What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon, Heart of Darkness by Conrad, The Metamorphosis by Kafka, The Stranger and The Fall by Camus, The Subterraneans by Kerouac, The Wall by Sartre, Mr. Palomar by Calvino, The Nose by Gogol, and The Abortion by Brautigan are some I read a long time ago that informed my idea of what fiction can do and the directions innovation go in. Whether they were novellas or not didn’t matter much in choosing them, as I knew I wanted to read those works by those authors.
They explored new concepts and literary structures in scintillating ways, bravely facing the intensity of our society. I wanted to break the default idea of what a character was and I wrote about something that required a new consideration of linearity, cause, and effect.
There’re some that influenced my desire to write books of whatever length it took, and I particularly enjoy novellas more than any other form. I have another novella that will come out later, called Giant Jack, based on medical history, about the lives of a complex rural family who create a cult of giants in California.
Some other novellas I’ve loved more recently are Philip Jose Farmer’s The Alley God, James Morrow’s City of Truth, Grim Tales by Normon Lock, when all our days are numbered marching bands will fill the streets and we will not hear them because we will be upstairs in the clouds by Sasha Fletcher, The Medussa Frequency by Russell Hoban, Dream Memoirs of a Fabulust by Doug Rice, We Take Me Apart by Molly Gaudry, The Man with the Donald Sutherland Face by Randy Cunningham, Circulation by Tim Horvath, Green Lights by Kyle Muntz, The Abortion by Brautigan.
People statistically like to read shorter works, more so all the time, and I write for others to read. They’re a nice size to carry around to read outside or a café, or read in the bath, yes? I even like the way the word feels and sounds. If I were named Novella, I’d be tormented until I had a great one published.
What’s the oldest part of your novella? Is there a section or passage that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the novella? What do you remember about writing it?
The beginning is the oldest part of the narrative that remains, though I edited it. I wrote it after considering something I read in a physics book decades ago and wanting to write about the possibilities it suggest. Science most often plays some catalyzing role in my fiction.
It’s a Fabulist approach to a dysmorphic’s boarding house. Elements from houses I’ve had some contact with played around with each other. I even play a tiny cameo role in the book when I hop to the kitchen table and attempt to eat from a can in peace.
The beautiful old house I’d recently lived in had a basement that I navigated with a broken leg, on my knees down concrete steps, to do laundry, for a few months, often to find the washing machines full, naturally. I was trapped in the eccentricities of the household because if I tried to walk very far out of the house in the wet moss on the steep incline, on crutches, I would have gone over on my face like a cartoon. Basements always seem to be my subconscious in my dreams.
In Equinox Mirror, the landlady criminally keeps a woman in the oubliette, which is like a basement, the only way down a trap door in the floor controlled from the outside. I liked the word “oubliette,” and thought about what we learn to find the humor and play in, like a dusty, cold, cobwebby curving trip with sharp edges against the knees, dragging laundry bags backwards. We love it all. We have to. And so the survival stories become exaggerated into dreamy wonders.
It was originally differently written, with stories adjuncting all the elements within the main narrative of the Lucky Lavaggios. When it mentioned the rats in the walls, or the bushes, there was a little section set off separately that related to rats or bushes. I let a few of those stories lead the direction of the main story. The very first ones arose from word list prompts by Meg Pokrass on her wall on Facebook. Some have mutated and are published elsewhere, but I took them all out of the book to give it a smoother flow and more accessibility. The male Lucky Lavaggio and the mother still have their own little stories throughout.
I think of that as narrative flowing down a lively stream, the water swirling it around, polishing the stones in it, and giving the water molecules a healthy twist.
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
It’s ultimately about something the reader only figures out at some point through reading it, so I don’t want to spoil the curious chase to resolve the bewilderment. The setting, characters, and actions are so recursive, and odd, the mystery should compel the reader forward, trying to grasp what’s going on. Things like a Little Person boarder who resembles a Troll doll, for example, suggest something a child has imagined, so the drawings I did for it are a little raw to match the DIY feel of the world the characters exist in, similar to Lucky’s dollhouse.
I have had a lot of short stories and novelettes published. I would NOT want to be named Novelette, by the way. This is the longest so far, and a couple novels that will be out before too long. I write in a variety of styles from SF/F/H to New Wave Fabulism, which is about the role of the imagination, and that’s a key part of Equinox Mirror, down to the very particles of existence.
The book is thematically about the things we put up with to live with relative strangers in close proximity, with the emphasis on strange. The powerful passions we have that have to die into our imperfections and mortality. The postmodernist impossibility of knowing even what we look like in all those mirrors that all make us appear a little different – and we feel like a different about ourselves from one to the next.
How did you decide on the length and the title of your novella?
