Ben Tanzer

“What they struggle with is what they feel or don’t feel, the inability to communicate what they are feeling and how it is we connect with others.” Ben Tanzer, interviewed for PRATE by Peter Schwartz

P.S.: Ben Tanzer is one of those guys you meet and like within seconds.  He’s agreed to talk to me here and I’ve agreed to use my big boy voice.  Welcome Ben, why don’t you tell our good readers a little about yourself and how you can change their lives?

B.T.: You are very generous, and it’s clear you have picked-up on one of my worst not so hidden traits – I love flattery, both giving and receiving.  I would add here that I appreciate your interest in interviewing me and I think you look great today.  Is that a new shirt?  In terms of myself, I used to tell people that I was a founding member of Wham!, but they soon realized that was maybe not entirely accurate.  I blame Wikipedia for that and now I tell them I used to be Ric Astley.  Beyond that I went to the same high school as Rod Serling, albeit after he did, and if you forced me to pick whether I am a Star Trek person or a Twilight Zone person, I would choose the latter.  I also went to high school with Lisa Baylor who you probably don’t know, but wish you did.  I was interviewed on the debut episode of the now long defunct MTV Sports show.  Sadly, I did not get to meet host Dan Cortese, which is something that still haunts me, though not nearly as much as the one time I watched Veronica’s Closet. Much beyond that is fairly bland I suspect, though I am proud to say that I am a father of two, husband of only one, though not for lack of trying, the Director of Communications at a nonprofit and a writer, the last of which is always weird to write or say out loud, because it still seems hard to believe.  You also asked me how I change lives and while I think I may be doing so right now, my main means for accomplishing this are through the products – my novels, short story collection and zine – and lifestyle choices – reading indie literature, blogging about the Elizabeth Crane, eating Peeps – I purvey via TBWCYL, Inc, my vast yet faux media empire.  For more insight into my methods please refer to the monorail episode of The Simpsons.  All the answers lie there.

P.S.: And there you have it, I told you this guy was likable.  Hey, I once murdered someone to get into a lit journal called Porcupine.  What’s the crummiest thing you feel like you’ve ever done to survive?

B.T.: Despite your reference to Porcupine, my sense is that what you really want me to do is go all Sophie’s Choice here or relate some kind of parable about how I had to steal bread to feed my children and whether I believe it was truly justified on some kind of moral or ethical level.  Then again, maybe you just want me to tell an elaborate lie.  I could do any of that, and I of course would do anything for you, but instead, like you, I will discuss artistic survival because really, outside of cash flow problems, this odd rash I have and the general state of the world, everything else is going just swimmingly for me. So, caveats aside, in my recent novel Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine I totally and unabashedly plagiarized both The DaVinci Code and The Time Traveler’s Wife then tried to pass it all off as a nonfiction tale rife with family pain, substance abuse, hubris, and an epic fall from grace that initially leads to profound disillusionment, but ultimately ends in triumph.  This was done of course because I was desperate.  My kids were hungry.  I wanted to boost sales.  And I really wanted to get on Oprah.  I’m not sure that your readers were aware of any of this, but I suggest that they go buy the book and read it as a means for verifying these fairly incendiary disclosures.  After that they should feel free to blog about how reading Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine changed their lives, link to my blog and publisher, and maybe even give the book a freakishly positive shout-out on Goodreads and Amazon.

P.S.: You had me at elaborate lie.  Please, tell a lie, a secret, and a little known fact and then we’ll just invite our kind readers to jot down which they think is which.  At the end of this interview, we’ll reveal the real answers and those of you with all three correct answers will WIN A FREE PRIZE that will both literally and figuratively blow your mind.

