Today we are pleased to offer you an exclusive Q&A with one of our favorite contributors: Ben Greenman. His new novel, The Slippage (Harper Perennial), is out this month, and has already received praise from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Observer, and others. What a perfect excuse for us to ask him some things we’ve always wanted to know! Here goes:
You agreed to participate in Significant Objects on the basis of a blind email I sent you through your web site. If I remember right you agreed right away, and pretty much no questions asked. What motivated you, did we get lucky and catch you during a slow period?
I always like to participate. Creating is at least fifty percent play. The other not quite fifty percent is the other thing: discipline, revision, long dark nights of the soul (if I had one). But the play is the fuel that propels you from spot to spot. When I get emails about things that sound interesting, I want to do them. I like to do them. And so I do them. Also, thinking about things and writing about the things I’m thinking about is pretty much all I do. It’s not like I have a side job wrestling alligators, as far as you know.
Fair enough. But eventually you became a multi-time contributor, often cooking up new ideas for us (the identical objects experiment for instance), and I know you’ve been involved in other object-related projects (Underwater New York) — do you have a particular interest in objects & narrative?
Yes. I think I do. I wonder about objects all the time. What is an object in a piece of fiction? It’s usually a symbol, but what if it’s not? Then it’s just something that the author invented to give his fictional world solidity. Sometimes it even seems like a prop: Seinfeld used to have a joke that his standup routine wasn’t really acting, but that if he picked up a coffee cup as he spoke, that was acting. That can also be the difference between philosophy and fiction. If a character wonders about the way his life gradually takes choice away from him, that can be a philosophical monologue. If he wonders about that same thing with an object near him, or in his hand, or on a shelf near him, then suddenly it’s fiction. So much of our lives is spend trivially navigating and manipulating objects. And then there’s a second issue, which is the history of objects. People carry their own memories with them, and sometimes broadcast them. Objects are dependent upon us to do it. But that doesn’t mean that they are any less interesting, or have learned any less. They just can’t share what they learn.
Your book Correspondences was itself an unusual object — a limited edition letterpress format, in a lavish box. Did you go into that with a particular interest in experimenting with the design/format of the book-as-object? Or did it come about some other way? And later I believe this material, or some of it, recurred in a traditional-format book, What He’s Poised To Do. So basically I’m curious to what extent you were experimenting, and thus what you learned/concluded in the end.
Correspondences, which came out in 2009, happened in part because I had another book, Please Step Back, coming out around the same time. I didn’t want to release too much in too short a span that seemed too similar. But I also had a set of stories sitting around that all seemed related to one another. Around that time, I started talking to Alex Rose and Aaron Petrovich, from Hotel St. George Press: they had wanted to work with me and I liked the ideas they had regarding how books could (or even should) be objects as much as vehicles for prose. Then we had more ideas together as we planned the book, which ended up being a kind of book-box (a boox, we called it, without any seriousness) that folded out into a kind of cruciform flat with two-sided accordion books in each flap. It was a great experience. They were dedicated to the notion of doing something surprising with the form, and they made good choices about size and expense and difficulty of assembly, which were all things I had never considered before, since I was working mostly in the mindspace of fiction. To watch at close range as construction advanced content was very comforting and educational.
Given that you’re a full-time editor at The New Yorker, and a prolific novelist, and I a parent as well, how do you balance all that with participation in side projects and the like?
I never know how to answer this question. Less sleep than I would like? A good sense of how to invest my time in projects so that they bear fruit? An obsessive character?
You get asked this a lot then, eh? I have to press just a little: Are you a relentless scheduler & planner, or do you (as “obsessive character” suggests) improvise what you will do when?
I am a relentless planner, and pathologically punctual, and easily bored. Somehow those things have combined in profitable proportions to help me do writing rather than combining in unprofitable proportions to make me a restless trainspotter or something. Recently, I was on a panel about writers’ rituals, and I said that one thing I try to do is finish a piece every day. They’re rarely long pieces. Some turn out to be less good than I had hoped when I started them. But there’s something about the feeling of completion that gives me the boost I need to then go and attack a longer piece that is resisting me. This is also why I plan to keep alternating longer book-length projects with short stories and pieces that are even shorter than that.
That nice review in The Times the other day noted that your newest novel is more traditional than much of your prior work, which is often experimental on some level. Any special reason for that?
You could argue that the traditional nature of it is itself a kind of experiment: What does it mean to render reality without effects, without flash powder and linking rings? There are other reasons, too, one of which is that I have been married for a long time now, almost fifteen years, and I thought it was time to let myself think through some of those things in a realistic fictional context. How do two people persist in each others’ company? What makes them happy? What happens when they’re not happy? What do they want from life as it moves along, anyway? Momentum? Inertia? Familiarity? Novelty? And even once they know what they want, how much control do they have over the process? You could argue that it’s roughly none.
One last question — what about film and TV? Are those forms you’ve ever experimented with or been interested in? Traditional variations or otherwise?
I have not experimented with them yet, mainly because I have a great interest and want to make sure that when I turn my attention to it, I can do it right, whether that means going back to square one and apprenticing myself or just holing up in a corner of my head and making sense of them the best I can. Both are fascinating as narrative containers, and also as conventions/ways of breaking convention. And I feel like I have consumed so much TV and so many movies that at some point it’s my obligation to pay back the forms by making something.
What a great interview, right? Our thanks to Ben Greenman for answering a few questions. If you missed the link before, his new novel is The Slippage.
And of course: To read all of the extraordinary stories about ordinary things that Greenman and 99 other great writers created as part of the Significant Objects project, pick up our book, on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller.