First, I must ask: how does it feel being interviewed by such a remarkably talented and good looking journalist?
Get over yourself. You aren’t all that.
Alright. Benchere In Wonderland then, this marks your fifth novel.
You’ve had quite an impressive career.
I’ve had a career. I would not say it’s been impressive.
Two short story collections to go with your novels. Several major awards.
Minor awards. A few. All very average. A blind squirrel is all, you know.
You founded 826michigan and co-founded Dzanc Books.
I’ve had a life. I’ve done a few things.
I write, yes. It’s what I do. I can’t imagine not writing.
But you rarely tour or pitch your books. You don’t like doing interviews?
I write. All the rest is all the rest.
And yet you want people to read your books?
Which all ties in, doesn’t it, to Benchere In Wonderland? The theme is about art and how the end product, the art itself, relates to the artist and the audience. Does art need an audience to still be considered art?
That is a theme of the book, yes. If you are asking me to answer, well, I could write a book.
Which you have.
Would you care to elaborate?
Artists make art. As a writer I write. The process begins there. To become distracted during the creation of one’s art with thoughts of attracting an audience and worse, garnering awards and fame, is the surest way to kill the soul of an artist. I write what I believe is significant and worthwhile. I do believe artists have a responsibility to what they create and that responsibility extends to what they are presenting to the world. So yes, an audience is important. This is what Benchere comes to address.
So if you as an artist are creating something that you hope has an impact on the world, you are then writing with the audience in mind aren’t you?
You’re confusing what I am saying.
Not intentionally. Benchere sets out to make a pure work of art for art’s sake, but in so doing, in placing his sculpture in the middle of the Kalahari, very specific reactions and consequences take place.
Yes. And this was not Benchere’s intent. On this front he was naïve and he learns from this ultimately.
So what are you saying about art?
I am not saying anything. As a writer, I am asking the question: What is art?
You seem to be deliberately avoiding answering me.
I’m not avoiding anything. I am finding you a pain in the ass.
You don’t like me?
I’ve never liked you.
Be that as it may, lets get back to Benchere.
Here is the thing: at the time I started writing Benchere, I was thirty years into my writing career as you call it. My wife was recovering from cancer, I was questioning what I was doing, what was the purpose of anything. All of my writing, every story, every novel, is an exploration of a philosophical question. I always begin with a question and explore the possibilities from every side. I never offer up one single answer. In real life I am very opinionated.
So I have heard.
But in your writing?
In my writing, I explore ideas. I want to examine what it means to be human, not offer answers because there is no one answer. In Benchere, the question is what is the responsibility of the artist, if any, to the world at large. Benchere sees his art as a representation of the mystery of the world and wants to place his sculptures in the world without any preconceived interpretation, does not want his work associated with any specific movement or idea. What the audience sees in his work is all that’s important.
And yet his work does get viewed as a political statement given its placement in Africa?
Yes. And that Benchere didn’t expect this and initially rejects this lies at the heart of the novel.
This is all heavy stuff and yet Benchere In Wonderland is also really hilarious at times and very human.
Yeah well, life is a hoot, ain’t it? Even tragedy is absurd.
The novel is also filled with dozens of characters.
Life is filled with dozens of characters.
And these characters weave in and out.
The peripheral ones, yes. Just like life.
You’ve not worked in this broad of scope before.
I wanted to stretch my canvas.
Your short stories have been compared to George Saunders and Aimee Bender.
It’s flattering, but I feel bad for Aimee and George.
On the other hand, your novels address similar ideas with a more realistic tilt.
You can’t stretch the surrealistic madness of life out too much further than the story form. A novel has to be rooted in something more accessible. And yet, in all my novels, reality is still tipped on its head.
Benchere, with the death of his wife and the examination of the purpose of art seems your most personal work to date.
Yeah on the surface, though everything I write obviously comes from me, from what questions I am dealing with at the time.
And what are you working on now?
I just finished a new novel which I am happy to say my publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne, dug and has just acquired for spring of 2017.
Very cool. You have a reputation for being a workaholic with your writing and Dzanc and your charity work.
Like I said, I live a life. This is who I am. It’s what I do.
And the fact that you do all this from behind a wall as it were, keeping the world at a distance?
I am very much a part of the world through my work. Anything more than that isn’t really important to me. Ultimately we all live the way we choose. If we fail on this then its not much of a life is it?
Ok. Can you leave us with an example of your sense of humor?
Sure. Knock Knock.
Well, thanks for the interview.
No problem. Now will you leave me alone?
I’m not sure there is much chance of that.
From you. Don’t I know it.
STEVEN GILLIS is the author of the novels Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Temporary People, and The Consequence of Skating, along with Benchere in Wonderland (Hawthorne Books, 2015) as well as the short story collections Giraffes and The Law of Strings. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University before founding 826michigan in 2004. Steve is now the co-founder and publisher of Dzanc Books.