Saturday, October 22, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Rob Benvie

Rob Benvie was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and has since split his time between Toronto and Montreal. His writing has appeared in many print and online publications, including McSweeney’s, Joyland, Matrix and Broken Pencil. In his musical life he has recorded and toured internationally with such endeavours as Thrush Hermit, The Dears, Camouflage Nights and Tigre Benvie. He is the author of Safety of War and Maintenance, both with Coach House Books.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Boy oh boy. Right out the gates you’re asking some tough questions. My first book Safety of War was a bit of a fluke. I’d been writing semi-‘seriously’ for a while, and had completed a few crappy novels with dismal results, and they now sit safely tucked away in boxes/hard drives. After trying to write really darkly and grittily for a while, I consciously decided that writing fiction had to be at some level a pleasurable and/or cathartic process, and for lack of a better word, ‘fun,’ or it would just be a hollow exercise in half-imagined attempts at credibility. To my elation, Coach House picked up on the manuscript, and suddenly I had a book out. It changed my life mainly in that, at least some level, I had a ‘career’ as a writer that wasn’t simply imaginary. The book wasn’t a huge seller by any means, but it definitely confirmed some impulses I’d harboured that writing fiction, and hoping to have it published, wasn’t going to be a complete waste of effort. There are many things I’d change about that book, but most things I stand behind. I fantasize that eventually I’ll revisit and improve it, but maybe that would be sort of a 21st century George Lucas move. The new book is overall less silly, and probably speaks to more universal notions than the first one. It also has a cooler cover.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I always wanted to be a poet. I have hundreds upon hundreds of pages of dreadful poetry stashed away. And from an early age I was an extremely ambitious and prolific songwriter, and still am, though now that I’m in my mid-thirties my faith in the viability of a rocker’s life currently teeters by the day. But re: poetry: in most ways I consider it the highest art, when done well. But it’s a form worn with many treads, and over time my disposition has led more to narrative and character rather than abstraction or experimental forms. When younger I fantasized about breaking new ground, in terms of conceptual/non-narrative writing, but I think I’m too sentimental to commit myself to those arenas. I like stories about people in panic and people in love. As far as writing a non-fiction books, I have ideas in that department, but they’re too embryonic to mention.    

