It could be said, especially when Nick Ostdick was 18 when he published his first novel and Tao Lin was only 23, that Chicago writer Ben Tanzer is a literary late bloomer, or jumped in late in the game. It wasn't until Ben approached the his thirties that he decided to pursue writing, but since that moment he has becoming one of the more refreshing voices in Chicago. Besides, I contend that the you don't jump into the game of writing or bloom into a writer, but the writing comes to you. Whether you are 18 or 80, if you are meant to write you will. What seperates writers like Ben from others is his dedication and his unique ability to allow his sharp sense of humor to shine through even the darkest moments of his prose.
Since first learning that "Lucky Man" would be published by Manx Media in late 2006, Ben has plunged into a full on media assualt. He started a blog called "This blog will change your life", he created a myspace page, and he made a promotional video for distribution on youtube.
Recently, Ben was kind enough to take some time and talk to us about his debut novel and all that is invovled in becoming a published writer.
Orange Alert (OA): Tell us a little about your debut novel "Lucky Man".
Ben Tanzer (BT): Absolutely, first off, it's taking the literary world by storm which is such a nice surprise and very humbling. Second, its a spell-binding mix of road trips, father and sons, teen sex, Greatest American Hero, the Twilight Zone, adultery, the music of the Grateful Dead, and cocaine fueled bouts of deer strangulation. And third, it’s a story that follows four friends - Gabe, Jake, Louie, and Sammy - from their waning days of high school through their first few years out of college. My intent was to write about people of a certain age who are so close that their identities begin to merge, they have the same experiences, tell the same stories, and act somewhat like they are of one brain. I also wanted to create characters though, that despite this were unique enough to be identifiable, and have their own individual struggles. One way I tried to capture these dueling themes was to write the book from all four characters points of view, rotating each chapter from one perspective to the next, some times describing the same scene and other times picking-up where the last character left off. Again, all have their own struggles as well though, and so the book is also divided into four sections and in each section one character is somewhat highlighted even as the story moves along. Now, does any of this work, I think so, but its best if people buy the book, decide this for themselves, and then write me and let me know what they think. They should also feel comfortable buying multiple copied as needed.
OA: You have been reading parts of "Lucky Man" at various locations around the city lately, how do you feel on stage? Do you write with the intent that your work will be read aloud? At readings do you ever see your work in a different light?
BT: First off, I need to thank the various people and entities who have asked me to read because it is really appreciated. So, Quimby’s, Suzie T. and the Book Cellar, Amy Guth and The Fixx reading series, you rock, thank you. That said, I really enjoy being on stage and I am discovering just how incredibly narcissistic I am. It’s terrible, and I am embarrassed for myself, but I’m really having a good time and my reading style has actually gone through a bit of a transformation during the last year. I have done readings in the past, but always sort of struck to the script so to speak, talked a bit, but read whatever I was reading straight on. Along the way here recently though I realized that I don’t have to do that, it can be more of performance and I can editorialize and follow tangents and that’s cool, it’s entertaining for me, and I think the audience, and if it isn’t for them, again it is for me which is great, because of my tremendous ego. The other night I read as part of the Mortified!!! series and that I wrote a script for, but usually, always really, I just write what's in my head, and when I’m asked to read I start thinking about what I might like it to sound like, when to pause, raise my voice, whisper a bit, anything can become a script. With Lucky man in particular, the story can be bleak, but there’s all sorts of pop culture stuff in there, and drug use, and graphic sex, much of which is meant to be cartoonish, and funny, and reading it aloud I can hear the humor in it in ways that doesn’t always translate on the written page.
OA: What is your opinion of the Chicago literary scene?
BT: It’s a great scene and I look forward to joining it once I get the correct vaccinations. It’s funny really, whether you’re talking writing or art or whatever creative thing you’re into it’s not clear to me that it’s all that easy to be an artist here in Chicago and not have to work a day job of some kind. And I don’t know if you’re readers ever check out the Bad At Sports podcast which riffs on the local art scene and beyond, but its really entertaining, and they always talk about this, you can be supported and be creative as hell, but you’re going to work, same with writing, for me anyway. That said, there are so many great writers and performers here – Joe Meno, Don De Grazia, Amy Guth, Megan Stielstra, Linda Barry, Jonathan Messinger and on and on – and journals, both those that have been around like THE2NDHAND and those that are upcoming like RAGAD from Nick Ostdick, and great bookstores, not just those I mentioned above, but others like Myopic which I love to wander around. And then there are events like the Printers Ball and Printers Row Book Fair, and so many readings, with so many good writers, and happenings like The Dollar Store and 2nd Story, and venues like the Hideout. Man it’s great, there’s something for everyone, and I’m happy to be part of it in any form, even when I’m just listening and thinking about things I hope to someday do.
OA: I truly admire your drive and dedication to writing. In your recent interview over at Bigmouth Indeed Strikes Again , you said that you write for at least thirty minutes each day. How are you able to balance all of the various parts of your life (work, family, writing, etc.)?
