Ben Hersey will be reading from his novel The Autograph of Steve Industry, Sat., Feb. 11th, with Eric Paul, Max Winter and Gilmore Tamny, starting 8 p.m., $5 donation, hit up [email protected] for address. Potluck first, partiers, at 7 p.m. More info here
I first encountered author and performer Mr. Ben Hersey 3? 4? years ago at a Boston Hassle event in Revere. He stood, crouched over the mic, on one of those pagodas along the beach, being threatened by a shirtless drunken fellow, who’d taken umbrage at something said, or maybe the unsettling way it was said. Mr. Hersey handled with sang froid, staying in character, and I thought hecklers were probably not unfamiliar to him. His performance was unlike most things I’ve seen, effortlessly and/or sinuously moving from performance to poetry to anthropological history of 20th and 21st century Massachusetts to improvisation to just 100% humor. I’ve seen him express himself several times since and have been wowed (hey, I use that word advisedly) each time. I was excited to hear about the publication of his first novel The Autograph of Steve Industry and to get a chance to interview him.
— Gilmore “GtotheT” Tamny
- First off, tell us where and how you can get your book?
Right now, the book is available through the publisher, Magic Helicopter Books. http://magichelicopterpress.com/steveindustry.html
But I’m currently working on getting it into independent bookstores in the Boston area. I have them, too. I have merch!
- This is a Massachusetts-centric work–do you find yourself drawn to other regional-specific writers or novels, etc.?
I definitely have a preference for work that oozes regional vibes. Work that comes out of American south from Flannery O’Connor to Scott McClanahan. Midwestern-y writers like Stanley Elkin or Marilynn Robinson also push me. I also read about New England history. I get all haunted and weird about Puritan-era terrified visions of the wilderness. My father’s family is from Maine going back forever. I want to write about Maine. New England is my subject matter all the way and I’m really at home with that.
- With many big works it really does take a village–can you tell readers a bit about who was involved both as inspiration and support?
This book came out of many years of being in an actual band called the Steamrollers. It started at UMass and then later, the three of us in the band lived together in an old one-room schoolhouse in Hadley, MA that we called The Schoolhouse. George, the drummer was originally from Everett and I grew up in Malden. Aaron, the guitar player, though from Ludlow, worked for a state senator in Boston and knew about layers of Boston life that only the truest citizen of that city could access. He could also play any classic rock style lick in history.
George and I had a busted up performance-noise-folk “band” called bengeorge7 for a lot of years and we did inane shit at shows. I’d scream statistics of Boston Bruins all-time left-wingers while George vacuumed the wall, kinda shit. One time we ordered the audience out of the venue by knife point. We’d play a few earnest folk songs. We had fun! We lived with a lot of amazing people, like Dan Cashman, AKA Anthro Rex and a Tumblr master at http://trashcanland.tumblr.com/. Huge, massive inspiration to me. Absolute genius art god. Watch his videos. The Schoolhouse was a venue for the early 2000’s western, MA noise, experimental music scene which was super ripe and insanely juicy for a few years there. We had a tape label called Breaking World Records. So much overlap of loving oddities. Fat Worm of Error was born there along with some of their solo and side projects, like Bromp Treb. Noise Nomads, Vampire Belt (Nace/Corsano), Majic Markers, Tumble Cat Poof Poofy Poof (Josh Vrysen), Dr. Doo (Ben Jones). Insanely inspiring art makers just testing out new ways of being inventive. Amazing era. Learned how to be myself with those people.
The Steamrollers just fucked around in the band room while all this was going on. But we kept playing and defined characters and story lines were emerging in these songs were were making. I was Steve Industry, George was Gardenhose and Aaron was Toby. Over time, we had a couple of “albums” worth of songs. We made an album called “Live at the Ocean” and another called “King of Bands.” We started playing live shows in which we’d improvise more songs alongside hits like “I’m So Drunk” and “Do You Know Where Your Life Goes?” Totally shitty Boston-based poetic ranting between songs. Celebrating stuff like going to the Sox game but forgetting that it’s your anniversary or a guy named Keith who worked at a tire factory in Malden, endless, timeless stuff, you know?
WMass has its issues, but it’s totally beautiful and glorious, geographically, culturally. So many crazy geniuses have lived there or still do live there. I feel blessed to have deep roots in both sides of this state.
Really long answer. Mostly I wanted to to pimp some golden years.
- Can you tell us a little about the story and the process in writing Steve?
For a few years there around 2008 or so,I started getting irritable about online surveys, chain-mail style “Answer these questions now or have bad luck for seven years” attitudinal questions. The way it seemed like I was getting a constant stream of people in my online life answering these random, stupid questions. It might have been okay, if people put any effort into them. Eventually, I wanted to test out what a life might look like forced into the confines of these questions. It got really exciting to let Steve play on and off the stimulus in prompts like “who was the last person you went to the mall with?” or “if you were a crayon what color would you be?” I was insanely slow about writing this book. I took years off and then would go back and redesign the whole thing, try to build in characters, and try to find useful ways to keep the plot from shattering. A little shatter I think is constantly happening, but I hope, in the end, there’s something you can ride all the way through!
- Who are some of the writers that if they told you they loved your book you’d be ecstatic?
The list has no beginning and no end. This is my first book and honestly, I’m just so excited that it exists and people have read the whole thing and come away with smart, complex ideas. It feels like the book is some kind of contribution to life and that makes me feel ecstatically grateful.
