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Interview: Author Ben Tanzer

By Keidra Chaney in Miscellaneous on May 17, 2007 4:59PM

You could hurl a rock on pretty much any street in downtown Chicago and hit three or four aspiring novelists struggling to get their big break. Or you might hit Ben Tanzer. A regular contributor to Punk Planet and Wonkavision and a self-described literary “late bloomer,” Tanzer’s first novel, Lucky Man, was released by small book publisher Manx Press this past March, less than a decade after he first plunged into writing in his early 30’s.

BenPhoto1.jpgPeppered with profanity, drugs, sex, and 80’s pop-culture references, the book is a stream-of-consciousness tale that follows four teen protagonists through their final days of high school tinto young adulthood. Described by a reviewer at Portland's Williamette Week as “a Rubik's Cube on acid,” its edgy-but-funny content is probably not what one would expect as the first-time novel of a trained social worker. Tanzer, a graduate of University of Chicago’s School of Social Administration, has a full-time job in the non-profit sector while continuing to write for various literary and music publications, and promote Lucky Man.

The book has already earned Tanzer readings at Quimby’s and Columbia College and a brief but favorable mention in Time Out Chicago. It has also given him the chance to pull together a DIY U.S. book tour at indie bookstores in North Carolina, Portland, and New York. Chicagoist sat down with Tanzer to talk about the thrill and the constant hustle of getting into Chicago’s literary scene through the back door.

Chicagoist: So you say you started writing professionally a bit late. What spurred you on to get into it?

Ben Tanzer: It's funny, you always read about people who started writing in high school or junior high school. I took a creative writing course in high school, which was required, and I really enjoyed it, and that’s when I first got the idea that you could write [for a living]. That class, something sort of stuck with me. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it, I fantasized about it for about ten years, but I could not get started. I would actually write in my journal about when I would get started. I actually had this whole backlog of the ideas I wanted to write about. So when I approached 30, I really asked myself “what do I want to do?” I wasn’t feeling down, or “old,” or anything. I just decided that in my 30’s, I was finally going to take this fantasy and try to turn myself into a writer.

C: What kind of things did you write at first?

BT: At first I was writing fiction, and submitted wherever I could, and then I started realizing some of my fiction – some of the essays I wrote were so [based in real life] I might as well call it what it is, creative non-fiction … I knew I wanted to write for magazines so I e-mailed Punk Planet with a pitch, they didn’t take the first one, but after that I was on a bit of a roll, where they started publishing my stuff. They’re always interviews. I am fascinated by artists, I love artists of all kinds: writers, moviemakers, painters. I love people who are struggling, people under the radar, creative people who have to work 9-5 jobs… people like us.

C: So is struggle is a big theme of your writing?

BT: I think one of the themes what seems to come up a lot in what I write about, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, interviews – I am really interested in how people cope, whether it’s positively or negatively. I’m drawn to struggling artists, they are not all literally “struggling”, of course, but they are coping, trying to make a go of it. One of the things that has come up a lot for me is characters coping with abandonment, in particular, not just the obvious issues of being abandoned by parents or a loved one, but being abandoned by society, by culture, being the “other…” It’s not always conscious, but many of the characters I write about are coping internally, so they are really lacking some social skills – they are coping, but not coping well. So when people don’t cope well, what do they do? They abuse drugs, they get into violent behavior, they don’t always know how articulate or communicate with they people they are involved with. Like the characters of [Lucky Man] are purposely kind of inarticulate – but most teenage boys are inarticulate. As the book progresses they get a little more articulate, but their coping skills don’t get much better.

C: Do you think your job, or your background in social work has informed a lot of what you write about?

BT: I’m probably drawing from that, I think as a social worker I’m naturally drawn to those issues. A lot of the things that made me want to write also made me want to be a social work, but I’m also, like a fourth generation social worker [in my family,] so there was no way that I wasn’t going to go into that. Being a social worker has definitely informed what I write about. But I think they characters I write about are less influenced by the people I work with and more influenced by the people I know, including myself, for sure.

C: How do you balance your day job and your writing? Are they supportive of it, or do they just look the other way?

BT: I think they fall more into the “we don’t want to know” category, or it might be “we don’t know.” I don’t hide it, but I don’t [promote] it either. I am much more self-conscious about promoting myself at work. Some co-workers know about it, some of them stumble into it. The other day someone came in my office and said “oh I found out you wrote a book and I’m going to buy it!”. And that was great. But my boss, for example, I don’t think he has any idea that I write at all, and that’s cool. I try to keep it separate.

C: Was Lucky Man one of those ideas that you had in your journal from before you started writing?

BT: It’s funny, because as soon as I started to write the book, it came together kind of quickly in my head. I knew where it was gonna start, for sure, and I knew where it was going to end. The first page and the last page are pretty much how I originally pictured it. I read about people who have Post-It’s or detailed outlines [for their book ideas]. What I did, I made myself go to one of those one-day book writing seminars, at one of those hotels by the airport. It wasn’t like I was trying to write a novel per se, I just wanted to get started. I went there, and didn’t really pay a lot of attention, but during the day, I drew four boxes, for each of the four characters … I wrote the beginning in the first box,and the bottom part of the last box was the last page, and I just filled in what I thought the four sections would look like. I wrote it in 3 months, every day, 30 minutes a day. Once it started, it was kind of like downloading it from my brain. My rule is to never edit while I write, though, which makes it easier to write something in three months.

C: How did you eventually get a publisher interested in it?

BT: I used to write for an (online) literary journal, first out of Brooklyn, then out of Chicago called Midnight Mind, I loved [the journal,] and I loved the editor Brett Van Ernst - wherever he is. And he should know, if he happens to read this, if I find him, I’m going to knock him on his ass. He was a very supportive and wonderful editor. I sent him a rough draft of the book when I finished it, and I said “I just want your thoughts.” He came back to me and said that Midnight Mind was planning on doing a book imprint, and asked if they could use the book as a debut book. Now this was a draft, I wasn’t really expecting anything out of it. We were talking covers, galleys, etc. And he just disappeared. One day he put a message on the website, saying Midnight Mind had ceased to exist. And with it, so did my book deal.

So then I started shopping it around … I saw that another indie publisher out of New Hampshire was having a contest to publish a book, my book won, which was a surprise, but six months later then that publisher disappeared. That same week, Steve Lafler, the publisher of Manx Media – he called me, and I should say that I’ve known him for years, we’re kind of buddies – he’s a graphic novelist, and he had mentioned that Manx Media was starting a book imprint, and asked if I had anything. I just mentioned that I was just dropped by my publisher. So I sent it to him, about 18 months ago. So I guess he liked it, because here we are.

C: So you’ve been all over the place, traveling with the book in terms of promotion and what not, you’ve been kind of DIYing it, you took it upon yourself. Do you suggest that for most writers?

BT: My dad was a painter, and he really struggled with the “hustle” part of [his work]. I think he was very talented, but was always hustling, and really suffered with it – I think it’s one of the reasons I didn’t start writing earlier. I don’t think he made it even remotely appealing to be an artist. I think I always had this fantasy that when you are a writer you get to do book readings, interviews like this. But if you waited for it to come to you, it probably wouldn’t, so I was all set to hustle. Steve’s been hustling like crazy too, but I figured that no one was going to find me, so I anywhere I would travel for my job, I would send copies of the book and get press there, call bookstores there and try to book readings. I think it’s fun, I’m really trying to stick to it.

C: I don’t know if that ‘hustle’ part of it is always intuitive for all writers, though, in the way that it is for, say, musicians or other types of artists, I think writers some times fall into that. “Oh I just wrote a book and people will just find it.”

BT: I dunno, part of it might be influenced by growing up with an artist, but I think part of it is my association with writers, artists, etc. I’m obviously pretty drawn to the DIY/Indie artist scene, and those folks are always hustling. Now I’ve got a full-time job, a family, a mortgage, and all that, so I’m not fully into that scene, but the writing part of my career has pretty much been “hustle or die” and I have been really inspired by that.