A Chimp DividedInterview by Kasey Carpenter
I have to admit it wasn’t easy. Pitching an interview of an as yet unknown author, in fact an author who wasn’t even technically published two weeks ago when I interviewed him, is a challenge. But the book, oh the book... THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE came to me via such high recommendations (Dave Cullen, author of COLUMBINE under Twelve, and Cary Goldstein, now the EIC of Twelve), well, you read the book. Never mind what Jonathan Ames had to say about the author.
Almost 580 pages? This book flies in the face of the incredible shrinking fiction phenomenon many (even the great Cormac McCarthy prophesied as much) hailed as one of the final blips before the flat-line of books. But I’ve had to choke down books a third this size, whereas this book, in all its bulk, went down easily. I’ll leave the reviews to the professionals (or rather those bent on quantifying the subjective), but I can tell you that when you read this book, you’re left with that Chinese-food hunger: as soon as you are done, you want more. So for me, that was tracking down and talking with the creator of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin Hale.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in the past year. I'm smitten, I'm biased, and while I love minimalism, sometimes a vocabulary buffet is the perfect indulgence. Language isn’t dead just yet. And an original idea that began as a riff on Kafka, or rather a riff on Roth’s riff on Kafka, proves to be an entertaining vehicle with which to give us a truly memorable character. Bruno, the narrator, is unique among his kind, in fact, in the world, as he is the first chimpanzee to make the leap from simple (this is a relative term) sign language to fully articulated speech. But as Bruno learns, this newfound skill/gift comes with crippling side-effects such as alienation, forbidden love, loss, murder, incarceration and so much more. But that’s the book. You'll soon read it and soon read about it. For now, I’d like to introduce you to the author, Benjamin Hale.
KC: So, how does it feel? The due date is what, eight, nine days away? (The book dropped officially on 2/2/2011)
BH: Oh you know, (laughs) I’m just kind of hands off right now. And I think unless you’re Jay-Z or Sarah Palin, those drop dates are pretty much ignored. I’ve got some friends of mine back in Iowa and Colorado telling me they’ve seen it for sale already. My dad sent me a picture the other day he took of my book displayed in a bookstore in Boulder. Then I thought, it must be out already, so I started walking around NYC to see if it was up, and none of them had it. So I’m just waiting. It’s a pretty cool thing though. I’ve been waiting for this for, I don’t know, about a year? And at this point, as it edges up closer and closer, I’m just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. It’s really hard to think about anything else.
KC: I can’t imagine. I was thinking about this on the flight up here because we’ve never interviewed an author BEFORE his book was published. I actually had to do some begging and creative pitching to sell the idea of interviewing you. But I felt pretty strongly about the book, and it was recommended highly. Anyhow, I was really thinking about what it must be like, sitting here, waiting for the inevitable, whatever it may be. So you just sit and wait?
BH: Well, I start teaching at my alma mater in a couple of days, which is a really cool thing, but the classes start just days before this drops. So I want to do a good job, hoping that they might offer me a more permanent gig. But on the other hand, I’m going to really have to fight with my mind being preoccupied with this book.
KC: Class, turn to page six, start reading, and leave me alone.
BH: Exactly, so I need to figure out a way to teach this class...
KC: I don’t know how you could focus. How long has this book been in the making?
BH: Sum total about four years. Three years from when I started writing and I came to a draft that made me say I want to sell this book now. Then another year between drafts via my agent and editor. So in reality, it was a relatively short period of time...
KC: I was gonna say, given what you have here, and who you’re with, that’s a pretty compressed timeline.
BH: I think when people say, oh it took me ten years to write this, what that means is – it took them ten years to write it while they worked around their day job, working evenings, etc... whereas...
KC: If you condense it down to a 40 hour workweek, it’d be a couple of years.
BH: Yeah, that and, well, I had this godsend of a fellowship in Iowa.
KC: That’s the Provost?
BH: Right, the Provost. It’d only been around for two years before I got there. Prior to my arrival, there was a former director of the program who died, and gave his house to the university. It was this big, Tudor-style house, right on the campus, and it had been sitting empty for a few years after the guy died and the sons took all the furniture. He said they could use the house for anything they want, but the university couldn’t use it for anything because the house wasn’t ADA compliant, so the director at the time, had this idea to start this fellowship where writers could move in there and live and have a whole year free to write. So I lived with a poet, a nonfiction writer, and a translator in this old style mansion, with dark paneling, a smoking room straight out of Masterpiece Theater...