B.T.: Great question, and very Zellweger of you. Here you go:

(1)     I once wrote Parker Stevenson a fan letter and asked him his advice on how one goes about becoming an actor.  I sent it to Teen Beat where he had a column during the 70’s. He never responded and years later when Kirstie Alley left him I felt vindicated.
(2)     I auditioned for the role of the son in The Shining.  They told me I didn’t seem creepy enough, something a number of women I dated in high school would later strongly disagree with.
(3)    When I was a kid my parents would leave my brother and I at movie theaters to watch movies two even three times in a row.  Between showings I would eat the popcorn that people left behind and to this day I have an intense craving for stale popcorn every time I watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

P.S.: Thought you’d appreciate that.  Okay.  Enough flirting, let’s do this.  Every story depicts the world a certain way.  Describe the world in your novels.  Feel free to talk about how some specific characters might see their lives and situations.

B.T.: I did appreciate that and I have appreciated the flirting as well.  I would add that I think this is a very good question and that you sir are a fine interviewer.  Was that also flirting?  Anyway, the world I am drawn to is one where the inhabitants are confused.  Confused about how they find themselves wherever they are and about why things happen to them, anything really.  Why they make or don’t make certain decisions, how to think through what they’re feeling and more than anything why the world and their place in it doesn’t make more sense to them.  This is not a world where people necessarily struggle with good and evil or issues of morality or spirituality, honor or bravery, though they could.  What they struggle with is what they feel or don’t feel, the inability to communicate what they are feeling and how it is we connect with others.  And as they struggle with these things they turn to drugs and violence, video games, and running; they hurt themselves and they lose themselves in conversations about pop culture, anything to avoid discussing, or even thinking, about what’s going on for them or how they should they feel about it.

In my first book Lucky Man the character of Sammy is surrounded by a bunch of self-destructive guys, one is suicidal, another is a cutter, a third is really into drugs, and he never quite gets what’s going on around him or really even asks.  He is detached from everything: his friends, the world, himself, much of the time existing as an observer, and rarely self-reflective.  His detachment in some ways probably saves him, he doesn’t feel anything deeply enough to explode until in a burst violence he is finally confronted with his own sense of disconnection and inertia.  Now will that be enough to move him in some way?  Hard to say.  Hopefully.  Maybe.  In Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine the main characters Geoff and Jen don’t try to avoid getting into relationships, but they do assume that all relationships are doomed to implode, that something, somehow will break whatever’s good and when something breaks that’s it, there’s no fixing it.  They don’t understand why this is though or how to address it, so they constantly avoid trying to talk about it and feint at all times in all conversations, until maybe they don’t, again hard to say what will happen for them.  In my new book You Can Make Him Like You we have a guy named Keith who knows enough to know that he does not want to sleep with his intern, or any number of other people; kill his neighbors or allow himself to be overwhelmed by the idea of having a baby, and yet all of these things have the potential to happen and he isn’t exactly sure why they are happening even as he consciously recognizes he’s creating the situations.  His problem, among many, is that he refuses, almost reflexively, to try and better understand why this is.  He could almost get some insight if he tried, but he won’t, or can’t, and there he is caught again and again in untenable and confusing situations of his own making.

P.S.: Wow, struggling with feelings and numbness and not having a language to express either, getting lost in pop culture, that’s the new great American pastime, for sure.  Alright, out of all your characters who’s your least favorite and why?  Describe in detail how you might physically assault that character.

B.T.: This is a tough question for a variety of reasons.  First off, like the cheesy parent I am, I have a lot of affection for all of my characters, and while I should maybe be more comfortable disliking them, it’s a weird feeling to me and so I realize I risk copping-out on this question.  Second, I must admit, that the question makes me a little uncomfortable, which is good, I need to be uncomfortable, but while I write about violence, and I’m fascinated with violence, and even get a certain kick out of the more cartoonish violent movies, violence for the sake of violence, gratuitous, nihilistic violence, Fight Club-type violence, is very upsetting to me, which means in reacting to this question, I also risk coming off like kind of pussy, which frankly, is embarrassing in all its own way.

Still, I’m all in. So, a two-part answer.

