Ben Loory is a good guy who writes great short stories. The end.
If it were only that easy.
Behind his smoothly carved stories, Loory revises and refines drafts sometimes for years before they’re finished. A few, he writes in one afternoon. His characters are compelling; nameless, often faceless, possibly mirrors of ourselves—even if ducks or birds. Loory sets them loose to chase and overcome whatever awaits until they suddenly surprise themselves, sometimes horrifically.
I met Ben earlier this year during Antioch University Los Angeles’s creative writing MFA residency. He read two stories, one inciting laughter, the other tearful contemplation. When the second story ended he looked out at us then smiled, and all was restored.
I got to thinking, what makes these small stories have such an effect on us? So, I went a little Loory-nutty reading every story I could find. He’s authored two collections published by Penguin Books: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (2011) and Tales of Falling and Flying (2017). I read both. I heard him read on This American Life. They’re found on Selected Shorts too. He’s had fables and tales appear in The New Yorker and in Tin House, Electric Literature, and Fairy Tale Review. Kickstarter generated an animated version of “The Duck.” I read Loory’s stories aloud to people and occasionally to the family cat. (The cat really loved those stories, by the way.)
What emerged was a series of questions.
Loory is sharp and committed to his writing. This can be taxing, but he stays until the story tells him it’s done. With that same commitment, he patiently worked through these interview questions. I’m grateful for it, too, because he taught me in the process how one word can change the meaning of a question and how humor bolsters much of what he says. Loory’s wonderful humor permeates through his stories. So does terror, and intrigue, despair and delight.
He shared serious insight into his practices and now I’m Loory-nuttier.
I still plan to pick up his children’s picture book, The Baseball Player and Walrus (Dial Book for Young Readers, 2015) and gift to the many kids in my circle. At times, this interview looks at children. What it is to be a deeply imaginative child or to raise one. What we run to and what we’ve run from as readers and writers. I admire this author’s candid perspective.
Ben Loory lives in Los Angeles. When he’s not teaching short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, he’s probably writing. You can find him at www.benloory.com. If he’s not writing, he could be somewhere around his favorite bookstore, getting coffee, possibly examining light, shadowplay, and the shape of things. The corners of his mouth might lift into a smile like he’s stumbled onto hilarity or peculiarity. Either way, he’ll look as though he treasures what he’s found.
Andrea Auten: Growing up in Dover, NJ, how did your hometown setting foster your imagination?
Ben Loory: I don’t think it did, really—if there was any fostering of my imagination going on, it was being done by my parents and family. The town we lived in was a pretty conventional place; the only thing I learned from it was that I wanted to leave. On the other hand, I guess every story I write does take place in a small town—there’s always a bowling alley, a park, a movie theater, a grocery store (and a torch-bearing mob who eventually shows up).
I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic.
But other than serving as a backdrop for my stories, I don’t think the town really influenced me. Mostly, it was the non-town things that made a big impression on me as a kid—the animals in the park across the street and in the forest; the Great Swamp nearby where my parents would take us bird watching; the movies and plays we would go see in New York City, and that weird old faux-colonial village that was situated in the hills not far away. The town itself I remember more like a negative space. But this is all just consciously; who knows the secret truth…
AA: With English professor parents turned small business owners, reading was prime entertainment at home. As a child without television—except for sneak peeks when visiting friends—books and comics occupied your mind, and you found particular fascination in fables after reading all of Aesop. What caused your hunger for myths this young? In your story subjects, how important is it to seek a lesson? What makes conquering our most terrible fears primary?
BL: I don’t believe in lessons (though I always learn from my stories as I write them). What I’m looking to create is emotional impact plus resonance. I’m looking to shake people up and then leave them thinking. But I don’t want readers to be able to condense the story to a simple lesson. Otherwise, why even tell the story? Just give ’em the lesson.
I also don’t think that conquering fears—or conquering anything, really—is primary. To me, it’s really more about learning to give up. It’s about forcing characters to accept themselves, even the parts they don’t want to accept. To allow themselves to let down the walls and become the person they are.
