Author Q&A: Ben Loory

Ben Loory is the author of two collections from Penguin, STORIES FOR NIGHTTIME AND SOME FOR THE DAY and TALES OF FALLING AND FLYING, as well as a picture book for children, THE BASEBALL PLAYER AND THE WALRUS. His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Wigleaf, and Fairy Tale Review, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. www.benloory.com

TBL Author Q&A Series: Ben Loory

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path? Did you try your hand at fiction before screenwriting? Can you describe the experience of writing your first short story?

It all happened accidentally. It makes sense in retrospect—I had a pretty strange childhood. I grew up way out on the edge of town; we didn’t have a TV and there were no other kids around. My parents were both English professors and all we had was this house full of books and a lot of time and total silence. So from a very early age, books were all I had. It doesn’t surprise me that I ended up a writer, but I never actually meant for it to happen. What I wanted was to become a film director—I always loved movies. My family used to go out to the movies on the weekends, and that was my favorite thing in the world (probably at least partially because it was a change-up from books). I got into screenwriting because I was hoping that would be my path into directing. And then I was a screenwriter for some time, which was a misery (the less said about that, the better).

When I started writing short stories, I didn’t even know I was doing it—I just thought I was brainstorming ideas, coming up with as many clear, concise story “treatments” as I could, as fast as I could, hoping that eventually I’d settle on one or two and turn them into screenplays. It was only after I’d written maybe 15 or 20 that I realized that I liked them just as they were, as these short, very clear, simply told, slightly surreal or fantastical stories. I suddenly saw that they were the kinds of stories I was always hoping to find, as a reader. And most of all, I realized that I loved writing them! So right then and there, I decided to write a book of them. It surprised me as much as anyone. Like I say, in retrospect it makes sense. But really, I never saw it coming.

That’s amazing considering you’ve now published two collections of short stories and a children’s book—what can you tell us about the publication process and your experience with getting your work printed? What journal published your first short story?

When I first started writing stories, I knew nothing about publishing. Like, zero. I set out to write a book of 101 short stories, and I had this dream that when I was done, I would send it off to Melville House and they would publish it. (Why Melville House? Because I liked their logo.) It never occurred to me to submit individual stories to journals or magazines or anything like that; I never even knew that was an option. I spent 5 years writing the book and then, when I was done, I sent it to Melville House and they promptly wrote back saying that they didn’t publish short story collections. Which was a real blow! It was like my dream died. So then I spent some time lying around crying and moaning, and then when I was done with that, I poked around on the internet and found out about these things called literary journals, and decided that maybe I’d try sending some stories to them.

So then I spent about a year sending stories out to journals and magazines, pretty much every day—all day long every day (I had a lot of stories to send out). The first place that ever accepted one was a journal called Knock Magazine, which was (PURELY COINCIDENTALLY, OF COURSE) being guest-edited by my friend the novelist Jonathan Evison. After that I started publishing more and more frequently; I think I published about 30 or 40 stories in that first year alone. I was always expecting some publisher to call me up and say, Hey, we hear you have a whole book of these stories, can we publish it? But no one ever called, which was a bit disheartening. Then, finally, just when things were starting to look dire, an old friend of mine from college called me up. She wasn’t an agent but she was thinking about trying to become one, and she asked if she could try shopping my manuscript around. So I said sure, and about two months later I had a story in The New Yorker and a book deal with Penguin. And my friend was an agent! So it all worked out.

As for the publication process, I don’t really have much to report. Maybe because I’m writing short stories instead of novels, people pretty much leave me alone. I mean, I don’t have to worry too much about editorial interference. I think people mostly think, hey these stories are weird! Guess he knows what he’s doing? My experience writing a children’s book was very different—lots of chefs in the kitchen, lots of rules and ideas about what you can and can’t do and what will sell and not sell and etc. So that was sort of annoying. But in general, I just sit in my house and write stories, and they get published, and all’s well! I have no complaints (other than a million complaints).

Would you say your writing process has changed over the years? What’s your approach to revising your work? 

