Q&A: Ben Tanzer, author of You Can Make Him Like You

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Author Ben Tanzer on the street

Father's Day is coming up (hint, hint). So it's a great time to know Ben Tanzer, not because he reminds you of your father, or because he is a father (he is), but because his new book You Can Make HIm Like You (Artistically Declined Press, 2011) has been picked as a good Father's Day book by the Harper Perennial book blog, alongside luminaries like Nick Hornby, Jess Walter, Tom Perotta; you know heavy hitters. Pretty good for an indie pub book just released a few months ago. Read the first chapter here.

And since we're on the subject, Ben has another book coming out in July, this one on…his father. Called My Father's House (Main Street Rag, 2011), it deals with family relationships and perceptions of death.

But we're on You Can Make Him Like You. It dives into the nebulousness of relationships, sex, marriage and annoying apartment neighbors. It's very candid, very thoughtful, very spot on. Ben lives and works in Chicago and he took a good amount of time to answer some questions. Thanks for that Ben.

“You Can Make Him Like You” takes its name from a song by The Hold Steady. Why this song? And does it have any particular resonance to the book?
Ben Tanzer: Is it cool if I answer this in a variety of intersecting and arguably spellbinding ways? Thanks.
The most immediate response is that the idea for the book, the meat and outline, came together at a Hold Steady show and this is one of the songs I was listening to. Also though, I'm quite taken with the lyrics in relation to what I wanted to do with the characters.
“They say you don't have a problem
Until you start to do it alone
They say you don't have a problem
Until you start bringing it home
They say you don't have a problem
Until you start sleeping alone
There's always other boys
There's always other boyfriends
There's always other boys
And you can make him like you”
As needed, can you leave truly leave some one you love, even when it's easier to do so because there are other choices. other boys, or girls, out there? Seriously Josh, can you? And, a goal of mine was to create a protagonist who on the face of it isn't totally likable, even to himself, but that's the confusion and anxiety talking, the not total self-awareness, and so as you read I think you find you can like him, and want to, and that he can like himself as well.
In fact the main character is kinda fixated on The Hold Steady and doesn't listen to any other music. What's wrong with other types of music, Ben Tanzer?
There are other types of music? Like what? Where can I find some? I was going for two things here. The first, was that feeling you have when you stumble into a new band or release that you suddenly love so much you just don't want to listen to anything else, even if you are. It also gets to how we can get so obsessive about the things we love, or even like, and this kind of obsessiveness is a thread in the book. Also though and hearkening back to the last question, I was interested in looking at what the characters who inhabit The Hold Steady's songs might look like if they were a little older, as I am, and where they might go, so the songs provide a foundation for who these characters once were and the book which is somewhat of an homage to these songs, or the idea of these songs, becomes a continuation of the stories those CDs want to tell.
A reviewer called this an “adult coming-of-age story” which in most cases is an oxymoron. What do you think of that assessment and is it fitting?
I had never thought of that phrase and wouldn't necessarily use it, but I'm not saying that in a critical way. I think its imaginative and when the first reviewer used it I thought it was a neat way to capture some of the bigger themes in the book. I also think its a misnomer though to think of the phrase as an oxymoron.
As a society we are caught up in the idea that the transition into adulthood is something that has to happen when you're eighteen or leaving for college, but I don't see it that way. To me, becoming an adult is always about stops and starts, and being scared, and the idea that we remain wrapped-up in our families of origin and how there's a constant push and pull and so we are constantly coming of age in some ways, battling new hurdles, learning about ourselves and asking what it means to be an adult now, no now, no then.
Your style of writing — kind of like this circling, stopping, hedging, balking — really mimics the attitude and action of the character. Is that purposeful to reflect the character's actions? Or is it impossible for Ben Tanzer to write a very confident, suave character?
Dude, is that a comment on my suaveness? Not that I'm sensitive about that. Much. The style is intended to be reflective of how the character speaks and acts, halting, unsure, confused, but also full of feints and dodges. It's also intended to be reflective of how most people speak and think, changing direction, losing our train of thought, trying to find the right words, as well as, as how we function during the day, bouncing from thing to thing, all full of starts and stops and redo's.
Across the interwebs, you have a bunch of short stories, but I haven't really seen a 'collection' from you—what comes more naturally –the novel or the short story?
Josh I will assume you haven't heard about my groundbreaking collection Repetition Patterns, but will address that oversight immediately, correct? Thanks. Still, terrific question, and I wish I could be more scientific in my response. My experience though is that on the one hand, the novels I work on seem to grow out of an idea or concept I get stuck on. A couple falls in love hard and fast, breaks up just as quickly and slowly, maybe, crawl back into the relationship, but with that there is no detail, just possibility. And with the stories I find I get stuck on an incident I was part of, or heard of, or witnessed.
A guy is a Pac Man god, a girl who loves sound gets hit by truck, a drunken neighbor walks into my apartment when the door is open, and I start to spin something around that moment, and it becomes a story, hopefully, eventually. On the other hand, also unscientific, I have noticed that as the work I'm doing a novel winds down for one reason or another, I find myself collecting incidents that seem to be interconnected to me in some way, and some switch gets flipped and I am no longer in novel mode, but short story mode. There must be a word or more formal explanation for it, but I don't know what it is. You?
Chicago. Tell us about it. Are you from there? Do you participate much in whatever lit stuff is going on there?
I am not from here, I am from Binghamton, NY, a much smaller town in upstate New York, which I suppose is like Chicago, in that there are rivers and beer and sausage and all that. When I got here I didn't write yet, but it was here that I started going to readings and it is here that I started to really wonder whether I would ever start writing, meet writers or ever get invited to do a reading of any kind. All those things have since happened. And while I don't think Chicago is especially magical because of that, there is an incredibly rich writing scene, literary, comic, theater, and its incredibly diverse and hopping. There are an endless array of writers and performers, indie and beyond, presses, both electronic and those that utilize actual paper, yes that still exists; there are a number of reading series that are well attended, The Orange Alert Reading Series, Reading Under the Influence, QUICKIES! and on and on, writing programs at places like Columbia College and The School of the Art Institute, and sites that support readings, Quimby's, The Book Cellar, The Beauty Bar.
It will sound like bragging, and I suppose it is, but there are things, events, readings, gatherings happening all the time, and people are supportive and welcoming, and I know that sounds like it can't be true, but it is for the most part, and yes, there are swirling groups of writers and publishers who probably favor one another, but they still overlap and intersect with the other swirling collections of writers and publishers, and I get to somewhat take advantage of it, and people are terrifically supportive, but I am old and married and I have kids and I travel for work, and I'm not remotely at everything I might be, and during some stretches, like now with the new book, I can mostly only hit events that I'm part of, which is obnoxious, but it mostly works. It's funny really, because when I moved here, I hoped something like this existed, but I didn't know if it did, or what that meant, so there you go.
Also, how do you go about your podcasts and do you listen to many others for guidance? I always have a hard time finding podcasts that I like (yours I do).
First off, thank you for the kind words, I really enjoy the podcasting and if there are actual listeners who enjoy them, awesome, and shocking, but definitely awesome. And second, I really don't listen to other podcasts for guidance, which also sounds obnoxious, but I am not great in the guidance department. I am good at receiving constructive criticism, I hope, and I always want to figure out how to make things better, but mainly I jump into things and continue to try and work them out until they look and taste like what I think I'm going for.
That said, a number of years ago I interviewed the team behind the Bad at Sports podcast here in Chicago which is focused on art and artists and I was very taken with their approach, casual, the actually swore, but informed, always conversational, and always focused on their larger vision, celebrate the artists and the art they love. And in that they were sort of an influence, though more of a prompt for me. I wanted to do that, have access to writers I love and celebrate them, but not formally, nothing precious, more fan boy, and in a low-fi manner. I like the feel of that aesthetically, no editing, minimal prep, just jump in. And that has remained the goal, find people I am taken with and spend time with them, talk writing, gush, have fun.
I would add that everything I do in the wide-ranging, yet faux media empire that is TBWYCL, Inc. is driven by four goals, hype self, hype others I am taken with, have fun, build a fake media-driven lifestyle brand. And while the order of all that shifts based on the project, I have remained focused on this stuff from the start. I would also add, that I don't listen to a lot of podcasts, but in terms of podcasts that are interview-driven, I enjoy the WTF podcasts the comedian Mark Maron does and I also enjoy what Jason Pettus at CCLaP does when he interviews writers, smart questions, pointed, prepared, get out of the way, because its not about him, and that's a good quality to have even when you're still hoping to hype yourself on some level.
I heard you talking once (on a podcast, actually) about scheduling readings when you travel for work. Do your work people know about your after-hours novel life?
Some people know, some do not, people are more likely to know if we hang out outside of work or have some kind of e-something relationship on Facebook or whatever, but for the most part I keep it all separate, which is totally my preference, just easier to manage, and so I rarely bring it up or talk writing or books unless someone else does first. Despite that I have acquired some fans and supporters among those I work with around the country and as I have been asked to take on bigger challenges, keynoting conferences for example, some people, and again if they even know any this, see the writing part of my life as a selling point, which I find bizarre, but also kind of exciting, because maybe that means I don't need to be so rigid, and maybe I will slowly morph into another kind of speaker writer media evangelizer dude at some point even if I'm really not clear what that means.
Do you read your stuff out a lot? have you ever heard a reading from somebody that you didn't really like as a writer but they blew you away at a reading?
Over the last couple of years I have both pursued and been asked to read on an increased basis and I find it really fun, especially since I began to look at it as entertainment or performance, something less scripted and less focused on capturing exactly what's on the page. And to answer the second part of that question, I think I an more likely to see writers I like on the page who don't do much with their readings, versus what you have suggested, but as I am not going any farther with that, the answer that came to me as I read this, is how often I see a writer I don't know much about at the time, and then I see them read, and I think oh fuck, get that book, or read that book of theirs that's already sitting on the shelf, try to meet them, don't be a freak, and in that category I would cite Elizabeth Crane, Spencer Dew, Don DeGrazia, Barry Graham and Scott Haim among others, some of them I planned to see, others were just somewhere I was, all five of whom floored me in different ways and made me want to read their stuff in a much bigger and more immediate way.
The podcast, the online zine of sorts, the family, the day job. How do you balance all of that and still stay up with the latest alt-lit trends?
Polygamy. Cloning. And ball bearings. Well, all that and plastics of course. Okay, and no downtime or wasted time, I suppose, which sounds grandiose, but its hard to answer this question and not sound like a dick. Still, reading, writing, blogging, emailing, responding, rinse, repeat, all the time, or at least when all the time I'm not parenting, husbanding, working, running, sleeping or playing Wii, and that can be still be a decent chunk of time, not a lot, but a bucket of time anyway which I am endlessly focused on protecting and nurturing. Also, no pausing. And no crises of confidence. Also grandiose, sorry, but necessary and again hard to answer this and not sound like a dick.
Visit Ben Tanzer on the web.