An Interview with Geoffrey Becker

by William H. Coles


What's New in Literary Fiction Read a sample story "This Is Not a Bar"

 

Geoffrey Becker Phone Interview 9/10/2009

William H. Coles

Geoffrey Becker Black Elvis
Black Elvis

Geoffrey Becker was born in Boston, grew up in Princeton, NJ, and presently lives in Baltimore, MD. He has published a previous collection of short stories, Dangerous Men, and the novel Bluestown. His collection Black Elvis won The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the title story was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2000. He teaches writing at Towson University where he is an associate professor of English.

WHC

You’re in Baltimore but you were born in Boston?

GB

I was born in Boston and grew up in Princeton, NJ.  I lived in Boston until I was three and I don’t remember much.

WHC

You teach now at Towson University?  What do you teach?

GB

I was hired for fiction writing.  That’s what I do mostly.  I teach the occasional literature class.  And I have administrative responsibilities in running the professional writing program.

WHC

Congratulations for winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for you story collection, Black Elvis.  It’s a wonderful collection.

GB

Thank you.

WHC

Do you feel that the role and the effects story has on our society, especially stories written in prose, are decreasing–the classic story with structure and meaning.  Will the prose story survive?

GB

I may have not the best view on it.  I’ve been trying to write things, and then when I go to school [and] I talk to students about story, so I don’t know if that’s true.  I hope it’s not true.

I need to learn more about video games.  I know my students are deeply into them and they have some sort of narrative going on there.  One thing I talk to my students all the time about is how stories . . . whether they know it or not . . . their lives are made up of stories.  And if they were thinking in narrative form, things happen for a reason and that there is some kind of causative structure to the world.  I try to talk to them about how those are artificially constructed, depending on how you make up stories, [and] you get to decide what the causative elements are.  But what you say is scary.  I don’t think it [story] can ever go a way, as an importance thing.  I do see tons of people writing stories.

WHC

On thinking about video games, they’re designed for interaction, for the user to affect the outcome of the story.  To be involved.  Make the monster kill or not kill, that sort of thing.  It’s a new way of engaging and enjoying stories that seems to challenge the way we deliver stories through prose.  And this might lose some of the advantages of telling fictional stories in prose that builds character and creates plots with a meaning.  Do you see what I mean?

GB

I think there is something about the visual element of that interaction that changes the chemistry of the story.  I think that stories that happen with pictures, and that’s what video is—moving images, and they’re incredibly detailed now, the visual element, and that’s different from stories that essentially take place in your head where the pictures have to be put there by the author.  I think if you could look at the brain wave activity of what was happening, they’re just different.  One is much more passive .

WHC

The imagination [reader’s] that is used by the author seems really valuable.  It personalizes it for every individual reader.

One of the aspects of story that seems to be changing is the idea of making up a story.  It’s being replace with a memoir-type of story construction—let me tell you about my life, let me tell you about why my life is important.  I find it an inferior way to create a great fictional story.  Do you see it the same way?

GB

It may be that.  In terms of my enjoyment of fiction, it depends on whether the author has gone past something that is solipsistic, and has engaged some larger more interesting questions.  I’m fine if the author says something is fiction–I read it as fiction and I don’t try to worry too much about did this actually happen, that doesn’t seem to be the point, I’m paying attention as whether this is a good story and engaging some larger questions; so that’s it, if it does that, then I think it’s pretty good.  But I’m sure you’re right that they’re writers who simply engage in navel gazing, and that’s ultimately not that interesting.

WHC

Where do your story ideas come from?  I know this is a hard question because I’m sure each one comes from some place different.  How do they generate, how do you process them, and how do they come out into a story?

GB

Every story is different for me.  I’m always experimenting, and trying to learn.  Writing for me is an ongoing investigation.  In some cases I begin with something I know about.  I write a lot of stories about musicians—and I’m a musician.  Some things have started with some real incident or place.

WHC

Is there something specific about “Black Elvis” that triggered the story?

GB

I liked the idea of the character.  First, there are a lot of black Elvises in the world; even the idea is not hugely original.  I liked the built-in contradiction.  There is a story by Alice Walker about a white singer who borrows Elvis, I can’t remember the title off hand; do you know it?

WHC

No.  ["Nineteen Fifty-Five" by Alice Walker.  In the collection You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.]

