Friday, December 30, 2016

How to be Cool: An Interview with Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer is a regular alumni of this blog, and I'm so excited to bring you another interview with the master storyteller, this time on the eve of the release of his new book, Be Cool, which happens to be my favorite of his. Read on as Tanzer and I discuss everything from dreams, to publishing, to, finally, how to be cool. Cheers!

Steph Post: Be Cool is the third book of yours I’ve read over the past two years and I believe the fourth book (fifth?) to be released in the past three. You’ve now officially become my most interviewed author! Before getting into Be Cool, I just have to ask how you’ve managed to get so many words out to the world in so short a time. Are you just naturally a fast writer with a lot to say or is this merely a product of publishing circumstance?

Ben Tanzer: I feel like I should begin with an apology. That is a lot of Tanzer book and interview. There must be a vaccine of some kind to prevent that, right? As to your actual question, I doubt there is a remotely humble way to respond, but it’s a both…and. Or, a both…and…and not exactly. I’m not an especially fast writer, but I write nearly every day, I rarely get stuck, and the words do pile-up. They are also intensely focused words in that I always know where they are going because in my head I’m always building towards something, whether that’s a potential novel or a collection. So on the one hand, there is that pile-up, but there were also the years where the words were piling-up, just not necessarily finding a home. Now sometimes they do. Even when they do though, some things come out when planned, like Lost in Space or The New York Stories, and some things get delayed for whatever reasons like Orphans or SEX AND DEATH. So, there is circumstance too. And yes, many words.

SP: When I read Sex and Death, I was sure that it would always be my favorite work of yours, but, to be honest, Be Cool has quite eclipsed that collection in my mind. Be Cool is classified as a “Memoir (sort of),” but I’m not sure what part of it doesn’t fit into the memoir category. Are there any parts of Be Cool that aren’t true? Or does this parenthetical addendum refer more to the structure of the book?

BT: You’re very kind Steph Post and this is a great question. I conceived Be Cool as an essay collection. I developed a list of ideas for essays I might write and wrote them one by one as the moment struck me that it was time to do so. I didn’t visualize the essays as connected per se, or as having an arc, just that somehow my tragic desire to be cool would inhabit the pages. But when I organized the essays and talked about them with my mother, they seemed to hang together by decade, and when I submitted the collection to the publisher, he said, it reads like a memoir, sort of, and I said if that helps with marketing, cool, and here we are. So, it is categorical. But it is also all lies, as well as damned lies, and obfuscations. Of course.

SP: As with all of your work, your specific and unique, and very personal, voice rings true in Be Cool. You directly engage with the reader, almost in a one-sided conversation. You always refer to “you,” who is, I take it, the reader. Do you have anyone specific in mind that fills the role of “reader” for you? Is this “you” directed at any one person or group of people?

BT: My father was a painter and he would always say that an artist has to understand their niche and direct their work towards that niche. He never really figured out his niche, however, and I have chosen to ignore this advice, in what I can only imagine qualifies as a wholly unwarranted repudiation of my father’s memory. Which is to say, that I never try to define, or even imagine, an audience. The “you” I write to is whoever you are that somehow found the book and by extension found me. Now, that may very well be why I don’t have more readers. Nor do I assume this is any way to be successful, and by that I mean actual sales, and some kind of notoriety among some set of the public and my fellow authors. None of which I’m opposed to, I should add. I just haven’t been quite able to figure it out and apparently have been unwilling to truly think about it.

SP: I’m actually quite fascinated with the memoir genre, though I have only written one, very short, memoir-ish piece which I don’t ever plan to publish. I noticed that you included dreams in Be Cool. Not to get too philosophical, but how much are dreams really part of our memories? How much do they contribute to our identity and how we want to present ourselves in the world?

BT: I am the product of both an artist and a psychotherapist, and as a result of the latter, I have had to talk about my dreams since I was a child. I believe that dreams play a significant role in both our attaining some level of understanding about our waking lives, as well as a potentially enhanced self-awareness about who we are and what makes us tick. All of which would seem to serve writers well as they plumb the various layers of story and character before them. How dreams truly contribute to memory or identity would make a good paper, but I think what’s important in the context of this discussion, is the idea that our dreams involve the threads and events in our lives that we struggle to make sense of during our waking lives, and may even actively seek to avoid, but still bubble-up from our unconscious and find room to roam and expand while we sleep. The challenge is to consciously ask ourselves what these dreams may mean, what they say about us and then decide what to do with the information. 

SP: As with your short stories, the themes and topics in Be Cool seem to range from one end of the universe to the other and have no boundaries. Is there anything that you consider to be too personal to write about? Is anything taboo for you?

BT: When it comes to myself, I don’t really consider anything too personal to write about or too taboo. Fiction is different in its way, because I wouldn’t want to offend anyone by tackling a storyline I can’t speak some kind of truth to. For example, child sexual abuse. I know the science from my working life and I have personal relationships with survivors, but outside of threads that tackle the theme in the ways it has impacted me, I would never attempt to go too in-depth on this topic. However, when the characters, and their characterizations, feel truthful to me, or authentic, I will write about them regardless of taboo. With nonfiction, I am endlessly embarrassed by things about myself that I would hate to discuss in person, but as a writer I feel a certain responsibility to the handful of readers I can claim as mine, to be as authentic as possible. Now that said, I will not write about anything my children consider to be their secrets, or that would especially upset my wife or mom. The former feels fairly black and white, and the latter generally does, but I will ask my wife or mom from time to time if they’re okay seeing something in print, and if they aren’t, I will set it aside. My desire for truth certainly doesn’t need to come at their expense.

SP: In writing about your high school years you say, “The real world- school, parents, the endless effort to be cool- may have constantly encroached on me everywhere else, but not on the track.” Obviously Be Cool deals with the idea of being “cool” and as both a high school teacher and a writer, this is something I encounter every day. Both teenagers and authors seem to be obsessed with being cool, but maybe the struggle applies to everyone. Do you have a personal idea about what it means to “be cool?”

BT: I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I finished the book, and my definition has certainly changed over time, but I really believe, for now anyway, that being cool is all about being your truest self, even when embarrassing, or at the risk of not fitting-in. Owning who you want to be, and living it, is when you are happiest and most productive, and people, some people, your people, respond to you, and what you are, and nothing is ultimately cooler than that. Know yourself, love yourself, be yourself. The people who can do that, are always the coolest, even when it takes some time for the universe to catch-up with them.

Be Cool will be released from Dock Street Press on February 1st. Be sure to Pre-Order it today! And many thanks, as always, to Ben Tanzer for stopping by. Happy Reading!

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