Our fiction editor Natasha Mieszkowski and editor-in-chief Lauren Bender had this exchange with Benjamin Hale, featured fiction author for our Volume 3 print issue. Here’s what he had to say about his writing and revising process, the importance of outlining a story, and the writers who have influenced him.
Your piece Tower of Silence is an excerpt from your next novel. What inspired you to write this work? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I was teaching a class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last spring, and at some point I mentioned a story about the legacy of Kafka’s archives. When he was dying of tuberculosis, Kafka gave all his unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters and so on to his friend Max Brod, and told him to burn them all after his death. He didn’t—instead, Max Brod published a lot of them (which is why we have most of the Kafka we do), and held on to the rest, which he then left to his secretary and maybe mistress, Esther Hoffe, when he died decades later in Israel. And when she died in 2007, she left them to her two daughters. The fate of the Kafka papers is still undecided—the National Library of Israel is suing the sisters to obtain them. One of the students in the class remarked on how much she hated romantic anecdotes about famous male writers giving their papers to mistresses with solemn commands to destroy them. That comment sparked the idea for this story. The other ideas floating around in there have to do with our bad habit of romanticizing the lives and suicides of great artists who were bad or badly dysfunctional people; legacy; fame; and why anyone bothers to make art in the first place.
You spend a lot of time in this section developing the background of the two central characters. How much time did you take to plan these characters and their histories out? Have you mentally mapped out their future as well, or do you let the story shape itself?
I always do a lot of planning and groundwork before beginning to write the sentences of a story. I try not to start laying down the bricks and mortar before the architect has drawn up pretty thorough blueprints for the house. I always try to start a story with a nine-part outline: I detail the action that needs to happen or the information that needs to be revealed in each leg of the story before moving on to the next. This story takes place over the course of several months, and I know what happens to each of the characters during that time. I have no idea what they might do after the story is over.
The two main characters have not met by the end of this section. Yet you’ve established enough tension surrounding them to make the reader want to know what will develop between them, and what will happen to the boxes. Could you describe your thoughts on constructing a story with such a gentle build-up of tension while maintaining a reader’s interest?
Besides thinking about the story of the Kafka archives, the other source of inspiration for this novel was Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas. A year or so ago I was reading all of Kleist’s novels and stories—an interest that was brought on by Kafka—but I was particularly astounded by Michael Kohlhaas. It’s about a very stubborn, principled horse trader in sixteenth-century Saxony who gets screwed out of a couple of horses by a bored aristocrat; in seeking remuneration for this relatively petty injustice, events compound upon events, and the situation spirals rapidly out of control as Michael Kohlhaas stumbles into leading a violent peasant rebellion. The novella is narrated in a cold, distant style, hovering a mile above the characters’ heads. A dry, businesslike voice moves the story quickly from one action to the next. That’s the way I want this story to unfold. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it yet—it’s a work in progress.
Since this work is currently in progress, how do you feel publishing this excerpt will impact the story? Do you ever have any hesitation or anxiety about releasing a piece of your story for the public before it’s completed?
Maybe I should feel some hesitation about publishing part of it before it’s done, but I don’t.
With such a compelling beginning that leaves so many questions unanswered, I’m sure our readers will be anxious to know when they can expect to read the rest of it. Do you have a timeline in place yet?
All that is undecided so far. I don’t want to say anything specific, for fear of jinxing it.
Do you have any other writing projects in the works? How far out do you plan in advance?
I have quite a few novels and stories lying around in states of semi-completion, waiting to be returned to. I hope eventually to get back to all of them, but that is all dependent on a million things, most of all the fluctuations in my teaching schedule.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
Step one: Planning/research. I read a lot of books about the subject I’m working on, and when I’m ready, I map out the plot. Mapping the plot usually takes at least a few weeks, and I expect to go back to my outline and fiddle around with things many times over the process of writing.
Step two: Write the first draft by hand. I always write the first draft of anything by hand in notebooks first. I try to work as quickly as I can at this stage, hopefully during the chunks of time when I’m not interrupted by teaching—during the summer, or the winter break between semesters, in January. I don’t let myself start typing it up until I’ve finished a draft of the whole thing by hand.
Step three: Type up the second draft. I prop up my notebooks on a music stand next to my desk, and type the second draft into my computer. This process takes months and months and months. In typing the second draft, I work much more slowly, reworking the sentences as I type, taking things out and putting things in. This stage of the process is better suited to the school year, when my writing time is much more stop-and-go than those long, unbroken stretches in the summer.
