Ben Loory‘s fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Gargoyle Magazine, and The Antioch Review. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day was released July 26, 2011, by Penguin Books, and was chosen as a Fall Selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. (Author photo by Heather Conley.)
Q (Meg Pokrass): Which authors do you return to time and again as a reader?
Henry James (short stories, not the novels). Philip K. Dick (the novels, not the stories). Stephen Crane (the poetry, not the prose). And Ezra Pound (ABC of Reading). Plus Beckett, Brautigan, Emerson, Sebald, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Shirley Jackson… Ionesco, Nietzsche, Borges, Kafka, Melville, Robert Aickman, Hawthorne…
And lately I’ve been getting into Norman Mailer, who was just wonderfully insane. I like his essays.
Do you listen to music when you write? What do you listen to?
I’ve always needed complete silence when I write– I tend to get caught up in melodies and words– so I never write anywhere but in my house (and usually in the dead of night). But during the process of writing my book, I discovered this CD called Alina, by Arvo Pärt… He’s a sacred minimalist composer from Estonia and this CD is kind of a miracle. It’s the only music I’ve ever found that instantly quiets and focuses my mind; I wrote my whole book to it on repeat, and now I find I can’t write without it.
At different points have you had mentors? Do you mentor?
I’ve never really had a mentor, no, though I’ve definitely had teachers who helped and inspired me. Dennis Etchison, who taught the short story writing class that made me start writing my book, was by far the most influential of those, but I wouldn’t exactly call him a mentor. More like a wise man who handed me a key and told me where the secret door was located. As for acting as someone else’s mentor, no, I’ve never done that. Not that I wouldn’t; it’s just never come up. And also I guess I’m a little leery of telling people what to do.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
I’ve never had a problem with getting stuck. My problem is the opposite: turning it off. I live in constant fear of being swept away into the aether by unrelenting story thoughts. So I have to be careful to budget my time and be sure to rest and eat right and see people and do stuff. Otherwise my brain can get very unruly and then sometimes scary things happen.
I think if I got stuck I’d just do something else. Like play music. Or clean out the closet.
Writing Stories for Nighttime and Some For The Day – what surprised you (or didn’t) about the way this collection came together, what was it like, how did it happen, etc.
Virtually everything surprised me about writing this book. Starting with the fact that I was writing at all. I’d wanted to write a book for almost a decade, and had never really had any luck with it. I was always obsessed with what I would do, what I “had to say,” what my book would mean. It was only when I threw away the idea of preconceptions that things actually started happening. Every time I sit down to write a story, I’m surprised (and sometimes terrified) by what comes out. And then all the stories just kept on coming; it was like discovering I had a library in the basement.
The process of publishing was surprising too, mainly just because of the time involved. I thought when I sold the book, well, that was it– it would be out and in stores the next week. I never really thought about the whole publishing end, about the physical process or the editing and marketing. And then there’s the whole thing about people out there reading it, which is nice, but mindboggling to consider.
What things have you had to unlearn as a writer?
I think I had to unlearn virtually everything I learned as an undergrad studying English. I had to learn to write, not from ideas, but from feelings– from confusion, fear, and hope. Also, I had to throw away that “Show, Don’t Tell” crap, which wasn’t hard because I never understood it anyway.
Best writing advice you have ever had?
A story is something you live your way through, not something you conceive of and then execute.
What you are working on next?
I’m always working on a million different things, but I guess the big one is this book about a town. I’ve been working on it for a couple years now; it’s like Winesburg, Ohio, but in The Twilight Zone.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.