Fathers and Sons
An Interview with Ben Tanzer
A native of Chicago, Ben Tanzer is the author of several works of fiction, including Lucky Man, 99 Problems, You Can Make Him Like You, and So Different Now, among others. He also edits the online journal This Zine Will Change Your Life. His prolific small press presence is a defining characteristic of his work—heartfelt, honest, and straightforward. In one of his most recent books, My Father’s House (Main Street Rag), Tanzer tackles the death of his father; his serious attention to craft and incredible thoughtfulness to structure are an enormous pleasure, despite the gravity of the book’s subject matter. It’s a book that should be read by anyone who has a father.
Paula Bomer: Due to my own recent loss, I’ve been reading literature dealing with death and grief. Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion both wrote non-fiction about losing their husbands (and in Didion’s case, her daughter as well), and the recently published Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes deals with the loss of his mother, with whom he lived for 60 years. Even well known fiction writers like Jonathan Franzen and Alexander Hemon have written about death and grief in the essay form. You’ve chosen to write about your father’s death in the form of fiction. Why use the novel for this material?
Ben Tanzer: Just today I was listening to Darin Strauss talk about his memoir Half a Life, and he said that he felt like the material in that book deserved to be a memoir and not a novel because someone had died and he wanted to honor that. I suppose my feelings when writing My Father’s House were the antithesis of that thinking. I initially thought I would do a memoir about my experience of my father’s death that would be an homage of sorts to The Basketball Diaries. But it never quite worked out and I shelved it. When I was finishing my last novel, I started thinking about what I might work on next and I found myself thinking about several things. First, I felt like having written about friendship in Lucky Man, love in Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, and birth in You Can Make Him Like You, I needed to write about death to complete some kind of collective effort to capture these milestones. I also thought about how I needed to tweak my own approach to novel writing so as not to repeat myself. I have favored humorous, pop culture driven stories wrapped around themes of how we cope with pain and confusion, and so I was interested in how I might invert that formula. Finally, I was having drinks with a publisher who was damning creative nonfiction, and this discussion reminded me of my attempt at memoir and how it hadn’t worked for me. Unlike Strauss’ story, I realized my focus on nonfiction was limiting the creative possibilities for the story. From there I started thinking about what a fictional riff on a son coping with losing his father might look like, how people would talk and what their days would become, and then I was off and running.
PB: Toward the beginning of the novel, when the father character first gets sick, your narrator thinks, “I feel like today has been one long out of body experience. I’m doing the things I always do, I know, making breakfast, going to work, doing the laundry, watching television, and whatever, and yet even as I’m doing these things, I feel like I have been watching myself do them from afar.” The enormity of the possibility of his father’s death already transports the narrator into another world, so to speak.
BT: I think there are a lot of ways to discuss this, which is partly related to the fact that while the world as you once knew it is blowing up and splintering around you, the world as a whole is not, and probably doesn’t care. The world keeps going, and because it keeps going, you have to keep going, and even if you drop things to focus on the dying person, or your grief, you don’t drop everything, and definitely not the mundane things—laundry has to be done, you will watch television—all that. The difference is that you’re aware that your world is not normal, and so on the one hand, those mundane things are even more rote, and on the other hand they feel unreal. Part of you is aware of this, but it’s not always present, and then something triggers those feelings—a song, a phone call, a memory—and you think fuck, I’m not only going through the motions, I’ve been a full step removed from even doing that. I’ve been watching myself go through the motions, because really, none of this matters all that much right now, and so not thinking about death, yet thinking about it all the time, is about all I can really handle.
PB: Three things outside of his marriage and family seem to comfort your narrator: running, drinking large amounts of beer, and having sex—first with a stranger, and then, more pointedly, with a woman from his childhood. This sort of behavior comes up a lot in the literature of grief, but the sexual acting out is complicated—in your novel, it is self-destructive, guilt inducing, something that could destabilize the narrator’s marriage, and yet it’s also a grabbing onto life, which perhaps drinking can also been seen as—it’s a “celebratory” behavior. Why do you think this is?
BT: I think we are talking about how people cope with what is confusing and painful and how many of the things that allow us to cope, or not cope, and to lose ourselves in something other than grief and anger, are the same things that can bring us pleasure and joy and more healthy escapes in completely different circumstances. I also believe that what we’re drawn to and compulsive about when we’re happy or content is only heightened when we’re grieving—anything to escape, to feel better, and sometimes just to feel. You could probably write a similar book to mine where the coping behavior was focused on things like eating and OCD behaviors, both of which are touched in the book, and which are also interesting to me—just not as interesting as substance abuse, running, and sex. Running in particular is a personal compulsion and release, and sex is the one activity I think we all obsess over, men for sure—should I, shouldn’t I, can I get it, will I get it, how will I get it, is it good for me, for her? It dominates our thinking even when we aren’t interested in it, because we are immersed in it, it comes at us from every direction, and it never quite makes sense. Like death I guess.
PB: Throughout the novel, the narrator thinks back on his dad, what kind of father and man he was in general. I wonder if it’s sort of an homage to your own father, a way of immortalizing him—what better way to preserve a dead father than to write about him?
BT: My reaction to this question is very similar to my reaction to the journal notes I wrote when my dad first got sick. I was reminded of a phrase by the writer Graham Greene: “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” I cannot say My Father’s House was conceived as an homage to my father in any conscious way. While unconsciously I may have wanted that, my initial impulse was more coarse: my thinking was that there will be a story here, this experience will be fucked-up and twisted, fraught with conflicts and tensions, as father and son relationships are anyway. But my father’s life is as ripe as any for homage: he was a great artist and teacher, beloved locally and regionally, though he never achieved the kind of fame and respect he wanted from the larger art world. And it wasn’t a pipe dream or the frustrated longings of someone with a rich fantasy life either—he was the real thing, he just never quite figured it out. Another sort of irony is that any immortality he might ultimately receive with this book will be somewhat of a letdown for him in death, because he would have wanted it while he was alive so could revel in it.
