Tag Archives: Laura Benedict

An Interview with Laura Benedict

7 Aug
Laura Benedict's most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, "When I Make Love to the Bug Man," was featured in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” was featured in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author of Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazinePANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.

In this interview, Benedict discusses writing fiction that disrupts the social constructs we take for granted, not knowing her endings as she writes, and imagining everyday encounters as criminal acts.

To read Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and an exercise on writing seemingly illogical characters, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is amazingly creepy, even when it’s about very real things. For instance, this is my favorite passage in the story:

Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory.

I love this passage because it shocks me into seeing something familiar for the first time. Or, to quote the essayist Amy Leach, the passage creates “a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” It takes a special eye to notice such details and transform them into lines of fiction. Many people look at spiders and are creeped out, but you’ve created an entirely new creepiness. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or have you trained your eye and imagination to see other dimensions of common things?

Laura Benedict

What a lovely thought. I’m so glad you like that passage. I find that fact about wolf spiders strangely—I don’t know—metaphorical. The passage may contain a lot of energy because I discovered a bizarre kind of empathy for female wolf spiders, even though I fear them with my whole being. What practical and efficient parents they are, yes? How odd it is to feel a connection with an arachnid. Of course I’m anthropomorphizing like mad.

A creepy story about spiders feels almost like cheating to me because I’m able to count heavily on the reader’s own sense of dread. From a craft standpoint, I liked the idea of having the woman recount facts in a straightforward manner, almost as if she’s educating both herself and the reader with useful details about her new world and interests.

Skill or training? That’s always a good question. Once I found my material I realized that I had to be able to immerse the reader in whatever world I wanted them to experience down to the last detail. That did take a lot of practice. Every sentence has to move the story forward in some way, or at least be integral to the scene. And if you break the mood, break the scene with something that doesn’t fit, you risk losing the reader for the rest of the story. I reached this place in my work by giving myself permission to not accept what I saw around me at face value, to pretend, to suppose—to stretch those confines beyond the point that was generally acceptable. It’s good to be a little off. You have to be willing to cross that line. Transgress. You have to walk on the other side just enough to be able to confidently tell your reader what another reality might be like.

Michael Noll

On a craft level, you actually tell the reader the irrational act that will occur in advance of it actually happening on the page. Early on, the narrator says, 

“I fled my cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man. Fit, grinning children with summer tans, good teeth, and stunning green eyes the color of new grass. Relentlessly healthy children. Blonde, enviable children. They greet each day with terrifying vigor: water guns and war games, barefoot races and soccer tournaments.  Robert and I have raised them in the light. They attack the world, ready to rule it.”

On one hand, I can imagine someone arguing that you’ve given away the story. On the other hand, the passage raises as many questions as it answers: Why does she give up her family? Who is the Bug Man? Why does she describe nice things in such an ugly way? I’m curious how you approach a paragraph like this. How do you know when such a paragraph is necessary and when it actually will give away the story?

Laura Benedict

A horror story can be, but is not necessarily, a mystery story. To me, the most interesting part of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is not that she ends up leaving her family for a creepy exterminator. It’s how she gets there, the way she changes along the way, what she’s willing to accept and lose. If I hadn’t put that paragraph in the beginning, it would’ve felt too much like an “aha!” story. And I hope my fiction is more interesting than that. I want the stakes to be higher for the reader, and the journey to the end to be worth his time. If I’ve already told the reader that she leaves her family for the exterminator, then he should expect something even stranger by the end.

I confess that I didn’t know until I was writing the last few pages that the story was going to end the way it did. I had no idea what was in the box or what would show up to feed on its contents until she was in the Bug Man’s bedroom. It was a surprise I very much liked, and I hope the reader likes it, too.

Does the description of her family sound ugly? I have the sense that she sees her family and her daily life in bright, hyperchromatic colors. She’s passionate, but overwhelmed with the reality of it all. Life with the Bug Man is strange, but laconic and muted. It’s like an opposite universe. In his world, she’s fecund but passive. By engaging in the very bold action of abandoning her family, she sinks—finally, fatally—into a kind of inaction.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that you’re paranoid and tend to imagine every possible crime that might happen to you or others. Given that, I’m curious about the genesis of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” Yes, it’s sort of a Rosemary’s Baby tale about a woman sleeping with a monster. But it’s also a story about a woman who, for no good reason, gives up a happy marriage and family in order to have an affair with an unattractive stranger. I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction. Given your paranoia, I’m curious if you are re-imagining all of your everyday encounters, not just the potentially criminal ones.

Laura Benedict

“I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction.” What an interesting quote. Now that I think about it, it does ring rather true for me.

