An interview with Ben Arzate
by Jordan A. Rothacker
I first met Ben Arzate in 2016 when, after finishing my doctorate, I briefly helped out Jarrett Kobek with his press We Heard You Like Books by doing publicity for a couple of titles. In promoting Mike Kleine’s book, Kanley Stubick, I was directed to another Iowa-based writer, like Kleine himself, who was a big proponent of Kleine’s work. This is all to say that Ben Arzate and I met through a shared commitment to literary citizenship.
Arzate was born in 1988 in Arizona, but has spent most of his life in Iowa. His first book came out the year we met, a self-published, slim, sly, dark, and at times ingenious poetry collection called the sky is black and blue like a battered child. With this first book, Arzate was off and running, and 2018 saw his second work in print, a motley, macabre story collection involving loneliness and fucked-up contemporary relationships titled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, published by Nihilism Revised. The following year Cabal Books came out with Arzate’s The Story of the Y, a horrific surrealistic road novel about a quest to find an “outsider” musician. This book encourages readers to release any preconceived notions about reality, metaphysics, and magic and just let the narrative roll in a world of vulture-headed gas station attendants and Boomer ghosts trapped in vinyl records. Mexican drug cartels and American involvement in border-based geopolitics help keep the reader grounded in this aspect of reality and the book.
Elaine, another quest-oriented, surrealist horror novel from Arzate was published in 2020 by Atlatl Press and represents a progression and development of narrative skills. The Story of the Y is good, but Elaine is better. Elaine is mostly set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and benefits from the firsthand experiential knowledge its author has of that place. It also displays a masterful use of suspense in leading and teasing the reader. Ultimately, Elaine is short, trippy thriller in the vein of Haruki Murakami, but with the darker, more adult feel of Ryu Murakami. 2020 also saw another self-published collection of poems and genre-defying texts called dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, which explores all the weirdnesses that Arzate is passionate about, from the banal to the transgressive and back again.
More than a mere connection through similarities to those Japanese novelists, Arzate isn’t shy about displaying, and even exploiting that influence. His 2022 novel from Malarkey Books, Music is Over!, is set in Japan and contains a full cast of Japanese characters. Here we find some of the same themes and topics of earlier work, like the power of music to make life more bearable, and transgressive sexual tropes. What we also find is the work of Arzate refining, maturing, and improving on levels of characterization and narrative structure, his prose getting sharper, and his books looking cooler with each new independent press to take him on.
Across his wide, weird body of work, Ben Arzate often comes off like both previously mentioned literary Murakamis combined, although I’m sure a case can also be made for comparison to visual artist Takashi Murakami. Within the literary tradition of this United States, he is like a Tom Robbins with greater brevity and an all-abiding sense of darkness and danger.
All this time since we first met, Arzate has been—and still is—a book reviewer at Cultured Vultures and other online literary media outlets. As he is well-known in the small press world to be an astute interrogator of contemporary literature, I felt it was time to turn the tables on him and let him be interrogated for a change.
JR: Please indulge me as I begin with some very specific Elaine questions, as it is a novel I really loved. Why the choice of Upper Peninsula of Michigan? Have you spent time there? Is there a weirdness to the place?
BA: I’m glad you enjoyed the novel! I chose to set it in the UP because my grandpa is from the area, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. It has a natural beauty that I admire, but the fact that it’s one of the least densely populated areas of the US gives it a very empty and isolated feeling. It seemed the perfect setting for a small-town horror story.
JR: Why the use of Finnish in Elaine? Is there a Finn population there?
BA: Upper Michigan has the most Finnish people in the US. My grandpa was Finnish. It seemed appropriate that a town in the UP intentionally isolating itself would use Finnish to make it harder for outsiders to understand them.
JR: What is the role of music in your work? Elaine has a record store owner character and playlist that runs through it. Also, music is essential in Music Is Over and The Story of the Y.
BA: Thomas Dolby once said that he writes songs like a frustrated novelist. I like to say that I write books like a frustrated musician. I first started out writing lyrics to songs I was making in high school. Then I moved to writing poems before migrating towards stories and, eventually, novels. No surprise, my early poems were mostly about music and musicians as well. So, I think it’s always going to be central to my writing.
JR: In The Story of the Y we have mention of Snoring Records and its proprietor, Chris, from Elaine. His employee in that book is a lead character in The Story of the Y. Are you creating a microcosm across your body of work? Does all your fiction happen in the same universe? If so, it’s a pretty magical place. Does it extend to other formal genres? Also, why this choice? Does it make writing easier (pre-planned connections, like Faulkner), or is it more limiting?
