An Interview with Ben Lerner


An Interview with Ben Lerner

Tao Lin
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Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is narrated by a 33-year-old author who grew up in Topeka, Kansas and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. In the first ten pages we learn he’s recently received significant news from both his literary agent and his doctor. From his agent, he’s learned that due to a short story of his that the New Yorkerpublished, he could get a “strong-six figure” advance for his next book (“all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel”); from his doctor, he’s learned that due to a “potentially aneurysmal dilation” of his aortic root, he might die at any moment (“an event I visualized, however incorrectly, as a whipping hose spraying blood into my blood; before collapse a far look comes into my eyes as though, etc.”). We also learn he’s considering his best friend Alex’s proposal of impregnating herself with his sperm, and that he’s collaborating on a little book about “the scientific confusion regarding the brontosaurus” with Roberto, an eight-year-old at a local, dual-language school. Both the aforementioned New Yorker story—”The Golden Vanity”—and the brontosaurus book—To The Future—appear in 10:04.

I interviewed Ben three years ago for The Believer about his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and I kind of view that interview as part one to the part two of this interview. In the introduction to that interview, I wrote that with each new book by Ben I increasingly thought of his oeuvre as a single, already-completed work that was being released in parts. With the release of 10:04, I now also like to imagine Ben’s oeuvre as a collection of fractal, cross-reality resonances and interference patterns between and amongst life and fiction, poetry and prose, novels and essays and stories, sensation and imagination, past and future, images from fictional movies and photographs of concrete reality, factual histories within fictional narratives and fictional histories within global cultures, and so on, in further complex interactions—everything interconnected and having an influence on but not exactly determining everything else, and all of it curated by Ben to, in my experience, poignant and repeatedly startling effect. The following interview was done by Gmail chat and edited for clarity by email.

—Tao Lin


THE BELIEVER: Last time I interviewed you—before the publication of Leaving the Atocha Station—you were in Marfa, Texas (a place featured in your new novel). Where are you now?

BEN LERNER: Lawrence, Kansas, visiting my parents. It is hotter right now in Lawrence than it was in Marfa, the high desert. A hundred-something. But it’s nice here; there are fireflies at night—innumerable ones by the river, not just the three or four I see in Prospect Heights. I feel like it’s always the same three or four flashing anemically in Brooklyn.

BLVR: Just you’re there or your wife and daughter too?

BL: We’re all here. The baby is napping a few feet away from me—I just finished reading to her.

BLVR: What did you read?

BL: Like most kids I know, she likes Goodnight Moon. It’s a strange book—the blank page that says “Goodnight nobody”; the one that says “Goodnight air”—saluting what isn’t there. All the popular children’s books we have are pretty self-referential, I’ve noticed. I mean the older ones, not just newer titles like We Are in a Book, etc.

BLVR: How are they self-referential?

BL: Oh, just the Gorilla in Goodnight Gorilla looks out of the book at the reader. In Goodnight Moon there are two pictures hanging on the wall: one of a cow jumping over the moon, one of three little bears sitting on chairs. But the former also appears in the latter—it hangs above the bears. (I really like, in Goodnight Gorilla, by the way, how the balloon released on the first page quietly disappears into the distance on the subsequent pages. It’s a nice way of depicting time; and that same moving point—the balloon—is visible in another of Peggy Rathman’s titles, 10 Minutes Till Bedtime; so the action in those two books is simultaneous. Has a single author ever written two novels that take place at the same time in that way? Maybe one of us should try that).

BLVR: You have a kind of similar thing in your novel—or in the New Yorker story within your novel. Not a balloon, but a lamp in Brooklyn.

BL: Right.

BLVR: Let’s quote it.

“It was as if the little flame in the gaslamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1883, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously in each of those times, connecting them. He felt that anyone who had ever paused before the lamp as he was pausing was briefly coeval with him, that they were all watching the same turbulent point in their respective present tenses. Then he imagined his narrator standing before it, imagined that the gaslight cut across worlds and not just years, that the author and the narrator, while they couldn’t face each other, could intuit each other’s presence by facing the same light, a kind of correspondence.”

Image not available.

BLVR: As in this passage, there’s a lot of that crossing of fictional levels in 10:04. A lot of “metafiction.” What’s appealing to you about it?

