June #BrazosBest: In Pursuit of the Real Benjamin Rybeck

Article by keaton

THE SADNESS comes out June 14. Pre-order your signed copy now!

Sure. You can say I know Benjamin Rybeck. But do you ever really know anybody? I mean, yeah we work together almost every day at Brazos Bookstore. In our off time, we have endless discussions on literature and film and music and the nature of life. But now, out of the blue, suddenly he’s an author—or at least he will be when Unnamed Press publishes his debut novel, THE SADNESS, on June 14. Now, nothing is certain. What does something like that do to a person like Ben? Will the instant adulation and power go straight to his head? Will the banter around the ol’ Brazos watercooler change its tenor, become even more insufferable, once he’s become a brooding literary genius? The Franzen of the Kanye Generation? The prospect is unsettling. So, when I realized I didn’t know Ben the author as much as Ben the bookseller, I set out to do something about that.

First of all, I read his novel. Next, I kept him in suspense by remaining silent on the matter and refusing to make eye contact for weeks on end. Then, when he least expected it, I hit him with the most hard-hitting questions of his life.

Here are the results of that encounter:

Keaton Patterson: This is your first published novel. It has to be the culmination of a lifelong dream for you. Now, that you’ve been through the entire process—from writing, to placing your manuscript with Unnamed Press, to revising, to seeing the finished copy in your hand—was there anything along the journey that surprised you or changed the way you perceive the making of “literature”?

Benjamin Rybeck: People who never change their thinking about the world bore me, or scare me, or something. I don’t understand why people complain about politicians changing their positions. Sure, there’s a version of it that’s craven, corrupt, pandering—but to evolve? to think one thing, then look at some stuff, and change one’s mind? I mean, who says what you believe at one point in your life has to be the thing you believe forever?

So yes, nearly every step of the publication process changed the way I perceive the making of “literature” (although if I ever use that phrase to describe something I’ve written, somebody should deliver me a swift knuckle sandwich). But I also wanted to be changed, so I let myself be changed. Maybe the most notable way: I no longer think it’s impossible to publish a book—but ask me again in a year whether I still think it’s worthwhile to publish a book, or whether I’ve changed my mind about that too.

Is this the culmination of a lifelong dream? I’m certainly glad about it, but it’s hard to say. (The earlier unpublished (unpublishable) novels felt like culminations too.) Remember when Matthew McConaughey won that Oscar and he said that his hero was himself in ten years? Something like that, except about the next book being my dream or hero or whatever (and said in my nasally voice, so minus all that good-soundin’ Texas charm). So, for now, to publish two books? That seems like a dream to me. And then, if I ever publish that second book—to publish three? Oh baby...

KP: I understand that THE SADNESS was inspired in part by actual events that occurred in your home state of Maine while you were growing up. What can you tell me about that?

BR: Once upon a time, there was a boy named Ben, and he liked movies. Boy did he like movies. That happened in Maine, though that may not be what you mean. Definitely informed this motherfucker, though.

My dad is a police detective in Portland (he’s in the book, actually), and years ago—I don’t recall how many—a young woman went missing, her last known hours disturbing in the way that made me feel, as I read the newspaper articles, like someone was standing right behind me. That last night, across the city, she made a scene, she seemed possessed, and what got me about it was that everywhere she went was somewhere I hung out nearly every night—but not that night, what turned out to be her last night, because I was out of town, visiting friends. For reasons hard to explain, it haunted me. One night, I drove to the place where she’d been last seen. I don’t know what I was looking for exactly. Probably nothing, really. In THE SADNESS, one of my characters does something similar, though he pushes it much further, retracing a missing girl’s footsteps hour after hour, day after day. Most of the time, I think fiction is nothing more than reality pushed just a little bit further.

KP: Film plays such a huge role in THE SADNESS. One of your main characters, Max Enright, is obsessed with cinema to the point where he can only relate to the world around him through that medium. What is it about film that intrigues you? How does it relate to literature in your mind?

BR: Movies were the first things I ever loved—really loved. Individual movies, watching them growing up, became my friends. I’d watch all weekend, then go back to middle school on Monday, confused about why none of my peers wanted to talk to me about The Rules of the Game or Sweet Smell of Success. (It probably goes without saying that I didn’t get laid for a long, sad time.)

