Ben Schrank is the author of three books: Miracle Man, Consent and the forthcoming Love is a Canoe which goes on sale 1-13.
JR: I saw you at the KGB Bar ten years ago or so, and you were reading from your debut novel, Miracle Man. It really was the start of your career as a writer, right? You did some magazine work at Seventeen Magazine, but as far as fiction goes, that was your start? Then this year we ran into each other in at BEA and struck up a conversation about how hard it is to write and publish a novel. A bunch of years have gone by since you broke the ice with your first book, and it seems to me you might have some real hard-won wisdom and experience under your belt. I know you’re working in the book business, and thought you might be able to tell us about what you do all day. I also wanted to take a moment to talk about the state of the American novel, as we both see it.
I’m reading the Interview Magazine interview with Zadie Smith on the occasion of her new novel NW. I’m not a fan of the book, and we have discussed it at length on the blog. She talks about how good a book has to be to get published. In fact she say’s it is really rare when a great novel comes along. She also talks about admiring Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero, calling the writing clean and beautiful. BEE has recently burned a few bridges with his bashing of David Foster Wallace. DFW isn’t around to defend himself, and not that it matters, since it seems to be nothing more than a press grab. Great novels are rare, and in an age when it seems the novel might just be dead. There are so many distractions for reader’s attention right now, and the last thing anyone wants to do is sit down and read a book. At the same time I feel like agents and editors are acquiring and publishing the same kind of books for the same 300k that make up the literary marketplace. The last great novel I read was probably Dare Me by Megan Abbott. I loved it start to finish. It was entertaining and bold. On the other hand NW was difficult and draining, not what I expected. You and I have bonded over the great early work of Richard Price, and I wonder, is there anything that is really moving you right now, on the novel front? A Visit From the Goon Squad, a collection of stories, lets call it what it is, also a great book. What do you think of Jennifer Egan and her path? I like some of her early work, but Look At Me is one of the worst books ever written, it’s wrong in every sense of the word. Which goes to show you, good artists make bad art. Maybe if I read it now, instead of twelve years ago it would make more sense to me. Invisible Circus is a fantastic novel, so she’s up and down with me, which is more than okay.
BDS: Yes, Miracle Man was definitely my start as a writer. That was more than a dozen years ago at KGB that I read from that book. I still remember how crowded and dank that room was. I was reading to people I could reach out and touch. I worked solely as a writer for some years after that, past when my second novel, Consent, was published. That was a quiet publication, except that I got a blurb from Leonard Michaels that turned into an intense email exchange which meant a lot to me—he’s probably one of my top 5 favorite writers. Now, in addition to writing fiction, I work as the publisher of Razorbill, an imprint at Penguin Young Readers. I expected to see more overlap between what I do and the adult publishing world, given the constant drumbeat of news about adults reading children’s books, but it’s not that way at all. I think both the business and art of literary fiction is very much its own world. And in that world, I only feel like a writer. I feel lucky to have sold a third novel. Love is a Canoe is a big deal for me—it’s a book I’d been thinking about for a long time and it is meant in part to be a love letter to publishing, or at least to what I imagine adult publishing to be.
I don’t see any comparison between Brett Easton Ellis and David Foster Wallace. I read Less Than Zero when I was a kid and admired it and I read American Psycho standing up in a Barnes and Noble’s in midtown right after I finished college, when I was looking for a job. I read The Broom of the System in high school, too, and probably didn’t like it as much as Less Than Zero. Now I would fault the myopia of my adolescent self. The Pale King is, I think, a brilliant if fragmented novel. I read a few pages of that book every few days and I’m wowed every time. I think it really is a novel about boredom and it serves as a beautiful antidote to my day job. The same is true for Emily Alone by Stuart O’Nan. I haven’t read any Jennifer Egan. My wife wrote about her for the Wall Street Journal and so I only see Egan through the prism of that assignment. I know she’s intense, that she’s obsessive about her work, cerebral, driven… I know too much to read her. I probably won’t read Zadie Smith’s novel, either, just as I didn’t bother with John Lanchester’s Capital. I love that those books exist, but I’m not looking for broad social commentary in the fiction I read right now—unless I think the author’s a genius. I love Bruce Wagner and I’ve read all his books, including Dead Stars, which is just nuts and arguably indefensible. But I think that guy is wonderful—easily one of the least appreciated writers of our time. The voices just flow through him. He’s like the Seth McFarlane of literary fiction. I just got a copy of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. I’m excited to read it. And I’ll read Junot Diaz’ collection in a few months, when the noise has died down. I’ll probably also read The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Coetzee blurbed it. I love that guy. I am a booster of ‘big’ publishing because we can publish Coetzee even though he doesn’t sell a lot. I think that if a new writer like Coetzee tried to self-publish, it wouldn’t work out so well. I actually believe that big publishing houses are still good for writers like that. I know my viewpoint isn’t popular, but I can come up with plenty of good examples to back up my argument—for instance, broadly, it seems like the best novels about our recent American wars are still being published by big houses. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a great example. I enjoyed that book a lot.
JR: You’re not the first person to tell me how much they liked the Fountain book, I still need to get to it, and the great Lee Boudreaux publishes him over at Ecco. She has her hands in a couple of great literary pies, besides Ben Fountain she publishes Patrick DeWitt (his first novel Ablutions is magnificent), Kevin Wilson’s great Family Fang, and Hannah Pittard, who wrote an incredibly underrated book, The Fates Will Find Their Way, which I wanted to be bigger than the bible. I have all of Bruce Wagner’s books, and like him just as much as you do. His attitude towards everything is carefree at best. I think you should go back and read Songs for the Missing by O’Nan, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. I love the bleakness of BEE, and how remote he is with his characters emotions. His best work is probably behind him; I read Imperial Bedrooms in one sitting, and Lunar Park in two. His life got less interesting as he got older, and since he has admitted to writing about his life, it seems redundant now. But he was one hell of an interview, he can talk and talk… I’m a David Foster Wallace novice, as surprising as that may sound. I feel like he defined my generation, on the literary side, and I missed him. Now he’s gone, I have to go back and read something…