When my story, Fusion, first appeared in The Westchester Review, I never expected to find the vibrant local literary community that this magazine pulls together. Like many writers, most of my writing life is spent alone with my notebooks and my laptop behind the closed door of a paper-filled office. But during The Westchester Review readings, I had the opportunity to watch the expressions on real faces as I introduced my short story to a crowded room. I had the privilege of meeting a woman who shared her own story of recovery with me, just as powerful as the tale I told in Fusion. I met writers at all different points of their careers, those who had published time and time again, and those like me, who were just starting to get their names out there.
In a world that is frequently vast, nameless, and existing mostly in cyberspace, we often lose the ability to shake the hands of the people we’re trying to reach. Last week, in the warmth of the timeless reading room at the Warner Library in Tarrytown, I had a glimpse of a different era before the Internet and Kindles, where people heard their stories directly from each other.
Someone once asked why I write, and a satisfying answer was at first elusive. My gut responses were disconcertingly utilitarian.
“I write for work,” I stammered. “I write for fun.”
Eventually, I found an answer I liked. “I write because I want to,” I said. “I’ve written for almost as long as I can remember.”
I remember in second grade walking home for lunch, icicles hanging from my nostrils in the frigid Wisconsin winter. I would sit at the kitchen table with my mom. A steaming bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup rested in front of me, and the gooey-good aroma of grilled cheese filled the house.
After eating, Mom would prompt and I’d compose. “A little cat sat,” she said.
“In the garden out back,” I answered.
In sixth grade, I dictated a short story about a voyage to Pluto as Mom plucked away on Dad’s old college typewriter, a manual Smith Corona with the sleek design of Mid-century Modernism. And in ninth grade, reading over a short story for a contest, Mom suggested revisions, still encouraging and prompting all those years later.
These days, Mom doesn’t advise and consult as much. She’s still great at catching typos and grammatical errors, but her memory isn’t what it used to be. She finds following the arc of a story increasingly difficult. It might be Alzheimer’s, but we’ll have to wait and see, the doctors advise.
I wrote “The Gardener” for Mom. I wanted to explore the fragile nature of memory and friendship in the midst of a possibly devastating disease and the potential loss of self.
“The Gardener” is the story of an older woman, Grace, and a young man, William. He keeps mostly to himself until he meets Grace in front their condo building, at the rocky outcrop where the condo driveway meets the street. Grace, whose memory is flagging, has been planting flowers. But someone keeps ripping her plants, her “babies,” from their beds. When William comes to Grace’s aid, something deeper takes root. In Grace’s words, “A flower can change the world.” And it does.
This story changed my life, too. Neither the story nor the characters are much like Mom and me. But in writing it, I found some comfort and solace. Memories are born every moment. Even when they’re ripped away from one person, they’re being planted with someone else. I wrote “The Gardener” to make memories. It’s what gardeners do.
“Police Station” was difficult to write because I had to go deep within and recall an event when I was nine years old, many years after it happened. I was in the midst of writing a memoir about my racial identity, religious background, and adoption. This involved finding out who my birth parents were, and whether my race was Negro or white.
I began writing about 35 years ago when “home” was an eight-by-ten-foot room at the Empire Hotel, across from Lincoln Center. I shared the hall shower with the drunks, the despondent, the discarded elderly, and a host of others like me, who had not as yet, and maybe never would, find their definition.
But I wrote a lot, and as my writings expanded into a pile of papers over two feet high, and my appetite for reading continued, I developed a love affair with dictionaries, the sound and meanings of words. I decided to enroll at Columbia University in a creative writing course.
Immediate shock. Writing in private was one thing. Sitting with editors, published writers, and poets slammed my pen into muteness. Our class met one night a week, and for six weeks I heard Peter Rand, our teacher, ask, “Ben, did you bring anything?” And I heard my constant reply, “No . . . I . . . I . . . ” Then the professor would pass me by and go on to another student.
In therapy, and at home on the pages of my private writings, it was safe to go back to my childhood, my teenage years, and deal with perceptions and feelings. But I wondered if I was feeling not some call to writing stirring within me, but a desperation to physically return to an adolescent period and do it all over again.
The seventh week of class was my debut as a writer, a sweating, stammering reading of a self-expression piece that had poured forth at home but suffered self-conscious strangulation as I read it in that classroom.