It’s not trying to keep someone’s attention on these two Lucky Lavaggios for too long; it’s only about what happens on the Equinox itself. Yet it can’t be too short, as it’s also about the entirety of a lot of lifetimes.
It was always called Equinox Mirror. The female Lucky Lavaggio uses her mirror to scry with – an occult practice of looking for visions of the future, somewhere else, some fact that must be known. She takes it on the day when it’s not yet the Equinox to a time zone where it is – a kind of travel into the future. She hopes to be able to see herself clearly enough that way to know how to navigate her future.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
No contests. I generally can’t afford those. I sent it to very few publishers, and ELJ asked me, adamant about strongly wanting it, however niche it might be, because they loved it. An earlier, very differently written version of it, broken in pieces at the points that fit the serialization, without the images, was published and then chosen for their Quarterly Review at Bewildering Stories. I worked on it a lot after that to present it as a book for purchase.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
I did the cover art and made suggestions on the placement of the text, did generalized placement of the images inside. I’ve done a lot with art as illustration for narrative, with publishing, and magazines like Mad Hatters Review where I was Art Director for a long time. I’ve had art and photography shows around the world and lots of features in magazines and such. For example, a solo show traveled throughout the Spanish Levant for years, to fascinating venues with lectures about art at the openings.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
I made a new Tumblr that I’m devoting to my newest books. I have a resource site, Everything Experimental Writing, that gets 800 hits a day regularly, and sometimes over 1000, and it has a Facebook page. That’s one potential audience for my work naturally. Some reviewers are reading it. A couple interviews coming out. I mention it on places like Twitter, my author sites, a WordPress blog, will be doing readings from it, and I’m going to be on the JEF panel at the &Now Festival of New Writing in March. The print book has made its way to a few continents, and is in a Polish library.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a novel called Crimson, which is a follow up to my other novel, Unside: A Book of Closed Time-like Curves, which will come out with Driven Press. Both have aura-viewing Asian male protagonists in the future who penetrate conspiracies bearing resemblance to our current social situation. Crimson is a Dystopian Mystery written from the point of view of a young man who investigates when his girlfriend and her family, and then his parents, go missing from their houses in Olympia, Washington.
What is your writing practice or process?
Because I’m busy teaching fiction writing at UCLA X and other places, and edit people’s manuscripts, I have to do it whenever I have time and my body can handle more typing. I cut out most things to devote my time to writing. I pace a lot for exercise, and move around in creative ways, dancing, contorting my face, and I combine that with getting ideas, working them out, preparing myself physically to match the upcoming scenes and making myself big enough energetically for the rise in the plot arc.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
Look at publishers who put out novellas now, and see what genres are being accepted. There are very few. If you want to have a wide selection of publication opportunities, write in one of those genres. If not, expect it to be a somewhat small audience, to match a little book, and write to that kind of sensibility.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I’ve often written down a list of words and then written a story from that.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your novella? How would you answer it?
You do a great job with questions, thank you. I really appreciate you helping us get the word out about what seems odd – who talks about novellas? But which is really getting more common all the time, as Amazon dynamics works best now with shorter works, especially for genre ebooks.
What question would you like to ask the next novella author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing at UCLA X, Writers College, and elsewhere including her academy online. She has an MA from FSU and MFA from the Iowa Writing Workshop. Stories appear in magazines and anthologies like Journal of Experimental Fiction, Fiction International, Publishing Genius, Camroc Press Review, Unlikely Stories, Surreal South, Zymbol, and many more. She has won awards and been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She has books out from ISMs, Naissance, Dance of Shiva, 10 Page, Lucidplay, and Night Reading, and Driven Press is putting out her Literary SF novel, Unside: A Book of Closed Time-like Curves.
an excerpt from Equinox Mirror
She was reborn into a new version, aggressive, but spread out across time and space, with no boundaries, aware of herself beating out of the moment.
She seemed to be splitting from her male self. The male self is traditionally the right side, the female the left. But she’d reversed it. She was living as if in a mirror, with lightning on her right side — her male self. She became aware of the male version of herself somewhere in the world, or not in the world, fighting the void.
She felt as if she were the Divine Adrogyne, born out of the creative urge moment by moment. She was not quite sure which one of them was born, when it came right down to it.
She became aware of quantum potentials everywhere, possibilities fomenting, and dying off, fermenting, recursive. She even felt like one, herself. She was her mother, her father, DNA itself, spiraling throughout the galaxy, the thrust of life-force, in a hurry, without time to much about with frustrating tenants in a bordering house and be tolerant and polite. She became the flames and the ashes.
Very soon after, she’d invited her pretty new friend, a nurse she began calling Dungeonella to the oubliette, and told her the world had suddenly become unsafe. She locked her down there, telling her it was for her own good. Lucky would stay above to protect her. She loved her deeply. She would never be alone again.