First, if I need to identify a character I like least, I will say Keith in my new novel You Can Make Him Like You.  Many of my characters lack a needed level of curiosity to get a better handle on what it is they struggle with and why, but Keith is more aware of this lack of curiosity than any of my other characters which just makes me mad.  Keith’s reactions to various situations, as well as his political views, are initially more reflexive than other characters I’ve written, meaning he’s more reactive than thoughtful because that’s how he’s always been, and so that’s that, it must be right.  I can’t stand that.

Second, fighting to me is like sex in some ways, okay, many ways.  I haven’t slept with everyone I might have slept with, almost all of them to be honest, and there are moments when those people, or those situations, will cross my mind, mostly at work, but also when I’m writing for sure.  Fighting is like that to me as well.  I fought a lot as a kid, but I didn’t fight everyone who bullied me or my friends, or who taunted me, and I have those moments as well, flashing back to the kids or situations and how I may have acted differently.

This is especially the case following being assaulted in New York City several years ago.  It was quick and out of left field and I never knew why it happened or what prompted it.  It just happened.  And so I think about fighting when I feel threatened, and when I am writing, and when I do I tend to flash back to childhood when fighting was the norm, not the exception.

There was one kid in particular who terrorized us in middle school and I never challenged him, but I can still picture him, and can still think of moments when I might have, and when I needed a bully in my first book Lucky Man I used him as a reference, though unlike in my real life, two of the characters kick the shit out of him:

“We kick back in the car for a couple of hours, not saying much, and killing the twelve-pack. We wait and wait, the moon hovering somewhere off above us, The Dark Side of the Moon playing endlessly on my tape deck – “How I wish, how I wish you were here.” We know Pat will appear eventually and when he does all the pain will go away.

And then he appears. He looks a little nervous as he leaves his house, his shiny face glistening in the moonlight. We let him get a block or so away before confronting him with what we know. He tries to deny it, but it’s pointless, we don’t care and we don’t hear him. We are angry, we are lost, and he has to get what’s his.

We converge on him and he has little chance. He lands maybe a punch or two, but I don’t even feel them, I am oblivious to pain, and oblivious to Pat. He is not a person to me anymore, just the object of my rage and despair. Sammy does a lot more watching than participating, but when Pat is finally down, heaving and crying, bloody and beaten, Sammy does the most amazing thing – he kicks Pat in the balls and says this is for Gabe.

Our work is done. We leave Pat there on the sidewalk and head to the Pine for Jack and Gingers. Summer has officially begun.”

So there you go.

P.S.:  Thanks for digging that deep.  I too think violence can be surreal.  I once had about ten guys invade my home in ski masks and shove a gun in my face.  After taking a few valuables they tried to hustle me outside and I thought I was dead for sure.  I won’t tell you how it ended but I will tell you that for years I’ve actually been thankful for this experience because I’ve felt like it forced me to deal with my own mortality.  A little more honest with myself these days, I’ve been thinking about another side to what happened that day: what it did to my sense of trust.

I forgot to ask a question.

B.T.: One time I was in a very crowded bar and this very drunken guy got upset that I was trying to order a drink by leaning in behind him.  I imagine he felt that I was in his space, that it was somehow rude of me to try and get the bartender’s attention at his expense.  He was enormous, drunk and sweaty, and he made some kind of threatening comment to me and for a moment I wondered what it would be like to hit him in the face with a glass.  Back then whenever I felt threatened, and that might mean a sudden loud voice in the middle of the night, or someone suddenly coming up on me on the sidewalk, I would always visualize hitting them as hard as I could.  This has faded with time, but not entirely. Similarly, I once had a panic attack after a multi-day drug binge and for years whenever I felt stressed my chest muscles would spasm and constrict.  This faded as well, though recently I got very stressed at work and at home and with my writing and one day I had to rush to pick up my son at school and I felt my chest constrict.  It lingered for about a month, and now it’s a subtle ache, more dormant than anything, a reminder of sorts.  So, what am I saying?  It’s not clear to me why someone decides to hit you or why one drug binge goes fine and another doesn’t.  Or how you get your hand caught in the moving blades of a lawnmower when you’ve cleaned one a million times.  It’s also not clear to me why a parent may move out or not, or why your kid is born with some ridiculous form of colic and someone else’s is not.  So, I write about these things, because if I cannot make sense of them at least I can try to get some control over them.  This is also why I invoke humor, even pop culture, into my writing, my interviews, even my conversations.  I don’t want everything to feel bleak and unbearable, because that isn’t how I view the world, or at least how I prefer not to view the world.  How’s that?

