ALL 'LIT' UP's inaugural MY DINNER WITH... segment had to be, needed to be, and so is with author, zinester, blogger, and podcaster Ben Tanzer out of Chicago. He's a New York State boy mixin' it up big time in The Windy City literary scene. I recently read his book Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine and was not only entertained by and enamored with the story, but was struck by the visual nature of his writing. His book seemed to be one of those must-see indie film classics from the late 90's. Ben is a pop culture jukebox, a gifted writer with a unique voice, and the guy you most want to see when you walk into a room full of people - especially when said room is a bar. ~ J. Goertel
Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems, You Can Make Him Like You, My Father's House and So Different Now among others. Ben also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life the center of his vast, albeit faux media empire.
This Blog Will Change Your Life - bentanzer.blogspot.com/
Twitter - twitter.com/BenTanzer
So Different Now - cclapcenter.com/different/
My Father's House - mainstreetrag.com/BTanzer.html
You Can Make Him Like You - makehimlikeyou.com/
My Dinner With Ben Tanzer
Ben Tanzer: I know, I know, and I'm sorry, you told me you wanted to eat, had to eat, would not even sit down and do this interview without some food. And yes, you very generously said I could pick the location, and so I apologize for making you drink your dinner. Still, we are in New York City. We were planning on meeting in the Bowery anyway and it just seemed impossible to me not to do this at McSorley's. The sawdust. The 2 for 1 drink specials. The little beer mugs. And look bro, it's not like they don't have anything to eat, I just don't know anyone who would eat here. Do you want another round? Cool. Coming up.
James Goertel: What are some books from your childhood that you remember loving?
BT: Man, so many, I read voraciously, it was like a switch was flipped after I learned to read and after that I consumed any book I could get my hands on. Still, there were books I read again and again, first and foremost, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. I would say it was like a drug, but that seems like a bad joke, or at least a poor attempt at a pun. The Basketball Diaries for sure though, and Carrie by Stephen King, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, and then all of the John Carter Warlord of Mars books, everything by Judy Blume, and S.E. Hinton. I loved Robert Cormier. I read man, a lot, and all the time.
JG: Were your parents big readers - if so, what did they read?
BT: Sort of. They were big book buyers, we had tons of books in the house, especially art books, my dad was a painter, and psychology books, my mom is a therapist, but mainly magazines, The New Yorker, The Nation, both of which I read religiously, Cineaste, Artforum and the New York Times. Both of my parents, were, are classic New York Jew intellectuals, well-read, hyper-articulate, and loved books, though I should say that in our house it was more about movies, watching them, talking about them, comparing them and remembering when and where we, they, saw them, and what was going on at the time.
JG: When did you know you wanted to write for a living?
BT: You can do this for a living? I wish someone had mentioned that sooner. I can say this, however, I was in a creative writing class a senior in high school, and not unlike when I learned how to read, something clicked, writing made sense, and at first it didn't mean anything to me, but it slowly became all I could think about when I wasn't trying to get laid, and maybe even then. It was a slow build-up, but by my early twenties I was obsessed with the idea of writing, making lists of potential stories, saving clippings of newspaper articles I might reference in the stories I would someday write, but I did not write, and then at 30, I looked at my life, which was good, fine, and thought there must be something else. I wrote my first story shortly thereafter and haven't stopped since.
JG: Tell me about an early attempt at the craft?
BT: The first thing I did that hit me as different, that maybe something might be going on for me with writing was a short story I wrote in my high school creative writing class that was inspired by the Springsteen song "Downbound Train." In the story a guy loses his job and then his girlfriend which drives him to grab his shotgun and blow his brains out. What he finds though is not death, but relief from the tremendous pressure he was feeling. After that he goes for a beer. Today I might have been sent to school counselor or someone would have at least called my parents and expressed some concern. Instead the piece was celebrated and I held onto the feeling, and the possibility of it, for a long time. Not that I got started, or re-started, for many years after that.
