Ben Tanzer is the author of the novels, Lucky Man and Most Likely You Go Your Way, the story collection Repetition Patterns, a MLP mini chap, I Am Richard Simmons, and many more chunks of goodness. His next novel, You Can Make Him Like You will be published by Artistically Declined Press. But before people cry nepotism this interview is actually about his new essay collection, 99 Problems (CCLAP), which explores the connections between his writing and his uber healthy hobby of running. There’s probably no nicer person than Tanzer, certainly one of the kindest, most supportive writers I’ve met out there in the ether and his enthusiasm is always contagious, because, you know, he’s CHANGING YOUR LIFE.
RWB: First, I have to know the origins of the title. Clearly it’s a Jay-Z reference, but how did you come to 99 Problems as the title of this project?
BT: Whenever I’m writing some song inevitably seems to have the right vibe for what I’m trying, hoping to capture. So this song has some obvious elements to it that work here, as both running and writing are rife with problems for me. Running is always a struggle on some level, physically, mentally, emotionally, time-wise, whatever, but I still have to run, there’s no choice, and apparently when there is no choice, there are problems. Of course, trying to get a story untangled has its own types of problems. But like running, I’m in it, and like running, it’s not a choice, so that’s a problem. Finally though, and maybe mostly even, the song is tight, sparse, minimalist, profane, funny and slamming, and I always want to write like that, but especially here, stripped down to muscle and pain, but still laughing, still creating, still punching and still having fun.
RWB: I feel that more than almost any other book I’ve read about writing (except maybe Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story) you truly discuss the process of how your stories develop here. Is running a vital part to the progress of your writing?
BT: Great question, because I have no idea how to write or tell someone to, I doubt I could teach it, but I can tell you how I go about it and running is a part of it, running allows me to clear out the clutter, untangle shit and get past all of my own nonsense, anxieties and obsessions, so I can think and feel lucid. I can write without running, and do all the time, but running always makes the writing better, because anything seems possible when my mind is clear.
RWB: I was really impressed by how your essays hold so much in common with your fiction, especially the fusion of pop culture. And not just the music you’re listening to on your iPod as you run, but also books and movies. Is this just the natural flow of your thought process or is it something you work on or hone?
BT: Thanks man, and I will sound less craftsman-like then I would like to here, but when it comes to pop culture, or politics, memory or what have you, there is no honing or retrofitting going on, I’m just rolling with an idea, seeing what emerges and certain association just start to creep in. I write first drafts like I think and talk, and the work and honing comes later when I try to mold the story that has emerged into something that’s tight and sparse and cogent. The associations though, I have no control over those and don’t even try, whatever comes up, comes up and I run with it.
RWB: How did this project come about? You discuss in the opening a conversation between you and the publisher, so was this a germ of an idea which you had pitched or was there an open-ended project in development and coming to writing about running came as a result of the thoughts you had developed on Murakami’s lack of connecting running to writing?
BT: To be honest, I never thought about this kind of project at all. Jason Pettus my publisher got caught up in hearing me talk about this stuff, in interviews and over beers, and pushed me to do something, anything, and I was really stuck at first, thinking it had to be one long piece, that he wanted an essay of some kind. I knew I was going to do something on running, writing, and compulsion, but I didn’t see how it could work, so I read Murakami for inspiration and one evening, between Murakami, a late run and some Guinness, it all untangled, it could actually be short pieces, focused on particular runs, and particular projects and whatever else came up.
RWB: In “Compulsions” you talk about a new project, My Father’s House. Where does this project stand today? Is it what you are actively working on or is it a side-project, so to speak?
BT: I sometimes call this the dad book in tribute to the writer Robert Duffer who always tells me I need to do a dad book. It was a sort of side thing, for down the road, but working on these essays got me thinking about it differently than I had been. It was initially a memoir about death in general, and my dad’s death in particular, somewhat of an homage to The Basketball Diaries, but that didn’t quite find any traction. As I wrote these essays though, that original manuscript started feeling like it could be something different and more nuanced as fiction, and I started to work on it again, thinking about dialogue, and relationships and what might fit together. And then as I was doing all this, there was a little interest from someone, which you know is all it takes, and so I spent several months only working on this, recently finished the overhaul and sent it out. We’ll see.
