopped being amazed at certain things, or I’ve taken for granted a set of ideas about how the world works, what people are doing with each other or alone, all the fundamental relationships in the world. I worry that I start taking it for granted and stop feeling the intensity of it because of language. Language starts to shut down the strength and power and strangeness of what it means to be a person in the world.
Sometimes I think if I try to articulate these things in a language I haven’t really used before or thought before, it will open up that feeling of what it is to be alive and fear that I’m going to die and all these really elemental things that really matter to me. I think that they start to get covered up, and they get covered up really easily. Language is the tool to open them up again and burnish them and put them on the page. That’s why I try to use a different sort of language. It’s not to show off something or be different for its own sake. I think it’s because I see language as a tool to reveal ourselves or to reveal the world. If we use it over and over and over again, I think we stop seeing those kinds of really primal things that matter to me.
Rumpus: The Flame Alphabet is a lot about language. It’s a lot about language deadening connections and actually killing people. Is that an outgrowth of your concern about how language can obstruct meaning or cover up emotion?
Marcus: You know, maybe. I think my interest and obsession comes out in a lot of different ways and is connected to a lot of different things. I tend to feel that language is a tool that we really hardly understand. If I put words together in a certain way, suddenly I’m feeling things I haven’t felt before. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ability of language to do that. To cause so much feeling in us.
You’re a writer, I’m a writer. You read; I read because I like to feel things really strongly. I feel that language—calling a language a drug is not an exaggeration to me. It really is a way to have sensation. The Flame Alphabet, the premise of it, started to seem really obvious to me. It didn’t even seem like much of an exaggeration to say it had that kind of power. Obviously I’m putting it into some mythological channels in that book, but I’ve always felt the power of language. It’s sort of a silly way to put it, but I’ve felt it in a lot of different ways. In earlier books, I’ve had language be used as a weapon, I’ve made it very physical. I’m taking these hunches and impulses and instincts that I’ve had and I’m amping them up, I’m strengthening them, I’m making a hyperbole out of them. It’s all connected to these pretty strong instincts that I’ve had. So yeah, actually. I guess the answer is yes.
Rumpus: I was describing The Flame Alphabet to my mom and she said that she thought it was closer to nonfiction, that children’s voices really are killing us.
Marcus: Yeah, it is funny. I think that parents—in particular, new parents—if they read that book, tell me that it seems sort of obvious and true. I wasn’t really thinking so much about the minor, local annoyance of a child screaming in your ear. On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid the implication of that in the book. I was thinking of children as commonly seen as having to sort of lie in wait to gain power. I liked the idea of giving them a really terrible kind of power that they couldn’t understand, or even feel, and see how they would use it. I remember those feelings being stronger than simply trying to exorcise some irritation that I had with kids.
Rumpus: Do you find yourself being surprised by your own writing?
Marcus: I’d like to be, but it’s hard to feel that way. With Leaving the Sea, I was tired of my own moves and instincts and impulses. I have a fairly predictable syntax, I think, that I can fall into. When I was putting together the story collection, I was really determined to write stories that had a certain sound, tonality, and momentum that was new because I felt that my own lack of surprises was cutting off the blood from my stories. The first section of the book was all written after The Flame Alphabet and some of sections two and three. That was, in part, a way to try to surprise myself again, to put it the way you just did. I want that, I crave it, I’d often like to be myself, to not have my own thoughts. I feel as though I’ve charted them and charted them and charted them. Turned them inside out, exaggerated them, suppressed them—so there are times when it all feels exhausted. The question is: how do you keep going? Do you take what you’ve done and continue to refine it? Do you throw it out? Do you start over? It’s important to be surprised, but getting there is really difficult for me.
Rumpus: Do you feel that fiction is, in a certain way, to not be yourself for a certain number of hours? Either in writing or in reading?