BL: I usually see the word “metafiction” applied to works that draw attention to their own devices, their own artificiality, in order to mock novelistic convention and show the impossibility of capturing a reality external to the text or whatever. But I don’t care about that. Most of us start from that position of irony now and what I wanted to do—really felt like I had to do if I was going to write another novel—was move towards something like sincerity. I mean that the self-referentiality of my novel is a way of exploring how fiction functions in our real lives—for good and for ill—not a way of mocking fiction’s inability to make contact with anything outside of itself. My concern is how we live fictions, how fictions have real effects, become facts in that sense, and how our experience of the world changes depending on its arrangement into one narrative or another.

BLVR: Do you think Leaving the Atocha Station was ironic—that you had to move away from that into something else with 10:04?

BL: It was ironic in a way I don’t disavow, the way Adam Gordon approached truth through its opposite: he was so ruthlessly honest about his dishonesty it verged on a kind of authenticity. But I didn’t want to write another book about fraudulence. This book has an explicit relation to that one, in part tracking how that fiction became a fact in my life, but it’s primarily a relation of difference—the second narrates a moving away from the first.

BLVR: 10:04 is explicit about that. It describes the author’s gradual refusal to write another book about fraudulence. The narrator gets an advance to expand his New Yorkerstory into a novel about fabricating his correspondence—making up an archive of letters from dead writers. But that’s not the book he writes.

BL: And he gets that advance (based on the reception of his first novel) in order to fund his best friend’s fertility treatments. So initially he’s selling a fiction about a fabricated past in order to pay for a possible future. But he doesn’t ultimately want his art or his friendship with Alex or a kid to be sponsored by a macabre con about the past. So a large part of this novel is telling the story of how he comes to replace that book with this one, with 10:04. “Not the one I was contracted to write about fraudulence, but the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction,” he says towards its end.

BLVR: I like how that sentence can apply to the narrator describing 10:04 from within the fiction or you, Ben Lerner, describing your novel from the outside.

BL: Yeah. The edge of fiction flickers.


BLVR: Where are you now?

BL: Seattle, visiting my brother and his family.

BLVR: Have you seen fireflies?

BL: I don’t think so. Are there are fireflies on the West Coast? I never saw any when I lived in California.

BLVR: I wonder why that is.

BL: I just googled it and according to “almost no species of fireflies are found west of Kansas—although there are warm and humid areas to the west. Nobody is sure why this is.” I just remembered I used to have a crazy dream about fireflies.

BLVR: What was it?

BL: When I was a kid and we played baseball we used to use that “eye black” stuff sometimes—that kind of grease you put under your eyes to reduce glare or something. We only used it, of course, to look cool; it’s not like we were any better prepubescent athletes for reducing glare. But I remember I had this recurring dream that we were playing a night game and instead of eye black we had mashed up the glowing bodies of fireflies and put that under our eyes. So our faces were glowing—a kind of night vision.

BLVR: You have a line about that in your first book of poems The Lichtenberg Figures.

BL: I do?

BLVR: “…we mash the effervescent abdomens of fireflies / into mascara for the long-lashed corpse.”

BL: Wow, weird. That’s right. I even use “mash.”

BLVR: But back to the future. The epigraph to 10:04 is a Hassidic story about how the “world to come”—the redeemed world—will be just like this one, only a little different: where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. This idea occurs on many levels throughout your book—when the narrator holds a can of instant coffee on the eve of a storm, when he considers time in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, when he looks at a piece of “totaled art,” he evokes this idea of a world that’s just slightly different, but somehow totally transformed. What thoughts do you have about this parable?

BL: I think the parable is a peculiar way of saying that redemption is immanent whether or not it’s imminent, that the world to come is in a sense always already here, if still unavailable. I find this idea powerful for several reasons. For one thing, it’s an antidote to despair. Many of the left thinkers that really matter to me—that formed a big part of my thinking about politics and art—emphasize how capitalism is a totality, how there’s no escape from it, no outside. We all know what they mean: every relationship can feel saturated by market logic or at best purchased at the price of the immiseration of others. But I’m increasingly on the side of thinkers like David Graeber who are talking back to this notion of totality and emphasizing how there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails. Zones of freedom, even if it’s never pure. And I like to think—knowing that it’s an enabling fiction—of those moments as fragments from a world to come, a world where price isn’t the only measure of value.

BLVR: I like how your book avoids the kind of despair you mentioned—the emphasis by certain left thinkers on how there’s no escape from capitalism.

