Monday, October 15, 2012

Place-Making Fiction: An Interview with Ben Stroud

We are thrilled to present the first in a series of interviews Scott Geiger, guest editor of Man-Made Lands, conducted with some of the contributors to this special edition of Ninth Letter. Take it away, Scott.

This Columbus Day I took Ben Stroud and his family through the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland. In the courtyard of Ohio City’s historic Jesuit high school, we recorded the following conversation. The interview looks back on his “The Bandanese Curse,” which I commissioned for Ninth Letter’s first chapbook supplement, Man-Made Lands. We also discussed his unusual travel habits, how to research for fiction, innovation in writing workshops, and his upcoming collection of short fiction, Byzantium, winner of the 2012 Bakeless Prize.

Ben Stroud’s stories have appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Ecotone, Boston Review, and other magazines. He teaches creative writing at the University of Toledo.

Scott Geiger: “The Bandanese Curse” surprised me. The framework we originally discussed, the ideas that became Man-Made Lands, had to do with telling stories about the built environment—buildings, cities, landscapes we inhabit. I hadn’t expected any of the contributors to set their work in the past, as you have. Pretty na├»ve, I know. What made you choose the history of the Geelvinck Hinlopen House in Amsterdam for your subject?

Ben Stroud:  I found the house by chance through my own lame travel habits. When I’m traveling, anytime there’s someone’s old house that you can go into or a house museum, I like to do it. In May 2010, when we were in Amsterdam, we purchased a tourist pass and there were three house museums included on it. I’m also cheap, so if there’s anything of remote interest on this pass I’m going to do it. So we went to the Geelvinck House. It was probably the most elegant of the houses. It had this beautiful garden behind the house, and it fronted on two different canals, so it was this really beautiful place. It happened that one of the Dutch guides there latched on to us and really wanted to tell us about the history of the house. He mentioned that whatever millionaire owns it now (it’s still in private hands) was very aware of its history, and there were all these pieces there that signal a connection to the slave trade. That’s not in the story itself, but the idea that there was a darker history to the house comes from that. At a certain point he said something about the wood floors and how they were built out of a ship. I found that really fascinating, houses owned by the city’s traders made out of ships. He was even beating on the floor with his foot. This stuck with me.  I had too many projects then and couldn’t find a place for this house,  but I knew I would return to it. It’s a fascinating place, the house and the floors, the world we were part of there.

SG: And it’s one of the more architecturally radical stories in the set, actually. The seventeenth century setting augments that effect. What is history doing in your fiction? Or, what is your fiction doing to history? 

BS: One of the things you’re always thinking about as a writer is, what am I bringing to the table? What am I doing differently? Most historical fiction writers, whether highly literary like Jim Shepherd or, like, whatever bodice-ripper writer, you know, will write about real people,  fictionalize their lives. What’s brilliant about Jim Shepard is that he’ll take people maybe you don’t know about or some corner of history you don’t know about and write about that.  Though some of his things will be major things or events, Hadrian’s Wall, what’s that like? Or he’ll take you on the Hindenburg.  I like to go to more obscure places, to things that I just find fascinating, where there are holes in history and people don’t know as much about it. This gives me a lot of freedom as a writer. I’m not as interested in writing about real people but instead finding fictional people and thinking about the experience of that time. In that way, you can get at what’s universal about that time. We have these wooden ideas of history.

One of the things that’s being discussed in the dinner scene at the end of the story “Byzantium,” and I know it’s very obscure, is the rise of Islam. No one at this point is aware that it’s going to become this epoch-making event.  A touchstone for me, especially when writing “Byzantium,” was a story by Flaubert, “Herodias” in Three Tales. That story has such a magnificent ending—I couldn’t even gesture toward it. The characters in the story have no idea of what’s really going on. The reader notices, and you’re like, Oh…. I’m after these small moments that have something happening beneath them.

On the other hand, those moments can’t be the only thing a story has going for it. It has to give you more.  In “Byzantium,” one of the major notions that emerged in writing it was the moral sacrifice in serving an Empire, a connection that I hope reaches forward to today.  But I’ve always been fascinated by history, fascinated by other worlds. Half the pleasure in writing a story for me is building the world of the story.

SG: Do you research your fiction?

BS: I immerse myself. With “The Bandanese Curse,” I sort of buried myself over Christmas Break with all of these texts about that period of Dutch history and Dutch culture. One of these was great book that ties the history of Dutch painting to international trade. With “Byzantium,” I found a book called Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which had stories about the lives of monks, one of which is referenced in the story. It helped me get a sense of the psychology of the period. I bury myself fairly deeply, but I always try to shake off whatever’s not relevant to the story as quickly as possible. That can be difficult.

SG: Would you ever put together a syllabus around researching for fiction? What would that class look like?

BS: It’s funny that you asked that. Before I left the University of Alabama I had pitched a senior level creative writing course on research and writing. It’s a course that I’m interested in teaching, since it’s a subject a lot of people get scared about.