As for the taste for myths: As a kid, I think I was just trying to get away, to escape. And the bigger, wilder, crazier the story was, the better. I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic. Nowadays these kinds of stories appeal to me because they use the vocabulary I know. I’m not going to write about wine-drinking lawyers in Manhattan; I don’t know anything about them. What I know are myths and fables, absurdist plays, detective and horror novels, old movies… That’s where the stuff in my brain comes from, so that’s what my stories are about.
AA: I heard it said once, our characters are waiting for us to tell their stories. Once there was a dodo… comes to mind—how that Dodo pushes its way to the front. What force drives the letters on the page? What are your thoughts on this?
BL: I don’t know. I don’t really question it. My rule is, I sit down with no ideas and make my mind a blank, and then I take the first line or image that pops into my head and write a story about that. When that first draft is done, maybe it sucks, maybe I never even look at it again, but I’m not allowed to NOT write a draft about whatever that first thing is. That’s the rule.
I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional.
So, as a result of that rule, I write a lot of weird, sometimes ill-advised stories. I mean, I write a lot of stories, period! And it’s only later that some of those stories begin to step forward and sort of reassert themselves and ask me to come back and work on them. Meanwhile, others just linger forever in some forgotten hole on my computer. I’m not sure why some haunt me and some don’t—I don’t question it. I just follow my rules and do what I do and somehow the stories get written.
AA: From hometown to Harvard, then film direction to screenplay-writing, you discovered a love of storytelling by writing quick descriptions or 2 to 3-page treatments. Your books expand these little summaries into short fables, fantasies, and tales (sometimes nightmarish). A reader can fill in images, assign place, time, even names if desired, because your stories are written to the bones. Boiling words down to their most salient combinations can be difficult crafting. Were you ever wordier? When are details worth it in writing? Your work is also stripped down and exposed. How do you experience coexisting with such open work?
BL: No, I was never wordier. I don’t intentionally strip anything down, or think about what details to put in or leave out. I just tell the stories the way I tell stories, the way that seems natural. I describe the people and things that are in motion and that seem to matter in the scene. I mostly leave the internal out, unless I absolutely can’t point to it through behavior. (And if you’re looking to write short, that right there is half the battle. Not that I’m ever looking to write short.)
Co-existing with my stories is easy: I just act like they’re not about me.
AA: I find that I love reading your stories out loud and, indulging, I set up a few parent–approved sessions and read your stories to chosen children—not that I’d catalog your books in the children’s section—these are deep thinker kids, and I wanted to evaluate their responses. Ben, each child ranging from ages 7-9 was rapt, consuming the words, and gazed until the stories ended. ‘That was great!’ each said. They seemed sustained by the mystery or maybe it was magic, but the fast-paced world they live in stilled and they listened intently. In this high-stress information age, where do you place value on storytelling? What gives your work its universality?
BL: As a reader, the value of storytelling to me is that it stills and focuses my mind. Everything goes away, all my cycling repetitive horrible thoughts, and suddenly I feel much better! (At least, unless the book is bad—then it gets even worse (and then I need another book really bad.) So basically, it’s a drug.
As a writer, it’s a little different—I’m aiming for something specific. I want to carry a reader, almost physically, through a fluid and unbreakably shaped experience. I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional. And mostly what I want is to move a reader deeply, really stir things up inside, make them think and feel and live a little more fully when they’re done.
If my work has universality, I think it’s because my characters are pure doers. They want something and they act; they fear something and they act. It’s easy to connect to them because their hearts are front and center.
AA: I call this question: Just the Facts. Earlier we talked about cutting out the details. Reading your work, there’s a perspective that brings humor and zest, with keen observation, quirk, absurd joy and despair, and then again times of complete bafflement, but there’s more going on under your stark text. How do you build these worlds that buzz and teem underneath their clean architecture?
BL: Well, again, I don’t think it’s really that I build them, so much as that I just believe they’re there, which somehow makes them real. It’s like, you can write seven paragraphs about how landspeeders work, or you can just have one character say, “Hey, can I borrow your landspeeder?” And the second will always be more convincing. What makes things feel real is when readers subconsciously fill in the blanks, when they figure out themselves how the world works without even knowing they’re doing it. They believe it because they’ve actually built the foundation.
The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right??
