Student Interview – Benjamin Lytal

This author interview is part of the Creative Writing Celebration scheduled for Sept 23-24, 2016. Please visit our web site for more information on the event, or to register for a workshop.

TU English student Audrey O’Donnell interviews author Benjamin Lytal

lytal-book-cover-225x345Reading this novel was an unusual experience for me, given my familiarity with the Tulsa setting. What was the experience of writing about your hometown like?

I wanted to write about self-confrontation. Growing up in Tulsa, I didn’t think much about the city. I wasn’t burning to get away, but neither did I try very hard to really appreciate the city or explore it. Much later, when I was living in New York, Tulsa became fascinating to me. But what was Tulsa, what was my relation to it, really? Was it a good relationship? Was it a fair relationship? I think some of the parts of A Map of Tulsa that came easiest (and are therefore the best) have to do with this awkward situation: the hero loves something, but he’s not really sure about his connection to it.

What (if any) aspects of this novel are autobiographical? Could you expand upon how the novel was, as you mentioned in a New York Times interview “really about [two friends], how the two of us had grown up and come out of our shells”? Did you have this in mind when you were writing the novel or did it surprise you when you were finished?

There are so many degrees of relating to a novel: one of the sweetest is this pretty abstract sense of its flavor, and of recognizing that flavor from something in your own experience. The scenes in the book are pretty much made up. There’s one part about driving around on the West Side, maybe I cut it—I will have to go look—that I always remembered as being “from life.” But then one day after working on the book for years I was really thinking about it, and I had rewritten it so many times I didn’t have any memory anymore behind the sentences in the book.

At a more schematic level a lot of things are true—I did actually grow up in Tulsa. I came home one summer when I was a bit older, and made a different set of friends than I had had before. One question we might ask as writers is: why did I make the kids in the book super-rich? Maybe it’s because the whole form of “returning home” is somewhat conservative, or that I wanted the hero to perversely aspire to a conservative power structure. But it’s also a fantasy of finding New York within Tulsa—or better to say, of domesticating New York, and making it Tulsan. For better or for worse.

This is your first published novel. What was the process of publication like for you? Did anything surprise, frustrate, or delight you? Do you have any words of wisdom regarding publishing?

In my early twenties I wrote a lot of book reviews, and I also published a few short stories. I said somewhere in a contributor’s note that I was writing a novel. An agent who liked my criticism contacted me to ask about representing the novel. Years later, when I finally finished it, he liked it. Meanwhile, I had sent an early part of the novel to a little magazine, to see if they would publish it as a short story. They didn’t think it made a good short story, but the editor I sent it to liked it as a piece of writing. She also happened to be an editor at a commercial publishing house, or became one later. So, when my agent sent my book out, he was able to sell it to her. I guess the moral of this particular story would be: write lots, publish some, hang around forever.

Can you talk about your experience with rejection? How did you deal with it?

Lately I’ve experienced rejection vicariously. A friend wrote a really good first novel, better than mine, but we couldn’t find anybody to represent it. This was very frustrating, if not completely surprising. Her novel demanded patient reading, and she didn’t have any prior publishing record. Most of the rejections I’ve experienced as a writer seemed like they were because I was asking for something I wasn’t ready for or didn’t really need. And I’ve gotten some great, super-helpful rejection letters. But now that I’m a bit older I want to also say: sometimes the problem isn’t you, it’s them.

What is your number one piece of advice for young writers?

Write for your friends.

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Benjamin Lytal

Benjamin Lytal has written for The Wall Street Journal, The London Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Fence, The Daily Beast, and The Nation.

For four years he wrote The New York Sun’s “Recent Fiction” column. He is the author of the novel A Map of Tulsa. Originally from Tulsa, Lytal currently lives in Chicago.