Ben Marcus: . . . But I believe I do fumble along with a story looking to rouse myself somehow – you know, tying off the arm and squeezing the liquid in, seeing if there’s some part of the brain or heart I haven’t scraped before. I guess I’m stirring sentences together and sampling them, seeing how they make me feel. I am trying to notice if I can lock, or unlock, a certain kind of gravity, or levity, in the language – whatever feels right. All of this sadly presumes that what strikes or moves me, what makes me laugh or feel horrified, will do something similar to others – and this cannot be counted on. This is always a terrible realization to have, the sheer indulgence of the whole enterprise, the way it necessitates a reckless assertion of deeply subjective stuff, along with the hope that others might be wired as I am . . .
On dark content and stories:
Ben Marcus: . . . What I find far less appealing, for the most part, are stories that would seem to be in flight from all this, stories that hide some central kind of depth or complexity or fear, that do not tip a hand to a vast inner life, a primal reaction to impending death, or that sort of thing. Call it emotional artifice. It’s always a little bit depressing to be lied to, particularly with platitudes . . . It’s all good. No worries. That sort of thing. Really? No worries? None at all? . . .
On the writing process:
Saunders: If they ever get around to building The Short Story Museum, I think they’d better carve this over the doorway: ‘A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.’ Just beautiful. To me, this implies that one purpose of art is to get us to wake up, recalibrate our emotional life, get ourselves into proper relation to reality. Which sounds to me a lot like what we ask our spiritual life to do, if we have one. And I’d argue that this goes in both directions: we are affected this way when we read (through immersion in someone else’s mind, basically) but also when we write (by subjecting our first-pass thoughts to revision, we train ourselves in looking deeper, and in empathy for an imagined being, and for empathy and connection with an actual being (the reader)). Does this way of thinking resonate at all?
Marcus: I like the way you put this, and I’d especially like to think that this matters to me. Empathy is inextricable from curiosity, along with the belief that there are many, many things yet to know. And to feel. I worry whenever I think I have come to understand something, because I notice my brain shutting down, a box getting checked. And I find certainty increasingly less attractive in others. We live in a tremendously interesting time and it would seem to be undeniable that some kinds of identities – ways of being in the world, experiences, histories, and perspectives – have been revealed ad nauseam, in all kinds of forms, while others just have not. While I know that, as fiction writers, we have a license to take on other identities and project ourselves into various imaginative spaces, I have also come to think that now is a great time to listen. In general it’s far more interesting to listen than to talk.