KC: Were you compelled to buy a smoking jacket?
BH: I was... I didn’t though. I got that fellowship at a perfect time. I knew what I wanted to do with the book, I just needed the time to get it. If I had still been waffling on where to take the book, it would have been wasted. Prior to that it was like that scene in AMADEUS where they ask him, Mozart, where’s that symphony...
KC: It’s all in here, relax, I just gotta write it.
BH: Exactly. Writing it down is the easy part. (laughs)
KC: Speaking of, with the book, which was first, the voice or the message? I mean, did you create the voice to carry the message of the book, or did you create this message as a vehicle to deliver us Bruno?
BH: Um, well they were both pretty simultaneous. I don’t know if there really is a message, per se. There certainly are some distinct themes. I don’t know that I’d call it a message, what is all that? (referring to the notes in the margins and questions in the back pages of my copy of his book)
KC: Oh, sorry, I’m one of those guys. I write all over a book when I read it, making little notes here and there, and using the end pages for questions I have.
BH: Oh wow.
KC: Yeah. Well, I just received the final copy a few days ago, but all my notes and questions and such are in here.
BH: Cool. So the voice, to me, is really important. When I started writing, I was reading a lot of Roth and Bellows. When I first started writing this book, it was my first year in Iowa and I had a girlfriend living in Chicago, which was only like 3 hours away. So I was in Chicago half the time, and she was a grad student in architecture, so she actually had to work, while I was in an MFA, where you know, they give you just enough rope to hang yourself.
KC: Ah MFAs – we’ll get into that – I had a great conversation with Shteyngart in this same coffee shop a few months ago about MFA programs. He was brutally honest and cracked me up – not what I was expecting from someone who teaches an MFA program at Columbia. Did you see that article in Slate about the MFA versus NYC schools of thought?
BH: I did. And it was so true.
KC: A lot of it seemed like creating distinctions that don’t need to be.
BH: Yeah, it reminds me of that time someone asked Flannery O’Conner if universities stifle writers, and she said “They don’t stifle enough of them.” (laughs)
BH: So, my girlfriend lived in a basement apartment by Lincoln Park, and while she was working, I would walk across the street to the Lincoln Park Zoo and watch the chimps all day. You see, I have this lifelong fascination with chimpanzees.
KC: How did that start?
BH: Jane Goodall. I saw a documentary of hers entitled “People of the Forest” where this one particular chimp was this neurotic momma’s boy – he had the chimp equivalent of an Oedipus complex. He clung to his mother far longer than the average chimp, and the other chimps thought he was this weirdo, they wouldn’t associate with him, he was the absolute omega male of this group. Well, in his adolescence, his mother died, of natural causes, nothing traumatic in her death per se. And he just couldn’t handle it. He was dragging her corpse around for weeks and then he just wasted away from grief, and Jane found him dead, by the river, still holding onto his mother’s body. And I remember being just haunted by that, and what really scared me was the idea that a chimpanzee could be just as irrational and crazy as a human being. I mean, this chimp basically committed suicide. And I thought, if it is possible for a chimp to let his emotions stand in the way of his own desire to live, that says something really interesting and profound about animal consciousness, and especially how liquid the border between human and animal really is.
KC: It’s not as high of a wall as we think it is.
BH: Right, right. Traditionally, you know, human beings have a tendency to philosophically draw a circle around themselves and say, this is what separates us from the animals. Have you seen the Great Chain of Beings?
KC: The Scala Natura?
BH: Yes. It’s this linear column where Satan is at the bottom, and God is at the top, ordered in terms of perfection. The weird thing about it was the order - the closer the animals got towards human beings, the more perfect they were. Then there was a line, then angels and then God. So a main message of this book was an effort to do away with that, that there was not as much of a difference between man and animal as we might think.
KC: Do you think that, I mean people will always cling to certain ideas I suppose, but do you think there are still people who think that animal consciousness is not a reality? I mean, to me, if you were to witness that scene that you just described, then it’s a done issue for me. Would I equate it to human consciousness, not necessarily, but again, that wall is lower than we’ve previously thought. When you are allowed to affect your own outcome, you aren’t just running on instinct, or hardwired behavior...