PB: There is a famous book that talks about the “stages” of grief that isn’t really of interest to me—who wants an instruction manual?—but it is true that emotions run the gamut, and rage seems to be quite normal. Two instances of this in the book stand out for me: one where your narrator lets himself be angry at his father for not taking care of a hernia, saying, “I realize that his decisions, and non-decisions, don’t just affect him, they affect all of us, and they always did.” Another instance is toward the end when a friend of the father’s recommends a ton of morphine to end his father’s consciousness. Your narrator thinks of him as a murderer, but I also see it as the narrator’s inability to let go.
BT: Letting go is terrible, torturous, and it doesn’t matter what kind of relationship you had, good or bad. If it’s good, you feel cheated, because something has been torn from you that you cherished and planned to hold onto and watch evolve, and now that’s fucked. And if it’s bad, you’re still cheated, because if you find some kind of closure then you wasted a lot of time being angry, and if you don’t quite work it out, then you feel set-up. There is endless shit with parents, even great parents, that never gets worked out, and some of this is what allows you to separate from them in the first place, but it’s also what can cause anger as well. What I was also interested in, though, is how the rage of loss is further warped by our own personalities, our past, how we perceive ourselves and our memories. This character wants to be tough, but being tough is only so affective in the long run. It can mask feelings and suppress them, just as running or sex or alcohol does, but for how long, and in what ways, and how does it impact your ability to understand what you’re feeling, and even how you remember things? How cut off from what you’re experiencing do you become? The character could have told the father’s friend to shut the fuck up, but he can’t quite grasp what’s being said. It’s not really so confusing though, so is that an inability to let go, or is it an inability to see clearly what’s happening in front of you because of all the other junk bouncing around in your head?
PB: Both the narrator and his father have tough guy personas and yet both are artists, and in the case of the narrator, a caregiver. There’s a lot of ambivalence about masculinity and what it means, how confining it can be but also how necessary. Eventually, your narrator is allowed all sorts of release—crying, really letting go of his father, and figuring out what he needs to do next. Perhaps it was the slow painful aspect of a death by cancer; not to diminish the loss, but I’ve heard people say about certain deaths, “it was his time.”
BT: It’s funny because one reviewer wrote how there were certain ways the character managed his emotions in the book that bothered him as an editor, but then he realized that maybe his own need to be tough was affecting his ability to embrace the emotions being expressed, and that made me smile. He was the first person to touch on this thread, and now you are the second. It was a conscious thing I wanted to play with, but if I’m the only one who sees it in the text, I’m not sure it qualifies as being part of the book at all. The character does need to find a way to be sad though, and experience grief, and to embrace that tough guy persona—or not—regardless of confusing signals about masculinity and what it means to be a father or son. I don’t know that the character gets there in a healthy way, but he does get there because he’s ultimately so overwhelmed by all of it he has no choice. It’s an implosion of grief, though in this character’s case it is also the start of something, because I wanted to connect all of this to being an artist as well. When my father died, my mom and I talked about whether he might have been more successful and better able to bring more layers to his work if he could have better embraced his feelings and been less caught up in being tough and not exploring things. I wanted the character to come to understand this in the latter stages of the book as he realized that he wants to create art as well. In terms of the idea that “it was his time,” we always have to separate out people’s suffering from their actual lives. If someone is suffering, then yes, it can feel like someone’s time because you can’t bear to watch them suffer, but that has nothing to do with what they may have still done with their lives if they were healthy and how you may have yet interacted with them. From that perspective, it’s never anyone’s time.
PB: You’ve published seven books with a variety of independent publishers and it seems to encourage you to be both productive and free—no agent telling you what to do, no publisher asking you to do something similar to your last book, and so on. In many ways, I feel you could have a career like Charles Bukowski—revered but remaining an outsider, doing what feels true to your heart. I mean no disrespect for writers with more mainstream careers, of course, but as both of us come from the small press world, I thought you’d tell us your feelings about your experiences.
BT: My experiences as a whole have been very positive and over the last several years especially I have had the great pleasure of working with people who I either sought out and hoped would want to work with me, or people who wanted to work with me that I had been trying to cultivate in some way. There is definitely some freedom that comes with that: I never worry about audience, because one, there isn’t much of an audience, which is liberating in its own way, and two, I focus on what I find entertaining and hope at least some publisher will as well. Not having an agent or a big publishing house behind you, though, I think you lose some “heft at the table” (to quote my friend Michael FitzGerald), and to have those relationships certainly means it’s more likely someone will express interest in things like movie rights and foreign rights. I have no opposition to selling tons of books or having an agent or publishing house supporting me, it just hasn’t worked out so far and I haven’t pursued it as much as I might have. I guess this means that I may remain an outsider, and I’m fine with that if the opportunities that have been coming to me keep coming. As far as being revered or even mentioned in the same breath as Bukowski, that seems incredibly unlikely to me, but even with all of my ambition, the idea of being a Bukowski-like presence—well, sans his incredible fucked-upedness—is way cooler to me than having a best seller or being nominated for awards. The worst thing would be the have no one interested in my work at all. I would still write, and I would still write what I find entertaining, but it would disingenuous of me to say that I would be happy to write for an audience of one.