P.S.: Perfect.  You’re right, no matter how much shit we go through, we do have the power to joke about anything that happens to us.  What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?

B.T.: I really want to say something about Vanilla Ice here.  But I won’t.  And it’s funny because the funniest thing I’ve ever seen is probably some video on YouTube I don’t even remember or more cheesily, something one of my kids did that has since blended into some massively happy, but somewhat indistinguishable memory of them during another time in their life.  I was also thinking that I could reflect on the first time I saw Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip or Raw, Animal House or Slap Shot; or maybe the first time I read Mad magazine, National Lampoon or Mr. Natural as a kid and found myself absolutely floored by them.  I could tell you that the hardest I’ve ever heard any group of people collectively laugh was when we saw Swingers one night here in Chicago before anyone had really heard about it.  Or, that I recently re-watched the Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley Chippendale’s skit from Saturday Night Live and nearly spit out my drink.  But as I sorted through these memories I found myself flashing back to a really late night when I was up with my dad and we watched Andy Kauffman doing a show at some club where he came out very serious, stayed serious, didn’t make any jokes and berated the crowd.  The crowd grew increasingly furious but he didn’t care, he stayed in character throughout, lecturing and pontificating and never wavering.  When they heckled them he fought back and we just kept waiting for some kind of joke, or a wink or something, but it never came. It was tense and uncomfortable, and funny.  He was so incredibly committed to that tension and that performance and it was so singular.  I would like to do something like that some time.  Create something so tense and funny and painful that it makes some kind of long-lasting impression on someone.  Anyone.  That I think would be pretty cool and well worth the endless rejections, misfires and doubt that can plague me even on a good day.

P.S.: Ah yes, your dad’s a painter, right?  How do you think his art might have influenced your writing?

B.T.: My dad.  Yeah.  It’s funny, no one ever asks about him despite how much fathers, both those present and not so present, loom in my novels and stories.  I think I’m mostly appreciative that no one has asked, but I’m glad you have, so there you go.  I’m acting all Gemini on this question.  Or maybe I’m just nervous?  Either way, even though my dad was clearly a painter and we knew this and I spent a lot of time at galleries and art fairs when I was a kid.  I realize now that I never quite thought about what he was working on or what it all meant to him.  But then he passed away.  It was nine years ago this month and about a year after he died there was this retrospective of his work at this museum, and as I walked around the show and saw all of these paintings, how good they were and how well they all “hung” together, it really hit me, he was a painter, and he had all these ideas and themes going on.  He was really interested in the “other” – sideshow freaks, circus performers, jugglers, Tai Chi practitioners, Palestinian protestors, the tattooed, Kafka – all outsiders, all people who are without a voice and looking for a community.  And when I saw this, I saw him differently.  He was this Bronx-born, high school dropout, activist, Jewish artist in upstate New York who felt like the other and was also always searching for a community.  My characters are not the other and they have a community, as I always have, but they haven’t found their voice.  Of course, that’s just the top line stuff, so let me try and go a little more Totem and Taboo for you.  My dad really struggled with being a painter, creating work, selling work, obtaining success, finding community, and especially living as both an artist and a parent, because he was unwilling not to embrace the latter even if doing so would have enhanced the former. Being an artist was hard for him, he suffered, and I never wanted to be like that or feel like that.  I didn’t start writing until I was 30 for the simple reason that I couldn’t avoid not writing any more, but I also couldn’t do it like he did.  I have stayed focused on having a day job, and not just because I need one or because I enjoy what I do, but because I have felt like I need to temper the insanity of wanting to create and protect myself better than he did from the inevitable disappointments.  Ironically though, the more I’ve gotten into writing and the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve become like him.  I want more time to write and I want to expand upon how I think about myself as an artist, which I think will require building more flow and flexibility into my day and fighting against the very restraints I have embraced. I’m not actually sure I know what this would look like, I just know that I want it to be different than it is now.

