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"Raised on the Gospel of Nature": An Interview with Amy Benson

Amy Benson’s book, The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin 2004), was the 2003 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize winner in creative nonfiction, sponsored by Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.  Recent work has appeared in journals such as Agni, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, PANK, and Triquarterly.  She teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University, has been a fellow at Bread Loaf and a resident at Ledig House International, and is the co-founder of the First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem.

Her story, "We're Coming for Them," was published in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Amy Benson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about urban vs. rural life, accepting plurality, and the convergence of past, present, and future.

First I want to ask about your essay “Lamarckian Evolution.” What was the inciting incident for this piece? What sparked the idea that led to your first draft?

The inciting incident was going to the gallery show and watching how the very young children we were with reacted to the fascinatingly grotesque figures and film.  As soon as we entered, the voice of the parental censor chattered in my head: should we let the children see this, will it be too disturbing?  But the accompanying feeling was of compulsion: we had to keep looking, had to let this play itself all the way out, to leave only when we’d gotten everything we could from it.  And, because it was as if we were looking at the creatures of the future, it seemed right to take the babies’ lead.  They would tell us what to make of these cobbled together monkeys.  Theirs is the reaction of the future; we adults are already on our way out.

Most of your essay takes place in a gallery, except for the first paragraph, which depicts an imagined scene in “a time long from now.” When did you know you wanted to start the reader off in this unusual setting? How did you reach that decision?

Partly, it was the creatures themselves that spawned the idea of the fabled future.  And the idea that “once upon a time” doesn’t specify but we automatically take it to mean the fabled past, not the future.  It seems to me that, while we acknowledge their influence on each other, we often encapsulate “the present,” “the future,” “the past” (mythic formulations, all). I’m interested in attempts at creating a more uncanny experience of time: where do we feel the convergence of past, present and/or future.  What kinds of glimpses do we get of the way we and our stuff and our paradigms will bear on the future?  There in front of us was something from the future: the destination of our mountains of refuse, for which the ever-inventive process of evolution has found a helpful/hurtful use.  And we can think these things all while knowing that these primates are a product of a regular human artist’s mind. 

I think often of the opening line of Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” “When I tell you this story, remember, it may change…” which, miraculously, sort of folds all the tenses into one clause.  I’d say that has been an inspiration more than once for trying to create more dimension (including the 4th) in my own work.

Now let’s talk about your story “We’re Coming for Them.” Tell us about your revision process for working on this piece. In what ways did it change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any difficult decisions?

I’m really much more of an essayist than a fiction writer and the fiction I write is more interested in ideas and form than in psychology or elaborately drawn characters/plots. Those elements feel like trappings in my own work—like, why am I messing around inventing the meaningful backstory for a waitress in Flint, MI who I will then place into a predicament?  I love to read realistic short stories; it just feels tedious within my own process, as if I’m doing a paint-by-numbers: here’s where I describe the narrator, here’s where I seek to explain the characters’ actions through past experience, here’s where I cause trouble for them. (I’m interested in writers like Mary Ruefle, Lynn Tillman, Lydia Davis, who write essays and fiction and essayistic fiction that doesn’t seem to pay much mind to things like “character development.”) So the first version of this was briefer, more of a thumbnail sketch, a little more mysterious.  And I was satisfied with that version for quite a while.

But then, maybe a year later, I took a long look at it and decided that, in this case, most of the elements could use more of the…um, stuff of life, to balance out the ideas.  So I let it swell a bit, adding more to the sections about returning to the city, to the reaction to the reviews, and to the final section in which the “we” sort of becomes “them,” building their space machine and falling into their own version of retreat.  It was difficult to step in and make more of it; I didn’t want it to become bogged down.  But I’m glad I did in the end. 

One prominent theme I noticed in your story is the city vs. the “middle of nowhere” (e.g., “But within weeks, the city had seeped back in and we were irretrievably post-marsh, post-night sky, post-distant neighbor, post-lone visionary. We could not all have pole barns, could not all go up.”) How does this dichotomy play out in your own life? In what type of location does your creativity thrive the most?