Marcus: Really, the opposite. Although I’m not sure what it means to say either, really. Anything that comes out of us is from the depths of ourselves, whether we’re acting or lying or telling the truth. When I hear the phrase “to not be myself,” it sounds really escapist. It makes me think more of consuming or watching bad TV because I need a break from myself. Writing seems really the opposite, even if I’m trying not to do the things I normally do. That, to me, is a symptom of myself, my own desire to be otherwise. That’s a real, kind of ongoing characteristic of myself. So no—I would never speak for another writer—but for me, it’s really not. When I’m writing, I’m completely being myself and I don’t really know that there’s any way not to be.
Rumpus: The first section of the book seems to be—I hesitate to say more straightforward—but more linear, narratively. Less metaphorical than the other sections. Did you intentionally put it first as a window in for readers who maybe aren’t familiar with your style? What was the thought behind the structure?
Marcus: I did. I started to think, Let’s say that I write a straightforward, plotted story, or, Let’s say that I write a really clotted, linguistically complex piece of writing that’s very language-driven. In the end, both of those pieces are going to reflect a certain similar sensibility because I’m doing it.
For a long time, I thought that modes of storytelling were inextricably linked to certain aesthetics, if that makes sense. If you wrote in a transparent, propulsive, narrative mode, you were automatically a domestic realist writing about certain things, and I feel as though I limited myself a little bit. I started to realize that even if I wrote that way, it was still coming from me and it was still my own sensibility. In other words, it’s not possible to completely change your identity just because you might change your narrative strategy. These are all different ways of getting at the same territory. A territory of fear and anxiety and trepidation—whatever the moods are in my stories. All these different things are stylistically different ways of plunging into the same place.
It then occurred to me that the more transparent stories made sense up front. To then show a reader who might be less inclined to pick their way through something that’s more linguistically thick, that that kind of writing isn’t just indulgently different for its own sake. You can use language that way to get at a kind of psychological realism.
Then, to me, the book returns with the final story, which is maybe both things. It’s linguistically complicated but it’s also kind of narrative, or at least it follows one character through a situation. I do think about that. On the other hand, I don’t know about you, but when I read a story collection I don’t necessarily go in order. I don’t see the order of a story collection as some kind of deeply crucial thing. I do spend a lot of time thinking about how someone would read the collection and how I could arrange the stories in some optimal way, but at the same time I know that someone might pick it up and read the middle story. I’m not looking to control someone’s experience too much, but if it were up to me, people would read it in order.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about that last story, “The Moors.” It’s the longest, by far, and it takes place over a two-minute span? Five?
Marcus: With the exception of the end. The character does get out of the office and go home and go to bed. It’s a really tiny moment that gets magnified to a really crazy degree.
Rumpus: That moment felt—obviously you take it to a place of hyperbole—but it did feel real. Everyone’s had that experience of walking behind someone that they kind of want to talk to but kind of don’t. It was interesting to see that anxiety put into a deeply metaphorical language-filled world.
Marcus: Thanks. I was pretty engrossed in the writing of that story and I’m not sure what to say about it now. I was thinking a lot about how close you could get to a character without using first-person. I was writing a lot in first-person and I wanted to be sort of licking this guy’s blood. Completely inside his head and at the level of his brain cells. A kind of third-person that’s kind of ultra, almost painfully intimate. That seemed to, for me anyway, necessitate the total slowing down of time.
At the same time, I remember feeling really vexed by the problem of time in the story, just getting things to move. It would seem like a terrible idea for a story, somebody in a line. On paper, it seems like a really bad idea and I really felt that while writing—a lot. I kept thinking, Why the fuck have I done this? It’s such a bad idea. It could happen over three weeks. In a lot of ways, a lot of the stories in this book are symptomatic of a kind of anxiety I’ve had about time. How time passes and what it feels like for time to pass. And in a way, this story was just a complete surrender to this kind of feeling of agony you can have in microseconds, just standing in a room. I decided to completely give myself over to it, rather than to fight it into some kind of propulsive narrative, and also to see if there was a way to create momentum out of just tracking consciousness.
