Wants and Needs: An Interview with Ben Schrank

Roxane Gay

Ben Schrank’s latest work, Love Is a Canoe, centers around the idea of marriage but it is also about desire and ambition and what grows when these things are absent.

I find Schrank to be a confident, intelligent writer, who seems to know his characters well, always revealing a truth at precisely the right moment in the story. He is particularly adept at creating strong female characters who are nuanced, a rarity in fiction about love, sex, and marriage.

We recently had the opportunity to talk, via e-mail, about his latest book.

Roxane Gay: I was particularly interested in Emily Babson. I don’t know that I’ve seen a more fully realized character in recent memory. There were so many odd details about her that felt very true. One detail I cannot let go of is how she loved calling 311 and felt satisfaction when she saw that one of her calls was successful. Where did this character come from and how did she fit into what you wanted to do with Love Is a Canoe?

Ben Schrank: Thanks about Emily. She was the hardest character for me and the one that my wife and my agent and my editor had me work on the most. Perhaps because she was a needy case in earlier drafts, I overcompensated, and gave her more texture than the other characters. I wanted Emily to be shy and involved and determined to be in New York and also always wanting more from New York and able to explain things that are not animate. I wanted people to trigger anxiety in her. I wanted her to duck down behind cars when she saw people she knew from college. But most of all I wanted her to marry because she believed in a construct and trusted that construct. This is, I think, not a good reason to marry. A close friend of my wife sees me in Emily. I also love 311.

RG: The structure of Love is a Canoe was really interesting, both in using a beloved, very sentimental self-help book on marriage as a narrative frame, and by writing each chapter in the point of view of the character whose story is being told at a given time. Why did you choose this frame and structure?

BS: This structure felt modern and necessary to me. I understand now that I took a risk that some readers didn’t embrace by indulging in very sentimental material (in Marriage is a Canoe) but at the time, I didn’t know that. And regardless, I don’t care. I know that a lot of the book is interior (a whole lot if you analyze it) and breaking it up give it some momentum. Also, because I work full time, I wanted a ‘kitchen sink’ of a novel, that, hopefully, would stretch to accept all I could throw into it—so that I could write at different times with different intentions. With three months at MacDowell, for instance, a very different novel would have come out of me.

RG: Do you read self help books? Can they help?

BS: No, and I doubt it. But I heard a good writer speak on a panel last week who said that we all think self-help books are dumb until it’s 4am and we’re desperate and hopeless and then we turn to them. So I suspect that there will be, undoubtedly, a time for me when my answer will seem unforgivably glib. Future self: I am sorry.

RG: Even though there’s this cynical undertone, that Peter Herman “wrote” a book about marriage, and was pretty terrible at marriage himself, that he didn’t really believe in his own words, we also see somewhat of a happy ending. Each character seems to get some approximation of what they want. Do you believe in happy endings as a writer?

BS: Well, I don’t know that getting what you want leads to a happy ending. It’s just an ending. Hopefully, my characters stumble into events that may feel like choices to them. Some end up happy, and some are, perhaps, over-served with happiness. Some spoilers: One character is fired, one is dating a rebound guy who isn’t too sexy, and one ends up with a lady who is mean. I don’t look for happy endings in books. I hope for endings that are true.

RG: Did you feel like the ending in Love is a Canoe was true?

BS: I know it’s true for Emily Babson. I crossed my fingers that readers would ‘get’ what I was trying to do in the last few pages, which is that, though the ending may seem happy, if you look a little closer you see that the characters are moving on with their lives, by which I mean that they are setting themselves up for new problems. A few readers embraced the ending I was trying to achieve. That felt good.

RG: You mentioned that I’ve had a different reading of your book than others. How so?

BS: You said, approximately, that the book fell apart at the end. Others feel the novel took too much time at the beginning to get where it needed to go. Go figure. I think readers too often adhere to how they’ve been trained to read. They learn that books they like do x or y. They are reading and judging against training. I don’t disagree with your take or theirs and am as fascinated as anybody by the author/book/reader conundrum. But I also knew that, by throwing a lot of stories in the air and not precisely following some traditional ways of crafting a novel that I know pretty well, my novel would be vulnerable to these kinds of readings. And then there’s your next question:

RG: You note that readers often adhere to their training. How do you try to break your training, both as a reader and writer?

BS: Well, I can’t. I was trained that feeling sympathy for characters isn’t crucial to a book’s success. I can’t shake that as a reader. I’ve since learned that sympathy is important to others so I can break training by attacking that issue intellectually, and I suppose I do try, both as reader and writer. But when I read for pleasure, I’m reading to see what the writer can pull off. I don’t care if I like the characters or not. Think back to Day of the Locust by Nathanael West or Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Did you love the characters in those books? That was never the point.

RG: Who (or what) are some of your influences? I know this question gets asked a lot but I am always interested in whom other writers are reading and what shapes their writing.

