“Like ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’ but in the Twilight Zone”: A Conversation with Ben Loory
By Steph ChaNovember 6, 2017
It all made sense when I read “The Ostrich and the Aliens” in his spectacular new collection, Tales of Falling and Flying. As with all of his stories, I felt that satisfying click, the visceral understanding that the pieces locked together, even if I wasn’t quite sure how.
I asked Ben over email about his stories, his process, and other Ben Loory things. Here’s a look at the inside of his weirdo genius brain.
STEPH CHA: You have this distinctive metered style that makes your stories instantly recognizable as Ben Loory stories. How did you develop this style? Are there unpublished proto-stories where it’s halfway there? How defined are the rules? Do you have like a personal style guide?
BEN LOORY: It’s weird, you know, no one has ever asked me about that. I think most people don’t even notice. (Which is good, because if people started calling me a poet, I’d probably never sell another book.) Anyway, yeah, that just emerged gradually. Going way back: When I first started writing stories, I was really just thinking of them as story ideas — as outlines or treatments; I was brainstorming, hoping to find a good one to write a screenplay out of. It was only after I’d written maybe 15 or 20 of them that I started to think, “Hey, these are actually really cool as they are, as these very short, simply told, action-packed little stories.” They didn’t have a lot of extraneous description, didn’t rely on metaphors or similes (or anything people usually remark upon as “good writing,” really), didn’t have much internality or background characterization — it was all just pure story, pure happening, beginning to end. And I started to ask myself, “Why don’t people write stories this way?” I mean, this is the way people tell each other stories, if we’re all just sitting around talking, at a bar or a party or a dinner or something. So I figured that was the assignment I was giving myself, and I set out to write a book of these stories.
But then — okay, getting to the point now — after I’d been writing those stories for about a year, I remember there was one night — and I wish I could remember which story it was — but there was this one night where I was writing a story, and it ended, accidentally, in a kind of rhythmic half- or slant-rhyming couplet. And at first I was like, “Oh jeez, gotta change that”; but then the more I looked at it, the more I liked it; I liked the way it brought the story together at the end with this kind of bang, the way the rhythm of the prose told you the end was coming, and then the semi-rhyme made it feel complete. So then I started ending all the stories that way — sometimes with a full rhyme, but usually with a near-rhyme or half or slant rhyme, and always trying to get the meter of those last sentences moving that way to build up to it. I don’t even know how to describe it, really — I think it might be ballad form? But I’m not an expert. And then, over time, that rhythm that began in the closing paragraphs began to spread backward through the stories, it just started to infect my prose in general, until finally I just found myself writing in that meter, even when I wasn’t planning to. I remember the night I noticed that — I remember sitting there, thinking: “Be careful! This is what happened to Dr. Seuss!” But then I was like, whatever, Dr. Seuss did okay, so I just embraced it and have pretty much written in that meter ever since.
So yes, to answer your question, there were early versions, at least of my early stories, that were written before that meter emerged, and yes, I had to go back and shift those stories around in order to fit the “guidebook” — but that guidebook isn’t written down; I don’t even really understand it. I just kinda know when it feels right and when it doesn’t. I like the way the meter adds this beat, this pulse to the story, that propels readers along — I think it’s kind of hypnotizing.
I know you read widely, in pretty much every genre. I wonder if you ever think, like, “One day, I’m gonna write a dystopian trilogy, or a 600-page realist novel set in New Jersey.” When you sit down to write, is it always short stories that come out?
Well, yeah — so far! I’ve always said, “Hey, if one day I sit down and a novel starts coming out, so be it, I just do what I find myself doing.” (That’s my rule.) That being said, I did actually have a novel idea not too long ago — it came to me in the night one night sometime about a year ago. I wasn’t writing, I was just lying there, staring at the ceiling, and it came to me, just sorta crept on in, and very quickly I saw the whole thing spooled out — it’s this Jonathan Franzen–type multiple-perspective decades-spanning realistic novel centered around a thrash metal band, starting in the mid-’80s. It even has a title (which is a really good title!) and I know how the whole thing goes, even the last line. (I’m leaving out all the cool stuff about it — don’t worry, it’s better than it sounds here.) So then I spent some time thinking, “Well, do I write that?” I figure it would probably take me about two years. And I did actually toy with the idea for a while, and even wrote the opening chapter, but in the end (at least, so far) I decided it wasn’t worth it. That two years would be two years I wouldn’t be writing stories, and I could probably write between 50 and 100 stories in that time! And those stories would be good — or at least, I hope they would be — and they would be my stories, which I kinda feel like only I write. So do I really want to preemptively flush those stories down the drain in favor of writing a novel that pretty much any writer could write? I mean really, it might be good, but it would just be another realistic novel about some people in a band … only really differentiated by the specific flavor of my prose. Which just doesn’t seem like enough to keep me going. I don’t know; I might do it someday. Mostly because I really love the title.