GB

It’s a pretty good story.  It’s about . . . it addresses the narrative about Elvis, you know, Elvis became famous singing African-American music.  So I liked the inversion of it.  That was a built-in problematic and slightly comic.  I tried to write that story a couple of times and it always died after a page or two.  I’ve also run blues jams in various cities, over the years.  So that’s a world I know something about.  You meet all kinds of folks at those venues.  I mean all kinds.

WHC

And it’s valuable for writers to have lots of interesting things in their lives.

GB

You need to get out.

WHC

Before you write about life.  What instrument do you play?

GB

I play guitar mostly, but other instruments too.  These days I’m playing a lot of finger style.

WHC

And flat-picking?

GB

I can do some flat-picking too.  My current obsession is a guitarist named Doyle Dykes.  And another guy named Tommy Emmanuel.

WHC

I’ll look forward to looking those up.

GB

When you hear Doyle Dykes you’ll be pretty amazed.

WHC

In your teaching, what do you chose as the best processes for teaching the writing of fiction?  I ask this because I’m particularly interested in workshops and how those work.

GB

I’ve tried many different approaches and they’ve all been successful with some students and unsuccessful with others.  I think the first thing about teaching creative writing is that it’s not a one-size-fits all proposition.

WHC.

The students that benefited, would they have benefited from any technique that you used?

GB

Well, sure.  I basically do workshops where students write stories, bring them in, and we talk about them.  I see my job as trying to help the student, not get stuck on what they wrote, but to see if they addressed something interesting and how to reenvision what they’ve already done and how to break it open.  Where they slipped into trite . . .

WHC

Narrative reflection?

GB

. . . where they slipped into repeating received narratives that are already out there, because that’s what a lot of students do, they kind of retell some archetypical version of some story they’ve already read, already exists.  I try to get them to be honest, to get the characters to admit to some vulnerability, which I think is really important.  I‘ve come to believe that is one of the common denominators of character-based writing, that here is some vulnerability in the main character.  But to get some college-aged student to admit to that, particularly the boys, is often very difficult.  But if you can do that, we can read about your character and care about them.  I also work with specific exercises sometimes.

WHC

For example?

GB

Um . . .

WHC

Are they prompts?

GB

Yes.  I have students think about a person that they knew and to try, someone they had a conflict with, and to bring that character to life.  These are short, in class writing exercises.

WHC

And you deal with them in class?

GB

We read them out loud.  We simply talk about what the strengths are.  I don’t go into the weaknesses.  This is the way to encourage new writers.  And I also find, that if I make them write on the spot, saying anything that comes into your heads, you’re writing now, often they come up with better work than if I let them go home for the four days between classes and bring in a homework assignment.  Sometimes the spontaneity helps.

WHC

Do you find there is a difference in evaluating something read in the class rather than reading it.  I ask because it seems the presentation affects the evaluation and the writing is pushed to the side.  Do you understand?

GB

Sure.  When I do workshops, we all read the work.  I never do the performance.  The exercises they read out loud.  The students really enjoy it and they hear what seventeen other people did with the exact same prompt.  It opens up their mind, like “I could have done that.”

WHC

So they have alternatives.

GB

Yes.  So next time they’ll have a bigger palette.

WHC

In regard to what specifically can be developed as vulnerability.  Where do you find “vulnerability” in character development?  And what else do you do as a story progresses to make a character live?

GB

Sometimes people write stories where they are focused on plot and what happens.  And what happens is important.  I think stories are pretty dull when nothing happens.  So I like to have that happens?

WHC

I sort of define a story as something happening.

GB

I agree.  I’m pretty old school about it, with some exceptions obviously.  In my class today we’re going to look a story, a tour de force, by Lee Abbott, “One of Star wars, One of Doom” [2007].  Tomorrow is 9/11 and I wanted something that is possibly related.  It’s essentially a retelling of the Columbine massacre.

WHC

Seems to me I’ve heard about this story.

GB

You know, there are a number of different versions of that event.  Students know about that.  It’s part of their shared mythology . . . the crazy kids who come in a shooting up schools.  So, as a teacher, I’ve often had to deal with kids writing stories about that.  And I wanted to teach this one, I’ve only taught it once before—it’s a little disturbing, but it’s really, really a good story—it does all these interesting things.  It’s more or less omniscient.  It mainly follows the point of view of the teacher who is going to die at the end of the story (and you know that form the opening paragraph, I believe) but you know by the end of the story . . . you know his entire life, all the things he cares about, what he feels insecure about . . .

