Epiphany: William Trevor began his adult life as a sculptor and later described his writing as chipping away at a block of marble. Are you a chipper or a builder? In other words, do you chip away at a block of writing, or are you more methodical, building up the block brick by brick?
Benjamin Busch: I began as a stonemason and became a sculptor before writing, so this is complicated.
I don’t really believe that writing can be chipped away until it’s been done first. There isn’t any material to chip from. Reduction is editing and revision, but writing is composing mass from gasses.
I tend to think in fragments so I write in them too. I suppose I’m more a collage artist, my work spreads and drifts until I find where its pieces should be. I rarely choose a subject and simply fight my way through—bricks forced into place by good sense and design. I’m more likely to restore what I see as a ruin, its stones spilled in a pile, building its walls as I imagine they stood with what’s left and then hefting what’s missing from a riverbed to fill the holes. It’s all in my head though, never something complete that fell, always beginning as no more than a pile. It’s an act of testing possibility that the words I collect are supposed to be a poem or that the shards will form a story. I have 162 drafts in a file right now that may never be buildings.
What was your first publication?
In February of 2009 my first piece appeared in Harper’s as an essay called “Bearing Arms” that traced my relationship to rifles from childhood to the war in Iraq.
Five books you are reading or thinking about now?
I read from the dictionary more than any other book. I love the archaic roots of words, how they’re nomadic sometimes. A small poem can be a book and I always have some around.
I think of Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being from time to time, Michael Paterniti’s essay Driving Mr. Albert from Harper’s, Going After Cacciato by Tim O‘Brien, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
I’m currently rereading The Stories of Frederick Busch, my father’s posthumous collection selected by Elizabeth Strout. His voice is in all those sentences. I can still hear him trying to warn us all of loss after we lost him.
If you had to inhabit a fictional world, what would it be (i.e., the environment of which novel or short story or poem)?
I try to create that place in verse, prose and dirt. I inhabit a world that wants to allow the mutation of fiction so that it can expand.
I live with my family on the wreckage of an old Michigan dairy farm and I have been changing the landscape since we arrived. I’ve dug ponds, planted orchards and forests, bulldozed roads and mounds. I’ve done enough to make aerial photographs noticeably different in one arbitrary rectangle of the earth’s surface. This ambition comes out in my poetry and fiction, is lamented as impossible in my nonfiction, a vision in contest with the view. There’s Mark Twain, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Italo Calvino at work in my adventure into the land.
I also read many a book about owls with my seven-year-old daughter. She loves owls. I don’t know why she loves owls so much, but owls would never wonder why I love her.
Most interesting day job you've had (from the perspective of a writer)?
I was a Marine Corps Infantry and Light Armored Reconnaissance officer. Every day was as many stories as can ever be written.
Novels? Short stories? Which do you prefer to write?
I like a story that can be told over a fire, all of its necessary waves striking the piece of beach you can keep in sight. One where I have to go into the night wondering how the survivors moved on with what happened. Novels set up your dreams too, but a short story has to do it 300 pages faster. Most of my poems are very short stories and I would prefer to have someone else write them.
One sentence of advice regarding writing?
If what you’re writing doesn’t matter to you, it likely isn’t anything that matters. Stop writing that and wait for a knot that you have to figure out. Every narrative has a problem one of us needs to solve. Worry about someone’s troubles.
That was four sentences and I’m not sure any of them were advice.
Your story title: was it your first choice?
My poem and story titles are often my first choices, but I change so much in the life of a draft that nothing is safe until the last galley. Some poems are still in rewrites after 8 years. Maybe their titles are the problem.
In a nutshell, what are you working on now?
What's an interview question you've never been asked that you wish had been?
Did you leave Van Halen for a solo career, or were you thrown out?
Benjamin Busch is the author of the memoir Dust to Dust (Ecco), winner of the Debut-litzer Prize and GLCA Award for Creative Nonfiction, and his essays have arrived in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Daily Beast, and on NPR. He has been awarded the James Dickey and Laurence Goldstein prizes for poetry, and his poems have appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Five Points, The Florida Review, Oberon, Nimrod and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. He teaches nonfiction in the low-residency creative writing mfa program at Sierra Nevada College, Tahoe and lives on a farm in Michigan.