October 24, 2012

Contributor Notes: Ben Merriman

Interviews and guest posts from the writers and artists of Versal 10. This week, we hear from Ben Merriman, whose story/stories "A Hard Place to Love" rock out starting on page 121. Ben's the fiction editor over at the Chicago Review and you can tumble with him here.

Have you been to Amsterdam? What did you do while you were here? If you've not been yet, what do you think you'd do in our fair town?

I have not yet been to Amsterdam, but I spend my time in most large cities the same way: visits to art museums and bookstores, followed by gossip or chatter with writers and artsy types.

What is the first creative thing you ever did?

This seems like an invitation to offer some kind of origin myth about my creative life, or retroactively square my early experiences with my current life, but in fact there is very little from my childhood that feels my own. I once compared the recollection of my own life to watching a poorly edited student film.

To say something dull that comes closer to answering the question: I began to make serious efforts at writing fiction in 2008, around the time I started graduate school.

What is the dumbest thing anyone has ever said to you about being a writer?

I am not sure anybody has yet said this to me so directly, but in conversations about writing I have often sensed that many people I have met want to be writers because they want to be personally loved for having written appealing words. This desire is not “dumb,” but it strikes me as quite possibly unhealthy: a writer may hope that people will love one's writing, though there is no assurance of this, but there is no reason why a reader should love a writer for what they write, and given that the best writers are so often unpleasant, or at least badly flawed, human beings, loving a great writer, by virtue of their being a great writer, could be a wounding and unsatisfactory kind of love, just as being loved for what one has done, rather than being loved for what one is, would certainly be a hollow kind of love, a mixture of tinny adulation and a fear, probably correct, that to continue being loved would require that one continue to earn it by new creative exertions. The psychic misery of celebrities demonstrates the basic pathology of this logic.

I hope that there may be a sincere and realistic impulse underneath this common unstated wish.  If “I want people to love me because I am a good writer” really means “I am smart and I want people to value this part of me,” then this could reduce to “I want to be in the company of people who value what I value.” Looking for intellectual peers seems to me like a good reason to write, and in fact not so different from what many of us are looking for when we read.

If you were an angle, what kind of angle would you be?


If you could meet a writer from the 15th, 16th, or 17th centuries, who would it be? And what would you talk about?

Marguerite of Navarre: I have ripped off a couple of stories from the Heptameron, itself substantially a ripoff, and Marguerite was famous in her own time as a refined and pleasant companion. I assume we would gossip.

Tell us something few people know about you.

I am probably the worst judge of what other people know about me; things that I take as common knowledge may be obscure, and things that I try to hide may be quite obvious. However, people who have only seen my name in literary magazines may not know that I am a sociologist, just as many acquaintances from my academic life don't know that I write fiction.

Other than Versal (which has clearly been awesome), what's one great place you've been published?

In general I have been very pleased by the places that have published my work, but one that stands out is The Lifted Brow, a bimonthly magazine published in Australia. As with Versal, publishing in The Brow has made me feel a little less provincial. More importantly, I am a great admirer of Australian literature, which, evolving in partial isolation, has become something very weird and singular, so I was flattered that Australians, or at least one Australian editor, would find my own writing worthwhile. I've been publishing there in a column, “Something Happens,” and I hope that my name will burrow itself down into Australian literary consciousness.

Why did you send work to Versal? Be honest.

I picked up a copy of Versal 9 at Printers' Ball in Chicago. My partner flipped through it and suggested that I could publish here. (In fact, said I could publish here “with no problem,” an estimation of my skill that is both kind and a good deal higher than my own estimation.) 

What has lasted you ten years?

Nothing so far, but my partner and I have been together for eight years. I feel sanguine about our chances of hitting a decade.

Tell us what you're working on right now.

I am revising a novella about reading Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which I have titled Aesthetic Theory. If there happen to be any editors or publishers reading this, I would appreciate any help they could offer—I expect it will be rather difficult to get this work published.

I have recently gotten back to Chicago after a trip to China, so I expect I will soon be writing about my trip, if only for my friends, who are curious to hear about my time with bureaucrats, academic officials, and urban nouveaux riches. The highlight will be my account of the unsuccessful efforts of several provincial Party officials to get me drunk at a noontime banquet.

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