Ha!—I just got back from a long camping trip in Canada and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to NYC where I live.  And while it would be difficult to imagine living elsewhere right now, it does feel as if I’m suddenly in a cage.  But, honestly, I need both.  In some ways I feel like my mind and creative life are built around that dichotomy.  My first book was a memoir about growing up half in Detroit and half in a very beautiful and sparsely populated part of the UP of Michigan.  My sister and I were raised on the gospel of nature: experience only counted if you were alone on the beach/mountainside/trail, if you submitted to it and lived off the land (or some ameliorated version of that).  But the rest of the year we lived in a regular little suburban house.  So when I was first writing, I was confronting the nostalgia with which I was raised: humanity is ruinous, “nature” was perfect but is tainted by other people (not, of course, by us). 

But I wanted to go further with my next project and really embrace the realities of the present, which, given current and projected population densities, doesn’t leave much room for fantasies about lone mountaintop yawping.  Both the story and the essay are part of a manuscript of pieces that grapple with city life, art, and apocalyptic environmental warnings.  When I moved to NYC around 11 years ago, it was difficult at first, the feeling that I had to share every last experience, that nothing was mine.  But I consciously wanted to shed that recoil; I wanted to give over to the collective experience—and to say: okay, if we know that humans have altered pretty much every inch of the planet and we’re in the midst of enormous shifts in bio-diversity and climate, etc., how can we live with that.  Really live, not simply pine and mourn and self-castigate about our relationship with “Nature” and with one another.

Something your essay and short story have in common: a “We” in place of an “I,” as well as silence concerning the number and identities of the individuals who might make up that “We.” (I see from your website that you’re also the co-founder of the First Person Plural Reading Series, so this must be more than just a fluke.) What appeals to you about these ambiguous plural narrators? What emotional or psychological effect do you hope this choice will have on your readers?

Yes, it’s more than a fluke!  It’s been a bit of an obsession for the past few years and has resulted in this writing project and the reading series.

One of the effects I’m hoping for is simply the acceptance of plurality.  As alone as we might be (and as stridently as we sometimes might defend our individuality), we are very often operating as part of a “we.”  The theories of the internet-as-collective-mind have been really intriguing to me: the idea that given how much so many of us live through our computers and the internet and other social media devices, that we’re participating in collective existence already, and that, further, the internet is one great mind with a whole lot of synapses (a.k.a. human beings).  I recoiled from this idea at first.  But usually it seems like a good artistic challenge to move toward that which disturbs you, to try to understand it, cozy up to it from the inside out.  (And speaking of the inside out, it’s perhaps not a coincidence that I started using the fuzzy “we” in the first pieces of this project a few weeks before I found out I was pregnant. That’s one incontrovertible, weird, brain blurry-ing “we.”)


But the choice of first person plural was also in reaction to having written a book in the first person and reading endless fiction and nonfiction in the first person.  It’s practically all you see… which seems like a problem or at least a blind spot.  The individual can’t be all there is, right?  There’s untapped spookiness and discomfort and connection through other points of view, I think.  And, to me, “we” is just so compellingly unstable.  It’s been fascinating to me, through my own writing and through the reading series, to explore the limits of “we.” “We” is often on the verge of toppling over into “I” or “they,” but where does it persist?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m at the very early stages of a project about survivalist shelters.  I’m interested in what goes into the mentality that takes an apocalyptic view of the future but thinks: I/We will be the one/s who will survive this.  But I really don’t know if it will be a researched nonfiction look at it, a novel, or something less settled, even an installation. 

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

I’m reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories right now, not a book, really, but a whole box full of graphic works in many shapes and forms.  It’s pretty staggering in its inventiveness, but at the same time, the project is spare, full of silence and minute observations.  It’s a “novel” but hesitates not at all to jump around in time, from story to story.  I really like that mixture of the fanciful and the rumpled, lived-in materials. 

I would also recommend Pieces the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon, a book of very short stories/anecdotes I read a few weeks ago.  They are a mix of fact and fiction, morality tale and obsessive anecdote.  They remind me a lot of Lydia Davis’ short pieces, but are more populated, the collected anecdotes of a conflicted town.

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