The Deathstar-like Gravitational Pull ~ A View From the Keyboard of Ben Tanzer

Sometime in the last year, a message came into my Facebook inbox that read something like: “We should probably meet for real, don’t you think?” Now this wasn’t one of those weird and steamy on-line flirtations that ultimately leads to a disappointed face-to-face, but instead a reaching out by a totally swell guy and fine writer by the name of Ben Tanzer. See, Ben and I travel in the same circles here in Chicago, and sometimes in the cyber world, too. I’ve even seen him give a reading at the wonderful Reading Under the Influence series here in the city. But we had never actually met.

So we made a date. And you know what? You ever meet that person who is so genuinely funny, kind, and interested in things and people in the world other than himself that you can’t help but feel comfortable and lucky to be in his company? Well Ben Tanzer is that guy. Really. You should know him. In fact, you can know him, more or less, by following him around cyberspace this month as he undertakes THE NEW YORK STORIES TOUR 2012. I am thrilled that he has chosen View From the Keyboard as one of his stops.

Oh, and by the way, check out this beautiful handmade book The New York Storieswritten by Ben, illustrated by Laura Szumowski, and published by the The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

So now, without further ado and blabber, I bring you Ben Tanzer and his View From the Keyboard.

VIEW: Why this space?

TANZER: So to begin, this is my dining room table, and this is where I do most of my writing when I’m home, which is most of the time. I tend to write early in the morning, or late at night, and at those times, this is the only space that is unoccupied. I also write when my family are out of the house, and when those rare moments exist, I apparently drift there from force of habit, though possibly there is some Deathstar-like gravitation pull at play that I’m not fully aware exists.

VIEW: What little thing here inspires you?

TANZER: The spot itself is not necessarily inspirational in and of itself, but the opportunity to write always is. I would add though, that I have always enjoyed the floor to ceiling windows in our apartment, the view and hustle and bustle of our neighborhood, the way the light comes in, the table itself, the flowers that will be there if anywhere, the books I tend to leave around, and the painting by my father on the wall of my brother and me when we were the age of my children. The space is suffused with things I enjoy, and things that are comforting, which is cool, and centering I suppose, if not actually inspirational.

VIEW: What can’t we see in the photo?

TANZER: What you cannot see is how close the living room couch is to the table. Or that the kitchen is right behind it. That you are only a short hall away from the rest of our apartment, and that since I am not writing as I took these photos, my kids are probably steps away. As is my wife. There isn’t much space to the space, but there is enough for now. I would add that another reason this space works for me, is because from the start of my efforts to write I always assumed I would be bogged-down with work and family and so decided I couldn’t be precious about where I would write or when. If I could find time to write, I had to, every time. That said, the idea of a separate space to write and get away to is an ongoing fantasy of mine, though also fraught with some measure of dissonance. To have a separate space would imply that I might have more time, and some control over that time, and that kind of freedom is almost impossible to imagine. Almost.

VIEW: How much time do you spend there?

TANZER: I actually spend an inordinate amount of time here. But that’s because I also work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we eat our meals here and do homework. Pay bills and make phone calls. It’s where I deal with email and blogging, and read the newspaper and books. For everyone in the house it is the center for most activities, but for me especially, and now that I am writing this I am beginning to wonder whether I in fact spend time anywhere else. I will get back to you on that.

VIEW: What time of day do you write?

TANZER: As I have somewhat alluded to, whenever I can, but that is with caveats I suppose. When I write is not remotely based on what feels like a productive time of day for me, but when I know I can in advance, and then my really trying to stick to that time. I have never tried to determine whether there is a good part of day. I don’t think there is, but I also haven’t wanted to test it, because I don’t feel like I have the flexibility to be precious about it. That said, someday there may be time, and I may decide then to be very precious, the right time, the right place, the right music, and drinks, and when that time comes I plan to be a real monster, and unbelievably uncool to anyone who messes with my process or the writing space in my head.

“IN A SINGLE BOUND” (Excerpt from THE NEW YORK STORIES)

“So,” she says, smiling. “Do you think this guy is stalking you or what?”

They are going out to lunch together. She is the intern. She is young and vibrant, if a little weird and awkward, with her interest in graphic novels, Spider-Man, and him, all things he is interested in as well.

He normally makes it a point to avoid the younger employees, especially the female ones. He wants to get to work, get what needs to be done, done, and then get home to his wife, and his real life. Because that’s the thing; like Spider-Man he lives in two worlds, and his real life has little to do with work or who he is at work. Spider-Man is both a superhero and an everyman struggling to pay his bills and deal with a boss who doesn’t appreciate his job performance. And that’s him as well, just in reverse. He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included.

