Ben Greenman and Darin Strauss Discuss How to Write Fiction Now


Darin Strauss and Ben Greenman live in Brooklyn. Both have written large amounts of published fiction: Strauss’s most recent book is a memoir, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award-winning Half a Life. Greenman’s new novel, The Slippage (Harper Perennial), comes out in May, and on its occasion, the two men sat down to discuss novel-writing, as well as writing that doesn’t result in novels.

Darin Strauss: Your new book is about a suburban couple and their marriage. It’s a departure for you, in some ways, and it reads like modern Cheever, at first—it’s that realistic and precise. Then slowly you add more and more helpings of DeLillo. You haven’t written exactly this kind of conventional novel before, and I wonder if those writers were your touchstones as you moved through it.

Ben Greenman: Maybe deep down, yes, but there are other writers I keep closer to the surface: Stanley Elkin and Joseph Conrad and Emily Dickinson and the Barthelme brothers. Maybe all of them add up to Cheever and DeLillo. I was very mindful, from the beginning, of writing a realistic novel. The first chapter started as a short story, and one with almost no strange effects or shifts. It was almost an exercise to see if I could write accurately about the ordinary world of suburbs, cities, day jobs, comfortably blinkered marriages—the world that I have inhabited for my entire life. In my fiction, up to now, I have mostly ranged out into uncharted territory: surrealism, origami metafiction. This time, I started in my own backyard. The tension, as I went, came from the pain of that process. When you start close to home, can you stay close to home without having your doublet come all unbraced?

DS: I’m interested in that notion: “the world that I have inhabited for my entire life.” People think of you as a Brooklyn writer.

BG: Same to you!

DS: But you say that you have inhabited this suburban world your entire life.

BG: I live in Brooklyn, but I was molded primarily by the suburbs. That’s where I grew up, where I was grown. It meant long stretches in cars with the radio on. It meant tremendous amounts of meaningless space. That’s where I learned to read tons of books to keep from being bored.

DS: So is The Slippage a book that is closest to what you set out wanting to do when you became a writer? I’ve heard writers talk about this or that mid-career book as the one they could only have writte once they got some others out of the way first. Is there a sense that you wrote your earlier books to lead you here?

BG: I always saw books as objects floating in space rather than points on a line. I kind of believe that each work is independent of all the others. On the other hand, you’re right: earlier projects allowed me to offload certain thoughts, which then allowed me to look more clearly at my own life: marriage, boredom, (in)fidelity and so forth. So now let me turn the question back on you: You’ve moved from historical fiction to contemporary fiction to memoir. Was it an evolution, or could it just have easily have happened in the reverse order? 

DS: I always comfort myself with a lie. And this lie is: that my professional life is all a progression, that I’m getting better always, that this is the book where it’ll come together, finally. 

Do you feel that, as you get older, there’s the urge to write more about your life? That’s not to say The Slippage is autobiography; but as you say, it contains more of you in its pages, at least on the story’s surface. I’m thinking of Please Step Back, say, which is about a funk musician from the nineteen-seventies. 

BG: Oddly, maybe, Please Step Back was more autobiographical. Up to now, I always thought the way to do it was to load myself into characters that looked nothing like me, after which you could be as honest and straightforward as you wanted. If you put your thoughts in the head of a black funk musician in San Francisco in 1968, well then, no one sees you there. That displacement—time, place, race—was half the job.

DS: I began my career by thinking that conspicuously fictionalizing was the way to go. My first book, Chang & Eng, was about a pair of conjoined Asian twins. I wrote it because in the MFA program I went to, everybody was pushing out semi-autobiographical stuff. I thought: my life isn’t that interesting, so if I tell an obviously more-interesting (and invented) story, I’ll be further up the wires than my classmates. There’s truth to this: people like stories that are obviously interesting. But then you start to think the opposite. You start to think about the kinds of books that Martin Amis calls “voice books”—books that rely on the author’s talent to get over, and nothing else. Those may be more challenging to write and even to read, but they’re generally the books I cherish. So much of what we’re talking about seems like an arbitrary choice: do I write this kind of book, or that one? But it ends up defining a writing career as clearly as the choice between representational and abstract painting. Which is silly. Do you feel the requirements you set for yourself here— the “conscious effort to set aside unregulated inventiveness”—made it much harder to pull the book off?

BG: I had a (bad) habit of going hellbent for trickery, or flash, or acrobatics, or degree of difficulty, because the alternative was unthinkable. As I wrote this book, there were times when I felt myself wanting to go overtly comic, or to play with chronology, or suddenly come in from left field with some invented dialect – all tactics I was comfortable with. But the longer I held out and refused to do those things, the more I felt comfortable with the discomfort that resulted. One of the characters in the book creates self-referential charts, and for a time I thought to include them, but I ended up holding them out and letting the book be a somewhat traditional fiction. And that foregrounded a somewhat traditional theme: the book is about structures—marriages, houses, corporations—and how they come apart.

DS: Real estate is the stake I’m planting my next novel around, too. I wonder if that topic now more than ever pulls at the insides of what it means to be an adult in this culture. You say that the book was about structures. Was it consciously about them? Or did it come naturally once you had your characters in mind?

BG: Certain elements were there from the start, but others quickly appeared to canopy them. I should say: I am suspicious of the novel. Not of my novel or your novel, necessarily, but the whole broad idea of the novel, period. How artificial: we drop in on these representative characters at a certain point in their lives, see how they’re doing, watch them work through their conflicts over an eventful span of time. It’s a largely middle-class construct and thus not exactly real. Real people are messier, more contradictory, more nightmarishly neurotic or tragically benighted or even sometimes tragically one-dimensional. The trick, maybe, is how to create shapes that interlock perfectly with the shapelessness of human longing.

