Interview with Chloe Benjamin

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Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her fiction, poetry and reviews are published or forthcoming in The Millions, Ninth Letter, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

How did you get started writing?

I was one of those annoying kids who was writing from a very young age—I remember sitting down at a clunky, old computer handed down from my mom’s partner, Molly, and writing stories at the age of eight or nine. I was also a voracious reader, which was critical to my development as a writer—as so many writers rightly say, it’s impossible to be a writer without first and always being a reader. I remember going to the library with my mom and younger brother and filling cloth tote bags full of books, then trying to decide which one to start on the car ride home—I was so excited to read them all that it was almost stressful. I continued to write through high school, starting longer projects and working with the fabulous 826 Valencia in my hometown of San Francisco. I knew heading into college that English and creative writing were what I wanted to focus on.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I did, but as a kid, I was also very involved in other forms of the arts—I did acting and singing, and later, I trained seriously as a ballet dancer. There were times when I thought I might want to go into one of these fields, but writing was a constant throughout all of those interests. I feel lucky to have had parents who encouraged me and never told me I was crazy for wanting to be an artist of some kind. They knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to have a career as a writer, but they always supported me in it.

How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal?

Many years! I didn’t have any short fiction publications when my novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, was sold to Simon & Schuster, and at that point, I had been submitting short stories to journals for over five years. And before I wrote Anatomy, I wrote another novel that was rejected by almost twenty publishers. So much of success in writing is withstanding rejection. It’s simply impossible to have a career in this field without enduring a ton of it. (Which is not to say it’s easy—I’m still working on thickening my skin!)

Do you have an agent? If so, how and when did you get one? Do you think agents are necessar?

When I was about halfway through my MFA in fiction at the UW-Madison, I had finished my first novel (the one that was rejected!) and submitted to agents. A young agent named Margaret Riley King at WME (William Morris Endeavor) took me on and stuck with me when that first book didn’t sell; two years later, she sold The Anatomy of Dreams, and we’re now working on my next book.

I do think that agents are necessary if you want to publish traditionally (which means that your book is sold to a publishing house, either a small independent or one of the “big 5” out of New York City). On the other hand, if you want to publish non-traditionally—which generally refers to self-publishing—you don’t need an agent. That route is a great fit for some people, but I still feel that traditional publishing is the right fit for me, and that those interested in self-publishing should think deeply about the cost vs. the benefits of that path. When you self-publish, you’re a one-(wo)man show: you have to edit and market the book, design the cover, pay for printing costs and ISBN numbers, do your own publicity, etc. You can pay others to do some of these things, but that means that your costs become even higher. Then, without the publicity and marketing power of a traditional publisher, it’s very hard for your book to garner notice amidst the thousands of other books that may be published that month. It’s a bit like YouTube: a few people become sensations, but it’s very difficult to break out.

I also think that a truly successful book is always a collaboration. Without an agent and then an editor, your work will lack the input and wisdom of others in the field. The suggestions of my agent and editor have helped me to grow as a writer and have deeply enhanced my work

What advice would do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Take it slow and put in the time to work on your craft. Publishing should only come when you’ve taken a piece as far as you can take it yourself—and, ideally, incorporated the suggestions of other smart readers, whether a classmate, a teacher, or an agent. Educate yourself by reading as much as you can. Try to become involved in a local or national literary community, whether through your school, community center, literary nonprofit, attending readings or conferences, etc. Writing is solitary, which makes it even more important to building connections and support the work of others.

Do you have any writing rituals? If you do, what is your process?

I write best in the morning. On an ideal day, I get going around 9AM and wrap up around 1PM; any later than that and my brain usually starts to wilt! Like many writers, I have a day job—I work from Monday through Thursday at an incredible non-profit called Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, which serves victims of domestic violence—so my writing days are Friday through Sunday. That said, if I’m really pushing on a project, I’ll get up before work to write, too. I don’t try to get to a certain word count per day; I just try to make steady progress each week, whether that means I’ve written a section or completed a chunk of research.

Who are your literary heroes?

Vladimir Nabokov, for his language; Alice Munro, for her incisive, subtle psychological portraits and unexpectedly dramatic story arcs; Lorrie Moore, for her lightning wit and brilliance in the short story form; Tana French’s gorgeously written mysteries; and so many others—I also love Kazuo Ishiguro, ZZ Packer, Miranda July, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lauren Groff… I could go on!

