FEAST OF WORDS I: RBC INTERVIEW OUTTAKES

Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. In the holiday weeks to come I’ll be posting tasty outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller

Q. So how many sections of the book were published as stand-alones originally?

A. They all were. I started with dozens of short initial sketches in the early 2000s and then the first finished piece (“Bix and Flannery”) gets in print and thereafter chapters appeared in places like AGNI out of Boston University, Raritan out of Rutgers, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review. Ecotone. The Normal School. It was vital to see what this material looked like on the page and these journals offered me that chance to do that, and to experience the vital process of editing prose that at times can be ungainly in the sense of everything being all…immured? or innured? I think I just made that word up. Innured? Manured? No, no. [Laughs.] All put together in delicate layers: that’s better. I can’t stress enough how vital the journal publications were…they gave me the confidence to continue on with the experimental nature of the project.

Q. Some Urban Iowa essays are still coming out, right? At a reading I attended of yours at KGB Bar you handed out copies of “Cinema B.C.” which is a piece that appeared in Raritan, I believe.

A. Right, Raritan. That one was on drive-in movie theaters and my family’s relation to them. And also the local neighborhood movie theater and the movie palace of the sixties and seventies. That’s not in the book. I like that piece. It’s an interesting extension of the themes in River Bend Chronicle.

Q. What Midwestern writers do you connect your work to? Sherwood Anderson? Hemingway? Bradbury?

A. Eudora Welty is the south but the ways she depicts the complexities of her community really resonates with me. That is, resonates universally, I think, with anyone who grew up within an environment that at least had a reputation for being rural if not being actually rural: a town. And when you grow up in the Midwest, Winesburg, Ohio is something you deal with. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is another work that takes the approach of creating portraits of a community to form a chorus that represents something of society’s murk of conflicting agendas and histories. For years and years I considered Our Town to be a Midwestern play even though it’s set in New Hampshire…and partially this is because in my mind it’s very connected to Spoon River Anthology which preceded it as a vocalization of many disparate personalities and their stories coming together to create something bigger, and far richer, than the individual elements. In sum? I liked just about IT ALL. I read as much as I could hold when I was young. I was just a “book hugger,” as some people are tree huggers, and I’m still a book hugger. I will be in used book stores, probably buying old copies of Winesburg Ohio as long as I am around. Books that have lasted you can always learn something from. It’s important to read new things but also there’s nothing wrong with going back and really looking at these books that have endured and trying to figure out why–what in them resolved the riddle of how to make art.

Q. I would like to hear just a little more about “junkification” and “idyll” and the juxtaposition between those warring concepts in the sub-title.

A. [laughs] Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I think the book is so much about tension. Tension between wishes and reality. Tension of being from Iowa but rarely seeing corn and cows. The tension that is just naturally part of living in a large family of eight loud people. “Junkification” naturally emerged from the matrix of the book crashing energy and depiction of familial and societal wreckage. And “idyll” came along soon after, given my attachment to classic verse when I was a kid. I mean, you know, Dickinson and Whitman and even Ginsburg…these writers were very alive to me, huge. Vachel Lindsay’s another. All romantic in diverse ways…or at least they epitomized my burgeoning romance with literature and its possibilities.

Q. And the form–no paragraphs–could you describe your aims there?

A. I needed to fill the pages but not clog them with familial mess, and that was really one of the core artistic struggles. To create a sense that is often missing in books about messy subjects–a look of the mess, and the sound of the mess, and the shapeless shape of mess! A sense of vagary, of moral, mental, emotional confusion. I wanted to replicate the fierceness without clogging the pages with so much that readers drowned. The challenge was to communicate the sense of swirling chaos while also keeping the narrative going somehow, chugging along. And there are a number of ways to accomplish that, I discovered. With the sentence rhythm. By picking four details instead of putting all twelve in–the twelve harassing my mind. People will look at the book and say “but there’s hundreds of things mentioned! people! places!” Yet there could have been three or four times that amount. And what did not get into RBC resides in sketches and drafts in my poor file cabinet. I mean the book represents about 25% of the writing I’ve done on my hometown.

“ANOTHER NEW SHINY LITTLE THING FOR UNDER A DOLLAR”: RIVER BEND CHRONICLE AUTHOR INTERVIEWED BY TYLER GORE IN THE WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS

“I think there’s definitely a sense of intense mess that I really wanted to portray in the book. I mean, ‘mess’ in a social sense, ‘mess’ in a local sense — this thing of being from Iowa, and never seeing cows — and then at the core, and most importantly, a mess in a family that is struggling under economic pressures and emotional difficulties. And over the top of the mess is that prototypical consumerism, the junk piling up in the household, this crust of toys and other cheap boughten things that just somehow typify, weirdly enough, what is deeply inside you, the emotional confusion and chaos, the cheapening of dreams — and in the end the absolute, almost complete trashing of dreams — that can occur in certain households that are suffering under a weight of grief. In the book, this sense of grief is somewhat mysterious. It was never quite clear what affected my mother and father but there were lots of hints that they had undergone trauma, certainly proved by the way that they behaved. So whatever happened to them created a grief and the pressure of that grief — as in a garbage compactor — scooped up so much from discount stores and pushed it all together into the house, and we children were in the middle of that. And the hope for us all was to go out to Kmart again, or to go to Woolworth’s again, and to try to get another new shiny little thing for under a dollar that would then almost immediately break and make you need to go out again and get another little thing that would break. All of those fragments compiled in the house, and most importantly, inside of each of us. So, you just have this sense in the book of wading through a landfill of a spirit, or a landfill of a consciousness, that has undergone prolonged pressure from the forces of grief.”

Read more here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller