The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #81: Chanelle Benz
Chanelle Benz’s debut collection, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, is filled with characters often facing a moral crossroads. The stories contain the unexpected, like a classic Western complete with local brothel as well as a gothic tale. Benz’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Guernica, The American Reader, and Granta.
The Rumpus: I was so fascinated by this debut because there are so many different voices, and I’m always awed by someone who can take something so disparate and make a whole of it. What pushed you into trying these new voices, and how did you do it?
Chanelle Benz: Right around the time I wrote [the story] “Adela,” I was reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and it touched back on a childhood love of reading. I feel he’s able to operate on this higher level where he’s really digging into philosophy, and playing with different literary traditions, but it’s such a joy to read, too. And so I thought, what if I did a little experiment: what if I wrote a sci-fi story, what if I wrote a Western, wrote all these different forms.
When I was working with George Saunders [at Syracuse University], we were in our final year, he said, ‘We all know now what our first strength is, what we do well. What is the thing in our right hand, but also what’s the thing in our left hand? What is our other strength? He talked about being able to flip sides between your strengths and your weaknesses, to take the weak side and flip it over, and to be aware of that in your work. My first strength is voice; the other thing is form. Once I have the voice and a clear entry into a world, I think, what’s the container? What are the rules that I can sort of push against? Sometimes they’re not even necessarily rules. So with “Adela,” I said, I’m going to write this in a choral children’s voice. Sometimes it’s something else: second person as POV, or I’m gonna write this backwards.
Once I’ve got that, I feel like I can just write out a whole sketch, which I always push myself to do, to draft really quickly. Because I like to have it all out there, and I think I like to go a little faster than my critical mind can catch up with. The license to make bad decisions and let them be unfixable. A lot of time I have an idea of the ending or the turning point, which is always melodramatic in my first iteration. And usually it turns away from that. So knowing that about myself, I just let myself go. I think that’s really important if a story has any chance at greatness.
Rumpus: The suspension of the critical mind is essential for anything that’s a really moving piece of fiction because if you’re second-guessing yourself constantly, one, you don’t get very far in the writing process at all, and two, I think you end up with something that’s a hollow of whatever you were inspired by and lacks the you in it. Because you’re subconsciously pushing back with all the things you “know” to be “right” or “true.” The necessary thing for a writer is to just go and let the story run itself.
Benz: Absolutely. I think you should be a little afraid of what you put out there. A little nervous that people are going to see through it and they’re going to see you. Nobody likes the idea of this, but I like it: That there needs to be blood on the page. I think there should be some piece of you left on the page so when you put it out there you’re a little nervous. And the funny thing is, no one ever sees it! No one ever sees the concession of this preoccupation that you have.
When I first put the novel out I was really nervous; when I published “The Diplomat’s Daughter” in Granta, I was really worried that I would get hate mail. Also because right around that time that it was published, there was a bombing in Beirut, and there’s a bombing in Beirut in the story. I was nervous that somebody would call me out: ‘It wouldn’t happen that way.’ But of course, we’re never as important as we think we are.
Rumpus: Short stories tend to be linked by character and setting. But yours is linked by tone and atmosphere. There’s a sense of the down-and-out, a wild desperation, a semi-managed fear. Each of these characters feels a little feral, too. And I wonder if that was something you felt intimately, where that comes from.
Benz: I think it’s an accident. Well, it isn’t an accident; I have become semi-conscious of it. But it goes back to the idea of the Zen target—you’re not trying to write about yourself or your preoccupations or your fears or the kind of emotional landscape you’re trying to excavate. But sometimes you reveal yourself.
There is violence and abandonment in [my stories]. Part of it comes from my life, and part from the narratives we’re drawn to in the world. One thing with the collection I did notice was that there’s a moment of violence in the stories that the characters can either participate in, resist, or sometimes there’s a third option. I like to think about the turning point in the story—and this comes from my theatre background—in terms of something that the character wants. You ask, did they get X, did X happen? The answer is either, yes, no, or yes but not in the way they thought. My teachers in acting school always said the best option is usually the third one. Because there’s usually some kind of turning of the knife. That’s one thing I was going for.
And then, part of what I’m interested in is hearing from voices we haven’t heard before, that are outside, marginalized voices. Partly from being a brown woman myself—you don’t see yourself in stories very often, you don’t see yourself in literature or in film, at least not growing up. So I kind of had to invent a way. If I didn’t want to be a prostitute or a washer woman then I’d have to find a way to inject myself in history. I guess the slave narrative is part of that too.
Rumpus: A lot of these characters are loners. They feel very much on their own against the world. You take these strong characters and box them in, and then see how they fight their way out and how they move through the world after.
