Ben Marcus is the author of three works of fiction: The Age of Wire and String (1995), Notable American Women (2002), and The Father Costume (2002), which he wrote in collaboration with artist Matthew Ritchie. He has also published an anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004), and recently wrote introductions to reprints of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Davis Ohle’s Motorman. Marcus’ work has appeared in publications like Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, Salon, McSweeney’s, Time, Conjunctions, The Village Voice, and Poetry, among others. His long list of literary awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Award and three Pushcart Prizes. Marcus received a B.A. from New York University and a M.F.A. from Brown. He currently teaches fiction at Columbia University.
In 2005, Marcus engaged in some literary sparring (using a pen, not a sword) with Jonathan Franzen. Marcus’ essay, Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction, was published in Harper’s as a defense of experimental fiction in the face of its critics, Franzen especially, who, in a piece published earlier in The New Yorker, had sunk his teeth into “difficult” writing.
It’s true, reading Ben Marcus is not recommended if you’re looking for an easy narrative fix. In his writing, language rules supreme; plot is at times a subordinate clause. Marcus is an artist of the sentence, and of the demi-surreal, semi-opaque, but ultimately quasi-genius construction of fictional worlds.
When did you become interested in writing?
I remember hanging out with this friend of mine, Eric. I think we were ten. We would take off our shirts and rampage through neighborhoods. Streak. This was in Illinois, where the streaking was good. At some point Eric said what he wanted to be when he grew up, which I have of course forgotten, and I said I wanted to be a writer. I think that was the first time I had ever said or even thought that.
This revelation happened mid-streaking?
Streaking is maybe the wrong word. It was more like shirtless marauding. We would meet after dinner in the neighborhood, strip down and go prowling. Berserker stuff. If we took off our shirts it would up the ante of whatever mischief we were up to, which was pretty low grade.
I declared to Eric that I was going to be a writer, which was of course ridiculous. My mom is a literary critic and I think I’d written one or two papers for school with, probably, a lot of her help. There might have been some suggestive phrases I’d heard, such as “You’re a good writer” (which I have used myself on children). So, there was a little bit of propaganda and some arrogance. That was maybe it. After that, though, there was a long period of block. Years of not producing anything.
When did you become serious about writing?
In late junior high and high school I wrote poems of heartbreak, which were gambits of seduction.
You would share these poems?
Oh, yeah. It was a way to try to get girls to like me. I think it had pretty much a zero success rate. Same as now. My rhetorical strategy was blunt. I favored self-pity as a mode. It just came naturally to me.
When I was writing in high school I thought I’d made an enormously important discovery about people. I decided that when I was talking to them or when they were talking to me, I would not look them in the eye. I would look at their mouths. I was only interested in the way people’s mouths make their shapes and I decided that if you looked carefully at someone’s mouth when they were talking, you would know everything you needed to know. I tried to write a poem about this. And I think it rhymed.
Well, maybe that wasn’t just a silly high school moment. Mouths are, after all, very prominent in your work.
It’s true. I was recently asked exactly why the mouth is important, and I pretended that it wasn’t. It’s difficult for me to analyze, or understand, that interest.
Did you write in college?
I was a philosophy major and I wrote short stories. My friends were involved in one way or another with something artistic. We loved fiction and read it and talked about it. We were completely pretentious, total know-it-alls with no skill. No ability at all, except to say that everybody else sucked. Awful behavior.
Back then, creative writing classes were just beginning to appear here and there. I was pretty amazed because I never really associated writing fiction with something you would do at school.
Shortly after that, I realized you could go to graduate school for creative writing. And I had kind of hit a wall with philosophy as a major. Philosophy, as I experienced it in college, started out amazing, reading the ancients, but the more I got into continental and contemporary philosophy, the more mathematical it became. It seemed to really narrow down for me and I knew I didn’t want to go to graduate school for philosophy, even though it is still an interest of mine and I love to read it.
You went straight from college at N.Y.U. to Brown for your M.F.A. Why?
I went straight to Brown because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have another plan, I didn’t have any money, nowhere to live. So I went to grad school. There were good fellowships. And I loved it there.