It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations at all, and frankly it’s refreshing. The risk in this kind of relationship, though, is in the inherent power differential between the intern and him, a mix of age and status and gender; and superhero or not, he doesn’t always know how to manage that. The boundaries aren’t always clear.

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→Thanks, Ben, for stopping by on your whirlwind tour. Good luck with THE NEW YORK STORIES (and the rest of your books, too!) We will keep an eye on you and your doings over at your site: This Blog Will Change Your Life. -PMc←

A Cross Between a Rabbit Hole and a Storm Cellar ~ View From the Keyboard of Lauryn Allison Lewis

Lauryn Allison Lewis is becoming a literary go-to girl here in Chicago. She’s a regular reader about town (including reading at tonight’s QUICKIES! Chicago event at the Innertown Pub at 7:30) and is known for her fine reviews in Literary Chicago. Lauryn writes fiction, book and bakery reviews, interviews, and essays. Her fiction has been featured at Curbside Splendor, Dogzplot, Bartleby Snopes, and other sites. Her haute chapbook, The Beauties, can be found at LaurynAllisonLewis.com. Her first novella is forthcoming from CCLaP in 2012. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, a coeditor of Literary Chicago, and a regular contributor for both.

And here is where it all happens—

Lauryn: My writing space is much more like a closet than an office. It juts out from the corner of my living room, which sometimes makes it a noisy place to work. Still, the natural light in this corner of the house is better than anywhere else, and I shamelessly hog sunny patches; I am very much like a cat that way.

I usually write directly into my laptop, but I also keep a journal close by to reference notes I’ve made, or story-clues I’ve left myself in the night. Yes, I am one of those weird sleep-writers. This morning’s note, for example, says: a cross between a rabbit hole and a storm cellar. This makes sense to me. I have a Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter that I will sometimes use to write letters and poems. Whenever I use the typewriter I feel compelled to pour myself a gigantic scotch, chain smoke cigarettes, and channel Ernest Hemingway. This only ever happens very late at night.

Along with my books, I keep a lot of little doodads on the shelf beside my desk. The ceramic Chinese Good Fortune Kitty was a gift from my mom. Not sure yet if it actually brings good fortune, but its little winking face makes me smile and I gaze at it a lot when the writing isn’t jiving. Last winter I constructed bird’s nests for some robot-birds I’d been dreaming about. Did you know that robot-birds lay square eggs? Well they do. Keeping them nearby reminds me to strive to see the world in less-usual ways.

I have a cork board hanging directly behind my swivel chair. Right now it is full of images that help me to conjure the emotions I want to put into the story I’m working on. The image in the upper left corner is of Leo Tolstoy’s grave in the Stary Zakaz Wood. Kind of morbid, maybe, but I think it looks so beautiful and peaceful. Below that is a tiny painting of Kurt Vonnegut made by my friend Nikki Hollander. Lots of images of farms, forests, and bare trees. A letter from Stuart Dybek written on yellow legal pad paper. The card of an editor at Greywolf who’s interested in the novel manuscript I’m wrapping up. A blue paper badge that says COURAGE, which I found going through my grandma’s things, just after she passed away. My husband calls this a “mood board”. I call it motivation.

So that’s it! Nothing fancy, but I do get a ton of work done here. I wrote ninety percent of The Beauties here, including this:

The Beauties (an excerpt)

There was silence between them and a late summer gust blew across the fallow wheat field to the north of the house and whistled through the wild raspberry patch growing gnarled beside it. Seconds stretched to snapping, then sprung back with sonic force, creating in the wake a silence so cataclysmic, so emptied of sentiment, it expanded infinitely and devoured all surrounding sound; it leeched color from the landscape. Fern rubbed her bare arm as though from cold.

“Happy Birthday, Fern,” Jerry said again, because he was the father, a man; because it was his duty to push on. He felt the words come apart in his throat and splinter his voice. He couldn’t keep watching her rub her arms like that, afraid of what he’d see, afraid to see her rice paper skin threaded with tiny blue veins slashed apart, flayed. He fought the urge to slap her arms away from each other, wanting suddenly to forbid her body the comfort of its own touch. He didn’t want to see her without the speed of a horse blowing her hair back the way he’d imagined it.

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If you’d like to read more from The Beauties, you can find the chapbook at my website: LaurynAllisonLewis.com. There’s also a rundown there of the readings I’m participating in during the month of July. Thanks for letting me share my view from the keyboard!

Thank you, Lauryn, for the tour. Break a leg at the reading tonight. Hey, and writer/readers, why not contribute to View From the Keyboard? Guidelines here. -PMc←