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Ben Loory: Tales so peculiar and fascinating

Vimmy Sinha

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, April 30, 2018  /  09:16 am
Ben Loory: Tales so peculiar and fascinating

Short fiction writer Ben Loory has the amazing ability to effortlessly weave words into beautiful sentences to write stories ever so engrossing and enchanting. (Ben Loory/File)

Acclaimed American author Ben Loory’s newest collection of short stories, Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017), has created a buzz in the literary world, getting exceptional reviews.

Storytelling is his forte, and the Harvard-educated 46-year-old would like to stay with it.

“Mostly I just really like storytelling. I like mystery and suspense and that sense of madly rushing forward, trying to find out what happens next. And also, I like laughing and making other people laugh. I’m really more of an entertainer than anything,” he says.

Loory grew up in a strange situation. His family lived way out on the outskirts of a town — there were no other kids around, and they did not have a television. His parents had both been English professors, so all his sister and he had was a houseful of books.

“I was doomed to be a writer from the start. My parents never cared what my sister and I read, so we just read everything in the house,” recalls Loory.

So, in a way, he feels like he never really had a chance to pursue any other ambition. Loory did want to become an astronaut while growing up. “Unfortunately, I ruined my eyes by reading too much and was forced to become a writer instead,” he says wryly.

Most of the books he read during those days were serious-minded, realistic American novels of the mid-20th century. But, that is not to say he did not read children’s books and picture books. That too, and in plenty. The Wind in the Willows, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the George and Martha books and Stuart Little were some books Loory read.

 His favorite books include The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff and The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell.

As unbelievable as it may seem, Loory read From Here to Eternity, an award-winning novel by American author James Jones, when he was about 8.

The life-changing moment came when Loory was 10. Some high school kid came over to him in the library and led him over to The Lord of the Rings. “And that pretty much changed the course of my life,” he claims.

He was introduced to this whole other world of fantasy, science fiction, mystery and horror that did not exist on his parents’ bookshelves. “And I really just dove in completely. At the same time, I always kept up with the other stuff [if only because there was so much of it at home]. So I’ve always had a foot in both worlds, both the mainstream ‘literary’ world and the literature of the imagination. And it’s where those two meet that my own writing lies.”

Loory seems to effectively play with opposites — be it in the stories he writes or even while choosing titles for his books. His latest book has “Falling” and “Flying” in the title, his first book was entitled Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day.

The author has a convincing explanation for that. “To me, storytelling is all about balance, which is another way of saying that it’s all about opposites. That’s just how storytelling works!”

Interestingly, for Loory, using animals as protagonists in his stories started as a joke. When he began writing stories, they were all very intense, very sad and basically scary stories.

Then, one night, as he was getting ready to write, he did not want to write his usual stuff. He had the urge to do something else and make himself laugh. “I wrote a story about a duck who falls in love with a rock. It was fun and a change of pace and made me feel better,” he reminisces. And when he had finished that, he went back to writing the scary, grief-stricken stories.

A few weeks later, he did it again and that continued. At that time, they were a way of letting off steam and making it easier for him to do his “real work”.

“But then, when my first book came out, it was the animal stories that everyone loved! So all of sudden I was the guy who wrote animal stories!” he quips.

Loory feels that “animal stories very quickly provide you with understandable protagonists, so you can quickly move on to the story itself. It’s just economical —and gives you something funny to see and think about”.

When writing a story, it is the ending that is always the hard part for Loory. He writes his first draft very quickly.

Eventually when he gets to the correct ending, he recognizes it by the “flood of emotion” that suddenly opens in him. “That’s how I know that I have finally cracked the story.”

However, getting to that point can take a lot of time; sometimes a whole lot of time. There are stories that he has been working on for 10 or 12 years, and he still does not know what the problem even is. Others come together in a few weeks or months. “I never give up on a story,” he emphasizes.

Ready for Jakarta

Ben Loory will be one of the prominent guest speakers at the upcoming Writers’ Series organized by The Jakarta Post. He is scheduled to hold the workshop on May 5.

And he is very excited about his maiden trip to Indonesia. “I can’t believe it’s actually happening! I can’t wait,” he says. He is even pondering on what to wear and is looking forward to eating the food. “I do like food a lot,” he confesses.

He is also looking forward to meeting writers who come from different backgrounds and have different tales to tell. “Basically, I’m looking forward to hearing some new stories,” he says.

Loory likes reading other people’s stories and then thinking and talking about those stories with them. “And being a teacher lets me respond to what I’m reading,” says the author, who teaches short story writing at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension Writers’ Program.

“Teaching for me is basically empowered reading. Though, of course, mostly students just ignore my opinions,” he jokes.

Personally, he does not really believe there are hard and fast universal rules of writing that apply to everyone under all circumstances.

“Learn how to spell and use proper punctuation is basically the only rule. Beyond that, be yourself. The only thing you have as a writer is your own voice, your own unique perspective, way of talking and thinking, your own values, sense of humor, sense of rhythm and story. Be honest and true to yourself, and keep going,” he says.