BH: Well, it’s a big deal in the science of animal consciousness. One of the interesting things about this whole story when I was doing all this research for it, the studies of animal language, particularly ape language, have been embattled within the scientific community...
KC: A pseudo-science then?
BH: Yeah, they have to fight this perception...
KC: Because there is some ambiguity in their findings?
BH: Because there is a LOT of ambiguity. The kind of research they do, because of the structure of it doesn’t conform to traditional scientific methodology, they are subject to all kinds of doubt. For instance, back when they first started this type of research, the arguments was how do you know a chimp is using the proper sign language sign in the proper context? In the proper lexicon of sign language. If you are seeing it, you know without a doubt something is going on, but it is a very difficult thing to translate into hard data, and there’s the issue.
KC: Makes sense.
BH: Public enemy number one to animal linguists is Noam Chompsky.
KC: I love that reference in the book by the way.
BH: (laughs) Thank you. When Noam was developing his theory of universal grammar, the language box, etc... he had some flawed distinctions I think, one of which was that language is an exclusively human trait.
KC: But the issue there is that you have to define your iteration of “language” – I mean look at dolphins, there are some who suggest, through years of observation and interaction, that their language may be as complex, if not more complex, than our own. But he’s discussing more grammatical language.
BH: Right. Then you have biologists and linguists. The linguist wants to emphasize the structural and grammatical components of language, whereas the biologist looks at language as part of communication...
KC: But then you go from language to communication. I mean two moths can communicate via pheromones, that’s a sort of biochemical language, right?
BH: Right. And it seems kind of arbitrary to find a certain point and then draw the line and say, this is language. Of course it makes sense that linguists want to do that, because that is what they do... Where were we?
KC: I’m sorry; we’ve gone all over the map already. I’m a horrible interviewer in the traditional sense, I promise I’ll go back and quilt this together into a nice warm blanket...
BH: Ha, no no, this is fun. So, I was in Chicago sitting in the Lincoln Park Zoo.
KC: There we go.
BH: (laughs) Which as zoos go, is a pretty sad zoo, but they have a cool primate house. They have a decent set up there. And I would go there and watch the chimps all day. There was this one time when I was sitting there, and I was just hanging out waiting for her to finish working, and the book that I was reading at the time was PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT...
BH: Yeah. (laughs) So I’m there alternately reading and watching. I was there long enough for them to stop worrying about me, that guy on the bench, versus when a three year old slams against the glass. Sometimes they interact with humans, sometimes they don’t. It was just fascinating to watch. And there I am reading about this guy who has this claustrophobic life, and then I got to thinking about a class in Iowa where we were reading Kafka, and I loved him as a teenager...
KC: That’s an important point in life to find Kafka.
BH: Very. But I remember this short story A REPORT TO AN ACADEMY and the first line was something like “You show me the honor of calling upon me to submit a report to the Academy concerning my previous life as an ape. In this sense, unfortunately, I cannot comply with your request.” And then he goes on about how he was captured in the jungle, and he learned to speak while in a cage on this ship. Then he became this member of learned society, yet never quite one of them, always being considered a freak. So I’m reading Roth at this time as well, and came across a novella he wrote called “The Breast” about this literature professor who one day wakes up and has been transformed into this enormous human breast, a parody of THE METAMORPHOSIS.
BH: Which makes sense since Roth was obsessed with sex. So I thought, what if Kafka could write a parody of Roth?
KC: Of course. (laughs)
BH: Right? So it was the voice in PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, but narrated by a chimpanzee. A neurotic, perverted – perverted, not perverse – chimpanzee who was delivering the whole book as a monologue to his therapist. The original title was Bonzo’s Complaint. I started writing it as a joke, purely for my own amusement...
KC: Which is where the best stories come from...
BH: I hope so. It was just fun to write, and I arrived at this voice that was like a mask - it was so much fun to put on. Then it got bigger and I changed the name to Bruno from Bonzo because rhythmically, I needed a two-syllable name that started with “B” and ended with a long “O” – but I learned that one of the original chimpanzees used in the sign language experiments was named Bruno...
KC: So there you go.
BH: Yup. So that’s how the book started. I wrote the first fifty pages in about a week, the first fifty have pretty much been the same the whole life of the book.