BL: Despair strikes me as eminently reasonable and boring. I have no patience for artists whose primary function is to articulate their art’s impossibility, who in a sense commodify melancholy—just as I have no interest in artists who are purely affirmative, who’ve made a commercialized fetish of the culture’s stupidity. Balloon dogs, etc. I think that sexual pleasure and the weird color of the sky after a storm or the stream of tail lights across the bridge or the way silence can thin or thicken before music starts—all these things have to be harnessed by the political. The libidinal has to be harnessed by the political.

BLVR: What would you view as literature that despairs?

BL: Well, I think the anti-intellectualism of a lot of contemporary fiction is a kind of despairing of literature’s ability to be anything more than perfectly bound blog posts or transcribed sitcoms. But that goes without saying. Anyway I read more contemporary poetry than contemporary fiction so my mind goes first to a kind of crass “conceptualism” that repeats vanguard gestures of the past minus the politics and historical context. That kind of art despairs both of the poem—the big claim for such writing is that you don’t even have to read the words—and it despairs even of the critical force of that despairing, since it’s only point seems to be that everything is exhausted. Why produce more examples of exhaustion? But I’m also talking about a tendency in my own work—I don’t want to write poems that are just really clear about how I’m aware of all the traps involved in writing poetry; I don’t want to write fiction that’s about the irresponsibility of writing fiction and I’ve thrown out a lot of writing that I think was ultimately tainted by that kind of self-awareness. Writing by Maggie Nelson and Dana Ward and Ariana Reines and Simone White has proved to be a strong countermeasure to that kind of despair for me lately.

BLVR: I sensed the presence in 10:04 of a kind of alien yet familiar “other.” I’m thinking of the multiple mentions of octopus, “an animal that decorates its lair,” in the beginning of the book—when also the narrator, watching traffic from the High Line, intuits “an alien intelligence”—and, later, when he’s in Marfa and there’s talk of “the Marfa Lights” which “people have ascribed to ghosts, UFOS, or ignis fatuus.” The narrator says, “I saw no spheres, but I loved the idea of them—the idea that our worldly light could be reflected back to us and mistaken as supernatural.” Does this feeling of the supernatural relate to the idea of “a world to come” to you?

BL: Yes, absolutely, but the other is the collective. He’s having a kind of Feuerbach moment there—admiring the lights as a fiction, the way Feuerbach reinterpreted God as a projection of the essence of our species. So the other is alien in the sense that it’s the form of our collective alienation. It’s the transpersonal mistaken for the supernatural but the transpersonal is more awe-inspiring, more exciting than the thing we confuse it for. When the narrator feels like an octopus, when he says his limbs are starting to multiply, he means he has inklings of orders of perception beyond his individual body. The personal starts to dissolve, get emptied out. You’re right to link it to the epigraph because it’s a way of saying: there’s a sense in which community is already here. It’s already here in the Marfa lights and the circuits of global capital (that moves a baby octopus from Portuguese waters to a Chelsea restaurant) and even if those are deeply perverted forms of interconnectedness they nevertheless have a utopian glimmer.

Image not available.

BLVR: “Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity— whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.”

BL: Right.

BLVR: How do you view the slight/total difference of the word Marfa (the city in Texas where you were during our last interview and where the narrator is for a few scenes in 10:04) and the word Marfan, which refers to “a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that typically produces the long-limbed and flexible” and is introduced on page two and in a way central to your book?

BL: I like the answer you kind of imply above—the “supernatural” lights of Marfa are like Marfan (which makes him feel like he’s changing into another creature with hyper-flexible, octopus like limbs) in that they are both alien (Martian?) sites, forces. Also he’s worried Marfan is going to kill him and Robert Creeley, a poet who figures in the book, died in Marfa, or started to die, so there’s that link. (And the narrator spends time thinking through the terms “alien” and “residency” during his stay in Marfa as they relate to citizenship status—so this topic of the alien goes in that direction, too).

BLVR: Did you write the poem that’s excerpted in 10:04 while you were in Marfa, during the time of our previous interview?

BL: Yes.

BLVR: That was three years and 10 days ago. Seems less to me, like a year and a half maybe. What about you?

BL: It seems shorter to me, too. But that might be because writing 10:04 confused my sense of time—I’ve been building a fiction in part around the Marfa poem since my brief residency there, which has kept it from receding into the past.

BLVR: Were you aware you’d write this novel when you wrote that poem?

BL: Not at all. And I wasn’t aware I’d write the novel when I wrote the New Yorker story either. And the narration of their construction in 10:04 is fiction, however flickering.

BLVR: Fiction that pretends to be fact.

