Ben Tanzer is the author of the novels You Can Make Him Like You, You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Lucky Man, other works of fiction and non-fiction. Ben is a long time friend of the blog, which makes it a little shocking that it has taken us this long to do a proper interview. Considering our lapse in judgement, we are mighty pleased that he agreed to submit himself to an interview with us. We got a little long-winded, so grab yourself a snack and read on…
Baby Got Books interview with Ben Tanzer
Baby Got Books: The new book You Can Make Him Like You seems to be getting rave reviews all over the blogosphere. In my completely biased review I said, “Tanzer’s best work yet, and I expect that it will propel him onto his largest stage to date.” How accurate is my prediction so far?
Ben Tanzer: First off, thank you for the kind words, and bias, many a fine career has been built on bias and I warmly embrace it. Second, this is a great question to both take seriously and not. One piece of this I think is whether the book’s wider exposure and good tidings as compared to my previous books equates to a larger stage or to just some more elbow room on the fairly obscure stage I’m already on. I think it’s probably more of the latter for now, but even that has been wonderful, and shocking, and I really appreciate it. Another piece though is whether some of that space is a result of the book’s quality, which I hope is good, and which I hope is the case, or from the incredibly expanded network, and interest in my work in general, holy grandiose, yes, sorry, that has emerged, or is it evolved, between the release of Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine and You Can Make Him Like You. And I think to a great extent it’s the latter, but that maybe the former is coming into play as well, which if that is the case, is also wonderful. Either way, the reaction to You Can Make Him Like You while arguably quite limited compared to the Hunger Games or Go The Fuck to Sleep, has definitely been intense, and really positive, which is shockingly wonderful. Or is that wonderfully shocking?
BGB: You mentioned your expanded “network.” That’s not something that you generally hear authors talking about, but it seems absolutely critical to writers in the age of social media. You clearly work hard at getting yourself out there by maintaining an online zine and blog and being active on Facebook and Twitter (@bentanzer) – did I miss anything? How critical is social media to building your audience? Is there a point when it becomes a distraction to writing?
BT: My father was an artist who had a lot of success, but during the last years of his life, he didn’t feel like he had accomplished everything he wanted to. One thing we talked about was his inability to make sense of how best to network, something he wanted to do more of if he only knew how. When I started writing this was always on my mind, well that, and the idea that no one just finds you, there is little magic involved in any kind of success and you have to actively try to make things happen. So I asked myself, how could networking work and how can I enhance the likelihood of people knowing I am out there? And from that perspective, I don’t think we need to network more in the age of social media necessarily, because it’s always been required to some extent. But social media does offer a new and different means for doing so, and for someone like me it’s very helpful.
I have a day job and kids and I travel for work, which has some benefits, but I also can’t be out and about like I would like, hitting every reading and bar and going to every conference and city that networking requires. Further, the writing I do exists primarily in the indie realm, which is a great place to exist, but that also limits exposure to my writing and with all the terrific work happening in the indie space alone, how do you rise above all that magnificent clutter? In part, I decided that I needed to hit whatever platforms I could and as often as I could and early on I decided on two primary strategies for approaching this. First, I would use all of these platforms to broadcast what I’m up to, at all times, writing, reading, editing, interviewing, and on and on; and two, what I’m up to has to have some kind of cohesiveness, a brand to some extent, and so inspired by the monorail episode of The Simpsons, what I also decided early on is that what I want to do is change lives, with my work, your work, anything I like.
I’m offering a lifestyle choice, with my writing being the products at the center of it all. I write this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I always pretend it’s real. I also try to ensure I’m having fun. Is it a distraction? In general, that’s not my experience, but I mostly limit my time on all of this to branding and broadcasting purposes. I rarely hang out on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else, sometimes sure, but my time there isn’t for entertainment or for killing time, it is mostly tactical, and when I’ve done what I intended to do I try to move on to the next thing. Interestingly, for me anyway, the biggest distraction these days is people more proactively reaching-out and asking me to check-out, hype, review, blurb and support what they’re doing, which I embrace, and am thrilled about, though it takes increasingly more time to do these things. I see this though as part of the brand, and it’s mostly fun, and I always intended, hoped, to support other people, in bigger ways, if, and when I could and now that I sort of can at times I feel obligated to do so.
