We had a chance to catch up with Ben Loory, whose story “The Wheelbarrow” is published in the Winter 2022 issue. Loory has published two books—Tales of Falling and Flying and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. We previously featured three of his stories (“The Sloth,” “The Dragon,” and “The Ocean Next Door”) in our Summer 2017 issue. This week on the Conglomerate, Loory meditates on the shape of a story, narrative intention, and the logic of fabulist fiction.
—Luke Gair, Editorial Assistant
SR: Your story “The Wheelbarrow” follows two boys who, at the end of their summer, are left changed by a preternatural experience. For you, what is the function or purpose of these strange (re)orientations of reality? Do they rupture our, or your characters’, understanding of the Real World? Or is the aim to mend it?
BL: I don’t really know how to answer that. The part of my brain that’s responsible for my stories (if it is even part of my brain; writing stories is as close as I get to a belief in the spirit world) isn’t accessible to interrogation and doesn’t go about announcing its reasonings or intentions; the role of my conscious being in the process is only to grab hold of whatever part of the story happens to be poking through the osmotic barrier and half-coax, half-drag the rest of it through and onto the page, hopefully still in one piece. I don’t see myself as having any say over what the stories are or how they work. (As Malcolm X would say, “Only the mistakes are mine.”)
That being said, my guess is that, while most people seem to write stories that take place in a “real world,” and are about relationships between characters which are resolved through changes in human understanding and behavior, my stories tend to take place in individual dreamworlds, where the primary relationship is between the character and the world itself, and where changes in that relationship therefore must be resolved (as least partially) through changes in the behavior of the world. “Changes in the behavior of the world” tend to appear in the form of miracles, or preternatural experiences, or whatever you want to call them—mysterious and strange and often frightening events. So I guess, via that understanding, the answer would be Both: The world ruptures in order that the relationship can mend. But hey, that’s only a guess.
SR: I feel that the brevity of your stories is conducive to their tightly wrought narratives and fabular ideas. This, to my mind, is the source of their strength. I’m curious as to how this approach might have shaped “The Wheelbarrow.” Do you initially develop a story according to the constraints of the page, or the idea? Is there ever a point where you feel there’s too much pressure on the page?
BL: I’m not aware of any constraints when I write; my experience is of running full speed into darkness, yelling the words of the story as they mysteriously emerge from somewhere deep inside. I also don’t experience any division between the writing and the idea—they emerge simultaneously, as one indivisible thing. I am incapable of writing differently (believe me, I’ve tried (they pay you by the word in this business)), and the ideas wouldn’t exist if they didn’t emerge via the writing (I’ve never “had an idea” in my life—they only come in the shape of stories when I sit down and start following a character into the void). I only ever see “the idea” (or the writing, for that matter) once the story already exists on the page. (Then, of course, I rewrite and polish endlessly, but that’s mostly a matter of ironing out the pacing (which is where I address those moments where there is “too much pressure on the page.”))
SR: Thinking about “The Wheelbarrow” led me to revisit, and then wonder about, the construction of some of your other stories. The logic of the world in “The Dragon,” for example, establishes itself in the story’s opening sentence: a young girl befriends a dragon, because dragons exist and they make for great companions, and that’s that; in “The Sloth,” the titular animal seeks a fulfilling career path, because, of course, sloths have professional aspirations. What do these departures from our own world’s logic offer you as a writer?
BL: Well, number one, they make me laugh; I like laughing and I tend to work harder on stories that at least begin in laughter than I do on stories that open in self-serious dullness or solemnity. But more than that, just in general, my main interest in storytelling is that it grants me access to the unknown and the impossible, which are my two main interests in life. I have always seen reality as a kind of base pyramid which mostly just exists to support the imagination. So I guess I step up into that realm as fast as I can when I write. I mean, who wants to read a story about something likely? I’m looking to fly, to be flown, to become something, to go somewhere . . . I want a goddamn ride on the Wonkatania. If you can show me how to do that without departing from the world’s logic, I suppose I am listening . . .