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’ve recently read a lot of novels published in the past year or so. I especially loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me; Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings; and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

How do you think your writing has evolved over time?

My favorite books are those that have both beautiful writing and an engaging plot. (Donna Tartt does this really well, I think.) But for a long time, I prioritized my prose, and so my stories were the kind in which not much happened. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but I do think there is a preference for subtlety in literary fiction that made me afraid my work would be seen as less literary if it was action-oriented. I’ve also been nervous to engage too straightforwardly with politics and social issues—afraid that I’ll do it clunkily or capture an issue inaccurately. But in the book I’m currently writing, I’m really pushing myself to engage with history, politics, religion, and race. It’s outside of my comfort zone, but I know it’s making me a better writer, and hopefully a better citizen.

Who or what influences your writing?

I’m fascinated by human behavior and relationships: why people do the things they do; how one event can be perceived entirely differently by different people; how we’re shaped by experience, and to what extent we have the capacity to change. My parents are divorced, and I grew up in a big, modern family, with four parents and two siblings. Some of my parents are gay, and some are straight; the biological father of one of my brothers is a sperm donor. So I had a non-normative set-up, especially at that time, and it made me feel both at home in and aware of difference, diversity, atypical lifestyles.

I’ve also noticed that most of my work circles around religion and science, both of which interest me as ways that we cope with the unknown. I tend to return to the tension between trust and knowledge—for instance, and the tension between science’s approach to the unknown (which is to know it) and religion’s approach to the unknown, which is more centered in faith.

Where did you get the idea to write about dreams? Was it a challenge?

I’ve always been interested in dreams—it’s wild to me that the brain essentially tells stories while we sleep. They’re also fascinating to think about in the context of fiction: dreams are, in essence, fictional stories, but can they also be “true”? Real? I began to circle around a way in which I could combine this with other elements that excited me: a boarding school setting, a charismatic leader, deceptive personal relationships, and experimental scientific research.

It was a challenge to write about dreams, particularly in the context of the research these particular characters are doing (using lucid dreaming to treat sleep disorders). I created that technique using existing research, which gave me a certain amount of freedom, but it also meant that I had to work hard to ensure that the research made sense scientifically—as well as making sense to a reader. The research went through many different permutations. In early drafts of the book, it verged much more on science fiction, but by the final draft, we had made it more realistic. I decided that the book already asks readers to take some pretty significant leaps of faith, and it wasn’t necessary to give them another one.

Sylvie is interesting because she is the exact opposite of what the book seems to portray. What inspired you to create her as the main character?

I wanted to write a character who seems rational and self-aware, but who is revealed to be quite different than the way she sees herself—or the way she wants to see herself. In this vein, dreams offered a lens through which to explore character: What do dreams reveal about us, and what do they obscure? Keller’s research in lucid dreaming is looking in part at human potential, and I was curious about the extent to which we all have various selves, various characters inside us.


About the author of this post: Lauren Banas is a sophomore at North Central College and is currently studying English Writing. Stemmed from a life-long love of reading, she is a constant writer of fiction, specifically that of the fantastical variety. She loves experimenting with new literature though and hopes to pursue a career in publishing.

Interview with Brandon Courtney

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa. He is a veteran of the United States Navy, and a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, The Boston Review, American Literary Review, The Progressive, and Verse Daily. His first book, The Grief Muscles (2014), was published by Sheep Meadow Press. His second collection, Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (2015), was published by Spark Wheel Press. YesYes Books will publish a chapbook of poems, as well as his third full-length collection in 2016-17, respectively.

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When did you first discover you liked writing?

I first discovered that I enjoyed writing fairly late in my life. I entertained a number of potential career paths, including fire science, interior design, architecture, and medicine, before devoting my time and efforts to writing. I grew up in a small, rural town in Iowa, so the idea of writing—especially as a career, or as anything other than a hobby—was completely foreign. I was encouraged to learn a trade skill, and before entering college, I planned on apprenticing as an HVAC technician. After the Navy, I worked at SimplexGrinnell as a fire suppression technician, installing and inspecting kitchen hood systems. Even now, the idea of calling myself a writer seems strange. As an undergraduate, I took my first Creative Writing class; I thought, wrongly, that the class would be an easy “A,” and that I could pad my GPA. I can’t remember now what I received in the class, but it was not an “A.” After that course, I began writing obsessively. I began as a dramatist, actually, and I took several playwriting classes before my first poetry class.

