Tag Archives: Benjamin Reed

An Interview with Benjamin Reed

27 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine. He guest edited the most recent volume of the magazine.

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.)

Michael Noll

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?

Benjamin Reed

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.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914 and wrote more than two dozen follow-up novels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. You can read it for free at The Gutenberg Project.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Benjamin Reed

“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.

 Michael Noll

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?”

Benjamin Reed

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Benjamin Reed

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.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Scene that Can’t Be Avoided

25 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Some stories have been told so often that, if you try to write one, certain scenes become inevitable. For instance, every sports movie will have its “Rocky Balboa at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art” scene. Every teacher/student movie will contain a version of the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ literature students stand on their desks and recite poetry as he exits the room after being fired. If you’re writing these stories, the problem is not finding a way to avoid the scene but figuring out how to reinvent it.

Benjamin Reed has done exactly that in “King of the Jungle,” a story of unrequited love featuring Tarzan. The story was published in Arcadia Magazine, where you can read it now: King of the Apes

How the Story Works

Any story about unrequited love will include this scene: the frustrated lover crying out in anguish. The moment cannot be escaped, but because every reader will know it’s coming, the writer must find a way to reinvent it. Here is how Reed handles the moment with Tarzan:

Then I received a letter from Jane, at last. She’d read about me in the Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and of course, National Geographic. Although Jane was happy for my new success, she was not necessarily pleased that I had followed her to America. She would not be on the next train to New York. She hoped we could speak again, someday. She closed with a long apology and signed her name in bold, flowery script. In the postscript she stated that she’d married a real estate agent and moved to Des Moines.

Oh, naturally I was bitter. But I was too deeply incarcerated by my new lifestyle to let anyone know how I actually felt. I mean, I wasn’t about to go shouting on the steps of the school chapel, beating on my breast like a goddamn gorilla!

In short, Reed has his character say that he will not participate in such a scene. However, it’s one thing to do this and quite another to make it work. Reed pulls it off by doing two important things:

  1. He creates a character who has limitations. There are certain things that Tarzan will never do. The Book of Proverbs (King James Version) says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In a way, this pride and spirit define all great characters. They would rather suffer than negate some essential part of themselves. This is true of real people as well. People who do not draw personal, moral, or ethical lines tend to be viewed negatively. As Aaron Tippin once sang, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” (And that marks the first and only time I will juxtapose Aaron Tippin with King James.) In Reed’s story, Tarzan will never reveal his anguish by publicly beating his chest like a gorilla because it would betray the identity that he’s worked so hard to create (he’s a man, not a monkey). And why did he create that identity? Out of love for Jane.
  2. He writes the scene that his character promised to resist. Remember, the scene is inevitable. It’s been part of the unrequited love story for a very long time. So, you have no choice but to write it. The key is to make the scene the result of something that is only tangentially related to the love story. That way, the scene comes as a surprise. Reed writes his scene in summary, after one of many nights in which he’s ended up with “buxom Jewish girls from Brooklyn, secretaries and bookkeepers for lawyers.” He drunkenly goes to the top of the Empire State Building:

I’d take the elevator calmly, but once on the deck in the night sky, I’d tear open my shirt and howl my famous cry to the beasts and the birds, my chest heaving, the buttons of my shirts bouncing over the concrete deck like a broken string of pearls. I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.

In a story with an ages-old plot line, you likely won’t avoid the inevitable scenes. But you can make them seem fresh and unexpected by building them into the the character’s limitations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write an inevitable scene using Ben Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” as a model:

  1. Create a character who has limitations. What line does your character draw in the sand? When does he or she say, “I will never do that.” One way to explore those limits is by asking the character to define herself. Treat it like an interview or the Baltimore Catechism: Who are you? Where do you come from? Think categorically: witty, Catholic, Polish, free spirit. Then ask what it would take for those answers to be negated—for the character to no longer be that person, for the character to no longer claim his/her place of origin or be claimed by it.
  2. Find the act that would break those limits. The act should do two things. First, it should force the character into a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Or, it should force the character to do something that goes against how she defines herself. Secondly, it should result from something tangential to the plot. So, if the plot is a love story, the act should result from something love related—but not the key relationship itself. Reed does this by letting Tarzan sleep with women who are not Jane. Rather than making him happy, though, these interactions heighten his anguish. As a result, he acts in a way that breaks the limits he’s set for himself.
  3. Write a scene with the forbidden act and the character’s justification for it. To make the act make sense to the reader, it’s necessary for it to make sense to the character. This is why Reed has Tarzan say about his howl atop the Empire State Building, “I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.” He justifies his self-effacing act with the justification of fame. He’s doing what is expected of him, and it’s his right. So, let your character excuse the act that he/she commits.

Good luck!

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