Rumpus: I find that my own urge in writing is to really zoom in on those micro-moments, but I think, Well, I can’t really write seventy pages about a walk. But you have and it works.
Marcus: Thanks, I think I’ll never do that again…
I think, too, I had the ending in mind a little bit. I was worried about taking this character and not really saying much about him and referencing the situation at home and not giving any real detail. He’s a creep, he’s a stalker, he’s a total sexual pervert—at least in his mind—and yet, slowly that stuff starts to fall away and he’s just this guy with a difficult circumstance at home. I think a lot about what we can hide from people. Our thoughts, obviously, are really our last privacy. Who knows if they’re even private anymore. As of this moment, it would seem—even now on the phone with you—I could be thinking just the most horrible things, and to me that’s just so compelling, that those kinds of secrets can be so loud and threatening. Sort of booming along in someone’s head while they’re just having a normal encounter. I was hoping to sniff out a lot of drama from that.
Rumpus: Let’s reset and start with the beginning of the collection. We were talking about how in “The Moors,” you withheld certain information about the character’s background and then slowly released it throughout the story. That’s also going on in “What Have You Done?” What’s your thinking behind that slow revelation of information? Is that something that you’re interested in as a reader?
Marcus: I think as a reader, sometimes I notice that I’ll start reading a story and within seconds, the writer wants to go back in time and start giving some kind of information. The urge to flash back seems so rampant. So automatic. I think about it a lot. What is it really for? What does it make us feel? What is the effect? There are writers who do it really well, there are writers who do it out of some sense of obligation or as a way to stop the clock. For me, to go back in time and create some sort of psychological canvas that explains or justifies or contextualizes the present—it doesn’t feel particularly dramatic.
You know this, you’re in workshop. People say, “I want to know more about Joe.” I always think, Yeah, sure you do. But if you know more about Joe, does it make it a better story or does it just satisfy your curiosity? So there’s sometimes this assumption that curiosity needs to be satisfied right away. Sometimes that’s not really the first goal. The goal is to create mystery and tension and some kind of dramatic propulsion. Going back in time seems like it lets the air out of everything. I don’t feel some sort of rule about this, but I could write a version of that story where I explain what happened and it would not be better. It would not. It might annoy a few people less. People are annoyed about this or that about that story. They’re annoyed that they don’t know exactly what Paul did. I could tell them, but that’s not writing. I think that’s how that story evolved. I remember feeling—I wrote it very quickly—I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to be in the moment and I remember thinking, The past for Paul is written on the faces of the other characters. There is a kind of flashback happening but in real time, based on how people treat him, if that makes sense. So everything he did is just reflected on their faces.
I’m not trying to play some trick. The goal is: how can I make this experience seem almost unbearable? To be honest, that’s the aesthetic. Take this family situation and make it unbearable and painful and also legitimate and authentic-feeling. A flashback just had no room there.
Rumpus: It was interesting reading that story while heading home to my own family for the holidays.
Marcus: I hope your situation wasn’t so dire.
Rumpus: It was better than that. Definitely better than that. All the other characters are in a suspended past state in that story. It’s written all over their physicality and they can’t move into the present with Paul.
Marcus: They’re gonna hold him to his former deeds. I know people like that, maybe in my own family, where stuff that people have done is held against them forever, even if everyone protests that it’s not. I love the idea of how somebody gets understood or misunderstood in a family, and how that gets frozen and perpetuated no matter what happens. That just interested me.
Rumpus: It seems like in that first section particularly, there’s a lot of unbridgeable gaps and unsayable things. In “The Dark Arts,” Julian can’t tell his girlfriend that he missed her, and she can’t tell him that she loves him. Is that something that goes back to the language concern a little bit? That there are certain bridges that just can’t be crossed between people?