BT: You are way too generous, and really its an illness, I have no control over it, though the meditation, acupuncture, and Jenny Craig help a lot. I also don't get enough sleep. More then that though I have a very cliche reponse - I'm really regimented about it. There is family and there is work and everything else is filtered through this - so, I am constantly asking myself when will I have a chance to write today, tomorrow, next Thursday, whenever. I am constantly planning out when I will be free, or semi-free in the coming day, or days, and I commit to that time, which means if I planned right, I write, whether I'm tired, or hungry, or stressed, I dive-in, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing. If the time I had in mind doesn't work out though I assess the rest of the day, and if nothing works out, I write at midnight, or 1:00am, or whenever everyone in the house is asleep. Some times that means I fall asleep on the keyboard, and when that happens I finish up and then go to bed. Ideally, everyone in the house is kind of sleeping normal hours, which is rare, but when that happens I get up at 5:30 and write, which is my favorite time to do so. I would add, that part of what fuels my focus on writing every day, or near every day, is desperation and hunger. I wanted to write for so long and I couldn't get started. And when I got started I really enjoyed it and wanted to keep doing it. I also felt though like I had lost a lot of time and I wanted to make up for it. I don't feel quite like that any more, but I'm also not doing all I want to do when I want to do it when it comes to writing and being an artist, and to accomplish these things - more novels, screenplays, whatever - I have to keep honing my skills and being the best I can, and that only comes with dedication to the craft, and it is a craft.
OA: Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
BT: This is such a good and tricky question, how do you separate influence from inspiration? I will leave that up to someone else to answer, what I will say, is that Jim Carroll and the Basketball Diaries was one of my first great inspirations and remains one of my long time inspirations. He was writing about a world I couldn't believe existed and he wrote it in such an evocative fashion. It killed me, really killed me. Another book in that vein was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, and to ever write anything that wowed me like that would be very cool. There are influences though for sure, Raymond Carver and his ability to create this very clear and fully realized world all his own, Alice Munro for sure, I see both of them sneaking into my short stories, Elizabeth Crane as well, and Junot Diaz. Lynda Barry's novel Crummy made me want to read like few other books and I read all the time, and most recently Don De Grazia's novel American Skin and Haistyles of the Dammed by Joe Meno made be believe I could and had to write a novel on the one hand, but also that I can't set the bar high enough. Similarly, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Jimmy Corrigan - Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, and Scalawag by Steve Lafler, all of which are graphic novels, are books that make me think anything is possible if you can just picture it. Finally, and this is not meant to be snarky, but the songs and writing of Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones are touchstones of mine when I write for sure - keep it simple, keep it clean, and tell a story, loudly if necessary.
OA: Now that your debut novel has been out for a few months, looking back, how would you evaluate the overall experience of publishing a novel? Was it what you expected? What has happened that you didn't anticipate?
BT: It's been really interesting and it's still really hard to believe. I expected my publisher and I would have to hustle to get the book any attention and we have had to. I didn't assume people would find me or Lucky Man, but I did hope though that some people would find us eventually as the months went on and they have. People like you and Amy Guth from the Fixx reading series heard something, somewhere and gave me a shout, and I'm really enjoying that. What is somewhat unexpected is just how many things have been popping lately, but also how little impact the attention has had on sales. Further, while I appreciate all the opportunities that have come-up to talk about the book and the experience, its amazing just how many things haven't worked out, especially given how enthusiastic some people have seemed when I first encountered them. All that said, I would say two things in particular have been the most unexpected, the first of which is really cheesey. A lot of what I believed could happen if I just busted my ass have happened - interviews, readings, book clubs - and that's kind of gratifying, maybe busting your ass can make a difference. But also, the hustle has led me to do things I was kind of fascinated by - starting a blog - "This Blog Will Change Your Life," a MySpace page, creating a video for YouTube - and doing these things has made me realize that there are any number of other things I kind of thought about that maybe I could pursue at some point - working in film, performing, and who knows what else.
OA: What is next for Ben Tanzer?
BT: A very deep and scary question. I'm very excited to make my big screen debut in the upcoming sequel to the Breakfast Club. You know, Judd Nelson wasn't available, I did a screen test and there we are. Okay, that isn't true, but I am working on my next novel tentatively titled "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," and I'm really enjoying it. I've been writing brilliant, but quite un-optioned screenplays with my buddy Harley Grant who asked me to stress that he is single and looking, and we'll keep plugging away. I'm hoping to find more opportunities to not just read, but perform, though I'm not sure what that means. I want to learn more about making films, and some day, some how, I hope to collaborate with someone on a graphic novel, that's kind of the ultimate to me.
OA: Coffee? If yes, what is your favorite type of coffee and where is your favorite coffee place?
BT: Yes, for sure, and I favor anything in the eye-opener family, i.e., half espresso/half coffee, ideally on ice, a splash of milk, no sweetener. My regular haunt is the new Intelligensia on the river walk across the street from my office on Michigan Avenue, but the pre-renovated Uncommon Ground will always be a favorite of mine, as is the Bourgeois Pig.
OA: What type of music are your currently enjoy, and who are some of your favorite artist?
BT: Current stuff I'm really enjoying is the new disc by the Ike Reilly assassination - we belong to The Staggering Evening, who I am just loving, and el-p's new one I'll Sleep When You're Dead, which is just awesome. In the last year, there's been a bunch of stuff I thought was great, Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, boys and girls in America by The Hold Steady, my favorite all year, Be Your Own Pet self-titled debut, 12 Songs by Neil Diamond, sparse and killer, and Nuclear Daydream by Joseph Arthur. I'm also digging these discs by Other World which are from Mark Hendryx the father of one of my son's friends, and have re-discovered Worry When We Get There by The Wrench a punk band that was fronted by and old friend of mine Tim Walikis. It's just great. I would add that the Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Avail, The Ramones, X, and Bob Dylan are sort of my core favorites, and in case anyone is wondering The Grey Album by Danger Mouse is start to finish one of my all time favorites.
For more information on Ben Tanzer visit his blog and to purchase your copy of "Lucky Man" go to Amazon.