BL: Yeah. It can be confusing. And the story and the poem are obviously changed by being placed in the novel, so in a sense they’re no longer the works that preceded the novel. Maybe this is similar to how readymades work in visual art: they’re recontextualized by the novel or the museum and, while they’re materially identical—every word is the same—they’re utterly transformed. Like a world to come.

BLVR: When you’re having the experiences that end up in your fiction or your poetry are you aware they might end up as literature? Like are you thinking “this is going in a book,” or do you try to oppose that tendency, saying “no, I’m going to experience this as if ‘writing’ didn’t exist to me” and then, as needed, recall the experience only in retrospect, as you’re writing?

BL: I’ve always wondered about that. Henry James claim that if you want to be a novelist you should be somebody on whom nothing is lost. The problem is that if you’re self-conscious about being a person on whom nothing is lost, isn’t something lost—some kind of presence? You’re distracted by trying to be totally, perfectly impressionable. I guess when I’m frightened or in pain or maybe very bored I’ve tried to hold myself together by imposing a narrative order on the experience as it happens. I don’t think “I’m going to publish this as fiction” but I think “I’m going to tell this story to a friend” and then I start telling the story in my mind as the experience transpires as a way of pretending it’s already happened. Does everybody do this? I’ve always assumed this is a common human defense mechanism. Regardless, this is the opposite of James’ dictum, right? Because I’m trying to be somebody on whom the experience is lost by supplanting it with its telling. I definitely do that in medical contexts, even in trivial ones.

BLVR: What’s an example?

BL: I remember I had been walking around the city with my cousin Yarrow before I went to the dentist, and then the dentist said I had to have a tooth pulled right away because it was infected. Before he gave me the laughing gas, I imagined telling Yarrow about what happened. And then as I inhaled the delicious N20 I had the sensation that I was already telling Yarrow—that I’d floated away from the office back into his presence. And this minor experience did eventually get transposed into my fiction. As did some other dental and more serious medical experiences. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m aware of narrating certain experiences as they happen or obliterating those experiences with narrative and then those stories—not the experiences themselves—might become material for art. This kind of transformation shows up a lot in 10:04because the book tracks the transposition of fact into fiction in the New Yorker story. The heart condition becomes the brain tumor; Alex becomes Liza, etc. And I guess my dream about fireflies entered a poem.


BLVR: Where are you now?

BL: Delta Flight 1473. We’re at 30k feet heading back to New York. We’re over Idaho according to the flight tracker on the little screen in front of me. Baby asleep on Ariana. Gogo Inflight Internet.

BLVR: I feel like we should say something about fireflies.

BL: Me too. I love the image of—cabin lights dimmed—a single firefly somehow revealing itself to be on board.

BLVR: I like that. What do you imagine happens next?

BL: Maybe it somehow perceives the slow strobe of the lights on the wing. Starts flashing in sync with them. A love story.

BLVR: That could be a children’s book.

BL: That reminds me I wanted to tell you, on the topic of crushed fireflies, that a researcher in Florence thinks that Caravaggio used a “photoluminescent powder from crushed fireflies” to make his canvases light sensitive—a kind of early photography. That powder was apparently used for special effects in 16th century theater.

BLVR: Wow. How did you learn that?

BL: I googled “crushed fireflies.”

BLVR: Returning to the topic of transposing life into fiction, do you have Marfan?

BL: They don’t think so.

BLVR: Does the narrator have Marfan?

BL: The book never makes it entirely clear.

BLVR: Are these annoying questions to you—questions about life, personal questions.

BL: No, not at all. But I don’t think they matter to the book, exactly. Or: I can’t quite tell if answering takes away from the book.

BLVR: We talked about this a little with your first novel too—how (1) your fiction involves your life in a way that causes people to wonder about your life and (2) you seem, to most or all people I’ve talked to about you, relatively private about your life.

BL: Am I private? Maybe now if you’re not an exhibitionist you’re private. Or maybe it’s just that for a lot of people—sometimes in interesting ways, sometimes in stupid ways—there’s no division between the art object and what surrounds it. So your interviews or blog posts or whatever are less supplements to your novel than part of it. I’m not private, but I believe in literary form—I’ll use my life as material for art (I don’t know how not to do this) and I’ll use art as a way of exploring that passage of life into art and vice versa, but that’s not the same thing as thinking that any of the details of my life are interesting or relevant on their own.

