Recently, assistant editor David Rawson posed a number of questions to Benjamin Reed about his story, “Surprise Me With Something Familiar” (Spring 2007). Benjamin responded with generosity, insight, and hilarity – way more than we could have hoped for.
How does this story fit into the rest of your work?
I remember it was one of the first couple times I thought I’d written a “polished” piece. But back then I didn’t read a lot of literary journals and I had a really naive perspective of contemporary fiction. I think I judged all my manuscripts in terms of whether or not they might get accepted by Glimmer Train.
How did this story come to be?
I was a bartender for a long time, in a small, dark lounge on Red River, what used to be the very edge of downtown Austin. It was so dark, all the light was from a few dozen red venetian candles and the glowing ends of people’s cigarettes. We poured beers practically by feel, and mixed drinks by sound and texture. We hated making white Russians. Cream–really it’s half-and-half–froths when you shake it. It expands. It gets everywhere, all over your hands, the bar, the bar mats, your shirt, the upside-down glass you use to cap your shaker tin–everywhere. And after you make a white Russian you have to rinse everything extra, which clouds the blue water of the sanitatizing sink. And usually the people ordering them were amateurs, posers, or young men who over-identified with The Big Lebowski.
As such, the manager was constantly “forgetting” to buy half-and-half. So we were always being prompted to suggest a replacement. Usually this would be Bailey’s. One night, we started joking about making white Russians with breast milk. One of our bartenders had just come back to work after having a baby, and was always talking about lactating and pumping. I asked her if she would be up for a donation. Just a few ounces. She said she’d think about it. When I asked again later she replied with a decisive “No.” I assume she’d mentioned it to her husband, and he clearly did not think it was as amusing an idea as I did.
So of course it cropped up in my fiction. I tried a few different approaches to writing about situations where somebody was using their own breast milk for white Russians, but they were all pretty facile and I gave up, diverting my attention to more promising ideas. Then a friend of my wife had a miscarriage very late in her pregnancy, and at the reception after the funeral (this would be the funeral fictionalized in the story), she started talking with us, joking sardonically about her overflowing breasts, obviously trying to inject a little levity, and I admired her for that. Most of the people there were her blood or marital relations, two families from opposite socio-economic sides of a small Texas town, split pretty starkly along subcultural lines–veritable Montagues and Capulets. I think my wife and I were the only people in that scene as uncomfortable as my wife’s furiously lactating friend. I made a bad joke about white Russians, both women laughed, et voila. As I was immersed in material and usable detail, the story idea seemed viable again, which is probably a terrible word choice, in context. Anyway, everything came together. I finally had my “breast milk white Russian” story.
What city is this story?
Definitely Austin, 1995-2005. The story takes place in a real house on a real street: 3310 Hemlock Avenue in East Austin. If someone who enjoys the story is in Austin, they can drive or ride their bike by the actual residence. Or just Google Earth it. I’m not sure if that would be a perverse thing to do or not, but there it is.
If you rewrote this story today, how would it change?
One of the few positive writerly qualities I manage to possess is post-publication detachment. Other than correcting typos, I’ve never had a strong impulse to alter a published work. I see the flaws, I just don’t let it bother me.
Someone wants to make this story into a feature film. Who would you want to direct it? Who would you cast?
Director: Steven Soderbergh, even though it’s an “Austin” story and as such I should probably go with Linklater. As far as actors, I feel like all my favorites are ten years too old for my characters, which would change the tone of the story entirely. Oh well: Caroline: Famke Janssen. Hank: (Sorry, Sam Rockwell) I’d have to say either Jake Gyllenhaal or the dude from Drive. Cheddar: Crispin Glover (obviously). Practice: I don’t actually have strong feelings about–or know any of the names of–child actors (which is a good thing, right?). Wagoneer driver: Richard Dreyfuss.
This story is very attentive to feet, shoes, walking, running. Can you speak to this?
I hadn’t noticed this as an especially conspicuous feature of the story before this question. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because Hemlock Avenue is on a hill, so if you’re walking down the street you’re either going up or down; your feet are either sliding into the toes of your shoes or you’re high-stepping up the macadam. And I don’t have a foot fetish, if that’s what you’re asking.
Why was it important for you to tell this story in multiple POV?
I don’t feel like it was a tactical decision as much as one made out of necessity. At first it only had two sides, like an argument between Hank and Caroline. But when Practice and Cheddar arrived, it didn’t seem interesting to withhold their viewpoints simply to divide their impression between Hank and Caroline. I decided it’d work better if they were brought in, even though there are a million ways you can go wrong trying to approximate the interiority of a child or someone who is severely autistic. I believe the condemnatory epithet currently in fashion is “familiar.”
Why does Caroline offer her milk to Cheddar and not to Practice?
She doesn’t offer her milk to Cheddar, but a breast milk white Russian. She doesn’t offer it to Practice because it has alcohol. She’s drunk and perhaps feels cruelly toward Cheddar, but she’d never give booze to kids.
What do Caroline and Hank do next? What would a completely new story with these two look like?
Caroline and Hank have a baby. Then another one. They normalize. They become like their friends and live extraordinarily uneventful lives, except for the odd cancer scare, a trip to the Virgin Islands, and the average allotment of suburban sublimity, of which they will only fail to recognize a handful. After all, they’re inescapably of the hipster generation–post-irony, post-cynicism. Even before they became parents, they were conscious of an intrinsic need for beauty in life. Caroline will forget this as she grows up to be everything she always hated about middle-aged women. She’ll take it out on Hank, maybe have a couple of half-hearted affairs, but by then he’s doing something equivalent to building a model train set in the garage, so he’s insulated.
Are Caroline and Hank “good people”?
As someone who has written both fiction and poetry, is your approach different? How so?
God, yes. For me, poetry just happens. With fiction, there’s a lot of process and courtship. It’s a long-term commitment. So I guess that makes poetry the one night stand. Fitting then, that I write poems so seldom these days.
In terms of writing, how do you find your True North?
To get through a first draft I have to be genuinely curious about what the finished story will look like. There must be some balance between intention and mystery. Lately, also, I’ve found it helps to narrow down the intended audience to just one person. Especially if you’re trying to be funny. That’s the only advice I’ve newly come to appreciate: write for one person, or at least a small group of your friends. Right when I started testing this approach, Gary Shteyngart basically said the same thing to me, in response to my seemingly unrelated question. I’d wanted to know how he approaches “immigrant fiction,” since this is often relevant to my own work. Apparently for Shteyngart, the conceits and preconceptions you bring to the process really have to take a backseat to simply knowing who you’re writing to. Picking an audience of one, even if they’re dead, or if you’ve never met them, or they currently have a restraining order against you, and it’s unlikely they’d even want to read anything you ever write again–is enormously helpful. It takes the pressure off. You no longer have to presume you’re writing to make yourself happy, which will never, ever happen, as writing fiction should always get more difficult the better you become.
What are the projects you have worked on since? Anything you would like to promote?
Junot Diaz picked my story “The Quiet Hunt” as winner of Avery Anthology‘s Small Spaces Prize. I’m pretty proud of that; it’s something you can buy from Avery on their website. That story will also be in my collection, which is about half finished now. It’s a collection of “linked” or interrelated fiction. I’ve also got a story coming out soon in West Branch. It’s called “The Weigh-In.” It’s about a near-future America where everyone who’s even slightly overweight has to wear a “modesty gown,” told from the perspective of a junior at a Catholic all-girls high school.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve read in a review of your own book?
So I started a novel when I was sixteen, worked on it during high school, then set it down until after college, when I was twenty-four or so. I changed the time from my actual high school years to 1961–about when my parents and my friends’ parents were in high school. I finished it and had a couple bites from publishers, but it was clear that at twenty-four I didn’t have what it takes to constantly pitch let alone promote a novel. I just wanted to forget it and move on to book #2. Someone in my family offered to pay to self-publish it. I consented and sent a copy of the book to my hometown newspaper, i.e. the city where the novel is set. The reviewer focused most of her criticism on the fact that the story was framed around an illegal abortion. The reviewer actually criticized my protagonist for not being able to contain his libido. Which is kind of cool, I guess, if you construe that as a successful suspension of disbelief.
What are some of your favorite words?
Truncheon. Elliptical. Clerestory. Ineluctable. Interstitial. Abnegate. Caterwaul. Winsome. Flange.
What would you like to see in a literary magazine?
Less perfected work. So much stuff out there reads exactly like what it is: workshop fiction. Stories that either had their rough edges sanded off by a jury of the writer’s peers, or are otherwise marked by restraint and safe choices, filled with sterile prose, or teasing but ultimately tepid constructions, denuded of sex and viscera. Earlier, when I suggested one ought to narrow their make-believe audience to one person (during the raw, initial creative process), I certainly didn’t mean that this person should be the writer’s creative writing professor, or their high school English teacher–even though I’ve had the privilege to work with some very good instructors, and I owe them a great deal. But unless you really, really hate your workshop teacher–or love him or her, or, ideally, both–unless he or she is your old pal and you have high-context inside jokes, or you desperately want to sleep with this person, or you spend idle moments hoping they’ll suffer some sort of grievous injury while their children are watching–they’re not your audience. Neither are your classmates, ironically. I guess my point is, you have to have a purpose, even if you can’t explain it, and you need to take some kind of chance. I don’t care for work that challenges the reader for the sake of being transgressive, but I do love that feeling, when I’m reading, that I’m a co-conspirator with the author in some perverse or salacious scheme that only we fully appreciate. So write about what’s really real to you, and have faith that there are readers out there who care. Because we are out here, and we’re waiting to be blown away.
When the robots learn to write novels, what should people do?
I wouldn’t worry about it. Robots can already write books, but they’ll always be shit at choosing titles.
What is the last thing you read that melted your face?
Bruno Schulz’s “Father’s Last Escape” has two sentences I wish were mine. Elissa Schappell’s “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” will kill you in your sleep. I recently read Percival Everett’s Erasure the way I used to compulsively tear through Camus and Kafka when I was a kid. “Landing Zone Bravo,” a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato definitely melted my face. I think it’s clear O’Brien wants to write like Conrad, what might be less clear is that O’Brien exceeds Conrad on so many levels. Last bit: people who claim to be Vonnegut fans but who haven’t read Mother Night need to rectify that situation, A-sap.