Interview: j.a. tyler interviews Ben Brooks, author of FENCES

fencesI have read numerous titles from the Fugue State Press catalog and am always impressed. James Chapman has some of the most discerning editorial eyes and his work as a writer only serves to highlight his investment in language and the creative power to which he is harnessed (see DEGENERESCENCE, HOW IS THIS GOING TO CONTINUE?, et al). Many of us too are waiting on the next bout of Shane Jones, THE FAILURE SIX, set to release from FSP sometime soon. So there is no doubt that this press pushes boundaries and is linked into the vein of the most avant garde and prescient contemporary lit, but then sneaks into the catalog a book like FENCES from the mostly unknown Ben Brooks, and we understand that Fugue State Press is intent on finding the most frantic unabashed language available in our literary circles.

Told in numbered sections that read like super rhythmic breaks, Brooks has created a narrative hinged on volume and aggression, the words often snapping out at the reader, taking skin and layers with them. The most apparent of these techniques is Brooks adherence to variable text formatting, where some words are in microscopic print and others are in extended sizes (see the excerpt at Fugue State Press here for a sample). And while Chapman is know for selecting texts that challenge the reader, often referring to his own press as a place seeking ‘unreadable’ books, Brooks is the mastermind behind this altered format, asking his language to speak in screams and whispers even beyond the words themselves.

But it would be a mistake to get caught on or hung up in Brooks formatting, as if that is all the text had to offer. In fact, it has much more, including a story that vibes in and out of philosophy as the character takes to the road and a structure that is part poetry, part prose, and always framed by conviction and import. Brooks wastes few words in FENCES, and writes a book where we are both drawn to finding our own similarities with his characters while also made acutely aware that this is Brooks’ own landscape, a private apocalypse, and something we should feel lucky to witness.

Ben Brooks is doing something significant with words, risking language and testing readers; and for that alone he deserves a wide audience. Get FENCES here.

JAT: Take us from the beginning – James Chapman, Fugue State Press, a debut book, two more books already contracted – how / where / when did it all start?

BB: It started about two years ago when I picked up THE HUMAN WAR in a discount bookshop. That’s how I first found Fugue State, that’s how I first found people who weren’t interested in formal prose and being grammatically pedantic and writing about people in love. I sent James a couple of things and he rejected both but with long, encouraging emails. Nobody else said anything encouraging about my writing back then. The only feedback I ever got from a publisher was “this book is like a long journey with a large pack”. I asked him to explain and he told me “it means its boring” or something. Finally, James accepted FENCES. Having someone want to publish an actual book I’d written made me way more confident, so I had motivation for writing more. I wrote two books off that confidence, always with several false starts in between. James then picked up The Kasahara School of Nihilism and the wonderful editor at Mud Luscious Press picked up An Island of Fifty.

JAT: I read recently that you relate the format of your fonts in their variable sizes as something akin to language as volume – talk to us about how you structure writing and when in the process that happens for you:

BB: The font sizes thing is pretty strange I guess. It was never intended, like I didn’t set out to write something deliberately “wacky.” I think someone once said that I hid a lack of content behind those font sizes. For me its just another tool to be used. Its like someone giving you a whole new box of punctuation marks and telling you not to worry about paragraphing. The sizing and breaks tend to happen during writing, occasionally I go back and alter things but I pretty much know how I want the words to feel as I write them. I don’t really structure plots either. There will maybe be a few bullet points about some scenes I have in my mind, but mostly I just sit and go with things.

JAT: Let’s talk briefly about that notion of content too – how some may wrongly assume the formatting means the content is thin – for those who have not yet read FENCES, what is it about, what is its content, how does it mean?

BB: FSP called FENCES “a private apocalypse.” I think that sums it up well. Its about a man on a road trip, meeting God, watching people grow and die around him, always heading for one person. One person he doesn’t reach. He’s shooting for a hypothetical future with that person but in the process he abandons everything else and that search takes everything over. The book is told in whispered thoughts and screamed phrases. There is no flat-lining. His thoughts are never ordered or confined.

JAT: Interesting. That seems something akin to WAITING FOR GODOT or other absurdist / existential texts – are those any influence on your writing? Or is there anything drawn from more contemporary examples of apocalyptic / aggressive journey novels like McCarthy’s THE ROAD?

BB: FENCES had no conscious influences which I could list. After taking the book on, James Chapman asked me what I had been reading whilst writing the book then declared it to bear no resemblance to any of the books I listed. I guess there’s a degree of that Russian bitterness in the book. I like Dostoevsky.

JAT: You say the contracting of FENCES with Fugue State gave you a much needed boost to work on the next two projects, both now contracted as well – are those two structurally similar, using formatting and volumes in language? And if so, are they also similar in content, or is the content vastly different?

BB: Both still make heavy use of unconventional formatting and erratic font sizing although I think AN ISLAND OF FIFTY does so to a slightly lesser degree. FENCES and THE KASAHARA SCHOOL OF NIHILISM are both very emotional books whereas AN ISLAND OF FIFTY deals more with the nature of men and civilization and so it involves less meandering trails of thought and more omniscient narration. I still wanted things to jump and hide so I didn’t abandon my unusual formatting.

JAT: You are, as may surprise some people, a 17 year old writer – and FENCES is a perceptive and complex book – are there elements of your personal or writing life that have afforded you this advanced authorial skill, or do you think many young writers are this capable and perhaps simply written-off or overlooked by publishers / editors?

BB: Thanks a lot. Age never really came into things for me. I didn’t tell James Chapman my age until he had rejected my first two things, accepted FENCES and had gotten a good way into getting it all laid out. I used to feel quite secretive about my age. I thought it might effect how people read what I wrote. Now I don’t really mind so much. So I guess I’m lucky I’ve never really encountered an age prejudice but I think with the internet its easy to get judged on your writing alone, unless you start a cover letter “I’m a twelve year old writer” and enclose a poem about how dope your dog is. You just have to practice typing like a man. There are a bunch of really talented young writers in the blogosphere, like Jillian Clark and probably a bunch of other guys who I‘ve read places and never been told how young they are. I probably wouldn’t claim “advanced authorial skill”, just an interest in something a lot of people my age would never want to devote time to. I would say I had an imagination perhaps. As for personal life, I think its impossible to know how much things influence you. Sometimes I’ll write something and it will be a few weeks before I recognise how clear a reference to some past event in life it is. There are probably some references I will never pick up on myself. When I was younger we lived in Latvia. I think that played a part in my interest in eastern Europe.

JAT: Thanks for the interview Ben. Glad to more about you. FENCES is a brilliant book, and I really appreciate your time.

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18 responses to “Interview: j.a. tyler interviews Ben Brooks, author of FENCES

  1. I love this line: “The book is told in whispered thoughts and screamed phrases.” Thanks JA and Ben for this interesting interview – looking forward to reading the book down the line.

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  3. this was a happy discovery for me – finding in one fell swoop an author, a publishing company and this site who all interest me. the interview definitely piqued my interest and i found myself wishing it was even longer. thank you.

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  5. Wow, i want fences badly. Definitely on my ‘to buy once i find a job and get off the dole’ list. Good to see James Chapman getting props too, the work he’s doing (both his own and in publishing) is really amazing. I’ve been meaning to put together a blog post for DC’s about him…this has just reminded me to get on that.

    good work

    xxx tomk

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  6. When I was 17, I was worried about dumb things like where am I getting gas money so I could drive my parents’ car. Here Mr. Brooks is publishing books and giving a great interview. Anyway, this was good. A very informative exchange.

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