We prompt­ed this year’s Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about how they came to write their book.” Over the next sev­er­al weeks, we’ll share their respons­es. Today, Ben Lern­er dis­cuss­es his nov­el Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion (Cof­fee House Press). 

A lit­tle more than halfway through my nov­el, the nar­ra­tor claims: I will nev­er write a nov­el.” It’s only one of many lies the rad­i­cal­ly unre­li­able Adam Gor­don tells, but, like most of his lies, it con­tains an ele­ment of truth, indi­cat­ing his resis­tance to many of the more con­ven­tion­al attrib­ut­es of the genre: a ten­den­cy to reduce the irre­ducible messi­ness of expe­ri­ence to a neat­ly sym­met­ri­cal plot, the way so many pro­tag­o­nists under­go an unam­bigu­ous jour­ney of redemp­tion. Adam Gor­don — like me — is large­ly inter­est­ed in some­thing else: in depict­ing the arc and feel of (often neu­rot­ic) think­ing, the tex­ture of time as it pass­es in both dra­mat­ic and non-dra­mat­ic expe­ri­ence, and changes in per­son­al­i­ty that are too sub­tle or ambigu­ous to reg­is­ter in nov­els con­cerned with grand trans­for­ma­tions. I came to write this nov­el, then, in part by work­ing against an image of the con­ven­tion­al nov­el — by writ­ing my resis­tance to the form into the form, nar­rat­ing the pit­falls of nar­ra­tive. Adam Gor­don is a young poet abroad try­ing to fig­ure out if he’s wor­thy of his art, if his art can endure in an age of mass media and spec­ta­cle, and so his com­ing of age as an artist — or, depend­ing on your read­ing, his fail­ure to come of age — isn’t just some­thing the prose describes: it’s enact­ed in the writ­ing itself. 

Increas­ing­ly I feel that expla­na­tions of how a fic­tion aris­es are part of the fic­tion — that writ­ers nec­es­sar­i­ly tell them­selves a sto­ry about the ori­gin of a work because it helps the work get writ­ten, or helps inte­grate it into a nar­ra­tive that lets them move on to the next book. That said, part of why and how this nov­el orig­i­nat­ed feels clear to me. I’d just fin­ished my third book of poems and felt like I’d tem­porar­i­ly exhaust­ed my sense of the poet­ic line, that I want­ed a break from the par­tic­u­lar mad­den­ing chal­lenges and plea­sures of that form. Around the same time, I’d fin­ished a long aca­d­e­m­ic essay on the poems of John Ash­bery, a poet who fig­ures promi­nent­ly in my nov­el (I stole the title, Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion, from one of his poems). Many of the con­cerns that I’d pur­sued in my poems and essays — how one makes ver­bal art with a lan­guage sat­u­rat­ed by com­mer­cial­ism and mil­i­tarism, the dis­tance between what a poem aspires to do and what it can actu­al­ly do, how the flow of time can be cap­tured and inten­si­fied in a work of lit­er­a­ture, etc. — remained my obses­sions. I want­ed to take these ideas about poet­ry and the arts and place them in a life, watch them spread out into a character’s expe­ri­ence, track their effects once they were placed in a par­tic­u­lar body, mind, and time. One rea­son I love the nov­el — when I love it — as a genre is that it’s so absorp­tive; it can incor­po­rate poems, the lan­guage of crit­i­cism, his­tor­i­cal events, per­son­al dra­ma, etc. I think Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion came into being because at that par­tic­u­lar junc­ture the nov­el allowed me to assim­i­late all my dif­fer­ent lan­guages and con­cerns into an over­ar­ch­ing form. 

Actu­al­ly, I’m not sure I think that; I believed it when I wrote it, but now (a few days lat­er), I think even that gen­er­al descrip­tion exag­ger­ates the amount of con­scious con­trol I have over the direc­tion my writ­ing takes. As many writ­ers would prob­a­bly tell you, the form and con­tent of an art­work large­ly have to be dis­cov­ered in the act of com­po­si­tion; oth­er­wise, what’s the point? Maybe I should just say that one day I start­ed writ­ing — I’m not sure why — sen­tences whose syn­tax cap­tured the rhythm of this Adam Gor­don character’s think­ing. Even when I’d tried to write poems, all I could gen­er­ate were more of Gordon’s sen­tences. In some ways he’s an exag­ger­a­tion of my most unfor­tu­nate ten­den­cies, and in oth­er ways he’s entire­ly strange to me. The book that unfold­ed was as much an effect of his lan­guage con­trol­ling me as it was of my con­trol­ling his lan­guage. Tol­stoy once told an acquain­tance that he was hur­ry­ing home to see what Vron­sky would do next, indi­cat­ing, I think, how much a book devel­ops accord­ing to con­cerns out­side of autho­r­i­al con­trol. I sup­pose the nov­el itself is as close as I can get to an account of its gen­e­sis, describ­ing, as it ulti­mate­ly does, a young poet’s futile resis­tance to a novel’s demand to be written. 

Ben Lern­er is the author of nov­el Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion and three books of poet­ry. Lern­er has been a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Award and the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Book Award, a Ful­bright Schol­ar in Spain, and the recip­i­ent of a 2010 – 2011 Howard Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship. In 2011 he became the first Amer­i­can to win the Preis der Stadt Mün­ster für Inter­na­tionale Poe­sie. He teach­es in the writ­ing pro­gram at Brook­lyn College.