Ben Tanzer is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose Nonfiction, The New York Stories and now SEX AND DEATH, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at tanzerben.com the center of his vast lifestyle empire.
Curtis Smith: I just finished your latest, Sex and Death. I read it over Valentine’s weekend, which provided a nice background vibe. I really enjoyed it. It’s also a very handsome book—I’m a fan of Sunnyoutside’s work. How did you come to hook up with them?
Ben Tanzer: I wonder if we should have marketed it with Valentine’s Day in mind, it kind of feels like a lost opportunity now. But thank you for the kind words, and it is a quite handsome book. Sunnyoutside does great work—cool authors, terrific words, beautiful covers—and I always wanted to be part of the family, and so this story may not be interesting or inspirational, but I patiently waited until I thought I had the right stories and they had an open reading period, I submitted and here we are.
CS: I had this cool feeling as I read it—almost like I was walking through a gallery looking at a series of paintings. That may sound weird, but it was a good thing. The pieces are distinct and unique, but they’re also all takes on a shared theme. I was wondering how it all came about. Did you think you wanted to write a series of stories centered on sex—or did you find yourself with a few and then realize you had something going on?
BT: More kind words, and more appreciation, thanks brother. And I may need to quote you about the paintings. But I hope your experience speaks to craft and the stories’ ability to convey something evocative, because if that’s the case, and that’s a big if, your comments don’t sound weird at all. In this case however, it’s less about having a few stories in place and more related to finding myself coming back to certain pieces that felt dreamy, and especially focused on the characters’ inner life – versus stories driven by dialogue or actions of some kind – and as they were written they started feeling like they hung together. Thematically, I’m generally interested in domestic pieces—relationships, adultery, communication, and lack thereof, and death, always—so it was more about the aesthetic feel and taste than content, because the content is always there.
CS: Most of the pieces focus on us middle-aged types—yet many of these characters carry ghosts of their earliest sexual histories. Do you think our sexual histories are different than our other histories? Can we ever truly get beyond them—or do you think they’re imprinted, a kind of touchstone, forever part of the fabric of who we are?
BT: I think our sexual histories are part of a continuum of our histories in general, every step, and misstep, every slight, and moment of positivity, all imprinting on us in different ways, compounding and building on themselves, leaving us with a world of feelings and memories, regrets and choices that both affect our current decision making, as well as our confidence, and the paths we are on. Where sexual histories might be different than other types of history however, is that for much of our life, most of us spend as much time thinking about sex—how we can get it, and keep it, why something works one day in bed, and not the next, or with one person, or not another—as much as anything—work or children, dreams and hopes—and so in that way it warps who we are along the way, and who we might yet be, even when, if, we reach a place where our sex lives are healthy and fulfilling. So do we get beyond our sexual histories? Most of us yes, and no, we stop caring quite so much about it, and we are liberated in that way, but we still wonder about the opportunities that slipped away, and where and when things went wrong, or bad. Those things always linger.
CS: Many of the characters seemed lost within their own sexual drives—adulterers, fantasizers, romantics reaching out to old flames. Do you think we ever overcome the often-blinding aspect of this drive—and perhaps only start to understand it as it loosens its grip? Perhaps this is where the “death” part of the title fits in—because once we start to come to terms with sex, we’re probably nearer to the end than we’d like to admit.
Sorry. That’s kind of a bummer to consider, but still . . .
BT: Ha! I answered the last question without even knowing this one was coming, so I will build on that, and again, I would say yes and no, or yes, but… meaning, yes there is some relationship to the unfortunate reality that as we finally begin to figure things out in life, and we feel some sense of stability, death beckons, and that is both bummer and reality. But while I agree with this, and while I think its analogous to many things that come with age and experience—confidence, a focus on the type of work you hope to do—that isn’t what was on my mind. What I kept coming back to, is that sex and death, and the way we obsess over them, are the things that most get in the way of our functioning on a higher, more self-actualized level – the worry, the chase, the fear, that comes with both, retard who we might be when we can’t manage to manage our endless focus on them.