This story did grow out of an encounter with a real exterminator—a man I found a little smarmy and not at all attractive. Our house is surrounded by woods, and when we bought it eight years ago it was badly infested with both spiders and mice (we caught 24 mice in the first 6 weeks!). The battle may never be won with the spiders, but we’re down to a couple of mice per year. When the exterminator came out to give us a price on bombing the house for spiders, he terrified me with his horror stories about other houses. I already knew about the way wolf spiders carry their young on their backs, but he shared that he has a female wolf spider in his house that lives in a closet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it, but he said that the spider is allowed to stay because it has lived there longer then she has. That’s an un-inventable detail. Honestly, I couldn’t make that up.

I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.

Michael Noll

One of the traits of horror/gothic fiction and weird tales is that characters often act on impulses that are monstrous—i.e. they cannot be explained rationally. This goes pretty far back, at least to Poe and Lovecraft. Why, after all, does Poe’s Montresor really bury Fortunato alive? And Lovecraft’s Chthulhu stories are almost entirely about normal people suddenly going insane. This is true of your story as well. There isn’t a rational reason for the narrator to sleep with the Bug Man. It’s an act that can have only bad consequences, yet she does it anyway. I’m curious what draws you to this kind of story. Is there something about irrational acts that particularly draws your imagination–and also is particularly suited to horror fiction?

Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict's most recent novel, Bliss House, is "a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama," according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbot.

Laura Benedict’s most recent novel, Bliss House, is “a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama,” according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbott.

We all live inside a fairly narrow social construct with many, many rules. And those rules don’t have a lot of room for obsessions or strange desires. Our contemporary culture has broken down a lot of the rules/walls, and the notions about what is strange or alien or unacceptable have changed quite a bit. But the constraints are still only a little bit wider and rely heavily on convention. With the exception of the clinically insane, we all crowd around a stable, identifiable center.

So we exist in a constant state of tension. The majority of people are able to handle the tension between their desires and their tribes’ demands for conformity with relative ease: Their desires are either easily satisfied, they’re too busy fulfilling their basic survival needs, or they have found some trade-off that makes the relative sublimation of those desires acceptable. But sometimes the tension is too great and they either suffocate or feel compelled—often quite suddenly it seems to them—to give themselves over fully to their desires, and damn the consequences.

Yes, there is a line that characters in horror and surreal fiction transgress that leads them into places that seem insane to other people. The woman in the story cannot help but sleep with the Bug Man and become his concubine. She no longer recognizes the validity of the choice in front of her: stay with her loving, charming family, or follow her desire for the bug man (no matter how bizarre it seems to us—or even to her) to its unknown consequence. She only understands that this is what she must do. Does she understand why? No, not really. There is, no doubt, something in her psyche that has led her to this place, but is it my responsibility as a writer to lay out the reasons behind her actions for the reader? I don’t think so. If I’ve done my job, the reader has enough information come to her own satisfactory conclusion about why the woman has acted as she has—but she’ll also realize that the reasons are completely irrelevant.  That’s part of the horror of the story.

As to my attraction to irrational acts—honestly, I’m rarely satisfied with reality as it’s presented to me every day. Perhaps that sounds strange or greedy or ungrateful. But irrationality and speculation make things a hell of a lot more interesting.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up Illogical Character Choices

5 Aug
Laura Benedict's story "When I Make Love to the Bug Man" was published in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s story “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Almost every writer will have this experience: you’re sitting in workshop, listening to comments about your story, and someone says, “That part where ____? I just don’t get it. Why’d she do that? It makes no sense.” Maybe the workshopper will add, “I don’t know a single person who would do that.” Everyone will nod, some grudgingly. The worst part is that they’re right. Your character’s choice makes no sense. And yet that doesn’t you should revise that choice out of the story. Many great works of fiction are about characters doing things that are totally illogical—but they make sense in the story.

So how do you make an illogical choice make sense or at least keep the reader from thinking it doesn’t make sense? An almost-textbook example of this problem can be found in Laura Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”  The story is creepy and unsettling and great—and it also features a character doing something that doesn’t make sense. Certainly, nobody you know would make the same choice. How does she pull it off? The story was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman who has an affair—but not just any affair. She sleeps with the home exterminator, a man described this way:

You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom-mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt.

But, of course, marital affairs are often the result of unhappiness in the marriage. In those situations, who knows who you’ll sleep with, right? But this narrator isn’t unhappy. Instead, she fled her “cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man.” Her children are beautiful, and her husband is a good father and good in bed (“Even our sex was aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event”). In other words, there is absolutely no reason for her to sleep with the Bug Man. Yet she does. It’s illogical. So why don’t we stop reading?

The reason that readers identify acts or choices as illogical is because they’re applying an agreed-upon logic. For instance, most of us would agree with this statement: Attractive, happy women with attractive children and an attractive, good husband do not sleep with unattractive random strangers. This logic may be problematic (judging people on appearances usually is), but it’s one that we believe on some level. As a result, in order to make the reader accept the illogical act, the story must introduce a new logic.