Is your writing a hobby, a part-time job, or do you focus solely on writing and getting published? If it’s not a full-time ordeal, what else do you do?

Right now, I consider writing to be a full-time job, although I work two jobs, as well. Currently, I am a Developmental English Tutor at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey. Also, I teach a poetry workshop for Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop Online. Lately, I’m devoting my time to completing two manuscripts, which will be published by YesYes Books in 2016 and 2017, respectively. When I’m not working, or editing the two forthcoming poetry manuscripts, I’m devoted to writing a memoir. After some excellent encouragement and advice from a faculty member at Sewanee, I decided to seriously pursue memoir. In fact, I’m applying to Creative Non-Fiction programs in New York City this fall, and I hope to join a cohort of students and faculty who can assist me in shaping the memoir.

When and where did you first get published?

Strangely, my first publication was in Best New Poets ’09. I was encouraged to submit to the open competition by Jennifer Perrine, a poet who teaches at Drake University, and Kim Addonizio, the guest editor, selected my poem, “Memorandum for the Record.”

How long before then had you tried to get published?

The poem published in Best New Poets was in the first batch of poems I submitted, three in total. I was more concerned with trying to understand the craft. Poetry was completely foreign to me; besides a week in high school, where we probably read Poe and Shakespeare, I had never been exposed to poetry. It wasn’t something that was on my radar. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I was probably 26 or 27 that I understood that people were still writing poetry. As an undergraduate, I was more concerned with comprehending what a poem was, and less concerned about submitting. Once I felt more comfortable, I started submitting frequently.

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

My suggestion for anyone attempting to publish his or her work is to read the journal in its entirety. When I submit work, I focus on two things: what is the overarching aesthetic, and what are they not publishing? The first one is relatively self-explanatory. The second, I’ve found, is something many writers neglect. I think, for most writers, the instinct is to send poems that mirror a journal’s aesthetic, but I’ve always tried to send the opposite. Ask yourself, what is this journal not publishing?

Do you have any favorite poets/authors? Why do you like them? What elements of their style make you enjoy their writing?

My all-time favorite writer is Samuel Beckett, who takes minimalism and erasure to the next level. As far as poets, there’s not enough space here, but I’ll list a few poets who I believe are writing some of the most important work right now. Malachi Black, whose collection, Storm Towards Morning, is a masterpiece, both formally and emotionally. I believe Solmaz Sharif is writing poetry that all poets should not only read, but study; the same should be said about Eduardo Corral, Roger Reeves, Phillip B. Williams, Ocean Vuong, and Joshua Robbins. Also, both of TJ Jarrett’s collections are untouchable.

When you are writing, do you have any special rituals or processes?

I have some very strange rituals. Unlike most poets I’ve encountered, who need silence when they write, I have to listen to loud music. Mostly, I listen to Black Metal or Shoegaze. I’ve been collecting records for some time now, and I like having to leave the page to flip a record; it allows me time, I think, to step away from the writing and really think about what it is I want to say, if only briefly. I write a lot about drowning and, in a way, I think listening to aggressively loud music is a kind of drowning. I’m interested in how a particular record’s atmosphere can change the tenor of a poem.

I noticed the recurring image of bottled bourbon in a few of your poems. Is there any special significance to this image, or is it simply a drink you enjoy?

I’ve been sober since December 26th 2007, after struggling with alcohol both in the Navy and after. For a long time, alcohol played a major factor in my life. I also have an extensive family history of alcoholism, so it’s something that continues to appear in my writing. Bourbon was always my drink of choice, as well as my father and grandfathers. There were other drinks, too, but some of my worst, and best, nights were fueled by bourbon.


About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

NCC Underground: Fall 2015

 We here at 30 North are pleased to announce the success of yet another Underground open mic night on October 7th. The night saw a variety of talents ━ music, poetry, comedy, spoken word, and even some good old fashioned storytelling. 

 
We had such a strong turnout that many students actually sat on the floor, and the audience showed their support after every performance with applause, laughter, and shouts of encouragement. 

 During intermission, audience members talked with those who had already performed and expressed their appreciation, while others gathered the courage to take the stage.

  
 Overall the night was filled with an energy that many of us will miss until the next Underground (coming this winter!). Many thanks to those of you who made it out, and we hope to see more of you next time!  

 
Keep your eyes peeled for more pictures from the Underground coming soon!