- How attuned are you to the Boston (or various MA accents) in TV/film movies? Any opinions on the Affleck/MA empire? Boston culture? Movies set in Boston?
I think I’m more attuned to who is actually from Boston then the way they sound. I have a half-assed theory that Boston has become too self aware in terms of its cultural capital. The glories of Boston sports in the last almost 20 years mixed with the presence of the Boston accent performed by natives on SNL and elsewhere has kind of exposed it to the world in a way that I sometimes think has diluted the original poetic sickness of it. I say this even as I know there are still true pockets. I sometimes assume that the horrors of gentrification have pushed the pure products of the Boston cultural working class pain out of Boston, Cambridge, Allston, etc., northward. A lot of people I loved in high school, for instance, live in places like New Hampshire now. Is Boston still a “working class town?” I don’t know the answer. I’m not even sure I know what I mean when I ask that. Has Boston’s ugliness and beauty been sufficiently used in movies and whatnot? That too, I’m not sure what I mean. Is Boston-proper more Boston than, you know, Beverly or Haverhill or something? Where can I go to experience Boston? Where’s the center? Hmm, maybe somebody can organize a panel discussion on this matter because I want to dig into it more deeply.
- I do enjoy a chat over writerly routines. How was this written? Mornings? After lunch? While dropping off kid at daycare? Anything you wear to write? Do pushups beforehand? Must have cup of fancy tea? Sacrifice a goat at midnight? Laptop? Longhand?
I wrote the first draft during a NANOWRIMO month, but it went through about four full re-dos over the course of about seven years. I did it very slowly, took huge breaks away from the text which ended up being hugely helpful because I could come back to it with vivid, fresh eyes. It’s easier to edit/see big picture when you’ve had time away.
The year I wrote the first draft I was so deep into Teddy Pendergrass that I regularly dreamed of the bass line from Close the Door. I had a powerful dream about Teddy Pendergrass back up singers singing while helping me into an outboard motor boat. I also had heavy rotations of classic rock related vibes. Bob Seger, Little River Band and whatnot. There’s a lot of music in the book.
Before I had a kid, I had spells where I could get up and write for two hours everyday, but since then, it’s just do what you can whenever you can. I try to zero in and get rhythms going, but it’s so much harder. Also, now that Trump-America is here, I feel like all spare time has to go toward educating and resisting. Haven’t figured out yet how to get writing into this mix. That’s a goal.
- With a longer work there’s always the interesting question of how can you tell when it was finished? How could you tell with Steve?
I could write Steve Industry’s life for the rest of my life, like some kind of Second Life character. It never has to stop because I keep getting fed a constant stream of details and ideas. Just yesterday I felt a pang of frustration that I never used the phrase “general court” to describe the Massachusetts state legislature in the book. For me, Steve Industry is a living character, an on-going, living text. I’ll probably rob from it for years in performance work and I already have new ideas for extensions on themes in the book, not directly Steve Industry related. It seemed really smart to cut it off into a package of “a year in the life.” Eventually my concern with the book was not to go on and on in time, but to make the year as detailed and richly intertwined as I possibly could.
- As an audiobookophile and admirer of your performances I’m really really hoping there’s an audiobook version. While I listen to everything in audiobook, this novel seems particularly audio-friendly (even if you weren’t to do it) being in first person and begotten to some degree out of performance.
I would love to do an audiobook of this. This is a book that benefits from being spoken or heard out loud, I think. If anybody’s got any audiobook knowledge, let me know.
- Some fiction feels like someone is painting a picture in your head–I’d say this feels a little more like someone playing a record in your head–does that sound right to you?
I did several comprehensive revisions, a couple with content/plot/structure and I did one for sound. There’s a layer to this that’s plot focused and it can be read for the story, but, if someone should so choose, I’d like to imagine a reader reading the book strictly for a kind of verbal adventure. I LOVE the idea of a reader just soaking in a sentence. Like bathing in a sentence. Stay put for awhile, reader. Don’t rush off. I’m invested in clarity, but for sure, I want it to just let loose, too. And not in some idea of deep realism or something, capturing gritty Boston life, but more like psychedelic Boston life-drunkenness. My performances get into that dynamic and in that context it’s possible to productively just let meaning totally collapse. Harder in a novel, but I went after it. With so much Boston-related culture available, I would like this to inhabit a position of its own, you know?
- What would you most like to know from readers about their experience with Steve?
Assuming he’s not arrested, what happens to Steve when the book is over?
BEN HERSEY is a writer and performance artist who has performed a wide range of collaborative and solo work over the last fifteen years. His solo work often melds crafted monologue and formal storytelling with live composition, vocal improvisation and chance operations. His experimental work draws from a wide variety of sources including contemporary poetry, noise, New England colonial history, genealogy and found texts.
Ben has been featured at a wide variety of literary, performing arts, and music festivals. Highlights include a collaboration with Jacob Otting in, A Little Ramble: Four Monologues by Robert Walser, at Flying Object in Hadley, MA. He wrote and performed an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at the Juniper Literary Festival at UMass-Amherst. He has appeared in performance pieces by Madeline ffitch including an adaptation of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. He has collaborated on several works with performer Seth Lepore including War/Peace at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, MA. A novel, The Autograph of Steve Industry, is his first novel. Ben teaches writing and composition at Holyoke Community College and lives in Easthampton, MA with his wife and son.
Performance videos and published writing can be found at benjaminhersey.tumblr.com