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Hm. Right now it’s been a cumulative process of bursts and yields. This book, Maintenance, was really a coming-together of a number of projects I’d started separately, then found links within. I tend to write quickly and edit slowly, but I’m finding that’s a shitty way to work. Both of my novels appeared on my editor Alana’s desk with a significant amount of trimming to be done, which I then did; the motivation of it actually being publishing tends to terrify one into finding that necessary economy. But we had some fights about what should have stayed in, some fights which I still feel I lost. But having worked on a few others’ books, I know the task of an editor is to think of the book first and the writer second, so I’ve tended to believe whatever I’ve been told. My problem is I’m extremely impatient, whether in writing or music or even just going to the bank or whatever, so I find revisions a necessary but wearying stage. So: long story short, barfing out writing comes relatively easily, but the follow-through is tough.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I tend to think in longer streams, simply because I read novels more than I read short stories or poetry or plays. This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Both an asset and shortcoming of mine is that I’m very competitive and envious and flighty, so when I read a book I love, or hear a song that blows me away, or watch a movie that kills me, I simultaneously think ‘I wish I’d done that – I’m such a loser,’ and ‘I could do better than that – I’m such a genius.’ So a lot of things are attempted, and a lot of things are abandoned. I start many things, and rarely feel things are finished. The only recipe for me is: work on stuff every day, don’t slack off, and eventually you end up with a lot of material. Wade through it well, work with smart people, keep it enjoyable at some level, and ignore the voice in your head that says you’re a schmuck. You are, but so is everyone else. This doesn’t really answer your question. I guess it’s a combo of spontaneity or “vibe” and having some sort of vision for how things might end up. This new book did begin in separate sections, though I had an idea that they would interplay at some point, just not as intermeshedly as they ended up. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Mixed feelings, mostly because I have sort of mumbly speech patterns and not the most commanding voice, but I’m working on it. Having grown up playing in rock bands, and being pretty egomaniacal in general, I like performing and being on stage. I get a lot of joy out of being applauded, and if I can get a laugh it feels pretty good. But I’m not a natural orator; I tend to talk too fast and annunciate in weird ways. Coupled with that: reading, to me, is a solitary, contemplative activity, so being read to by others usually drives me nuts. As a person who is easily bored, I loathe the idea of boring others. I understand the necessity of doing readings to help people know about your work, but they’re too often a drag. The fun at such events happens afterward. I’m always thinking about the afterparty. I’m hoping every reading I do for this book ends up in either skinnydipping and/or terrorism.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Do you mean ‘theoretical’ in terms of literary theory, or ‘theoretical’ in terms of just intentions beyond ‘story’? I think I might have too many theoretical concerns about my own writing, and that might be what restrains it most. I think writing should assert its own utility, though ‘usefulness’ naturally acquires many forms. I wrote my MA thesis on Frederic Jameson, so I can’t help but always think of historicity as a lurking consideration in cultural production, and then by extension question how anything I write fits into that framework—even though, on a mechanical level, when writing a novel I usually have less weighty things on my mind, like: is this thing funny/sad/interesting. This novel, Maintenance, was meant to bring up some real-world, hopefully unexpected treatments of real concerns (not necessarily ‘issues’), but I knew from the get-go any such considerations would always be secondary to character, and, really, enjoyability. It’s a made-up story, but it has a purpose. So: yes, I do have theoretical concerns in my writing, but I am a strong believer that fiction and novels should ease off on didacticism and be more about finding more sneaky ways of seizing the reader by the figurative lapels.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Yikes. I don’t know. Like many, I have studied and admired the eras of Milton or Orwell or Mishima or Baudrillard, moments when writers seemed to actually have a direct impact on culture in a broader and more useful sense. That is the aspirational ideal. But in a practical sense, authors in our day are typically those who achieve notoriety by way of quotability or timeliness, not necessarily those who write stirring fiction. So, knowing this, you pick your battles. People are reading and writing more than ever; they just aren’t caring as much about proposed authorial supremacy in terms of books. In the long run, that’s a good thing, I’d wager. But it doesn’t help those who still admire those past exemplars. I’m sort of stuck in the middle between embracing new models and championing the grace and power of those I’ve admired. Time will tell.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

To me, it’s been essential. But it really means having a good editor. Alana Wilcox at Coach House has edited both of my books so far, and we’ve become good enough pals that we can argue about things in a healthy way. She respects the intentions of authors, and has edited so many books by dickheads that she knows what to fight for. Both of my novels initially arrived on her desk several hundred pages longer than the final published version, so I clearly need, and appreciate, a good editor. If you write long meandering novels, you inevitably overlook things and, in many case, bite off more than you can chew. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I was once told that if you want to learn to play rock guitar, you must first reckon with AC/DC. Sort of great and terrible advice.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to essays to song lyrics)? What do you see as the appeal?

As I write prose more, I feel less driven to write songs/lyrics than I used to. I’d like to think it’s because what I hope to accomplish is so profound and amazing that it can’t be confined by a song, but the reality is probably more that I’m getting older and slightly mellower, and I’m less torn apart by the kind of angst and doubt and despair that drives good songwriting. My pain is more concrete and boring.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My routine revolves around solitude. I need to be alone to write well. Nothing makes me happier than a sluice of free time with a clear mind and the hope of writing. But I also love people, I love my girlfriend, I love socializing. Sometimes these things come into conflict. Typically, I write late at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. Writing at 3am when the world as we know it slows into shadows is the best time to think freely. It drives my girlfriend crazy, because I’m often underslept and cranky, but ever since I’ve been typing I’ve been a nocturnal human. Daytime is for logistics; nighttimes are for possibilities. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I really like television. I don’t have a TV right now, and I miss it. Aside from that, mostly when I’m tapped I talk to my closest pals, none of whom do the kind of writing of this arena I’ve entered, but are all writers/artists/musicians/thinkers with much more talent and smarts than me. I’ve been very blessed with a great and longstanding circle of friends. And this is like the ultimate cliché, but a good, contemplative walk often does wonders. Even if it’s just to the Beer Store.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My home is Halifax, Nova Scotia. But my childhood summers were spent at our family’s cottage on the beachy shores of King’s Head, in Pictou, a county on the province’s north side, facing PEI. I’m not much of a beachgoer, but the smell of fresh, clean sand reminds me of Melmerby Beach: jellyfish, waterskiing, sunburns, drunk adults.  

