My publisher Steve Lafler and I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about writing novels. Our conversation went something like this:
Steve Lafler: Ben, in your debut novel Lucky Man, you take a unique approach—the story is told from the point of view of four friends. Gabe, Jake, Louie and Sammy each get a crack at the narrative from their own point of view. In part four of the book, Sammy’s version of the story brings a crescendo and a sort of denouement to the book. I’d like to know what inspired you to structure Lucky Man this way?
Ben Tanzer: Steve, I was thinking about how friends of a certain age or circumstance can become so close that their thoughts and experiences begin to merge, like they have one brain, and I really wanted to run with that. I also wanted the characters to be somewhat distinctive though and so they not only get to tell the same story from their perspective, but the novel is divided into four sections, with each section highlighting one of the characters and their struggles. I always knew the fourth section would be focused on Sammy and so I crafted his story to come to some bit of closure at the same time as the overall story. What I would like to know is what inspired you to tackle your new graphic novel in partnership with someone else? I could see where that might be an experience that’s both more creative and more frustrating.
Steve Lafler: When Stephen Beaupre and I began work on 40 Hour Man, we had no idea it would become a novel. We were creating it as installments to run in Buzzard magazine, a comics anthology we published under in the 90s. 40 Hour Man generated it’s own momentum; we serialized the piece over 13 issues of Buzzard.
The funny thing with graphic novels is that it may bebe best to start work without seeing a whole novel—it would be a daunting task to intend to write and draw hundreds of pages! For example, when I started BugHouse, I thought I had maybe thirty pages of material, and ultimately ended up with a pretty hefty novel, just following my muse and executing the premise.
As for the partnership with Beaupre, it grew out of the exact sort of shared experience/friendship you depict in Lucky Man, so we come full circle! It felt natural and organic to work with him; we put no pressure on ourselves, we just had a good time.
Meanwhile, I know you have a second novel underway, is a first draft done? How did you approach your sophomore effort?
Ben Tanzer: I have completed a first draft of my second novel which I am tentatively calling Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine. I had this idea that I wanted to do something focused on a couple that falls for one another quickly, implodes just as quickly, and then have to find their way back to one another. This idea had been kicking around in my head for several years. I also had a sense of how I wanted to start and finish it, knew there were a couple of scenes I wanted to do for sure, and then I just started writing. Lucky Man was somewhat similar, big idea, start and finish, a couple of scenes, except that once I started it I just kept going day after day until it was done and I always felt like I knew how I was going to get to the end I had in mind. With this new one, I would write for a week, and then I would put it down, I wasn’t always definitely sure where the next scene was going, but then something would come to me and I would get back to it. It took longer, but started in the same way. I guess if anything, Lucky Man was sort of more fully developed than I knew and desperate to get out of my head, and Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, was half-formed and comfortable with that. Having talked process, let’s talk themes. Are there themes you find yourself repeating in your work?
Steve Lafler: I seem to have come to my tenure here on the planet pre-installed with a will towards being a Zen trickster, so that comes through in my work. My big overarching thematic thread is: What is the nature of creativity? What is the purpose of being human? Why are we suspended in this peculiar medium known as “time”? These concerns came into focus for me in a most spectacular way on April 10, 1976 when I first gobbled down some magic mushrooms as a college freshman. As far as I can tell, I experienced a classic shamanic initiation, traveling through an apparent death and returning to consider it over time, through my art. On subsequent trips, I have not approached that terrifying threshold, let alone traveled through it.
Now let’s here about your overarching concerns that drive you to put it down on paper!
Ben Tanzer: Nice, I’m not sure I can compete with that. Still, there are definitely themes I come back to again and again, looking at them from new angles and trying to make sense of them. Coping is the probably the overarching theme, people coping with abandonment particularly, and abandonment by parents especially, but abandonment by society as well. I tend to focus on how poorly people cope with the things they are struggling with, how they turn to substance abuse and violence and obsessive compulsive behavior, how much of their coping is internal. I’m fascinated by their struggle to make sense of the world and their confusion about how they’ve found themselves where they are. They are people who are not sure how to communicate what they’re experiencing and don’t necessarily have the tools they need to gain more self-awareness. And this of course is all fictional. So, where does that leave us? What else do you want people to know before we say good-bye?
Steve Lafler: The concerns you list are certainly there in Lucky Man, especially in the parent/grown kid relationships. I suspect you start with a grain of truth, some emotional truth, and let it manifest as fiction? And I note that the theme of Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine is the next chronological step in life challenges after leaving home, that is to negotiate the rapids of relationships.
My thought to end on would be something like this… the novel (and/or the graphic novel) is truly a grand challenge to a creative person. It’s huge in scale, even if you bust one out if a few weeks, as Kerouac was known to do. It took me years of cartooning to warm up to the task, and I’m freeing myself at present to come at it anew from the moment. Fuck if I have any idea right now what my next novel will encompass, even what the overarching process will be, but I'm rarin' to take the bull by the horns and get on with it!You’re up maestro, give us the final word!
Ben Tanzer: What I love about novels, graphic or otherwise, is that they can be these sprawling messy affairs, with subplots and drama, cool characters, struggles, humor, babes, drugs, pop culture, politics, pain, joy, love, triumph, and insanity, yet still be cogent, focused, insightful, and entertain someone over a long afternoon or weekend. They’re like life in that way and that to me is pretty awesome. So is the chance to write them.