Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Book Review & Interview with Ben Hoffman

I'm excited to share with y'all the first of what I hope will be an occasional feature on The New Me - book reviews and interviews with authors. I'm kicking things off with Ben Hoffman, whose collection of short fiction, Together, Apart, won the 2012 Origami Zoo Press chapbook contest and was published a few weeks ago. (Full disclosure: Ben and I went to UNCW for our MFAs at the same time, but he was a year ahead of me. Our desks were next to each other in the TA lab because of the alphabet. So far, this is maybe my biggest claim to fame.) 

First up, the review: I loved Together, Apart. While I'd seen and heard bits and pieces in workshops and at readings, I was most impressed by how well they come together in a collection. Even though the stories aren't technically linked, they tangle with the same themes over and over, in intricate and fascinating ways. In "The Great Deschmutzing," the narrator grapples with her recently deceased father - a mostly terrible man - while trying not to be the same kind of disappointment to her own children. In "Your Baby's Mother," two high school students tasked with raising an egg pass the assignment but fail the exercise in very grown up ways. In "Three and a Half Paths to Happiness," an absent father wrecks havoc on his son's life with an out-of-date self-help book. Again and again we meet families, fractured and flawed, as they attempt to connect with one another and salvage whatever might be between them. 

Another thing I admire about Hoffman's writing is the way he embraces the short form. I've shared his flash fiction before in my Friday High Five posts, and with good reason: he's got a knack for distilling a story down to its essence, stripping it of almost everything but emotion and language. Four of the six stories in this collection are under three pages long, yet they're just as beautiful and heartbreaking as their longer counterparts. "One for the Road," in which a mother and father grapple with a possible apocalypse, is one of my favorites, mostly because it contains the following lines: "This is Pennsylvania, this is 1979, this is time for a pact: If they live, they will name you Earnest. If not, Charlie." And did I mention these stories are also funny? Because they are, which - considering the themes, the apocalypse, etc - seems unlikely, and yet. And yet! 

At any rate, you should absolutely buy Together, Apart - it's a slim collection, a delightful read, and at just $8, an absolute steal. Mark my words: Ben Hoffman is a rising talent, and not just because he was recently named a 2014 Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (!!!). But you've listened to me ramble long enough. Here's Ben Hoffman, speaking for himself:

Chrissy: Why did you go the chapbook route, rather than trying to publish a short story collection in a more traditional manner? 

Ben: Well, I don't view them as mutually exclusive. I hope they’re not mutually exclusive! I’m still working on a longer collection, which I hope to one day publish. But in December of 2012, when the semester finished, I took a survey of my writing, and I realized I had a group of stories, some long and some short, that I’d worked on for about 18 months, and I saw that they all seemed to be worrying about the same things, and thus might form a sort of mini-collection. I saw that Origami Zoo Press was having a chapbook contest with an approaching deadline; I checked them out, saw how amazing their authors were and how well-designed their chapbooks were, and I decided to apply, never actually thinking I’d win. (My contest strategy is always to view entering as running it up the flagpole, which hopefully is not a dated idiom that makes me seem like an old man.) It all turned out to be great timing, because it’s so easy to lose momentum or focus the first six months after earning an MFA, but I had the chapbook release to look forward to it, which motivated me to keep working on other things.

You are so good at flash fiction. What do you like about the form? How do you think it fits into the current literary landscape? Where do you see it going from here? 

Thanks, that is nice of you! (Coming from someone who recently won a flash fiction contest of her own!)

So many good questions here!

I love how great flash fiction is simultaneously aware of its limits and yet seeks to circumvent or burst through them (though you could probably say this applies to many forms of writing). Writing flash presents a challenge: finding avenues for tension and forward momentum in a story without a traditional narrative arc. Solving that problem lets (makes!) me experiment, not just with lyricism, which is beautiful but on which I think many flash writers over-rely, but with a bunch of tools: humor; making sentences do multiple things at once; distending or compressing time; and subverting reader expectations, not in a cheap ‘surprise!’ way, but in an honest way that heightens emotion.

Also, a less fancy answer is that I’m somewhat of a rambling writer, so writing flash is a healthy check on my tendency to go on unnecessary tangents. I’m forced to consider what’s important, and how leaving things out aids the story.

As far as how flash fiction fits into the current literary landscape, I think it fits perfectly, as it seems most people like to read shorter work online, and more and more we’re reading digitally. Though I also really enjoy reading flash in physical books, where whole stories—I’m thinking Lydia Davis here—are contained within a page. There’s something about the way that looks that hooks me.

So many of the stories in Together, Apart are about parents and children. What is it that you find so interesting about these relationships? 

Like many people my age, kids are not imminent but somewhat on the horizon. Which is terrifying! Is terrifying what you meant by interesting? Just doing the whole write-what-scares-you thing.

No, I’d say I’m interested in the quasi-magical way in which children view the world, and in the burden parents carry, in what it’s like to try to keep someone safe—from the world, from him or herself, and from you, the person charged with protecting.

What was the best thing about your MFA experience? What was the worst thing?

I (we!!) went to a program where people were really, truly genuinely happy for each other’s successes. And I think it was great socially—one benefit of a large program—so these two factors combined made it an agreeable and positive environment in which to write. Worst thing? I’d say the faculty is (are? I have no idea) inconsistent—some are amazing, engaged, and go above and beyond, and others less so. I also think in an ideal world funding would be equal (and better) across the board, and I’m curious to see what happens in the future, as less and less people will be willing to attend MFA programs that don’t fund them. This isn’t the faculty’s fault, of course! But I hope they can figure something out.

What are you reading now? 

Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth. I think you’d like all of them!

What are you working on?

I'm trying to wrap up a collection of stories, and I’m starting a novel! One interesting thing about wrapping up a collection of stories is that each passing day somehow takes me farther from finishing. I was closer to being done with it three months ago than I am now. Give it another three months and I may be “starting” a collection of stories.


Thanks to Ben Hoffman for being such a kind and patient interview guinea pig. I think I speak for all of us when I say I can't wait to read more.