Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Storytelling at its finest: An Interview with Schuler Benson, author of The Poor Man's Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide

As if this week couldn’t get any better, today I bring you an interview with Schuler Benson, author of The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide. This collection of short stories will disturb you, startle you, possibly even shatter you. It will unsettle you and it will renew your faith in the short story genre. Benson is a risk-taker and his prose pushes boundaries while inspiring awe. This collection is not for the faint of heart- but it IS for any fan of savage beauty and masterful storytelling.

Steph Post: Since your stories seem to do the same, I’d like to dive right in. You write very graphically about some pretty disturbing situations- kids growing up in a meth lab, marital abuse, death, violence, more death and so on. With your descriptive style and attention to detail (usually the kind most people overlook) you take, what I’d call “everyday horror” to a whole new level. What spurs you to populate your stories with these unsettling scenes, settings and characters?

Schuler Benson: It's an interesting distinction to make, or try to make, between "everyday horror" and just "the everyday." I've been to some wonderful places, made connections with wonderful people, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Having said that, I've done some pretty awful shit and been in some pretty bleak places with some shady folks. Those are the places where I think I learned the most about others, and about who I am. And who I'm not. A lot of what I've read, seen in movies, or heard elsewhere and enjoyed kinda works the same way. I think some of the uglier parts of these stories are equal parts dark corner and mirror. The dark corners make for interesting scenarios to plumb, and the mirrors keep things honest.

SP: I’m a sucker for well written dialogue and you are a master of it. In writing dialect you use words such as “whatchu,” “arrite” and “lemme,” which effortlessly convey the characters’ voices. What is your process for crafting dialect words? How important is it to you that you get the dialect correct?

SB: Man, thank you so much. I love listening to people. I’ve been a mimic my whole life, and I guess that’s worked its way into how I tell stories. I try my best to get the way people talk down on paper in a way that looks and feels natural enough that it’s not impossible to read for people who aren’t accustomed to that kind of speech. Not everyone’s gonna get it though, and honestly, alienating a few people is a risk I’ll take if even one person reads it and thinks, “man, I can really hear this stuff.” It can be polarizing, but that makes it all the more rewarding when it works. Plus, in work I’ve read by established writers, when the dialect really works, it makes for such a fun read. Seeing it done well by others has been, and continues to be, a big inspiration for me.

SP: There are so many well-written stories in this collection of twelve, but without a doubt “A Hindershot of Calion” is my favorite. This is the story that really sparked for me- the dialogue is spot-on and the apathy and tenderness of the characters rings completely true without a hint of artifice. So, I have to know the story behind the story; how did “Hindershot” start out and how did it become the gem that it is?

SB: I’m so glad you liked it. And I’m a little surprised by the love that story’s gotten, because it’s definitely the oddball in the collection, and when I was writing it, I honestly never expected it to see the light of day. In the spring of 2013, I’d just had my first story accepted for publication. I was excited, couldn’t wait to tell my family. I was going to be back in my hometown in mid-May. I didn’t get down there very often, and I was hoping the story’d be published before I got there so my folks could read it, but it wasn’t slated for publication until later in the summer. Before I took that trip, I sat down at my computer with the express intention of writing something my grandparents would like, specifically my grandfather, the real Denny. Just to have something to give them, you know? I wrote that story in, like, an evening, and between then and when it eventually debuted, it changed very little. The story’s fictional, and it contains a fictionalized version of Denny, but a lot of the places are real, and some of the themes deal a lot with the relationship he and I had. I brought it to him, and my Gran read it to him and he loved it. Later that summer, on a whim, I submitted it to Alternating Current for the Go Read Your Lunch series, and when it was accepted, I was floored. It’s a cool story, but it’s also a little bit Mayberry, and I didn’t expect it’d be the kind of thing anyone would go for. Can’t tell you how happy I am now to have been wrong then.

SP: Especially nowadays, publishing a collection of short stories is no easy feat. How did you first connect with Alternating Current Press and what was it like working with them?

