Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer
Michael Kimball: Why are you so funny?
Ben Tanzer: The easy answer is that somewhere not so deep inside of me is a clown who just cannot stop crying. That said, assuming you’re correct, and my children are not, I’m sure it is some combination of being a male of a certain age; growing-up on John Hughes movies, The Jerk, Stripes, Animal House, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and Raw; watching Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live; reading MAD Magazine and National Lampoon; being Jewish, and from New York, with a father who idealized Lenny Bruce, I also think that I decided early on that humor could be disarming and distracting, useful for avoiding hard conversations and a great tool for not dealing with things you do not want to deal with. So, all of this, and whatever damage was caused at birth when I had to be delivered via forceps.
Kimball: That it is so funny is one of the reasons the novel moves so quickly. I love how fast MOST LIKELY YOU GO YOUR WAY AND I’LL GO MINE is. Another reason for that narrative speed is that the novel is mostly dialogue. Can you talk about how you decided to do that and what you were trying to capture by doing that?
Tanzer: I had several thoughts going on here. One, I wanted to try and capture those relationships, especially among the young, that can come together fast and implode just as fast, all intense and full of excitement, hope, lust and maybe even love. I also wanted to create a series of characters that don’t have the desire, or maybe capacity, to understand themselves, and what they’re experiencing, so they talk and talk because they’re smart and funny, and because they’re scared to feel something, anything, and prefer to avoid dealing with that might mean. To achieve this then, I decided to maximize the external dialogue and minimize the internal dialogue. I also decided that to find some of that speed I wanted, it was best to strip away back story wherever I could, if it didn’t find its way into some dialogue I killed it. Finally, I was and continue to be interested in trying to capture a certain Ramones-influenced punk aesthetic when I write–bring it hard, bring it fast, be sparse and make it a little violent and humorous where and when you can. Parallel to this was my interest in the movie A History of Violence, which came out at the same time I was writing the book. David Cronenberg, the movie’s director, said that most violence is intimate and quick and I remember thinking that this sort of dynamic doesn’t have to just be physical or even angry, and that all relationships can work in that kind of space in one way or another. I also thought that this matched the vibe I wanted for this book, and maybe all books I work on, stripped-down, intimate, and sort of bruising.
Kimball: There is a recurring, all-dialogue set piece in the novel that occurs at different crisis points for the main character’s relationship with his kind-of girlfriend. The main character’s coworkers each give him their skewed advice. Where did those different characters and the idea to have that as a recurring bit come from?
Tanzer: Good question. Now let me see if I have a good answer. In general, I wanted to include some kind of guy repartee where I could, because guys like to talk about sex and they like to give advice about anything, though especially relationships, and whether it’s good advice or bad is beside the point. I also wanted the world of the office to be part of the background to this story and so I wanted to capture the flavor of what it’s like to be in an office and how people endlessly find themselves congregating in kitchens and halls and anywhere that allows them to not work if even only for a moment. Simultaneously, I wanted to keep pushing the humor, the speed and stripped-down quality I was trying to go for in the book and so I felt like the particular exchanges you are referring to were reflective of the kinds of thoughts Geoff might be having in his own head if in fact I, or he, was allowing him to have more of an interior dialogue with himself. As soon as I decided to push these thoughts outside of his head though, I needed someone to say them, which made me wonder if the people saying these things could look like a Greek chorus of sorts, like in the movie Mighty Aphrodite, for example. I then asked myself where that Greek chorus should exist, especially if I didn’t want to do something magical or fantasy-laden like Mighty Aphrodite. That made me think again about how I wanted to utilize the office as a character in the story, and so I created this recurring storyline within the larger story that allowed me to integrate several ideas I was trying to work through, and work out.
Kimball: So far in this interview, you’ve mentioned Mighty Aphrodite, the Ramones, A History of Violence, John Hughes movies, Animal House, Richard Pryor, and a bunch of other pop culture references. Also, the title of the novel is MOST LIKELY YOU GO YOUR WAY AND I’LL GO MINE, which is a Bob Dylan song title, and my copy has this inscription: “She’s like the wind.” I don’t have a question exactly, but I’m hoping that you’ll say something both smart and humane here.
Tanzer: I like an interviewer that has the courage to include smart, humane and pop culture in one question. Nice. I think about pop culture in a variety ways. For one, pop culture has a certain currency that people draw on in conversation and storytelling. For example, it can serve as a touchstone or reference point, invoking either certain times in our life or time periods. So, if I reference John Hughes, or a character in one of my stories does, you inherently know it has something to do with high school or some connection to the 1980′s. Pop culture can also serve as a shorthand or means for translation. To me The Ramones infer something, just by being The Ramones. Punk obviously, but also Jewishness, New York, and something that is fast, and funny, as opposed to say Minor Threat, who are also hard and fast, but much angrier and much more of a kick in the head. There is another element to this, though, which definitely applies to both me and these characters. Pop culture is clearly a common part of their vernacular. They have grown up immersed in it and it’s much of what they think they know when it comes to translating the world around them. A problem with this, however, is that talking pop culture allows them to avoid real conversation where they might better identify what they feel or are struggling with. On the other hand, they are faced with a variety of bleak and painful situations, violence, drug abuse, suicide, broken families, self-injurious behavior, and on and on, that they cannot make sense of. Talking pop culture, like utilizing humor, allows them to not lose themselves in situations that feel otherwise bleak, unbearable or confusing since they lack the tools and insight to better understand them. In this regard, I am a lot like my characters, and though I’m not sure if that is a smart answer, I do hope it’s humane.
Kimball: Okay, now I have to ask: What do your characters want?
Tanzer: They want to feel less confused. They want to better understand how they have arrived where they are and how they seem to find themselves in the situations they do. They know on some level that they are complicit in these things, and that they are repeating certain self-destructive behaviors or relationships, but they can’t quite figure out how or what they might have done differently. They also want to know things like how violence can just occur out of nowhere, unprompted, and why a parent might leave a family with no explanation, but they can never quite make sense of this either. Nor can they fully see how the events in one’s life connect, that there are ripple effects, and that if they were a little more curious and reacted a little less reflexively to things the world might make more sense. In all of my work, there is always the hope or the moment when some level of realization is achieved, or could be, but the characters never quite escape the confusion. There will always be new challenges and new relationships, and some things just don’t work or get any better. This is what life is and if you don’t believe me just read Michael Kimball’s excellent life on a postcard series. Now, how’s that for plug?
Kimball: This seems like the end of the interview.
Ben Tanzer writes. He also blogs at This Blog Will Change Your Life. MOST LIKELY YOU GO YOUR WAY AND I’LL GO MINE is his second novel. He is currently watching Sports Center, but upon on his deathbed, he will receive total consciousness. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project-Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)-and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).
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