KC: What were some of the models for the voice?
BH: Portnoy, definitely. You can see in the book what I was reading at the time. It’s funny now to go back and be able to see, “oh here is where I was reading Great Expectations”...
KC: Which happens to everyone, except maybe those who refuse to read while they write, but by and large, you can see what influenced a writer as he was writing, it shows up in the narrative, of its own accord.
BH: Very true, but other than Portnoy, there was Augie March, and then Oskar Matzerath from THE TIN DRUM – those books really influenced the voice of Bruno. Nabokov and Kafka as well, obviously.
KC: And not to dumb this conversation down, but about fifty pages into this, I got hit with this Lecter/Starling vibe.
BH: (laughs) Yeah, I definitely thought about that.
KC: I’m so glad to hear you say that... but it was very overt, to me, this narcissistic self-deluding intellect in Bruno’s simian contempt that mirrors Lecter’s refusal to be labeled a “criminal” along with the other garden-variety killers. And then Bruno places his deliverer/weakness Lily on this pedestal, much the way Lecter did with Starling.
BH: Totally. I’m very happy you got that.
KC: Well it is written as plain as day, to me anyways.
BH: I love those kinds of complex characters.
KC: Well they’re fun because they present you with a dilemma, they’re villains, but they also aren’t the antagonists of the story per se – Hannibal is never the guy, until the book Hannibal, which was little more than a money grab at that point. But he’s this guy on the periphery that you shouldn’t root for, but you want to.
BH: Exactly. You’re happy when he gets away. Or how devilishly smart he is, like peeling the guard’s face off to wear it as a mask – that was clever. (laughs)
KC: We need more from Mr. Harris. But back to Bruno. You talk a lot about spiritual need versus religion.
BH: What do you mean by spiritual need?
KC: Well, you use the actual phrase at one point in the book, but there are several instances where you allude to that, such as when Leon is reading poetry to the subway-goers to satisfy their spiritual hunger, and then Bruno, despite his experience at the hands of the worst aspect of religion, he still has this tugging from within...
BH: Well that has been, for me, a central obsession of my life.
KC: Yeah I noticed your Facebook status on religious views was “none: aggressively so”
BH: (laughs) Yeah... there are two parts at play. On one hand, in my totally rational mind I’m like totally Christopher Hitchens on the subject. But on the other hand I think that stuff that basically makes life worth living like art and music are really closely related to religion. The creation of art and music comes from that same irrationality that religion comes from in a lot of people. The same place that moves that chimp to drag his mother’s corpse around for weeks until he himself dies.
KC: You’re aware that this mirrors the linguist versus the biologist conversation we had earlier...
BH: Yes. Very much so. It is a really fascinating thing. It gets even more fascinating to me when you think of evolutionary writers like Richard Dawkins - the scientists who study animal consciousness - those guys really don’t like Richard Dawkins – and it doesn’t have anything to do with religion, but the way that we understand evolution.
KC: Are you a fan of Johnny Cash?
BH: I am, yeah.
KC: Is that a Folsom Prison Blues reference I read there, on page 315?
BH: Yeah, where Bruno sees the train going by?
KC: ...and he feels sorry for the chimps that have to watch it going by?
BH: (laughs) Okay, so my whole family is from Arkansas, and Cash is an Arkansan. And that part where the train goes by, there used to be a line that read “and when I hear the whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry” but I figured that was too much. But the pun is there, I wanted people to catch it.
KC: Caught. Also there was an ending to another chapter that reminded me of the infamous Hemingway short story of six words.
BH: Yeah, that’s it.
KC: Okay, good. Sometimes when we read we project our own worldview and agendas. I loved the frustration you wrote into Bruno, how we see all these macro and micro level things that would annoy and haunt him, being a singularity as he is, a chimp who can speak, in fact speak with a vocabulary miles beyond the average hu-man.
BH: I read this article recently about a scientist who wants to clone a wooly mammoth, they have enough DNA, and they would use an elephant as the surrogate etc... but once you get that mammoth here, that is going to be the loneliest creature on the planet. The only one of his or her species. With Bruno there were a lot of things going on, but there is that sense of isolation one would feel, that you can never fit into human society, but you can never go back to your simian roots. I wrote into his character that he would have this massive chip on his shoulder, that he would forever be measured not by his words but by what he is – having to prove his intelligence.