I feel like when a reader picks up a book by an author she likes, the expectation is that it’ll be the same, but also different. How do you think your writing has changed since you published Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s changed much; my hope is it’s just gotten better, more focused. This book does come out of a better time in my life, though; Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, I started writing when I was really at rock bottom; it was a scary and kind of terrifying time in my life, so the stories were pretty dark, pretty horror-based. The last few years have much better, so while there’s still a lot of (at least) existential horror in this book, I think a lot of it is more fable-y, fairy tale-y, maybe a little more fun? But I could be wrong. It’s hard to step outside and judge.
I noticed you wrote some stories in the first person this time. That’s new, isn’t it?
Yeah, first person was a bit of an experiment. I actually started doing that a long time ago — it was right after I’d finished (or at least, thought I’d finished) my first book … I’d been writing all these third-person stories where no one had names and they all took place in this kind of nebulous, cartoony otherworld. And when I finished that book, I got up the next morning and I was like, “Okay, what do I do now?” So I figured, well, I guess I’ll write some more stories. But when I sat down to do it, I suddenly felt like I was faking it, like I was just copying what I had done before. So I decided to switch it up and just do the opposite of everything. So I wrote a lot of stories (and I do mean a lot, probably around 200 [just first drafts, but still]) and they were all in first person and they were all about “real”-seeming people, characters with names who lived in the same “real”-seeming town. For a while, I was planning to put out a whole book of these stories, it was like Winesburg, Ohio, but in the Twilight Zone, was how I saw it. Anyway, that ended up not panning out, for a couple reasons (first off being that all the stories ended the same way, with the main characters either dying or leaving town, which got kind of ridiculous after a while). But I still kept writing the stories — I really liked a lot of them — and after a while I started going back and forth between those and the ones in third person. Now I just sort of indiscriminately move between them, whenever I start to get bored. It’s just become another arrow in the quiver.
I will say that first person was really hard for me at first. Coming from screenwriting, I tend to see stories from outside — as pictures, as people out there in front of me, walking around, doing things. First person is weird because now you’re in some character, and what are you doing there? You have this body, this mind, this whole past and language to deal with, and how do you stay in that and deal with the expansiveness of it all and not let the outside world just get completely washed away? In the end I think my first-person stories remain a little mysterious. The person at the center of them is always a little blocked out; it gives them an interesting feel, but they get a little claustrophobic if you read too many of them in a row. I was actually thinking of them recently when I was reading those new Rachel Cusk books. She does the same kind of thing, where there’s this big hole in the very center of the narrator, where you’re used to this grandly etched monument. It’s unsettling.
How do you start a story? Like the first story in this collection is about a dodo who hasn’t gone extinct with the others, and who wants to prove to himself and others that he is in fact a dodo. Where did that come from? I have about one good story idea every one to three years, which is why I write novels. Are you getting hit by new story ideas like every week?
I don’t actually have ideas, is the thing. People always laugh when I say that, but it’s true — I don’t even want ideas. In the past, I always sat around waiting for ideas, waiting for a “great story” to fall into my lap, fully formed, thinking then I’d go off and write it. And every now and then I would have what I thought of as an idea, but then I’d cling to it so tightly, so desperately, so carefully, that I would never actually do anything with it out of fear I might lose it or mess it up or something and never get another. So finally I decided to just let all that go, and now I don’t deal in ideas. Now I just deal in images and characters, I start simple and then just follow the characters and let the stories unfold.
