A Brief Interview with Jensen Beach

Weston Cutter
July 25, 2012
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Jensen Beach‘s For Out of the Heart Proceed was released earlier this summer by Dark Sky Books and is, in all sorts of ways, a riveting and (for this reader anyway) something like an instructive read: Beach’s stories—which I feel compelled to point out feature more than their share of birds, and which overall might be said to be focused on moments of sudden confusion or clarity—sudden shifting—and which, most interestingly to me, pushed at the edge of brevity and placidity: many of these stories are both incredibly brief and incredibly calm. That’s not to nag or criticize, it’s just a thing I’m not hugely used to. Fortunately, Beach is a hell of a writer, and he—through the stories, of course—teaches the reader just fine. It’s a tremendous book, one you should track down as soon as possible. Below’s a back-and-forth q+a he and I engaged in a few weeks back.

First off: who are some of the folks you’re either a) reading at present or b) ‘influenced’ by, in whatever ways you imagine or can track (and influences of course can come from anywhere: if you’re deeply influenced by the specific rhythms of planes passing overhead wherever you live, that’s excellent), or c) folks you maybe feel like you fit into something like an aesthetic grouping with, if such a thing exists for you or if you see your own stuff that way.

It’s odd. I see a big difference between the kinds of stuff I was reading while working on this book and the stuff I’m reading now. There are a bunch of writers I first read just as I was beginning to take my writing and my reading seriously and I think if I were to dig deep enough in this book, I’d probably be able to find traces of them in here pretty easily. The usual suspects: Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah, Joy Williams, Denis Johnson, others. Influence is a funny thing to try to define, I think. One of the ways I’ve been thinking about it lately is writers whose work answers questions for me. Like if I get stuck in a story and I can go read an Amy Hempel story, or whoever, and see how she solved her story’s problem and that helps me figure out mine. The other thing that influenced for me, in these stories in particular, is being a father. I wouldn’t say that all of the stories in here that feature a father and a son are taken, verbatim, from my life or anything, but being a father certainly influences what I write about. There a few stories where the father narrator/character is trying to teach his child (usually his son) something, and though none of that was conscious for me, I’m completely sure that those stories rose up out of my own attempts at both teaching my children things and also understanding that in doing that I’m learning just as much as they are. So that’s B.

As for A, I’m working on a book of stories set in Sweden right now and tonally this work is much different, so I’ve been reading and re-reading some writers lately that are helping me solve the problems this book is presenting in terms of tone and voice and so on. I’ve just finished Kerstin Ekman’s wonderful novel Blackwater. I like the way she’s able to render Sweden, the nature, in particular, and the relationship between place and character. I’m probably not explaining that well, but it’s a great book. I’ve also been revisiting Lars Gustafsson, a Swedish poet and writer who is really fantastic and strange in unexpected and quiet ways. James Lasdun is another writer who I’ve been reading lately. I like his work because he’s able to write about different places really well. He’s a Brit who lives or lived in New York and has stories set both in the US and abroad, and I look to him for clues about how to move in and out of different places, using setting as a vital and important part of the fiction, but not announcing it as this exotic “other” place. It’s really subtle. And a writer I’m downright obsessed with right now is the Swiss writer Peter Stamm. I’ve only just discovered his work within the last year and it’s amazing. Immediately, his work seemed familiar to me, like he was up to what I want to aim for. Only, of course, he’s doing it much, much better. Maybe that answers C. I read some piece of his writing every day. A page or two from a novel, sometimes just at random, or one of his stories. I think I have a problem. It’s getting in the way of my other reading. I can’t remember the last time I was this obsessed with a writer. Maybe when I first read Flannery O’Connor or Bobbi Ann Mason. Stamm has this way of writing so simply that some of his writing seems at first almost boring it’s so straightforward and quiet, but just beneath this surface is a kind of electricity that’s strikes really hard.

