Interview with Ben Dolnick
On Saturday, March 17, 2007, Ben Dolnick and I walk from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his girlfriend to the Bagel Bagel near Fort Greene Park. The ground is covered in snow and the air is frigid -- especially for March. Ben's debut novel, Zoology, is five weeks away from publication (Random House's Vintage Books picked it up in the spring of 2006) and he is strangely at ease. Zoology is the quirky coming-of-age story of Henry Elinsky, a zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo. What follows is an informal interview with Ben that occurred under a leaky, dripping roof in the back of Bagel Bagel.
CG: How are you feeling now about the imminent publication of your first novel?
BD: A combination of excitement and nervousness. It's a little like being pregnant -- that you've been living with this thing for so long, but you have no real idea of what it'll be like out in the world. So it's a combination of excitement and terror. On the one hand you do feel as if something amazing is gonna happen. Like on May 8 I'm gonna wake up and the world's gonna change, but a wiser part of me knows I'm gonna wake up on May 8 and life'll be exactly the same, and maybe my grandmother'll send me an email.
CG: Tell me about the process of writing.
BD: With this book, I started when I was in college, and it was the first semester that I hadn't taken a writing course. I would work maybe a couple hours a day on it. I write with a little kitchen timer by my side. And if I can do three hours, I'm king of the world for the day. That's more or less it. I don't ask myself to produce a certain number of words. It's mostly time. If I can put in the time every day I'm confident something will happen.
CG: Do you go back and change things much?
BD: Yes. A lot of my time is spent sort of mulling over what I wrote yesterday and moving this here, and feeling grumpy about this passage that didn't really work. But then every couple of months I'll have a period where I'll realize, Jesus, I have fifty pages and I need to get this stupid thing going, and I'll say 'No more revising, just write, write, write' and I'd produce all new stuff for awhile, then look at it later.
CG: I take it you write with a computer?
BD: Yes. I have a couple of notebooks. I always carry just a little notebook in case something brilliant occurs to me on the subway, which hasn't happened yet -- but no, I write almost exclusively on a computer. Do you write longhand?
CG: No, no, I don't.
BD: I don't know anybody our age who writes longhand.
CG: Neither do I. Did you use an outline when writing Zoology?
BD: First I just started writing. Once I had a sense of the shape I wanted, I did write an outline, which I subsequently changed a million times. I found it helpful just as I was editing, and as I was fleshing parts out, to have a sense of just the skeleton. I want this part to last for this long, or I know that we're going here, so this part needs to take a turn here. I'm not a big outliner, but I found it useful after the fact. It's a good shaping tool -- a good reshaping tool.
CG: Would you say your novel is part-autobiography, or is it totally fictional?
BD: It's a novel. I very much like building fiction out of a germ of experience. I'm not the kind of writer -- and sometimes I wish I could be -- you know, read the journal from the 1700s in, you know, Guinea or something and be inspired to invent the whole world there. But the things I have the most grounding in and I feel that I can describe well are the things I've experienced, but -- the people, the incidents are not at all from my life.
CG: Some writers write because they feel they have a message that needs to be communicated. Hemingway famously said he wrote in order to get it out of his system. Can you pinpoint your motivation?
BD: I certainly don't have a message. The thing that makes me run the fastest from a novel I consider reading is if someone describes it as ideological or conveying some message -- that's the opposite of how I work and what I'm interested in. Someone or other talks about writers being just readers moved to emulation. And I think that's very much the case for me. It seemed natural to try to produce one of the things that I love so much.
CG: Who are your favorite authors?
BD: I love Philip Roth. I don't think his stuff is uniformly great -- you know, any author's stuff is gonna have ups and downs, but at its best, he's probably my favorite novelist. I absolutely love Alice Munro. I've read everything of hers and I probably reread something of hers every week -- I completely love her. Nicholson Baker I really like -- George Saunders, William Maxwell, William Trevor, Grace Paley. I read a lot of short stories.
CG: Have you written short stories?
BD: I wrote a lot in college, because that's what they require you to do in creative writing courses. But I've never tried to publish any. No, for some reason novels interest me more now, as a writer. But I love reading short stories, and I have the sense that not many other people do -- that short story collections don't sell very well and all that stuff. But I really like them.
CG: Back to Zoology. With regards to plotting: could you see in advance where things were going?
