Our fiction co-editor Patrick Brownson recently had this exchange with Thomas Benz, our Issue #27 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his love of traditional language, his writing and revising process, and the inspiration for his story “The Waiting Moon.”
What inspired you to write this piece?
There were a couple things that I think triggered that story. One was that I did miss my stop on the Metra train one night after work. I got off in an affluent, north shore suburb and, since there was no train going back for an hour, I decided to take a walk and ended up in a wonderful bookstore. The other thing was that, a short time before, I felt sure that I vaguely recognized a woman in a public setting, but I couldn’t make the connection and really had no idea who she was. The two incidents somehow combined in the story, along with a certain wistfulness for an earlier time.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
Honestly, I really don’t think in those terms, because probably everyone has a slightly different take on any piece of fiction. But for me I guess there was a sense of how powerful memories can get buried under layers and layers of subsequent experience, and yet they can remain very vivid and potent once something sets them off again. There’s also the sense that one’s identity can seem to be altered by a given relationship—which is perhaps part of the allure of a romantic affair.
This story begins with your main character, Jarrett, coming out of a deep sleep as he rides the train home. Given the following story’s palpable sense of the surreal or dreamlike quality, this begs the question: are the novel’s first few lines intended to cast uncertainty over the entire text, to make the reader question the reality of Jarrett’s trip into his past? Or, in a more general sense, how do you go about deciding which information to withhold from a reader and which to divulge? Do you have a preference, as a reader or an author, in terms of clear-cut narration vs. something more enigmatic?
That’s a really interesting question. In the opening scene, I had no conscious intention of making it dreamlike. I simply wanted to convey the sense of disorientation one naturally feels waking up in a strange place and for a moment, not knowing what the hell is going on. If this somehow relates to the disorientation that happens later, it was an accident that the unconscious happened to throw my way. Whether to make something straightforward or enigmatic—that depends on the individual scene or story. If there’s some mystery at the heart of it, a certain amount of enigma seems naturally part of it. I know that I often have a bias for formal, somewhat unusual language (maybe too much so), and that might influence whether someone perceived it as straightforward or not.
In terms of what to divulge and when, I’m still very much trying to grapple with that. At some point, you have to decide what information the reader needs for a fundamental understanding of the situation, where it will logically fit, and what needs to be withheld for general suspense and the climax.
How did you approach the story’s twist? Was it important to you that the revelation about Rina’s true identity come as a total surprise to the reader? If so, how did you construct Rina’s initial scenes so that readers would not necessarily foresee the twist coming, while still giving her traits and mannerisms that make the surprise ending resonate?
The whole question of recognition of identity (on both Jarrett and Rina’s part) was probably the trickiest aspect to render. The whole story hinges on the plausibility, and even now I admit it’s a stretch. But if one or the other laid his or her cards on the table, you would have a very different story, and for me a less interesting one. There had to be sufficient reasons for doubt about whether Jarrett’s déjà vu was real or not, like an optical illusion: one image one minute and another the next. There had to be factors in the beginning which contradicted any absolute recognition.
I’m not sure how much of a surprise Rina’s true identity is for readers. Maybe it’s sufficient to generate the tension of what can’t, for emotional reasons, be confronted head on—what must be dealt with elliptically. Since the narrative is from Jarrett’s point of view, we find out what he’s thinking but can only infer why Rina is being so elusive. I don’t know how well that works, but I didn’t feel the end should be too neatly tied up.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
That’s really a big question. With stories, I often get an idea in the form of an interesting, unusual premise. I will write based on where things might go based on that premise. This may take the form of notes or actual narrative. I don’t want it to be one-dimensional, and I look for a couple main elements to be combined. I look for where the main conflict is and try to get a sense of a few scenes and how they would evolve to heighten tension moving toward a climax. For me, the characters do not usually come first. They often arise from the situation.
Revising can be sort of my Achilles heel, because it can be hard to get the adequate objectivity, but I try to pay a lot of attention to sound and rhythm. I try to focus on honing the main theme, often alluded to in the title, and asking how each element of the writing contributes to that or not.
The prose here is at times traditional, archaic in a beautiful way, and often philosophically dense. Although you do provide readers with a steady, building plotline, it seems as if the crescendos of narrative and tone provide the story’s true dynamics. Do you feel a certain responsibility to balance plot with exposition? Also, do you find short stories to be particularly conducive to stylistic experimentation? If so, why?
I’m not sure what to make of my fondness for traditional language except that it seems to me to contain possibilities for sound and beauty that more conversational language does not. I have to be careful not to go overboard, but I find some of the modern trends too blunt or afraid of taking poetic risks (I have a similar aversion to tweets which, whoever is talking, seem by their very nature simplistic). Language is one tool for taking our experience beyond the ordinary.
I definitely feel the need to balance plot or scene with exposition. Obviously, you don’t want the reader to feel interrupted too much or wrenched out of the flow and yet, if the proper context for characters’ dialogue and action is not provided, a lot of what’s at stake will be missing. Also, I sense the narrator’s voice most through the backstory. Sometimes I have to find transitions which enable me to switch into an expository gear—things that remind the character of other components that are relevant, etc. I’m not sure about stylistic experimentation, but I’ve written some stories in present tense with very compressed time frames, and that felt like a different narrative dynamic.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
I’ve been drawn to writers with lyrical styles like Fitzgerald, Updike, Bellow, Welty and Flaubert or someone like Chabon or Ondaatje. I love the use of great similes and metaphors. But although the story being published here is rather serious, writers who employ irony and humor have had a lot of influence on me. Foremost among them is John Cheever, who had the wonderful ability to combine great sadness with comic relief through exaggeration and tone. I’m attracted to the sense that tragedy can be leavened or balanced somehow. Other writers like John Irving, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Gabriel García Márquez, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, Jacob Appel, Francine Prose and many more have since done that as well, but Cheever remains my favorite. I’ve also enjoyed books by Graham Greene and Stuart Dybek recently. They’re very different but, like all great writers, both really transport you to another place.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I wrote a story in high school that the teacher liked a lot, and he read it in class. To be honest, I don’t recall what it was about, but the reactions I got were satisfying. Though I remember someone taking me to task for placing a house at a local address in the story where there was only a cemetery.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
I haven’t read a children’s book all the way through since, well, childhood, but my son was reading The BFG, and that looked pretty interesting.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a few new stories. I have it in mind that when I finish those, I’ll get serious about a second novel. Part of the reason I like stories is that one can finish them in a reasonable amount of time. Novels still intimidate me a bit, but I’m trying to get up my nerve.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
It seems hard to pick. I think the advice about not being too critical in a first or early draft and trying to find a narrative voice that works is important. I also found useful the notion that, somewhere in the middle of a piece, you might start getting a glimpse of an ending—that you could have a provisional ending in mind, even though it needs to be fluid, and the actual ending may wind up being very different. That has helped me not get stuck in the middle of a story such that I might abandon it.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I can’t think of a single workshop experience that really stands out, but certainly the best result is when someone generally likes a piece I’ve submitted, seems to understand what I’m trying to do, and yet offers a few bits of completely appropriate criticism of certain things that I would never have been able to discover by myself.
What is your ideal creative weather?
I prefer weather where you can sit outside, preferably on a patio with sun umbrellas over the tables, near a body of water. Also, it shouldn’t be so windy that a glass of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon might get blown over.
See more from Tom Benz at www.indielit.net.