KC: You can’t be a dumb talking chimp, you have to be articulate, well-spoken.
BH: He’d have this combination of arrogance and insecurity that goes along with someone who is an autodidact, one who constantly has to prove himself because he doesn’t have skins on the wall to point to.
KC: I didn’t hit on that until later, but it made sense, Bruno would have to spend an inordinate amount of time having to explain why he can speak before he can even get to the words he wishes to share. And the frustration that must comes with that burden.
BH: Yeah, (laughs) it’s a weird little autobiographical book...
KC: All good books are in one way or another. So how is this autobiographical?
BH: When I was younger, I was born in California, then we moved to Colorado which is essentially where I grew up, but when I was a kid I had all these strange issues, I had this awful stutter in the second or third grade, I couldn’t talk. I had this really great speech therapist who broke me out of it to where I was able to speak long enough to communicate.
KC: So she was your Lydia?
BH: Well, I don’t think it went quite that far (laughs) but yes she did break me out of my non-communicative shell. But I also had this weird behavioral thing about not wanting to eat around other people. So I’d take my lunch behind the tennis courts at school and hide while I ate. I was an awful student, and later in life I realized I had face blindness, prosopagnosia, I have a terrible time trying to recognize faces – like if someone gets a really dramatic haircut, I have to re-remember them. I lived through this battery of psychoanalytic testing, from the classic stuff like Rorschach tests on up. So there’s a part in the book where they’re doing EEG tests on Bruno and they tell him to lie absolutely still and he learns that if he clenches his jaw muscles, the needles jump, but those administering the test cannot tell that Bruno is manipulating the data. I used to do the same thing.
KC: So you messed up their baselines?
BH: Exactly. And it was a weird thing for me, to be able to move my finger and see a needle jump on a graph across from me.
KC: Did you adversely affect your diagnosis (laughs)
BH: (laughs) I don’t know, I don’t even know what the results were.
KC: But again, we're back to the narrative and the fallibility of science, if the data can be corrupted – data they see as gospel.
KC: Yet is probably a genius in his own right, and conversely if the scientist was placed in his environment, he’d fare worse than the kids.
BH: Exactly, so there’s that inherent bias but also, the observer can never really know for sure if what he’s observing is legit, or if the subject is just messing with him, you know? Like what if the tribesman has a wicked sense of humor?
KC: Well there is that. And you present that well with Bruno and his assigned observers. Can I ask you about Ignatius J. Riley?
BH: Yes. Leon.
KC: Was it? Because again, I don’t want to project myself onto the book, but I haven’t read THE CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES in a decade or more, but that character jumped out at me.
BH: Leon was a combination of people, and Ignatius was a component, plus a history professor I had at Sarah Lawrence named Fred Smoler – I took a class in which we read the Henry acts...
KC: Funny because I had a moment today when I saw an eccentric looking man reading Henry the Third on the subway...
BH: Nice. Fred was really funny and really fat, and he was this Falstaffian figure to me, and I taught those plays to my students at the University of Iowa, and Ignatius J. Riley, and in particular Orson Welles personification of Falstaff, and so he’s kind of a blend of those characters.
KC: Bruno has been described as “literary fiction”. What does the term “literary fiction” mean today?
KC: Because, and this is just me, but I think it’s become little more than a tagline to sell a book. I know it is indeed a genre of its own, but it seems like many, many books get thrown under that blanket for the sake of appealing to the pseudo intellectual who is enamored with the fact that he/she is reading a book from that particular shelf.
KC: Which gets a little catty, because then you develop this myopia that cuts out entire armies of writers, just because you don’t read Crichton, or Grisham, or Patterson – which all have merit in their own right.
BH: It reminds me of the way pulp writers from the 30’s 40’s and 50’s like Raymond Chandler and people like that were considered commercial pulp in America at the time, were rediscovered by French intellectuals in the 60’s and they took it seriously as art and fed it back to America as something to be taken seriously.
KC: Outside credibility.
BH: These are the same people who elevated the view of Hitchcock above blockbuster director to genius.
KC: I always love to cite Crichton as a litmus test for this.
BH: Or Stephen King.