CS: This is the third book of yours I’ve read. I’ve always enjoyed your style. You give us pieces that are full of uneasiness and uncertainty, with characters who are often insecure. Yet it’s presented with a tenderness that makes it all recognizable. When you conjure a character, what usually comes first—the quirks that set them apart or the commonalities that make them more human?
BT: If it works for you, I think you need to be my best friend going forward. This is also a lovely question, and for me it is about the quirk, or the slice of humanity I lock into with the character. Someone needs to talk to their son about sex, or confront their dead husband’s lover, a co-worker is attracted to them, maybe, or they are attracted to someone on a plane, a child is mourning the loss of a father, and I start there, what does it look like, where does it go, and as the stories grow, and I fold and add more layers, the commonalities and humanities come with that. And not always consciously I should add, though I would love to think there are moments when I achieve that level of mastery.
CS: You were a fiction writer first—but then ventured into nonfiction. I’m always interested in that journey. How did you find the transition? Do you think the processes similar or very different? I’m sure your fiction background influenced your nonfiction work—but has your nonfiction returned the favor and had an impact on your fiction?
BT: It definitely helps when someone, in this case Curbside Splendor, asks you to write nonfiction. Which is me semi-joking. Which is to say – and I wish I had better language for this – when I was asked to create the essay collection Lost in Space for Curbside, some part of my writing brain started seeing ideas and requests as nonfiction and not fiction and then when I was done with those essays and I wanted to get to work on the short stories that comprised the final section of my short story collection The New York Stories and SEX AND DEATH, I began to see everything in that fashion. I honestly don’t understand how that works, but the journey was impacted by the opportunity, or desire to create that kind of work, and when the journey was done I was done. So, not sure how, if they return the favor, though they do start in a very similar place – there is some shred of an idea, and usually some kind of truth that feels like a piece, and then I start adding layers and ideas, and soon there is a thing, which I hone and tighten before moving onto to the next thing.
CS: I know you’re a runner. It’s interesting how many writer types I know run. Why do you think that is?
BT: There is compulsion and the need to find some kind of balance and make sense of things, untangling ideas, managing anxiety, and the voices that doubt you, you know those, right, or is that just me, and for me running is, and always has been, a means for achieving this. When I was young, I had wanted to try it, join a team, run far, and when I did, it felt good and right and it spoke to something in me. So, it doesn’t surprise me that it speaks to other writers, though I don’t think running is the only means for getting there. Bedazzling might work as well, or surfing, I hope, because I want to pick up surfing at some point. But it’s about the physical and rhythm and getting out of your head, even as you’re delving further into it. And that I suspect can be accomplished in any number of ways, and for me it is running and it has always been.
CS: You’ve run a blog for many years—and you do a podcast. Sometimes I’m asked about literary citizenship. What’s your take on that? What—if anything—do we owe the community beyond our work?
BT: Good question. I don’t think we owe anything to anyone, but if that’s one’s position, I don’t think we should expect anything in return either. That’s not me however. When I started writing I wanted to believe I could be a good literary citizen if given the chance, and for me that always seemed to be the only way to go about it. It seemed proper, that’s there’s a lot of clutter out there and we need to help one another, but also more interesting and entertaining, and selfishly, that it was also probably good for the business of selling my own books. And while I always felt this way, and planned to act this way, when John Updike died, I read that he had always supported young writers, even as he became iconic, and that only further affirmed it was going to be the way for me. I would also add, because I do not want to be disingenuous, that I really try not to expect anything in return, and that ultimately being a good literary citizen feels good and right for that reason alone, and that mostly works, but not always, and when it doesn’t, when I thought there was some level of reciprocation happening, and there clearly is not, I hate myself a little and then I focus on moving on.
CS: What’s next?
BT: Dinner, coffee, maybe a run? Let me see what’s happening when I actually get ready to send this to you. Maybe that’s not what you are looking for though? If not, I am currently working on a follow-up of sorts to Lost in Space, my dad essays, which is not a follow-up per se, and not much about being a dad, as much as a new collection of essays, and an actual planned follow-up to Orphans, called Foundlings, though whether either of these are truly next is only as accurate as my ability to write them and then to one day send you a copy of either, so they are definitely next in my head, and on paper, and hopefully elsewhere beyond that. We’ll see anyway.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.