short stories, essays & interviews
Excerpt from When Love and Travel Meet on the Road: New York Times
The Museum of Northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert is arguably the most elegant structure in that port town of about 12,000 people. It has the lines and structure of a traditional long house and the expansive glass of something modern. You can inhale a cedar scent from its massive beams while surveying a harbor where birds and sea mammals hunt. Those animals’ ancestors, centuries ago, inspired the designs on the blankets and bent cedar boxes that fill the space.
I visited the museum on my third day in town. For a month I had been traveling by train, riding west from Ottawa, stopping in cities and sleeping in Airbnbs. Prince Rupert, near Alaska, was my most remote destination. Soon I would head back to places with traffic and cocktail bars.
Airbnb offers two options: whole homes or shared spaces. The latter are cheaper and come with company. You eat where your hosts eat and shower where they shower. My hosts included a stay-at-home dad in Toronto and a photographer in Winnipeg who orchestrated hootenannies. Here, I was staying with a woman we’ll call Kelli.
Excerpt from The New Yorker
Everybody had turned forty or was about to, so, even though the time capsule had been in the ground for only eighteen years, not a significant number, we decided to dig it up. William called that shot. William’s fortieth would be the last, and William had stood at the heart of things back in college. By things, I mean a house on the University of Michigan campus and the people who lived there. The house had no academic affiliation or any athletes attached to it. Only men signed the lease, but women came around, some eventually as girlfriends. The inhabitants called it the International House of Debauchery. By the time everything was over with, the I.H.D. had, to my ear, all the legitimacy of an established acronym.
My mother still recalls in vivid detail the fifteen minutes she spent in the I.H.D., in 1998. For some reason, she had occasion, poor woman, to use the bathroom there. The sink had been clogged for four months and would be clogged for seven more. Anders, hairy, shaved over it each morning. William, Rory, Paul, and Michael brushed their teeth in the bathtub. The bathroom, like the rest of the house, was subject to more addition than subtraction. Dander and urine and hair and fuzz and tissue and spilled beer and spilled sauce and fake blood accumulated on surfaces everywhere.
Other additions to the property were intentional and ostensibly aesthetic. Rory and Paul stuck plastic sconces to the living-room wall in homage to the Middle Ages. Everybody enjoyed saying “sconces.” Anders nailed fifteen hubcaps to the porch in homage to some imagined Appalachia, and curated a sculpture garden in the front yard. It included a birdbath, a guitar neck, and a half-buried television set with a bowling ball dropped through the screen.
Excerpt from A Public Space Magazine: Issue 20
It was on something more than a whim that Hammond Birdsell first went to Oakwood Cemetery and found himself strolling the plots in quiet confusion and uneasy yearning. He had just come back from an international conference in Germany for librarians in the digital age and wanted to find a local grave to visit each week. Being in Europe stoked his imagination or something deeper than it. As never before, he realized that the centuries were intervals people had actually lived through—and not too long ago! How, as a librarian, had he not grasped this sooner? The bridges and forests, the castles and breweries—life in Upper Bavaria had rolled over and over roughly just like this since the coronation of Charlemagne. The street corners and river views of his ancestral village (his mother’s parents’ birthplace) warmed his blood. Walking the village cheered him and made him feel sad all at once, sort of the way memories of his childhood kitchen in Ohio did. Even the drizzle that fell on the river one afternoon gave rise to a sensation of abiding fullness. Above all, it was the sight of his relatives—three old women, each quaintly crippled in her own small way—keeping fresh the flowers on the graves of his grandparents that transformed him a little. Hammond had never met those grandparents. Until last week, before 115 looking at their headstones, he had not even really believed in them
With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.
Excerpt From The Chronicle of Higher Education
Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Seven years earlier, Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. "I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country," he wrote. This could mean only that "thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination." Engle denounced rounding up students in "one easily supervised place" as a "typical Soviet tactic." He believed that the United States must "compete with that, hard and by long time planning"—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.
