"Here's a person who can't not tell a story," is my prominent thought as I read over my interview with Benjamin Rybeck as I get ready to publish it here on the blog. Of course we all tell stories all the time, in everything we do, but rarely are they as well-crafted and precise as Ben's. He took my questions and turned them into story-telling invitations, making him the best kind of interviewee. Maybe that is because he's been on the other side of the equation enough times, having interviewed a good number of authors himself. Aside from interviews, he writes short stories and book reviews, all of which have been published in numerous journals, and he has finished writing his first novel. In addition, he is the events coordinator for Brazos bookstore, a Houston institution and a favorite meeting place for local readers and authors alike.
Ben will be teaching two upcoming workshops at Writespace. In his six-week workshops simply titled Short Story, he will help you practice the craft of creating impactful stories that will keep readers turning pages. Workshoppers will learn from examples of masterful contemporary short stories, critique each others work, and write, write, write. Starts March 28. Sign up!
Character Development: Pushing the Story Forward, is a one-day workshop on March 21. Our one-day workshops can serve as a great way to get to know our instructors. They're only three hours long, but they pack a punch. For this one, you have until 1 pm tonight (3/20) to sign up, so stop procrastinating do something good for your writing. To learn more about these of any of our other workshops, visit our Workshops page.
I'll let Ben tell the rest. He tells it well.
Layla Al-Bedawi: What is your earliest memory of realizing you wanted to be a writer?
Benjamin Rybeck: Growing up, I always wanted to be a filmmaker—I didn’t read novels seriously until I failed out of college and found myself with a lot of time on my hands. As a kid, I watched bleak film noir from the forties with my dad. I adored Humphrey Bogart. As I got a little older, I loved the way people talked about directors—with a mixture of fear and admiration. It seemed so wonderful to be one of them. Of course, I tried, making some pretty awful short films (I never even finished them). I just couldn’t command that sort of attention from people. After a while, I drifted more and more toward novels and short stories, because then I had my characters, and they were there, looking at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do—though these days, even they don’t always listen to me.
LA: What is your typical short story writing process? Do you start with a fleshed out idea, or with a spark, not sure where it will lead? Are you a solitary writer with a need for complete quiet and focus, or are you energized and inspired by more dynamic writing environments?
BR: One of the marvelous things about writing is that it doesn’t cost any money, so you can “waste” a lot of time. What I mean is: I start with a spark, and I try not to rush. If I start with an idea that feels complete, I get frustrated in the process of putting it on paper; such an idea already feels perfect in my head, so my attempts to record it can only ruin it. I’m interested in discovery, not dictation.
But how I write anything—even the answers to these questions—always astonishes me. Luckily I can write pretty much anywhere—in public, at home, in a tuxedo, in my underwear—though sometimes I write nowhere. I’m deeply afraid of writing, see—afraid of what it’ll do to me when I fall in love with a story, afraid of what it’ll do to me if a particular project fails. But then, of course, I hear or see something in the world—a young woman berating her mother in Randall’s, a stray teddy bear in the road—and I write everywhere. I think what makes me a writer is that, when the spark comes, I’m helpless before it.
LA: What themes do you frequently find yourself drawn to in your work? Are there any themes that you have been surprised to find reoccur?
BR: This is always a scary question to answer. You can’t help what you’re drawn to, right? The problem, though, is when you start to notice what reoccurs. For instance, I was writing a lot of stories for a while in which characters had lost fathers. Why? I don’t know. I haven’t lost my father (though friends have). I have no animosity toward my father. Yet it seemed like all my protagonists had lost a father. When I noticed a batch of these stories, I decided to keep writing father stories—that could be the link through a collection, I thought! Of course, what happened? It became inorganic—with every story, I thought, I’ve gotta kill a father, and whatever had fascinated me subconsciously about that particular kind of grief had evaporated.
Am I avoiding your question? A little bit—but only because I have no idea how to answer. All a writer can do is to try and write something as authentically as s/he can and trust that those obsessions are there. But let critics and readers concern themselves with that.
LA: What has been the most challenging aspect of going from writing short fiction to writing a novel?
BR: I actually find novel writing very calming (or mostly calming, at least). Right now, I’m trying to return to short stories, and they remain a challenge to me. How to compress information? How to do everything I want to do? How to have so many characters and situations swimming around my head, fighting for attention? I like the steadfastness of the novel; you get to know the same people very well over the course of a few years. Short stories, on the other hand, feel like flitting from stranger to stranger at a party. God, I’m dreadful at small talk.
