Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Feature: Interview with Benjamin Rosenbaum

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a writer whose stories have been finalists for various awards including The Hugo, The Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the BSFA Award, and The World Fantasy Award. Small Beer Press will soon be releasing a short story collection of his, The Ant King & Other Stories.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Let's start off with your upcoming collection, The Ant King & Other Stories. How did Small Beer Press end up as your publisher?

Small Beer is simply an awesome outfit. I have known Gavin and Kelly for years, and they are fun, delightful, smart people of flabbergasting integrity. They published my chapbook, Other Cities, years ago (and when I told them I was going to donate my 15% royalty on it to the Grameen Foundation, they decided to kick in their 10% margin as well).

So about a year ago I asked them if they might want to do a collection, they said maybe, I sent them all my stories, and they sorted through them and decided that there was indeed a collection there, to my delight.

How would you describe your writing style? Is there a particular label (i.e. slipstream, magic-realism, new wave, etc.) you like? Dislike?

Pathologically eclectic?

To go through your labels -- I'm not crazy about the word "slipstream", but I've warmed to it somewhat since the usage seems to be crystallizing around the definition offered by Jim Kelly and John Kessel in their anthology, Feeling Very Strange, who consider it an effect of dislocation and estrangement rather than a genre. In that sense I've written some slipstream stories ("Fig", "Red Leather Tassels", perhaps even the one they collected in that anthology, "Biographical Notes...") though I might prefer to call them irrealist or something. Other stories of mine don't share this sensibility.

I'm somewhat influenced by magical realism, and if you take a broad and culturally agnostic definition of that term I could even fit in it, maybe... but personally I think of magical realism as the sort of "lush" nonrealist Latin American stuff -- Marquez, "Like Water for Chocolate" -- with animals, and big extended families, and the magical erupting into the everyday being taken in stride -- as opposed to the more "spare" and intellectual nonrealist Latin American tradition of Borges, who is a bigger influence. I might call Borges more "postmodern", and quirky irrealist postmodern fiction -- Donald Barthelme, Kobo Abe, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Richard Brautigan, etc -- has been a big influence on me.

I am a little late, in science fiction terms, to be part of the "New Wave", but a lot of my literary heroes -- Le Guin, Delany, Russ, Dick, and to a lesser extent Moorcock and Zelazny -- were of that era and loosely or closely associated with one of the organs (New Worlds, Orbit, Dangerous Visions) of the "New Wave".

I'm also very interested in the extropian-oriented fiction of Greg Egan, Vernor Vinge, Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow etc. (though often to react against its premises as much as to embrace them, but that's how these things work), as well as their cyberpunk predecessors, Stephenson, Gibson, Sterling, etc; you could even call some of my stuff "nerdcore".

I sort of think of myself as sitting at an intersection of several traditions -- one line that runs from Verne through Asimov and Clarke to Gibson and Stross, another that runs through Kafka and Artaud through Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino to Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, another that runs from Mary Shelly through Alfred Bester to Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin and thence to Octavia Butler... and even this account leaves out a lot.

On the front of the "The Ant King" collection advanced reading copy, Small Beer categorized the volume as "plausible fabulism", a term I invented as an alternate-historical term for speculative fiction in a story. I rather like that...

Some of your fiction features "cute" animals. Is their inclusion a conscious decision or were you simply following the dictates of the story?

It does? Now I'm trying to decide which ones have cute animals. The teddy bear used as a metadimensional mouthpiece in "The House Beyond Your Sky"? The horny magical woodpecker in "Red Leather Tassels"? The murderous universe-creating cat in "Fig"? The wish-granting hedgehog in "A Siege of Cranes"? The sexualized elephant and the abused monkey in "Orphans"?

But anyway, all of my decisions are at best semi-conscious. :-)

What was the inspiration behind "Other Cities"? Why the mosaic-novel approach?

Well, the inspiration is definitely a tradition of place-description type stories in postmodernist fiction -- Calvino's "Invisible Cities", Barhelme's "Overnight to Many Distant Cities", Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Milorad Pavić's "The Dictionary of the Khazars" and so on.

I wrote initially four cities, which I think were "Bellur", "Ponge", "Amea Amaau" and "Stin", on a train one night. Strange Horizons requested I write eight others so they could run one a month for a year; they then rejected one, "The City of Peace", and I wrote a replacement, "Zvlotsk", and when Small Beer issued the chapbook they decided to add in "The White City" which I had written separately, making a total of 14 Other Cities.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What was the greatest challenge in getting published?

I always wrote, and probably was firm in my desire to be a writer by about thirteen years old. I had too much ambition too early, though, and ended up renouncing writing about age 19, after several years of agonizing writer's block caused by the gap between my actual ability and the level my ego-investment required me to be at.

I decided to try writing again when I was 27, and really made room for it in my life a couple of years later. From then it took about a year and a half of writing a lot and robotically sending out manuscripts in manila envelopes and accumulating rejections until my first sale.

So really I'd say the greatest challenge was in developing the emotional maturity needed to write and submit regularly in the face of defeat.

Who are some of your favorite writers and/or what are some of your favorite books?

I dropped a lot of names above! In addition to them, I also rather like the Bible, the Popol Vuh, the Tao Te Ching, the Moomintroll series, Pullman's "Golden Compass", Hal Duncan's "Vellum", the Mahabharata, Astrid Lingren's "Ronia the Robber's Daughter", Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Stuart Kaminsky, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Anne Tyler, Chinua Achebe, Dr. Seuss, M. Rickert, Ted Chiang... I am only scratching the surface here...

