Ben Marcus’s collection of stories, Leaving the Sea, was released on Tuesday. Tobias Carroll, managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, joined Marcus at Community Bookstore in Park Slope to discuss the collection.
Carroll launches the discussion by asking about the relationships in the collection’s first story, “What Have You Done?” The story is about a man with a dark past that leaves him shunned by friends and family as he attends a reunion.
Many of Marcus’s stories feature familial relationships and the absence of connection between the characters. For Marcus, he explains that his goal is about getting to the horrible place but in way that feels organic and natural. He says he doesn’t write in a calculating way. He doesn’t use “tweezers,” he says, and as he is writing, he wants that horribleness to evolve on the page.
In the case of “What Have You Done?”, Marcus intentionally avoids going into the details of the character’s dark past because writing those events felt too specific. “What did this guy do that was so fucking bad?” Marcus asks–he has the answers but refuses to tell the audience. He says that in drafts where those things were explicit, the tension dissipated.
“I became interested in what could be left out [of the story],” he says. He wanted to avoid the expository component because it bored him. “I had to write the story I most wanted to read.”
He says that the most common thing he hears from readers or students in writing workshops is that people want to know more about a character, but “knowing more doesn’t make the story better,” he said. By feeding that desire, the story goes away. The story’s tension exists in the curiosity of what is missing.
Carroll asks about withholding setting, and references Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. His settings seem absent in many of his works.
Setting makes Marcus nervous; it becomes a placeholder too easily, offers up structure to a storyline even when that structure doesn’t exist. He explains that the Cleveland of “What Have You Done?” is not the real world Cleveland. The fact checker working on the book found only one of the streets Marcus mentioned and there is no Day’s Inn. The real world details would be a crutch for the story that he wanted to avoid. The story’s setting, Marcus said, was based on his impression of the city at a time he had visited it.
“I’m not the kind of writer to make a dutiful tapestry of the world,” he says.
Carroll asks about the structure of the story collection, about how Marcus organized the stories and whether it was meaningful.
Marcus begins by explaining that he feels iconic short story collections are the sort of thing that can be picked up and read from any point. Story order seems unimportant to him. But then he talks about his own anxieties. He felt like he only had an insane patchwork of writing, and that placing the stories in the right order would somehow fool everyone into believing he had a real book.
Marcus has two or three interests that he tends to write about, and so his stories continue to have similar themes as a result. But when it comes to readers and the order the stories are read in, its not something he worries too much about because some readers will read from the beginning but others will open a book at the middle and read from that point on. “The notion you control what a reader does is folly,” he says.
Carroll turns to two of the more reduced stories that are all dialogue.
Marcus explains that he has written many more of them, but limited his choice for the story collection. The two feature experts in eccentric fields: a professional, adult baby and an advocate for underground living. Marcus says he likes writing about false expertise, and creating those conversations was a way to play with those characters as experts in their respective fields. He also enjoys fictional, authoritative essays.
The story “I Can Say Many Nice Things” is about a writing professor’s workshop. Carroll asks whether this was based on real events, real experiences from Marcus’s time teaching.
There were many rules that Marcus invented for himself when he began writing, he begins to explain. Some of these included not drawing on autobiographical experiences or not writing about an academic setting. He had sworn off many things as a young writer. He had a lot of anxiety about “eating from your own body,” as he put it. But he recognized that many of the rules he had created simply stemmed from his own fears.
To combat his fears, he wanted to force himself to confront the issues. “I Can Say Many Nice Things” is about teaching writing as Marcus does, and it is about the academy, but its also about anxiety, the goal he always wants to achieve in narratives. Teachers of creative writing have to balance the criticism they dole out with maintaining their own credibility. Offer too harsh a critique, and a student learns nothing; act too softly and the other students stop respecting the you. Within the story, all the examples of bad writing are invented, and Marcus says he’s glad he, as a creative writing instructor, has never had to encounter instances quite as bad as in the story.
Carroll asks about the objectives Marcus has when he sets out to write, and whether or not he knows what his goals are.
The goal Marcus is writing for is a feeling. He describes it as a drug, and writing a way to get the drug. He wants to build up a sense of dread, foreboding, pressure, and a sense of looming conflict. He needs to feel those things to keep a story going.
Many of the stories focus on familial relationships precisely because family provides an easy source of anxiety. Its easy to create pressure for his characters. Marcus sees it as his responsibility to find their pressures and then give them more problems. The relationship of parent to child or child to adult parent allow a lot of this kind of interaction.
In “Rollingwood,” Carroll says, the child is often referred to as “the boy,” and thus creating a distance between his father. The story followsa single dad raising a young child with an unnamed problem.
Marcus says the story originated with his own sense of nauseated desperation raising his own children. He felt horrible one day because his children were up early and crying and it was cold and he simply didn’t know what to do with them, but at the same time they were his children and he loved them. He just wanted them to stop crying. “Rollingwood” begins from that kind of place of desperation. The father loves his child very much, but the child cannot reciprocate the feeling yet, something that causes frustration for the father as he moves through a series of challenges. Marcus wrote the opening the story but then felt he had no place for it to go. It sat unattended for a year until he realized the father could go to work. Suddenly he had a plot: leaving the house with the kid.
Carroll references a interview Marcus had in the New Yorker, and then asks about whether there was anything he wanted to do with writing that he hadn’t yet.
By way of an answer, Marcus describes a character with the ability to picture in his mind the genitals of anyone he meets. He can see them perfectly with every detail, man or woman. The only problem is, the character can’t draw, so its a useless superpower. Marcus then explains that he sometimes feels that way about himself with language; he knows what he wants to say, but finds trouble getting the words out in the right order.
Marcus is writing a new novel now. He is one page into it.