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Yeah, as far as things go for me, I’d say it all goes in. Writing productively is an equal combination of discipline and inspiration; you can muster up the former, but the latter is hard to come by, and must be recognized when it strikes. Nothing jazzes me up for writing than enjoyable reading, but the trick really is to filter and refine everything you do and see. The best stuff I’ve written found origins in stuff I’ve done or anecdotes I’ve heard or people I’ve met, the weirdness of real life—but then the author’s mandate, I think, is to take it further, make it crazier. I am a strong proponent of Making Things Up. So, you know, you soak up as much as you can. I get pumped by music and visual art, and I’m sure it helps shape what ends up on the page, but I’m at a loss to explain how. I do listen to a lot of shitty rap on headphones while writing, so maybe the flow or length of my sentences is influenced by that, maybe? Though that sounds pretty weak.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

That’s hard to address, for two reasons: one, in that my answers will be unoriginal and quite typical of youngish men who meet my demographic; and two, in that I’ve been constantly trying to shed such influences and not be another regurgitator of stuff that’s already been done by those more capable than me.  

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Jeez. You’re killing me – I don’t like writing about myself too much, so this interview feels like writing my own memorial service. There are so many things. I always wanted to be an actor, but when I’ve been given the brief chance to do stuff on camera, I’m terrible at it. Plus I’m too pimply. I spent some time in Kenya a while back and fantasize about returning to do something in the realm of international development, but I’m too lazy and cynical. I really want to improve my piano playing, but my piano is at my sister’s place back in Nova Scotia and a MIDI controller isn’t quite the same. I also always wondered about trying to invent a board game. I tried to convince Coach House we would make Maintenance: The Board Game, but it would be too expensive and/or funless.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Probably learned Arabic or other languages with geopolitical/espionage applications—I’ve applied for a job at CSIS like five times, but they never respond. My qualifications are pretty shitty.  

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I guess it comes from my childhood. I was that kid with an overactive imagination who liked to tell crazy lies and boss my friends into acting out stupid narratives I’d conjured up, like epic GI Joe campaigns that went on for weeks. My father was always disappointed that I wasn’t more sporty: he ran marathons and sailed, while I longed to stay at home and read DC Comics and Stephen King books instead of play T-Ball or whatever. My mother bought me an electric typewriter when I was about ten and I was sold. Weirdly, she actually taught typing (“keyboarding”), and can crank out a blistering number of words/minute, but I am a dreadful typist. Like most people, everything I do is probably either to defy or please my parents. Sorta bluesy, actually.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

My current tastes are leaning toward really plotty stuff; I want to read all the LeCarre and Deighton novels my father kept on his shelf when I was younger. Along such lines, I’m reading some Paul Bowles right now that I’m digging. Afar as movies, I really liked Attack The Block.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have another novel that I’m far into, but if precedent holds, I expect it’ll be a long time in gestation. Picking at some screenplays. Some new rock band concepts. I started eating meat again and have been hitting the gym, so I’m getting really muscular. You know, regular stuff.

Rob Benvie reads in Ottawa as part of a spotlight on Coach House Books at the ottawa international writers festival on Monday, October 23, 2011, with the incomparable David McGimpsey.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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