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May 28, 2018 Interview

Ben Loory Interview

Bud Smith

Ben Loory Interview photo

Ben Loory writes stories where every page or so, there comes a point, where a reader has to hit the brakes and think oh yeah, you can do that, there are no rules. It might be,the majority of writers on Earth are scared shitless to try and write like this.They make things to hide behind. His stories are so epic in scope they usually only have to be 700 words or so. There’s nothing to hide behind in any of his stories. It’s all out in the open. Goddamn. In 2012, a friend gave me a copy of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, and emblazoned on the cover was a quote from Ray Bradbury himself, “This kid can write!” God, there might as well have been a blurb from Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. After reading it, I at once thought, it’s impossible to write like this, but then again, checking the acknowledgements page, I saw Ben must have made his start submitting to the same internet zines that I was sending my early stories to. Red Fez. Bartleby Snopes. Wigleaf. I don’t know, sure, one of the stories in the collection was in The New Yorker, but I got the sense that if you wrote hundreds of stories, eventually you would figure out what you were doing. In the summer of 2013, I would up in Los Angeles, surrounded by scientologists who had co-opted the launch of a magazine I was editing. I met Ben there and over beers later, I think I convinced him that I wasn’t dug in deep with the Church of Scientology. We are both from New Jersey, and so I’d see him in person, or talk over the phone about life. Since his second collection of stories, Tales of Falling and Flying is out now, I took the day off from my job welding at the oil refinery, and we climbed aboard a helicopter at Pier 6 on the East River and flew above New York City on an ordinary Wednesday. This talk was recorded on my cellphone’s audio recorder inside the helicopter, and later transcribed here for your reading enjoyment. 


Bud: Where did you grow up in New Jersey and what was it like there?

I grew up in a small town called Dover, which is about a half hour west of New York, off Route 46. It's a really old town, founded in like 1630 or something, and was at one point I guess a shopping hub of northern NJ. But that was all over when I was growing up there; it was pretty depressed and rundown. At the same time, it had a lot of charm—rolling hills and lots of trees and a river and cool old houses. I grew up across the street from a park with lots of ducks; there was a ribbon factory down the street that used to dump its trash into the river so the river was always full of free ribbons and banners, which now in retrospect seems bad, but at the time I thought was the greatest thing in the world, I'd just run around all day long waving these wet, dirty ribbons around. There was a forest on the hill behind our house filled with raccoons and deer and if I remember correctly bears? Though perhaps I just imagined those. I did definitely see a garter snake once, but it's not like it bit me or anything. Other than that it was mostly strip malls on the highways, 7/11's and Radio Shacks and Dunkin Donuts and all that stuff. Downtown, we had a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant and a pool hall and a pizza parlor; there was a movie theater but it went out of business when I was five—they had the poster for the De Laurentiis remake of King Kong hanging in the display case outside for like twenty-five years. Anyway, it was a pretty bad scene, and then when I was six or seven they built a huge mall in the next town over and that pretty much killed whatever was left of the town. There were a lot of boarded-up stores and empty buildings and weedy lots. It's recovered a bit in recent years, I think, but it's not like it once was, back before I ever saw it.

 

Bud: But now Amazon has killed the mall, right?

Actually, strangely, no! In fact, this whole little fake town has sort of sprung up around it! You can't even really see the old mall anymore, it's completely surrounded now by so many other outlying malls and strip malls and standalone businesses! It's very strange—I mean, not that I'm out there too often, seeing how I live on the whole other side of the country, but whenever I go out there, I go up to the mall (you know, to pay my respects), and I can't even find my way in through the maze! I'm like, where's the damn Orange Julius, for Chrissakes? I'm just trapped going around and around some Office Depot parking lot, then I get funneled out screaming NO NO NO onto route 80—none of the roads in and out make any sense. But yeah, no, the mall seems to be doing pretty well! Meanwhile, I have no idea how anyone can afford to buy anything, but that's a whole other story.

 

Bud: What's your family like? Did they/Do they read a lot?