WHC

And his insecurity was his vulnerability?

GB

I would say his vulnerability . . . I mean, getting shot by these two crazy kids is not really his problem.  It’s not really the conflict in the story.  He’s got a rash of other things.  He’s engaged the complex business of being a human being, of being a high school teacher who everybody has just pigeonholed—that’s just who he is—they think he’s this two dimensional guy with a paunch who teaches about the Declaration of Independence when in fact he used to sing in a rock band.  We find out about the first time he had sex with his wife.  We find about his affair with another teacher.  What he’s insecure about is that time is passing.

WHC

Does he have vulnerability too because of the morality involved with the affair?

GB

Yes.  There’s vulnerability there.  Maybe vulnerability is in this case is just complexity.

WHC

In this story, the plot seems fatalistic.  He has no impact on the shooting, no causality.  But is the story about is his life, his success or failure in living?   Is there something he does at the end that brings significant meaning for him?

GB

Yes.  It has a beautiful final moment where he’s sitting conversing with the guy who’s going to kill him in a rational way.

WHC

And he sees more about himself at that time?

GB

Yes.  In a way it’s an elaborate version of one of my favorite moments in literature when the Misfit is about to shoot the Grandmother . . .

WHC

In the O’Connor story. ["A Good Man Is Hard to Find"]

GB

. . . and the final line where he says she’d have been a good person if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.  And in a way, that’s the Grandmother becoming vulnerable at that moment.  So there is an example of a character who is quite two dimensional but has a moment of transcendence.

WHC

Thanks for going through the whole idea of vulnerability.

GB

In another level, in terms of teaching, the guy was saying, write about something you know, and his advice was, write what you fear.  I thought that was a great line.

WHC

Also know yourself so you know your characters.  Because you are your character although your characters are not you.

GB

Sure.  You are though.  I don’t think you can right a convincing character [you] haven’t  imagined [what it is to be that character].  It’s an empathetic exercise.  You have to imagine what it would be like to be that person at that moment.

WHC

Along the same line, what do you feel in your writing, both in content and craft, provides enjoyment for the reader.  The idea of the process of fiction writing is to please, engage, provide meaning for the reader and how do you do that?

GB

Well, I go back and forth on that.  I guess when I write about something, I’m not thinking about the reader.  I’m thinking about the story and making it as good as I possibly can.  Then when I go back to edit, I start being critical as a reader and where am I wasting peoples time?  What part of this is self-indulgent.  I do believe in cutting everything that can be cut out.

WHC

So clarity is important.

GB

Yes.  I think clarity.  And concision, and action.

WHC

And, as you were saying, something happening.

GB

When I write stories I’m trying to be both entertaining and fun to read.  I don’t like reading things that are devoid of humor.  So I try to be funny.  But I also try to ask bigger questions.  Those are the things I respond to in fiction.  Things that make me laugh, make me think, and tug my emotions.

WHC

Along the humor lines, do you think about ironies?

GB

Yes, I do.  In the “Black Elvis” story, that’s hugely ironic.  In some ways it’s like a big practical joke.  That Asian guy named Robert Johnson . . .

WHC

Which is pretty funny.

GB

I thought it was hilarious.  When I thought of that I thought, “That’s funny, I gotta do that.”

WHC

Isn’t it important in every story to have some level of humor?

GB

For me.  I know there are writers who aren’t funny . . .

WHC

But Flannery O’Connor is . . .

GB

She’s hilarious.  She’s someone I quite enjoy.  I’m a Denis Johnson fan.  He cracks me up.  But I don’t think the purpose of his writing is to be funny.

WHC

Would you think that Cormac McCarthy, for example, is humorless?

GB

(laughing) No. He’s not humorless, not at all.  I just read The Road—not my favorite of his books.  That one is pretty much humorless.

WHC

That’s the one I’m reading right now.

GB

But you know, Suttree is full of humor and even the very dark, and really my favorite is Child of God.  It’s extremely dark, and very strange, but it is really funny in places.  And how he manages to be funny about the necrophiliac nightmare of a plot is remarkable.