P.S.: And how do you think your job as Director of Communications has influenced your writing?

B.T.: I think there are two ways that my job as a Director of Communications has influenced my writing.  I now write all the time.  And I worry about words all the time.  I’m endlessly trying to capture the right tone and flavor, always seeking to be sparse and punchy.  It’s like cross-training.  I am always working my writing muscles and I am getting to work on things I’m into, and I want to believe that makes me a better, more focused, more limber writer and thinker in general.  Along with that though, doing the kind of work I do now is different than what I did for a long time when I focused on strategic planning, board development, credentialing, and work that involved long days facilitating other people’s creative processes.  It was structured and driven by time frames and agendas, and dependent on other people’s time, needs and ideas.  I like doing that kind of work a lot and yet here I’ve wanted to figure out how there could be more flow during my day, more time to think and be creative.  I was also ready to welcome more overlap between my work and writing life because I had been really rigid about that and I began to wonder how that might potentially be stifling me in ways I didn’t recognize.  I still have deadlines, but I’m paid now to think and write and be creative as much as I can and so while the whole day is still structured, it is much less so in the moment.  It’s definitely cool and makes me want to figure out how I could achieve even more balance between my work like and writing life.  Do you have any suggestions?

P.S.: Heh, wish I did.  I’m unemployed and about three seconds from being homeless so unfortunately I don’t have any suggestions, sorry.  What I do have is the prize for our readers who guessed correctly about your lie, secret, and little known fact!  So if you’d please do the honors…

B.T.: Thank you any way, I know you would help if you could.  And now some answers:

(1)     I once wrote Parker Stevenson a fan letter and asked him his advice on how one goes about becoming an actor.  I sent it to Teen Beat where he had a column during the 70’s. Like I said, he never responded.

Quite true.  Quite wrong, but true.

(2)     I auditioned for the role of the son in The Shining.  They told me I didn’t seem creepy enough, something a number of women I dated in high school would later strongly disagree with.

A blatant lie, this was a friend of mine.  That said the women I went to high school with were not as into the whole Wiccan thing as Parker Stevenson led me to believe.

(3)    When I was kid my parents would leave my brother and I at movie theaters to watch movies two even three times in a row. Between showings I would eat the popcorn that people left behind and to this day I have an intense craving for stale popcorn every time I watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

This is a little known fact.  Well, it was.  That said, sharing it with the world has been cleansing for me, so thank you for that.

And thank you for doing this as well, it was a lot of fun.

P.S.: Thank you, Ben.  This sure was fun, much more so than the mind-numbing excuses for interviews I usually do on my self.  You’re not only a great writer but a great person and I encourage everyone reading this to order themselves a copy of  Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine on sale for $10 through Orange Alert Press at:
And now, the moment of truth.  I’m using the honor system here so anyone who incorrectly guessed Ben’s answers regarding his lie, secret and little known fact, please stop reading this.
Okay, now that it’s just us, here is the prize as described in my third question.  I offer you the wisdom of my 39 years on this planet.  I do apologize for not being able to offer you more, but the limitations of text on a computer screen are vast, and true wisdom is pretty hard to come by.  So here it is…
1. Floss.  Yeah it’s boring, slightly irritating, and totally unglamorous, but when you’re old and still have your teeth you will be able to attract far better looking specimens of our species.
2. Drink plenty of water.  Come on, do I even have to mention this?  87.9% of the world population is dehydrated to some degree at any given moment.
3. Don’t be afraid of your emotions.  Being totally cerebral is really in vogue right now, but deep in your heart you know thinking isn’t living.  Pain does suck, but it also leaves you open to feel pleasure.
4. Try to love everyone.

Ben Tanzer: This Blog Will Change Your Life