BLVR: People talk about rejecting fiction—about fiction being embarrassing or escapist, etc. Your prose gets mentioned I think in these conversations as “anti-fictional” because it obviously has nonfictional elements. But what you’re saying in this interview—about fictions being powerful, inevitable, political—seems different. You’re defending the importance of fiction.

BL: Yes, but I’m defending fiction as a human capacity more than as a popular or dying literary genre. Experiments with the “as if” of fiction are often more lively in poetry and criticism and other modes of writing than in weak short stories or novels.

BLVR: Do people in your life react to appearing, or seeming to appear, in your fiction (however changed)?

BL: Few real people appear in my two novels, actually. “Ari” appears on the edge of this book a couple of times—but on the edge, she’s never in it, even if she’s a determining force from the outside. Everybody in the first book was basically made up, if never from scratch. In 10:04 the Alena character’s art project is nonfiction—it’s the work of the artist Elka Krajewska—but Alena and Elka have zero relation beyond that. And the dinosaur book is based on a book I co-wrote with a great kid I tutored, but the “Roberto” character doesn’t resemble him very much. Again, Krajewska’s art project, the dinosaur book—those are species of readymades, like my poem or the New Yorker story. The main relationship in the book—an emotional center of the book—is the relationship between the narrator and Alex. Alex isn’t based on a real person, at least not on a single real person.

BLVR: I like that Alex is a strong, very “alive”-seeming presence in the book but you don’t focus much on describing her. I like that you generally seem to withhold information about characters that one might normally expect—physical descriptions, projections about their thoughts, etc. What’s your perspective on this?

BL: Fiction doesn’t appeal to me because it can describe physical appearances exhaustively or because it can offer access to the inner depths of an array of human characters—neither that kind of “realism” of bodily surfaces nor of individual psychologies seems particularly realistic to me. In art and life we’re always reading bodies and behaviors (and skies and skylines or whatever), constructing brief and shifting coherences, and I guess I want to capture that process of characterization and re-characterization instead of offering up a few stable, easily-summarized individuals.

Image not available.

BLVR: “Faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory, even if that memory was then projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and chin.”

BL: Yeah. And I think of how the narrator and Alex’s most intimate moments, the signature posture of their friendship, is when they’re looking at something together, a painting or an image on a screen, as opposed to looking at one another. Looking together, reading together. And of course both face-blindness and the tendency to project faces onto random stimuli are themes in the book. Also, is it worth saying that just because the narrator doesn’t have access to the innermost thoughts of a character doesn’t mean that the character doesn’t have thoughts?

BLVR: I’ve encountered many readers of my books who seem to have assumed that the characters in my books don’t have thoughts or feelings unless I describe their thoughts and feelings.

BL: It’s sad. Just because, say, his friend “Josh” appears briefly a few times but doesn’t become important in the book doesn’t mean “Josh” is unrealistic or flat or that the narrator doesn’t care about him. It just means only a small fraction of the implied person of “Josh” is in the book, in this angle on the implied world. I don’t think it’s always a sign of respect for persons (inside or outside of fiction) to pretend to be able to represent, to have access to, their multi-dimensionality at every moment. That doesn’t imply people aren’t multi-dimensional. Maybe that’s the way I’m private—I respect the privacy of “my” characters? Anyway, we’re getting close to the whole “relatability” and “likability” thing.

BLVR: Do you want to talk about those topics?

BL: No, not at all.

BLVR: Me neither. Do you think of Whitman as a “character” in your book? He’s everywhere in 10:04. The narrator says he wants to be a “Whitman of the vulnerable grid.”

BL: The Whitman made famous by Leaves of Grass is a fiction. I mean the historical person Walt Whitman went out of his way to make himself a poetic character. (You learn next to nothing about the historical Whitman from his poems or his “autobiographical” prose.) This involved, as the narrator discusses in the book, Whitman’s emptying himself out of all particularity so that everyone could identify with him and so that he could identify with everyone— “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” We can all fit in his “I” and we can all be addressed by his “you”—that’s the dream, a dream of corporate personhood. Whitman’s dream is never realized, needless to say. There are all kinds of problems with his bid for universality. But that (not just) Whitmanic fantasy that you can dissolve yourself through art into collective possibility—the dream remains live for me whether or not I can defend it. Whitman and the octopus are probably related figures in my book.

BLVR: We haven’t really discussed reproduction—having kids—or a lot of the central issues in your book. I sort of mentioned but we didn’t get to discuss Back to the Future. But we’re out of space.

BL: And time. Because the nonfiction kid is waking up. And it’s my turn to change her.

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