Marcus: I guess there’s just no story if everyone is getting along and fine and highly functional and able to communicate their feelings. Most people I know have enormous shortcomings when it comes to really saying what they feel. I guess I think it’s normal and human and makes it much more interesting when people start acting it out. Acting out their fear of being honest. I think there, I just felt really attracted to his isolation. He’s got a girlfriend who’s become sort of a caretaker, so their romantic process has dissolved. She’s hitting her marks and doing these basic things, but clearly something has been ruptured. He’s desperate and he’s self-pitying and he knows he is. He’s self-loathing and he knows he is. Somehow, giving him a happy, functional relationship would have just been preposterous.
Rumpus: That, I have to say, was my favorite in the collection. I think it’s just phenomenal. And it’s a very personal story for you, is that right?
Marcus: Well, it is and it isn’t. I had an autoimmune disease, but I certainly never went to Düsseldorf for treatment and that relationship is nothing like my own. It’s funny, because I started that story—an early draft of that story has him waiting for a train that never comes, and he goes outside and there’s nobody left in the city. He’s in this place where the people are gone and it’s this bullshit, hackneyed apocalypse. I thought, Oh, this is horrible. I knew that was just inadequate and boring and ridiculous. I only mention it because I didn’t set out to write about illness again, particularly, after having written The Flame Alphabet. And yet, suddenly, he’s going to this treatment. Of course, I had inadvertently learned a lot about the treatment of autoimmune illnesses and the weird diagnostic loneliness that can ensue. Suddenly, that material seemed to really fit in the story.
The autobiographical component really snuck up on me. It was, in a way, nice to be able to access autobiographical stuff because I had often, by principle, really avoided it. I think, more and more, that some of those principles are really ridiculous at this point. I feel more and more that I have to not have rules about where my material is going to come from. It is personal in a way, but I’m nothing like Julian, and my wife is nothing like Haley, and I’ve never had experimental treatment. I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing they do in Düsseldorf. I’ve never even been to Düsseldorf. So there’s a lot that’s made up. But then, in some kind of fundamental way, there’s a lot that’s true.
Rumpus: Germany is the testing ground for experimental medicine. All these American athletes go there.
Marcus: Right, that’s true. Basketball players go and get shots in their knee of various compounds that are partly derived from themselves. It’s kind of funny, because I wrote that story and now it’s more and more in the news—essentially treatments based on your own bodily material. Your own blood, your own marrow, your own plasma being processed somehow and then fed back to you. That’s so fucking interesting. It’s impossible not to be really fascinated and kind of horrified and frightened and amazed and all of it. And I had already been thinking of autoimmune diseases as a really refined form of self-loathing. I write about self-loathing a lot, or have, and so autoimmune disease seemed kind of the perfect real-world pincushion for this. Strangely, it’s hard when I’m working to not do more about it, but I feel like I need to let it percolate again.
Rumpus: To let illness percolate again?
Marcus: Those ideas. My feelings and thoughts haven’t evolved enough to write another story that wouldn’t be another version of “The Dark Arts.”
Rumpus: Is that the most recent story in the collection?
Marcus: It is the most recent, I think I finished it in February. It’s essentially the last story I’ve written, period. Sadly.
Rumpus: That processing of internal materials seems like a metaphor for how fiction writing works.
Marcus: How so?
Rumpus: You’re taking material from yourself and putting it through all these tests and procedures. Putting it through the fiction machine and then injecting it back into yourself. Sort of looking outside to then look within.
Marcus: I guess in your metaphor, you’re hoping to inject it into a really broad audience. You’re making medicine out of yourself and then hoping that it’s going to work on others, as well.
Rumpus: That’s not an amazing metaphor, it just came to mind.
Marcus: That sounds intriguing to me, for sure.
Rumpus: “I Can Say Many Nice Things” takes place on a cruise ship. I read it originally in Harper’s and it was part of the reason that I was so excited to read this collection. Have you ever taught a writing workshop on a cruise ship?
Marcus: No, fuck no, man. No way! That’s the worst idea I could ever, ever think of.