DS: I often think of some advice Helen Schulman gives to her students. A story has to answer one of the Passover questions: “Why is today different from all other days?” Out of a character’s whole life, why is this day (or year, or fifty years) most worthy of being told? I guess a piece of realistic fiction has to be like life (which is the title of a great Lorrie Moore collection), but not like most of life. I mean, A fictional narrative doesn’t show the most representative days, which are people just sitting around, doing little that’s important or unalterable. But it’s not just that the important, unalterable stuff is the most fun to read about; dropping our characters into some drama also shows in a fuller way what those characters are like. I think we reveal our contents under pressure.

BG: Something else – and I think this is more important than people admit—but we’re planning careers. It may not be conscious, but we never think that the book we’re writing will be our last. So there’s a sense that we’re parceling out parts of our brains, souls, whatever: showing some but reminding people that there’s more where that came from.

DS: I often think about something David Foster Wallace told my friend and now occasional writing partner David Lipsky. Before Infinite Jest, Wallace felt he was holding a bit of himself back with each book, as a defense. Then if the book failed, he could console himself: Well, that was just me doing funny; that was just me at eighty percent. With Infinite Jest, he said, Well, this is me working at full power. This is me doing everything I can do. If they don’t like it, they don’t like me. It was risky, to put himself in totally. Philip Roth once said: Make sure your novels are smarter than you are. By this, I think he meant, put everything you know in the book you’re working on, and then also learn some new stuff.

BG: I have always been interested by how much (or how little) happens in great works of literature. Sometimes, everything happens (The Bible). Sometimes, only one thing (The Metamorphosis). Sometimes, nothing (Waiting for Godot). And then there’s everything else all along the way.

DS: I have more respect for plotty books now. I am working on a YA project with David Lipsky, and we read The Hunger Games as research. Initially, I dismissed it because the prose and characterizations are bad—and I still think they are bad, and that stuff is what I usually read for. But the plot in that book is expert, and takes a kind of mastery I didn’t have. I will say that good fiction stimulates four or five pleasure centers, at once. Most plotty action books—e.g., the Jack Reachers, which I also read—attend only to one, and they rub it raw. They work like porn: the same inattention to any detail that doesn’t get you off; the same degree of unrealism to the heroes, to the situation; the same deal between producer and consumer that for all those convolutions, the story will never end in someplace unexpected. The appeal lives in the inevitability of it all.

BG: This articulates something that unnerves me: the thing that novels do is getting leveled, or rather placed at the same level as other things like movies, TV shows, serial writing online. And it’s not the same at all. I recently saw the movie Looper for the second time. I love that movie. But I love it as a movie. There are certain things it does right because it realizes it’s a movie. It doesn’t try for an interiority that more properly belongs to the novel. It doesn’t sacrifice plot propulsion. I’m not saying that novels shouldn’t do these things. Maybe that’s one of the things about the best genre novels: they occupy the border between books and other narrative art forms. Literary books – whatever exactly literary means – are a step away from the border. They are in their own nation.

DS: That’s exactly right. Even the TV shows everyone says are “the new novels” are not. I was once asked to be one of the judges of “the best TV show of the last twenty-five years” and part of that discussion focused on whether the best TV shows were outpacing the best novels. I objected that TV shows were Literature 2.0; that the Great American Novel aired every Sunday, 10 p.m., on premium cable. The Sopranos was great, and so was The Wire, but they don’t add up to Tolstoy or Ulysses. Because there’s just so much more that books can do—interiority, as you say, and messing with time. You can write fifty years going by in a paragraph, and you can spend twenty pages on a minute. That’s something TV can’t do.

BG: TV is expert at holding your attention over long spans of time. That is its only real goal: tune in, tune back in. So TV calculates what will maximize the chance of your return. Literature seems more like a contract. When you open it, you are agreeing to give it the benefit of the doubt for a certain number of pages, after which the contract expires. Literary literature doesn’t generally have sequels.

DS: And yet, there’s so much pressure to be creative with the form (a condition known as David-Mitchellirium). I think today’s literary writers put that pressure on themselves. Readers don’t care. I console myself with a line from Saul Bellow: “Since when did everyone get too smart for storybooks?” Having said that, it is so hard to capture this particular moment in our culture. Roth said something similar forty years ago, in Reading Myself and Others: “The world was too violent and shocking to be believed.” Well, it’s gotten even harder to write about. The world is not just more violent, but more diffuse. Thanks to the web—where everything is available simultaneously—there’s no signature fashion to the last decade and a half. Think about music or clothing: what outfits or songs signify 2013 the way bell-bottoms did 1972, or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” did 1963? Here’s how Douglas Coupland put it: “The zeitgeist of today is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist: an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once. That’s really hard to get down on the page.”

BG: Right. And one way to do it is to resist taking direct aim at the culture around us, to resist the impulse to satirize Hollywood or big business or K Street. Then what happens is that the setting grays out a big and characters, vividly, come forward.

DS: But don’t you think that the books that reveal the most about the times in which they’re set are those that haven’t made doing so their number one priority? In Anna Karenina, did Tolstoy set out to tell us about 1870s Russia, or was he examining a world of moral dilemma as embodied by these characters, who happen to live in that time? The whole “Great American Novel” neurosis makes writers try to “capture the times” – as if that’s a necessary part of the U.S. novelist’s brief. Don’t you think Chekhov, when he’s getting really specific about a few people and noticing their details, actually makes us forget the differences between times and places? Specificity can give a peek, maybe, at kind of general truth. If artfully rendered, a concrete desire may be made to stand for all human striving and wish. Do you think Fitzgerald said, “With Gatsby, I want to show what the USA is like in 1925?” Or do you think he said, “Here’s a story that says something about people?”