For the second semester I was awarded a Woolrich Scholarship in Creative Writing from Columbia University. The first few weeks of class were similar to the previous semester: bringing in writing to read and hearing comments and criticism from the professor and fellow students. Then one evening the professor gave an assignment. “Write something you feel no one else in the class has experienced.”
Within me perspiration formed, cold on the outside, wet and flowing on the inside like a heated stream. Did he know? Of course not. I had not yet brought in writings about my life to class. Disguised maybe, but no naked exposure. Was this my signal? Hadn’t I been waiting ever since I had first enrolled for someone to give me permission?
At home, my mind swirled with excitement, splashing and breaking up as the flood of inward expression crashed against rocks of fear. Free-floating trees of pain sped past a shore lined with people shouting what was allowed and what wasn’t. I pounded descriptive words of my early life onto three typewritten pages. The paper remained intact only because the typewriter keys could not express the force within me.
I never returned to class, but the flood had started. A year later I met with the professor and gave him my writings and this letter:
“Dear Professor Rand,
One evening you gave an assignment that we write something unique about ourselves, something that another student would not have experienced. I went home and typed three pages for submission. The writing caused a tremendous amount of emotional pain. Through the writing, something I had not handled was suddenly there on paper. I looked at it and it looked back at me. That was the beginning of writing about my background, which has continued into the present. In your classes I was struggling with many feelings about writing: “I don’t belong here.” “Am I a writer?” “What am I doing here?” The second semester’s assignment suddenly thrust upon me two identity problems at the same time. I had to retreat.”
He gave me a passing grade for the course.
Unfortunately, “We Three Kings” is the most personal piece I’ve ever written. I say unfortunately because the slow death depicted in the story, and its attendant emotional conflicts and contradictions, were taken directly from the non-fictional world, albeit more than fifteen years ago. The characters of Will and Manuel were very loosely INSPIRED BY real people, but the character of Tom is one hundred percent BASED ON a very particular person. This story, in many ways, is an attempt to immortalize Tom, whose vision of human life was both extremely practical and extremely sensitive, and keeps me inspired to this day.
There is also some guilt associated with this story. Who am I to put words in the mind of a real man who is/was dying and unable to speak coherently? If Tom were a fictional character, then sure, that’s what we writers do. We create people. But Tom lived. In fact, he was desperately alive, observing and reflecting from his bed, occasionally communicating through gibberish or groans, and his final days and moments, however silent, should remain his own, shouldn’t they? I was not inside his mind or his heart. I will never know if his final thought was a sigh or a laugh or a scream. Still, I needed to imagine what he was feeling. I suppose that makes this story about me, really, not about Tom.
Which is strange. Because as a writer, what usually attracts me is the “other,” the strange, the creepy, the extreme. This story is none of those things. It’s a very human story about a fate we all share: death. If Tom’s story is inspiring, it’s because we would all be lucky to die surrounded by so much love.
“We Three Kings” was distilled from a novella I wrote after Tom died. That novella was awful, the earnest product of an immature writer. This story focuses the emotional energy of that novella into a couple of scenes. And I think Tom would have liked it.
This poem actually started out as the first part of a sequence I was working on as an assignment for a seminar in graduate school. The prompt was to write about an imagined home in various stages of occupancy. I chose first to write about the importance of the garden because my vision was of a home belonging to a young couple in love. I wanted the piece to be a sort of domestic love poem, but one that speaks to love through the couples’ desire to use things up to the very last drop; the sensuality that can emerge from everyday life and our engagement with our surroundings.
Since I was living in Eugene, Oregon at the time, I drew a lot upon the landscape of the West Coast. The importance of naming things and giving each plant and flower a purpose and identity was crucial to my process. What I really hoped to capture in the lines was the pleasure and brightness of the natural world and its ability to give us each a history.
I have since abandoned the other parts of the sequence; this poem stood so well on its own. However, maybe I’ll revisit the house I imagined once (whose street name, Birdsall Drive, I borrowed from that of a dear friend growing up) and see who and what I might find there now.
Of the more than two hundred short stories I have published over the past decade, none has proven nearly as popular with readers as “The Vermin Episode,” a sequel to Kafka’s Metamorphosis that initially appeared in the journal, Image, and later in my collection, Scouting for the Reaper. In my story, Gregor Samsa’s neighbor, an orthodox rabbi, is charged with the duty of arranging a proper Jewish burial for the enormous vermin corpse that Gregor has become. The success of that piece inspired me to put together a series of stories that reexamine other classic short stories, including a retelling of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” from the point of view of the title character’s African-American servant and an alternative version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in which the “winners” are sold to pedophiles. “In the Cheever Asylum,” which draws upon material from two of John Cheever’s best-known masterpieces, “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer,” is the latest of these efforts.
The challenge of creating short stories that engage earlier works is both creative and legal. On the first count, one wants to be certain that one is truly saying something original, not merely churning out the literary equivalent of fan fiction. In addition, readers unfamiliar with the original texts should be able to enjoy my story on its own merits, while those who know the Cheever works should appreciate the relationship between his imaginary world and mine. Closely related is the requirement that any engagement with a copyrighted work prove “transformative” in order to garner a “fair use” exemption from infringement rules. As one of Westchester’s most obscure authors, I have no interest in a courtroom fight with the heirs to the county’s literary legends, so I am very conscious of the need to push my writing into new literary territory.
Both of Cheever’s stories grapple with issues of mental health and magical thinking. Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer” follows a downward path through alcoholism and depression toward outright delusion; “The Enormous Radio’s” Irene Westcott deteriorates from anxiety toward psychosis. As a practicing psychiatrist, I could not resist placing these characters under my own clinical care in a fictional asylum—hoping to use their travails to comment on Cheever’s world and human psychopathology more generally. Nothing would please me more than a call from one of Cheever’s adult children—two of whom are celebrated writers in their own right—to thank me for so honoring their father and his brilliant work. But since his offspring may be phoning to warn me of impending litigation, I am going to let their calls go to voice mail—just to be safe.
“Books & Beer” airs the second and fourth Wednesday of the month from 10-11 a.m., on WVOX: 1460 AM, wvox.com, and then is available via podcast (http://booksandbeer.podomatic.com/). The show features New York authors talking about their books and the craft of writing, and sampling local craft beers. Guests have included Eddie Joyce (“Small Mercies”), George Vecsey (“Seven World Cups”) and Jacob M. Appel (“The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up”, 2015 issue of The Westchester Review).
Host Michael Malone is a Mount Pleasant-based journalist and novelist (“No Never No More”, “When I Was Punk”). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the 2013 issue of The Westchester Review. When approached last year by the owner of WVOX about launching a show, he thought of his two favorite things to indulge in and talk about, and “Books & Beer” was born.
Travel, whether through distance or time, enhances one’s perspective. I experienced perspective through both the lens of distance and time when I wrote “The Apartment House Baby.”
I began thinking about our newlywed life in our West End Avenue apartment during my extended stay in San Francisco to help out after the birth of our first grandchild. Fresh from New York, I had the opportunity to view San Francisco and its inhabitants from my East Coast perspective. I interacted daily with our daughter and son-in-law as they navigated the shoals of new parenthood. And I had blocks of time to write in the evenings and on weekends.
Unlike many writers of memoir, I do not keep a journal or write on a daily basis. Rather, I build upon an idea, an observation or even a dream that helps me clarify and develop a theme. I get into a “zone”—alone with my computer and thoughts—and begin to craft the work. My husband and family know not to breach that zone during my writing time! I refine and polish my piece many times over. And, my great pleasure, a gift that flows both ways, is to read the final piece aloud to fellow memoirists and family.
My turn as helpful maternal grandmother eventually culminated in a cross-country move and new life for my husband and me in the Bay Area. However, I still feel that I am a New Yorker who is having an interesting visit in a desirable city. Maybe I will write about life here, eventually. But not until I have satisfied my New York memories.
The inspiration for this poem is a streaky, grainy image: my grandson in utero. His portrait took over a piece of prime real estate on the refrigerator door. Week by week, he came to inhabit the poem and the poem came to express him. The mineral curve of his backbone gave the poem its structure. Contrasting lights and darks, pools and masses suggested liquid, mysterious expanses. I free-wheeled sounds, worked the verbs, and benefited from astute editorial advice from friends, colleagues, and the editors at The Westchester Review.