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A Conversation with Ben Tanzer

Staff Interviewer Lori Hettler sits down for a conversation with BEN TANZER. Ben is the author of the books, Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards; Lost in Space, which received an Honorable Mention in the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book Awards Traditional Non-Fiction category; and his most recent, The New York Stories, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life.

LORI HETTLER: Let’s start this off with a bang. Are you a fireworks guy? I totally picture you, like, gathering the family in the backyard with some brewskies and a box of sparklers.
BEN TANZER: Am I fireworks guy? Well, based on your question, I would say yes, and no? Meaning, do I love good fireworks? I do. They’re loud, and I like loud, and there is explosion and it happens at night, mostly, and I like that, too, a lot, night and dark. Also, the colors—love color—and light streaking across the sky. There is a nice UFO vibe at times, and I’m quite partial to those, as well. But backyards, maybe not so much. Because I also like crowds and noise and people bumping into each other. I like watching how people react to what they’re watching. I’m a voyeur, unabashed—well, maybe slightly abashed. But I feed off of crowds and noise, and I like urban and beaches and crowds, always crowds; and when I think back to my favorite fireworks shows, I was on Santa Monica Pier as a kid, or the football stadium at University of Colorado at Boulder, or standing on the East Side Highway in New York City. So, backyards are fine, but they’re not quite crazed enough for what I need.

While our country celebrated its independence this month, you had something of your own to celebrate... the release of your collection, The New York Stories. I’ve been following all of the buzz since it dropped in June. Congrats!
Thanks so much, and let me stress that, while I in no way consider the release of The New York Stories tantamount to the country’s at-times-bloody fight for independence, it would not be inaccurate to say that the birth of The New York Stories was not without its own blood, sweat, and, yes—despite my overwhelming, and at times, near paralyzing, masculinity—tears. Granted, much of that was the result of paper cuts and the occasional loss of the Internet, but it was a battle—a nine-year battle I would add. I’m quite pleased with the results, and when people look back on its release centuries from now, as we’re doing this weekend regarding the birth of independence, I hope they will do so with the same awe and nostalgia that accompanies the Fourth of July. Especially given this past month and the country’s embrace of both the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, not to mention the rejection (mostly) of both the Confederate flag and Donald Trump. All of which are things I am happy to credit both the President and the Supreme Court with, if they in turn will note that all of these events happened to occur at the same time of the release. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Well, do we know if The New York Stories has made its way into Politics and Prose? I hear Obama is quite the book shopper. We just need to sneak a copy into his hand during his next trip! And speaking of nostalgia, the first third of the collection was wonderfully nostalgic for me. If you remember, Repetition Patterns was my first Tanzer experience! It was also the first CCLaP title I’d ever read. (I feel like I should have had a cigarette after all those firsts!) But more seriously, it was kind of incredible to read Repetition Patterns again in sequence with your newer stories. It was like watching your writing come of age on the page.
With the President’s summer vacation looming, I can only assume that The New York Stories is being vetted for potential beach reading, even as we speak. Fingers crossed, yo. Meanwhile, while I don’t feel like I should condone, much less encourage, your smoking cigarettes—they kill from what I understand—I’m honored to be part of any first of any kind. I also appreciate the kind words and the support over the years. When I first wrote the stories in Repetition Patterns, I really hadn’t been able to get anything published, and I had this idea after reading collections such as Drown by Junot Diaz, When the Messenger Is Hot by Elizabeth Crane, and What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver, that I should try to write a group of stories that felt like they were from the same time and place, and that maybe such a collection could open some doors for me. It didn’t happen quite like that, but my debut novel, Lucky Man, did, and when Jason Pettus at CCLaP got excited about it, I pitched him Repetition Patterns; you found it, and here we are. The possibility that I may have grown over time as a writer would be quite thrilling to me; that I might keep growing, however, is my goal.