In the short-short stories I’ve experienced lots of (LDavis, DWilliams, etc.), there’s often a tightness bordering on ferocity re: language (I find this good and bad: when LDavis is working it, I’m in; I’m mostly cool to what Williams does, ditto those stories from Eggers/Manguso a couple years back). Your work, as I read it, offers less of this sort of torqued linguistic stuff and tries instead to get at what seems like what might be called the irreducibly complex aspect of fiction—I’m thinking here specifically of “Training Exercises,” the very first story. Does this make any sense? Kimball, of course, does similar stuff—this sort of shockingly common language that exposes, crazy sneakily, a narrative which just undoes you (I’m thinking of his Us as a good example: there may be no more common writing than that, that I know if, literary-wise). This is now getting to be a mess.

I think what you’re seeing in these stories is what attracts me to writers like Peter Stamm and James Lasdun. There’s a quiet undoing that I find really appealing as a reader, and trying to hit that same note (as much as that’s possible) is satisfying for me as as writer, too. Michael Kimball is a great example. I love this very thing about Us. I read that book in one sitting (it was the night I got back from AWP two years ago and I couldn’t sleep because I think my body was wondering when I was going to get it drunk enough to pass out, so I read instead) and when I was done I felt confused for a little while about just what I’d found so compelling in the novel. It’s a heartbreaking book, of course, but there’s something more to it than just that. I think you put it well when you say that the language is shockingly common, and it does expose something. Maybe in that book it kind removes the distance between reader and the husband’s grief. I don’t know. I’ve always found this type of writing appealing and accessible. It’s seems very human somehow. I like a lot of linguistically edgy stuff, too, and of course I think it’d be easy to make a case for Michael Kimball (and others) occupying a different side of a still edgy, language-y room, but I’ve always been really drawn to writers whose work is interested in the common, in the shared. A lot of contemporary writing strikes me as trying too hard to hit that torqued up kind of thing and to me it just reads like a math equation or a loop that’s been plugged into or something. That can be really appealing and fun, obviously, and I don’t mean to disparage anyone here. I think everyone should write and read what they want to, but for me, I’m more interested in people and characters; and the most effective way for me to gain access to that is through simpler language. Maybe that makes it sound like I look up everything on the Basic English Wikipedia page instead of the regular one, though.

The writers you mention above are all, of course, great. I think that ferocity you’re talking about might come from the fact that the tightness, the torque, is sustainable more easily, or more comfortably maybe, over shorter distances. There are plenty of writers who manage it over greater lengths, of course. Blake Butler is a good example, for one. And I do really love fiction that makes the familiar strange in order to show us something new and exciting in what we might already know. I wonder if writing that directs its energy toward the common and the calm (is that the right word?) accomplishes a similar de-familiarization, only from the other end, by making the particular and peculiar common. I think this is what I was trying to do in “Training Exercises.” The story is odd in event–there’s a guy lurking out in the woods behind the narrator’s house, watching the narrator and the son explore the backyard at dusk–but quiet in language. The man comes out of the woods and the narrator, the son, and the man interact with one another. If this ever happened to me, I’d be terrified, of course. I’d call the police, or at least rush my kid into the house before something bad happened; but the father in the story kind of takes it in stride. There’s no violence or yelling. The three of them just stand there holding hands with one another. To me that didn’t make sense unless it was done quietly and unobtrusively. Sometimes, I think it’s my job to get out of the way.

I like short-short stories that feel like they’re trimmed back to reveal only what’s important, that feel like they might once have been 10,000 words long but the writer sat down and took out everything that wasn’t exactly, precisely important to the story’s heart. J. Robert Lennon has this story (it’s Pieces for the Left Hand, I think) about a novelist who edits her massive novel down to fit on a single notecard. I like that idea.

Also due to the brevity of some of these stories: what’s the line between prose-poetry and what you do? If this sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, I really apologize: more than anything I want to try to, through some conversation with you, see if I/we can get at some notion at what the fundamental units of narrative or fiction are, which conversation you might not be remotely interested in (sorry if so), but which I couldn’t help thinking of re: your work.