The most obvious way to introduce this logic would be to use a psychological disorder—if the narrator is a sex addict, for instance, then we change our expectations of her behavior. Another common way to change a story’s logic is to introduce an impactful event from the past. (This is what Aimee Bender did in her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own: after the character’s father becomes ill, she begins quitting things and compulsively knocking on wood.) But Benedict uses neither of these strategies in “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”

Instead, she introduces an obsession. It begins logically. In fact, it’s not really an obsession at first, only a fact:

It didn’t seem fair that there should be so many spiders in one house. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders (sure they’re a kind of cricket, but just take a look at one and tell me you don’t think, that’s the ugliest spider I’ve ever seen), orb spiders, brown recluse spiders. If I turned a lamp on in a dark room, I didn’t have to wait long to notice one fleeing for the threshold, or crouching motionless in the light, playing dead.

Any rationale person could become unnerved by a spider infestation (in Texas, we have cockroaches, and when they scuttle across the wall at night and drop onto your pillow, it’s hard to go back to sleep). Any rationale person might become a bit obsessed:

Oh, yes, I saw them. I heard them, too, as I lay in bed at night beside my husband, Robert. Robert pretended not to hear, but I’m not ashamed to say I heard them knocking softly, messaging each other.

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I am here.”

And when you become obsessed with something that deserves your undivided attention (like spiders), it’s perfectly logical to start focusing on it to an unhealthy degree:

Fact: you are never any farther than three feet from a spider. Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory. Fact: You’ll rarely see a female brown recluse unless you rip into walls and crevices. They hide like reluctant royalty, hatching their young away from the light. Fact: Those are males crawling out of the guest bedroom pillow or the electric socket. There’s something about cardboard boxes that attracts them too, like perfect camouflage, their compact, angular bodies and bent legs gliding across the boxes’ bone-dry walls as though the walls were made of ice. Fact: Spiders have no capacity for vocal sound. Thus, the knocking. Not many spiders can communicate this way, but some do.

Look at what Benedict has done. She’s introduced a house with a common problem (spider infestation) and changed the logic of the story so that it makes sense to learn minutia about spiders. Once that new logic has been set, it makes sense (or at least seems less illogical) to make a statement like this:

I know these are Facts because the Bug Man whispers them to me when I’m in his embrace.

And this:

I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.

It’s a purely illogical statement that the reader has been given freedom to believe. It’s not a case of temporarily setting aside logic (the fictive dream) so much as introducing a new kind of logic. If you read the story, you’ll find out that an even crazier, creepier twist lies in store.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up an illogical character choice using “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict as a model:

  1. Identify the illogical character choice. Odds are, you already know what this is. It’s probably the reason the story has screeched to a halt. Either someone read the draft and said, “Nope. Don’t believe it,” or you read your own story and could not figure out how to make it work. So, make sure you know what illogical thing is happening in your draft.
  2. Explain why it’s illogical. If you do want to make it work (rather than changing the choice the character makes), you need to not only write down the choice but also the reasons why it doesn’t make sense. In Benedict’s case, the narrator’s choice to sleep with an unattractive stranger doesn’t make sense because the narrator has it all: looks, youth, an attractive husband who is a good father, and beautiful kids. It’s possible that in the story you’ll need to come out and state these things outright. Benedict does this after she’s dropped the bomb about loving the Bug Man. The next four paragraphs describe the reasons her choice is crazy, which means that she’s not crazy, or at least it gives the reader permission to keep reading. The old saw about crazy people not knowing they’re crazy basically holds true for fictional characters as well.
  3. Find a way to introduce the choice. You can hint at the illogical choice from the beginning (as Benedict does, as Nabokov did in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”). But, to make it believable, you need to also introduce an alternative way of thinking that leads to the choice. Nabokov did this with the line, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” and the story of early love that follows. Benedict does this by introducing the spiders and the very rationale freaking out and obsessing that results. So, find something real and practical to hang your odd thoughts on: spiders, a lover, something that exists in every world. Then, give the character a reason to think about this thing a lot (infestation, love).
  4. Introduce an obsession. After you’ve got a character thinking about something a lot, it’s not hard to put those thoughts into full-blown obsession. You don’t really even need to explain the shift. It can just happen, as it does in Benedict’s story. The narrator moves from hearing spiders to listing a litany of facts about them. So, give your character a chance to demonstrate some specialized knowledge in the subject. We do this with love stories (and real-life love) all of the time; we know every last detail about the object of our affection or the object of our character’s affections. Love, of course, is not unlike obsession. So, treat the object at the center of your character’s obsession as if he/she loves it. Go into loving detail.
  5. Return to, or introduce, the illogical choice. People who are obsessed do not behave rationally. If you can convince the readers of the obsession, it’s only another short step to convince them of the choice. Or, to be more accurate, the choice will flash by them and they won’t notice; it will fit in with the obsession.

You may find that you need to arrange and rearrange these elements of introducing an illogical choice. The thing to remember is that you’re setting up the choice by creating a mindset—and the sneakiest way to create a mindset is to make it initially focused on something logical. Once it becomes obsession, then you push it into the bounds of what is normally illogical.

Good luck and have fun!

%d bloggers like this: