Interview with Naomi Benaron
by Dorine Jennette
Jennette: Let’s start with what’s on your desk right now, and then talk about your award-winning books. What writing projects are on your mind today?
Benaron: I just put the author-reviewed copyedited version of my Rwanda novel in the mail, so I think, except for final cleanup and some conversation with the copyeditor, I am done with that (famous last words, I’m sure). I have two projects on my desk right now. I am writing a novel about three generations of women: grandmother, daughter, granddaughter. The grandmother is a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz. I am also trying to whip a poetry manuscript into shape. For that project, I just today got the idea of writing a crown of sonnets based on a girl named Hana Brady, from the movie Hana’s Suitcase (she did not survive Auschwitz).
I also just started teaching for the UCLA Writers’ Extension online this quarter. So my weekly lectures are like essays for me. I am having fun with them, but they are a lot of work.
Well, I guess that’s it. I’m always afraid people with think, based on what I write about, that I am this dark, somber person. But I am not.
Jennette: To me, you do not sound like a dark, somber person–you sound like a very busy person! And very ambitious if you are launching into a new crown of sonnets while completing a poetry collection. I was thinking about the crown-of-sonnets form recently while reviewing a book that contains an admirable example (Keith Ekiss’s Pima Road Notebook). I was thinking of how painful my own past attempts at this form have been, and just feeling grateful that nobody could make me attempt it ever again! (For the record, I am a huge fan of writing sonnets. I just can’t take on more than one at a time, it seems.) Your choice to write about the large traumas of the Holocaust within the small, strict space of a sonnet is interesting and, no doubt, complicated. Could you talk a little bit about your approach to form and structure–whether in poetry or prose–in relation to your very difficult subjects?
Benaron: Form and structure. I have two contradictory sides. On the one hand, I have no patience for form, but on the other hand, I find its confinement liberating. I really don’t do much formal poetry–I have a difficult time with it–but when I do, I get a warped sense of satisfaction out of it. I wrote a sestina that told the very brutal story of my adopted Somali family in Tucson, and I think having the ordered structure allowed me to approach the chaos of what happened to them in safety.
I was recently at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for three weeks, and for some crazy reason, I decided to attempt a crown, writing one “sonnet” a day. I love writing a poem a day because it sets you free from the bugaboo of expecting perfection. So this gave me the courage to approach the sonnet. (My first–and only–sonnet before this took me eight months to complete.) As it turned out, the shootings in Tucson (Gabby Giffords is my congresswoman, and my nephew interned for her) happened while I was there, so that worked its way inside my sonnets. For these poems, I let go of most of the rules. All I kept of the form was 1) three quatrains and an ending couplet, and 2) a volta somewhere in the last few lines. That made it a lot easier!
For me, the benefit of form is that you have to pay very close attention to content. Form provides a map to keep you from wandering in aimless circles. In writing about trauma, I try to write that fine line between what is said and what it is better to leave in the silence between the lines. This goes for both my poetry and my prose. It means I spend a great deal of time with my scalpel out. Because of its constraints, I think a sonnet provides a perfect map for walking this fine line. My model is Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till. Of course she adhered very strictly to the sonnet’s form, and I am in awe of her for that. And a children’s book! I find that amazing. So we’ll see what happens. At this point, it is merely a germ of an idea in my head.
Jennette: What a rich response! Could you say more about how these ideas assist you in assembling your fiction? How does it manifest in your prose process that “the benefit of form is that you have to pay very close attention to content”? How does form “[provide] a map to keep you from wandering in aimless circles”?
Benaron: Truthfully, I can’t say that I have thought much about form specifically in my prose until now. But since you mention it, I suppose that in the broad sense of form, I do pay a great deal of attention to it and that it does keep me focused and moving forward. What I think about in prose is language, lyricism, and cadence. My ultimate goal is to have my fiction read like a prose poem. In her introduction to A Wreath for Emmett Till, Marilyn Nelson says, “The strict form [heroic crown] became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter,” and I could say that containing my fiction within the idea of poetry has the same effect for me. Because I write mostly about trauma, I try to let that most intense pain rest in the spaces between the lines, if that makes sense. One of my favorite books of “witness” is Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, and one of my favorite lines from that book is, “Important lessons: look carefully; record what you see. Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful.” For me, in my writing, it is necessary to bear witness. So I try to find a way to make that necessity beautiful. Of course this is not to say that trauma can be made beautiful, but I do think it is possible–necessary, in fact–to create something beautiful that comes out of that dark place.
Jennette: As you go about making beauty in your short fiction, such as the stories in Love Letters from a Fat Man, how do you begin to hear the “language, lyricism, and cadence” that you strive for in your prose?
Benaron: I think because I am a poet in fiction writer’s clothing, I tend naturally toward the lyrical in my writing, which is to say I think in cadence and sound. Because I approach writing prose and poetry in much the same way, I aim to create my stories as long prose poems. (This turns out to be a great deal easier in short fiction than in the novel.) I do a fair amount of writing in my head while I am running or even swimming, and I think this reinforces both the cadence and the orality of language.
Jennette: How do you begin to hear the voices of a story’s characters?
Benaron: For me, voice is everything. Without voice, there is no story, and without characterization, there is no voice. I approach characterization much the way a method actor approaches a role. I had a brief happy life as an actor, and this taught me much about inhabiting a person, living in her skin. As a child, I spent most of my time living in a fantasy world, pretending I was this or that heroine–Tiger Lilly from Peter Pan, Joan of Arc, Eloise in Paris–and I never outgrew that. Once I learn to live in a person’s skin, the voice comes naturally. Often, it shouts inside my head. I think it is helpful, too, that both my parents were psychiatrists. This taught me to think from inside someone else’s head.
Jennette: What is your process for arranging those voices into musical sentences?
Benaron: I really don’t approach writing fiction much differently than writing poetry. This has its disadvantages, because I can spend (waste?) a great deal of time changing “an” to “the” and back again to “an.” It makes for a long, slow process unless I have one of those rare and glorious days when pages pour out of me. I often start my writing day by reading poetry or a particularly lyrical section of prose, and this sets up the prosody in my head. Even in my first drafts I write this way. And I always, always read my work aloud. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.
Dorine Jennette is the author of Urchin to Follow (The National Poetry Review Press, 2010). Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Verse Daily, the Journal, Puerto del Sol, the New Orleans Review, and the Georgia Review. Originally from Seattle, she earned her MFA from New Mexico State University and her PhD from the University of Georgia. She lives in Suisun City, California, and edits books for university presses.