Yeah, they all read pretty much nonstop. My parents met in grad school for English Lit in a class on Milton's Paradise Lost. They were both English teachers until my dad decided he hated it, and then they moved back to his hometown, which was Dover, and he took over his father's and his father's furniture store. Harry Loory Fine Furniture—go buy some chairs!. My mom kept teaching until I was maybe 9 or 10 and then she gave it up too—I think she just got tired of it—and then she too started working at the furniture store. So now for the last 30 years or so they've both been working at the furniture store 9-5 every day, 9-8:30 on Thursdays and Fridays. They take Sundays off and stay home and pay the bills. They read a lot, and on weekends they go to the movies.

My sister reads too, probably more than any of us. I remember being like 9 and my sister was 10 and it was summertime and I was reading Encyclopedia Brown she was reading War and Peace. She had all these notebooks and she was writing down people's names and keeping track of what they were doing, drawing lines and making diagrams and family trees; it was amazing. She's read everything, I think. I don't know how she does it. I mean, I read a lot—but she's just a machine. Someday my sister is going to write a book, and that book is going to be amazing.

 

Bud: What will your sister's book be called? What will it be about, like a quick synopsis

Dude, I wouldn't even presume to guess. The only thing I do  know is that it wouldn't be science fiction. And that it would be full of just brutally withering ironies. I do kinda hope that it would be about our town—about our family, and our parents, and our childhoods, and our lives—because I think she might actually be able to make sense of them! And that's something I've never been able to do. 


 

Bud: One of the ways I was introduced to your work was the friend who gave me your first book said, Bro, this is the guy who wrote Contact with Jodi Foster.Did you move to Los Angeles to try and be a screenwriter or did that happen after you had your foot in the door?

I don't think I ever really had my foot in the door; even when I was a professional screenwriter, which I was for years, I always felt like I was standing about seven or eight counties away, looking in the other direction, listening to the birds or a couple Beatles albums and sorta phoning it in. But yeah, I went out to LA after college, to go to film school. I always wanted to be a film director. Well, first I wanted to be an astronaut, then an architect, then a rock star, and then a film director, but you know what I mean. I knew I couldn't get into film school for directing, because I didn't have a reel to show, but I figured I could get in for screenwriting, because I'd always been a pretty good writer, of papers and stuff, so the plan was to get in for screenwriting and then somehow nonchalantly climb the fence over into the directing department, but somehow it didn't work out that way. I learned pretty fast that I didn't want to be a director—you had to wake up really early in the morning, and make lots of speeches, and walk around acting really confident, like you knew what you were doing all the time, and be able to make people think you were a genius just by standing there and looking off into the distance and having cool hair or something. So then I was just in film school, studying screenwriting, which I'd never really wanted to do—but hey there I was! So anyway, long story short, I became a screenwriter. But it was never my calling and I was never very good at it, and when I started writing short stories it just felt like a huge weight had been lifted, like I could leave all that behind—all that pretending like I cared or that I knew what I was doing—and just do the thing I did, the thing I was good at and actually enjoyed.

 

Bud: Your bio used to read “Ben Loory lives in a house on top of a steep hill.” I had a friend named Stacy Hollander who lived on your street, a very steep street, in truth. One time I took my wife paddle boating on Echo Park Lake and you told me a really good story about the lake. Retell it here, please, or I’ll attack the pilot and make him crash this helicopter into Hell’s Kitchen. 

I live in Echo Park, which is a little neighborhood sorta like Dover, New Jersey, only near downtown in Los Angeles, and they have this amazing park—confusingly, it too is named Echo Park—and it's really big and there's a lake; it's the lake where Jack Nicholson gets in a canoe and follows Hollis Mulwray and his "girlfriend" around in, in the beginning of Chinatown? Remember that? So there are islands and paddleboats and a boathouse with a cafe (which doubled as a Mexican restaurant in that terrible Kenneth Branagh movie Dead Again (which you definitely shouldn't see, don't blame me if you do). But yeah, so, it's this amazing park. And I've lived here for years and I always used to go out and walk around the park, especially late at night; I love the park! It has lots of ducks. But it was always kinda seedy and rundown. The lights didn't work, and people were always getting mugged. It was a den of vice and iniquity! But then, one day, maybe five or six years ago, they shut the whole place down and spent two years draining out all the water and scraping up the hazardous waste and toxic metals that lined the bottom, and then building a new, but still old-shaped lake, and then building up the whole park around it again. It was this amazing undertaking, budgeted at like 90 million dollars or something. And it took 2 years and it sucked, because there's nowhere to go in Echo Park except for Echo Park. So finally, one day, they opened up the park again! And it was all new and had fancy lights and new paddleboats and all the bushes and trees were new, and everyone was happy! And it was completely revitalized and now when you walk around there at 3am it's like, people hanging out talking about their chapbooks or whatever, and nobody gets robbed anymore. Also, they have public restrooms now, which keeps people from crapping on the benches. It's great! But so one day, pretty soon after the park re-opened, I got this email, from someone, I don't know who. Or maybe it was a Facebook invite? I don't know. Anyway, it was inviting me to a guided tour of the new park on Saturday morning. So I went! Of course. I was really excited. I mean, I love this park! And yeah, I thought it was a little weird I was being invited, but I just figured it was like, y'know, for everyone! Like everyone who lived in Echo Park. So anyway, Saturday morning I get down there, and I'm waiting, and then some other people start showing up, and everyone's all dressed up—they're wearing suits and ties and everyone has those streamlined wraparound sunglasses, like they're working for the CIA or the Matrix? So everyone's showing up, and they're all shaking hands, very serious-like, nodding their heads knowingly, and I'm like, huh, who are these people? But maybe they live in the area? I mean, I don't know, maybe the daytime people are different than people who live at night like me? Maybe Echo Park is a very wealthy business-y community and everyone just pretends to be selling corn on a stick all day long? I don't know—what do I know? So anyway, then this guy stands up, he's this tiny aging Asian man wearing a reflective yellow vest and what I remember as a sombrero? Though it might have been a straw hat, that would make more sense. So it turns out that this guy is the guy who was in charge of the whole undertaking! I mean, it was his design and he led the whole project, and now he's here to walk us around and tell us all about it. Which he does! Very slowly. It takes like, 3 hours. We have to stop and look at basically every single thing in the park. He's explaining this bush and why they picked it, what kind of bugs live on it and how they breed, and how the overhead lights work, and the electrical system, and how they shored up the docks and the boathouse, and what happened to the birds who lived there while they were rebuilding (they went to a local zoo), and what kind of fish and plants and BLUE DYE (yes!!) are in the water—basically everything! It was amazing. And nobody else seemed, like, super-interested, but I was extremely interested! So I sorta walked along beside this guy and asked him lots of questions and nodded my head a lot—it was great! It was like, my dream-tour of Echo Park with basically my own personal guide! I learned like a billion fascinating little things about the Park and local Echo Park history which I then told everyone I knew for the next month or two, relentlessly, even if they didn't listen or care. But so anyway, at the very end of the tour, everyone thanked the guy (I wish I remembered his name, he was awesome) and then they all sorta wandered away, and then the guy came up to me and he smiled and said, "You're not supposed to be here, are you?" And I kinda laughed, because I don't know—someone  invited me! It's not like I invited myself—I didn't know the time or place! But I looked down and I'm like wearing an old High on Fire T-Shirt and a pair of crappy jeans, and I didn't know what to do. But then he reached out and patted me on the shoulder, he was like, it's okay, I won't tell, and we laughed, and I felt like he was my new dad or something. I kinda missed him when he was gone. Anyway I guess it was a tour for all the people who worked on the Planning Committee or whatever. And I have no idea how I got invited! But to this day it was the best tour I have ever been on. Way better than that shitty one at Alcatraz.

 

Bud: So, I want to tell you my theory on how you got invited. When you went to Harvard for film school, the program was called Environmental Studies and Light or something like that right? I heard you tell Brad Listi that on the Otherppl podcast, right?

That’s amazing! Oh my god, you’re probably right!

 

Bud: You're one of those people that the universe has decided to grace with odd and magic things, that ordinary people don't get to see because they are either too busy messing around with their cell phones or they are late for whatever they are late for. I get the impression from being around you that you're never late for anything. Not that you're early either. What's your thoughts on that? Do you like yourself?