Story in the Public Square: Eric Bennett
Hosts Jim Ludes and G. Wayne Miller are joined by a remarkably talented scholar and novelist whose work, whether for academic or popular audiences, traces the role of both narrative and truth in public life. Eric Bennett is the author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, and the novel A Big Enough Lie.
By Justin Goodman for Boston Accent Lit
Justin Goodman: I'm going to start from an unusual place because A Big Enough Lieis, I think, so conceptually diverse that it'll probably take much of the time for itself. Plus, I find the best way to learn about someone is to consider their future orientation. So, in that vein, you said in a Q&A with Deborah Kalb last December that the next novel you were working on was called Everybody Can't Be Naked, which you described as a novel with "tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast." Foremost, I want to ask how that project's coming along. Has there been much progress over the months?
But I also noted that you described the project as “tales” (suggesting concrete divisions), while also calling it a novel. It made me think of something like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. An urbane, multi-layered world engaged in constant fiction while invoking Theory and Aesthetics to defend their commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption. I know you have a similar perspective regarding a style of MFA student. The Greater Than X boys from A Big Enough Lie, for example, or your descriptions of former Iowa Writing Workshop director Paul Engle as something like a writerly power broker. With that in mind, do you see Everybody Can't Be Naked as a continuation of this criticism of the (anti-)politics of the American art world?
Hopefully that wasn't too much at once. Sorry, if so. I'm trying to hold back as much as possible to start.
Eric Bennett: Since Deborah's interview last year, Everybody Can't Be Naked has come more and more to resemble a novel proper. An international Chinese artist creates an installation in the ruins of nineteenth-century mill buildings in a city in Rhode Island. The installation—a work of art—is a full scale replica of a factory you'd find in the Pearl River Delta in southern China—the kind of place that makes 80% of everything we own and wear. The “factory workers” are rich girls, the daughters of Communist Party higher-ups, playing labor as Marie Antoinette is said to have played milkmaid. American artists are hired to build out the “factory” itself—to do the wiring and hang the sheetrock. They think they're really building a factory. And they live fatly on the good wages from the Beijing arts council, or they do at least until the money runs dry. Much of the novel concerns the dreams, hopes, loves, and empty bank accounts of these American artists (the old “tales” that I mentioned). But thematic continuities with A Big Enough Lie and Workshops of Empire will probably be clear to anybody who's kind enough to read the three books. Our material reality depends on industrial activity we barely ever even think about, let alone see. That's a truth that belongs to the realm of economics and politics and ethics, or at best to memoir or journalism, and not in a lush, vivid, plausible novel. But could a lush, vivid, plausible novel contain it? We'll see.
by Matt Gillick for Booktrib
These days, aspiring writers have a number of tools at their disposal. Whether that’s a specific software, a submission manager or something as simple as an Internet connection, people today have more tools than ever before to write quality work. But can all of those advantages work against them and actually distract the writer from what’s most important in their writing? Maybe the real problem is there’s just too much help available and not enough creativity.
As part of our ‘One Question and Answer’ series, we asked Eric Bennett, a Providence College professor and author of his debut novel, A Big Enough Lie, a question about what is most important when trying to create a solid piece of writing. Here’s what he told us:
Question: What is the most important asset a writer must nurture to achieve success?
Eric Bennett: It’s possible for me to imagine a writer writing excellent stuff without a laptop, a Moleskine, an Internet connection, a smartphone, a fountain pen, a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine, a writing group, some Scrivener software, an MFA, a college degree, or a high school diploma. It’s even possible for me to imagine a writer writing excellent stuff without a bed, a futon, a furnace, a stove, a yoga teacher, some health insurance, multiple pairs of shoes, or amber spirits distilled south of the Mason Dixon line. But it’s impossible for me to imagine a writer writing well without reading other people’s books.
Eric Bennett is a novelist and Associate Professor of English at Providence College. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, Bennett's most recent book is titled Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War (2015). Other publications include Creative Writing and the Cold War University (2013) and Ernest Hemingway & the Discipline of Creative Writing, or, Shark Liver Oil (2010).
