Benjamin Reed’s fiction and essays have appeared in [PANK], West Branch, Arcadia Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, and The Southern Quarterly. He won the 2013 Austin Chronicle Short Story contest, and Junot Díaz selected Reed’s “The Quiet Hunt” as winner of the Avery Anthology Small Spaces Prize. Reed was born in Houston, and grew up near San Francisco. He is a graduate of the University of Texas, and recently earned his MFA from Texas State University, where he currently teaches English. He lives in Austin with his wife and their two boys.
In this interview, Reed discusses Tarzan’s Faustian bargain, writing sex scenes, and the use of metaphor by nomadic hunter-gatherers.
To read “King of the Apes” and an exercise on unrequited love and writing inevitable scenes, click here.
(Reed will be reading at the AWP Conference this week at Big Fiction‘s event at Tony’s Coffee Bar on Saturday at 7:30.)
In an interview with The Committee Room, you said, “Good stories often show relationships in transition. They often revolve around some kind of power imbalance.” In “King of the Apes,” this is certainly the case—in the jungle, Tarzan has power over Jane, but when he comes to America, the balance shifts in her favor—but it’s also not that simple. To some extent, the characters all use each other. Edgar Rice Burroughs uses Tarzan’s story for money and fame, but Tarzan also uses that relationship for money as well. In New York, the anthropologists and Tarzan use each other—for study and fame (anthropologists) and education and fame (Tarzan). Did that complexity of relationships always exist in the draft? Or, did you start with something simpler (anthropologists taking advantage of Tarzan, Tarzan fighting back) and discover the complexity during subsequent drafts?
Originally, Edgar Rice Burroughs was dead the whole time, just a reference and a quick flashback. No dialogue. I decided to include Burroughs as a living, speaking character in a very late revision. Having him echo Tarzan’s original rejection from Jane totally refocused the nature or “aboutness” of the story: The loneliness and profound sadness a person feels when he can’t let go of someone who has let go of him. For me this was better and more specific than just focusing on my Tarzan’s “alienation” or “strangeness,” which is what I’d been working with before.
I’m really heartened by this question, because you totally recognize what I was trying to do. After Jane tilts the axis of power by leaving Africa, Tarzan never recovers. He becomes a man shipwrecked on an alien society. In civilized America, his relationships are transactional and exploitive, both parties using each other as a means to an end. These are Faustian bargains of self-sacrifice and bondage: the researchers who replace Tarzan’s social identity, the circus promoter who retains his liberty, and finally the pulp fiction writer who acquires and appropriates his very life story. He sells off his mind, body, and soul. This sinister trifecta has always been in the story, but it wasn’t until Burroughs showed up that I knew what everything meant.
Early in the story, you’ve got this amazing passage about the love story that Tarzan wants told about Jane and him:
It’d be “a real literary affair where Tarzan has to find Jane. He has to seek her out. Possibly cover hundreds or thousands of miles. A story that spans the globe. He tracks her down, Jane, who’s in this kind of spell, or a haze, or a hypnosis or something. So Tarzan has to save her, not just from the darkness, but from herself, Edgar. A story where Tarzan reaches inside Jane to keep her from falling off some rocky precipice in her own heart.”
In Tarzan’s summary, it sounds hackneyed and ridiculous, but, of course, the line between hackneyed and emotionally-impactful is a fine one (just ask Nicholas Sparks). Were you ever tempted to write this story?
“Hackneyed?” You’re dead to me, Noll.
No, but seriously, yeah, it’s supposed to be trite and make Tarzan look ridiculous, revealing how he sees things when he’s alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. In a way I feel like I did get to explore this fantastic and divergent storyline by having Tarzan narrate it as a kind of embedded text, a story within a story, while also evincing that sometimes he can get a little drunk on his own a delusional sap.
The story moves very quickly over some important moments. For instance, Tarzan’s move from Africa to New York happens in a single paragraph. And, before that move, there are these lines about Jane:
When Jane’s stinking clothes finally fell into rags she covered herself in leaves until I could steal a lion pelt from a hunter’s cache. She taught me how to speak some of her language. And of course, she gave me so much more than that. For a brief time, the jungle flowered into paradise.
Again, another writer might have handled that passage very differently. Was it difficult to find the right way to say, “We had sex?”
Isn’t that a lot of what we deal with when we write? Answering mundane questions like, “What does my character do for money?” or resolving issues of taste, such as how to convey that characters have had sex without engaging in the dreaded sex scene? Honestly though, I think I originally did have a less subtextual sex scene in that spot, and it was probably an orgasm of bad taste and falling flower petals. As writers are taught, I wrote my way out of it. I just revised and revised until what I had in front of me didn’t make me cringe.
A character gives Tarzan a copy of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is apt since both Tarzan and Frankenstein’s monster had to learn to speak. How did you approach the voice of Tarzan? It would seem challenging for a couple of reasons. For one, you have to invent a way of speaking that suggests the consequences of coming to any language (or, in this case, all language) late in life. In addition to that, you’re also working under the “Idea of Tarzan” that every reader will immediately have in mind once they learn your Tarzan’s name. What was your process for finding the right voice?
It might surprise you how much of my time is preoccupied with this exact problem. Right now I’m working on a story about a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers in about 30,000 BCE, and figuring out how they speak is like creating a new language, but one whose only existence is in my own fluid translation. Lately I’ve been grappling with this clan’s dexterity with metaphor. It’s also been made clear to me how heavily English relies upon a modern and contemporary idiom. I thought my “caveman story” would be fun and relatively quick, but it’s become this huge project. I have to create these people’s entire culture and worldview, one word choice at a time.
Tarzan’s voice was easier. As the story is told in retrospect, I totally avoided having to figure out what a “primitive” or transitional Tarzan would sound like. Instead I gave him a normal, only slightly elevated diction, this slight lilting of an ironic aspiration to society, which I hoped would give him that bourgeois tinge of insecurity.
Dr. Kroeber was a real man, an early anthropologist from UC Berkeley who became famous for his work on Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yana people of California. In my story, Kroeber is trying to nudge Tarzan toward greater self-awareness. He gives Tarzan a copy of Frankenstein because, like Shelley’s terrible creation, Tarzan is also a construction, and a kind of monster.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.