Step four: Hand-edit the manuscript. I print out the manuscript, and carefully go over every sentence, again taking things out and putting things in, playing around with word choice, grammar, messing around with the sentences. This, for me, is the most fun part of writing—paying extremely close attention to every word, experimenting with language, trying to make every sentence as beautiful and interesting as it can be.
Step five: Type up the hand-edits. I put the typed and edited manuscript back on the music stand next to my desk, and make all the changes to the manuscript. This is a very slow and careful process, as I’m hoping this one will be something like a final draft.
Step six: Repeat steps four and five until happy with the result.
What are you reading right now?
A quick list of books I’m in the middle of reading, or that I’ve read or reread recently: Mark da Silva’s Square Wave, Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E., Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief, The Collected Poetry of Wallace Stevens, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. And then there are things that I’m rereading because I’m teaching them, or about to teach them: Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Kafka’s “The Burrow,” Jakob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.
You’ve already published two books: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and The Fat Artist and Other Stories. How has going through the publication process changed how you start to write a new novel?
In one way, it heightens anxiety about writing a new novel: I know that this one will probably be published—I’m not working desperately in the dark, as I was with my first novel. But it lessens another kind of anxiety, which comes from the terrifying questions that haunt a writer who hasn’t yet published a book while working on a book: Am I wasting my time? Will anyone ever read this? You might never get back the hunger you had when you wrote while you were starving.
The subject of writing, and other writers, seems to wiggle its way into your works. Why is that? Is this a way of examining your own processes and place within the literary world?
Whether directly or not, all literature is commentary on other literature. Some works of literature choose to ignore this. Others address it head-on. Borges, for example, or Roberto Bolaño, assume that if the reader is the sort of person who is interested in reading a Borges story or a Bolaño novel, it’s probably a safe bet that such a reader would be interested in the lives and works of writers, critics, and poets. Some books seem to be set in worlds in which writers, readers, and books do not exist. That’s not my world, or any world I would want to live in.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
The single most useful tool anyone has ever given me to go about the process of trying to write fiction was a trick William Melvin Kelley taught me about sixteen years ago. Willy Kelley died at the age of 79 just recently (on February 1, 2017), and I will continue imparting his system for outlining to my students until I die, or quit teaching. Here it is:
- Write your story in three sentences: beginning, middle, and end.
- Take those sentences and break them into nine sentences:
- The beginning of the beginning.
- The middle of the beginning.
- The end of the beginning.
- The beginning of the middle.
- The middle of the middle.
- The end of the middle.
- The beginning of the end.
- The middle of the end.
- The end of the end.
You now have an outline. Take this, and start writing. This system builds a three-act structure into a story, and helps you think about a plot architecturally.
You are a senior editor of the literary journal Conjunctions. What do you enjoy most about this role? How has it influenced your own writing?
A few years ago, I co-edited an issue of Conjunctions with Bradford Morrow (the magazine’s founder and longtime editor), but aside from that project, the title is basically an honorary one. I have a direct line to Brad open though, if I ever want to send him something or if I want to pass someone else’s piece along to him. I’m a proud member of the Conjunctions family.
Has writing been a part of your life since childhood? What is the first story you remember writing?
The first pieces of fiction I remember finishing were a couple of stories that I adapted from Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I was a freshman in college. They were sex-revenge jokes set in monasteries, which I re-set in a boys’ boarding school. They were the puerile and gleefully nihilistic products of an eighteen-year-old boy, and I bet I’d be mortified to reread them now. And yes, writing has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been a fully conscious human.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Günter Grass, Italo Calvino, Miguel de Cervantes, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Patricia Highsmith…to name a few. There are many others.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I don’t have a particular experience that leaps to mind, but I do have something to say about the writing workshop in general, which is a fashionable thing to malign. The subject of what to call our writing classes here at Bard comes up from time to time—some people dislike the word “workshop” and want to do away with it. My colleague here, Ann Lauterbach, hates the word. I on the other hand rather like it. I like the humbleness of the word. It makes me think of shop class in high school: we would all be nailing and sawing on our birdhouses, while Mr. Arnold walked around the room, offering woodworking tips, practical advice about measuring, cutting, gluing, sanding. That’s pretty much the way I see my role as a teacher. I asked Ann why she hates the word “workshop” so much, and she said she doesn’t like the way it implies we’re “fixing” something. I don’t think of it so much as “fixing,” but as building—in this class, we learn how to build better stories. And in the process, we will have a more general conversation about what literature could be and should be, which is always the more important thing.