I am always  early. Like ridiculously early. If it seems like I'm never early, it's just because I actually got there like two hours early, scouted the place out, sat around for a while, read a book and drank some tea, then finally got bored and went for a little walk, came back an hour later, to make sure you hadn't shown up yet, then went away again and came back again and then came back a few more times. Finally you showed up just as I'm walking in the 8th time. Oh hi! Right on time! What are the odds?! I'm usually at the airport 3 full hours ahead of flight time, and even then, I'm worried, like what if I broke my shoelace and fell down the stairs? I think outside of that, I'm not a super anxious person, but maybe I am? It's hard for me to say. I will say that one time someone gave me a valium, and that was the best day I've ever had in my life.

Do I like myself? Yes? And then again, no. I'd say it's a love/hate relationship. I'm pretty proud of a lot of things I've done with my time; I feel like I really got a handle on listening to a lot of music, watching a lot of movies, and reading a whole lot of books. Feel like I really did my due diligence in those areas. Outside of that, I'm basically pretty lazy; I'm always trying to change, to became a purposeful, dynamic individual, but instead I just wind up right back in bed again watching Sneakers and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. So yeah, whatever. I feel like if I had it all to do over, I'd request to be sent to a military school when I was six. On the other hand, I'd probably have killed myself immediately. So yeah... I'd say I'm a happy person.


Bud: You’d be the 2nd person in the history of the world, after Teddy Roosevelt, or whatever to request to go to military school. I like that Ray Bradbury blurb on the cover(s). How did you get Ray Bradbury to blurb your book?

I didn't, really, it just sorta happened—but that was after years of trying. It was weird. There's a bookstore in Glendale—or there was, it's gone now—called The Mystery & Imagination Bookstore. I discovered it about 20 years ago when I was doing "research" for screenwriting purposes, just reading through old Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, and Horror novels. I grew up on that stuff but it was mostly, y'know, the known greats—Bradbury and Stephen King and Agatha Christie and all them. But Mystery & Imagination had literally everything, so I was in there all the time, working my way through Clifford Simak and Alfred Bester and Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Silverberg, Robert Bloch, Brian Stableford, all these guys, at the same time I was wolfing down Iris Murdoch and Anthony Burgess and Henry James and W.G. Sebald and about a million other people. (I had a problem, what can I say?) So anyway, point is, I became friends with the owners. I think they were just kinda like, who is this guy? They used to ask me if all these books were for myself. I had books in my bathroom, in all the drawers and closets. There were books holding the bed up because I couldn't afford a frame. All I ever did was read; it was nuts. I remember one year I read 250 books.

Anyway, it was at that bookstore where I started writing short stories; they had a writing class that started once a week in the upstairs section. The guy who taught that class was the horror writer Dennis Etchison, and his mentor had been Ray Bradbury. The couple who owned the bookstore were also friends with Bradbury, and every year the whole place threw a huge birthday party for him—it would be totally packed, like wall-to-wall people, you couldn't even move, everybody was all pressed up against each other, wearing costumes and bearing gifts, trying to catch a glimpse of him, touch him, thank him for his stories. They'd wheel him in and set him up behind this big table and he'd say a few words and they'd bring out a cake and then everyone would make speeches and then, if you wanted, you could go up and say a few words. So one year, I actually wrote him a story—it's the story "On the Way Down: A Story for Ray Bradbury," which later went into my first book, Stories for Nighttime. It was based on a famous Bradbury quote, about how a writer jumps off a cliff and builds his wings on the way down, which had been really helpful to me when I started to write. So I wrote him this story, and then I printed it out and put it in a box and wrapped it up and took it up to him and gave it to him as a birthday present at the party. But I don't know if he ever even opened it or read it; I never heard anything about it. I was always kinda waiting, but I never heard, which was kinda sad.