I like stories that seem to rush toward irresolution. Stories that seem to understand their own rules, or their own inevitability and then actively work against that. I’m thinking of Amy Hempel again (just to keep my examples consistent) and her story “Under No Moon.” I’ve taught this story a whole bunch of times, and invariably some of the students are disappointed in the story because it doesn’t do what they think it’s supposed to do. If you haven’t read it, here’s the basic plot: an older married couple (the parents of the narrator) go on a cruise to see a comet that, the narrator tells us, her mother will die after seeing. Hempel plays with this promise so well, teasing the reader with these simple mishaps that prevent the mother from seeing the comet, and of course the mother doesn’t die. I don’t mean to suggest that the story is doing anything other than exactly what it should be doing, only that there is narrative inevitability toward one event and Hempel moves us deliberately toward another. The end of the story does hint toward the mother’s (and everyone’s) mortality, but it doesn’t resolve neatly. I like that. I like a story’s capacity to do this. And I think prose poems can and do have this same capacity. I got my MFA at UMass and was lucky to get to work with some amazing faculty and students. James Tate is there and much of his poetry, especially the more recent stuff, is very prosey. He also has several collections of short fiction. Sometimes I think the only way to tell which are poems and which are stories is to look at what the book is calling them, but there might be some fundamental aspect of each that I’m missing. To me, every story is full of narrative possibility. Through its characters and their actions and the physical world and the internal world and so on, and I can think of lots of examples of narrative writing, called both poetry and fiction, that does this. I’m sure lots of people would disagree with me or amend what I’m saying in some way, but I think the fundamental units of narrative or story are made up at least in part of this potential, and it’s the writer’s job to recognize that and complicate and violate it and fulfill it all at once. I just moved to the Midwest and so I’m just seeing tornado shelter signs for the first time in my life. I don’t know if the particular signs I’m thinking of are unique to the University of Illinois campus, but they depict a tornado approaching a building. Inside the building are a man and a woman, and below the building is an empty space with the word: SHELTER. These signs are good examples of what I’m talking about because they express narrative potential through causality. We read them left to right, like a text. If a tornado comes, go down to the basement of the building on which this sign you are reading is mounted. The implication being, of course, that if you don’t do this, you’ll get hurt or killed by the storm. This is dramatic, because it has the potential to be so in so many different ways. Either the man and woman don’t go down to the shelter and they are hurt or worse, or they do and they are safe, or they don’t and the storm passes them by and they are safe, or they do and the storm passes them by and they are safe but have spent time in the shelter needlessly. In each of these scenarios it’s easy to image some secondary drama playing out between the man and the woman and their environment in such a way that the inevitable becomes inevitably unexpected and surprising. All of those potentials are implicit in the image of the approaching storm and the man and woman standing, presumably, in its path. So if I had to identify one of the fundamental units of narrative, I’d say it was that dramatic potential. Sometimes this manifests itself in strange ways (a turkey that has just knocked on the door, for example, in that Tate poem) and sometimes in tense and scary ways like tornadoes. I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all. To answer your question more directly, I’m not sure where the line is. Maybe it’s a porous border and hard to find. Clearly, I’d put myself down in the prose, fiction side of things, if forced to chose, and I think what I’ve been saying here speaks to how much more comfortable I am with ideas of fiction rather poetry. I bet a poet would answer these questions differently. Maybe it all comes down to those surface genre conventions–the shape of the text on the page, dialogue, etc. What are your thoughts? (ed note: I didn’t answer then and still haven’t a sufficient one)

This is another thing that’s mildly personal, or at least it tracks according to something I do as well: in the stories in which you don’t use names or any distinct identifying characteristics, is your goal to render the story as something akin to a fable, or to make the story something that’s easier for the reader to enter, or some combination? I’m honestly just curious.

This is a hard question. I don’t know that it was consciously in my mind (that makes it all so needlessly mysterious, doesn’t it?) to work with fable in these stories, though I think some of them do, or at least do manage to work toward a kind of recognition from the lack of specific details. In a few of the stories, the narrator, or the character whose perspective the story is told from, doesn’t have a name, or he’s called The Man, and so on. And I do think that this kind of amplification through simplification is interesting. I’m more likely, for instance, to hold a clear picture in my head of a character that’s not been overly described to me by a writer, for some reason. I think this is just a human thing. We look for ourselves everywhere, and so maybe we’re more likely to impose our self images onto characters we aren’t being told to see one way or the other. This does, I think, give a certain ease of access to some of the stories, let’s readers in. Take “Alaska” for instance. If the character in that story had a name, I would feel a bigger distance existed between him and me, and between him and other readers of the book. But I don’t know if this something I thought too much about as I was writing those stories.

 

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