Although it is not safe to assume that a novel is autobiographical in nature (particularly when the novel in question, A Big Enough Lie, is about the creation of a fraudulent war memoir), nevertheless, I thought that its author, Eric Bennett, would be a fun person to meet for a drink. (He certainly writes bar scenes well, for what that’s worth.) It was not to be, however, as, when we were setting up this Q&A over e-mail, he informed me that he was on sabbatical from his academic job as an English professor at Providence College, and would be catching a plane out of the country imminently. The telephone, therefore, would have to do. Fortunately, I found him a friendly and engaging conversationalist, which was a very good thing, as I was predisposed to like him: his debut novel is excellent.
Date: September 8, 2015
Home town: Adrian, Michigan
Current town: Providence, Rhode Island
Occupation: English professor, novelist
Your novel creates an Oprah Winfrey-like television host, Winnie Wilson, and uses the on air interviews she conducts with two of your other characters, both writers, as a framing device. It’s a rather satisfying structure to explore your themes about truthfulness and falsehood and authorship. Of course, it now makes it hard for me to think of intelligent questions because I don’t want to ask the obvious ones that Winnie would ask! Clearly, this is not an autobiographical novel (except maybe the drinking part). But it does seem like you have something to say about memoirs and their popularity these days…are you criticizing memoirs as a form? Or are you criticizing popular taste and our culture’s fetishizing of authenticity? Or are you trying to blur the distinction we make between novels and memoirs?
Some of my favorite things to read lately are memoirs, and maybe even more, books that blur the line between fiction and memoir. My issue might be more a matter of market share than an absolute critique. There’s a widespread preoccupation with biography mapping on to authorship and I’m curious about what it says about us as a culture. Of course the romanticization of the author is an old tendency, at least 200 years old, going back to Byron and beyond, but more and more it’s become the center of gravity in American literature.
I remember long ago reading some literary theory in which the distinction was made between “readerly” and “writerly” texts, writerly texts being texts which were, for lack of a better word, self-conscious. Writing about writing, writing which makes the reader work a little harder, writing that’s not as easily accessible. Your novel seems to really encompass both of these types of writing: you have the complicated narrative structure and the demonstration of the creative process (in a bit of a pathological way) but your novel within the novel is actually a really gripping narrative. I actually rather appreciate the complexities here, but I wonder if some of your readers find the structure confusing or hard to follow. What kind of feedback have you been getting?
To the first part of your question, that’s an enormous compliment. The second part I’d concede. Readers do find the structure of A Big Enough Lie challenging, but I haven’t seen any criticism that dismisses the project; even those who find it challenging seem to find pleasure in the more conventional passages of it. Two of my favorite writers are William Faulkner and Henry James. I don’t write like either of them, but both of them have potboiler plots at the center of their novels. They create difficult layers of language, beneath which you find simpler elements of plot. I love that about them. I have a fairly strong plot sensibility; I like when characters are moving. I’m not a big fan of 200 or 300 pages of introspective, dramatically static writing. (Although that can be great when it’s done well.)
The difficulty of The Sound and the Fury can be a pain in the ass, but it’s about stolen money and lost virginity, if you get down to it.
I’ve never really thought about that before, but yes, that’s true, and Henry James is about who gets married, and who gets the money; marriage plots and inheritance.
There’s an awful lot of dialogue in A Big Enough Lie, which makes me think that it would make for an interesting screenplay. Have you given any thought to writing for film? Meta narratives are hard to get right, I think, but I can imagine this being a really good (although not universally popular) movie. What are your thoughts?
Keep telling people that! It would be hard to be a novelist in 2015 and not think about the film adaptability of whatever you’ve written. An adaptation of this particular book, though, would be challenging, with the story within a story. As for dialogue, I can’t imagine a reader who doesn’t enjoy that. Things are vivid, you get to know people through what they say; forward action is communicated through conversation. Evelyn Waugh, a favorite of mine, wrote amazing dialogue of upper class British people in rooms saying complex things in short snippets. It’s delightful.
But it’s tricky! You do it well, but a lot of authors don’t do it so well; people give each other lectures, and say things in conversation that no human being in the real world has ever said to another.