Besides that, for me at least, the most important thing is to always focus on balance. When something sticks up, you look for something to hang down. When a character does something nice, you look for their mean side. Reality is a perfect sphere; things seem unreal when you see a lot of angles. So a lot of my process is going through the stories and looking for things without shadows, things that spike up and look out of place. I then fill in those shadows, provide stalactites for the stalagmites, and the world slowly comes into being in all its richness.
AA: Back in June, outside the AULA building-monolith where we hang at the squirrel table, I asked you, what you were afraid of as a child. You answered, Everything. It got me wondering about the deep and wondrous level of imagination many writers have and how in childhood this presents itself—even to parents—as obstacles. How did you cope with this level of fear? What correlation exists between imagination and fear and how might the stronger one suggest the other become?
BL: I don’t know that I was really afraid of everything, but I was certainly afraid of a lot! But at the same time, I always had a pretty high opinion of my own abilities; I always thought I could handle whatever came along—even if the world was full of ghosts and Nazis and demons and monsters, I always felt like I would be okay, like I could outsmart them. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. So it wasn’t like I was crippled with fear, I was just, y’know, hypervigilant and terrified. Not sure if that makes sense but I feel like that’s how it was.
Somewhere along the way, sadly, I lost that sense of invulnerability. Though at the same time, I’m also not as afraid as I used to be. Guess the world just ground me down from both ends. Which I suppose is probably for the best. I do find that when I’m writing, I’m always better when I’m upset. The stories are always deeper and richer when there’s something really bad going on in my life. When everything is just peachy keen, the stories get light and fun—which, whatever, is fine (I like having both kinds)—but it is something I sometimes worry about. Not that there’s ever going to be a lack of upsetting things in anyone’s life. But I don’t want to actually want them.
AA: You wrote a story called “The Well” about a boy who jumps back into the well he’s fallen into to prove himself. What was your writing process like when you created this story? I ask because when reading it to my husband, he stopped mid task to listen. I finished the story and fumbled a bit for my bookmark before noticing he hadn’t spoken. When I looked up, I found Tom braced against the doorframe weeping. How does it affect you when you hear the impact your stories have on people?
BL: Oh, I love it! There’s nothing like making people cry—it makes me feel like I’m not alone. The way I write, I never have any intentions—I’m basically just living through a sequence of events through a character—and the end of that story really messed me up. I never saw it coming and it sorta felt like I was dying, or had always been dead and just hadn’t noticed yet. There was a bit of hyperventilation involved. It was one of those rare “one-take” stories, too, where it pretty much all comes out right in the first draft. So please tell your husband I know how he feels! And I’m glad we went through it together.
AA: For a bit of fun: Cinema trivia who wrote and directed the 90’s everyman Hero’s journey with the first line, Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job… (Don’t use Google, Ben.)
BL: Well, it’s Joe vs. the Volcano, which I love and used to own on LASERDISC, and which was written and directed by the guy who wrote Moonstruck. But I can’t remember his name. It’s three words. It’s not Bruce Joel Rubin, though—he’s the guy who did Jacob’s Ladder (which I also love and used to own on laserdisc). And it’s not Phil Alden Robinson, because he did Field of Dreams (which I did not love and never owned on laserdisc). So, I don’t remember his name! I’ve been laughing about that Brain Cloud thing for 30 years now, though.
AA: You’ve read your story “The Duck” on This American Life and now Australian animator, director Simon Cottee has mounted his short film adaptation version through a Kickstarter project. What was that like to have “The Duck” come full circle?
BL: Is that full circle? It was certainly nice, whatever it was! I really loved the short film. It especially made me laugh how all the ducks spoke with Australian accents! And the animation and the music were beautiful—I cried when they threw the rock off the cliff. I’d love to see all my stories done as cartoons.
The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right?? Which they found kind of funny. But the reach of that show is really tremendous, and I loved being allowed to read the story myself. They’ve used a few of my other stories over the years, but it’s hard to top that first thrill.
I think full circle would be if one of the stories got made into a live action feature, maybe? Which would certainly be nice, from a money angle. And also then people would probably go and buy my books, and that, of course, would be amazing. But I don’t really care about the movies anymore. I mean, I like watching them! But I made peace a long time ago with the fact that the stories I write are short stories. They don’t want to be long; they don’t want to be features. They are what they are, and that’s okay.
AA: Thanks Ben.
BL: Thank you!