I am not writing to you. I am writing to your letter. It is sitting on the table in front of me, white paper, black type that looks like it came from an old typewriter, your signature streaking across the bottom of the page. Why am I writing to your letter instead of to you? For focus and also for protection: protection for us both. Dear letter, I attack. Dear letter, I relent. My wife is out of the house. I have time for this now. I should get on with it.
Writing a letter to another letter may sound sketchy, but it is a deep conviction of mine. It is related to a trick I learned when I was a waiter. I would tell customers “Do not direct your anger toward me. Speak to me, but let your anger flow toward the menu.” It started as a joke—I had a series of belligerent patrons who drove me to the edge of retaliation—but it grew into a kind of belief system. The restaurant’s soul did reside in the menu. It was a record of what was and what could not be. I was only a messenger. Do not kill the messenger. Do not even address him. Direct your attention toward the text. Make peace, or war, with what is written.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including Superbad, Superworse, and A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both. This month, he is publishing Correspondences, a limited-edition, hand-crafted, letter-press edition of stories about letter-writing; Please Step Back, a novel, arrives in the spring. He lives with his wife and children in Brooklyn . To find out more, visit www.bengreenman.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- BG: From reality. The roots are planted pretty deep in actual events, although the trunk grows away from that and the branches more so, and then the branches have weird fruit on them that I picked and ate. In this horrendous metaphor, the fruit is this story. I don’t want to say too much that’s too specific, because I believe in leaving fiction fictional, but it’s about something that hasn’t yet been resolved or solved in a hundred million years of people (my history may be off): men, women, how they feel about each other, and what they do about it.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- BG: Starting it. It began with a phrase in Joseph Conrad’s The Planter of Malata: “the black rays of her steady eyes passing off his face when she turned away.” I had that image, which has almost nothing to do with the story beyond triggering it in some impossible-to-reconstruct way. Then there was some real-estate activity that involved my attending an open house in my neighborhood; on the way I saw an elegant European man checking out the time on his pocket watch. The two things fell against each other, set off a spark, and then I started writing. I thought that once it got underway it would come quickly, and that turned out to be the case.
- HT: Why did you choose the form of letter-writing to tell this story?
- BG: Letters are a fascinating form, especially in fiction, because of the way they mix intimacy and public appeal. They travel between private minds but they’re there for everyone to see. In this case, it’s a series of letters written not to a correspondent but to that correspondent’s letter.
- HT: The narrator’s wife has as one of her defining characteristics a consistent need to correct the narrator’s language by procuring the more accurate word. Do you think this reflects more largely on the story, as a failure to communicate?
- BG: Yes. I mean, I hope it does. It’s a tic that some people have, this kind of stickler’s revenge, and I once had a girlfriend who did this, up to the point where I would speak incorrectly on purpose, in ways I thought were obvious, just to see if she would laugh or correct me. Later, when I stopped being mad at her and started to re-cook that trait for re-serving it in a fictional environment, I did think about how it’s connected to other issues about the limits of language, about how communication is always negotiated and never pure, about how nonverbal communication (looks, sex, the hum of another person in a room) can dominate, even in a story built of language.
- HT: How does this story tie into your new book, Correspondences?
- BG: Closely. We decided for length and construction reasons not to include it—Correspondences is built as a special box with three miniature accordion books. But that book is a collection of stories about similar themes. In a future edition of the book, I’ll include this story, along with some other outtakes. No, outtakes is wrong. Parallel compositions, let’s say.
- HT: What significance did you hope the blood-horses would have, and why did you choose to end on them as an image?
- BG: Blood-horses argue that heredity is destiny, or that the future can be controlled by the past. That seems like a dangerous but also comforting idea for humans. I also like the phrase. Blood horse is more evocative than just saying thoroughbred. Blood is what goes through animals, through people. It is a fact of life but it is also a symbol of death or pain. Also, I associate it with ink. These are impressionistic reasons, I’ll admit.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- BG: I have a novel coming out in April with Melville House—It’s a fairly straightforward biographical portrait of Robert Franklin, aka the Rock Foxx, a late-sixties and early-seventies funk musician. I’m also working on a new collection of stories, as yet untitled. Maybe “Goings Places,” maybe “What Are You Looking At?” And there’s another more mysterious novel that I don’t want to say anything about yet.