JG: When did you think, "I might be pretty darn good at this writing thing?"
BT: I actually didn't know I was allowed to think that. But when I finished that first story, when I finally got started, and I mean literally that first handwritten draft that emerged wholly and in one shot, I knew I wasn't wrong that I wanted to start in the first place.
JG: What authors, books have influenced your writing/thinking and how?
BT: When I first moved to Chicago I had this idea that if I went to see established authors read their work, some of their mojo might rub off on me and allow me to somehow get started, and I had the opportunity to see a great number of writers who I really fell in love with, including Joe Meno, Elizabeth Crane, Lynda Barry, Scott Haim, Dorothy Allison and Don DeGrazia, who made me want to write and sound like them, and if this isn't getting weird, or stalkerish, the idea of wanting to be them and what they represented to me, being an actual writer, something I had obsessed over, was the most profound influence they could have had and did.
JG: Talk to me about writing dialogue - for me that's where most stories/books fall down when they do - you know the kind - where every character talks like every other character.
BT: When I write dialogue I don't necessarily begin by focusing on how I think a particular character should speak, though as a story evolves I will try to pay attention to the rhythms and tics that emerge, but what I do focus on is how I think various characters would converse with one another, in terms of themes and language. I also focus on trying to capture how people speak in real life, and real time, the stopping and starting, the feints and curves. Dialogue is not smooth and flowing, it's like a fight, intimate and jarring, even when funny and laced with references to pop culture.
JG: It can be both a compliment and a curse when someone likens your work to another author's - what are the ups and downs of that?
BT: In general it is most definitely a compliment, and is certainly intended to be. I also think it is mostly an up when you are less established or obscure as I am, and so these kinds of comparisons offer the vast legions of non-fans a reference point. When you're more well known and it becomes more incumbent to own your voice and brand, these comparisons are probably more of a drag, on your ego, and your sense of being something, and someone because of who you and what you do. That said I was talking to a somewhat obscure female writer I really admire and when I finally met her I likened her work to a far more established writer I really idolize and she got fairly offended about it. I think it was because it was a writer she doesn't like, but the reasons were never entirely clear to me. What was clear to me however is that we would probably not be making out after that.
JG: Any nightmare anecdotes about reading out?
BT: Well, the most nightmarish of the nightmares is the paranoia that no one will come to the reading, that you will be somewhere where you are unknown and the event is poorly publicized or that your reading is competing with another one. And this has happened to me a couple of times over the years, and it always sucks, though the worst was at this great indie bookstore near my in-laws' house. This was due in part because it was the first time it happened to me, in part because my in-laws came with me and looked horrified, and in part because the one person who came just wanted me to sign a book so he could leave immediately, but mainly because the publicist at the bookstore could not hide her utter disdain for me and the idea that she thought I would be draw, was not and that it was clearly my fault no one came.
JG: You plug a lot of writers through your various blogs and zines. There's a history in the world of letters of writers tearing down other writers - often in a very public way - and here you are talking them up - why?
BT: I suppose on some level it's a desire to not engage in negativity, I don't enjoy seeing it in others, and I am embarrassed when I feel like I'm adding to it. More so though, I am very fan boy in general and when I get engrossed in something or someone's work I always want to shout about it from the rooftops. For many years I was very self-conscious about this, I think I just decided it was not cool and tried to suppress it, but as an adult that now seems ridiculous and I have tried to embrace it. Further, I always had this hope that I would develop some kind of platform where people actually cared about what I cared about, and so as soon as that seemed like a possibility I decided to run with it. And finally, from very early on I had the sense that I was going to be unknown for some time, maybe permanently, and so I decided it was important to build a brand of sorts. Inspired by the monorail episode of The Simpsons I initially decided that I would portray anything I wrote as something that would change your life and as the idea evolved I thought if I am going to hype the things I love anyway, that should be part of the brand, any and all things I touch or care about will change your life. I of course also believe this to be undoubtedly true and so I am staying on message, here and everywhere else.
