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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ben Loory: The Art of The Short Story

By Lorinda Toledo

Ben Loory's short stories are unique and have universal appeal. Maybe it's his background in screenwriting. Or maybe it's his talking televisions and humorous octopi. Or perhaps its his succinct, yet dream-like prose.

Publisher's weekly has compared Ben to Kafka and famed Hollywood animator Tex Avery. His stories capture the imagination of readers and critics alike, drawing them into a world of contemporary fables, tales unlike any they've encountered. His stories have appeared widely in online and print publications ("The New Yorker," "Best American Short Stories," "Glimmer Train") and have been showcased several times on NPR's This American Life

Ben's book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) is now in its fifth printing, and had been chosen for numerous awards, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, the Starbucks Coffee Bookish Reading Club, one of 10 Best Fiction Books of the Year by the Hudson Booksellers retail chain, and the Nobbie Award for Best Book of the Year, given by the arts and culture magazine TheNervousBreakdown.com.

This October, Ben will be teaching two classes at Writing Pad! Join us for a 1-day class to ignite the short stories inside of you on Sun., Oct. 20, followed by a 4-week class beginning Mon., Oct. 28 that will end in you getting published. Read on for a glimpse of how the artistic mind of Ben Loory works:


The stories from your collection, "Stories for Nighttime 
and Some for the Day," are short and often fable-like. Where
do your ideas originate?

I don't know that I really have ideas -- I only deal in images and emotions. I get a flash of an image -- like a canoe, or a tree -- and then I have a character interact with that and the story moves on from there. But the story as an idea, a concept, only exists once the story's complete, once I've finally found my way through the whole thing to the end. I never conceive of a story as a whole, or have any kind of outline or blueprint or "something to say"; writing for me is a process of discovery; it's not about ideas, but about the unfolding of a particular character in a particular situation.
Can you share about your writing routine or process with us?
I tend to write first drafts very quickly-- often in ten or fifteen minutes. Then I spend months and sometimes years editing and rewriting and taking the story apart and putting it back together again until the whole thing makes sense. I work at night all alone in my house when everything is quiet and there are no distractions. I drink a lot of tea and I walk around the block constantly. There's really not much difference between me and a crazy person.
What appeals to you about writing short stories?
I write short stories because that's what comes out; it's not so much that they appeal to me as that I seem to appeal to them. In real life, I try to speak simply and clearly and to the point. I guess that doesn't make for a novelist.
Despite the fantastical premise of some of your stories, are they ever inspired from real life?
When I'm writing them, my stories always seem completely removed from me, like something happening on some other plane of existence, but once they're done, I can always see my own life in them. Sometimes quite transparently, to the point where it's a little embarrassing. I mean, obviously no one can ever write anything that doesn't come filtered and shaped by their own experience. It just might be a little harder to spot when on the surface you're talking about octopi and spacemen.
You received your MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute, and continue to work in film. How does screenwriting influence your short stories, and vice versa?
Actually, I haven't worked in film for years. I stopped writing screenplays as soon as I started writing stories; I was just so much better at writing stories and enjoyed it so much more. That being said, my stories definitely grew out of my work as a screenwriter. My obsession with clear story structure and my focus on visual storytelling comes directly from that experience.
You also got your bachelor's degree from Harvard in Visual Arts. What type of art did you do (or do you still do)? Does it influence your writing, or do you write about your art?
I studied film. Harvard was kind of a weird place, and I think they were almost ashamed to actually have a film department so they stuck it in the basement of this English department building and called it part of the "Visual and Environmental Studies" department, which also encompassed drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design and some other stuff. (No one ever explained to me what the "environmental" part was. Maybe architecture? I really don't know.) Anyway, yeah, I studied film. Film history, theory and criticism, as well as documentary and narrative filmmaking and animation. It all led me down the road to screenwriting, which led in turn to writing stories, and here we are. I still see my stories unfold in my mind as little movies or cartoons as I write them.
Your short stories have been featured in The New Yorker, as well as on NPR -- two things many writers dream of accomplishing. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
I wish I could say I had anything to do with all that, but really I didn't -- it was all my agent and my editor at Penguin. I'd published around fifty or sixty stories in various literary journals before my story "The TV" got into The New Yorker, and I always expected someone to approach me about putting a book of them out, but no one ever did. Then the day after that story appeared in The New Yorker, I got a book deal from Penguin. So yes, that definitely was a game-changer! As for NPR, they've been amazing-- I think more people have found my work through This American Life and Selected Shorts than any other way. It's been a godsend. And, once again, I had nothing to do with it. So much of finding success as a writer is a matter of luck and of finding people who believe in you.
What do you consider the most important element for a short story?
Relentless forward motion.
Your stories are usually 1000 words or less, how do you make sure that you squeeze in a complete story in such few words?
1000 words is actually a lot of words. I mean, we all tell each other stories all day long and most of our stories are pretty short. If someone's telling me a story and it takes more than five or six minutes, they've probably already lost my attention. Stories just don't need to be that long, and they don't need to get longer just because you write them down. If you stick to the point and always keep moving the story forward, the end will come soon. It almost has no choice.
Can you give us a preview of some of the things you will cover in your class?
As a writer, I just focus on understanding character (and story) as a simple conflict of desires. Everything else I do flows directly out of that. We'll definitely be covering these things.

Thanks, Ben! That was so helpful and insightful. Writing Pad-ers, I bet you've got some great stories to tell, too. And I bet you're dying to learn how Ben does it, and you want to get them published. So sign up now before his classes are full!

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