What was your publishing trajectory like?
I published stories in college in the Minetta Review, which was NYU’s magazine. Then I had something in the Allegheny Review. I spent a lot of time at St. Marks Books, reading and sometimes buying literary journals. I tried to figure out where my work might fit. Students will ask me now where they should submit, and I think you should always understand and read where you are submitting. Don’t send work to a venue that would never publish your kind of stuff.
There was a journal when I was in graduate school called The Quarterly. It was published by Vintage, and the editor was Gordon Lish. It was, to me, the most exciting thing out there. You might find a Jane Smiley novella, beautifully done realism but very conventional, up against the latest Amy Hempel or Diane Williams or Lydia Davis stories, or a whole bunch of other writers, less well-known, who were artists of the sentence. Strenuously strange but formally driven writers. Ambitious yet still legible. I read The Quarterly religiously when it came out. I read every single piece in it.
So, I sent some pieces to The Quarterly and after a while had them accepted. That was when graduate school was finishing up.
That must have been a huge triumph!
It was great. I wanted to have my work alongside some of my favorite writers. People like Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Gary Lutz, Victoria Redel.
On with the publishing trajectory.
I moved back to New York after grad school and I was waiting tables and publishing in The Quarterly and some other magazines, like Grand Street, and the Iowa Review, and Conjunctions. And I got offered a book contract from Knopf, from Gordon Lish, who was an editor there as well. I didn’t really have a book at the time. Lish left Knopf and I ended up with another editor there, George Andreou, who I really liked and I published The Age of Wire and String.
Where were you living in New York?
I got back to New York in 1991 and the book came out in 1995. The first year I lived in Carroll Gardens. I had a problem with my landlord in Brooklyn. She thought I was really loud.
My volume was below-average. She was extremely sensitive to noise, so if I had a friend over who had on loud shoes I would get yelled at. It was really crazy. I couldn’t have anyone over. Wish I had the same excuse now. I remember before I left I wanted to write a warning letter to the next tenant and hide it in the bathroom.
After that, I was living in the East Village, on East 12th Street, above the restaurant where I worked, an old-world Italian place. I was waiting tables from five pm to one in the morning so in theory I would write every day.
And did you?
In theory, I could wake up and work until my shift started at the restaurant. So I would have all day. But I had a lot of insomnia and I remember I’d essentially be awake from 3-7 in the morning and then finally fall back asleep. I got really into all the crazy New York AM radio. WBAI. People like Peter Lamborn Wilson, Gary Null, The Firesign Theater, Joe Frank. Amazing stuff.
How do you look back on that time?
I lived alone. I had a girlfriend. She lived in Brooklyn, so we would be back and forth. I went to concerts and had my city friends. I went to readings. In a lot of ways, I think back on it and it was kind of a great life, just minus money. Now I have a little more income and none of that freedom at all.
But I think at the time I was stressed. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what to do with my book, how to make it interesting. But that is not necessarily to say that I was working on it as hard as I should have been. I think in a certain sense I just puttered and went very slowly and wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do.
Did you have any other jobs besides waiting tables?
I was a door-to-door census taker the summer of 1990 in Providence. And when I decided that I couldn’t stand waiting tables and I needed a job in publishing, I got a job at a literary agency as an assistant. I lasted for three months.
Why didn’t you last longer?
Well, it was a nine to five, and at five I would get my stuff and walk out and everyone in the office would look at me like “What the fuck are you doing?” I was like “It’s five o’clock.” And they were like, “We’ll be here ‘til nine.” And I was like, “That’s you’re decision, I’m not going to be here until nine.”
Is writing “fun” to you?
I have to find a way to have fun, which is to say I have to find a way to feel engrossed and engaged and implicated and completely inseparable from the writing, and if I don’t, I just can’t work on it. I have no interest in working on something that I don’t feel that way about.
Your writing is conceptual. Did you ever write more conventional, realist narratives?
In college I read people like Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, the list could go on, and I was very moved and impressed by the work of lots of these writers. I still am. In college I wasn’t just reading obscure French stuff, I was totally engrossed by the American short fiction scene. And I did try to write in a way that more easily belonged to it. I guess I just never distinguished myself. I always felt like I was writing like someone else, or that I was trying to do something that I couldn’t do very well, it just didn’t feel native to me. It wasn’t that I rejected it artistically so much as that I failed at it.
Right as college was ending, I started to read Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French writer responsible for something called the “New Novel.” He was writing highly so-called “objective” prose. It was almost without people in it, and it was very technical and odd, and I guess you could say it was conceptual, or just more explicitly conceptual. It was hugely thrilling to me. I was reading John Ashbery and more abstract poets. I was trying to find my way. At the same time, Donald Barthelme was a big influence, because he came out of the vernacular of contemporary fiction but he was, of course, brilliant and hilarious and crazy. I wanted to write funny, satirical things, arch and ironic and weird. And I did some of that. It was not very good.
You create worlds, fantastical worlds. When you are writing that, is it sometimes difficult to go back to the “real” world?
My writing is so compartmentalized now from the rest of my life. I have two kids and I have a teaching job, so I think I would love to feel as though I go down some rabbit hole with my work and become deeply lost— that is what I want. But, in general, the way my life works, when you are changing a diaper and wiping food off the floor and making lunch for one kid while chasing another one and pulling him off of a bookshelf that he’s climbed on, your work goes away. It just goes away. You don’t have a choice. When work time comes, you try to summon it back.
How, then, has your work process changed since you had children?
I feel more disciplined now. I better understand what free time is. If I have work time, I am not going to go online, and I am not going to do a single thing that is going to distract from writing because I have, say, two hours that day. You can get a lot done in that time. But in the past, two hours would’ve made me freak out. Back then, it would be a Monday and if I had plans on Thursday, I’d be nervous. I fantasized about a horizon of non-commitment. And now, I really feel in some sense no better at all at writing but more efficient with my time.
Writing isn’t exactly a stable career choice. Did that, or does that, ever scare you?
I think it did early on and I think more than many of my friends, I, right out of grad school, was very driven to get teaching work. I started to do adjunct jobs pretty quickly. I left the city in 1995 to take a Visiting Professor job at UT Austin, and then I took a tenure track job at Old Dominion. A lot of my writer friends wondered, “What are you doing? Why would you do that?” I was doing it because I knew then that I wasn’t going to make much money from writing, and I did, I think, have an urge for security. Even though doing all that was so consuming that it was hard to continue writing.
Last year I had a sabbatical. I had worked toward that here [Columbia University], so that I could have some time off knowing I had a job to return to. That was all new. Not having to worry that I was going to lose my job. It is all pretty recent, feeling a little more security.
How do you feel about teaching and writing at the same time?
I think the thing I like the most about teaching are the students. The potential for them to do things I haven’t seen before, to say things I haven’t thought before. That dynamic is amazing and exciting. Some of the surrounding things, the labor and the repetition, the committees, are not bad, but they’re certainly not inspiring.
I do think, though, that any writer needs a lot of time, time when you are choosing what to read. And you read a lot, a lot, when you’re teaching that you would otherwise not read if you could choose. When I had my year off and was writing my new novel, I did a lot of reading, a lot of nonfiction, a lot of research, I read novels all throughout history to pick up different approaches and ideas. It’s the kind of thing I notice drops away really fast when you’re teaching.
You are married to Heidi Julavits, another writer. Do you have an artistic partnership?
We have similar taste, but we write very differently. In some sense I think that is good. But there is also a way— and I notice this with some of my closest writer friends— that if you’re working all day, the last thing you want to do when you’re hanging out is even exude writing. You want to do something fun and totally mindless and different. So, yeah, we’re not just pipe-smoking people, pontificating and talking the trade. Heidi has a pipe, but it’s mostly ornamental.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
You are always going to hear advice about what you should and shouldn’t do, but in the end I think if you write from your instincts, you might have a lifetime of it. I always feel that the writer should try to do work that really connects at his and her deepest level. This is not revelatory advice, but it is really just about doing it for your own reasons rather than anyone else’s. And trying to do some kind of writing that only you can do. As difficult as it is for all of us, that seems to be when the writing starts to become a little more valuable.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Joyce Ravid