What in your opinion is the biggest difference between the pre-Clarion Benjamin Rosenbaum and post-Clarion Benjamin Rosenbaum?

Clarion didn't change my writing all that much, for all that I got excellent advice and a place to experiment and grow; what it really did was give me was confidence, and a community. The big qualitative shift is in that community, which is crucial.

Were you really named after the character in The Scarlet Pimpernel? Given the chance, what would your alternate pseudonym or secret super-hero identity be?

I was not. The various Benjamin Rosenbaums in "Biographical Notes"-- the Pimpernel's disguise, the children's book author, the Iowa poet -- are all real, and used to come up when I used to Google myself back in 2000 or so.

If I told you my secret identity it wouldn't be secret anymore!

Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons or any other RPGs as a kid? If so, did it have an effect on your writing?

Did I! I learned to play D&D at about age ten, but quickly moved into other RPGs, D&D's notions of class, alignment, level, and so on seeming ridiculous and annoying. In junior high and high school we played lots -- TFT, DragonQuest, Traveler, GURPS, Teenagers from Outer Space, Paranoia, etc.; but our standbys were the Chaosium titles - Runequest, Call of Cthulhu. We were more about the improv theater aspect than the wargaming aspect, we would often play for days at a time without resorting to dice or tables. After college I played only very occasionally; the last time I GM'd was at a friend's bachelor party, mmm, maybe four, five years ago?

I'm sure it had some effect on my writing: it was all, after all, storytelling. In fact compared to the fiction writing I was doing in high school and college, which was increasingly clutched and desperate and fearful and blocked and pretentious and imitative, arguably running RPGs was where I was really honing my storytelling skills. That was where my attitude was workmanlike, pragmatic, freewheeling -- not trying to prove my greatness, but just trying to come up with something fun and intriguing -- which is much more like how I write today.

There is however a significant gap between the two forms, and I have never actually managed to set a campaign in one of my own stories, or bring anything from an RPG into a story, though I've thought about it.

What's your favorite comic or super-hero? Given a chance, would you write a comic?

Favorite comic is probably Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez. Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Sandman were also critical moments in my comics reading, as they were for so many of my generation. I haven't followed comics lately, so I don't know what's good now, though I like Warren Ellis's stuff.

I was also really into Nexus, a brooding Dostoyevskyan far-future superhero done with great aplomb, irony and fun by Mike Baron and Steve Rude in the 80s.

On the one hand I would love to be involved in a comic somehow, because I love comics. On the other hand I am a little leery as the historical record of prose writers who go into comics is not that impressive, I think. It's a different medium and I am not at all sure I have the requisite skills.

Considering your profession, are you an open source-type of person? Did this have any impact on your decision to make some of your work available under the Creative Commons License?

I am definitely a big fan of open source, and not only did it have an impact on my Creative Commons releases, it has influenced the contents of some of my stories, like Falling, in which the social organization of the setting is based on open source ideas. In my day job, though, I don't always get to pick technologies for ideological reasons. I'm eclectic technologically, I have a bias to thinking that almost anything is the right tool for some job or other, and I tend when I look for jobs to rank things like work-life balance, convenience, and corporate culture and atmosphere higher than technological considerations -- which means I end up working in Windows-land about half the time... (and I have to grudgingly admit that I think C# is quite well designed)

What for you is the charm of short stories? Are you considering writing a novel or are you strictly sticking to short stories?

The great charm of short stories is that they do not require an ability to delay gratification.

I declared a moratorium on starting new short stories over a year ago to focus on a novel -- since wrapping up my novella "True Names" with Cory Doctorow a couple of months ago, I've been working on it exclusively.

Short stories are much easier for me, but I want to learn to write novels.

What's your weirdest travel anecdote?

Wow, I have a whole bunch of those. One that comes to mind: in 1990 I went to Prague. I didn't know a word of Czech and was alone, and I had the address of a friend of a friend and was going by tram. There was an announcement and everyone got out, and looked curiously at me, and then the doors closed and I was taken to the empty repair yard, which was spooky. I found the conductor, who was very surprised, and he took me out. This was just six months after the revolution. There was an enormous Socialist Realist statue of a heroic, muscled tram worker in the tram repair building, and people had given it a party hat on its head and a can of coke to hold.

Maybe that's not the weirdest anecdote, but I like it. That trip also included a lot of hedgehogs coming up to me in the wee hours of the moment and giving me significant looks.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Oodles. I think the overarching thing is to realize that your self, body and mind, is a fallible tool for achieving what you want, to treat that self with compassion and realism, and to set things up so that the path of least resistance aligns with the things you want to do. So, for instance, structure your time to make writing productivity easy. Structure things so you get positive reinforcement for the behaviors you want to encourage. Get in community. Measure your success in terms of things you can control -- give yourself points for every rejection you receive. Give yourself a prize when you've gotten a hundred rejections, you've earned it. Do lots of things, give yourself time to grow. Trick yourself into feeling free and playful (many of my best stories have been the ones that, for whatever reason, I didn't take seriously at the time of beginning them -- they were just an exercise or joke of some kind).

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Hmm... well, not at present, but people could subscribe to my newsletter at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/writing-news-from-ben/join for the latest news...

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