A simple trick of the trade: every one of us is preoccupied by what ever we’re preoccupied by. People, when they talk, broadcast their preoccupations more than they listen; dialogue becomes easier to write when you’re focusing on the meeting of obsessions in conversational form. Not to be too arcane, but Mistress Quickly (in Shakespeare’s Henry IV) talks and talks. She’s a predecessor to the voice in modern fiction. The literary critic James Wood pointed that out, and he’s right. Entertaining narcissism makes for a lot of good fiction.
You definitely write the bar scenes well. You capture that moment when someone who has been drinking is both lucid and disinhibited. When I was reading your novel, I was actually thinking of Walker Percy, a novelist who took on very big themes in his fiction, and asked the big questions about what gives human life meaning and what kind of stories we tell ourselves. That might just be me making random associations…what authors have inspired and influenced you?
There’s stuff all the way through that I just love. I really like Dickens and I really like Austen; both of them with a great execution and a finely crafted plot. These days, someone who is terrific at establishing forward momentum is Curtis Sittenfeld.
Is she the one who wrote Prep? That was a really good book. It was very evocative of a specific time and place.
Yes. She has a book called American Wife, which is about Laura Bush in all but name. It tells how someone who comes across as fundamentally decent could fall in love with someone who comes across as less fundamentally decent. It’s a very sympathetic story. I ended up liking Charlie Blackwell (the George W. Bush stand in). And now when I think of George W. Bush, he’s got a bit of Charlie Blackwell in him. It was really fascinating. Curtis wrote a flattering review of A Big Enough Lie, but I swear to God I loved her fiction even before that. Until the review came out, she was only a distant acquaintance, but this summer I’ve gotten to know her as a friend. She shared with me her manuscript for her book coming out (Eligible) which is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with reality television and unmarried sisters in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I will have to look for that one. And read American Wife. Everybody in your book seems to be lying, lying to others, lying to themselves, creating fictitious stories…it’s pretty cynical in a lot of ways. Is there any hope for some sincerity in today’s world?
My parents read the book in February before it came out and said that they were proud of me and they loved me but that they didn’t like the world as portrayed in this novel, and were sad to think it was the world they live in. That made me resolve, in future fiction, to write a little more hopefully. I feel that I’m not overly cynical (or overly hopeful), but the issues in A Big Enough Lie, especially the Iraq War, were upsetting to me, so a lot of angst came out in the book. Life is filled with so much, and a lot of it is redeeming and hopeful. The book I’m working on now goes to some brighter places, although I think the sensibility is similar.
It seems like one of the points your book makes is that art, specifically fiction, contains some truths that we need to hear. Or am I just looking for that hope and sincerity that I’ve been trying to find?
This goes back to your first question about memoirs, but one of the things fiction can do is allow us to think and dream on a different scale than what we live in, there can be hypotheses…some of my favorite writers dream largely and ask questions about how we can live, in ways you can’t do when you’re writing strictly factually. Sometimes it’s dystopian, sometimes positive. Dystopian fiction tends to be more fun to read. My novel has a flavor of Super Sad True Love Story…
Yes, it does. A slight exaggeration of all of our worst characteristics.
I don’t go as far as Gary Shtyengart does; and I’m too in awe of his talent to liken myself to him. But even further along the spectrum there’s George Saunders; his writing is apparently cynical but with a great heart at its center. He seems fundamentally hopeful.
Sure, it’s a quality that Kurt Vonnegut had (and he wrote about war well, with Slaughterhouse-Five); a deep anger and disappointment with life, but with humor and optimism, too.
Vonnegut was really amazing, very simple writing and conveying so much.
I often hear the criticism of novels that people don’t like to read about unlikable protagonists. Which, I think, really limits the reader. On the other hand, I thought even your most unlikable characters had some redeeming qualities.