WHC

Do you have short stories and novels that you particularly recommend to your students for learning process.  I take it you’d recommend A Good Man is Hard to Find

GB

I think everybody should read some Flannery O’Connor because it’s good for them.  She’s not the best model for: “Write stories like this.”  I don’t think you can.  Fiction writing is a conversation that has been going on for a while.  Imagine your entering a room where people have been meeting for a while.  You need to know what people have been saying.  That’s the [point], they [the writers] need to have read some Flannery O’Connor, they need to have read Raymond Carver, Lori Moore, some of the big voices that have shaped styles and trends.  So sure.  I want everyone to read widely.  That’s why I use an anthology.  Every student’s different.  Some like Andre DeBuse, some can’t stand him.  Again, one size can’t fit all.  I just want them to find something about stories they can love, and get excited.

WHC

Which anthology do you recommend?

GB

I really haven’t found the perfect one.  I’m using two this semester.  The Norton, the doorstop Norton [Norton Anthology of Short Fiction], and I use the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction.  What I like about Scribner’s is they polled writers, not just teachers of creative writing, actually writers.  It’s what writers hold dear.  It’s a little dirty.  It’s got a lot of sex in it.  I have to warn my students.  I don’t know what it says about writers.

WHC

How do you feel about electronic medium for the future—online publishing?  Do you do that?

GB

I published one story exclusively online at a magazine called Feel Better.  I think some of my stories in print journals have been linked to an online space.  How do I feel about it?  I have to tell you I wouldn’t read a short story online.  I do read on line write a bit.  I read The New York Times online.  But I don’t like reading on computers.

WHC

You print a story out?

GB

I’ve printed stories out form online and they look funny.  They don’t come out formatted in a very pleasing way to read and things get lost.  There’s junk on the edges.  I like literary magazines.  I like books.  There is something very pleasurable about that.  I haven’t tried Kindle.  I read Nicholson’s Baker’s long piece about that in The New Yorker. [http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/03/090803fa_fact_baker] I’m open.  You can’t assume the world’s not going to change.  The world is going to change.  But it’s not pleasant for me.  And I think there is a danger of loss of quality control.  I don’t know what to about that.  I know that some of the online sites are publishing great stuff, and I tend to trust the names I know.  If it says Kenyon Review, I assume the material has been edited to some extent.  But there are so many of these sites.  Anyone can start one tomorrow.  I’ve judged some writing contests and stuff.  You get a pretty good insight as to what people out there in the world who think of themselves as writers are producing.  Some of the stuff is very good, but some—it’s not that it’s bad—they’re just misguided.  They own a computer, words appear on the screen, and they decide they’re writers.  I don’t even think they reread what they write.

WHC

There is little appreciation of how difficult prose fiction is as an art form.

GB

You can start to get a little resentful if you’re someone who’s gone through twenty drafts of a story.

WHC

Something gets publish online that came out one evening between nine and nine fifteen.

GB

The quality control thing is a little dangerous.  On the other hand, this may be where we’re going.

WHC

What can we expect from your writing and your career in the future?

GB

I’m hoping to write another novel.  I have one at the starting point.  I'll probably keep writing story.

WHC

Short stories.

GB

Yes.  I really enjoy them.  But they’re not the best career move.

WHC

You have to do something else in addition to writing short stories.

GB

I enjoy them.  I like reading them.  I like the genre.  I always buy American Best Story Stories.  I buy literary magazines.  I’m a story geek.

WHC

Is there something about the novel that makes you prefer writing short stories?

GB

It’s easier to achieve something closer to perfectionism, although I’ve never written anything close to perfectionism.  Stories are so small you can really polish them and they can shine like a little gem.  The good ones can.  They use silence a lot.  Because they’re so small there is a lot left unsaid.  They have a sort of mysterious resonance to them.  Novels are bigger, bulkier.  I often put down novels.  I’ve put down so many books that I’ve read a hundred pagers of and never finished.  Maybe it’s my attention span isn’t that good.

WHC

Or you were not engaged.

GB

Yes.  I think a lot of novels there wasn’t enough there.  For my own work, it’s a tough thing to pull off.  When you read a good one, you want to tell everybody.

WHC

And go back and read it again.

GB

Yes.  I just reread Remains of the Day by [Kazuo] Ishiguro.  I was astonished by that novel.  That’s it.  It’s much more of a long slog to write a novel.  I’ve written many fewer novels and so I should probably keep trying those.

WHC

This has been wonderful.  Thank you very much for your participation.

GB

Great.  Thank you.


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>