Monday, October 5, 2009

Author Interview: Ben Segal


I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Ben Segal, the author of 78 Stories: A Crossword Novella, reviewed earlier this month. Mr Segal will have a chapbook called Science Fiction Pornography publishing in November by Publishing Genius Press. Without further ado, the interview:

The title of your book is 78 Stories and yet the subtitle is A Crossword Novella. So, do you refer to it as a collection of stories or a novella? 

I think the subtitle comes from grasping for some way of neatly describing the project. While certainly within a lineage of experimental texts, the actual form of 78 Stories is (as far as I know) unique. So in describing it to people, I had to develop a functional shorthand for what it is. Novella is probably the wrong term, but I guess we went with it for the subtitle because it’s associated with an approximate word count, a level of cohesion, and the status of a ‘book’. The title and the subtitle together speak to both the independence and interdependence of the constitutive stories.

In a former interview with Orange Alert, you mentioned that you were intrigued with the idea of irritability when developing 78 Stories. Why write something that may irritate and jar readers from pushing forward?

This question is an interesting misreading on your part. I was speaking about iterability and iteration- how the same textual mark (be it letter, word, paragraph, etc.) can be written again and again and signify differently each time. The crossword puzzle was a kind of iteration engine or machine for the production of multi-directional meaning. As for irritation, I do think that that can have a place in literature. Frustration and difficulty are often part of an ultimately rewarding reading.

The concept of your novella reminded me a lot of a Bach fugue, where the same voices and tones are heard, but are of course tampered with, added to, reduced, etc. Is music something that informs your writing?

I wouldn’t say that music is a direct influence. I’m not someone like Harry Matthews who studied music seriously and has a crossover interest in the forms of both. I’m sure that the music I listen to influences me indirectly. Right now I’m listening to Rocketship. They’re pretty great.

78 Stories’ structure is reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in that it doesn’t allow for a single gesture to be taken away, otherwise the whole project would fall apart like a house of cards. Plus the reader also gets to choose how to read the book. Do you find such tight writing constraints and open reading liberations helpful?

Constrained writing and open reading are both very exciting for me. All writing is under constraint (of language, grammar, convention) and working under well defined formal constraints can be very helpful in producing work that is not trapped in stale, received plot and language structures. Open reading is, like constrained writing is for constrained nature writing in general, a way of highlighting the actual openness of all reading. When we have a physical text object like a book, we have the ability to skip, skim, re-read, deface… All readings are individual and in the hands of the reader. Reading and writing are both active processes of producing meaning through text more than simple transmissions or receptions of said meaning. I am interested in readings and writings that highlight the material and artificial condition of the work and the co-dependence of reader and writer.

Are you a fan of Nabokov? And if so did Nabokov’s interest in crosswords, as he created the first one in Russian, bolster your project?

I am a fan, Pale Fire especially, although I’ve not read nearly as much Nabokov as some of more dedicated friends. As for a direct link between Nabokov’s crossword interest and mine, there isn’t one. It’s a nice link though and maybe I should claim it. I was, however, inspired by Perec as crossword maker.

In paraphrasing Georges Perec, the puzzle-maker in essence has to be his every puzzler. Thus the writer has to be his every reader. When the reader unravels 78 Stories physically and mentally before him, is he then looking at a reflection of the author, the reflection of himself the reader, or an invention of ordered chaos?

This is getting at all kinds of tricky topics like authorial intent and the relation of the writer to his text. I’m sure that 78 Stories is in certain ways a reflection of me, of my interests and temporary obsessions when I was working on it. Still, I think that the book is a text like any other. What a reader takes from the book is very personal and dependent on the analytical frameworks she brings to it. I’m not sure I can really speak to how the book ‘should’ be experienced. I’m just hopeful that people will like it.

Your short stories are so pregnant even though they rarely use more than 500 words. Do you find inspiration for this from poetry or other prose?

I tend to find inspiration from prose writers who are concerned with aesthetic questions (language, rhythm, form) that are usually relegated to poetry. My lists below of books I’m looking forward to and writers I admire are full of such people.

Your stories also have a unusual feeling to them, as if they could be set anywhere about anyone. Yet most writers usually embody the world they live in: Cormac McCarthy and the American Middle/South, Seamus Heaney and rural Ireland, Leo Tolstoy and the whole of Russian consciousness, Jonathan Ames and subaltern physicality. Is there a section of this world that you want to be Ben Segal territory?

It’s interesting that you give Ames a non-geographical space. I’d like to take a similarly conceptual one, but I’m not sure what I’d designate it. My relation to place in writing is almost a non-relation. I’m much more interested in bodies than environments and the physical presence of language than of scenery.

Do you see yourself as a puzzle-maker type of writer? A puppeteer? A camera?

The approach depends on the project. I think mostly I am resistant to these comparisons because I’m interested in writing as writer. What I mean is that I’m interested in the specific properties of text and of the reading experience, so while I can appreciate comparisons to other media, I really do try to write medium-responsive fiction.

Who are the contemporary authors you like to read?

Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Ben Marcus….many others

Which books are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m currently reading and enjoying ‘Boons’ and ‘The Camp’, a pair of novellas by David Ohle that just came out. Also looking forward to Blake Butler’s ‘Scorch Atlas’ (also out now) and Molly Gaudry’s ‘We Will Take Me Apart’ (forthcoming shortly).

And in as few words as possible, Why write?



Kari said…

Ha, I love his last answer.

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