SB: After that first story came out on Hobart, Leah from Alternating Current and I connected on Twitter. We had a lot of similar interests, and she mentioned Go Read Your Lunch, which I checked out. I loved the idea of a blog that premiered original material in that format, and the handful of past GRYL stories I read were all just killer. For the hell of it, I think last July, I submitted “Hindershot” to AC for Go Read Your Lunch, and I genuinely never expected to hear anything back. But I did, and that story is what got me the offer to do the collection. Alternating Current has been incredible to me. Leah’s been in this business for a long time, and it shows. She and her people have truly worked tirelessly on this book, as well as everything else they undertake, including promoting other authors and now organizing book tours. I’m really new to all this. I’m grateful to have so much knowledge and elbow-grease in my corner.

SP: The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide is not only filled to the brim with stark, startling prose, it’s illustrated! When it first came in the mail and I started flipping through it, I was taken by the illustrations and the design of the book. I mentioned to you before that your book is like mixtape made with love. (After finishing it, I still believe this- though it’s sort of like that mixtape you find in the back of your closet that was made by the one person in your life who ripped your heart out and stomped on it and you don’t want to listen to it, but you do anyway while you sit on the floor and sob.) How personal is this collection to you? How much of a hand did you have in directing the design of the book, the artwork and the arrangement of the stories?

SB: That’s awesome. The mixtape vibe is exactly what I wanted. In my mind, this thing’s not so much a collection of stories as it is kinda an ode to my love for the album. All the stories are personal, I guess. Like songs. I mean, some are at more of a remove than others, but spending time in those worlds with those people binds them to you. I think that’s true for any writer, and I don’t know if it’ll ever not be true for me. I’m lucky to say that I had virtually total creative freedom with the design of the book, and that’s yet another testament to how awesome working with Alternating Current is. I mentioned some things about the art to Leah at the beginning, and she was very accommodating and enthusiastic. I bounced a few of the illustration ideas off a couple friends of mine, both of whom are, coincidentally, amazing artists. The section pieces were done by Patrick Traylor, a guy I’ve known most my life. We grew up together, and he lives in the Phoenix area now. The jacket pieces and individual story art was all hand-drawn by a dude named Ryan Murray. He’s a Houston-based artist. He and I have known each other and been friends for over a decade, and it’s one of the most interesting relationships I have, because he and I have never met in person. We never even spoke on the phone until we went into the planning stages of this project late last summer. The work these guys did stands so beautifully on its own, and I am honored to have it included as part of something with my name on it. I arranged the stories and sections the way I would’ve sequenced them if they were songs on a record. I think everyone involved is happy with the final product, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Phenomenal experience. If I never write or publish another story, I’ll be happy to have this.

SP: I could go on all day about the stunning craft of your collection, but instead, I’m going to switch it up a bit.  Let’s do flash favorites (first thing that pops into your head). So, favorite…

Airport to be stranded in: If I had to be stranded, I guess any airport’s pretty much the same.

Liquor to drink straight: I’ve been sober since December 2008, but if you asked me this question in
November of 2008, I would’ve said “whatever’s free.”

Place to stay up all night: If I’m up all night, I’m miserable. J Doesn’t matter where. Man, I’m boring.

Author you’ve read in the last six months: Like pretty much everyone else who’s read him, Eric Shonkwiler. Above All Men is so good, and his short fiction hits so hard. The guy is truly built to write.

Non-domestic animal: I’ve got a weird obsession with the thylacine. I have a picture of a pile of them in my kitchen.

Class you took in college: I took this “Bible As Literature” course at the University of Arkansas, and it was a blast. A professor named Robert Madison taught it. He was one of my favorites.

Person to take on a road trip: My fiancée, Celeste. We’ve been from Arkansas to Colorado to the Carolinas together. I’m not much of a roadtripper, but she is. Makes the distance more fun. And our dog, Ellen Ripley. If we’re going somewhere, she’s going, too… but she ain’t happy about it.

Word: fidbin-a-snake-idda-bitcha (Where I come from, this is one word.)

By the way, where I come from, this is one word as well.... Thanks so much to Schuler Benson for taking the time to stop by. Don't foget to pick up your copy of A Poor Man's Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide and, as always- read, review, repeat. 

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