My process hasn’t really changed much; it’s still just me sitting down in front of a blank screen with no preconceived notions or ideas and just typing frantically, as fast as I can, whatever comes into my mind, with no editing. And then at some point I get to the end of the story (or at least an end (usually the wrong end)) and stop typing and print the whole thing out and sit there and stare at it really hard for two or three or four or five months or years or whatever as I try to figure out what the hell I might possibly be talking about. Eventually, if I’m lucky, I figure it out, and then I pretty the thing up and do 16 or 17 or 30 or 40 or 60 or 70 drafts of edits and then, just like that, bang! it’s done. Most of the work is centered on the third act, on what happens at the end—that’s always the tricky part for me.

The only real difference now from in the beginning is that now I’m often working on assignment—someone solicits a story and then I have to write it—which means I have deadlines now, which, to be honest, I hate and am really bad at dealing with. As a screenwriter, we had deadlines all the time, but that was different because we were working on assignment stuff, adaptations or whatever, other people’s stuff that wasn’t personally important to me. So you’d just do your best and hand it in when the time was up. Whereas with my short stories, they are my short stories and so they have to be perfect (or at least perfect as far as I can tell). And I can never tell how long that’s going to take. So that adds a whole new layer of stress. Though on the other hand, it’s nice to feel wanted!

As for revising, for me it’s just a matter of sitting in my house and reading my stories out loud to myself over and over and over and over, and tinkering and changing and adjusting. Eventually, when they’re good enough, I start reading them out loud over and over and over and over to other people. At some point the stories get to the point where I can make it all the way through them without cringing or feeling like a complete failure. And at that point I’m done! At least for a while. It’s always best to put them aside for a couple months and then come back again so you can see them with fresh eyes. The process of revising a story never ends. Just eventually they get published and then it’s sort of a lost cause.

You work has been described as “mesmerizing and magical” with “boundless imagination.” What/who are some of your greatest literary influences? What are some of the short stories you think every writer should read? 

I never know how to answer questions about influences—I feel like everyone’s real influences are the things they’re not even aware of, the things that really got in there early and laid the groundwork for your understanding of the art form, before you even notice it happened. Anyway, the things I think have probably had the biggest influence on my writing have been children’s books—mostly William Steig and Roald Dahl and Richard Scarry and those George and Martha books by James Marshall— plus the Twilight Zone and Warner Brothers cartoons and The Far Side comics and MAD Magazine and books of Norse and Greek myths and children’s stories from the Bible and of course Dungeons & Dragons and a bunch of fantasy novels (Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, first and foremost). Those are the things that got to me super early and really made an imprint on my brain. After that, all the things I read mostly interested me in terms of style. But my general attitude toward what stories are and should be came from those.

As a grownup, my favorite writers are Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan (if you’re bored, check out Ubik and/or The Hawkline Monster, you won’t be disappointed), plus Patricia Highsmith, Iris Murdoch, Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Ligotti, Betty Smith, Lucius Shepard, W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, Eugene Ionesco, Charles Portis, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shirley Jackson, David Goodis, Thomas Mann, Muriel Spark, Samuel Beckett, plus Kafka and Borges and of course Aesop and Ovid and whoever wrote that story about Jonah and the whale.

My favorite stories include “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Woolf, “Black Bark” by Brian Evenson, “And of Clay Are We Created” by Isabel Allende, “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman, “The Thing About Shapes to Come” by Adam Troy-Castro, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” by Donald Barthelme, “Exo-Skeleton Town” by Jeffrey Ford, “The Masque of the Red Death” by Poe, “Sleep” by Haruki Murakami, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon, and the two-paragraph blanket story from the middle of Scott McClanahan’s novel Crapalachia. That’s off the top of my head.

But everyone should read whatever they want. Don’t follow me!

In an email exchange with The New Yorker, you mention writing stories straight through from the standpoint of fear and desire. That’s such an interesting take. Can you elaborate on that? 

It’s nothing too complicated; it’s pretty simple really—I don’t plan things out or think about plot or character or theme or anything abstract at all, I just immediately start following a character around and then start looking for ways to mess with them, to poke at them and get them upset, get them trying to go after something or get away from something, and then follow along from there. Stories are all just chase sequences when you come right down to it; they’re usually just super slowed down and/or abstracted so you don’t notice. But the principle is the same—you run from the monster for a while, and then you turn and fight. Or else you’re the monster, and you’re doing the chasing. Or both. But eventually, there’s a turn and a reckoning of some kind. And what you want and what you’re afraid of come face to face.