Anyway, some time went by and my first book came out. This was near the end of Bradbury's life; he was mostly blind and had been on a lot of medication and hadn't really been as aware as usual, I guess. But then they switched his medication and he kind of "woke up," he was clear-headed and cheerful and I guess he wanted to read again, but he was mostly blind, so he couldn't do it himself. So his friends started going in and reading to him every day. So anyway, one day I went into the bookstore and Christine, the owner, told me that she'd been reading Ray Bradbury my book! And I was like, whoa. I didn't even know what to say. It was kinda terrifying, my stomach sorta dropped. But then she told me how he'd smiled when she was done and said "That guy can write!" So I was like, oh wow, okay, wow, thank you! And I went home and called my friend Sarah, who is also my agent, and told her this whole thing, and she was like, "Okay, you have to go right back up there tomorrow and ask her to ask him if you can use that as a blurb!" And I was like, no, come on, I can't do that, he's an old guy and he's awesome, let's just let him be. I think I was just scared he was gonna say no. But she was like, no, no, you have to do this! So I was like, okay. So I went back up the next day and asked Christine, and she started to smile and seemed really excited about it, and she called up Bradbury's sister, who I guess was sort of in charge of things, and the sister asked Bradbury if it would be all right, and he said "Of course!" And then they sent me, like, the official okay in writing, and that's how I got the blurb. Then I cried a lot sitting in my house looking at that email and felt like I couldn't breathe. He died not long after; maybe five or six months. It still seems sort of unbelievable. He never really seemed like an actual person to me; I always thought of him as a mythical being, kinda like Shakespeare.


Bud: You told me once that it was your goal to have your first book be a 500 page collection of stories. Is Tales of Flying and Falling, the remainder stories from Stories for Nighttime?

Some of it is; probably about a third. When I first started shopping Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day around, it was 101 stories. I'd always just envisioned it as this big crazy book, this huge bright yellow, kinda heavy hardcover slab (I'd always seen it as bright yellow, don't ask me why)—I could just see people dropping it down onto their coffee tables with a THUNK, like, well, here it is! Guess we have to deal with this! But the people at Penguin wanted a slimmer book, I guess it wouldn't have been cost-effective to bet so much on a first-time author. So they asked me to slim it down to 30 or 40 stories. Of course I went with 40 because I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to publish a book again! Anyway, in the back of my mind I thought it would be great, because then, 101-40, I'd still have 61 stories left! I'd basically have a whole second book ready to go!

But of course when I was ready to sit down and get that book into shape, it turned out it wasn't going to work. Those 101 stories I had were still pretty rough, and when Penguin had asked me to slim it down to 40, the first thing I'd done was to take out all the most perplexing ones, all the ones I really had no idea how to fix, the ones that were strangest and most recalcitrant. So now, suddenly, I had a whole manuscript full of those! And they were all such mind-benders, and I couldn't figure out any of them! So finally, in the end, I just started writing new stories. For a while, just to change it up, I started writing in first person—I wrote a whole bunch of stories that all took place in the same town, kinda thought maybe I'd put out a whole book of those stories, like Winesburg, Ohio in the Twilight Zone,  or something. But in the end, I didn't like that—because every story ended the same, with the main character dying or leaving town (or both), it was actually kinda funny—so then I just kinda threw all the stories I had together and started focusing on what the best, coolest, weirdest stories were. So yeah, there are a couple stories from the original manuscript, but even they are a million miles away from where they started out. So I basically wrote a whole new book from scratch. Which I think is probably how it should be done.


Bud: I was nervous about having to teach a class and I sent you a message asking how to do it and you said, "Just be funny." That worked actually. Last I talked to you you were headed up into the mountains to teach high school kids creative writing. Did just being funny work on them? 

Sorta? No? Yes, a little? I don't know? I kinda depends on what you mean by "work." I'd never taught high schoolers before—I mean I teach a lot, but it's all workshops, at UCLA Extension, or other little writing schools, or sometimes in my house, but I never deal with students who aren't basically dying to be there, really super-focused and dedicated and really working hard. So it was a whole other thing to be teaching high school students. Partially because, while some of them were really interested and wanted to be there and were actually really great writers, there were others—lots of others!—who didn't seem to want to be there at all, and had no interest in anything, it seemed, least of all writing, and all they wanted to do was sleep or look out the window or talk about Game or Thrones or whatever. So that was, as they say now, challenging! How do you balance those people with the others—you can't just ignore them! Somehow you have to find a way to get them involved, get them motivated, somehow make it so they get something out of the class, too, while at the same time saving enough time and energy for the ones who are dedicated and actually want to be there and work! Plus they're all out of their minds, dealing with hormones and life stuff and college worries, etc, and they have the attention spans of, like, gnats, or people with no brains. Plus they have all this energy! They literally can't sit still. We'd have to work for like forty-five minutes or something and then we'd take a break and I'd be like, go run up the mountain and then come back down, and they'd go out and literally run up the mountain and then come back down, and then they could focus again for like a half an hour. I don't know; it was kind of exhausting, to be honest. But the ones that I liked, I really loved; they were great! I couldn't imagine writing that well when I was in high school. When I was in high school all I did was watch cartoons and go to the comic book store and eat donuts.