BD: Eventually. One of the really nice things about writing, especially something long, is that you get to go back and make yourself seem as if you knew all along what you were doing. One of my most frequent notes when I was writing was, 'Plant this'. I would know something was going to happen later, I would know that I'd need to plant this early. I would go back and change something earlier to make the later thing seem inevitable. I didn't know, but I found out eventually, what would happen.
CG: So in your Microsoft Word document did you actually type, 'Plant this'?
BD: Mm hmm. Yeah, definitely. That's something I type often.
CG: Do you have other little notes that you write?
BD: Oh, sure. I have hundreds: 'This seems fake', 'This is junky', 'Fix this later'. Yeah, it's like a little schizophrenic argument in my head, a little editor voice going perpetually at the same time as a writer.
CG: Let's talk some about the characters in your novel. Can you pinpoint -- do you know where they came from?
BD: Some. At Columbia there was a security guard who I saw around a lot. I'd never really spoken to him. But something about his look, and the way I heard him talk to other people -- it was very interesting. He looked very sad, but also weirdly resilient or something. I don't know. There was something about his look I found very interesting, and his voice. And for some reason I found myself thinking a lot about -- what would that guy have been like when he was my age? Which at the time was twenty-one or so. You know, when younger, what would he have been like? What would his family have been like? What would his girl experience have been like? And so that was the beginning. Eventually, Henry took on a life of his own and I could stop thinking about this security guard. But that was the germ. And that's often the case -- that a lot of characters are born out of, you know, here's something interesting on the bus, or someone I know will have a strange trait, and it's like a little grain of sand that the character's wrapped around. Are you being dripped on?
CG: No, no. Sameer. Where did he come from?
BD: Again, it's someone I knew. This was another security guard -- not at Columbia -- but at a friend's building. And there's something about the voice -- this very formal affectation -- I think for a lot of people for whom English is a second language there's this kind of stilted quality that I find very funny and very endearing, and I wanted to write that.
CG: Was he a Jew-lover?
BD: Um, no. That's invented. I guess there are Anglophiles and Francophiles -- I haven't met any Jew-o-philes.
BD: It's an interesting possibility.
CG: So you've already confirmed that Zoology's non-autobiographical. Is any part of Henry's character Ben Dolnick?
BD: A part of everyone, literally, has got to come from me, at least a bit. But I don't think Henry's particularly me in disguise. The quality that I experience most about myself is my bookishness -- that very little interests me as much as books. Writing them and reading them. I didn't want Henry to be like that. I didn't want him to be intellectual, I didn't want him to be bookish, and so that was a big change that I think gave birth to a lot of other little changes. I regarded him as a friend, but not as me.
CG: Did you let a goat out of the zoo?
BD: No. There is a Newman, though. That's a real goat at the Central Park Zoo.
CG: Is he still there?
BD: Still there. I worked there for a summer, and came to really like Newman. He's a very sweet goat. In the book I probably exaggerated his interest in humans, but in fact there would be many days where he would, you know, not even look up when I walked into the pen. But he was a very interesting character. Very nice. And I thought a lot for some reason about what would happen if he did escape, or if he was stolen. But no, I never did that.
CG: This is something that I've just thought about myself as someone who spends a lot of time writing. What do you think about the notion of a writer needing to take risks?
BD: In his work, or -- not his life? Not like become a bullfighter.
CG: Well we can get to that.
BD: What's a risk one might take in his work?
CG: Maybe revealing something that makes the writer feel slightly vulnerable, or putting something on the page in which you're putting yourself out there a little bit?
BD: Yes, I think that's vital. I think a lot of writers are pretty shy by nature. But there is something, definitely, exhibitionistic, necessary, I think, to good writing, that it's, you know, it's very weird. That if I were to meet Philip Roth, I feel that I know things about him that he would never reveal to me if we were only friends -- you know, that I know graphic and bizarre things about him. And there is some of that necessary, even if of course it is filtered through fiction. I do think it requires a kind of bifurcation of your consciousness. That when you're writing, even though you do hope that eventually people will read it, I think if it's going to be any good, you've got to somehow trick yourself into believing, all that matters is this writing. No one's gonna see it, that I just need to be as honest as I can on the page. And strangely, you know, people don't -- my grandmother's read this book, and aunts and uncles, and there are embarrassing things in it, but no one talks about them. It's not so bad. You're not as vulnerable as you might feel you are, I think. People give liberties to the stuff in books to a pleasant extent.
CG: And regarding taking risks in one's life?
