Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Ben Lerner

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Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner's hotly anticipated second novel, 10:04 (McClelland & Stewart), deals with super storms, sticky relationships and mortality both literal and artistic. The narrator of 10:04 has had a hell of a year: he found literary acclaim, discovered he had a heart condition and fielded a request from a friend to father a child. Jonathan Franzen described Lerner's writing as “hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence", and 10:04 is a witty, vivid book, bursting with life.

Ben speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Ben tells us about the importance of mixing up your writing rituals, the "strange, great" book you should read next and his new project about why people hate poetry.

Ben, an American, will appear in person at IFOA on Wednesday, September 17, 2014, where he will read and speak with British novelist Ian McEwan and interviewer Carol Off. Visit the IFOA website for full event details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book and how it came to be.

Ben Lerner:

I don’t think I know how my book came to be and I’m beginning to doubt authors should be trusted when they offer accounts of the origins of their own work. That said, I wanted to write a book about trying to imagine the way the present shifts in relation to the future — what it feels like, for instance, to look at art or make art in a city you think might soon be under water; what it’s like to imagine having children when you feel like the mythologies of your own childhood have crumbled. But I had no interest in a despairing book — it’s about seizing moments of collective possibility in the midst of the contemporary madness.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


Writing for me is always more about what you discover in the act of composition than it is about realizing an idea that precedes that act. Still, one has a territory of concern, and an intuition of form, a prosody. I knew I wanted to explore how the future is a fiction that determines the present and how it can be both exhilarating and horrifying when those futures start to fade. I also knew I wanted to write about biological reproduction and its contradictions at the end of an empire.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


I wrote parts of this book before I knew they would form part of the novel — for instance there is a poem at its centre that I wrote before I conceived of the frame around it. I worked on the book for about four years — or more, depending on how you date some of the ideas.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


The only rule I have is that I change the rituals — so that if I’ve written something in the morning I’ll make sure to revise it at night; if I write something in the apartment I’ll make sure to read it carefully on an airplane — I just mean that mixing up the immediate context is what allows me to keep the work from becoming overly familiar. I don’t pretend this is an original idea.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Oh, I feel discouraged all the time. I just think of doubt as part of the process. I’d be more worried if I suddenly found it easy and pleasant to write.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I like that notion Walter Benjamin had that a great work of literature either dissolves a genre or invents one. That’s a good definition of a great book in part because it says there’s no stable definition. I’m trying to think of a strange, great book most people haven’t read. What about Boris Pasternak’s My Sister Life?


What are you working on now?


I’m writing a monograph about why people hate poetry — about why poetry is the art forum that is always denounced and defended. I think that a culture’s varieties of disdain for poetry are very revealing.

Ben Lerner is a poet, novelist, essayist, and critic. He has been a Fulbright scholar, a finalist for the National Book Award, a Howard Foundation fellow, and a Guggenheim fellow. In 2011 he won the Preis der Stadt Müenster für Internationale Poesie, the first American to receive this honor. He is the author of a novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and the poetry collections The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

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