Quick Questions with Ben Tanzer

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If I want to think of sharply written stories that capture a humorous reality of the day-to-day I think of Ben Tanzer. Or if I just want to think about one of my favorite underappreciated writers, I think of Ben Tanzer. Ben has a new ebook out called 99 Problems which is a series of essays about running, which really don't have that much to do about running but more about the writing and thinking process. I like Ben Tanzer and I liked this book.

It can be downloaded at a name your own price option at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) website. There's also an interactive Google Map story with various locations for one of Ben's essays.

Another Ben Tanzer book, Repetition Patterns was also produced by CCLaP. In addition to writing a whole bunch of fictional stuff, follow Ben on his blog, “This Blog Will Change Your Life.”

Here are a few questions with Ben about 99 Problems:

These are essays about running. I'm assuming you thought of doing a collection of essays about running while running.

First off, thanks for the support, much appreciated. This is a great question, and the answer is yes and no, or maybe it’s no and yes. The idea for this project originated with Jason Pettus at CCLaP who noticed how often people were asking me about running during the blog tour for my short story collection Repetition Patterns. He suggested I try to write something about the intersection of running and writing.

At first I sort of fixated on writing a long essay, but after months of trying to sketch that out and getting nowhere, I turned to Haruki Murakam’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for inspiration, went for a run and started thinking about how much I enjoyed the writing and the structure, a series of essays about particular runs, marathon training and personal history, but also all the ways I would do it differently than him, more focused on writing itself, specific projects, and the compulsions that drive my writing and running, running and writing, and everything else. I realized then I shouldn’t try to write a single long essay, but a series of essays on individual runs and whatever writing project I was fixating on, on that day and during that run.

When I mentioned this to Jason later that very night, he said, yeah, that’s what I meant. Whatever.

You mention a few books about running & note the lack of them. Do you think that's because most writers have not been runners, runners don't care about writing, or that writing and running is hard to do at that same time?

On the one hand, I think that I grew-up in a small town and probably didn’t have access to all that may have been out there. Plus, Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet, for civilian use anyway, and so I had no means to really search for these kinds books, they either fell into my lap or didn’t, and mostly they didn’t. I also think some of this is an issue of market demand, I came of age during a running boom of sorts in the years following Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon, Bill Rodger’s emergence and then that of Alberto Salazar and NIKE, but that doesn’t mean people necessarily wanted to read about running, training maybe, but not the act itself, and it’s hard to publish what people don’t want to read.

More than all that though, I think that despite running’s growing popularity then, it remained the activity of the freak and the loner, certainly the hard core, there weren’t 50,000 people running a marathon every weekend, marathons were still weird and exotic and held somewhere else, and so I also believe that fewer people wrote about that kind of stuff because there were fewer people running in the first place to either write about it or care about it. That said, I heard an interview with Benjamin Cheever on NPR one night back then when my dad was making dinner and he talked about how running helping him untangle the knots in his writing, something I never forgot and thought about often as I worked on this collection.

There's a litany of various projects mentioned in your essays. what's the status of some of those? Any progress on the screenplay?

Thank you for the product placement opportunity, did I mention that BP is underwriting the release of this collection? Oh wait, Jason told me to downplay that. Status though, here you go:

-The Gunther Gebel piece was ultimately released as a CCLaP TwitLit story;

-My novel You Can Make Him Like You was picked-up and will be released in mid-December by the very cool Artistically Declined;

-I have written the first drafts of all the various Chicago stories referenced during several of the essays, and they remain in that form for now, and on ice, aging beautifully, I hope;

-And the screenplay is in flux, we got feedback from our guy, tweaked it and went back to our contact, who suddenly got very professional on us, after at first being very exuberant, and suggested further edits while simultaneously informing us that we should know that they only take on 2-3 new projects per year and those are rarely unsolicited anyway. Huh?

This is the first non-fiction thing i've read by you (I think). do you see some stylistic differences in your non-fiction vs. your fiction?

This may be the first non-fiction piece you’ve read, unless you ran into some of my early obscure stuff, which if you haven’t, it’s cool and doesn’t hurt my feelings, because you are otherwise very supportive, okay, actually, maybe it hurts my feelings a little. But I digress. Stylistically I think the key difference is that the fictional characters I’m interested in are struggling with obtaining greater self-awareness and spend a lot of time trying to get there, but also spend a lot of time trying to avoid getting there, projecting everything they are struggling with outward and away from them, whether this is through dialogue, drugs or sex, in essence, lots of interaction with a variety of things that allow for less thinking. The non-fiction work is different though, full of compulsions for sure, but while my wife would be happy to let you know how not self-aware I am, and if she’s reading this, you’re right baby, these essays are all about my trying to be more self-aware, more internal and thoughtful, and are based in part on the idea that where I once may once have been consciously, and unconsciously, like the characters I write about, more recently I have tried to not push everything away, and see running as a tool for insight, and not just escape.

What's your most memorable running experience?

So, just to be clear, what’s the most memorable running experience I’ve had after running year-round for 29 years, that’s what you’re asking? Cool. And given that, I think I am going to cheat a little, thanks.

(1) There is a run I reference in the collection from when I was around 15 and I ran 10 miles on our neighborhood track at around 10:00pm or so at night, it was then that I learned that I would never feel more powerful then when I running, and for the most part that hasn’t changed;

(2) The last race of my high school track career I ran a 2:01 half-mile, the fastest I ever ran and the fastest I ever felt even if I never broke 2 minutes;

(3) When I lived in San Francisco around 1990, a group of us spent several hours one night getting high and eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and then around midnight we tried to run to the Golden Gate Bridge, we didn’t make it, but we ran for hours, it was a total blast and I used that run for a scene in my first novel Lucky Man;

(4) I ran in the slow division of the Corporate Challenge in NYC a couple of years after the Ben & Jerry’s night, and after not competing for several years, and I ended-up running so fast I actually caught up with the early leaders, though by that time we were all going so fast they made us stop because we were ahead of the allowed cut-off time for our division – I had a runners high for hours following that race, something that was only enhanced by the nine or ten Guinness’ I drank later that night;

(5) Early in the new Millenium, and several days after getting my bladder scoped, and yes that’s as bad as it sounds, I had to get a bladder biopsy while my wife and I were trying to get pregnant with our first son, and since I was worried I wouldn’t be able to run for several days after the biopsy, hours before the procedure, and just prior to that morning’s efforts to conceive, I snuck out for a run – ultimately, we successfully conceived that day, I find out I didn’t have cancer, and I got to run, so, you know, that was quite a good day overall; and finally…

(6) Whatever run I do next.