I, a long time ago, thought the worst thing the writer could ever do, particularly a writer who taught, would be to write a story about the teaching of writing. It seems as though if you had to pick the most embarrassing and self-referential and pretentiously literary thing to do, it would be that. Then one day I thought, I need to start pursuing all these ideas I had formerly rejected. In other words, I had some kind of rule against it at some point, and I guess I just decided to see what sort of story was there, and that’s what came out.
At the same time, it doesn’t remotely reflect my own experiences as a teacher, but it’s a sort of worst possible world, I guess. The workshop is obviously really low-functioning. You’ve been in class with Stacey [D’Erasmo], which is a really sophisticated class, I imagine. Stacey is so nuanced and intelligent and demands that of her students. I would imagine you don’t see a class like that reflected in that story. On the other hand, these classes where people just take turns with a kind of unearned expertise. I don’t know, it’s just a pretty crazy dynamic. I found myself having a lot of fun writing that story.
Rumpus: I recognized the characters, certainly. There’s always the guy that completely misses the entire point of the story. There’s always the guy that knows everything. And often they’re the same person.
Marcus: Right. Obviously some of those archetypes are real. There’s always somebody that says, “I think the story starts a few pages in.” All that stuff. Obviously, I’ve heard all of this before in various classes. I’m a little worried my own students will think this is about an experience I had. Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it.
Rumpus: You’re just teaching writing workshops to get shit-talking material for short fiction.
Marcus: God, I wish. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, so having only gotten one story out of it, that’s kind of a bad rate.
Rumpus: What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever taught workshop?
Marcus: Nowhere that weird. I’ve taught in Virginia and Texas. In terms of permanent jobs, just Brown and Columbia. Otherwise lots of one-off things. I’ve done one-day senior citizen workshops in Austin. I’ve taught kids. Nothing that rivals a cruise ship, for sure.
Rumpus: In some ways it’s so obviously a terrible idea, but it also doesn’t seem out of the question, at all, that someone could create, say, Breadloaf on the Sea.
Marcus: I’m sure it exists. There are all kinds of educational cruises. I didn’t make that up. You can study fucking anything on a boat. Anywhere. It’s funny, I think I had the first paragraph or page of that story for about a year and then I wrote the whole story off of that. I thought I might never really pursue it, then something happened that let me get to the end of it.
Rumpus: Do you find yourself writing those fragments and then returning to them often?
Marcus: No, but I sit down to work, and I’m stupid and I’m tired and boring and uninspired and exhausted and I have to do something. I have to force myself to get something down. Sometimes it’s just that. Then I look at it the next day and I think it’s the worst thing anyone’s ever written in the history of humanity. And I don’t look at it again. And I do another one. I don’t think this is that unusual. I keep doing it until I look at it the next day and say, “Okay, there’s something here.” Or sometimes I do that and I know there’s something there, but I’m not up to finding it. I don’t know how to develop it. I don’t know what to do. That not knowing becomes too strong and I can’t solve it.
Essentially, find a way to create speed or bring the thing to life. I end up with hundreds of beginnings or something. Paragraphs, sentences, pages, that just don’t go anywhere. Now and then, when I don’t have anything to do, I look at them. Usually, I just find them horrible. Sometimes, something clicks and I’m suddenly ready to create a story out of one of those. Who knows why.
Rumpus: Maybe enough time and space between it.
Marcus: “Rollingwood” was the same way. I wrote the first paragraph—there’s a guy and his kid is crying and he’s trapped under that machine. That’s how that story opens, and I wrote that pretty much as-is. In fact, I wrote it the day I finished my final draft of The Flame Alphabet. For some reason, I finished in the morning, and I had some work time, and I wrote this paragraph. And I ignored it forever. It didn’t mean anything to me. Then one day I looked at it and felt the story. I guess that happens a lot.
Featured image of Ben Marcus © by Heike Stelweg.