I assure you my lungs are clean and clear and no cigarette has ever graced these lips, though I do appreciate your concern for my health! And speaking of health, I know you are quite the runner. As a man who never seems to have any downtime, how do you manage to make running a daily priority? Are there ever days you just veg on the couch and say, “Nah, not going running today”?
Great, I was being overprotective, and annoying, and I apologize for that. And I should preface the rest of my response by saying that I only run every day in my head, but I do a lot of amazing things there. I do try to run every day, however, just as I try to write every day, both of which don’t totally happen. I visualize the day as a series of slots or time periods, and outside of work and family obligations, I am constantly calculating what fits where, sometimes days in advance, with running and writing being the priorities. In taking this approach, there is a level of stress, but it’s not so overwhelming as trying to figure it out on a day-by-day or moment-to-moment basis. Still, any day I can run and write first thing in the morning gives me a sense of balance that carries throughout the day. On the other hand, if my calculations point to the unlikelihood of achieving either, or the sense that I know I won’t even want to try because of what is happening the next day or the one after that, and I know that in advance, then it is easy to take the day off, because I’ve planned it. The tension for me is seeing the plans fail to work out. Maybe I stay up later than expected and can’t get out of bed, or someone unexpectedly needs to be picked up or a kid or spouse gets sick. Because, at that point, it is in my head that I was definitely going to do it and I have to let go of it. I’m working on that. Which may not even be what you were asking about it, but there it is, my brains, or at least my anxieties, on the page and available for consumption.

I like that you brought up anxieties. Many of your books’ characters seem to be working through anxieties of their own, as well. Do you find that fiction helps, as a way to process your own anxieties?
I’m glad to be of assistance. And I am really interested in anxiety, though particularly as a means for exploring how or why we act, or don’t. How does anxiety—among other things: fear, confusion, joy, ego, depression, envy—serve as an obstacle to being in healthy relationships or engaging in healthy behaviors? How do these things impact our ability to communicate with those we love, or might love, and undermine our ability to be as great, or fulfilled—that’s a lot of or, sorry—as we might have been. And the characters who struggle with those things are the kinds of characters I’m interested in writing about. Some of them, like the characters in my debut novel, Lucky Man, are much like I am, and others, like the lead characters in my novels, My Father’s House or You Can Make Him Like You, or the lead protagonists in a number of the stories in The New York Stories, especially the trio of linked stories—“Shooting Stick,” “No Nothing,” and “Vision”—run into situations I run into, but make decisions that I would not make. All of which is interesting to me. Now, does writing about anxiety help me to process my anxieties? Only slightly. Like running, it’s an outlet and a form of managing my anxieties. But it’s more like fertile ground for my writing than a way to process it. It’s calming, even therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. I don’t necessarily understand any of it any better, but I do get to wallow in it in ways that are productive and interesting.

I like that. Productive wallowing: you heard it here first! Now for the shotgun round. Here are five quickies, and then I think we are done, sir. If you lived in the fictional town of Two Rivers—
Who would you be dating/married to? So many good choices, which everyone will know after they read the book, but I will go with Alice from “God’s Work,” who might be quite loosely modeled on a woman I dated in high school.

Who would you be hiding from? I would so be avoiding Jamie from “So Different Now” who might be quite loosely modeled on a dude I was only too happy to avoid in college for reasons that may or may not be loosely related to some of the content in a story that is otherwise quite fictional.

Who would you be getting drunk with? Again, lots of good choices, but I will go with Pete, from the trio of stories mentioned earlier—“Shooting Stick,” “No Nothing,” and “Vision”—who shares my complicated relationship to dead fathers, even if my relationship with my own dead father wasn’t quite as complicated as his is.

Where would we be most likely to find you? I shouldn’t say Thirsty’s, but given how much time I spend in bars, I will just own up to it and move on to the next question.

Who would I be? Alice. She’s caring and funny, and possibly the least fucked-up character in the collection. She probably loves writers. And she may even favor wearing black. Seems right.

Lori Hettler is our Chief Staff Interviewer and handles our interview series for The Inductor. Lori founded the book blog, independent press resource community, and book club The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) in 2007. An advocate for the small press and self-publishing communities, she has been featured from coast to coast, in both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Portions of her reviews have been quoted for a number of books (most notably in the press release for Graywolf Press’ I Curse the River of Time, Red Hen Press’ catalog for David Maine’s An Age of Madness, and Heather Fowler’s Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness). Formerly the Marketing Director for Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), Lori has now begun to take on freelance work under TNBBC Publicity. When she’s not curled up on the couch with a good book, you can find Lori on Twitter, TNBBC’s blog, Goodreads, and Facebook talking about it.

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