Ben Rosenthal is a writer living in New York. He has had residencies at The MacDowell Colony and at Ucross, and will graduate from Columbia University this February with an MFA in Fiction. His story “A Friend of the Zoo” appeared in Potomac Review #62 in spring 2018.
Earlier this year, former Potomac Review intern, Nirav Mehta chatted with Ben Rosenthal about a writers control over how his work is received, the relationship between fiction and reality, and abandoning the old adage; “write what you know.”
Nirav Mehta: I want to start by asking you about A Friend of the Zoo, which was published in Issue 62 of the Potomac Review. What inspired you to develop this story? Can you take us through your planning and writing process?
Ben Rosenthal: I was on a trip to the zoo with a friend and we had a conversation with a docent, an older, phlegmatic man who I liked because he didn’t condescend in the least. In a sense, the whole story is a what-if, as if drawn from a writing prompt. In terms of planning, I don’t do that [too] often. Usually, planning goes out the window (at least for me) once I start typing, and who me [to] stand athwart it if it happens? That’s a dangerous thing to do. You can always steer it back to where you intended upon the second draft if indeed you still want it to go there. The only thing I knew I wanted was to have the woman say really outlandish things to a disparate group of patrons. It’s a bit of an SNL sketch at the beginning, and then the bottom drops out.
In terms of process, it’s fairly intuitive. After that, there’s some rejiggering, but the first draft is often “discovering” the character, or a moment. For the sake of compression (and frankly, to heighten the humor) I tried to find a pressurized situation for all concerned. The first draft was more about Edith and then my teacher and the class kind of disabused me of that idea, thankfully. So Errol becomes foregrounded in rewriting.
I had put this one for a few years because I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to my own writing, and have to be reminded home is where the heart is, so I went back, laughed upon reading it, and just rewrote it from an editor’s point of view, hoping that a shred of something organic remained. It’s a funny thing with narrative mediums, that emotional continuity can be felt in the transmission of something doctored and often written out of sequence. It’s a sleight of hand, and it’s funny that people often disparage magicians for tricking us but let writers and filmmakers get away with it.
NM: There are some strong voices in A Friend of the Zoo, but also much loneliness and some emptiness. Do you feel there is some kind of a relationship, between the strength and vivacity of characters and their internal struggles?
BR: I hope there are loneliness and emptiness in every story of mine. It’s a lovely thing to foist on people. Sharfstein is lonely and empty, too. And Trackl. We talk about flat characters and round characters but just because Edith would be flat, and Eric, too, doesn’t mean it can’t be assumed they are working from the same place as Errol. Our current president is a flat character in a round world (I just thought of that. Sorry.) Our last president was round but svelte. Errol is round; he will turn on the axis that is Edith. But since he is the protagonist we end up slipping into his void. But it shouldn’t be minimized, the satirical element here. In that sense, the big gesture is welcomed. I think in another, less deliberately funny incarnation of this, you would find gestural subtlety, a less flagrant acting out.
NM: There was a sentence in the story, “Humans are the only animals to outlive their teeth.” It is such an interesting choice, for it, both make you pause and think, but also argue back! Can you take us through your thought process in preparing that sentence?
BR: That sentence came about because of the recurring animal theme, the bestial component to the behavior. Of course, I don’t rightly know if humans are the only animals who outlive their teeth, and neither does Errol. It’s a sort of close-third moment that you hope you can get away with. James Wood calls it free indirect discourse, which is just another way of saying the character hands off their valence to the omniscient narrator for a line or two. You hope to thread the needle on those. I was looking for a summary sentence that would also put the proverbial ribbon on things. If there is something that unites these characters it’s having outlived their dreams, if indeed they ever had any. I’m sure Sharfstein thought he’d be somewhere else by now when he started his stint at Wharton. Errol thought he’d leave the Bronx. Edith thought she’d marry someone more dynamic than Norman. Trackl outlived his wife, who maybe he loved? So, teeth. Would you ever want to kiss someone without them?
NM: Do you, as a writer, always feel in control of what you want your story to say? Or do you ever feel like adding a disclaimer: “The author can only be held responsible for some of the content of this story?”
BR: I long since gave up on the idea of self in self-expression and in that sense, everything is a kind controlled anarchic collaboration, with sensibility being the only thread (and even that is not necessarily tethered to any self in the sense that we think it is). I would say I’m no less responsible for the content of this story than the person is responsible for their interpretations in reading it. I think if something happens that is cheap and facile and dishonest in the writing, I’ll go to the gibbet for that and bring my own rope, but beyond that, even something as hideous as the promotion of stereotypes can have a place (and sometimes needs a place) in something with a satirical edge. But micromanaging your conscious mind is still an unconscious act, so why bother being proprietary about things if, in the end, they work? What’s neat is I found recently that I wrote a sentence that ended “…in darkest Astoria.” Well, I just saw The Iceman Cometh and heard Hickey say those same words, “…in darkest Astoria.” I’d seen the play many years ago. Did that lodge somewhere in me? Could be. Could also be [a] coincidence, which means Eugene O’Neill and I park our cars in the same garage. I could lie and say it’s homage if I keep it. But there it is. Irresponsibility, in the best way, or worst, depending.
