Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

In our last two install­ments of Meet Sami Rohr Prize Final­ist…”, Stu­art Nadler cham­pi­oned the short sto­ry and Shani Boian­jiu shared her desire to write for­ev­er sto­ries. Today we hear from Ben Lern­er, author of the lyri­cal and thought-pro­vok­ing debut nov­el Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion. With sev­er­al awards, three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, and a nov­el under his belt, JBC was thrilled to wel­come Ben into the Sami Rohr Prize fam­i­ly. Read an inter­view with him over at The Believ­er and his short sto­ry The Gold­en Van­i­ty” in the The New York­er. Below, find Ben Lern­er on writ­ing as time trav­el and writ­ing that blurs fic­tion and reality:

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fic­tion?

I find all writ­ing chal­leng­ing. I some­times think that a writer is a per­son who finds work­ing with lan­guage more chal­leng­ing than the aver­age per­son does — that it’s less that the writer has a way with words than that the words have a way with the writer. One par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge that attends writ­ing fic­tion: how to avoid reduc­ing the messi­ness of lived expe­ri­ence to a tidy geo­met­ri­cal plot. I’m inter­est­ed in fic­tion that acknowl­edges the irre­ducible com­plex­i­ty of real­i­ty, not fic­tion that cleans it up.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fic­tion?

I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in writ­ers and books that blur the bound­ary between fact and fic­tion in order to dra­ma­tize how insep­a­ra­ble they ulti­mate­ly are in our lived expe­ri­ence. To choose just one recent inspi­ra­tion: W.G. Sebald.

Who is your intend­ed audi­ence?

I’m real­ly not sure. I cer­tain­ly write with the writ­ers I love and respect in mind as pos­si­ble read­ers. But one of the most excit­ing things about writ­ing is the pos­si­bil­i­ty your work will find and con­nect with some­one you could nev­er imag­ine in advance. I also feel like writ­ing is a kind of time trav­el — I some­times feel like I’m address­ing the dead, or some imag­ined future read­er, or like I’m a medi­um through which voic­es from the past might pass. Maybe that sounds a lit­tle crazy or grand, but I believe the lan­guage speaks through us as much as we speak through it.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m work­ing on a new nov­el and also on a book of poems. And one of the poems seems to be creep­ing into the nov­el.

What are you read­ing now?

At the moment I’m read­ing two bril­liant books of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism: Writ­ing Against Time (Michael Clune) and Our Aes­thet­ic Cat­e­gories (Sianne Ngai). I’ve also just reread Kei­th Waldrop’s qui­et mas­ter­piece, his mem­oir, Light While There Is Light.

Top 5 Favorite Books

I have no idea how to choose! And my favorites are always shift­ing. Here are five books I love off the top of my head in no par­tic­u­lar order: 

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I think I was in Tope­ka, Kansas. But I don’t real­ly remem­ber a par­tic­u­lar moment of deci­sion. Lan­guage has always been pri­ma­ry in my expe­ri­ence and writ­ing is a way of wrestling with it.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define suc­cess?

I think of writ­ing as always involv­ing fail­ure. But I don’t mean that to be as depress­ing as it sounds — it’s the result of try­ing to do some­thing impos­si­ble with lan­guage. So I guess suc­cess for me is writ­ing some­thing that man­ages to ges­ture beyond itself, to point towards what I can’t say.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

Besides cof­fee, I have no reli­able prop. One of the best and worst things about writ­ing (at least for me) is that I always feel like I’m start­ing over. Hav­ing writ­ten a poem or nov­el doesn’t teach me how to write the next poem or nov­el. It’s always about what I can dis­cov­er in the act of com­po­si­tion, so no amount of plan­ning in advance real­ly helps. This is prob­a­bly one of the rea­sons so many writ­ers go crazy.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I hope a read­er will find that my narrator’s strug­gle to fig­ure out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of authen­tic expe­ri­ence in the arts and beyond cap­tures some­thing about our con­tem­po­rary struc­tures of feel­ing and thought. And I hope it’s more enter­tain­ing than that sounds. But ulti­mate­ly I hope read­ers get some­thing out of the book I didn’t know was there. I like to think the read­er is an active par­tic­i­pant in the con­struc­tion of what a poem or nov­el means — not just a recip­i­ent of mes­sages the author has con­scious­ly placed there.

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.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.