BA: Not all of my fiction takes place in the same universe, but a large number of works I’ve published so far do. Elaine and The Story of the Y do. Music Is Over! does as well, but the connection is less obvious since it takes place in Japan, far away from the locations of the first two, so there are no direct references. A few stories in the now out-of-print The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye were also in the same universe. I have some science fiction stories that I plan on having take place in the far future of the same universe, as well as a more contemporary mystery novel with the character “Lobster” from The Story of the Y as the protagonist. I wouldn’t say it makes things easier, the Lobster novel has had a lot of false starts, and it doesn’t feel limiting to me. I feel like it gives me somewhat familiar people and places to build upon, and I think it gives a rewarding experience for the people who read more than one of my works to see the connections. Irvine Welsh was probably my biggest inspiration for the shared universe idea, though obviously with far more fantastic elements than his work contains.
JR: Why do you write? Why bother? Is it a calling, a craft? Or something you can’t help but do?
BA: I’ve always made up stories in my head since I was a kid. I would draw out little comics with characters and stories and originally wanted to be an artist. When I got older, I became more passionate about music. When circumstances made it harder to work on music, I just started writing. I guess it’s something I’ve always done in one way or another. I have a restless mind, and this is my way of occupying it, I suppose.
JR: Your work covers many different formal genres (plays, poetry, short stories, and novels) as well as various genres of content (horror, science fiction, crime, thriller, to name a few). How important are genre or binary categorizations like poetry/prose or fiction/nonfiction to you, if at all? Is this ever something you consciously consider, or do you just produce an individual work as accurately and as best as it can be produced regardless of those definitions.
BA: There are some projects I begin work on and decide its form will be a novel, poetry, or plays or something else. dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah was a mix of poetry, song lyrics, and other kinds of texts that I didn’t really have a name for. I try not to let distinctions between form or genre get in the way, however. If I feel the need to ignore or blur the distinction, I will.
JR: What power does literature have? Or any art form? Is there anything that makes writing/literature special in regard to other mediums?
BA: Writing is special in its range. You could really write about anything whether it exists or doesn’t exist, with language itself being the only limit. As for what power, art and literature has, that’s hard for me to comment on. I feel like mass media and the internet has massively lessened what “power” it could be said to have on a societal level.
JR: I see that you live in the Midwest. What role does place or location have in your work? Or identity as a writer?
BA: I’m not all that well-traveled, but I try to write about other locations. One of my novels takes place in Mexico and another in Japan, neither of which I’ve ever been to. I don’t think of myself as an Iowan or Midwestern writer, just a writer who is from there. I do think place and location play important roles, though—many of my stories have people traversing and exploring unfamiliar locations.
JR: Who are your favorite contemporary/living writers, musicians, and visual artists?
BA: Some of my favorite writers working right now are Thomas Moore, M Kitchell, Michel Houellebecq, Derek McCormack, Ann Sterzinger, New Juche, Audrey Szasz, Ishmael Reed, Supervert, Cormac McCarthy, Carlton Mellick III, and D. Harlan Wilson. Some contemporary musicians are Vektroid and her many aliases, Stephin Merritt, Tom Waits, Dominick Fernow, James Ferraro, Kool Keith, Nick Cave, and Leyland Kirby. Some visual artists I currently enjoy are Robert Wilson, Xavier Núñez, 8-Bit Stories, Cameos, and Hiroshi Nagai.
JR: Who are your all-time favorites?
BA: Some all-time favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, Georges Bataille, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Bertolt Brecht, and Elmore Leonard. Some favorite musicians are Porter Wagoner, Nick Drake, ABBA, Throbbing Gristle, Buck 65, and Frank Zappa. For visual artists, it’s Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, and Vincent Van Gogh.
JR: Which of your works or projects are you most proud of?
BA: I can’t pick between the ones that I’ve published so far. Each one of them has some aspect I’m very proud of.
JR: What is next? Are there any new projects on the horizon as of yet unannounced?
BA: Sometime later this year, my first book of plays, titled PLAYS/hauntologies, will be out with Madness Heart Press. Next year, I have a novel coming out from D&T Publishing called Saturday Morning Mind Control. I’ll also be publishing the first novel by author Rob Ramirez, Candy Shopping at the End of the World, when it’s finished. Right now, I’m between working on a collection of stories and another poetry collection. Also, if any publishers are interested in re-releasing The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, hit me up.
JR: I hate to be indelicate or morbid—and I hope you live sixty more years—but what do you hope the legacy of your work to be?
BA: That’s not something I think about at all, to be honest. I hope people will keep enjoying my work after I’m dead, but maybe they won’t. The effect on me will be roughly the same.