Tuesday, July 09, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Ben Berman Ghan

Ben Berman Ghan is an author and editor from Toronto, and an incoming student of Ryerson University's MA in English Literatures of Modernity, having recently finished an HBA from The University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The Goose, The UC Review, Indigo Lit, Occulum Journal, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, South 85, Liquid Imagination, The Sweet Tree Review, The Spectatorial, The Trinity Review, Terse Literary Journal, The Strand, Intersections, The White Wall Review, and Half A Grapefruit Magazine.

He has served as the Fiction Editor of The Spectatorial, and Associate Editor for The Goose and The Hart House ReviewHe is currently the editor of a book of non-fiction for Guernica Editions and Prose editor of Terse Journal. His fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke hit shelves June 2019 courtesy of Crowsnest 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?

Perhaps this is a strange answer but…my first book changed my life because, in some ways, it didn’t. My first book passed me by in a blip of teenage angst and hotheadedness and self-pity. But it’s from this kind of “failure” that I embarked on the journey to be the kind of writer I actually want to be. My new book What We See in the Smoke isn’t like anything else I’ve done before it ­– it’s a dance between the novel and the short story and its blend of genres. But it’s also unique for me because it is the first book written in a voice that I really think is my own, a voice I didn’t quite have before, because before I was a kid. This is also the first piece of writing of mine since I’ve had any time for formal training. A few chapters of this book came out of a creative workshop at the University of Toronto with Robert McGill (Once We Had a Country, and more than half of the book were worked over, and over in a yearlong study with Sharon English (Zero Gravity, Uncomfortably Numb) to whom I’ll always be grateful.

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

I really came to poetry last. I entered into writing through fiction, took a detour through non-fiction (which I revisit mostly through scholarly writing) and came to poetry mostly through actually reading and studying poetry through my undergrad. I find poems come to me best when I’ve been given some sort of guideline or prompt, whereas with fiction if I’m trying to follow instructions, I can’t write anything at all. I find the best way to become inspired to write poetry is either to read poetry, or to simply write in a pocket notebook as I’m walking through the city, scribbling as I go and letting my lines become as big and messy and unselfconscious as they need to be.

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?

Writing can take years. This book took about three years. A short story can take anywhere between a few weeks and a few months, and even then, I might not perfect it for a long time after. I try to take notes as ideas come to me. Often, I hack out sloppy, messy rough drafts, and it’s only in the rewrite that I find what I’m trying to say, which is the most delicious feeling.

4 - Where does a poem or work of 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?

Both. I can’t seem to get away from short stories, but I also can’t help seeding my stories with a larger narrative. That’s how this book came about. I was writing short stories the whole time, but I was using them to tell something bigger. Even now I’m starting to write short stories again but I can’t help seeding them with larger narratives to continue on later. I find this a delightful way to write a book, because I never have to settle on a single set of characters or concepts or locations. I can let my imagine fly, so long as I can keep everything straight in my head (and in my notebook).

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

I love reading. I grew up with my parents reading to me and listening to audiobooks on tape. There is a unique pleasure that comes to me from reading out loud, though I don’t get to do so as often as I like. I find readings, and listening to other people’s readings, inspiring.

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?

Yes, I do, but those questions change as I change. I think right now I’m finding myself concerned with concepts of survival, of how to survive the world as it is and as it changes, and how to survive without losing we and making survival all there is. I’ve also spent a lot of time in my writing with characters struggling with meaninglessness, or the struggle to express themselves, and maybe that says something.

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?

I don’t think that’s an easy question to answer. For many, the role of the writer is to tap into culture, to critique, to bring a voice to those who have been denied, to tell stories that are powerful and important and necessary and start conversations we as a society need to have. For others, the role of a writer is just to write. I’m not going to say where I might land on that spectrum. Some of my stories are trying to say and represent something more, and some aren’t.

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

Essential. I’ve had some great editors, and I’ve enjoyed my own work as an editor for literary journals. Sometimes it takes an outside pair of eyes to kill your darlings or help you pin down what you were trying to say. Sometimes it takes lots of eyes, as I listen some of my mentors above who assisted that book, as well as my editors at Crowsnest Books, and others who have since edited me and helped me come to a new understanding of the craft and my goals.

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

George Elliott Clarke said to me in the fall, that when I hit writers blocked, to just write down as many nouns as I can with no context or theme, and then make something out of that. It works, it’s good advice. I’ve built a few pieces out of noun-lists, and they always end up being some of my more “out-there” work.

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

It’s pretty hard for me to shift sometimes, but only because I’m always gravitating back to fiction. Sometimes it’s easier to move to poetry, because there are feelings and images that can only be captured in a poem that prose can never reach, because poems transform the blank space on a page the way nothing else does. But personal essays are difficult for me, because I don’t like writing about my own life. Everytime I get halfway through I can feel my more speculative sensibilities bleeding in, and lines like “and anyway, it was the year 2050, and did I mention the space-war??” start popping up, no matter how hard I resist them.

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?

Routines are hard for me, mostly because the whole time I’ve been a writer I’ve been a student too, and the irregular hours of a student make it hard to keep regular hours as a writer. Right now I write mostly in the mornings or the evenings, but really I just put down words whenever I can. My only consistent routine is to make coffee each morning before breakfast, and to feed my cats each morning before making coffee.

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

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Black coffee, but not fresh. Cold coffee, because I left my cup out on the table and everybody thinks I’m going to come back for it even after it cools off (because I will). That, and fresh bread, but not normal bread. Spelt bread, the kind my father makes for my little brother because he can’t have wheat, which has a light but persistent smell like whole wheat dialled up to a hundred.

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?

I find influence from lots of places, yes. I visit a lot of art galleries with my partner, and things come to me there, and I read comics, and music can strike something inside me. Movies can also be a good source of inspiration sometimes and can end up being a tremendous influence. Sometimes it isn’t even the specific writing or characters of a film but the way it makes you feel coming out of theaters. Movies can make me feel a certain way and make me say “that’s the feeling I’m trying to capture”. Does that make any sense? Honestly I’m not sure. Movies yes, but also classic rock and jazz.

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

I don’t know about being important to my own work, but to my life, works like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man have always meant a lot to me, along with the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr, with novels like Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Hocus Pocus being particularly close to my heart. But other authors like George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, A.S. Byatt, and many more. I’m a reader as much as I am an author. All authors should be.

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

I’d really like to try my hand at writing a play. I’ll get there, eventually. I also want to try more collaborative ventures, such as co-writing something, or working with an artist to create a graphic novel.

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?

If I could carry a tune at all, I might have been a musician. Or maybe I’d be the letterer who decides where the speech bubbles go in comic books?

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

I truly don’t think I could have ever avoided writing. It’s more of a compulsion than anything else that I chose to embrace.

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

Gonna stick to some Canlit here. I picked up Ben Ladouceur’s poetry collection Mad Long Emotion (Coach House Books 2019) a week ago at Toronto’s Knife-Fork Books. I also read David Chariandy’s novel Brother a few months back and it hasn’t left me yet. For movies? While I’m typing this, I’m a few hours out from finally seeing Avengers: Endgame and it’s all I can think about. I’m a big nerd and proud of it.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A new book! What We See in the Smoke was 1 of a 2 book contract with Crowsnest Books, so I’m hard at work on a follow up, though I’m ages away from being able to talk about it. I think I thought of a title at some point last night when I woke up in bed with a start, so that feels like a good sign to me. I’m also working on some short stories about holograms, burnout culture, and an android romance. Oh, and I’m in the final stages of editing a book of essays on Bruce Meyer for Guernica Editions, which should come out next year.

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