RWB: My favorite piece in the collection is, perhaps, “After Dark.” About which I have two questions. Looking back on this essay how do you feel about the larger questions you raised about your writing career? I feel it’s rare for writers, especially of the “indie” variety to talk candidly about the struggle and desire for success as a writer, the thoughts of writing for success versus writing for the art or the catharsis.
BT: I love this piece as well, which doesn’t sound right does it? Anyway, I definitely think differently at night, bigger, more grandiose, and while I’m not sure how anyone achieves success, some of it is lightning in a bottle for sure, I know I want it, even if I’m not sure how I would define. I know it’s not about money necessarily, though I do want more of that, or selling lots of books, which would be great, nor even about fame, which would have mattered more to me in the past. Success for me is about something else, it’s about opportunity, doing more, more cool stuff, and having more people who want me to do things for them or with them. It’s so fucking cliché, but I really would write no matter what, there’s no choice for me anymore, but digging that feeling of catharsis doesn’t have to have anything to do with wanting have more opportunities to do really cool things with cool people when and how I want to do them. What I would add here, is that this is something that scares me because it would potentially involve living a life I have no experience with that maybe I really want even more than I think, and that’s hard to fathom, and that’s unknown and to embrace it is to potentially not only embrace change, but disappointment.
RWB: My second question regarding “After Dark” is how does your wife feel about an essay like this where you openly talk about or at least skirt around your sex life, or in “Victory” where you talk about trying not to stare at a co-worker’s ass? And do such thoughts ever hinder the honesty that is so present in your writing?
BT: We will see what my wife says when she reads this, usually she reads everything in DRAFT form, but I was all locked into my process on these and talking to Jason and somehow wanted to preserve something that seemed to be working. That said, I do edit myself at times, but probably more in terms of things that might make someone close to me sad or feel exposed in ways that are especially uncomfortable. Sex, the idea of it, and how to get it anyway, is, and has always been one of my compulsions, so I didn’t and don’t try and shy away from those things, especially with these essays, because compulsion is a big, big part of what I wanted to do here. Also though, I wasn’t necessarily wondering if I would have sex that night after that run, nor was I definitely checking out my co-worker’s ass on the other run, though I probably was doing both, but those are things I think about even when I’m not sure I have actually done so or wish I didn’t, and so it seemed important to acknowledge that these things are part of how I interact with the universe, at the least the slice of it I exist in. All that said, I really don’t think my wife cares about much about any of this, it is about fantasy, and confusion, and mostly In my head, making them my problems, not hers.
RWB: Lastly, to end this thing right, give us an ultimate, balls-to-the-wall playlist perfect for a good hard run.
BT: Awesome. And while I’m sure to forget things, not to mention embarrass myself, this is one possible playlist that aims for equal part balls and pleasure:
(1) 99 Problems – Jay Z
(2) Sabotage – The Beastie Boys
(3) Blietzkrieg Bop – The Ramones
(4) Dear Lord – Joseph Arthur
(5) Delta 88 – X
(6) California Songs – Local H
(7) Jesus Walks – Kanye West
(8) Since You Been Gone – Kelly Clarkson
(9) She’s So Cold – The Rolling Stones
(10) Won’t Be Fooled Again – The Who
(11) The Overly Dramatic Truth – El-P
(12) Armchair – Avail
(13) 8 More Days Til The 4th of July – Ike Reilly
(14) Massive Nights – The Hold Steady
(15) None Shall Pass – Aesop Rock
(16) Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
(17) Minor Threat – Minor Threat
(18) Play Your Part Pt 1 – Girl Talk
(19) Thresher’s Fail – Be Your Own Pet
(20) I See You Baby – Groove Armada (Fatboy Slim remix)
(21) Lose Yourself – Emimem
(22) SexyBack – Justin Timberlake
(23) Loser – Beck
(24) Bullet in the Head – Rage Against the Machine
(25) Don’t Walk Alone – Tim Easton