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:
- Jakob Von Gunten (Robert Walser)
- My Life (Lyn Hejinian)
- Three Poems (John Ashbery)
- Dictee (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha)
- Mimesis (Erich Auerbach)
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 executive director 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.