BGB: It seems to be working. It’s apparent that you have been able to generate an incredible amount of goodwill in the wired world. Your Twitter and Facebook updates are an endless stream of glowing reviews and congratulations on the new book. Speaking of which, let’s talk about You Can Make Him Like You. (Check out my review here.) YCMHLY is the instantly relateable story of a not so young man coming to grips with the changes that married life and family bring. The story has the absolute ring of truth, which begs the question – how much of the story is autobiographical?
BT: And thank you for that. There has been a lot of goodwill and a level of intensity and self-reflection that has caught me off guard. When I write, I try to let you know what’s in my head, and I hope to get into your head, the conversations you’ve had, and haven’t, touching on things you struggle with, can’t figure out, and celebrate. All of which is to say, how autobiographical is it, to loosely paraphrase the writer Scott McClanahan from a recent interview in The Rumpus, “75% of the stuff I write about is just stuff that happened to me. Of course, what’s different with me is I try to live my life like a fiction…I would expand on it by saying this: I was probably lying when I came up with that answer (at least 83.2% of the 75% percent figure is a lie).” That wasn’t exactly a paraphrase was it? But, what I am trying to say is, when I write almost anything, short story, novel, humor piece, I tend to get stuck on an idea that may have little to do immediately with me, and then as the piece slowly evolves, pieces of me get woven into the narrative. In this case of You Can Make Him Like You, I was thinking about the characters in the songs of The Hold Steady, characters I once looked like, and I was wondering what they would look like now. As I thought about this, I also began to think about the number of guys I know who while otherwise happily married still stretch what I would consider somewhat inappropriate behavior with other women to lengths I am not. Those guys fascinate me. Their brazenness, their belief that they won’t get caught, or can talk their way out of it, and for many their tremendous lack of self-awareness and reflexive behavior. That’s not me, not exactly, I can be reflexive and unaware, but I really go out of my way to avoid all of that other behavior. Do I think about it? Yes. Behave obsessively about alarm clocks being set and decision making on The Bachelorette? Yes. Fight with neighbors, hot ones, old ones and opera singing ones? Yes. Spend an afternoon compulsively assessing whether I think U2 or R.E.M. is the true super group of the late 80’s and early 90’s? Yes. And those kind of details, the parts of a story that make it more than idea, that give it some girth and flesh out some of the characters’ quirks and language, that can be a lot of me, definitely some of me, and certainly some of Scott McClanahan as well of course.
BGB: Your book takes its name from a song by The Hold Steady and their music is quoted frequently in the novel. Can you talk a little bit about what it is about The Hold Steady’s music that inspired you and the role that music plays in your writing?
BT: Music in general plays a role in my work that I don’t necessarily think of as an inspirational, as much as I am always listening to music as I write, because well, I’m just always listening to music. I tend to latch onto a song with most of my projects because inevitably some song hits me as complimenting, or illuminating, for me, what I’m trying to say in that story. It also gives me a sense of what it might taste like, or feel like, which tends to get me even more focused in terms of texture and vibe. The idea for a book, and the writing of it, always precedes the song or music though, and this applies to You Can Make Him Like You as well. I knew I wanted to do something about guys around my age, guys struggling with being married, even when you’re happily married; and the allure of interns, all young and fresh, even when you don’t want to sleep with anyone besides your spouse, not exactly anyway; and having a kid, which you’re sort of into but not wanting to be as freaked-out and scared as you are; and these ideas were all bouncing around in my head when I went to see The Hold Steady for the first time here in Chicago between the release of Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive. I was in the audience and the ideas started congealing and coming together; and there was structure and scenes and later as I wrote and edited the draft versions of You Can Make Him Like You, I saw The Hold Steady again, and then again, and I came to see the characters I wanted to write about as the more adult versions of the characters in the songs The Hold Steady sing; small town dudes and chicks, sort of literary, taking drugs and going to concerts, hoping to get laid, looking back and looking forward to bigger cities, maybe even bigger lives and being something other that what and who you are. And I know those characters, I was them, and I am now something else, older anyway, less druggy, married, with a job and kids; and that urge to be that something else was what I hoped to try to capture with this book and these characters, and these songs speak to where that starts, and what I wanted to do.
