Brad Watson, one of my professors at the University of Wyoming, used to tell me to think of a story as a musical composition, wherein each movement contributes to the effect of the whole—to try and convey the sense of momentum, the repetition and variation, so that each unit is necessary for the overall effect of the story.
I was reminded of Watson’s words when reading Benjamin Nugent’s debut collection Fraternity. The stories are raw but also pristinely crafted. They remind me of jumping into the Madison River, in Montana, behind my childhood home: a few feet of cool, clear water, with volatile currents not far from shore that would drag you away if they got a hold of you. In other words, there’s an ease and graceful flow to these character-driven stories, as well as a deeper sense of a danger looming not far from the main events—strongest when Nugent is describing the fraternities, these structural units of orchestrated male power, and how they bring young people together to conform to or reinvent the social contract. These eight taut, enthralling stories celebrate and question kinship in a Massachusetts college town, where belonging is everything.
Benjamin Nugent is the winner of the Paris Review’s 2019 Terry Southern Prize, for “Safe Spaces,” which appeared in the Summer 2018 issue. His stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Best American Unrequired Reading, and The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from The Paris Review.
Nugent and I spoke through email about Fraternity, safe spaces, rhythm, methods, and more.
The Rumpus: The first story I read (and reread, and reread) of yours was “God.” But one of my favorites is “Safe Spaces.” Can you talk about how this story came about? What did you begin with?
Benjamin Nugent: The term “safe spaces” became widely known in 2016. It was a canard: “Fuck these precious snowflakes with their little fucking safe spaces.” Sometimes, it was used sheepishly: “I know ‘safe spaces’ is a cliché, but queer night clubs are safe spaces.” It was corny and despised, so there must have been something to it.
It made me think of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.” The premise of that story is that the protagonist wakes up hungover at a friend’s house and decides to swim home, insofar as possible. He thinks of himself as popular in his suburb, so he trespasses freely, walking from swimming pool to swimming pool, swimming each one, on the way back to his house. He feels safest when he’s in the water. “Safe Spaces” is a pastiche of “The Swimmer.”
I wanted to capture the coked-up panic of November 2016. Before I started writing each day, I would work out to the song “The Safety Dance” on repeat, until its rhythm got into me, and I could write to its rhythm without having it on the stereo.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about how you use rhythm? How can rhythm help a piece of writing? Do you consider rhythm when shaping a story, or when a story isn’t working?
Nugent: What matters to me in a piece of writing is not precisely rhythm but rather the conjuring of the feeling that is produced by a song with a good beat. For me, the first fifty pages of Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper are like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Not that there’s any quantifiable resemblance between her prosody and the rhythm of that song. The similarity is only one of feeling. Somebody grabs you by the arm and runs.
Rumpus: Are you familiar with Joy Williams’s “8 Essential Attributes of a Short Story”? What do you make of these? What would your own dictums be?
Nugent: I admire Joy Williams. My rules are different from hers, but not all that different.
1) Ottessa Moshfegh said in an interview, “My mind is so dumb when I write.” A short story should be basic, at bedrock, the way a pop song should be basic, at bedrock. You can layer some smart stuff on top; a lot of great pop songs, from “Devil Got My Woman“ to “A Case of You,” have tricky riffs, hard chords, wordplay. But the foundation is basic: “Was nothing but the devil changed my baby’s mind” and “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.” Faulkner drew the name of his short story “That Evening Sun” from the chorus of the pop song “St. Louis Blues.” It’s the bedrock feeling of the story: “I hate to see that evening sun go down.”
2) If you discover, in the course of writing a story, that you have a political position, that’s cool, but don’t start with a political position and try to express it. Don’t start with a position on anything.
3) It’s usually best to write one fragment that excites you and then another fragment that excites you, and then, once you have some fragments you like, to place them in causal relation to each other. The structure that results will typically be more fun and interesting than any structure you might conceive in advance. This is something George Saunders told me.
Rumpus: I love “Devil Got My Woman,” and the notion of a story being simple at its core. I also loved the musicality of certain parts of your stories, like in “God,” when, at the end, Oprah, the narrator, after a devastating moment, is listening to the brothers chanting in the kitchen “uh-ooh uh-ooh. It sounded like beware.” That was such a great, ominous ending.
In this story, the narrator wants connection, and for a while he has it. People tend to confide in him, to seek him out for advice. He even connects with the girl they call God. But as we read, we see him lose this connection—an inevitable loss, almost. We sensed it coming. I notice this loss of connection in many of your stories. Can you talk about this?