The way I’ve developed my approach is by asking questions. When I was doing my MFA, I would ask any writer who came through town or any writer on faculty, anyone who did anything historical, how did you create this world in your book? I got a variety of answers, from Edward P. Jones, who said I did no research, to Steven Millhauser, who said I was looking up what kind of lamp posts were being put up in New York City in 1898. Asking questions gave me some liberty, because both of these guys created these beautiful worlds, so anything in between either pole is fine. Now it’s about finding out what helps me.
I had some other good advice from Peter Ho Davies. He told me the only person who’s going to catch you is an expert on the subject you’re writing about, and they’re not going to really read your book anyway. If they do, they’ll be looking for mistakes. As writers, we get anxious about the mistakes we might make historically, but our audience isn’t going to catch them as long as they’re not critical to the fiction.

This year I was teaching The Great Gatsby (not a historical book, I know), and I was reading in the notes about all the logical mistakes Fitzgerald made. If you really look at what’s happening, some of the things Fitzgerald describes are impossible. The same thing with some Sherlock Holmes stories. The solutions to some of the mysteries don’t make any sense; Arthur Conan Doyle is just making it up. There’s one where a snake climbs up a rope, for example.  Then in the footnote the editor says a snake this size couldn’t climb a rope, much less do all these other things Doyle has it doing.  Still, these mistakes don’t take away from the pleasure of reading a Sherlock Holmes novel or the pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby.

Research is in service to story, so for me it’s less about figuring out how to do research than about how to think about the research.

SG: When does structure come about in your process? Like, when did you know that “The Bandanese Curse” would have a frame tale and inset back story about the Walvis? 

BS: I’m sure other people have used the metaphor of a trellis with vines growing around it. Once I know the structure, I can let the story grow. Usually, structure comes really early for me, while I’m doing research.  I care a lot about plot. With “The Bandanese Curse,” I used a horror-ghost story plot. I’ve liked using plotty-genre elements, and part of that has been me trying to figure out plot. When you go to genre you already have plot mapped for you. As I’ve been writing more and more, I’ve been backing away from straight-up mystery, straight-up ghost story, while hopefully still writing interesting plots. Because the can’t be all about the world, which is often my first draw. And then—this will make me sound like a terrible writer—character comes in later. Only once I understand what these people are doing can I figure out who they are.

SG: “The Bandanese Curse,” as a historical fiction, resembles the title story of your collection. Yet that’s not the only kind of story you do. You’ve also published some accomplished, very thoughtful contemporary realism. How do you relate the writer of “The Bandanese Curse” and “Byzantium” to the writer of “Eraser” or “At Boquillas”?

BS: One relationship is that place is key to all of the stories. With “At Boquillas,” I wrote that story while on vacation with my parents and my wife in Big Bend, where the characters are. I drafted the story in the car right after the hike the characters do, I was so gripped by it.  Pretty much all the details, aside from the characters themselves and their problems, were taken from that hike. That place and its strangeness made me want to write about it. The lure to write that story is the same lure to write a story set in nineteenth century Germany. The drive has to do with place.

For me, too, if I keep writing in the same world, I get a little bored sometimes. So I shift, I go to another world.

SG: What’s the proportion of historical fiction to contemporary realism in your upcoming collection from Graywolf? 

BS: There are ten stories, six historical, four contemporary. I first started some of these stories as early as seven years ago, and this connects to my development as a writer. The contemporary stories are either the first stories I wrote or the ones I wrote most recently. The heavy emphasis on the historical mode is sort of an accident. Once I figured out how to write historical fiction, I wanted to keep writing more.  And this was pretty much at the same time I started to figure out fiction (as much as possible—I mean, that’s an ongoing struggle).  So because of this convergence most of the decent stories I’ve managed to put together happen to be historical.  Plust two of these historical stories I took from a failed novel.  

SG: My central inspirations for Man-Made Lands were two studios I had participated in a few years ago. These studios addressed specific subjects—one was strictly architectural, involving sea level rise and waterfront cities; the other was multidisciplinary, and it was about quarantines. I wonder how this focus-format translates to the writing workshop. For example, would you ever teach a workshop on fictions set in Renaissance Europe or a workshop addressing something even more specific, say, faith-healer figures?

BS: I think it would be interesting to teach a workshop where you are that focused. You could have focused readings and focused discussions on problems that arise when you’re trying to write in this kind of world.
Even if you focused on historical fiction or even more finely on fictions set in Renaissance Europe, you still have so many different choices. If you do Renaissance England, you have George Garrett with his Elizabeth and James books, and the Hilary Mantel books. I think Garrett has been kind of forgotten, and that could be a great question: what is Hilary Mantel doing differently from George Garrett? How might that then relate to what I’m doing or you’re doing as a writer.

I think the big thing would be just making sure you have the students who would be engaged. I think it would be hard to teach that kind of class in a university setting. Even at a top-notch MFA program, you might be able to find two people interested in that kind of class. If you were to do that at a conference, though, and attract the right people then that might be a really engaging, interesting course to teach or participate in.

To read "The Bandanese Curse," visit our webstore to pick up a copy of Man-Made Lands.

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