Benz: That’s interesting. I think when tragedy befalls us, when we’re depressed, or oppressed, a lot of times we feel alone in that. So you do have to fight your way to any connection. In general, yes, these characters are outsiders, marginalized, but they have to fight or they’ll drown. I’m also interested in the ways we betray what we love. The body betrays us. The way fear makes us betray ourselves. We do things that before we would never do.
Rumpus: Yes. There’s also a great sense of foreboding in this book. After you get through two, certainly by the third story, you come to recognize that violent moment is coming. I find it interesting the way fear and love are balanced in this book and that so often, I won’t say fear wins over love, but the survival impulses that fear brings out trumps love often. I think stories that do that tend to be far more interesting than those that look toward the perpetual good, because life is not perpetually good.
Benz: Yes. I think too often people say, “Your parents love you,” or, “I love you,” and that’s supposed to be some kind of definitive answer. And it’s like, yes, but does your family love you well? There’s good love and there’s not good love. It doesn’t mean the not good love isn’t passion, isn’t devotion, isn’t deep feeling. But there’s also that it’s not necessarily good for you. And I think especially with Lavinia, it’s sort of out of the frying pan and into the fire. I’d infinitely prefer the fire. Wouldn’t we all? I don’t know. I’m easier on death than everybody else. But I do think you have to love your characters, at least, more than other people might.
Rumpus: Of course. Is there one you love most?
Benz: No. I go through cycles where you forget about a story and then remember it again. A lot of people say, “Your characters are your children.” But I say your characters are your mom, your sister, your best friend, your child. They’re all these different relationships. Sometimes I move closer to a character and then further away. Right now I’m probably feeling the most loving towards James. Because when “James III” was published in Guernica I reread it a few times and remembered what I loved about writing that story and the challenges of it. I felt for him and enjoyed him again.
The story I could keep working on is “The Diplomat’s Daughter.” I feel it’s sort of like a deck of cards, there are so many themes I could go through, so many different pathways in that story. I have like six different versions; that’s just the one we ended up publishing. I find it very fun to work on.
Rumpus: You get the sense of reading it that there’s so much more, but there’s not an dissatisfaction in that. You just feel there are so many levels and angles and pathways in it, and I think that and also in Orrinda Thomas’s story, those two sparked a deeper understanding that carried into the rest of the stories.
Benz: I revised Orrinda for the book. I did a little more research. There’s a plantation called The Whitney, the only one that’s a museum about slavery. It only opened in 2014, which says something. But it was interesting. There’s a map with all these plantations along River Road along the Mississippi, hundreds of plantations, landlocked. And I realized, if you’re in a plantation in the middle of that, even if you escape, where can you go? You’re just running through plantation after plantation. It’s almost impossible to get out. You’re doomed. When I thought about her, I thought about how when you’re locked into a pretty impossible situation, there’s no way for you to get out but still you have to keep going. And she knows that more than the slaves do.
Rumpus: More than anyone! She understands the peril of going in there.
Benz: It’s literally riding into hell and being like, “I probably won’t be able to climb my way out of here.”
The thing about working on “The Diplomat’s Daughter” and inhabiting Natalia is it’s a very dark story and a dark place to be. It’s hard to inhabit for a long time. Hard to think about how you live with yourself after seeing certain things and doing certain things. Once you take a life you can’t put it back. It’s the mark, this shame, this burden, on your soul. I thought about “The Diplomat’s Daughter” in that way—if she does the thing they want her to do, if she does the thing she’s trained to do, she will always be marked by it.
Rumpus: Revision is tough, but it’s so good, too.
Benz: As much as I like to write messy drafts and really sketch badly, I think revision is also very fun. Because that’s when you’re asking yourself: “What am I saying about the human condition” or “what is this actual narrative” or what is actually on the page or what ways can I cut and recast that will change the trajectory of it. I think that sometimes, I don’t know why, we’re taught that coming to the end of a short story is enough and revision is this onerous thing. But I enjoy it, even on the sentence level. Little words you can hack away, and working at the sentence to make it really muscular until each is this finely cut jewel. It’s definitely a lot of work, and makes you realize the strangeness of the direction the story might be going in.
Rumpus: One-hundred percent. It’s also the place where you get to see what you did when you were in the frenzy and the thick of it, and you come back after a breather and think: “Oh! I didn’t know I was going there, but I see it now.” There’s a pleasure in that.
Benz: I really enjoy cutting, probably too much. I slash and burn. There’s a perverse relief in that. You know it’s a good sentence but no, it has to go. It’s not necessary.
Drafting is potential. But revision is power. You made your story into something powerful, something bright and glittering and sharp and colorful.
Rumpus: In so many ways, it’s where the real strength of a writer lies. I think a lot of people can get lost in a story and putting the bones onto the page, but do you have the wherewithal and the time to make it into something, as you say, like a finely cut jewel.
Benz: Writers always talk about getting to that mindset of writing like a reader, which is so hard because not all of us are Zen masters! But that’s what we’re all going for. What we’re all trying to do.