KC: Yeah, but at least King has his short stories outside the horror genre that garnered him some “literary” cred – Crichton never had that, he has his genre stuff, his TV work, and that was it. But I always find it funny that people flinch at the thought of putting him in the literary category, when, to me, if you don’t you’re losing the very definition of it, subjective though it may be.
BH: I’m a fan of really well-done police procedurals, and there are many that jump the line into literary per se, but ultimately it’s a marketing thing, a dumb distinction. I heard Chabon interviewed on this and he put eloquently: “I would love to see a day when we walk into a book store and we see one section called fiction, all the stuff that’s made up put ‘here’ – so while you’re looking for your sci-fi title, god forbid you stumble over a romance title that might intrigue you.”
KC: Yup. Our need to compartmentalize everything down to a molecular level.
BH: It’s an interesting thing, being slotted as literary. Obviously it’s a good problem to have. I’m working on another novel now, a totally straightforward and realistic novel, and I’m thinking: what are people going to expect of me after Bruno? (laughs)
KC: But you don’t want to get too caught up in that, right? Otherwise it might cloud what you write...
KC: I mean, if I’m an introvert by nature, or I really live for validation, will I pander? Will I dilute my story to fit a preconceived expectation? Yikes.
BH: Those are the fears. But I’ll worry about those later.
KC: Yeah because right now you’ve got a bigger problem... you brought out the big guns on the first try.
BH: Well, the second novel will be in another year, and I have a collection of short stories, finished and ready to go, but I should wait until I get some traction with Bruno, because, you know, they’re short stories.
KC: Yeah I’m sure your agent loves to hear those two words. No living on those, unless your Hempel, or say, you teach at Sarah Lawrence.
KC: Okay, so let’s get into the whole MFA thing.
KC: So obviously you are a product of that.
BH: Well, yes. I think with most, an interviewer from Kirkus asked me a question, well made a statement, he said you are from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but this book doesn’t feel “workshoppy” – on the one hand that was a little bit of backhanded compliment. And on the other hand it’s like, what does that even mean?
KC: Was he able to define it?
BH: Yeah. I thought about it. I know what workshoppy fiction looks like, its fiction that gets eroded. It’s really more of a feeling. There was a major moment, I was really into Saul Bellows, and I had these thoughts about it, how there is something different in the feeling and texture of this prose, and I was like, what is it that separates his work from everyone else?
KC: He was alone locked in his room?
BH: Well, you’re always alone when you write, you and the page, but the feeling was that this was basically told, not shown.
KC: Which is the opposite of contemporary fiction.
BH: Exactly. I think the whole show versus tell thing was supposedly from a Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald correspondence.
KC: It’s pretty much mantra these days.
BH: Right, it’s something that everyone tells you. Fiction has in a way been reverse-engineered by way of film, so anyone who has written in the last fifty years is going to be heavily influenced by that medium.
KC: He’ll write cinematically.
BH: Exactly. They show versus tell. But Bellows tells. His treatment of time and recollection is very oral versus visual. How language advances time, the metaphysics of his prose really speaks to that. And I really tried to emulate his style in Bruno, in a non-visual, theme-based, non-moment-to-moment basis. There are many successful examples of highly cinematic fiction. Part of the difficulty of MFA or workshops are that they are tilted to work best with short stories. This is due to the constraints of the timeframe of the class – a short story allows you to get into the structure and the levels and theories behind them, but you cannot get that deep into a novel in the time span of the course. You can certainly workshop sections of a novel, but it doesn’t really work that well. I think there are two branches of literature in the true sense, FSG once said, there are two types of writers: “taker-outers and putter-inners” and taker-outers tend to be better at short stories, and putter-inners tend to be better at novels, and workshops tend to favor taker-outers, which is totally fine, but that’s just not me. And that’s really the difficult thing about MFA programs. Which is really the issue at heart in that MFA versus NYC lit article in Slate and n+1.
KC: What I did agree with was the distinction that an MFA career makes the most sense when you are looking to ultimately end up in academia, whereas you don’t go the NYC route for a teaching career.
BH: Right. Look at poets. You’re gonna have to teach or wait tables. The audience for contemporary poetry is so tiny, and mostly consists of other poets, to where it makes sense that teaching is their refuge. Whereas contemporary fiction, there is the ability to make a living in the simple act of publishing your work. A poet friend of mine and I were talking about the numerous translations that Bruno is being published in, and my friend was dumbfounded – he said to me, as a poet, I’d have to have ten books and a MacArthur prize under my belt before anyone would want to translate my work into ONE language. But that’s the way it is.
