Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth and Brandon Hobson that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.
After a few years of reading Ben Tanzer’s work, I finally got a chance to meet him in Seattle this past spring. Ben is the author of the books Lucky Man, Orphans, You Can Make Him Like You, My Father’s House, and, most recently, the book of essays, Lost in Space, among others. He has written on everything from drugs and 80s pop culture to fatherhood. You can read more about him on his website.
BRANDON HOBSON: Can you talk a little about how you came to publish Lost In Space with Curbside Splendor?
BEN TANZER: I’d been friendly with the founder Victor David Giron and he was always a great supporter of mine. We once talked glancingly, and over many drinks, about doing a nonfiction project together, but the opportunity really came together on another night, and over one or two more drinks, when Curbside was moving forward with the incomparable essay collection Meaty by Sam Irby. Victor said, “We have this great essay collection by a young, vibrant female writer where she talks about sex and illness and dead parents, and I’m wondering if you can do something similar, but from the perspective of an old, boring dad. Because that would rock.” And here we are. I should add, that Victor may remember that second conversation in a slightly different fashion than I do, but I’m sticking to that story.
BH: You approach issues of fatherhood in the book with humor by also managing to maintain an element of sadness, and you do this so well. Can you talk a little about this process of balancing the line between humor and sadness? Is fiction different from nonfiction?
BT: Those are kind words, and I’m thrilled you asked this. When I write fiction, I always try to balance humor and sadness, but some of those results are based on unconscious decisions. In attacking these essays, however, I consciously focused on looking to balance humor and sadness, whether sentence to sentence in a single essay, or from one essay to the next. Parenting is endlessly frustrating, and for me, filled at times with rage. Parents die. Children get sick. You get older and more scared of things. The world can feel so fucked and wrong. But you can’t just write about all of that. Who would want to read it? No one, so even as I am come off like a whiner nonpareil, I also sought to constantly remind myself that there is good in the world, children bring joy, with age comes wisdom, even with death you can laugh, and that you have to remember to embrace it, all of it, and write about it as well.
BH: I know what you mean about the frustrations of parenting. I’m a dad with two boys—a six-year-old and a seven month old. They’re really miracles. Is it hard for you to keep from being too sentimental when you write about your kids?
BT: Such a good question, and seven months old, nice, wonderful age. And yes, it’s very hard to keep from being overly sentimental. Ultimately every piece no matter the content could be about the sadness, and triumph, of letting go of your babies, and managing your fears as those babies grow-up. All of which is to say, that when I went back to edit the collection as a whole, I made some rules for myself. One of them I already addressed: my focus on always consciously seeking to balance humor and pain, or sadness. Another one, was that I didn’t want any of the pieces to discuss anything that my children might consider their secrets. Potentially embarrassing them is something we can discuss down the road over drinks, or in therapy if needed, but no secrets. The rule that applies here, was re-reading each piece to be sure I wasn’t being overly sentimental, particularly circling around the act of letting go. What that meant was revisiting what certain stories meant to me, and assessing whether there were alternative ways to look at them. For example, one piece is about my older son’s first haircut. It was originally a piece I wrote several years ago, which I decided to include in the collection. It was all about letting go, but in revisiting it after the full manuscript was complete, I saw that it could also be about my anxieties around cutting his wonderful, crazy hair. Would he lose his strength like Sampson had? And if so, how could he possibly then become the hero I imagined him to be?
BH: There should be more essays about haircuts. And more stories about them.
BT: The piece becomes one where I need to make peace with my fantasies about his coronation as the first Jewish President or Pope, or both, and the reality that he may need a normal, yet awesome life, which can also be heroic in all its own way. The new piece is not all that sentimental, but the feeling is certainly just as necessary to embrace.
BH: Between fiction and nonfiction, which do you favor writing? Why?
BT: Six months ago I might have said fiction, and I might still say that, but at that time, I had never spent this kind of concentrated time on nonfiction. Fiction is freeing because there is no truth, but what you conceive it to be. But the challenge with nonfiction, is that even when you’re embroidering the stories, it has to be true, and capturing the truth, requires layers of story to be constantly stripped away and laid bare, yet somehow still be entertaining. Further, to kill your ideas in nonfiction writing, isn’t merely murdering your darlings, it’s throwing away pieces of your own life. Which is quite a thing to do. But so interesting, because the story is what rules, not how interesting you think your writing, or life, is. So, I will say nonfiction for the moment, though I suspect I will be onto something else soon, and have a completely different answer for you.
BH: What are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorites?
BT: Right now, I’m in the middle of several things, Bald New World by Peter Tieryas-Liu, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands by Nathaniel Tower, and Gideon’s Confession by Joseph G. Peterson, all which quite kick-ass. And my favorites are endless, but in no particular order or ranking, and in recognizing I’m leaving someone, or someones out: Jim Carroll, Don DeGrazia, Ray Bradbury, Tom Williams, Elizabeth Crane, Scott McClanahan, Lindsay Hunter, Hunter S. Thompson, Lynda Barry, Barry Graham, Sam Irby, Joseph Bates, Chris L. Terry, V. C. Andrews, Patricia Ann McNair, Andre Dubus, Joe Meno, Loren Kleinman, Paula Bomer, Patrick Wensink, Jason Fisk, Ryan Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pete Anderson, S.E. Hinton, and on and on and on.
Brandon Hobson’s novel, Deep Ellum, is out from Calamari Press. His work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, NOON, The Believer, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. You can read more about him here: http://brandonhobson.com