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Ben Brooks, April Artist of the Month

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Ben Brooks, April Artist of the Month

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Ben Brooks is the author of the novel, The Icebox, and more than eighty published short stories and essays. His work has appeared in such literary journals as Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, The Florida Review, Chicago Review, American Short Fiction, Other Voices, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. One story won a Nelson Algren Award, and another won an O. Henry Prize. He has a B.A. in English from Harvard College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He is currently a Senior Writer-In-Residence at Emerson College, where he teaches fiction writing in the MFA and BFA programs.

1. What’s a brief overview of what you do?
I’m a writer. Most of what I write is fiction, though occasionally, when there is a subject that particularly interests me or that has affected me, I do write a piece of non-fiction.
At this point, most of my fiction falls within the scope of what I’d call “realistic,” though I don’t strictly limit myself to what is believable – sometimes in writing a story, when I am trying to say something in particular or just make the story read more satisfyingly as a piece of art, I am happy to stretch and twist what might be entirely credible. Still, there are no vampires in my work, no interplanetary travel, no flying babies with wings, no alternate universes with kingdoms populated by gnomelike people – although I do have a recent story with a basketball-playing chimpanzee in it. A lot of what I write takes place within working class or middle class families, though not all the families have traditional structures or dynamics. I recently completed a story set in Somerville, about a teenaged daughter of a family with a disabled, alcoholic father and low-wage earning mother and three brothers. The girl is trying to make a viable life for herself, separate herself from her family, and at the same time, help provide for her family. Most of the scenes take place in a very recognizable Union Square.
In addition to doing my own writing, I teach creative writing at Emerson College. My title is senior writer-in-residence, and I teach mostly fiction writing workshops to graduate students in the MFA program and undergraduates in the BFA program. I also teach literature courses occasionally, and I include a pretty heavy dose of reading in all of my workshop courses. I like to think that this teaching is somehow contributing to the future life of the literary arts in our culture.
2. Are there some past books, stories or projects you’d like to mention in more detail?
Most of my publications are in literary magazines, and they tend to have short public lives, at least as far as I can tell. I am pleased with a number of them, but I’m not sure how easy they would be for someone to find, although these days some may be available on the Web. (They have all been published in print journals – I haven’t submitted any of my work to Web-only publications, because to me that format is just too ephemeral. I like the physical and permanent nature of a book or journal; I know I’m old-school in that way.) Some of the magazines I’ve published in include Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, American Short Fiction, Chicago Review, Mississippi Review, The Florida Review, Notre Dame Review, Confrontation, Writers’ Forum, The Long Story, and others. In all, I’ve published about 80 short stories. Two of my individual stories have won major prizes: one, called “A Postal Creed,” won an O. Henry Award and is in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1982 anthology. And a story called “Reptiles Take Over the World” won a Nelson Algren Award in 2000, and was in the Chicago Tribune.
I also have one novel out, called The Icebox, which won a prize from a literary publisher called Amelia Press and was published by that press in 1987.
3. Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up?
The medium I like most is the short story, though most of my stories are on the long side (20-25 double-spaced pages). I always have a number of them in different stages of progress, so I would say all of those unfinished stories are new. I will work on the first draft of a story in a concentrated way until it is finished, then set it aside, and I have a stack of those drafts in my study. In fact, at this point that stack is probably about eighteen inches high, and these are all drafts of stories that I intend to finish someday. When I am not working on a new draft, or when I feel compelled to get back to a particular work, I will work through a revision of one of the stories from my stack, then set it aside again. I will do this until I do a revision in which hardly a word changes. Then I decide that the story is done.
I usually have a longer project going as well, and I am currently working on a novel that I began this past fall. It started with a fairly simple but intriguing (to me, at least) idea, and it has built up some momentum in the last couple of months, but I am not sure at this point exactly where it will go. I am just letting the characters take me along for now. When the plot reaches a certain point, though, I will sit down and roughly map out the rest of the story.
As for my non-fiction, I recently completed an essay based on a trip my wife Nancy and I took to Brazil during my December-January break between semesters this year. The essay concerns a family connection we made there with a second cousin whose grandfather is a prominent Brazilian artist. We met my cousin (the grandson) at the museum in Sao Paulo that houses a large collection of my great-uncle’s work. As with this piece, most of my non-fiction seems to involve travel and/or art and/or politics.
About ten years ago Nancy had a painting in a show in Havana, Cuba, and we spent a week there at the time of the show’s opening; and I wrote an essay about that travel experience as well. The essay was published in a creative non-fiction journal called Fourth Genre, and last year an on-line journal called Superstition Review contacted me and subsequently published an interview with me about the essay and my experience in Cuba. I have no idea how or why they came across the essay some eight or nine years after it was published, and I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to find out. I like the idea that work will sometimes mysteriously live on, at least for somebody, long after I would have thought everybody would have forgotten about it.
As for upcoming events, I do have one short story coming out this spring, in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review.
4. Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
I write because I really enjoy it. I really, really, really enjoy it. It’s work, and sometimes it’s frustrating when it’s not coming out the way I envision it, or if I have trouble finding a publisher for a particular piece, but at the same time, it is still pleasure. And it is the best way for me to communicate with the world at large – I feel like I have things to say, and I have stories to tell, and this is my way of getting them out. Of course, I also hope for a readership. At some point, writing needs that. Literary journals do not have large audiences, but they tend to have audiences who really are interested in literature, and who are “good” readers. That doesn’t mean they will always like what I write, but I trust that most of the people who read my work in these journals at least pay attention to it, and think about it, and are open to be moved in some way by it if the story works for them.
I also get a lot of satisfaction out of my teaching. The young writers I work with at Emerson College are sophisticated enough to be challenging to me in their work, and young enough to be energetic and enthusiastic. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to read a strong piece of fiction by a student, and it is quite satisfying to read a revision of a story that has really brought the earlier version to life – to see that the student has learned something, understood something, through the work he or she has done under my guidance or supervision.
5. What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way?
I have had a lot of encouragement along the way. Reading has always been a big part of my life, from early childhood on. For that, I have my parents to thank – we were always going to the library when I was little, and we always had a lot of books around. My brother and I used to read whole series of books, in a kind of competition – all the Oz books, all the Freddy the Pig books, all the Dr. Doolittle books, and others. When our family went on vacation in the summer, we would take whole stacks of them along.
I was lucky in high school to have really good English teachers who had true enthusiasm for literature, and who encouraged their students to be creative in their responses to what they read. This was true for all four years of high school, but I remember particularly fondly my sophomore English teacher, Miss McMindes, a flamboyant woman who didn’t seem that much older than the students. She also ran the high school drama club, and I was sorely disappointed when I was not selected for the role of Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, though I’d never been in a play before, and I’m sure I couldn’t act a lick.
After college, I thought I wanted to write fiction, and I tried my hand at it while traveling some, being engaged in anti-war activities (this was during the Vietnam War), being a new parent, and working at a couple of jobs, most notably as a pre-school teacher in a kind of Super Headstart program in Boston. Over a couple of years, I did get some writing done, including a draft of a novel, but writing wasn’t really my focus. I made the decision that I wanted to really concentrate on it, so with the blessing of Nancy Hall Brooks (who is a visual artist, and who is my lifelong partner in the artistic life), who was willing to move away from Boston – we lived in Somerville then, too – I applied to graduate programs. It was financially foolish to quit working with our young daughter only a year old, but it seemed important to go back to school and focus on writing.
I was accepted into the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and we loaded everything we didn’t sell into a trailer and hauled it out to Iowa City. My experience at Iowa transformed my notion of what it meant to be a writer, and it also gave me time to write and to think about writing and books in a way I hadn’t before. I also met a lot of writers, and I worked closely with two writers who had a significant impact on my work: Raymond Carver and John Irving. They were both pretty young, and neither quite famous yet, and they were generous in sharing their ideas about writing, their thoughts about my work, and what they knew about the world I was trying to enter. They also nominated me for the highest level fellowship the Writers Workshop offered, for my second year in the program, which eased the financial situation.
When I finished at Iowa, after my two years in the Writers Workshop, I got another boost – this one from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where I received a fellowship to come and just write and be part of the Work Center community. The fellowship wasn’t a lot of money – in fact my family, which now included a second child, depended heavily on clams we dug up ourselves every week during the winter to keep us fed – but it was money enough to get by, and it was a wonderful life in which I was free to write and enjoy the wonders of the sea and the coast and my family and Provincetown, in the company of other young, talented writers and artists. I got a 2nd-year fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center as well, and by the time that was done with, I was thoroughly hooked on the idea of being a writer.
So yes, I’ve had a lot of breaks and support along the way.
6. Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene?
I do have some thoughts. There is a ton of stuff going on in the Boston area, including in Somerville, and a lot of it is, in my judgment, of very high quality. Plays, readings, museums and galleries, movies (and film festivals), live music of all types, ad hoc events of one sort or another every week, mixed-media events. Porter Square Books on the border of Somerville and Cambridge is one of the best venues on the east coast for literary readings, and it’s also a great independent bookstore.
There are also a lot of creative people in every medium living and working in the area. In addition, there are famous artists coming through town constantly to perform or read or exhibit, young artists just making names for themselves who come through, and unknown artists who can surprise you with their work. Of course, I only sample a tiny, tiny fraction of what is out there, but I do feel fortunate to have a position at a college that places such a strong emphasis on the arts, especially writing and theater and film. A lot of what is out there happens right where I live and work, so it is quite accessible to me.
As for Somerville specifically, the Arts Council is extremely active in keeping arts events in the forefront of community life. Along with Nancy, I attend shows and openings regularly, and such events as Somerville Open Studios. There is a real feeling in the city of a lot of people actively creating something. If you go into Diesel Café in Davis Square, or Starbucks, it seems about three-quarters of the people sitting at tables are tapping away on laptops, and I imagine them all writing novels or epic poems. There are paintings and drawings and photos by local artists on the walls. There are people playing music on the little plaza across from the T stop. And that kind of activity is a big part of how I think of the city. There is also a little bit of a scruffy feeling to the Somerville art scene, venues tucked away here and there, not a lot of glitz or glamour to them, but that is the scene you’d expect – and want – where art is actually being made as well as shown. I am glad to live in Somerville. I have lived here for the last 20 years, and I also lived here on and off before that. As someone devoted to my art and my craft, I feel right at home here.