NAW Interview with Brian Benson

Brian Benson

Brian Benson grew up in northern Wisconsin and spent much of his youth biking back roads, chasing soccer balls, and variously injuring myself in the woods and water. At eighteen, he headed to UW-Madison, where he pursued two lib-arts degrees. GOING SOMEWHERE (Plume) is his first book. Visit him here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, Going Somewhere. How did you get the idea for it? How long did you take to finish it?

When I graduated college, I was pretty aimless. I had so many options before me, and I knew that was a huge privilege, and that just made me more anxious about screwing up and choosing the wrong thing. So when I met and fell for this ultra-confident woman named Rachel, I decided I’d follow her anywhere, into anything—especially when she suggested we take a cross-country bike trip. I took that ride because it meant being out in the world, alone, with Rachel. But the further we rode, the more I appreciated the miles themselves. That trip ended up teaching me a ton about making choices and moving forward. And by the time I was done, I knew I wanted to write about it.

I started writing Going Somewhere three days after getting off the bike—headed to a café and sat down and wrote page one. The next day, I rewrote it. And the next, and the next. Writing was hard. Also, I was too close to the trip to have any kind of perspective. So I gave up. From time to time, I’d try again, but it was so daunting. Finally, I joined a writing group with friends, and I wrote what would eventually become a chapter in the book. My friends liked it. I liked it. So I signed up for my first ever writing workshop. I shared that piece and got great feedback. I took more workshops, and I got more great feedback, and I kept writing, and at a certain point I realized I was actually writing a book. All told, it took six years.

NAW- How difficult is it to pen down a book on personal experiences? How did your family react to it?

First off, if I’m going to write something good and complex and honest, I need to at times portray myself in a not-so-flattering light—and since readers of memoir often review not just the book but the author of the book, that kind of exposure can be scary. Second, I need to write honestly about other people without unnecessarily exposing them—a tricky balance, I’ve found. Third, there’s the notion of truth itself. Even if I have a detailed journal, and have spoken with others about their memories of a given moment, I can take infinite approaches to a “truthful” story; in every moment, so many stories are happening, and the tough part is figuring out which of them is most relevant to the larger story I’m trying to tell.

My family are a bunch of super-supportive tender hearts. My sister Leah’s my best friend, and I’m really close with my parents, and all three helped me so much as I wrote. They’re proud of me, and they love the book, and I don’t for one second take any of that for granted.

NAW- How did you plan for the trip? Biking must require a lot of stamina, right?

Poorly. We planned poorly. Neither of us had ever taken any kind of bike trip, so we had pretty much no idea what we were doing. Also, we procrastinated on getting gear and ended up buying everything over three anxious, head-spinning days in Madison, Wisconsin. We packed all sorts of stuff we didn’t need and skimped on the stuff we did—maps, for example. And though we took three or four training rides together, none were longer than thirty miles. Mainly, we just daydreamed about being out there in the world, on our bikes, alone.

But we quickly learned that, yes, biking requires a lot of stamina. Physically, it was difficult from the very first mile, and it only got harder as we moved into the Plains and faced vicious headwinds. But that was actually kind of rewarding. The really tough part, for me, was the mental fatigue. I’d pictured myself having deep thoughts out there, but as it turned out, I was mainly just thinking about food, or having ridiculous unvoiced arguments with Rachel, or trying to get “Home on the Range” out of my head.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

Going Somewhere isn’t just my first published book; it’s my first publication, period. Before starting it, I’d done little creative writing—had never considered myself “creative.” I’ve thought about this a bunch, and have traced it back to elementary school, when my sister and I both got placed in the Gifted and Talented program. I was put in the “intellectual” group, Leah in with the “creatives.” Even then, it felt like a silly distinction—we both were mainly making origami and building bridges out of toothpicks—but I internalized it. As the years passed, I started drawing and getting good at guitar and writing really elaborately-worded history papers, but I still didn’t feel like I could or should be creative. It was only as I really got into writing this book that I realized, “Oh, hey, maybe I am.”

Going Somehwere Book Cover

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I teach creative writing at the Attic Institute. I also work with Write Around Portland, a non-profit that holds free writing workshops in prisons, treatment centers, homeless shelters and alternative schools. And when I’m not doing something writing-related, I love reading books in crowded bars, playing finger style guitar, swimming in Portland’s rivers, catching second-run movies and taking long bike rides to pretty places.

NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?

I’m going to pick an arbitrary number—let’s say four—and cut myself off there, because otherwise this could get ugly. First, I adore (and despise) Junot Díaz for making it look so easy to tell a gripping story in a super colloquial first-person voice; for writing about masculinity with uncommon honesty; and for being the best profanity-user in the history of the world. Second, I’ve read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things about 700 times—and yet, because of her gorgeous language and the mystifying way she ratchets up tension, I still bawl all the way through the last chapter, every time. Third, I could spend hours talking about David Foster Wallace, especially his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which, like most of his writing, is at once hilarious, profoundly insightful, and deeply horrifying. Finally—and not just because she’s been so nice to me—I am a big fan of Cheryl Strayed. She writes with such honesty and empathy, and every time I finish one of her books or essays, I have this totally batshit sense that she just learned something about me.

NAW-What are you currently reading?

I’m in the middle of three books. A friend just passed me NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and already, after reading a two chapters, I’m mesmerized. I’ve also begun Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’d owned a copy for years, but it took me until last week to open it, and now I feel like a huge dope for waiting so long—it’s as good as everyone says it is. Finally, I’m halfway through White Hurricane, by David G. Brown. It’s about a cyclone blizzard that hit the Great Lakes in 1913, and I’m reading it as research for the book I’m working on now.

NAW- What will you be working on next?

I’ve begun work on a novel in which the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has been leased to a corporation and turned into a cultural and wilderness theme park. It’s still a baby, so I can’t really talk about it, besides to say that I don’t really know what I’m doing and that’s maybe why I’m enjoying it so much.

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