BGB: I know that one of your interests is keeping up with the independent book scene. Who should we be checking out?
BT: When I first read this question I thought about that famous New Yorker cover where it shows New York City as the center of the universe and the rest of the world sort of slowly unfolding under the shadows of the city’s awesomeness. This wasn’t because it made me think of New York City though, it was because it made me think that to answer this question I had to start with Chicago, because while there is a lot of indie literary things going on everywhere these days, I’m not sure it compares with what’s going on here. How’s that for grandiose? Still, and I am bound to leave some people out, but starting with Chicago there are really so many indie writers doing so many cool things to check out, Lindsay Duncan, Robert Duffer, Spencer Dew, Gina Frangello, Lauryn Allison Lewis, Brandon Will, Jason Fisk, Victor David Giron, James Tadd Alcox, Kathleen Rooney, Tim Jones-Yevlington, Mark Brand, Pete Anderson, Joseph G. Peterson, Jacob S. Knabb, David Masciotra and Luis Humberto Valadez. And then looking around the county you have BL Pawelek, Nick Ostdick, Barry Graham, Caleb J. Ross and Brandon Teitz out across the Midwest; Michael FitzGerald in Montana; J.A. Tyler in Colorado; Hosho McCreesh in New Mexico; James Greer, xTx, Matty Byloos, Ryan Bradley, Joshua Mohr and Lavinia Ludlow all points West; down South there are your neighbors Jamie Iredell and Collin Kelley; J. Bradley, Nathan Holic and Gregory Sherl in Florida; Alex Kudera in South Carolina; S. Craig Renfroe in North Carolina; Shannon Burke and Corey Mesler in Tennessee; Thomas Williams in Oklahoma; Jason Jordan in Kentucky; Mary Miller and Elizabeth Crane in Texas; and finally, and loosely, in the East, Paula Bomer, Greg Olear, Tim Hall, John Reed, Ken Wohlrob and Shya Scanlon in New York; Mel Bosworth, Laura Cherry, Ray Charbonneau, Rusty Barnes, Steve Himmer and Timothy Gager in and around Boston; William Walsh in Providence; Scott McClanahan in West Virginia; Dave Housley and Karen Lillis in Pennsylvania; Nik Korpon and Michael Kimball in Baltimore; and Amber Sparks in Washington, DC; and that’s a big list and I apologize, but I think it’s a good place to start.
BGB: Wow. Lots to check out there. And you’ve been busy yourself. Since we began this interview, a review copy of your next book My Father’s House has arrived in the mail. From what I’ve been able to check out so far, it has a much different feel than You Can Make Him Like You. Can you tell us a little about My Father’s House? Anything else in the works you want to tell us about?
BT: Sorry, still feeling guilty about that last question, one of the many problems with being a fanboy. And yes, there has been some busyness, which also makes me feel a little guilty, though it may be self-consciousness, I will look that up. But with My Father’s House I think there is a different feel in two ways. First, and especially with the last couple of novels, I have been trying to tell humorous stories about relationships in a pop culture saturated world with layers of pain, coping and confusion lying closely below the surface, and with My Father’s House, a story focused on a character losing his father, I flipped this approach, and so it is more overtly about pain, coping and confusion, with the humor and pop culture is lurking just below the surface and serving as a sort of salve for both the characters and readers. I would also say though that I have been trying to emulate the music of the Ramones and the recent movies by David Cronenberg in my writing, tight, intimate, punchy, funny, and violent scenes that come fast and propel you into the next scene or chapter, and with this book I decided to tighten that approach up even more, so more sparse, quick and insular, and more like how I see the actual experience of living through some one’s death. In terms of what else may be in the works, and at this point more self-consciousness abounds, I have a collection of humor pieces coming out at some point this summer titled This American Life and I am working on my first science fiction joint, similar themes to my previous work, though more focused on work and the intersection of work and family, albeit in a not so distant Chicago where work is hard to come by, life on Mars beckons and the drugs are mostly synthetic.
BGB: Is that sweet ‘stache staying?
BT: Not remotely. No. Next. Or is that it? Because if so, thanks for the great questions and your support, both are much appreciated.