So, for instance, in that story about the dodo, I started with just the “idea” of a dodo. It’s nothing fancy, a million people have done it. So whatever, a dodo comes to mind, so now I’m writing a story about a dodo. So I sat down and wrote that first part of the first line: “Once there was a dodo.” Then I looked at it and wondered what would happen next, and the first thing that came to mind was that he probably died, because they all died, and that made me laugh, so I wrote it down: “… and he died with the rest.” So then there I was, it seemed like the story was over? But how could it be over, it just began! So then I added: “But then he suddenly got back up again!” And then after that, the whole thing just flowed out, he’s running around proclaiming that he’s a dodo and no one believes him because the dodos are all dead and he’s trying to prove it but there’s no way to prove it — it all just follows inevitably. But that wasn’t the idea, it didn’t start with that — it just started with an image, a simple statement: once there was a dodo. That’s it.
I think a lot of people think about imagination as this kind of telephone that you pick up and then someone tells you what to do. But for me, it’s more like an openness, a determination, to just follow what you have right there on the page and respond naturally and honestly to what’s happening. It’s a matter of just trusting your instincts, all the time, and resolving to never turn away from them.
I know you work on some of these stories for years. When do you know that a story is done?
For me, there are two parts to a story being done. The first is the hard part, that’s getting the actual story right, which for me is mostly figuring out how it ends. Most of my stories tend to hinge on paradoxes or logical contradictions or impossible things like that, and so somehow managing to resolve those unmatchable threads in the end always throws me into a terrible brain pretzel. Usually what happens is eventually something gives and the emotional conflicts in the story come together and then the last line appears and at that point I usually burst into tears. Either tears, or I feel like a great big giant hole has opened up inside me and I’m falling down into it (those are the scarier stories, I guess). And it’s that moment, that point where the story suddenly surprises me with an unexpected emotional charge, that I’m looking for, and once I’ve found that, I know I’m at the end. It’s always an emotional thing — there it is.
After that, I leave the hard part and move on to the impossible part, which is getting all the words right, getting the whole thing flowing properly. That usually consists of me sitting in my house, reading the story out loud to myself over and over and over, making sure I don’t trip or cringe at any point, and then doing that again and again and again. And that work could go on forever and ever, because what seems perfect today is never perfect tomorrow. As a writer you grow and change and you’re always in different moods and different psychological/intellectual places and you’re always seeing the story from different vantage points in your life, so, whatever … long story short, you can never actually get a story perfect, I hate to say. So eventually, after straining for perfection for however long, eventually you just kinda get tired of moving the same couple of commas back and forth, or sticking a word in and taking it out, and at that point you just kinda say, okay fine, whatever. And then that’s the end of that.
This is a book of 40 stories in three parts — 13 each plus a bonus. I’m guessing this was deliberate, since your first book was organized the same way. How did you land on that structure? And how did you group/order the stories?
That structure just emerged during the editing of the first book. I’d started out with a manuscript of 101 stories, but Penguin asked if I could cut it down to 30 or 40 (they seemed to think a 500-page book of fables by a first time author was a bad idea). Of course I went with 40 because I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to put out a book again. My editor thought it might be helpful to divide it up into different sections, as a way of giving people guideposts, sort of rest stops along the way, so I just immediately split it into three, because I’m obsessed with three-act structure. That made 39 — three sections of 13 stories each (which I also found numerologically pleasing) — and that meant one story would be left over, to kind of hang out by itself at the end. That made good sense to me because that last story was the one from The New Yorker, which was longer than the rest of them and had been written in a slightly different style.
As for order, for the first book, I basically just put the stories in chronological order by when I started writing them. This was after months and months of trying (and failing) to make up a natural-seeming order for them. Chronological order worked out well, because there’s already a natural evolution to the stories; they start out kinda scary and about mostly unnamed people, and then slowly start to change, they get weirder and wilder and then animals start talking, and then all hell breaks loose. And at the end, in the last few stories, it contracts; the stories settle down into this strange, spooky, surrealist thing, and then it goes out on the explosion of “The TV.”
For the second book, I didn’t how to structure it, so I just went with 40 like before, and kept the three sections and that +1 at the end — I really like having that “+1” spot because it gives me a place to stick a story that’s a little different from the rest. In the case of Tales of Falling and Flying, it’s the story “Elmore Leonard,” which is longer and maybe a little more “real world” than the rest. I’ll probably do the third book the same way.