In my book, yes, a character named Max is obsessed with cinema to the point where it’s all he sees when he looks out into the world. I used to be that bad, but I’m not that bad anymore (I don’t think, though I do still sometimes imagine a camera tracking in front of me when I walk through the grocery store). Max is (almost) thirty, and I shirked my delusion off at a much younger age. (Maybe Max just needs to get laid, like I totally did, I swear.) Though if somebody came to me tomorrow and offered me a path toward one day being a filmmaker—even if that path sounded only vaguely possible—I’d quit my job and pack my bags in a second.

Hard to say what intrigues me about movies now. I still watch them, though I don’t keep up with new shit as much as I once did (adult time being sparser than young-person time, and all that). For me, once, I think the fascination was that I sort of figured I’d never learn another language (still haven’t) or travel very far outside the United States (does Canada count?), and so movies became a way of me doing that. But film—and I am by no means the first person to think this (see: every film critic ever)—is the medium that takes from nearly every other, so all of it, from the image to the music to the movement of the camera, sometimes (still) overwhelms my senses to the point where it’s hard to stand up. Compared to that, I confess, I sometimes find other art forms thin. (Someone teach me a way to put music cues in books.) Now, when I watch film, what I love primarily is being on somebody else’s schedule. A book you read at your own pace; a film you can stop and start, but when you’re in it, you cannot choose how fast you go. If it’s true that a lot of writing comes down to working out lingering growing pains, then film is, for me, the easiest way I have of now accessing a space where the writing feels fertile, which can be harder and harder for me these days now that I’ve definitely had the sex. (Seriously, I have. Why are you raising your eyebrow at me?)

KP: As the title makes clear, your novel is imbued with some heavy emotions. What was it like living with the personal anguish of your characters over the years you were working on THE SADNESS?

The Sadness Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781939419705
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Unnamed Press - June 14th, 2016

BR: By heavy emotions, you mean the non-stop, suffocating hilarity that happens in this book, right? Like, the constant pratfalls and gags and catchphrases? All the fart jokes?

Most anyone who has spent time with me (sorry, Brazos staff) knows that I can be a moody son of a bitch. This happens, primarily, when I’m NOT writing. In general, I find writing to be a frustrating, lonely task, full of doubt (of self, and of larger, bullshit-y things), and I’m still a moody son of a bitch, but most of that moody-son-of-a-bitch-ness gets isolated to the period of time I’m in front of a keyboard or a notepad or whatever (what else do I write on? soup cans? walls in strangers’ houses? the backs of shaved cats?). Writing, then, is like a bug light that zaps the mosquitos, and I walk through most days unbitten by melancholy. Is this answering your question? I guess what I’m saying is: I’d rather live with my characters’ anguish than with my own.

That being said, I think my book is mostly an optimistic one, where characters, though downtrodden, wind up changing in valuable ways. I think the book is happy, more or less. A little too light on fart jokes, maybe.

KP: As events and marketing coordinator at Brazos, you have an interesting vantage point from which to watch your novel roll out into the public. How does being a bookseller affect your experience of being a debut novelist and vise versa?

BR: The cynic in me thinks: I feel a lot less special now. This is a joke—at least vaguely—but the first thing you notice when you work in a bookstore is just how many goddamn new books there are every week, and the equivalent of some people’s lifetime reading comes out in, say, any given September. So as a debut author, what the hell do you do with this information? And as a bookseller, how do you counteract the difficulty of any one book standing out in the proverbial crowd? Should I start handselling my book to every single person who enters in the store? Would this do me (and my publisher) a service but do the customer a disservice? Would I rather handsell my own book than Martin Seay’s THE MIRROR THIEF, or Lydia Millet’s SWEET LAMB OF HEAVEN, or any other new novels I’ve loved? Do I really think my own book is more worthy of a handsell? These are the questions you start to ask yourself as a bookseller/writer.

I do love the word “handsell,” though. It conjures something intimate and human. And I imagine, sure, let’s say I swallow my pride and put my book in someone’s hand...and then what? Maybe they put it back on the shelf, or maybe they buy it, and I get to ring up a sale on three years of my life (that’s how long the book took to write—did I mention that before?), and how many authors can say that? And maybe the customer likes it—at least a little—and maybe they come back to the store and tell me so, the way customers often return to tell us what they’ve liked. Faced with the frequent sadness and loneliness of writing, that feedback would feel lifesaving. Handsell: I like the word because it makes me imagine somebody reaching out for someone, maybe to pull someone to safety. At one point in my life, I probably believed writers pulled readers to safety. After working here, I realize—or at least I’m beginning to suspect—it’s actually the other way around.


Join us for Benjamin Rybeck’s THE SADNESS launch party on June 14, 7pm. He will read from the book and be in conversation with Chris Cander, author of WHISPER HOLLOW.


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