How would you say your experience as a screenwriter influenced the way you write short stories?  

Screenwriting taught me to work visually, to always see what’s going on, to think in three-dimensional, spatial, dramatic terms, and not get all wrapped up in a character’s interiority. Not to say that’s necessarily a good thing, by the way—I’d love to be able to write like Henry James. But my mind just really doesn’t work that way at all. I’m always watching my stories as if played out on a screen.

What makes a story great can be different for every writer. If there is an ingredients list of what makes a short story great, what would be on your ingredients list?    

Mystery, vision, perspective, resonance? I don’t know; that’s a hard question to answer. Mostly what I’m looking for in a story is something different, something new, something I’ve never seen before and would never think to do or try myself. But still, I’m not just looking for something bizarre and outlandish—I think at bottom I’m just looking to be swept along and entertained and, most of all, moved. If you can get this stony old heart a-thumpin’, you’re already halfway there. Maybe 3/4 of the way. The rest is giving me a new experience, a new vision. I tend to think of stories (of whatever length) as a kind of rollercoaster attached to an emotional rail. It’s got to go somewhere—preferably really fast—and make you feel something, preferably a lot of things, and more and more deeply as it goes.

And then, somehow, it has to lead you back home and drop you off feeling like your life has forever changed. It ain’t easy!

You penned your first story after enrolling in a creative writing class at Mystery & Imagination Bookstore, and now you’re a writing instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. What has it been like being a writing instructor, and how has it influenced your writing? 

Well, I love leading workshops. I love reading people’s stories and puzzling over them and then sitting around and having long conversations about them—I mean, that’s just fun! People should do it every day. If everyone just sat around and wrote stories and talked about them, I feel like our society would rapidly advance into a Golden Age. Coupling an appreciation for beauty with a recognition of the irrevocable power of cause and effect… it’s a powerful thing.

On the other hand, I always feel like kind of an idiot standing up in front of people lecturing, like I know something and am here to enlighten everyone. Most of what I know is that writing is a mystery and the only way to do it is to just do it and to follow the dictates of your insides—when your stomach cringes, change what made it cringe until it doesn’t cringe there anymore. I don’t really know much more than that, other than a little diagram of three act structure I copied out of a Syd Field book once. So being a stand-up-and-talk type teacher often makes me feel uncomfortable. I mean, I do it! But I never shake the feeling that I’m pretending to be someone I’m not.

As for how teaching has influenced my writing, I don’t know. I think it’s just made me a bit faster. Leading workshops is basically just editing, and the more you edit the better you get at it, and that of course bleeds over into your own writing. After a while you start to see the kinds of ways or places that stories tend to go wrong, and then you can be on the lookout and course-correct while you’re writing instead of after, and hopefully not go down quite so many blind alleys. But, who knows? It never really gets much easier. The difficulty level just adjusts to your current ability.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? 

I don’t really think of my writing as having a direction. I just like writing stories. I like the process—I like sitting down at the computer with nothing in my head, and then suddenly finding myself falling into some strange new world, some totally unknown place I’ve never been before or even heard of. I love exploring those strange new worlds and figuring out what they’re like and what they’re about and what passages lead where and what horrors and joys await around what turns. I like getting trapped in these mazes of my own unconscious devising, and then—hopefully, eventually—figuring out what the hell I’m talking to myself about and then figuring out how to get to the end of the story and then back out to the real world.

And then, when that’s all done, I love reading those stories aloud to people and feeling the response they get—not even when I’m done, but as I’m reading them—I love the feeling in the room as I read people a story, I’m a junkie for that magical moment, that storytelling high. I don’t really have any dreams or goals in the writerly sense, other than that I’d like to keep writing and publishing and reading people stories. Of course I’d love to be a millionaire, or hell even a billionaire (I’m not picky), but even if I was, I don’t think it would change my life. I’d just use that money to buy time to write. Anyway, I don’t really have much of an answer. I’ll probably just keep writing stories.

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