Did you write toward 40 or did you leave tons of stories on the cutting room floor? How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
Well, I did aim for 40, but it was more of a corralling and whittling down — I don’t leave anything on the cutting-room floor, exactly, it’s more like some stories just go back into the oven. I have hundreds of stories I’m working on at any given moment, and I’m always writing more and juggling them around and moving back and forth between them. So the ones that came together and really felt exciting to me come deadline-time, those were the ones that went into the book. The others will come together someday, for some book. I never give up on a story.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
No. They are all my favorites. But! There are some that I feel particularly attached to, usually because I worked on them for so long — they sorta feel like family members I lived with for years, trying to help them get on their feet. “Death and the Lady,” for instance, I think I worked on for 10 years (not a solid 10 years, but coming back to it again and again). “The Rock Eater” and “The Sword” and “Elmore Leonard” are in that group. And “The Woman, the Letter, the Mirror, and the Door.”
There are also those stories that still feel mysterious to me — the ones that I know feel done to me, but are still just slightly beyond my comprehension. Those I always love because I don’t really feel responsible for them; they feel like these gifts that sorta floated into my life and began to eat from my hand. So in this book, those are “The Fall,” “The Madman,” “Gorillas,” and to some extent “Picasso” and “The Ambulance Driver.”
And then, beyond that, there are the ones that just make me laugh, the ones that when I read them, I just feel like a little kid sorta discovering stories all over again, which is weird because they’re my stories, but hey, I’ll take what I can get. “The Porpoise” in this book is like that — I’m smiling now, just thinking about it — and also “The Cape” and “The Frog and the Bird.”
And fine, okay, “War and Peace” is my favorite.
You’ve done a lot of teaching since your first book. Has that taught you anything about writing? Any great advice you give to students that you don’t actually follow?
The main thing I’ve learned as a teacher is that what works for you as a writer is not necessarily what works for anyone else. You can’t just say, “Here’s the key, do this,” because the key to everyone’s personal creativity is different. So instead you have to come up with lots of different keys — even ones that you yourself don’t find even slightly useful — and just keep throwing them out there in the hopes that someone will catch one and it will work. Being a teacher requires a much more open mind; being a writer is just a matter of being true to yourself. They are related of course, because you’re dealing with the same field. But the skills involved are completely different.
As a writer, the main way being a teacher has changed me is that it’s made me a much better editor. I’ve gotten much quicker at zeroing in on story problems, whether in other people’s work or my own. Somewhere along the way, I developed a list of common questions — How does this character pay their bills? What does this character do when they’re not at work? Does this character have any friends? Do they like them? What are they afraid of? et cetera — that I find are usually pretty helpful for beginning writers. And hey, you know, they work for me too! You just get to know the territory a lot better.
Do you write for any particular kind of reader? What do you hope people get out of your writing? Like what’s the best kind of email you can get from a fan?
I don’t really think about readers when I’m writing (when the book is out, they suddenly become very real). I just figure that we’re all basically the same, so if it works for me, it’ll probably work for everyone. Sometimes I wonder if people will know some strange word, but in the end I just go with whatever feels right — that’s the only thing I can be sure of. I never know what people mean when they talk about writing for a particular audience; it just seems really condescending and bizarre — not to mention completely impossible. I have a hard enough time figuring out how the story goes, what the characters want, how the events are going to unfold — now somehow I’m supposed to change all that around to please some nebulous, generalized group of nonexistent people, based on how I think they’re going to react? Just seems like a cynical and doomed undertaking. If the readers like the story, then they become the audience — that’s about the best I can figure it.
As for what I hope people get out of my writing: basically, I’m just hoping for an experience! An emotional, experiential, hallucinatory one, and one they can’t turn away from. Ideally, I think a story should provide an experience that a reader’s never had — or even dreamed of! Both as a reader and a writer, I’m always hoping for a roller-coaster of the mind and the heart and the soul.
I’m always happiest when people just tell me they like the stories, or when they tell me they were moved by them, that they made them happy or sad, or made them laugh or cry. I’m always a little distrustful when people compliment the details; when they pick out a particular line or some specific image or moment. I feel like when you love something, when it really affects you, there isn’t a whole lot to be said. (Wow, thank you, that was great — that’s what I’d tell Tobias Wolff if I could.) Not that I won’t take any and all compliments! But it’s the emotional response I’m after.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ll probably write some more stories. And one day maybe I’ll vanish into the night.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.
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