 

Bud: Now that you don't stay up all night long and write, when do you do your creative work? Is it work? 

It's work that I want to do, and then sometimes it's just fun, and then sometimes it's a pain in the ass. I try to spread it out now, keep it going throughout the day, just so I don't burn out. I set a timer and work in 25 minute increments, little controlled bursts. Then I go out and run errands and have lunch and stare into space and think about the stories and daydream. Then later I go home and do another burst, then take another break, etc. I try to keep it so there's always something simmering on the stove; don't want to have to start up all over again from scratch. So I always have a whole bunch of different stories I'm working on, moving back and forth between them sorta willy-nilly. It's kind of like juggling all day long, every day—it just gets to be sorta routine. And then every now and then, suddenly you notice that something you're juggling has turned into a little diamond, and you pull it out of the air and turn it this way and that and then set it in a necklace or something.

 

Bud: We did a reading together in Long Beach, CA and after the reading was over I heard a few people talking about your story "The Dodo" which leads off your collection. They said, "I really liked that story about Caitlyn Jenner." I mean, I laughed because they were wrong, but you know, they might have been right too?

They were totally right. I don't know Caitlyn Jenner but I always write about her. I mean, it's that kind of courage (or willingness to be openly and blatantly "crazy") which I'm always drawn to in characters. It's those kinds of characters that make great stories—the only kind of characters who make great stories! At least, as far as I'm concerned.

 

Bud: I heard you say that you chart out each story you write by making a bubble with three layers, an inner, a middle and outer, with each layer growing outward to the story's conclusion. Since then you've begun teaching, do you teach that method? 

I do, sorta, although I see it less as a bubble and as more of a straight line. It's a little hard to describe (for the people at home), but it's basically just a horizontal line divided into three sections (one for each "act"), which then has some arcing lines moving through it to indicate the character's goals and whatnot. I find it extremely helpful! But to be honest, nobody else ever seems to care about it, people just look at me blankly when I talk about it. So these days I mostly just condense all that into a short lecture about identifying the character's internal conflict, which is the same thing in less diagrammatic, math-like terms, and that usually goes over much better. 

 

How has your methodology to creating short stories changed since you've begun teaching others?

Well, my thinking  about stories and storytelling hasn't changed at all; I think I've just gotten a little less frantic about it, a little less worried and obsessive. I used to be afraid that if I stepped away from the computer, I'd immediately forget how to write, so I'd just sit there and sit there and work till I was exhausted, just push and push myself endlessly until I burned out and went into a depressive stupor for a couple months, and then finally recover and start again. These days I try to be healthier about it: I write everyday, but in manageable chunks, and I make sure to take breaks and eat and exercise and whatnot, go out and see people and take walks and enjoy life, blow the little seed things off dandelions and etc, instead of routinely trying to drive myself crazy for art. I never really thought it would be possible for me to work this way, but it turns out it is! I'm actually much more productive. Live and learn. 

 

What was the story in Tales of Falling and Flying that gave you the most 'trouble'? Was there a story that predates your first collection even? 

They all gave me trouble, every single one. Except maybe "James K. Polk," which just slid out smooth as silk and started running off down the street. 

In general, every story I write tends to founded on some kind of logical impossibility or paradox, which makes them really fun in the beginning and then nearly impossible to resolve. Somehow you have to learn to step outside them, try to stop running around inside the maze, and instead let the maze kinda fall away into space until only the character remains. And once you can do that, then the resolution usually comes into view. (Sadly it's harder to do than it is to describe.)

 

Alright, well it looks like the helicopter is about to land. That’s it for our little joy ride over everything. That was nice. Thanks to the pilot. And thank to you too for talking to me about this stuff. 

No, thank you. This was fun. Let’s do it again sometime.

 

image: Hayes Hoey


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