NM: How do you deal with criticism? Do you feel there is a difference in the experience of criticism as a student writer and as a published one?
BR: I deal with it better now than before. It’s all great if you let the work sit. It’s like taking your lumps. All you feel at first are the lashings or the fists. Then you remember the punisher might’ve been onto something, or was perhaps wrong and you need not go working off his or her blarney. I’ve used adjustments and suggestions I’ve gotten from people who I rather despise, and continue to hate venomously. Doesn’t mean they can’t help you. It’s terrible if they’re reckless or careless in their comments but even those can be digested with time and distance. Ultimately I think it’s a matter of taking the time to weed out what ideas you don’t want to get more in touch with the ideas you do, obviously. But my metabolism is slow, so it takes months for me.
Some writers give the middle finger to praise in the fear they’ll become parodies of themselves if they bask in it too much. It’s a fine line, mining what you’re good at or becoming that parody.
NM: What do you think people are looking for in stories, in this peculiar 21st century America, where reality is clearly stranger than much fiction?
BR: Weirdly enough I don’t think it changes much. I once saw one of those narco sicario videos and surprise, surprise, I wish I hadn’t. But what’s interesting is that I can still watch a horror movie. I can still read a book and be shocked by the violence, and it’s not some PTSD thing where I’m even more shocked and horrified by those things than before. It’s just that fiction interacts with reality on its own terms, it seems (a good thing, yes and no, right?), and yeah, Trump will affect the way people read in that maybe they’ll shoehorn him into what they’re reading and some writers – myself included – will strain for at least some leitmotif of topicality that may or may not help the story. But I think readers want to like what they’re reading, on the remote chance they choose to read overplaying the ukulele or standing in nine feet of slurry. I think reality has always been stranger than fiction and always will be. It’s only conditioning that reality should not be strange. That conditioning is part of the strangeness. What has to be remembered is the old saw that fiction has more stringent requirements as to believability than say, the malignant fantasia we are living in under our president and his people, than life itself.
There’s also a tendency to think you’re the first generation to be stymied by the present. Harriet Beecher Stowe was. Sinclair Lewis was. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Aristophanes. The writing is united by narrative elements that can’t be consecrated to a certain period.
It’s worth remembering, too, that we’re porous creatures and the times will sink in even if we don’t try. There were a lot of writers, who tried to tackle 9/11 in its immediate wake, and some of those books had legs but there’s [a] great number of them I’m sure their writers wish would perish in the next attack. I love Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy but one of the things I find unfortunate about the last three books is their attempt to almost retrofit something topical into them for social relevance, as though he didn’t trust himself to be part of the present, which may, in fact, be a function of aging, worrying that you are not relevant. Gombrowicz wrote satires about a Poland he had left as a young man and was chided for not being current by the Polish literati, but he’s read more today than a lot of the more favored Polish writers of his age who spent their life in-country, so what’s relevant is the writing.
I think one end-run around being obvious and dated in approaching the present climate is to write about it glancingly, almost like what doctors refer to as “referred pain.” It’s much more powerful to get a little radio blip from the event than to stick your head inside the Tuba, unless the bludgeoning is the point, as it might be in a Jelinek novel. Two other approaches I can think of are Kozinski’s The Painted Bird, which turns the Shoah into something of a feral child fairy tale, never names it, and keeps things expressionistic to the end. But we know where we are. The other is to stay purely metaphorical. That’s been done a thousand times, too varying effect. There’s a great collection of stories called Beasts and Men by Pierre Gascar. Each story in the book has a resonance from the Second World War, the casual murder of it, almost metaphorically, elliptically. Then in the novella at the end, he gets straightforward about it, the trains, the destinations, and it goes flat. Books like Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Boll’s The Clown do a much more subtle voodoo with the Shoah, again glancing, and it works.
NM: New York City can be the dream location for writers, providing infinite inspiration for stories. Please tell us how you think the City has influenced your imagination and writing. Do you find it easy – or difficult – to develop as a writer there?
BR: Well it’s such a repository of lunatics and extremes and all that is right and wrong with the world, that you can find a story just walking down the street. And New York is a city where you walk, and I find walking is a great midwife for ideas. Not so much driving, although a little. But walking, the motion is clarifying and obviously endorphin-producing, and it seems the synergy or synthesis of those often creates the germ of a story or the conclusion. That said nobody thinks of a New York writer as having any claim on regionalism, a regional voice, even if they do. It’d be like an actor in LA saying he’s in community theater. Chris Offutt can write about Kentucky in a patois that nobody has heard until reading him, about people who are new to us because we’ve neglected them for years. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. I suppose I could write about cold brew coffee and polyamory among people in pre-distressed black jeans and white Keds sneakers. Farm to table people pop up store people. Gentrifiers. Snooze. The only thing more ignoble than middle-class wish fulfillment: hipster self-flagellation.
NM: What is your vision for the future? Do you see yourself pursuing novels?
BR: Yes. There’s the cynical angle of them being much easier to publish than short story collections. And as a reader, I get a great kick out of them and of course, they can be nourishing in a way that ten-pagers often can’t be, if for no other reason than Stockholm Syndrome. I love asides and you can get away with a lot more of those, tangential things that only in the echoing or resonating sense find their way back into the theme or whatever a plot is, and yet they advance things, and they are sometimes the most beguiling thing about a book. That’s attractive to this writer, but settling on the playing field for all those dipsy-doodles is the tough part because I don’t want to be purely desultory either.
NM: Who are your literary inspirations and teachers?
BR: Too many and they change as I change. Hrabal is amazing for the way he drops the floor out from under you in the middle of what is ostensibly a comic fugue. I wish I could write like Deborah Eisenberg, who can give you a Russian novel in thirty pages. Thomas McGuane will always be a favorite. Harold Pinter the playwright. Barry Hannah for energy, Elfriede Jelinek for sheer ferocity. I’m not sure I think anyone is truly influenced so much as they find a writer who succeeds at doing what they want to do better than they do it. I don’t think a poet makes you want to write poetry. It’s when you read a poet who is simpatico with the kind of writing you want to do, whether you’ve ever tried it or not. It’s a bit like Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, inborn and waiting for triggers; we have a sensibility and we find the work that pleases us and forces us to do ourselves better than someone else has done us if that makes sense? Of course, I may change my mind about that. We often hear about work teaching us to read it. It should be said that I think a story should teach you to write it, and it will often because it’s probably already written somewhere in your head. Only you can veto it into nonbeing.
NM: What advice would you give to new writers, as regards to writing programs, but also on the writing process – how to look for stories, research and dealing with criticism?
BR: Well a lot of the people who rail against writing programs teach in writing programs, and it’s a stupid thing to tell anyone what will work for them or won’t. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you to “write what you know.” If that were the case Hamlet would be eating mince pies in Stratford.) I think deadlines and stricture are healthy things for developing minds (and developed minds), so I would never dissuade someone from a writing program. Columbia was great because it was so big and it was difficult to stand on ceremony about this writer of that, this movement or that. Personalities help pull you to different style the way high school friends pull you to different music. Of course, debt is always going to be a consideration, so if you think you’re going to be enslaved by it for the rest of your days unless there’s a forgiveness program then maybe take your chances on a writing manual or a book of essays. Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Richard Hugo’s A Triggering Town, these are great entry points for autodidacts. Jennifer Egan doesn’t have an MFA so you can do amazing things without them.
I’d steer clear of anyone who would ever tell you what you can’t get away with. Ten years ago you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone reading a Bolano book. His books, both the short stories and the novels, break every rule about what you’re not supposed to get away with in writing, but you try to break those same rules on his terms and you’ll see what you end up with. As Katherine Anne Porter said, every thumbprint is different. But people who say “You can’t do that” might as well be standing in front of a bumblebee and telling it [that] it isn’t flying.
If by criticism you mean class critiques then, well, don’t write if you don’t want people to have opinions about what you do, or write but be monkish about and keep your stories in a drawer. As for lit critics, well, they can be wonderful or destructive depending. It’s important to remember that they love what you do almost more than you do and so are vicious and reactionary when they feel let down. Remember that any MacArthur fellow has likely had their work deep-sixed by an eighteen-year-old intern from Wesleyan at some point.
The late great Bob Ross who gave us The Joy of Painting said imagination is a muscle like anything else. People say, “I can’t come up with stories,” but most of those people haven’t tried. I have the almost disheartening belief that everyone is capable of writing a story that will fetch publication in a top fifteen journal at some point in time. The pensioner from Umberto D was not an actor but De Sica found something he was meant to do, and we have one of the greatest performances, or whatever you’d call it, on film.
Another way of saying what you know is going to come out in anything you do, whether driven by strict prompt or a free-form exercise, so, don’t write what you know and you’ll end up writing what you know.
Remember too there are scant few people who can get away with not rewriting. You’ll hear a great writer here and there who’ll say they don’t do it but a.) they might be lying, and b.) they might be a one-off in that respect.
Beyond that, I don’t have anything to tell a person in the hortatory sense. Sherwood Anderson walked out of an ad firm or someplace in Chicago and spent three days circling the city on foot without sleep only to come back and tell his boss he wanted to be a writer. It was a momentous decision, and a brave, perhaps psychotic thing to do. No such magnitude attends such a choice these days; all you need is a URL. Maybe that’s good, maybe not so good. But you’ve got to start somewhere.