Part 2 Interview with PinckneyBenedict
“Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in rural West Virginia. He has published a novel and three collections of short fiction, the most recent of which is Miracle Boy and Other Stories. His work has been published in, among other magazines and anthologies, Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, the O. Henry Award series, the Pushcart Prize series, the Best New Stories from the South series, The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. He has received grants and awards from, among others, the West Virginia Arts Council, the Illinois Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Benedict is a professor in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. He will be on the faculty of the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, June 9-14, 2013.”
Pinckney, last week I posted part one of our WRITERS TALK interview – Entry # 100 – on Tuesday, October 9, 2012, in which we talked about your new publishing company, Gallows Tree Press; this week, let’s talk about your writing, in particular, the most recent of which is Miracle Boy and Other Stories.
Jan: You’ve talked about how much writers need good mentors. Let’s talk about your experiences; what was it like working with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton? What does a great mentor bring to the growth of a writer?
Pinckney: Joyce was everything I could have wanted from a teacher. She is the embodiment of what she teaches: she’s superbly literate and utterly committed to the life of the word. She works phenomenally hard, is wildly productive, fantastically successful, and yet uncompromising in what she asks of herself and her students. Having the opportunity to work with her was the greatest piece of good luck I’ve had in a very fortunate life.
Jan: You are mentor to a number of talented writers yourself. What are some characteristics of a great mentor?
Pinckney: My own teaching is simply a pale imitation of hers, with some of my own theories tossed in for good measure. I try to give students – in the creative writing program here at Southern Illinois University, at the low-residency MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in briefer residencies like that at the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop – exactly what I would want in a reader, an editor, a teacher: someone who takes their work absolutely seriously, and who approaches them as colleagues rather than as customers or supplicants. I try as hard as I can only to tell them the truth, even when the truth is hard for them to hear.
Jan: I had the good fortune to take your class this summer at Tinker Mountain andI was struck by the joyfulness with which you approach your teaching and in talking about writing. It’s truly a pleasure to see how much you love your work. You’re almost childlike in your joy, so when I read an interview in Appalachian Heritage (Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 2012) in which George Brosi calls you a ‘gleeful writer,’ And I thought, “Yes. What a great description! Pinckney is a gleeful writer.” So what do you love and why about writing?
Pinckney: What’s not to love? I spend the greater part of any given day thinking about attractive and charismatic people who entertain and delight me, and imagining what gifts I can give them – what magical powers, what implements of destruction – and what sorts of magnificent trouble I can give them to undergo. I get to imagine profound acts of moral courage, of cowardice and heroism, of devotion and betrayal. I get to mythologize all day long.
Jan: Do you think many ‘self described’ serious writers take themselves too seriously? I’ve met a number who seem so self-absorbed and gloomy.
Writers who are glum – and there are many – crack me up. I’ll enter a room of happy, healthy grad students who are laughing and flirting and sharing funny stories, and we’ll take up their stories, and suddenly it’s all death and gloom, motionlessness and despair and anti-human sentiment, as though good art only came from torment. These talented, privileged and manifestly untormented people imagine that they have to manufacture tormented personas so that their work will be serious and good! It’s funny to me, that contrast. My own life has its suffering, of course, but it’s mostly quite joyous and fulfilling, and my work – I sincerely hope – reflects that pleasure in the world, and in life. Life and art are often difficult, dark, and scary – but unless there is contrast, unless there is also light and joy and pleasure in at least equal measure, then we can have no sense of the depth of the darkness or what it might mean or how it might end.
Jan: I think Miracle Boy and Other Stories (2010) was one of the best collections that I read last year, although it’s been described as dark and devastating. I think it deserved more mainstream recognition. What is your favorite story in this collection?
My favorite story in the book? Literally favorite is the title story, “Miracle Boy.” It’s the best-made, so to speak, of the stories, the most technically accomplished and finished of them, the one that I look at and think, yes, that’s a story that might possibly last. Emotional favorite is “Zog-19,” because it’s a lark, the story of an alien who finds himself trapped in the body of a West Virginia dairy farmer. It’s a love story, the only one I’ve ever written. [My] Favorite today is “Mercy,”because it has just shown up in the new edition of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, alongside the fiction of folks like Washington Irving, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Carver, David Foster Wallace… Any story that manages that for you, you’ve got to love.
Jan: You’re a brave writer, as I believe great writers should be.You never ‘avert your eyes,’ nor do you let the reader get off the hook with a light reading. Tell about the source and power that drove your writing in this collection of stories.
Pinckney: Thank you for the kind words, Jan. I’m pleased and flattered that you liked the book, and your praise – that I’m brave and so on – is all that I could wish for. The sources? I suppose the people I know, many of whom seem to me remarkably brave and kind and gentle in the face of a world that is generally none of those things. I love the human spirit and want to see it represented fairly and truthfully, without melodrama or silly posturing.
Jan: What do you think aspiring writers need to know if they want to write with some measure of personal success? What advice helped you?
Pinckney: Aspiring writers should write only work that they themselves would love to read, are in fact dying to read, but that doesn’t exist yet. Don’t write books or stories for other people (you can’t know what other people actually want) and don’t rewrite books or stories that you’ve loved (they already exist and so the need for them is nonexistent). Work you write for others will likely have an audience of zero. If you write work that excites you, then you’re guaranteed to have an enthusiastic audience of at least one. And, no matter how odd you are, there are others who share your obsessions, your dreams, your fantasies, and your terrors. The challenge is to find them, to find your proper readers. but that’s another blog post.
Jan: What advice did you decide to ignore because you thought it was ‘Total BS.’
Pinckney: Total BS: A writer at Iowa, when I was a graduate student in the MFA program there, told me that I’d be a good writer if I’d just give up “the backwoods stuff.” By which he meant my West Virginia inheritance, the material of childhood, my boyhood and young manhood. The people and language and landscape with which I grew up. Every central concern of my work and my life.
It was an important moment for me, because it showed me that, just because you’re smart and talented and famous and wealthy and well-decorated with awards and honors and encomia doesn’t mean that you always give good advice. I’ve felt free of the lure and influence of the famous and well-respected since that moment.
Websites: Amazon author’s page:
Gallowstree Press’ page
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: