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Smoking With Ben Black

Interview by Gigi Amateau (Read the Story) June 25, 2013

Ben Black

art by Alexander C. Kafka

What is the first fairy tale you remember reading or having read to you?

I remember reading Rumplestiltskin in a big Brothers Grimm anthology. It was very similar to the type that most children have, with glossy pages and intricate medievalish illustrations, but this anthology contained at least one typo, at the very end of this particular story. The story is supposed to end with something like “and he ripped himself in two” but mine said “and he ripped himself into.” I was so perplexed—into what?? For years I thought there was more to the tale that I was missing out on.

Can you recall the spark that led you to rethink Hansel and Gretel?

I had an assignment in one of my earliest creative writing classes in college to tell a fairy tale from the perspective of one of the characters—I think I chose Gretel. For some reason this particular fairy tale has always stuck with me. I took note at some point that the evil stepmother of the tale dies off-screen while the children are with the witch, and you can see where this leads.

You evoke such strong feelings, questions—and images in “The Woodcutter’s Wife” are spare, yet. Could you tell me a little bit about how you did that?

This is a difficult thing to remember! I think once I realized that hunger was the main motivator for all the characters, it was just a matter of realizing how each would react to it. Then I stuck closest to the character who had the most interesting reaction.

Do you think that because Hansel and Gretel is so familiar that most readers will arrive to “The Woodcutter’s Wife” with an intimacy of the story already in their experience? And if so, how did that influence you?

Ideally, the reader will approach my story remembering the main parts of the original story. The more detail they remember, the more they’ll get out of it, I hope. I’m drawn to a lot of literature that’s full of allusions to older tales and historical details (the work of Borges comes to mind) and I’m excited when a story makes me do more research or even go back and read the original. I think all readers are excited to be given more things to read.

Literature to me is a great conversation, and stories that are conscious of their own ancestry have always seemed truer to me than stories which seem to try their hardest to be wholly original. Any story that thinks it exists in a vacuum is fooling itself.

When you’re working on a new story what, if anything, do you like to read?

The pace of my reading is pretty constant—I’d say I’m a reader first and a writer second. I don’t consciously alter the direction of my reading based on what I’m writing—I trust in the brain’s associative powers to help me find that right turn of phrase or twist of plot. I figure the more I read, the more raw data is sitting in the section of my brain where I go to look for such things for a story I’m writing.

Are you working on something new right now?

I completed my MFA thesis in December and the rest of the winter was a fallow period for me, but now spring is here and some stories are starting to sprout. I tend to write very short pieces like “The Woodcutter’s Wife,” so they often appear on the page all at once after floating around in my brain for a while.

About the Author

Ben Black recently completed his MFA at San Francisco State University and his work has been published in fiction365, New American Writing, Identity Theory and theNewerYork. His story “We Are All Wearing Jackets” won the 2013 Fogcon 2013 Student Writing Contest.

About the Interviewer

Gigi Amateau is the author of Come August, Come Freedom, a work of historical fiction for young adults (Candlewick Press), selected by SIBA as a Fall 2012 Okra Pick. She also wrote the young adult novel A Certain Strain of Peculiar, a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, and Chancey of the Maury River, a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. She is also a recipient of the Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts. A Mississippi native, Gigi lives in Richmond, Virginia. Connect with her at: www.gigiamateau.com, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

About the Artist

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. He created the cover image for Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems by Diann Blakely (Salmon Poetry, 2017). His work has also been published at All Things Fashion DC, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Juked, Vice, The Washington Post, The Writing Disorder, and many other periodicals. He has been on the documentation team for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo and is a contributing concert photographer for DMNDR. Kafka studied fine-art figure photography with Missy Loewe at the Washington School of Photography and portrait photography with Sora DeVore at Glen Echo Photoworks.

This interview appeared in Issue Forty of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty

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