Nugent: A number of the stories involve people being in love in what they consider to be impure or corrupt ways. In “God,” Oprah knows, on some level, that his love for his fraternity brothers isn’t wholly platonic; in “Fan Fiction,” Nutella knows, on some level, that he loves his girlfriend in part for her fame; in “Safe Spaces,” Claire knows, on some level, that she wants Abby to take her in because she, Claire, is homeless, and addicted to a substance, though she doesn’t think of herself that way. When the true nature of the connection is spoken aloud or otherwise made clear, that’s when the connection is lost. I find that’s often true in life. It’s been true in my life, anyway.
Rumpus: Where are you living right now? How is writing going?
Nugent: I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I have the windows open and the sonic landscape has been a lot of sirens and the occasional “fuck the police.” The violence taking place on the margins of the protests is counterproductive and never to be encouraged, but it can also be beautiful. That’s no contradiction. I gave a reporter a ride to the protests the other night, and after I dropped her off, she got body-slammed by cops, which is horrible, but I had no idea what was happening to her. I was elsewhere, oblivious, watching kids throw trash at cop cars. I’m interested in beautiful events that are wrong.
Rumpus: I wonder if you could clarify what you mean when you say that the violence taking place on the margins of the protests is counterproductive and never to be encouraged. Do you mean that kids throwing trash at police isn’t productive?
Nugent: Sure. So, the writer in me sees some kids throwing trash at cop cars and thinks, Fuck yeah, kids. Fight. Look at the cans and litter fly through the strobing blue light. Look at the cruiser speed away as if it were coming under mortar fire. The citizen in me thinks, Don’t do that, kid. First of all, you’re liable to get hurt. Second, an act of physical aggression against cops on the part of protestors, no matter how trivial, gives the right something to point to, gives reactionaries a tool for muddying the waters. The writer in me loves what the citizen does not. The writer rebukes the citizen. The citizen rebukes the writer.
Rumpus: I don’t buy that acts of physical aggression against cops are counterproductive. Who cares if this gives the right something to point to? The right is often deeply illogical.
Can’t there be productive aggression toward police? Isn’t aggression productive, even on a symbolic level, when it’s against a brutal, broken, historically racist police system that doesn’t serve all of its people?
Nugent: Well, I wouldn’t presume to tell a Black kid not to throw trash at a cop. You could argue the act is productive in a psychological or spiritual sense for a young person of color who’s been harassed, threatened their whole adolescence by the cops.
But I do believe that the tactic that has worked, these past two weeks, has been nonviolent protest that’s begotten violent responses from cops that were captured on video. Protestors chanting, marching, and questioning the cops, then cops knocking the protestors down, hitting them with batons. Cops have figured this out. This past weekend I marched to the 79th Precinct in Bed-Stuy and they just watched us ruefully from the balcony like Marie Antoinette.
Rumpus: What are you working on at the moment?
Nugent: I’ve gone to Mississippi twice in the past year because I think it has something to do with my next book, but I still don’t know what. Those big houses in Natchez are appalling. To face the worst of American history you have to fly to New Orleans and drive three hours north.
I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, where it’s hard to find a landscape that’s obviously shaped by depravity. Except for Greek Row. Hence Fraternity. Greek Row had a certain amount of depravity and love right out there on the porch for everyone to see.
Rumpus: What is your reading and writing routine as you begin to circle a new project? What’s important for you when beginning a novel (I’m guessing this is a novel)? Is there any guidance you give to your students on those first pages? How do you organize your notes, if you have them?
Nugent: My method is to be empty-brained. To work without a design. I tend to trust obsessions to tell me where I need to go. I’ve been preoccupied with the Deep South, Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, the DON’Ts from VICE magazine in the early aughts, and the early aughts in Williamsburg, where VICE was based. What does that combination of obsessions portend? I don’t know. In these early days I can only try things out.
Rumpus: I’d also like to ask more about this interest in depravity, in the beauty in wrongness. You attended Reed College, and I wonder if you found instances of depravity there, in a different way? No fraternities at Reed. No sports teams even, really, as it’s so progressive and liberal. How did attending Reed feed into your interest in brotherhood and social contracts and masculinity?
Nugent: There were instances of depravity at Reed. When I was in my first semester I walked in on my roommate doing heroin with his girlfriend. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, I think. They were both first-years like me. They hadn’t ever done it before. It was sad and also funny; they had put on “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground, and they cooked the dope with a lighter in a spoon and then poured the liquid into an emptied nasal-spray bottle. They sprayed it up their noses. I think that moment damaged both of their lives for a while. There wasn’t all that much masculinity happening at Reed, toxic or otherwise. A masculine boy at Reed was a rare bird. It’s the only time in my life I’ve dated men, college. I think that did have something to do with my own nascent interest in masculinity. For those four years, it was an exotic commodity. Maybe I find masculinity so compelling because I went to Reed. If I’d gone to Duke, maybe I’d have written a book set in a bridal shop.
Photograph of Benjamin Nugent by Jason Fulford.