Ben Nadler - An author and co-editor of Barzakh

By Allie Catalano

Ben Nadler is the author of The Sea Beach Line, Ph.D. student at University at Albany , and co-editor of Barzakh - a literary magazine based at UAlbany.  I sat down with him and discussed his views on being a writer, pursuing a career in lit, and some of the rewards that come from it. 

Allie Catalano: What is your writing or editing process like?

Ben Nadler: I’d say most of my work is very story driven whether it’s a novel or a short story.

AC: Yeah I took a look at your website that you sent me and how your last story was about New York City, it seemed really interesting.

BN: Right, the story itself is really important so a lot of times I might start with images that catch me or turns of phrase that catch me. So, then once I find the story it’s a lot of cutting and a lot of the time I cut much more then I actually keep. I had one story that I couldn’t get to work, and I had worked on it for about 6 months, so I finally I just cut a page out of the middle and then it had set it up to be ready to publish. So, I tend to overwrite and then cut, cut, cut.

AC: I definitely understand that.

AC: What advice do you have for young people who are interested in pursuing a career in literature? 

BN: I never know how to answer this question, in terms of a career there’s not a lot of money in writing these days. (We both laughed). The thing is if you are trying to make a career I don’t know. I have a friend who was a writer and he is getting into the union as a truck driver, so he has time to sit and write. That’s probably better then what I have done which is teach a bunch of classes. In terms of a career do you mean how to be a writer or more in terms of it as a career?

AC: I’m more interested in actually how to pursue it as a career, maybe even the track you followed or paths that you have known of people following.

BN: I don’t know much about career advice, I mean I am a 34-year-old student but for me it was always about finding jobs where I had time to write. The first book I ever wrote I was a night security guard, so I sat there at the security computer desk and wrote the book. A lot of jobs when I was younger too I just wanted a way to be around books. I worked at this place that was open till 11 o’clock at night but it was great since I would just sit there and just read. I don’t know if that’s great advice but yeah I would say this might seem obvious but the biggest obstacle I have seen in my peers is liquor and pills. I know that’s true for all kinds of fields, but I know that when you are an artist there is a sort of license it seems to be able to do that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink, do whatever you want to do, but it is an easy way to get side tracked. I knew someone recently who was a musician and was a great songwriter. The last time I saw him he was like “oh you are getting really serious about writing and I am getting more serious about song lyrics we should get together and talk about it”. I never saw him again, he died of an overdose on pills. Find a way to pay the bills and read a lot of books.

AC: Stay focused. 

BN: Stay focused, go easy. 

BN: It’s hard this is not a great time for publishing and the humanities.

AC: But, we need it.

BN: We really do. I will say a lot of people ask about MFA’s is that a good track, and MFA’s are 50% writing credentials and if you are interested in teaching it’s a great way to get started. It got me into teaching which I love which led me to a PHD. The writing also has to come from you, I would be careful with going into huge debt.

AC: Is your latest work inspired by anyone in particular?

BN: Yeah I mean I write a lot of different kinds of things obviously fiction and non-fiction. So, the non-fiction is based on people. The thing I wrote that just got translated to Spanish actually was about a specific punk scene in the 80’s, that was something where it was based on interviews. That was me creating a narrative by talking to people.

AC: So, it was based on real people?

BN: You’re still crafting a narrative and I would say a lot of my fiction is like that and even though its fiction its based in research. The project that I’m starting now for my dissertation here is going to be based on a lot of historical archives. I’m weary in general of looking at fiction to autobiographically, so you know social angles, political angles, cultural things. In terms of my own life it’s probably not very interesting. I mean I guess that’s probably not all the way true the novel we were talking about before I was a book seller like in the novel.

AC: Coincidental?

BN: I mean no if I wasn’t a book seller I probably wouldn’t have thought of that. A lot of times if you try to stick too closely to something that happened details get away. Even if its through connections and correlations the story comes first.

AC: What is your favorite novel of all time?

BN: I mean in terms of novels its hard I have read so many of them. 

AC: Not an easy question. Do you like sci fi novels or anything like that?

BN: I mean in terms of sci fi I’m not a big sci fi reader, but I certainly see the possibilities in the genre. But the one sci fi writer that has definitely influenced me the most is Philip K. Dick. I mean his last three books there are almost more like spiritual memoirs. He was having an agnostic experience basically where a pink laser beam came down and entered his head and suddenly he gained all this knowledge. They’re fascinating things. They’re more like spiritual memoirs but its hard to categorize them. He had an experience where basically he thought he could glimpse into the presence of the roman empire and they were still present in 1970’s California. That’s someone who influences me a lot. Are you someone who reads sci fi a lot?

AC: No not especially its just the vibe I got from your last book was sort of dystopian. 

BN: I mean yeah it’s a book about contemporary New York its hard not to think that we’re not living in some sort of corporate dystopia. That book I mean the kind of non-real elements of it there’s definitely a lot of things that are influenced by- I mean it took me a long time to write that book, 5 years and then 3 years to publish. So, its 8 years ago a lot of it was to do with traditions of Jewish storytelling so these sort of these mystic tale traditions. The idea that the city that you are in there is more to it. Isaac Singer a Yiddish writer always had a lot of supernatural elements and he was always like no these are things that actually happened they aren’t supernatural. He saw a ghost on Broadway and to him it was just real.

AC: That’s really interesting though, my last question… name one of the proudest moments you have had in your career thus far.

BN: That’s a hard one maybe I’m someone who should feel prouder. Isaac Babel who was a Russian writer wrote a story about being a young writer, and the line basically goes anything that is less then Tolstoy would write is a waste of time. That really resonated with me you know so that’s always my feeling.

AC: You can’t be so hard on yourself.

BN: You should be. There’s no point in being a mediocre writer. Certainly, the things for me I’m most excited about will come in the future.  But one guy especially I used to sell books with on the street - I saw him on the street after I wrote my book, and he said he saw my name at The Strand. It was nice how this guy who kind of inspired the book was so excited by it, that made me excited. It’s been exciting that my work was also translated into Spanish in Chile and I asked the guy who did it like why do you really care? He said that with the political situation there the NYC punk really spoke to them. I met some of the guys from Chile and it was really nice to speak to them. My wife too had given my novel to a friend of hers that had recently retired from his job, and he loved it. He’s this retired lawyer and we became friends. It’s moments when you step back and realize someone else connected to it. That’s a really good feeling.

You can check out more about Ben Nadler here at his website: http://bennadler.com/