Ben Loory writes short stories in a liminal space between standard conventions of “genre.” His collections include Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) and Tales of Flying and Falling (Penguin, 2017). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts.
In the interview below, Ben talks about his particular brand of genre-bending stories, how he approaches writing, and the changing definition of “literary fiction.” With wit and insight, he discusses the unique possibilities of short fiction and how to stay true to your voice.
Berkeley Fiction Review: I’ve always loved your concise, witty writing. Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day was the first short story collection I read in full, and I loved how it reminded me both of fairytales from my childhood and literary fiction. With that being said, it can be a bit hard to categorize your writing within a certain genre. For our readers who haven’t had the pleasure of reading your work, how would you describe it?
Ben Loory: I write short, colorful, Twilight Zone-y tales… which sometimes involve talking animals
BFR: Have you ever thought about pursuing a longer work like a novel or novella? Do you think you’d have to drastically shift your style if you were to take on a longer piece?
Ben Loory: My rule has always been “I write what comes out,” and so far, that has always been a story. I suppose someday some massive internal shift might happen and suddenly a novel will come oozing out… but I’m not holding my breath! My main joys in writing are mystery, humor, understatement, and moving fast. I’d say the odds are much better that some day I’ll write a poem.
BFR: As someone who also writes non-realist stories, I’ve often felt annoyed that some folks don’t take “genre fiction” as seriously as “literary fiction.” What role do you feel speculative genres, like Magical Realism, have within the larger literary world? How can we do a better job of giving “genre fiction” the serious attention it deserves?
Ben Loory: I’ve given up worrying about stuff like that. I write the things I want to write, I read the things I want to read, I tell people about the stuff I like when I find it, and I listen when someone I trust tells me something is good. Beyond that, it’s out of my hands. Yes, it’s unfortunate how close-minded a lot of people are. But honestly, things are so much better now than they were even 15 years ago… I mean, I had a story about a talking sloth in the Sewanee Review! They would’ve shot me for that in the 80s. Just do your thing, support the people you respect, ignore the bullshit and the garbage, and try to enjoy yourself.
BFR: I am delighted that, in addition to your stories geared more toward adults, you have also written a children’s book called The Baseball Player and the Walrus. How does writing a kids’ book differ from writing a book for adults? Was there more or less similarity between the two writing styles than you expected?
Ben Loory: Well the main difference is this: Write a story for grownups, and your editor might have some questions; write a story for kids and suddenly everyone even vaguely connected to the project is telling you what you can and can’t do, what’s allowed and what isn’t, what’s too scary or too advanced or too sad or unpleasant for children… and they aren’t questions anymore, they’re directives. I love The Baseball Player and the Walrus—that story was one of my favorites I ever wrote (it wasn’t written “as a picture book” or “for kids,” by the way, it was just another story I wrote like any other, which then through a series of fortuitous events ended up on the desk of a children’s book editor), and the illustrations by Alex Latimer were absolutely perfect—but the process of getting it to publication was a singular nightmare that I have very little desire to ever go through again. I think you have to have a very particular mindset to work in the children’s book world, especially today, and I don’t really have it. I’m mostly interested in destabilizing people’s certainties, making them think about death and madness and the various impossibilities of life… it doesn’t really make me a natural fit.
BFR: Another thing that delighted me was discovering that you have read multiple stories on the NPR podcast This American Life, which I listen to religiously. I’ve often felt that your stories take on a whole new depth when read aloud. Is this something you actively try to do when writing? If so, how do you achieve it? Put another way — what makes a story particularly apt for being read aloud?
Ben Loory: I decided early on that I was going to write my stories exactly the way I would tell them out loud, if I was sitting in a bar or someone’s kitchen or whatever… in my own voice, my own words, with my own sense of humor and my own actual grammar and peculiarities of speech… everything exactly the way I would tell it. That carries over into my writing process, which is basically: I sit at my computer and talk to myself. I read every sentence of every draft out loud over and over and over, constantly checking my stomach to make sure it feels right, that there’s never anything that makes me cringe inside or feel like I’m trying to be someone I’m not, say something I wouldn’t say or in a way I wouldn’t say it, reach beyond myself to try to sound “better” or “smarter” or “more poetic” or whatever. Who you are is all you have as a writer, IMO, so if you’re affecting a voice, you’ve already lost the way. Anyway, yes, my stories are essentially oral tales; they just happen to come in written form.
BFR: One of the reasons I’m so excited to have you as a guest judge for this year’s Sudden Fiction contest is that some of your own work fits into the Flash Fiction category. You’ve always amazed me with your ability to squeeze as much meaning as possible out of every image, detail, and moment of a flash fiction piece. How do you approach writing these hyper-short stories compared to longer ones?
Ben Loory: Well I don’t really write longer ones; my longest stories usually top out around 2,000 words, and the length is always a surprise—it’s not like I care how long or short a story is going in, they just end up being the length they need to be. I write every story the same way: I focus on action; I limit interiority unless I can’t get the information across any other way (I can almost always get it across some other way); I never describe anything that isn’t the focus of the character’s attention (or wouldn’t be the focus of a viewer’s attention if they were there on the scene watching it unfold); I make sure every sentence is a direct escalation; and I push relentlessly to exacerbate and uncover the central conflict inside the main character. I also never write a sentence or a word that I wouldn’t say out loud exactly the same way in front of my friends. Beyond that, it’s all gut-work. I do what feels right. If it feels wrong, it IS wrong, no matter what the brain says
BFR: Finally, as we gear up to receive our Sudden Fic submissions, we here at BFR are interested in what our judges will be looking for in a winning submission. What makes a good flash fiction story for you? Is there anything in particular that you will be looking for in the entries?
Ben Loory: I look for the same things in any story, of any length: Imagination, emotion, humor, and style.
Submit your under-1000-word story to the Berkeley Fiction Review for our 2022 Sudden Fiction contest! First, second, and third place finalists are published in the journal and receive prize money up to $150. Honorable mentions are published alongside the placed winners in the journal. There is a submission fee of $5. To find out more about our annual 2022, Sudden Fiction Contest, head over here.