Smoking With Benjamin Weissman

Read the Story December 15, 2007

For those readers who aren’t aware, Johnny Rotten was the vocalist of the Sex Pistols, a punk band that sprung from England in, yes, 1975. Why did you decide to write a birth story about this man?

My friend, Thaddeus Strode, made a painting about him and I thought it would be fun to consider his earlier years.

This is one of the more unique stories I’ve read in a while. In your opinion, how important is originality in fiction?

It’s huge, it’s everything. When a good reader smells a stale sentence they’re out fast. But originality can reveal itself in surprising, subtle ways.

I think you discover it via flexibility and unplanned action, radical edits. Nothing’s precious. Removing huge chunks and then suddenly looking at that weird raw thing sitting there acting all friendly and mischievous. So it’s partly about being a good butcher, right? The word hack conjures lousy writing, but don’t we need the cleaver, the pairing knife and those little serrated guys?

Is this piece characteristic of the type of fiction you write? Read?

I try to surprise myself when I write so there isn’t a typical Ben moment, though I know there are. I’m attracted to certain things so I have to put pressure on the idea to make it emanate new qualities, to wander down unknown tributaries. Maybe the beginning is typical in the sense of its speed. And the end is a cheerful adios. I’m happy when stories begin on a brisk note, and stay there. I like the rush. But I’m also fond of slow sleepy brews, thick, methodical meditations, lardy joys.

Read? My heroes are Amy Gerstler, who I’m fortunate enough to be married to. She is a lucid luscious genius. She constitutes heaven. Other essentials: Aimee Bender, Lydia D., William Gass, Charlie Baxter, Ben Marcus, Dennis Cooper, Rusell Edson (maybe Music From 1975 is closest to him), DFW, the usual brilliant Americans, Gaitskill, Dybek, Barthelme, Flannery O. Those that seek the loins, the jugular vein. German language favs: Bernhard and Walser. New favs, Deb Olin Unferth, Rebecca Curtis.

Tell us about your interest in punk music.

I have nothing new to report, it’s physical, pure energy, and it ages very well. Old punk still avoids sounding stale and 2nd, 3rd generation punk is charming, though less urgent, fun, candy-like. I like to listen to music that gets me charged up for skiing super early in the morning. As a ski journalist I spent a lot of time with 20 year old pros bobbing their heads to Green Day. In the Sierras Nevada’s there’s an old school legendary ski punk named Glen Plake who often appears on-slope coifed in a mohawk that’s dyed with pink Cool Aid, ironed to a sharp point.

SLQ completed issue 18 at the close of summer and launched this issue, 19, on the threshold of winter. During the three months in between, the crops were harvested, the leaves fell, the rain returned, temperatures dropped, darkness lengthened. Death in increments. How does the turning of the seasons affect your “muse,” your inspiration?

Since my dad first took me to the mountains at age 3 I’ve been obsessed with snow. So what you beautifully describe above is my favorite time of year. I normally wake up at 5 a.m., the early cold sun is not far behind. I customize my winter teaching schedule around snow, mid-week classes, so I can ski 4 – 5 days during any given storm. I have an old cabin in the Sierras at 8,000 feet, a pretty 4 1/2 drive from L.A., no interstates, just modest highways. I make drawings and paintings about skiing with the artists I ski with. Lots of students board and ski so we talk about snow during lulls in crits, so my posse always grows, stays fresh, loses ballast. During the summer I think about what just happened, the memorable stuff, the euphoria, kiss its passing, embrace the summer, and wait for it all to return. I love exploring a mountain with friends on such a miraculous tool (skis), watching snow fall from the sky, gentle style, sleeping under it, hearing it tick-tick on the roof. Full blizzards are also impressive, vocal, hysterical. The world will weaken without snow. After a giant storm my dogs romp and swim through it like muscular dolphins. It’s a primal thing.

About the Author:

Benjamin Weissman is the author of two books of stories, most recently Headless.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.