a conversation with Ben Marcus      


Bold Type: I usually like to ask authors how they got the idea for their book, and they respond with an anecdote about a family member, a friend, or an overheard conversation. I somehow can't see this being the case for your book. How did you come up with Notable American Women?

Ben Marcus: I used to browse in the reference section of the library, looking for ideas to steal, and I found a biographical encyclopedia called Notable American Women. The entries were written by men (in the 1950's or thereabouts) and fairly condescending. So I started to write fantastical biographies of women who never existed, and this was how I got started thinking up the world in the novel, the Silentists, the Listening Group, the emotion removal stuff. We understand women to be repressed and silenced-I wondered about a situation where they might choose and perfect silence, turning their punishment into a sort of expertise that excluded their punishers, something they did to the detriment of everyone around them. I later dropped the fake biographies, but what remained was a kind of alternative history of extremely accomplished and powerful women who lived before us-and I tried to tie this world in with the small, weird Marcus family in the novel. Those were the points of collision.

BT: On one hand, your book stands as the latest incarnation in a long history of satire, and on the other hand, squarely in a current movement of literary humor writing. Where do you see your book? What writers have influenced you, and what do you like to read now?

BM: I want to see my book as a collision between satire and sadness, I guess, but I'm not great at either so I try to do both. I like big doses of grief when I read: Richard Yates, Flannery O'Connor, Kenzabaro Oe, Thomas Bernhard. George Saunders is a model to me, because he is Olympically funny and desperately sad, often on the same page. That is something I'd like to aspire to. Other writers in general that I think are great: Padgett Powell, Gary Lutz, Kobo Abe, Coetzee.

BT: So, how do you get along with your parents?

BM: We get along really well, except when my dad barks outside my door when I'm trying to sleep.

BT: Following the previous question, would you consider Notable American Women a kind of distorted autobiography?

BM: The book probably cries wolf so hoarsely on this topic that I'll never be believed no matter what I say. It's tempting to think that everything we write is autobiographical, even if it's not literal. If I was committed enough to write this book, it must have come from somewhere, including my ideas about family and feelings. Ideas can't be made up-we make them out of our bodies. Yet my childhood, on the surface, was drastically different from Ben Marcus' childhood in the book. My family was very loving and I've never been to Ohio. What might be genuinely autobiographical is my need to lie about myself, to distort my past, to deceive people into thinking my parents performed cruel experiments on me.

BT: If autobiography is one form that your book might contend with, then history is certainly another; many of your chapters are made up of names and dates. Is there going to be a Notable American Women pop quiz?

BM: I love the way dates in a text make us think that truth will follow. If I write "1979" and then put a block of text beneath it, it has a better chance of seeming true. So history to me is a form, among other things, and as a form it has certain devices that I enjoy playing with for fiction, particularly if my fiction seems extravagantly made-up.

BT: Your prose is so tight and consistently, uproariously funny. What kind of writing process does it come out of?

BM: The usual drudge. I chip away at paragraphs all day, looking for stuff to sound right and feel right. I let stuff sit for weeks and then apply the loathing factor, which usually means I throw away everything that disgusts me, sometimes everything I've written. What remains can then be messed with a bit and dressed up for a possible public showing. I try to make myself laugh, which is sometimes too easy, and sometimes impossible. It's like staging improvised theater all day in one's own home, wearing pajamas and drinking too much coffee.

BT: Your book is, in some respects, about a bizarre child-rearing experiment. Were you influenced at all by news reports of children brought up in cults, stories about B.F. Skinner's children, or the possibilities of genetic engineering?

BM: Yeah, I love that stuff, in that it shows how precariously people get made into who they are. This is the world I hoped to evoke in the novel. It amazes me that parents are allowed to raise kids. There's so much power and often very little accountability. You can whisper weird stuff in your kid's ear, make up a language, build new equipment. The abuses of it are terrible, but also very interesting, because we learn about how persons are made, and that has to be of total interest to us. It seems weirdly related to fiction writing, where we are making up people on the page.

BT: Do good liars make good writers? Do the writers you know tend to be better liars than "normal" people are?

BM: If you are outed as a liar, of course, you can no longer get away with lying. You get the big "L" to wear on your sweater. I can't play Balderdash with my family anymore because they know I'm full of shit. The deadpan people might be good at lying, but they're not always writers. But I'm glad you made the distinction between writers and "normal" people. That one's right on the money.

BT: So what are you working on now?

BM:I've been working on two small books in collaboration with painters, Jasper Johns and Terry Winters. Another collaborative book, The Father Costume, should be out in May. The novel I want to write next is still pretty hairless. I fantasize about a charging sort of thriller, a book written with precisely zero references to wind or cloth. That's a challenge akin to asking me to eat without my teeth.

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  -- Interview by Megan Lynch