BS: Kate Christensen’s work influenced me, as it has for many others. We were in a writer’s group together for a few years and she listened to our comments and appreciated them and then went ahead and did her own thing. Bruce Wagner (and I’ve said this many times now) is probably the least appreciated living American writer. I wish I could hear voices and write them down the way he can. Love him or hate him, the man is a genius. Harold Brodkey and Alice Munro and John Edgar Wideman—his name came up for me today and I recalled how carefully I read his prose when I was in my early thirties. I like what Jim Gavin did with his short story collection, Middle Men, which is out this month. He will influence what I do next. Robert Coover and John Hawkes meant a lot to me in college, and from them I learned you can never get free of the storytelling they so brilliantly subverted. Lydia Davis is still important to me—she’s the best there is at writing incisive prose.

RG: I thought your female characters were especially well written in that they felt fully-developed, complex, authentic, and more human than we often see from female characters. How do you approach writing female characters?

BS: First, thank you. I try to figure out what a character wants and then have them make mistakes on the way toward what they want. If the writer handles the want as primary, the character’s difference from the writer becomes, while not a secondary characteristic, more of an envelope for the want. And then there’s the pleasure of surprising the reader with the contrast in the character. Characters are jumbles of contrasting wants and needs. So let me try to explain another way: If the writer sees them as such, difference is not reduced, but becomes something that the reader puts on the character, while the writer need only struggle with the wants and needs. I don’t pretend or claim to know or understand women. But writing about men doesn’t interest me as much.

RG: Why doesn’t writing about men interest you as much?

BS: The darkness and cruelty in men’s souls is not something I want to dig into. I watch guys on the subway all the time and I’m just not that curious about what they’re up to. I have a general sense and that’s plenty. That stuff doesn’t need to be fleshed out. We still live too much with the damage men do. But the darkness and cruelty in women’s souls? Women are not so easy to read. They wear masked expressions on the subway that are endlessly inscrutable. For me, women are far more provocative.

RG: Are there other male writers who write women well?

BS: I think Leonard Michaels wrote women beautifully. Junot Diaz. Zola. Elmore Leonard does a nice job sometimes. It’s the ones who don’t write women well who stick out, though, like Richard Ford.

RG: I’ve always wanted to know what a publisher does at a publishing imprint. This has nothing to do with your book, I know, but I think about this far more than any one person should. What does a publisher do?

BS: A publisher makes sure that the book that comes into the house goes out into the world with the best possible chance of successfully living the life that the writer and publisher agree that the book should have. A publisher ‘produces’ the book and directs all aspects of the process and, ultimately, takes responsibility for the life of that book.

RG: What’s it like working on both sides of publishing? Do you ever find that a difficult balance to negotiate?

BS: I work in Children’s publishing so I’m not privy to the gossip that happens on the adult side, where I’m treated as a writer. I can say, though, that in my better moments, I believe I can hear my publishing house talking to itself and I can behave in response to that. Put more clearly: I don’t find the balance difficult. Instead, I do know that while I’m a writer and thus, the most important person in the world, I also understand that others, who are helping me with my novel, may not feel that I’m the most important person in the world every minute of every day. And with that additional bit of knowledge, I can behave accordingly. But a lot of writers seem to have wised up to this lately. I guess because they talk to each other on the Internet.

RG: Do you read reviews? What do you do with criticism?

BS: I’ve read most of the reviews for Love is a Canoe. In the New York Times Book Review, Dean Bakopoulous wrote that my novel was “a story about the delusions with which self-aware, smart people are all too willing to live in order to avoid the painful (yet entertaining) upheaval that comes with truth.” I wanted to tattoo his words on my arm. At the same time, I had to stop reading Goodreads reviews, not because they aren’t provocative and thoughtful, but because they are cacophonous.

Janet Maslin got four facts straight-up wrong in her mediocre review of my book in the Times, including the way she described my book in her opening sentence, where she seemed to get muddled and then just couldn’t be bothered to go back and do the work necessary for clarity. Then she did it again, and again, and again. Her carelessness hurt. But she also got off a few funny lines. There was plenty that was bittersweet in her disliking a few lines (among them, mentioning Erica Jong) that I wrote four years ago because, in the moments after writing them, I remember thinking, wow, if this book gets published and these lines don’t get edited out, Janet Maslin will hate them. But I figured why worry? What were the odds? And the lines stayed in the book and that wry little daydream came all too terribly true. I talked to a writer recently who was thrown off course by a bad New York Times review for fourteen years. I think most criticism is valuable, though. I’m an advocate of writers taking notes and appreciating edits. I’m an editor, too, after all. Therefore who I am not to embrace criticism? I’m listening. I appreciate the reviews. I want to do better next time.

RG: What are you working on now?

BS: A novel about a woman who runs away from her problems by moving to the moon.

RG: What do you like most about your writing?

BS: I love the writing process. I like to work for a long time on building a novel. I like the aloneness of it. This is in sharp contrast to the publishing part. And deep down, I’m a shy person who feels most complete trying to write a novel.

Ben Schrank published his first novel, Miracle Man, in 1999. The New Yorker selected it as one of six debut novels in that year’s fiction issue, saying “As the ethical lines blur, Schrank makes New York seem sharp and new.” Love is a Canoe is his most recent novel. He is currently publisher of Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers. He grew up in Brooklyn where he now lives with his wife, Lauren Mechling, and son.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.