Why is Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War crucial reading for students of cultural diplomacy?
In contrast to the Soviet Union, the United States depended on private citizens to foster cultural exchange and export national values during the Cold War. Yet Washington often tipped the scales by funding do-it-yourself cold warriors, sometimes with the awareness and complicity of those recipients, sometimes not. Paul Engle, promoting international literary activity in Iowa City throughout the 1950s and 1960s, lived these tensions, subterfuges, and contradictions. His story itself is gripping. And the chapters that contextualize his remarkable life should be useful to those making a wider study of the period.
What major works of creative fiction emerged from the Cold War-era university programs that readers today might be surprised to learn had their roots in an anti-communist political ideology?
Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, a bestseller in the spring of 1964, emerged from the nexus of philanthropic funding, Paul Engle’s hustling, and Philip Roth’s teaching at Iowa. It became Engle’s calling card at the State Department and is an easy title to point to, not to mention still a good book.
Q&A with Eric Bennett
Eric Bennett is the author of the new book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War. He also has written the recent novel A Big Enough Lie. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including VQR and A Public Space, and he is an associate professor of English at Providence College.
Q: You write, “To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere.” What impact did the ideas of that post-World War II period have on creative writing?
A: Individualism of one sort or another has been a defining feature of the American experience since the beginning—Alexis de Tocqueville testified to its significance almost two centuries ago.
But my research suggests that in the 1950s, personal accounts of minor experiences gained a new political urgency, and that that urgency found expression in creative writing programs, which were just emerging.
by Laura LaVelle for Newswhistle
Although it is not safe to assume that a novel is autobiographical in nature (particularly when the novel in question, A Big Enough Lie, is about the creation of a fraudulent war memoir), nevertheless, I thought that its author, Eric Bennett, would be a fun person to meet for a drink. (He certainly writes bar scenes well, for what that’s worth.) It was not to be, however, as, when we were setting up this Q&A over email, he informed me that he was on sabbatical from his academic job as an English professor at Providence College, and would be catching a plane out of the country imminently. The telephone, therefore, would have to do. Fortunately, I found him a friendly and engaging conversationalist, which was a very good thing, as I was predisposed to like him: his debut novel is excellent.
Your novel creates an Oprah Winfrey-like television host, Winnie Wilson, and uses the on air interviews she conducts with two of your other characters, both writers, as a framing device. It’s a rather satisfying structure to explore your themes about truthfulness and falsehood and authorship. Of course, it now makes it hard for me to think of intelligent questions because I don’t want to ask the obvious ones that Winnie would ask! Clearly, this is not an autobiographical novel (except maybe the drinking part). But it does seem like you have something to say about memoirs and their popularity these days…are you criticizing memoirs as a form? Or are you criticizing popular taste and our culture’s fetishizing of authenticity? Or are you trying to blur the distinction we make between novels and memoirs?
Some of my favorite things to read lately are memoirs, and maybe even more, books that blur the line between fiction and memoir. My issue might be more a matter of market share than an absolute critique. There’s a widespread preoccupation with biography mapping on to authorship and I’m curious about what it says about us as a culture. Of course the romanticization of the author is an old tendency, at least 200 years old, going back to Byron and beyond, but more and more it’s become the center of gravity in American literature.
by Mollie Flanagan for RISCA
Eric Bennett is a Providence based writer and Associate Professor of English at Providence College. He is this year’s fiction fellowship recipient, for his novel Make Yourself Decent.
We asked him a few questions about his life and art making in Rhode Island for our new series, Rhode Island Cultural Anchors.
RISCA: Give us a brief overview of your day yesterday – what did you do in both your personal and professional life.
EB: After dinner I polished a 250-word endorsement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the student newspaper at Providence College; googled clips of the Chinese internet celebrity HoneyCC; read about Meitu apps that transform Shanghai selfies into universal fantasies of perfection and drive the booming business in plastic surgery in Chengdu; kept trying to record a MIDI part for “Broke My Heart on You” for the forthcoming Hopper album, Hopperesque; and typed up some notes on William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.