By Richard Chachowski
Few names are as recognizable in experimental literature as Ben Marcus. His numerous short stories and novels have been described equally as surreal, satirical, comical, absurd, meta, dystopic, postmodern, but above all else: entertaining and unique. Marcus’s work transports readers to vivid, oppressive, often terrifying worlds full of lyrical language and a one-of-a-kind writing style.
A professor at Columbia University, Marcus is a recipient of the 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, the Berlin Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award and three Pushcart Prizes for his work. His work has appeared in publications such as “The New Yorker,” “Granta,” “The New York Times,” “McSweeney’s” and “Harper’s” among others.
The Signal interviewed Marcus in a discussion about his writing process and experimental literature.
What interested you about experimental literature over, say, more conventional fiction, such as literary realism?
MARCUS: I don’t think I understood the distinction between conventional writing and other approaches. I was happily ignorant that anyone had made these divisions. But I found that I couldn’t write the sort of work I happened to be reading — I was terrible at it, and when I diversified my reading I found work that resonated more with what excited me, when I felt passionate about. In the end I needed to do work that I cared about and could become obsessed by — no matter its literary tradition.
What did that process of finding your voice and discovering your writing style look like for you?
MARCUS: I think for me it took some time to detach from a sense of what writing was supposed to sound like, to not feel obligated to write in a way that didn’t interest me. I read certain writers who seemed especially liberated from that burden: Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I came to find that writing was much more interesting to me if I tried to get at voices and ideas that were more intriguing and provocative to me. This process is ongoing — or it is for me. I think unlocking the voice of a project can be very hard: it’s a form of knowing, a form of feeling, and it has a sound and cadence to it. It’s a lot of trial and error for me still.
Were there any writers you based a lot of your early work on and eventually had to overcome in order to find your voice?
MARCUS: I think I’ve had influences I’ve been aware of, and influences that were hidden from me, but I don’t really believe in demonizing this phenomenon, or being crippled by it. If we read enough we would find precedent for everything — traces of origins for every stylistic and formal difference. I knew an editor who brought down hellfire on writers with obvious influences and the whole dynamic felt a bit unfortunate and it certainly didn’t help the writers themselves. Influence is inevitable. It means you have listened and paid attention and been seduced and charmed and entertained.
Do you believe you have any influences outside the world of literature, such as from film, theater, comic books, or music at all?
MARCUS: I guess I would think of this as inspiration rather than ‘influence’ because calling it influence implies that I belong to a lineage with these people. When I was very young: the paintings of Georgio de Cherico. The films of Guy Maddin. The music of Nicolas Jaar. The plays of the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman. All of this work gave me a sense of bottomless possibility and beauty and singularity, and all of it was inspiring.
What exactly drives you enough to keep working on a story until you have a finished draft?
MARCUS: In the end, I have to care about it enough to keep going, and sometimes that never happens. I don’t tend to force myself for too long to keep up with a project that seems dead. I’m not a factory. But if I can become obsessed with a project so that I can’t stop thinking about it, then I will keep working on it.
Do you have any particular stories or novels that you love teaching to your students?
MARCUS: Yes, but this is a very long list. And the reasons would go on and on. But let me list a few books and stories, and give a blanket reason: they are amazing, provocative, beautifully-made. “Severance” by Ling Ma. “Fable” by Charles Yu. “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July. “Drummond and Sons” by Charles D’Ambrosia. “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. “Foster” by Claire Keegan. “Shhhh” by NoViolet Bulawayo.
In your essay, “Chemical Seuss,” you write, “What a book is ‘about’ is simply where you go when you read, where and how you move about in pursuit of yourself while the book is in action. It’s not what the book is about at all, rather what and where the reader is about… If you hold up a book, the world will leave you alone.” If reading is an activity of self-reflection for the reader, how would you describe the relationship between a writer and the act of writing itself? Is it an activity of self-reflection, similar to reading?
MARCUS: I don’t really think that self-reflection, when I do it, has much value for anyone else. Certainly some writing is the product of self-reflection. But I am not interested in representing myself or revealing myself. I want to create something new — and, yes, it is finally representative of me, but not in any explicit or biographical or maybe even detectable way.
Do you have a set word limit or a specific amount of time you spend writing that you try to reach each day?
MARCUS: Sorta depends. If I am up and running with a project, I might use a word goal for a while — that’s just for a novel. In general, I just try to go until exhaustion, and then keep going.
You mentioned that, when reading, you prefer stories that are vague and where the reader doesn’t know a lot about the world of the story (citing stories by Kafka and Ishiguro as an example). As you’re writing a first draft of something, do you prefer knowing only as much about a story and its setting as the reader does?
MARCUS: I usually don’t know much more than I’m putting in. I just don’t find information to be specifically dramatic or interesting, even, at least in fiction. But I’m not withholding things just to be tricky. It’s about the feeling in the narrative, the dramatic space, the tension, the possibility. Sometimes we are told far too much, and this can keep us from a deeper engagement.
Do you believe the pandemic has affected your creativity or productivity at all when it comes to writing?
MARCUS: My priorities are different, with kids at home doing remote learning. And it’s hard not to care far more about political and public health issues right now, but I have been trying to keep a balance with where my attention goes.
What advice would you give to a young writer who is just starting off and is struggling to find their voice?
MARCUS: Read and read and read and keep reading.