This week we talk to Pinckney Benedict, author of the collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories, and co-editor (with wife Laura Benedict) of Surreal South, an anthology of creepy stories perfect for cool October nights.
P53: Who are the people that have most influenced your writing (both in the literary world and outside it)?
PB: First and foremost, Joyce Carol Oates. She was my first (and really, my only important) writing teacher. I took classes from her at Princeton, wrote my thesis— which became my first story collection, Town Smokes—for her. She and her husband, the miraculous Ray Smith, published my first story and my first book. Any time I sit down to write, inevitably I think about Joyce. What would she make of what I’m about to do? I suppose it’s a juvenile impulse, but I still do it, thirty years after first meeting her, and so I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop.
Tons of other folks as well, of course. Terrific teachers, friends who pressed certain books on me at the right time in my life, my parents, who were both terrific readers. My older brother, who was an athlete, and so that route was closed to me. Too many to name.
P53: What have you done with your rejection letters (that is, if you have ever received any)?
PB: Very many. When I was a younger writer, I took them very seriously and tried quite hard to address the weaknesses they adduced in my work, if the letters were more than just form rejections. I’d really put labor into it, fixing whatever those letters said was wrong.
At a certain point I realized that rejection letters were, like bad reviews, not much more than idiosyncratic expressions of the editor’s, or the reviewer’s personal views rather than universal judgments from some all-knowing Overmind. I don’t mean that they’re being cynical when they point out what they say are the reasons they rejected a story: no doubt it seems to them that if you’d submitted a story that did they things they say they wish it did, then they’d have accepted it for publication. If you’d submitted that story, though, I believe that generally they’d find some other problem with it. The reasons an editor—as an editor of an anthology series, I feel in a pretty good position to say this—takes or doesn’t take a story are largely instinctual, unphrasable.
This is all assuming it’s a pretty good story, of course, of publishable quality. If your story isn’t a good one to begin with, then all bets are off.
Same with acceptances: if an editor had a particularly hearty breakfast that morning before reading your submission, then it might get accepted. If, instead, a car hit the editor’s dog, then you are likely to get a rejection, particularly if your story had a dog in it. Should you then avoid writing about dogs or other things that might get hit by cars? How can you know what quirks or eccentricities inform the opinion of the editor, particularly since the editor is probably blind to them, and they likely change from day to day or hour to hour? You can’t, unless you know the editor or are the editor, and even then, probably not. You can only do your work to the best of your ability.
That realization made my life much easier. Now I just put rejections aside and think, Ah well. Wish that person had had a nice cheesy omelet for breakfast, or maybe brioche. And too bad about his dog. And then I go back to work.
P53: Drink of choice?
PB: I like films a great deal, probably too much. I’d rather watch a movie than almost any other activity I can think of. And I talk about film a great deal in my writing classes, because I see a lot of films and because my students tend to know film— contemporary film, at least—better than they know literature, which is only natural, because film is the great narrative form of the age (until computer games and simulations take over—which is a development that I know word-people dread, but it’s going to be a great thing, when computer narratives mature fully, which they will).
So, favorites, a necessarily wildly incomplete list: Seven Samurai. Apocalypse Now (not Redux). Alien. Blade Runner. A weird little Uwe Boll film called Rampage that’s about a guy who—no surprise—goes on a rampage. Ghost Story. Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Korean horror films, because Netflix streaming makes them easy to find, and they’re uniformly astonishingly good and original, unlike recent American horror product.
Speaking of Netflix streaming and movies I like: check out Four Days, starring William Forsythe, Colm Meaney, Lolita Davidovich, and Kevin Zegers. I wrote that one.
P53: What is the best thing about being a short story writer?
PB: No requirement to get up early in the morning. But that’s obviated by parenthood, for a while longer at least. So the second best thing is the ability to give my characters gifts of things I’d like to have in the real world: guns I’d like to own, or cars, or characteristics like courage and indomitability and unquenchable curiosity. Then I can pretend for a bit that I have those things.
Three Facts About Pinckney:
1. In the early 2000s, I had a bout with cancer. Chemotherapy but no radiation. Have been clear of the disease since about two-thirds of the way through chemo, which they finished anyway for prophylaxis. It was an awful time, of course, for me and particularly for those around me; but the perspective that it gave me was utterly priceless. I wouldn’t have volunteered for it, of course, but I’m glad I got drafted, in the end. Best thing that ever happened to me.
2. On August 17, 2011, I got to ride in the #7 plane of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team. I broke the sound barrier and withstood 7.2 Gs (though I did black out, briefly). I did not barf. Came away even more impressed than previously with the BAs and with naval aviation generally. One of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, and I’m glad I did it. Wouldn’t do it a second time, though. Once was enough.
3. Possibly related to 1 and 2: I have absolutely no fear of death. Of the possible causes of my death? Sure! Don’t want to be crushed or burned or shot or beaten. Don’t want to suffocate from lung disease. Hate suffering. But fear of being dead, of death itself? None whatsoever.