JG: Have you had your fifteen minutes of fame yet - if so, what was it - and it doesn't mean you won't get another seven or eight minutes of it down the line somewhere - actually this interview accounts for about five minutes of fame - but, go ahead.
BT: I hope not, though if I had to choose between 15 minutes of fame and a lengthier sustained stretch of mostly, but not completely unknown, notoriety, with an ongoing quasi-cultish following, I will choose the latter. That said, I do appreciate your efforts to minimize my unknownness, and I should add that I did appear on the inaugural episode of MTV Sports which brought me a shocking amount of attention for a 10-second clip, though I should note that this attention while long lasting was primarily confined to the bars in my hometown.
JG: Here's a broad topic - but what are your thoughts on independent booksellers and Amazon.com - is it David and Goliath?
BT: This is tricky, and partially based on whether you mean the publishers of indie books or the stores that sell them. I'm not sure I know whether Amazon hurts those publishers or not. It takes much of the profit, but appears to increase exposure and traffic. It's terrible for indie bookstores though and for me this is the more conflictual response. As a writer I want the exposure and traffic, but as a lover of books, I want to be able to wander into indie bookstores wherever and whenever I want. Amazon's existence ensures that is less likely to occur. Which both sucks and makes me sort of a dick.
JG: Most writers are not Stephen King or James Patterson in terms of access to the marketplace. Can you detail how you went from writing your books to getting your books into a position to be noticed on some level?
BT: So are we assuming I have done so? Because that would make me happy, thanks. If the current books have been noticed, and that is a big if to some extent, it is from hustling, setting up readings, blatantly asking people to take a look at them, swapping books and massive efforts to both social network and cultivate relationships, getting out to meet people, staying in touch, supporting other writer's work and hyping myself. It is also about production, new books, different types of books, a variety of publishers and building an audience, book by book, and fan by fan. I've always approached it like an indie band or a comedian, no one will find you because you are cool and amazingly talented, do good work, get better, promote, promote, promote, don't turn anything down and do not relent, ever.
JG: Are there any screenwriters past or present you admire?
BT: Yes, for sure. Aaron Sorkin for the dialogue, people don't quite talk like he writes, but he understands that conversation is combat and I quite love that. Noah Baumbach is great, whether we're talking his recent string of directorial efforts, The Squid and the Whale especially, or his work with Wes Anderson. Spike Lee, those early movies in particular. Sofia Coppola, who seems to focus less on dialogue than on creating a canvas to work from and then Todd Field for his adaptations, which I find really nuanced and knowing.
JG: Tell me about an adaptation from book to film that worked for you and/or one that didn't and why?
BT: Picking-up on the last question, I think the adaption of In The Bedroom by Todd Field is just fantastic, crushing, taut and well-acted. I also love Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaption of Raymond Carver's short stories. And what didn't work, I suppose is the adaption of the Basketball Diaries, not only as an adaption of the book, it didn't remotely capture the hinky, scuzzy, jazzy anything goes 1970s New York City vibe of the book. It just wasn't even that much fun, and that book is a lot of fun yo. I could add here, that all three of the adaptions I immediately jumped to in my head are from work by authors I really like, Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver and Jim Carroll respectively, though in the case of the adaptions I like, I saw those movies before being introduced to the author's work and in the case of The Basketball Diaries it was the opposite and maybe it was inevitably going to be a letdown for me no matter what they tried to do with it.
JG: How would you feel if another writer adapted your work for the screen - and changed it or cut out your darlings - be honest, not star-struck when you answer.
BT: I can't be star-struck? You can't let a guy dream? Damn Goertel. Seriously though, I have always read that you have to let go of your attachment to your story and your darlings, and I want to believe I could do that. It will help though if someone pays me a boatload to option it. Do you think someone will?
JG: I can make a few calls as soon as I get more minutes on my track phone. Okay then, keeping with this theme of cinema and writing, can you mention a few movies for which you admire the writing?