KC: Fiction is the popular vehicle today. There was a time when it was the other way around.
BH: Indeed. But the thing about the MFA programs is this, and this is an issue that I think about a lot. In two days I’m going to be teaching at one. 99% of the act of teaching yourself to write, you do by yourself. External workshops and classes – those are all going to help, sure, but the most important thing by far that an MFA program gives you is the time to write. And Iowa was really good about that. And a writer who is insecure about their writing, to the point of allowing a workshop to tell them what to do, he isn’t going anywhere anyway.
KC: I’m glad to hear you say that. I love minimalism, and most of our readers are fans of minimalism, obviously, but I cannot write that way, I just can’t.
BH: I remember a student who was at Iowa, she worked up the same story over and over again, and it got worse and worse...
KC: I’ve seen it happen with stories in workshop where you had a decent sculpture and then in an effort to appease everyone, the thing gets chiseled down to a pile of dust.
BH: Exactly. You have to learn how to take criticism, and how far to take it, before you get the too many cooks in the kitchen scenario, and the piece becomes over-revised. She lost the original energy that comes from a first draft. And that is a danger from MFA programs. Writers who realize that a workshop can help you in your career and to get a snapshot of your audience are best off. I’m a few years out of Iowa right now, which is kind of cool so I can look back and see that the four or five of us who are being successful are the people who were the most confident and who worked the hardest.
KC: Funny how that works.
BH: (laughs) The people who had this singular vision of what they wanted to do, and did it. I got to be good friends with Jonathan Ames, he was my thesis advisor, which means he read my book once and we spent the rest of the time drinking. I actually didn’t get a lot done that semester, but it was a lot of fun. So I picked him up from the airport - he was coming back from this literary festival from Italy, and he had a really early draft of my book. And he was wiped out from this long plane ride, and he had literally just finished reading it right before he got off the plane. So I was driving him back to his place in Iowa City, prodding him for information the whole way, and when we got back into town, he said, “Don’t worry about my advice or anyone else’s advice, you’re a writer, you’ll figure this stuff out.”
BH: Yeah it was sort of this coming of age thing, telling Dumbo he doesn’t need his magic feather to fly – it was a real vote of confidence, and it was just what I needed.
KC: I’m a stickler for validation myself, to a fault maybe, but we all need that, especially when we get so tangled up in the world of our own design. I noticed that Bruno’s relationships were very stair-stepped. He had his original family at the zoo, then the first person to really care for him in the form of the night janitor, then there was the nurturer in Lydia, then the benefactors, then Leon the rescuer. Can you speak to that progression?
BH: Sure, well one of the books I was reading at the time was David Copperfield, and he was interesting in his structure – he has this typical Dickensian family of evil that he has to flee, but over the course of his life, he has this interesting series of surrogate fathers that take care of him – so there was that, with the janitor, Griph Morgan...
KC: And it was keeping in form with his character, not to beat the Lecter comparison to death, but he had this self-preserving, narcissistic thing, not that he views these people simply as throwaway people, but that he sees these people, in a lot of ways, as a means to an end. I mean he is very fond of them to a degree, perhaps he places great value on them is a better way to say it, but there is this sense of “you’re this. And when I don’t need this, you’re gone” – and that is human nature, which makes the whole thing work in Bruno’s quest for “humanity”
BH: Well again, back to “The Tin Drum” there is this Oskar Matzerath quality to him, where he goes through these people one at a time who help him out. There is this heartbreaking moment when they have all the POWs lined up, where Oskar gives up his grandfather to save his own skin, and he does it again with his own father. It’s a horrible personality trait, but it also comes from my desire to make it difficult for the reader to ascertain just how self-aware Bruno was.
KC: I got the sense that Bruno didn’t get the ramifications of his actions, and maybe that is kind of a tell to his developmental stage, but I thought that was well written, it wasn’t overt like he was stepping all over people to get what he wanted, but that he was new to these dynamics, these social contracts that we take for granted. And his behavior really mirrors behavior that we have all done to some extent at some point.
BH: Well I wanted his consciousness to expand over the course of the book.
KC: You succeeded. Tell us about Bill Lemmon.