I just read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, which contains a protagonist which many readers and critics found unlikable, and I remember the controversies surrounding those criticisms. The suggestion was that a female novelist writing a female character that was unlikable had a tougher row to hoe than a male novelist writing about an unlikable male character; there’s a double standard. Updike’s Rabbit, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert were okay, but Nora Eldridge was not okay. It’s interesting. I recognized her main character as a strong personality, but it didn’t diminish my interest in the book. I kind of want to reach into the grad school cabinet here: Northop Frye, a mid-twentieth century critic and scholar, said that heroes in romances are the most boring characters ever. The more a character can obtain conventional heroism the less likely he is to be interesting. Much of the production out of modern fiction is about capturing idiosyncrasy. Don Quixote. Emma Bovary. So I have no definite answer to that.
Different people read for different reasons. There’s no one right reason to love a book. I’ll often enjoy identifying with less sympathetic characters; that’s what my shortcomings look like. Like Anna Karenina’s husband, who has been cheated on, and just wants everything on the surface to look okay, just wants to smooth it all over. It’s similar to Midwestern repressiveness.
I’m from an Irish family; I know about things being covered up and smoothed over. I married into an Italian family, which is a very different culture. Italians are a lot more demonstrative. Maybe that’s why they aren’t known as much for their novels as they are for epics and operas.
You should read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. It’s excellent, and she makes it work by making the least demonstrative character the main character.
I will put that one on my list, too. I have seen that it has gotten some really good reviews. In your book, Antoine Greep was the only character who didn’t really ring true for me. But then again, we don’t get much of his direct voice; we get a fictionalized version of him (which was really a fictionalized version of Marshall Franklin Stang), and then his story is sort of told second-hand through Heather Kloppenberg and John Townley (who both have their own agendas, to say the least). What else happens with him? Do your characters have lives outside the book? Do you see yourself revisiting them? I am thinking of J.K. Rowling who keeps giving her readers more information and back stories: Dumbledore was gay, for example.
The real Antoine Greep, he’s real in my mind as well as on the page. The concocted one, he’s more of a pastiche of his creator’s own memory; he’s a cypher. There’s a little blurriness as a figure.
As far as revisiting them. I don’t think so. No. I think because the layers of reality are tweaked, I wouldn’t know who to export or how to export them. Although maybe if my current project doesn’t work out, I’ll think about it, now that you’ve given me the idea.
Okay. I’d like a footnote in that case. And what’s next for you? You’re working on another book now?
The next project…I’m writing about varieties of artistic aspiration in an east coast city. It’s not called Providence but it has the gothic campiness of Providence. It started as two or three short stories and the means to link them appeared so readily, that I’ve started to stitch them together into a conventional novel. This one’s more episodic. It’s more straightforward in structure than A Big Enough Lie. I’m interested in occupying different points of view, each of the chapters has a different protagonist, with artists, writers, cartoonists, male and female.
I will be looking forward to it. What book (or books) do you think everyone should read?
It’s a question I have to ask myself, as someone who teaches novels to college students. The one I feel most strongly about is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, if I had to pick one work of twentieth century American fiction. But it has no love story. What’s a novel without a love story?
People should read what they enjoy reading. I’ll urge different novels on different friends.
What book are you supposed to admire but just don’t?
I can’t really read Saul Bellow.
But I don’t really enjoy hating people as much as I used to. The longer you’re at it, the more generous you feel towards other projects; if you don’t love it, you can ignore it. Few things rouse my ire enough to say that thing should not exist.
That’s fair; very few pieces of writing are really pernicious.
I’m interested in pushing back against the collective interest in memoirs. But recently some of my favorite things have been flirting with that genre. I’ve been reading work by Ben Lerner. I’m glad he’s out there, I’ve enjoyed his novels, but I’ll never do something like that.
Is there a movie you’d recommend for our readers?
I don’t watch a lot of movies. I did enjoy Hot Tub Time Machine on an airplane once, though.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! Read my book! You can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/Big-Enough-Lie-Novel/dp/0810131218
I hope many people do. Maybe Oprah Winfrey will pick it for her new iteration of her book club. And then you’ll have to decide whether to be interviewed on social media. And you know she’s going to ask you if you’ve ever been to Iraq!
I can only dream.
Images Courtesy of Eric Bennett
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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