An Interview with Eric Bennett

Conducted by Andrea Reyes, Chris Sebastian, and Gianna Simoncelli.

Eric Bennett grew up in Michigan and attended Deep Springs College and Harvard College for his undergraduate years. He later received his MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa, subsequently receiving his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. Bennett now lives in Providence, Rhode Island and is a novelist and an English Professor at Providence College. His areas of expertise are concentrated around 20th Century American Fiction & Poetry, Modernism, Postmodernism, and Cold War History. He is the author of new, published novel, A Big Enough Lie. His other works include, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, . Bennett’s work has been featured in, A Public Space, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.   

Interviewers: In your first novel, A Big Enough Lie (2015), we found it very interesting that there is a novel within a novel. What was the inspiration behind this style of writing? Was it hard to distinguish between the two styles of writing (your writing vs your main character’s)?

Eric Bennett: In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey offers a compelling series of observations about the dilemma of creative artists over the course of the twentieth century. A central one is the near impossibility of reconciling disparate frames of human experience within a single text. For instance (my example, not his), a novel about divorce in Connecticut in 2010 will probably involve people whose hearts are getting broken. But presumably those brokenhearted characters wear clothing and sit on furniture and operate kitchen appliances manufactured far across planet earth by people with very different kinds of hardship in their lives: with very differently broken hearts. How on earth, Harvey asks, do you capture in art that kind of diffuse interconnection?

The convention in much American “realism” is simply to bracket and ignore the problems of the sweatshop workers in China. For the sake of a good read, this is wise. But the question matters, and some of my favorite works of contemporary American fiction find solutions to it. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange solves the problem in one way; Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (with that suggestive title) solves the problem in another. Much of George Saunders’s fiction similarly refuses to draw tight domestic boundaries around the sphere of action. My colleague E. C. Osondu (a student of Saunders) also masterfully modulates between cultural frames. In my case I wanted to put, within one novel, the very different ethical pangs and urgencies of creative writing workshops in the Midwest and combat in the Middle East.

Regarding your last question, I don’t think I distinguish in that way between “mine” and “my main characters.” It presupposes a kind of earnest baseline, an “authentic” voice, and that’s not my understanding of great writing. That said, I did think about differences in tone between the two halves of the narrative.

I: As part of the novel within a novel, the main character writes a memoir of his time in Iraq. What struggles did you face while writing about this topic? Is this experience based on someone you personally know? 

EB: My initial excitement for the project was based in that challenge: in writing a convincing account of combat in Iraq having never been there or served in the Army. I read everything I could about the war (which was really not that much, in 2005, when I started work) and also received help from a veteran who wished to remain anonymous.

I: A character in A Big Enough Lie  (2015) is the character of John Townley. How did you come to develop this character? Is this character based on someone in real life that added to the development of Townley?

EB: In the Poetics, Aristotle conceives of character in terms of action: we are what we do. Modern conceptions of psychology and character lay a far greater emphasis on interiority—some essential self that persists regardless of external behavior. I understand what this is and means and feel as though I and the characters I write have “personalities.” But I find fiction easier to write if the starting point for character is external action. (Also, for what it’s worth, I enjoy life more if I don’t obsess about my inner essence; and the less you obsess, the less it seems to exist). I knew there would be a character who fabricated an Iraq War memoir. That was my starting point. So how do you get such a person to tick? 

I: Workshops of Empire focuses on the careers of Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner and their creative writing at the University of Iowa and Stanford after World War II. What influences and ideas did the World War II period have on the development of Creative Writing? (Or what do you think is the most important idea was to come out of this World War II period on the development of creative writing?) 

EB: The early creative writing programs promoted above all one dimension of modernist poetics. This is the idea that the particular matters more than the universal and that the senses are virtually the only avenue into good writing. They are an avenue into good writing, but hardly the only one. The highest question for writers is or should be how individual experience relates to collective experience.

The United States in general in so many of its cultural forms encourages a trivial, sensationalistic, and bogus idea of how the individual relates to the collective. Reality shows like Survivor create situations in which libertarian or egoistic instincts cultivated in mass society are put to the test under conditions that, in any other dispensation, would encourage fellow feeling and good tribalism. We lie to ourselves that our voices are louder than they are and that we can go it alone more than we can. Social media encourages this orientation, and our current president reflects its ascent as an ideology. Ferocious selfishness is the last bastion of putative authenticity. I don’t blame this on American creative writing in particular. But its handbooks lay yet another foundation for it. People are trained to regard their sensations as important in themselves and not trained to reflect on how those sensations pertain to larger social groupings. This, of course, is a gross generalization with many exceptions. But a survey of contemporary fiction from other countries contains much more sophisticated and subtle explorations of the relationship between individual and group. Catholic texts and Marxist texts both interest me more than blogs and Instagram accounts.

I: What was the most unexpected or interesting fact that you discovered while researching for Workshops of Empire?

EB: That the CIA gave a little bit of money to the International Writing Program at Iowa in 1967.

I: Can you recall, or take us back, to the moment when you realized you wanted to be a writer? 

EB: Calling oneself a writer strikes me as similar to calling oneself a movie star. It’s in poor taste to say so even if you are one. And it’s in especially poor taste if you’re aspiring to be one and not one yet. Another way of putting it is that “writers” are people with audiences, rather as “husbands” are people with wives, and “senators” are people with constituencies. I would say that Stephen King is a writer, and Toni Morrison was. They stirred in the United States a deep hunger for their writing. But even if I had a much larger audience than I’ve had to date (and I’d love it), I’d be reluctant to call myself a writer. When I write my subservience is to the excellence of the manuscript that is coming into existence. That excellence seems to exist outside and beyond me—to have a source in language, and in the nature of reality, and in the rules of good writing. I don’t own any of that. And the part of the process that centers on “me,” well, that’s not very interesting to me. I don’t have an identity that I wish to promulgate by expressing it in words. I have a desire to talk to those who have moved me by writing beautifully. Most of those people are dead. And I can’t imagine that their angels are interested in “Eric Bennett, the writer.” I imagine that, if those angels are interested in anything, it’s in the ongoing conversation that belongs to nobody but welcomes everybody and centers on varieties of startling virtuosity. My idea of heaven would be a library containing the canon of world literature published without authorial ascription.

I: What authors have influenced your writing? For what reasons?

EB: John Updike’s Rabbit, Run encouraged me to leave my hometown and not look back. Of course, I can’t stop looking back.

I: In what ways has teaching here at Providence College affected your own writing?

EB: As a non-Catholic at a Catholic institution, and a progressive at a center-right institution, I feel like an outsider—almost entirely in a good sense, though, like an outsider graciously welcomed. Similarly, my students resemble very little the kind of undergraduates that I knew during my own college days and probably that I tried myself to be. There are relatively few artists or aspiring bohemians here, and those that exist appear visible more in contrast to their natty peers than in comparison to artists and aspiring bohemians elsewhere—and often bring with them religious habits of being that are different from my own. So, in general I feel like I’m half on Mars, half at Disney World—and, if I get a third half, half in Vatican City—and, if I get a fourth half, half in the Connecticut suburbs. Which I love. The fiction I enjoy most and that I most aspire to write captures the friction between radically different value systems and ways of being. I take very seriously the values and ways of being even of those students and colleagues I least resemble. It’s not that I regard every interaction with an anthropological mind. It’s just that there’s a kind of feeling of chronic exile being here, and the part of me that wishes to write about chronic exile (which is basically the modern condition) savors it.

I: Being a practicing writer, published author, and English professor at Providence College, what advice would you give any college student aspiring to be a writer? Do you have any tips for student writers trying to get their work out there?

EB: This feels like being asked to tell you how to prepare for nuclear war.