BH: Okay, he’s this wildly eccentric guy who raised chimps, he was Freudian research psychologist who raised chimps in Oklahoma.
KC: Which in and of itself carries a weird asterisk.
BH: (laughs) No doubt.
BH: He taught at the University of Oklahoma. Research psychologists are almost never Freudian. So he had this land with a small lake and an island he’d raise these chimps on, since chimps can’t swim, this was a natural barrier for them. And he had all of these weird cross-fostering projects amongst his graduate students where he’d have them take a chimp and raise them as human children and see what would happen. Roger Fouts wrote about this in his book “Next of Kin”. He said in the book that in the 70’s Norman, Oklahoma must have had some sort of weird world record for the highest number of chimps reared in human homes. Anyway, there was this woman who raised a chimp in her home as a Catholic. She took him to mass, took him to church. This lady wasn’t all there, in fact there is speculation that she may have actually had sex with this chimp.
KC: Oh dear.
BH: Yeah. Yeah. So, these grad students would raise these chimps until they were five or six years old and then they’d get too big, too unruly...
KC: They start ripping faces off.
BH: Exactly, so they’d ship them back to the farm with all sorts of deranged and messed up traits they learned from their human caretakers.
KC: The Island of Dr. Moreau.
BH: Right! Messed up chimps all living on an island. All these neurotic chimps. And the chimp that was raised by this woman, years later would still do the station of the cross. So when I read about this, it hit me as something so disturbing, something pretty compelling, and it comes across in the story. It really freaked me out when I learned about this kind of behavior.
KC: Nice to know we can mess up more than just our own kids. Let’s talk your landing an agent, and then “dying and going to publishing heaven” as Betsy Lerner put it to Dave Cullen when he landed at Twelve.
BH: Well I actually had a hard time finding an agent. I was rejected by a couple dozen agents. In the beginning I would query those that came to the workshop. There was this one agent, a super-agent who had this rockstar client list, and I asked him about it, but he rejected it because it was “hard to categorize.” After he passed on it, I got frustrated and went back to the Big Blue Book of False Hopes as we called it back in Iowa...
KC: The Big Blue Book of False Hopes? I love that.
BH: (laughs) Yeah. So I went to the agent section and just picked fifty agents and emailed queries, the equivalent of query napalm. And I got a couple of offers a few weeks later, one of them was Brian (DeFiore) which helped my self-esteem issues quite a bit. So I ultimately went with him, and I worked on the draft for Brian somewhat, and then... Let me just say the entire process or writing and pitching and getting representation is sooo looong. So I expected finding a publisher to be also, but once Cary got a hold of a copy, he got it one day, read it the next, and made an offer the following – so in three days from being sent out, I had an offer. This was really, really good, more money than I had ever seen in one place, and in like seventy-two hours. And then Brian said, “No, don’t take it, we’re going to auction.” Mind you, I was at this very strange point in my life where I just moved to New York from Iowa, and I was absolutely dead broke, working at this wine store, living out of a suitcase, student loans looming, etc... I was broke.
KC: This doesn’t seem like such a strange point in the life of a writer.
BH: Well, true, but still, I had this money offered, and my agent said no, so I trusted him and we went to auction, and ultimately there were six publishers interested in it. So after being rejected by more than 20 agents, I was in this auction amongst all the big houses in New York! It was a psychotic week in my life, an amazing thing, but insane. In the morning I would take the train into Manhattan to meet with editors at these powerhouse publishers, and then in the afternoon go to my job hauling cases of wine around and the reality of retail. It was surreal.
KC: Weird time to know it’s coming but be unable to act on it.
BH: Yeah, I was still broke. It was a very, very strange week. From initial offer to auction to final, it was a week, a week and a half.
KC: So Twelve won out, obviously.
BH: Yeah. Cary really wanted the book, and I’m glad I wound up there.
KC: So what have they got planned for you?
BH: I’m doing a few readings, a tour. I’ll be in San Francisco in the beginning of March. But I’m also teaching at Sarah Lawrence, so I’ve cut up this tour to work around my teaching schedule – I’ll be in a blur until June.
KC: Well, you should be proud of it and I feel that you’ve created a great foundation on which to build a career on. No pressure...
BH: (laughs) Well, thanks, I hope so.
Benjamin Hale can be found: