On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.
We’re kicking off the interviews with Ben Stroud, whose first story collection, Byzantium, won the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award, as well as the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize, and was published by Graywolf Press. Stroud published his story “Eraser” with One Story in 2009.
In Byzantium historical re-imaginings twist together with contemporary stories to reveal startling truths about human nature across the centuries. In the Byzantine court, a noble with a crippled hand is called upon to ensure that a holy man poses no threat to the throne. On an island in Lake Michigan, a religious community crumbles after an ardent convert digs a little too deep. And the detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke rises to fame and falls from favor in two stories that recount his origins in Havana and the height of his success in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Byzantium was named a Best Summer Book of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. NPR’s Alan Cheuse had this to say: “Talk about a debut, the title story in Ben Stroud’s Byzantium, is not only the best in the book, it’s the best story by a new writer I’ve read in years.”
Our thanks to Ben for taking the time to chat with One Story about finding his voice, historical fiction and what it’s been like to publish his first book.
1. Where were you when you found out Byzantium had been accepted for publication, and what was the first thing you did? Or if the first thing you did was too weird, how did you celebrate?
It was April, 2012 when I found out. I think I was napping. (Napping, by the way, can be critical to the writing process, I think.) I remember my wife brought me the phone and I was annoyed, thinking anybody calling would be bad news. But it was Michael Collier telling me I’d won the Bakeless.
I don’t remember doing anything specific to celebrate. Just sitting around, being excited, then getting back to work on the next thing. Though I may have used the publication as an excuse to eat out someplace fancy.
2. Many of the stories in Byzantium are historical. What is it that motivates you to write about a certain historical moments or characters? And when it comes to those stories that are both historical and in the first-person, what informs the way you write that particular voice?
It begins with a certain fascination. I somehow find myself caught by a moment and want to dig in. So, “Byzantium” came up through a mix of reading Gibbon and Yeats and also Flaubert’s “Herodias” (which takes on a very different time period). Then I dug some more, moving from a sort of romantic vision of the Byzantine Empire to specific moment–searching for the right one. And sometimes the stories come in a chain. I was researching another project (one that never came together) when I came across the figure of Gail Borden and decided I wanted to write about him. Then while researching “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” I was researching Havana–I needed a street name–and came across a story about something that happened in Havana. I knew I wanted to write about that something, but didn’t know how–and this resulted in “The Don’s Cinnamon.” (That “something,” which I’m being cryptic about here, is the solution to Burke’s case.) And then “The Don’s Cinnamon” led to “The Moor.” So, sometimes these chains develop.
When it comes to voice–I like using the first person because it gives immediacy. I want to pull the reader into the moment, and first person is the most direct way. But I also like it because it imposes limitations. I don’t want my fiction to get bogged down in researched detail–a danger for historical fiction. The story needs to be about the story. So the first person provides that needed limit–I can’t have the characters say something they wouldn’t actually say. They can’t go off on paragraphs of context.
The voice itself usually comes from reading period writings and also, simply, thinking about who this character is. It’s easy to get caught into antiquated ideas of speech–all 19th century people sound like X. But often those notions of speech are rooted in cliche. Focusing on the individual is key here–who he or she is, what he or she would say.
3. Gail Borden’s struggles in ‘Borden’s Meat Biscuit’ are, first of all, hilarious. I think in any century a ‘meat biscuit’ would be unappetizing. But one of the central tensions in the story — whether what he makes next will be genius — might be familiar emotional territory for a writer. Did you find that some of what you imagine Borden was going through resonated with you?
What? Failure? Humiliation? Failing the ones you love? Oh, I don’t know anything about that. Ha ha. You know, to be honest, I’m not sure if I made such a direct connection between my own experience and Borden’s when I was writing the story. (That was years ago, though–2006-2007.) I came across Borden–he’s a real guy–and found his life so interesting I had to right about it. And yet, what you’re saying is right here–there’s a reason his story resonates. It’s what we go through as writers–always the next project, that’s the one that’s going to succeed, that’s the one that’s going to bring happiness. And it’s that last bit that’s so tough. That next project will succeed. But will it bring happiness? Doubtful.
And to say that’s a problem just for writers is, of course, myopic. It’s a problem for humans.
By the way, Borden does find success. He goes on to invent condensed milk (he’s that Borden) and becomes quite wealthy. But that didn’t have a place in the story.
4. ‘The Moor’ has a unique narration — it almost reads like a dossier. But at the very end of your story, your narrator acknowledges his own biases with regard to exactly what happened to Hieronymus Burke: “as long as we don’t know his end, why not grant him this last happiness?” What’s wonderful about that moment is that of course the narrator can’t actually grant the man himself anything — but do you have that impulse yourself as a writer?
For me, that ending turned out to be as much about the project of historical fiction–at least, as practiced in these stories–as it is about the character of Burke. (It was my editor at Graywolf, Steve Woodward, who helped me see this.) That is, why was I doing this? Why write these stories? Not to portray history. If you want straight-up history, then read historians. Writing fiction that deals with history requires invention, taking liberties. So in some ways this thinking about Burke was a way to own that rather than be nervous about it. To own the invention and realize that the invention is the point.
5. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball?
I’m not sure yet. This will be my first Deb Ball of any sort. But I am looking forward to meeting my fellow debutantes. (Or, in the case of Celeste Ng, re-meeting–we crossed paths at Michigan, though she likely remembers me only as the person who let his coat-laden chair fall on her legs in the Hopwood Room while he looked on helplessly and awkwardly.) Also looking forward to meeting more people from One Story–you guys do wonderful work. We need more like you.