COBALT: You told me in a private conversation that, when you were writing You Can Make Him Like You, you were trying to write about “life happening.” How do you capture “life happening” in fiction, and what bait/traps do you use?
Tanzer: First off, I should stress that as I learned from my mentor David Copperfield, I never publicly admit to using bait or traps. The goal is to maintain the illusion that life really is happening right there on the page, like one of those photos in the Harry Potter movies where everyone is moving around. That said, I will admit to utilizing lasers and ingesting EPO. I will also say that I try to keep the interactions and conversations intimate, the back story minimal and more likely to come out in discussion if at all; the language sparse and the dialogue as close to what I think people really sound like as possible. I also try keep the metaphor and imagery tamped-down and description stripped-down and fleeting, here now, and then gone, like life.
COBALT: You’re a busy man. You work in the nonprofit sector, you are constantly changing people’s lives through your blog, and you have a family to come home to every night. How do you find the time to write at the great capacity that you do?
Tanzer: Ball bearings are crucial. As is cloning, polygamy, and, like my great hero Korczak Ziolkowski procreating at as great a rate as possible so as to generate as many assistants as I can to work in substandard conditions for nominal rates of pay. Mainly though I seek to keep the fat in my schedule, i.e., Soap marathons and the like; the doubt in my head and any drifting towards preciousness to a minimum; while simultaneously stoking and embracing any and all compulsive desires to write the things I’m thinking about at as maximum a level as I can. Which I suppose really means, that I try to write everyday; I am constantly trying to plan and slot when and where I will do so; I keep the writing to 30 minutes minimum; I write in any setting that I am in, noisy, smelly, claustrophobic, whatever; I grab any opportunity that opens up unexpectedly to write, and for the most part I don’t tweak, edit or allow myself any doubt until the first draft of whatever it is I’m working on is done. I suppose what this also means, is that at least in part, the energy I once put into trying to get laid is now primarily focused on trying to write, and as you know that can be a lot of energy regardless of what else is going on in one’s life. I also find that this energy is better spent on trying to write; well, not better spent, just more productive.
COBALT: How much of your fiction resembles your own life?
Tanzer: The other day I told someone I suspected it was 20%. Can I tell you that as well? Thanks. My experience though is that the story arcs I work from tend to resemble my experiences in terms of place and flow and timing, and the incidents, experiences and dialogue that are the meat of the story are drawn from my imagination and the stories other people tell me, with real-life incidents intermittently muscling their way into the story as well, though slightly morphed and mutated. An example of the latter is a scene from You Can Make Him Like You, where the protagonist’s wife asks him to let their new male neighbor know that he’s really loud when he’s having sex, and that the walls are really thin. I once had a similar situation with a female neighbor that played out much differently than the scene in the novel, but the feelings of embarrassment and jealousy, were otherwise perfect, and it was the feelings itself I ran with, not the actual experience.
COBALT: Many readers comment on your ability to draw from hotspots around Chicago – the social environments that people who live in or have visited the city can identify with. How does your hometown feed you as a writer?
Tanzer: Great question, and I should note that as a native New Yorker, I should probably refer to Chicago as my adopted hometown in case anyone takes offense. And yes, I’m talking to you, Joe Meno and Billy Lombardo. No really I am talking to you guys. Let’s get some coffee some time. That said, I am fed as all writers are fed. We are always absorbing what is around us, where we go, what we see, and smell and touch and as we write and the stories come together these experiences trickle-in, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, and then when we edit we ask ourselves about the places we are contemplating and the locations we’ve identified and whether they have the meaning we want to imbue them with or some other place might better capture it. And so it’s always shifting and always driven by what is and has been ingested, and for me, especially lately, it is Chicago, where I live now and have been living, and the stories that I’m writing about seem to belong here, just as some of the older stories I have written seemed to belong somewhere else.
COBALT: Tell us about “This Blog/Zine Will Change Your Life.” Other than the obvious life-changing mission, what are some of the objectives of your literary crusade?
Tanzer: TBWCYL, Inc., the vast, albeit faux media empire I run, is guided by several core principles, all of which stem from the monorail episode of The Simpsons. First, how will I sell my books, to everyone, everywhere, somehow rising above the clutter of the many books being released all the time? And my approach, in part, is marketing these books as products you cannot live without. They will change your life, and maybe even for the better. Second, how can I hype the writers, artists and pop culture moments I love so much, both selflessly, because they mean something to me and would mean something to you if they weren’t mostly obscure or you had the time to pay attention to everything; and selfishly, because doing so may enhance people’s interest in my work because they are drawn to kinds of things I hype. Third, how can I actually build a media empire/lifestyle brand for all the above reasons and because maybe, just maybe, it won’t be always be faux, it will be real and when it is all the elements will already be in place. And fourth, how can I have fun, or more particularly, entertain myself, at all times, whether you are entertained or not?
COBALT: You Can Make Him Like You is named for a song by The Hold Steady. From start to finish, it doesn’t seem the narrator is liked any more by any of the other characters (or even the reader). Are there themes from the song that relate to the narrator, or is it just some mad clinical obsession with the band that the narrator has (or perhaps you have)? Will there be a special edition of the book, accompanied by CD in the near future?
Tanzer: Okay, some thoughts: first of which, is that I am madly and clinically obsessed with almost everything, if that helps. Second though, this song is about a woman who is more or less being encouraged to be open to the idea of leaving someone who may not really be the right guy, a guy you cannot really like and so maybe you don’t have to. Still, she is not going to leave him, in my head anyway, which may be fine, and that’s how I wanted to position this character, you don’t think you like him, but ultimately you do, he can be liked.
He’s confused, but that doesn’t make him a bad person, just a confused one. More specifically, I also wanted to position him as a character who doesn’t like himself, and what he learns along the way is that he can like himself. He’s not an asshole, he just doesn’t know any better… yet, but he’s wrong, and we learn he and we, are wrong, well most of us, maybe you disagree, which is fine, really.
Another thing though, in terms of the theme in this song and the other Hold Steady songs referenced in the book, is that I wanted to write a book about thirty-something characters stumbling into whatever is next, and I was struck by the fact that the songs of The Hold Steady are about the younger version of the characters I wanted to write about, drinking, hooking-up, listening to music, from small towns, all of it, who have to grow into something more, something older and more engaged, less druggy and such, more responsibility and what comes with that, bosses and bills and serious relationships, maybe, hopefully, and kids, even, possibly.
As far as a special edition of the novel and CD accompaniment goes, you will need to speak to The Hold Steady’s management team, and when you do, please send my love.
Top five mustaches. Ready? Go.
(1) Tom Selleck
(2) Yosemite Sam
(3) Rollie Fingers
(4) Frida Kahlo
(5) Billy Dee Williams
Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems, You Can Make Him Like You and My Father’s House, among others. Ben also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his vast, albeit faux media empire.
My Father’s House was published by Main Street Rag. Click here to purchase your copy. Now please.