Today is interview day! This is the second in a series begun an embarrassingly long time ago. My goal in doing this is an entirely selfish one. I have my own experiences as a writer, but I have a cannibalistic desire to taste everyone else’s as well. Talking About Writing provides me with that chance.
Today’s guest, Benjamin Schachtman is, depending on when you ask him, a graduate student, a line cook, a writer, or a guitarist. His work has appeared in print from Anobium Literary, The Conium Review, The Bad Version and online at Slushpile Magazine, Vine Leaves Literary, Fuck Fiction, Eunoia Review, and Foundling Review. After a long time in New York City, he’s currently hiding out on the Carolina coast with his wife and dog.
Thanks, Benjamin, for allowing me to pick your brain!
You’re currently working on your dissertation in English Literature. That’s interesting to me because an MFA is the degree of choice for so many writers these days. Is the doctorate an integral part of your goals as a writer, or is it part of your life as a reader, or something more prosaic, like the door to a career that provides you with the time and support to write?
I’d love to tell you it well calculated, or, less cynically, well planned, but the truth is it was a Hail Mary pass. I was burnt out working lousy kitchen jobs in restaurants that always seemed to be a week from going under. The band I was in wasn’t playing much or writing new music (the same old song: artistic differences and drugs), my hours were brutal and I never saw my girlfriend (now my wife, so at least I salvaged that). Grad school was a fairly desperate gambit. I was tremendously lucky that I landed in a small group of good people, and that I ended up being fairly adept at the language and politics of academics. I’ve been fortunate and, if that trend continues, I can see a pretty good gig down the line, at least in terms of having time to write.
That said, I do think that over time the PhD program became a significant part of my life as a reader and writer. I have a healthy skepticism about MFA programs in general, and a different – but equally robust – skepticism about the PhD. But I will say that the PhD program has given me a longer view of literature, about what gets called the long conversation of literature. It humbles you; put you in your place. I don’t imagine my work ever being in the canonical echelon –and, of course, that canon is racist and sexist and a dozen other nasty ‘ist’s – but I don’t think it’s wrong to want what you write to endure, and to be aware and alive to what came before you.
And, of course, teaching literature gives you a whole new appreciation for how it works – and doesn’t work – in the minds of different kinds of readers.
Hmm, there are two tracks I’d like to follow here. Perhaps the more straightforward one first.
How has your grad school relationship with the Western literary canon, and the deepened sense to create work that endures, shaped your current work in fiction? Is it more of a question of theme or genre, or simply pushing further into the spaces you’ve always been drawn to as a writer?
Absolutely, for me, it was about pushing further, or rather, realizing how far people had already pushed. Part of that is just reading: not just the big names but the ‘lesser known’ – one good thing about the modern academy is that, though the canon is still stubbornly white and male, it’s always expanding – you find professors looking for sci-fi and queer erotica and black modernists, wonderfully weird things in places you wouldn’t expect to find them. So, there’s just the experience of reading a lot – the kind of education that many writers, before the internet (not to get all Franzen-ish on you), gave themselves out of necessity, being weird, squirrelly, solitary folks.
And, of course, you end up with heroes. And then you kill those heroes.
One of the things that shocked me when I came out of my very long dry spell and began to write again was the deep divides between genres. As someone who never fit very well in any one camp, either as a reader or a writer, I found it stifling. But it seems to me there is a constant testing of all the walls these days, of knocking parts down and building new structures–fountains, garden benches, rockets–with bits of the old. What influences do you tap into in your writing, and how far back do they go for you? (I’ll admit to having a secret fear that I’m recreating The Little Prince, since I read it so many times as a kid.)
I know what you mean about genres, and though I try to avoid hand-wringing, it can be depressing. I have my literary influences – too many, I’m sure – that crop up in my work (I’ll do a wincing read through and go, ‘uh, Palahniuk,’ or – if it’s bleaker than that – ‘ugh, Bret Easton Ellis,’ or – if I’ve got a pretty, hard little gem, ‘oooh, O’Conner’). I had one hideous monster of a ‘novel’ that was a modernist collage, basically Joyce with a little Bukowski and a heavy dose of Jean Toomer’s amazing Cane. I was in love with that real visceral desire to smash boundaries, I still am. These days, though, I’m more willing to be subversive rather than all-out disruptive (I’m a punk at heart, not a revolutionary). So I’m willing to write a domestic drama that hides a horror-story, or a sci-fi piece that hides a domest drama, and so on… I love films and novels that smuggle in other things (I’m think, right now, of Del Toro’s Mama, but also bolder examples, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a historical thriller that was really an existential horror story, or, in novels, of Gone Girl, which had a pitch-black Camus-level nihilistic core, wrapped in pulpy, read-in-one-day beach book prose).
But when I try to tap into things, deliberately, it’s always rock’n’roll. I hear the right music for a scene, and so that often dictates the mood, the pace, the sentence length, damn near everything. That, for me, goes back to my childhood, my dad had some great albums: Allman Brothers at the Filmore, Cream, The Byrds, and my aunts and uncles were big fans of Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, all that.
As an example, imagine a sex scene (doesn’t have to be graphic, call it a love scene). Play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 – and it becomes amazingly sad, tender and more than a little doomed; play The Stone Rose’s ‘I want to be adored’ and it gets more ironic, play the Deftones ‘be quiet and drive’ and it’s desperate and violent. The same people, performing the same actions, but – in my head – radically different tones. I never think ‘how would Borges or Nabakov or Woolf write this,’ but I’m always thinking about the music I’d want playing while someone read it.
Which leads more or less perfectly into that other path I wanted to follow: how have your experiences as a musician affected your writing? I’m not a musician, and I’m not someone who can write while listening to music (too many things, too little brain space), but songs…they change everything for me. I have a couple I listen to whenever I need to be more grounded in sensory detail; I have others that reconnect me with the mood I need for a particular story, a certain character.
I hear that a lot from writers–that music does anything from enhances to channels their writing. I’m curious about how it works for you as both a musician and a writer. How has writing and/or performing music intersected with your other writing?
I try to be careful of too-easy synesthetic metaphors, to say that a passage – or a whole piece – is the written equivalent of a piece of music, that leaves too much out. But, as I said it’s definitely an influence.
But I think you’re asking a different (and good) question here. So, let me answer in two ways.
First, it’s a release valve. Most people, myself included, are suspicious of raw emotion in prose and poetry. You’ve got to earn it, craft it, measure it, make it strange. It strikes us (a slippery ”us,’ but I’ll say it anyway), as purple, or Hallmarky (or StrifeTimey). You cannot write: ‘x loves y’ on the first page of a novel, because it has no weight. But you can pick up a guitar, and scream it, and people will feel it. A sad blues song isn’t a cliche when you’re there in the audience, and maybe a little drunk. It cuts you right in two. So, it’s a good place to put all those raw and unmediated feelings. I think when I’m feeling too intellectual I’ll usually go work on my dissertation or an article, and when I’m mad at the world or heartbroken or melancholy, I’ll go play guitar. In between, when I’ve got a good hand on the reins, I’ll write fiction..
And, second, it’s the other woman of fiction. I apologize for that metaphor – it could be the other man, too – but there it is. Fiction is like a marriage, it takes work and time and – yes – sometimes endless rounds of revisiting and reworking. It lasts, last a long time if it’s good, but it is not easy, and the effects are not immediate. It takes me weeks, sometimes years, to decide how I feel about a novel I’ve read, all that time to work through it, to grow with it, to really understand it. Rock and roll – excuse me – is just fucking sexy. Rock’n’roll shows up, it’s loud and flashy and offers you immediate gratification. I’ve been lucky to play with a few bands that could improvise, throwing something together on stage, live, with people watching, and when it works, it’s better than anything. Anything. To shift the metaphor from sex to drugs, that’s a high a novelist or a poet could chase all their lives. The best poem, the must stunning twist, the sharpest line, it’ll still be chasing the awesome, almost terrifying power of live music. There’s something almost fascist about rock’n’roll, you see a crowd – or, more often, you’re in a crowd – and they are hypnotized. Swept along. As a writer, how could you not crave that kind of power?