As a teenager, I wrote screenplays obsessively—twelve or thirteen all together, ranging from 90 to 180 pages each. (Of course, I don’t need to tell you they were terrible…) Each day, I went to work on these projects; I knew where I’d left off the day before, and I knew how to pick up the thread. From there, I tried writing novels before I ever wrote short stories. I feel more comfortable in the midst of a long project. I like knowing what I have to do next. That kind of continuity is important to me as a writer. Sometimes I will often stop a day’s work mid-sentence; that way, I know exactly what to write when I start off the next day.
LA: You frequently write book reviews, which have been published in numerous journals. How, if at all, does your short story writing and your review writing inform one another? Does doing the one improve your craft of the other?
BR: Yes! I wish all writers had to write book reviews (though, of course, many do). If you’re going to write a review, you need to read the book closely, like a college student, pen in hand. Any close reading like that informs your own work. All close reading helps.
On a more philosophical level, the book review (and also the interview, profile, etc.) has taught me about clarity. As a reviewer, I think my job is to communicate what the book is and what I think about it, not to wow people with my flashy prose—in other words, not to seem like a “writer.” The reviewers I love most are the ones who are the clearest and the least ostentatious, prose-wise. This isn’t to say that Roger Ebert lacked style; he absolutely was a stylist. But he was always clear. Too many reviewers try to hard to be “poetic,” and this sometimes feels like a reviewer trying to assert him/herself over the book—to say, See? I can write too!
Of course, these can be the sins of fiction writing too, yes? Here’s what reviewing has taught me: my first job, as a writer of reviews or fiction, is clarity, even when writing about mysterious things. Is that clear enough?
LA: As a reader, what do you look for in a short story or novel? Could you share some authors and their works that you find particularly exciting? Have they been influential to your own work?
BR: Well, clarity, again—but clarity has many forms, and does not always denote “realism.” For instance, I find the novels of Steve Erickson to be extremely clear, even though they are surreal and intuitive and imagistic; it’s just that the language and emotional content always feel precise. I’m not sure I can think of a clearer film than Mulholland Drive. Why does everyone stress over plot? When I watch that movie, I always understand what I’m supposed to feel; the movie is extremely clear and precise in communicating its “confusion.”
Beyond that, I respond best to works of fiction—films, novels, stories, poems—that don’t become prisoners of tone. For instance, I fell in love with the French New Wave in high school, mostly because of the way a film like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player could careen from comedy to tragedy, from melodrama to verisimilitude, from opulence to austerity, from romance to ugliness, while still feeling coherent. I find this quality in so many of the modern authors and filmmakers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Paula Bomer, Charles D’Ambrosio, Jennifer Egan, Joshua Ferris, James Hannaham, Kerry Howley, Alice Munro, Sarah Polley—and that’s just a small sampling of people on my mind at this exact moment.
LA: Brazos Bookstore is a wonderful and important hub for the literary scene here in Houston. What do you enjoy most about Brazos and your work there?
BR: I could say I do it for the love of Houston’s literary arts, or the opportunity to meet fellow booklovers, but why lie? I do it all for the fame and fortune that comes with working in the glamorous world of independent bookstores, replete with the sort of decadence illuminated by countless reality programs (you know the ones). Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street? Basically, Jordan Belfort wouldn’t have lasted one hour in the bacchanal that is your average day at Brazos.
LA: You are teaching the upcoming 6-week SHORT STORY workshop at Writespace. What do you hope to communicate to aspiring and emerging writers?
BR: People always fret over whether writing can be taught. Can you teach somebody to have good ideas? to have “talent?” Probably not—but then, that isn’t my job. I want aspiring and emerging writers—myself included—to understand that, like any art, you learn to write by practicing the craft until it becomes a part of you and you don’t think about it anymore. Is there natural talent? Maybe. But what does it matter? Who the fuck knows what it is? You can’t control that part of it anyway. Here’s what I want to communicate: that the only thing you can control is sitting down and getting to work. So what are you waiting for?
LA: What's the most interesting thing that has happened to you so far this year?
BR: About a month ago, I got into a car accident on the freeway (nobody else was involved). This in itself isn’t too interesting—of course, wrecking a car seems like a sort of initiation in Houston—but the experience was full of surreal details, like the thumbprint I noticed for the first time on the inside of my windshield as I spun at seventy-five miles per hour across five lanes, or the way Destroyer’s “The Bad Arts” continued to play from the wreckage of my vehicle as if carried in the smoke. But the most interesting part was getting to meet Carlos, the driver of the tow truck, who waited with me in a half-empty Home Depot parking lot for my ride to show up. There was mist in the air, and he smoked a cigarette and talked about his dog—a wild thing that even tried to chew into his concrete walls. The concrete? I asked. He nodded. I find white flakes of it in his shit, he said. Is this even possible? I don’t know. Hardly seemed to matter. We leaned against my mangled car and traded tips on how to train dogs. I wonder how his walls are looking these days