BD: Generally I tend to think that one experiences life whether or not you choose to. That you'll be miserable, that you'll be happy, that you'll fall in love, you'll have your heart broken, you'll have experiences with your parents, you know, and a million other things besides, and what matters less is what happens, than just the quality of your attention to what does happen regardless. Even if you decide to stay home and do nothing but write all day, you will have experiences. No, I've never really -- it's never appealed to me hugely to go join a war, or a bullfight or something just to write about it.
CG: I want to talk about an element of your writing style.
BD: Are you sure you're not getting dripped on? You look like you're getting pretty wet.
CG: No, it's fine. One thing I really admired about your novel, and the way you approached it, is the amount of description you put into passages. You clearly have a knack for probing something in full, which I loved. Rather than running through a sequence of events, for instance. When you're working on a scene, do you think about everything that goes into it or, rather, does it just sort of take form?
BD: Like if I were writing this interview, you mean, would I describe where we're sitting, and that kind of stuff?
CG: More like -- let's say you're writing a story or a novel. Do you think to yourself about the scene as you go along, or is it rather perhaps a subconscious thing, sort of building the sets and scenes as you go?
BD: I think it's often the case that writers are themselves their least astute critics. Flannery O'Connor has a book on writing called Mystery and Manners, I think, where she talks about how for anything to come really alive, it needs three senses. You know, hearing, sight, and touch, or whatever. And you describe those three and the thing sort of pops off the page. I certainly don't go down every object in my book and say, 'Have I got my three senses here about it?' But I do think about it occasionally -- I'll be writing a thing and I think, okay, I need to bring this out more, you know. What does it smell like? But the books I like reading best are ones where they do feel almost inhabitable. Then you know what these living rooms feel like, you know. And so I certainly aspire to that. I'm not sure I'm far enough along in my career yet to know quite how to do that, but that's what I try to do.
CG: Are there certain people in your life that inspired you to write?
BD: Yeah, definitely. My dad is a writer. He writes nonfiction. When I was growing up he wrote magazine articles and when I was in high school he started writing books. He writes history stuff mostly. And I think the big influence of that was that it didn't seem unusual to me the way it does to a lot of people, I think. To close yourself up in a room in your house and write all day. To a lot people, I think, that takes getting used to. You don't have a boss, what do you think you're doing -- it's such a bizarre thing -- who is making you do such a thing? But he made that seem quite natural to me. So that was a big influence. And of course there were tons of books around my house. You know, my parents are both very bookish. But no, I've had the usual round of great teachers -- and that kind of stuff -- that were all helpful.
CG: Would you say that throughout the writing process you were mostly inspired? Or were there frustrating points? Did you ever doubt yourself?
BD: Oh -- doubt, I mean, is not only a perpetual accompaniment to writing the book, but if it ever is supposed to lift, it hasn't yet. I never, you know, wake up and say like, 'Oh, I wrote such an awesome book.' It's a perpetual unwelcome companion. And while I was writing, and it seems to still be the case -- beginning to write is excruciating -- it's like forcing yourself to get in a freezing cold shower -- that I will do anything in the world not to have to write. You know, I'll clean out the fridge. Don't I have something I need to pick up at the drycleaners, you know, anything. But once I'm writing, maybe half an hour in I'll realize, 'Oh, I haven't looked at the clock in awhile. I feel pretty good.' So there'll be periods of intense resistance, and then usually I feel pretty good. And when the resistance will come back I'll say, okay, I can stop for the day.
CG: Is there anything you know now, after finishing your novel, that you wish you'd known before you started?
BD: Good question.
CG: Like outlining for instance. You said you didn't start with an outline --
BD: No. I wouldn't want to, I think, because that's like trying to grow a bonsai plant or something -- or I don't know anything about plants, but I wouldn't want to put the restrictions in place until I had an idea of the shape I wanted to take. Then you could sort of guide it. I mean there were lots of times, over the course of writing the novel, where I would think, you know, this is not gonna work, this is just not possible, not only am I not gonna finish it, but if I do ever finish it, it'll never be published, this is just -- hopeless. You know, I should go apply for any job I can. And in that kind of despair it's very hard to make yourself write. So if I could've had some future me coming back and saying, you know, 'It'll be worth it, I promise, just sit down and write,' things would've gone easier.
CG: But is it possible that that sense of direness drove you to produce better work?
BD: It's certainly possible. It's a good point. It may be. But I think it can have the effect of making work seem completely futile.
CG: Do you plan to write more novels?
BD: I certainly hope so.
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