BT: Pulp Fiction for the mix, of humor, dread, pop culture references, dialogue and ever-shifting order. Do The Right Thing, again the dialogue and vibe, capturing that place and time. Happiness. In The Bedroom and Short Cuts as I mentioned earlier. Brokeback Mountain. Juno. Swingers, so spot on, I've almost never seen an audience so engaged from word to word and scene to scene.
JG: What's the best TV writing out there right now?
BT: I suppose, no I know, I am drawn to stories of flawed man, good men, maybe, possibly, who are mostly trying to understand why things are so confusing, and what that means, and in that vein, I am endlessly drawn to Justified and Mad Men, but also Louis and more recently Breaking Bad, all fairly sparse and intimate, almost violent, and some cases very much so, but also in terms of how the characters talk and feel things, and they all talk, a lot, and I am certainly drawn to that.
JG: Tell me about a brush with fame you've had - anything besides the MTV thing?
BT: There's talking to you. And the whole MTV Sports thing of course. Other than that, sort of slim really, though one time when my wife and I went to see Oleanna Off-Broadway with my mom I looked down the row and saw Larry "Bud" Melman sitting off by himself in one of his usual dark suits, and though I know as a New Yorker I am supposed to be too cool to gush, I walked over and thanked him for all of the late-night pleasure he had brought me. He seemed very appreciative, though in retrospect my choice of phrasing seems very awkward now.
JG: You're from New York State but live in Chicago now - tell me about the lit scene in The Windy City - the good, the bad and the 2A.M. ugly.
BT: I hadn't started writing yet when we first moved here, so for the most part I do not have a point of comparison. That said, the frequent, and frankly endless, opportunities for group sex at the various readings and literary events are really nice. I wasn't prepared for it, but I have adapted for sure. More importantly though for your purposes, I should probably note that naked writers, and fans, aside, there is an incredibly rich array of readings and events all the time, weekly, even daily it seems, there has really been an explosion of events to attend and absorb, and I'm not sure there is much bad or ugly right now, not everything is equal, and it all may remain a little insular, meaning writers themselves are maybe more into a lot of this than the public is, but the hunger and excitement is contagious, though I understand using that word in an answer involving group sex may reflect yet even more awkward, possibly uncomfortable, phrasing.
JG: What's on tap for 2012?
BT: Always working on the Wham! reunion tour, and here's hoping for this year. I have been working on a science fiction novel which I'm excited about as well as a new collection which I will try not to jinx but will star some of my old friends, Richard Simmons and Vanilla Ice among others,. Otherwise, I hope to get some momentum around catching-up on Breaking Bad before the next season starts and maybe, just maybe start watching The Wire, or Lost, possibly Game of Thrones. Oh, and world peace, that is definitely a goal.
JG: What story/novel of your own would you like to see made into a movie and could you cast it - who would play whom?
BT: I will begin by letting your readers know that I think it's fairly clear that any of my novels have great investment written all over them. Sex. Attractive people. The sets and shoot would not require anything real elaborate in terms of car chases or shooting in foreign countries. Frankly, we could easily shoot in Vancouver. The books are heavy on Sorkinesque dialogue. But there's also sex. And attractive people. Did I mention that? There is also conflict and love. And all of them are guaranteed to make money. People in the industry have said as much. I can't say who, but people, important ones. Important to me anyway. However, if I must pick just one, maybe my third novel You Can Make Him Like You, which is consciously dialogue driven, current, evoking the Obama campaign, skews young, loved by men and women, and is set in the suddenly way cool Chicago, or Vancouver of course, as a character all it's own. I have also already conveniently cast it for you at the MY BOOK, THE MOVIE blog http://mybookthemovie.blogspot.com/2011/03/ben-tanzers-you-can-make-him-like-you.html, so your work is practically finished before you start. Plus, Jason Siegel is on a hot streak, so let's get him now, like right now, go.
JG: Well, that’s it, my friend. Thanks.
BT: And thank you for this, another round? Good. I'm on it.
JG: I guess these beer nuts could be considered a meal.