And the relationship, between the quiet intimacy imagined between a writer and his or her reader, and that very different thing, between a band and a crowd, well, that’s something I’ve been writing about, in different ways, for a while now. So, at that meta-level, I suppose the writer wins. The writer always wins.
Thanks–you explain that well. There is an inherent distance between writer and audience, and, while I haven’t done readings, I suspect that distance remains even while sharing work in that format. The highest points I’ve had as a writer feel more like whispering delicious secrets in the dark than they do like taking center stage.
As a final question, what do you want to say about who you strive to be as a writer? This has mostly been questions that interest me, without a lot of room for you to talk about what it is you actually write. Tell me, or tell me what you’d secretly love to write, or what you long to capture in your work, regardless of the shape it takes. And thank you.
All writers get pigeon holed – all artists do – and there’s a compelling case to be made for ‘finding your niche,’ writing about your ethnic group, your sexuality, your background, your nation, you generation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I also I think of Joyce, about whom Samuel Beckett said: ‘he’s tending towards omniscience and omnipotence.’ Even Joyce, even in Finnegan’s Wake, but also in Ulysses, he’s excruciatingly concerned with the Irish nation, the Irish people. If Joyce was a god, he was an Irish god.
So who then, are my people? Leaving aside the finer rabbinical and Catholic technicalities, I’m Irish Catholic and a secular Russian Jew, without being quite able to claim either. My solution for this predicament – so tempting to claim Philip Roth and Flannery O’Connor, forebears I can reach but not grasp – was, at first, the punk rock underground (such that it is, there are people who will shoot ice-daggers into your heart with their eyes for dreaming that punk lives on, others who will dress you down, in public, for saying it died). Over time, though, I think I got a clearer picture of who I love, who I love to write about, and what I want to be as a writer.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I’d love to be the poet of the mad – which sounds phenomenally pretentious, but, again, there it is. What I’ve done so far, and what I hope to keep doing, is to write about all the forms of madness. To write about the mentally ill, yes, to deal with suicide and schizophrenia and depression, but also to deal with the particular madness of infatuation and love, the madness or rock’n’roll, the madness of capitalism, of showing up every day to a job you hate in a world you don’t understand and can’t succeed in, the madness of attempting to make art in the 21st century, the madnesses of wealth and poverty, the madness of trauma, the madness of drug addiction and the madness of sobriety, the madness of hatred and the madness of identity. Looking back, very little connects my characters – they are aged homophobes and mixed-race queers, they are wealthy junkies and starving artists, autistic demigods strung out in sci-fi wastelands and drunken good old boys lost in the very real wastelands of America. For some time, I was plowing ahead, writing without a ‘master plan,’ and – by and large – that’s still how I do it. But, every time, I realize, my work is always about madness, about that jarring, stomach-twisting drop-in-your-stomach feeling when you catch a glimpse of the abyss between your world and the world outside. And, if I’m lucky, I can make this work humane – for characters and readers alike. I can make it funny and palatable and a bit subtle, up front at least, and smuggle the madness in. I can write about someone you know, so to speak, and then leave you wondering if I’ve gone off on a crazed tangent or if that person, the one you know, see and speak to daily, is living on some fractured iceberg, calved off from the main ice-sheet of your own reality.
To wrap up here, let me say this: one of the generally held tenets of post-modernism, which is by and large the secular religion of academics, is that we’re all alone, isolated and meaningless, and that our attempts to communicate and connect are ‘always-already’ doomed. It’s a bleak kind of nihilism (yes, there are kinds, some are bleaker than others). But, in my heart, I’m still a modernist. Nothing is real, nothing has meaning, we can’t connect, it’s mad to think we can, but we still try. Our fictions, our songs and our poems, whatever it is we do, we do them in spite of the void. Woolf once called her fictions a tiny little strip of pavement over the abyss. If that’s all my work ever is, I’d be grateful and proud.