Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Getting Lost with Ben Tanzer (An Interview)

Ben Tanzer and I connected through an infinitely looping writer's network, bonded over Justified, and I was thrilled to be introduced to his work by reading a collection of his short stories: Lost in Space. Tanzer has a sharp wit and a keen eye for commenting on pop culture and true matters of the heart, often even in the same sentence. His writing sparks, but yet has familiar undertones that resonate with the reader. Even if you can't relate, you can relate. Tanzer seems to know what connects people and how to strike the nerve that reels us all in. I ran with the questions here and Tanzer never missed a beat.

Steph Post: Lost in Space is a collection of essays, stories and snippets which essentially focus on fatherhood. In these pieces you write about your wife, Debbie, and sons, Noah and Myles. How have they reacted or responded to your book and your inclusion of them?

Ben Tanzer: This is a great question, and semi- more complex than it sounds, as I can't even treat Debbie and the kids as something monolithic. They just care about different things. So for example, I consciously set out not to embarrass anyone, but whereas what embarrasses Debbie now will probably not change much in five or ten years, the boys are all over the place, and who knows how that will change, when they're teenagers or God forbid my age. What's key in their case, is that the boys are protective of their secrets, so they care mostly about that, though they do ask little things about the book, do you talk about sex, how, and stuff like that. What's funny with Debbie is she always reacts to things I wouldn't imagine she cares about. In the book for example, I share my intimate thoughts on getting a vasectomy and maybe dating Selena Gomez, and yes, that's in the same essay, and she doesn't care about any of that, but if I confuse the most granular details about a conversation we once had, she's like that's not right, what up?  

SP: Maybe it's just because I love lists, but the "Interlude" sections of  Lost in Space were my favorites. One of them, "The Don Draper Interlude: A Mad Men Guide to Raising Children," analyzes our favorite ad man's approach to life. If you could be any television, film or pop culture father figure, (knowing that your wife and kids would still be dealing with you) who would it be? Why?

BT: I'm glad you like lists, because I know readers like you exist and I wanted to be sure to take care of you. It also felt very Klosterman to me, and I really wanted to feel Klosterman. Meanwhile, it would be cool to be like the dads who are all super Zen and caring, because I really want to be that way. Like Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons. Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink. Or Judd Hirsch in Running on Empty, which I so, so love. But it's the dads who are ridiculously, and intensely, loving towards their kids and family, and anything but Zen, that I relate to the most. And so in that regard, maybe Larry Fishburn in Boys N The Hood is the dad I most want to be like. I love him. Though I just love Larry Fishburne in general, so this answer may be terribly skewed from jump. 

SP: In another piece, "The Mel Gibson Interlude: Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies," you list films, broken into various categories, that you believe you and your son Myles will watch together one day. I've always thought that movies become different every time you watch them with someone new (which might explain why I love to watch movies alone). What are you thoughts on this? Do you think watching movies as a family, or with family members, is different than watching movies by yourself?

BT: I think it's much different. I've always liked to watch movies by myself, and I really love to now that I almost never have a moment of silence, but the talking alone is a nightmare. The boys talk through every movie. Less so in a theater where they tend to be more spellbound, but at home they're like a Greek chorus, though much of that is endless questions about everything. As a whole though, that doesn't bother me, not if they're actually into the movie, and not complaining. Speaking of the list, however, I listened to some podcast on Christmas Eve day where they argued that Die Hard is one of the great Christmas movies. I had no idea it even qualified, but Debbie and I saw it on opening night, and I love it too, and so we made the boys watch it with us. They complained non-stop about having to do so beforehand, and then once it started, but then started asking questions, and slowly, finally, somehow, they loved it. It was a small victory, but well worth the group watch, and so the lesson may be that group movies that we've already seen and want to experience again through them, awesome- anything else, maybe not so much.

SP: Finally, in "The Darth Vader Interlude: Dads Who Rock and Those Who Kind of Suck Ass," Darth Vader is listed as your number one "suck-ass" dad. Considering Vader is my favorite Star Wars character of all time and was one of my first crushes (yes, I just admitted that), I have to ask you to go into more detail here. Yes, there was the hand-cutting-off part and the turning Luke over the to the Emperor part, but didn't Darth Vader sort of redeem himself in the end? 

BT: I'm sort of stuck on the fact that you had a crush on him. And yes, his suck-assedness has nothing to do with his general awesomeness, or his redemption arc, which is nice. But Vader is most definitely an absentee dad, and not much of a listener, and if you can't at least manage those things, and then you cut your kid's arm off as well, well, that is sort of suck-ass indeed.

SP: In conjunction with the above question, if you had to write a how-to parenting guide for Vader, what would it contain? Any tips or tricks you'd offer him?

BT: Be present, it's sort of the number one rule. And when you're there, be there, listening, not plotting total world domination, or checking your texts, or whatever. Pay attention. Breathe. Which, while Vader sort of has the breathing thing down, it's not exactly in a calming way.
I should add here, that I once wrote a piece for "Untoward" about Darth Vader looking back on his life as an old man and questioning whether he could have been a better father. I'm not sure reading it will further answer your question, much less change your life, but if I can't hype it here, where can I?

SP: In addition to Lost in Space, you are also the author of My Father's House, You Can Make Him Like You and Orphans (among others). What is the most important common thread running through your work?

BT: On the most basic level I am interested in how people communicate, or don't, how we get in the way of making connections, and how that getting in the way is impacted by our fucked-up families, inability to cope, find the right words, at the right time, substance abuse, violence, work, and on and on.

SP: As if being an author and editor, were not enough, you also run "This Blog Will Change Your Life." How did this blog get started and where do you see your self-proclaimed "vast, albeit faux, lifestyle empire" going?

BT: I was encouraged by the publisher of my first novel Lucky Man to support the marketing of the book, and as I contemplated how to do so, I reflected on my great love for the Monorail episode of "The Simpson's." I decided then that the most entertaining way for me to approach the marketing of Lucky Man was to do so as a product that just might change lives, and I asked myself how that might work. This led me to think about how self-hype is beautiful, but a world of hype beyond myself, and regarding the things I love, books, authors, movies, Diane Lane, was even better. More love, more connections, more of everything. From there, the blog begat the Zine and the Zine begat the podcast, or vice-versa, and in time all of the different platforms I added to expand the impact of all of that love, hype, and connection. And in that way it is a very real empire, but in continuing to deem it faux, I allow myself to figure out what a real empire would really do, which sort of continues to elude me. Do you have any ideas?
(Um.... Actually, no. I'm not very good at empires....)
SP: Finally (and this might be a dangerous), give me one piece of unconventional parenting advice. I'm warning you though, if my kids turn out screwed up, I'm blaming you...

BT: This may not be unconventional, but the whole idea that you can be friends with your kid, that's awesome for the "Gilmore Girls" and their ilk, television families, but I'm not sure that works on the whole here in the slightly more real world. Love them. A lot. Be present. Whenever and however you can be. Listen. Always. But unless they're Rory Gilmore, and she's pretty fucking special, sometimes you have to set limits, be mean, and even ugly. It's a really wonderful, terrible thing, most of time, and while I never encourage anyone to become a parent, just like I never encourage them to try therapy, marriage, or hallucinogens, all things I have found enjoyment in, I wouldn't have it any other way personally. Not anymore anyway.
Thanks so much to Ben Tanzer for swinging by. Check out Lost in Space and his many other books and, as always, read a book, write a review, support your authors!

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