Monday, 21 March 2011

Author Visit: Pinckney Benedict

Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. He has published two collections of short fiction and a novel. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, the O. Henry Award series, the New Stories from the South series, the Pushcart Prize series, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. Salt have just published his collection of short stories, The Miracle Boy and other stories.


Hi Pinckney, thanks for taking some time out to speak to us. You’re the first author I’ve interviewed on here from over the pond*, so hello, welcome, and please make yourself at home.

Thanks for the generous greeting. It’s been years since I’ve been in the UK, so I’m happy to have this brief return, even if it is only virtual.

Can you sum up ‘Miracle Boy’ for those who haven’t managed to get their hands on it yet? What are its central themes?

Miracle Boy is a collection of fourteen short stories: the best of the writing I’ve been doing, I believe, for the last fifteen years or so. The title says it all. Each of the stories deals with the lives of boys (and men, who are always boys, yes?) living in Appalachia, and with some aspect of the “miraculous” – the blessed, the monstrous, the outré, the surreal.

What’s the first thing you remember writing, and when did you know that writing was what you wanted to do?

I recall drawing pictures before I could read, and dictating the narratives that went with those pictures to my mother, who was indulgent enough to write them down for me. (She has beautiful handwriting.) We stapled them together and called them books. I wish I knew where they have gone, because I’d love to see them again. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t write, if by writing we mean making up stories. It’s all I’m good for.

When you look back on writing from, say, your collection ‘Town Smokes’ in 1987, how do you think your writing has changed?

I recall the fiction in Town Smokes with great affection and nostalgia. How young I was, and how easily those stories came to me! My subject matter is, in its simplest incarnation, much the same: the lives of folks living in rural Appalachia, which is where I grew up, on my family’s farm among the mountains. What’s different now is that I’ve become fascinated with elements of the “miraculous” that I mentioned above. I’m much more interested now in writing about ghosts and monsters and miracles and the supernatural. One of these stories was even anthologized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #20, about a year ago. That’s a first for me, a horror anthology!

I see that your wife is also a writer – do you find you get rather competitive with each other?

I’d be a fool to compete with her. She writes a highly intelligent species of supernatural thriller (so we share that interest) that people are most eager to read. My work has a much more limited audience: stories, Appalachia, “literary,” and so on. I’m deeply inspired by and impressed with (a bit intimidated also!) how well she plots and with the relentless forward energy of her narratives, and I’ve tried to inculcate some of those aspects of her work: its compulsively readable nature, its unabashed plottiness. I’m a great lover of plot.

You’ve written short story collections, a novel, and a screen play (Four Days (Cite Amerique 2000)) – blimey! - do you have a favourite form to write in?

I wish I could say “blimey” and get away with it. What a great word. I’ve done comics too, though those are mostly for my own amusement and the entertainment of my friends. Here’s an example, from an online magazine called (wonderfully) Plots with Guns: http://plotswithguns.../6Benedict1.htm

I love short stories, but my stories have become longer and longer over the years. The longest in Miracle Boy is perhaps fourteen thousand words, so something like twice the length of what we’re accustomed to see in a conventional short story. Screenplays are a great length for me to write: twenty-five thousand words, give or take. If this were a world where novellas could find a readership, I believe that would be ideal for me. Long enough to stretch my legs but not exhausting, like a novel.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Don’t try to fulfill anyone else’s vision of what literature should be. Write the stories that you yourself would like to read, without regard to how others might think of them. The stuff that obsesses you, that’s where your efforts belong. The literary world can be deeply snobbish about our enthusiasms. Ignore that aspect of it.

On a side note, I’m curious: over the States, how well are e-readers taking off? What are your thoughts on them?

They’re getting more and more popular and will, in the next few years, match paper books in sales, I think it’s safe to say. I myself own both a Kindle (the big one, the DX) and an iPad, on which I have three reading apps: Kindle, iBooks (Apple’s app), and Google Books, each with many volumes. It’s marvelous, because I am almost never caught without a metric ton (since we’re in the UK) of things to read.

They’ll never replace books, of course, I don’t believe. Conventional books are a fantastic technology and well-suited to the task they fulfill. The hardback is a fine archival format, and the paperbook makes casual reading easy and inexpensive. I won’t ever take my Kindle in the bathtub with me. And one loves paper for its feel and it smell and the sensation of turning pages. But ebooks level the playing field, in marketing and distribution, in some interesting ways,because they considerably lower the bar to entry to the publishing, and I’m all for a democratic writing and publishing world.

For one thing, those novellas I mentioned above? Well, with ebooks, there is no “best length” for a work of fiction. Stories are expected to be a certain length because, in terms of paper publishing, that’s been a marketable length – what you can fit, if you are a magazine publisher, between ads. With novels, it’s the same thing: how much paper can you conveniently glue to a piece of cardboard backing?

With ebooks, maybe novellas will finally have a natural landing place. Maybe stories will become as short as a thousand words and sell for a nickel (um, sixpence?). Maybe novels will become as long as half a million words. None of it is more or less convenient with ebooks. It may be that eventually we will lose these categories of thought – “story” and “novella” and “novel” altogether, and each fiction will simply be its natural length, without regard to its marketing category.

Of course, that’s all pie in the sky and gets me laughed at (no doubt justly) when I say it aloud. But I don’t much mind being laughed at, so long as I can retain my dreams and fantasies.

I think that's a really interesting observation about the length of a book - I can't help feeling that's true for e-books, perhaps novellas will find their place. Let's see what happens. This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

Good for you, recognizing Salt’s singular contributions in this way. Salt are (in the US I would say “Salt is,” but I think “Salt are” is a proper Britishism, yes?) utterly fantastic. They bring books like mine – which not only will not make them rich but which can hardly be expected to make them any money at all – to an audience that would otherwise never see or hear of them. In an age when conglomerate publishing is, so far as I can tell, utterly corrupt and grotesque and collapsing of its own loathsomeness, Salt are actually publishing books because they love those books, and because they love literature.

I would say this of them even if they weren’t my publishers. I felt this way about them and the books they produce long before we ever decided to work together. They are my heroes.

On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

What a great idea. It doesn’t have to be a new book, does it? I believe I would pick Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. (Is it cheating, to pick a trilogy?) It’s too little known, in the US at least. People in my book forum would initially hate me, because the three volumes taken together are vast, and the postage costs would be enormous. But they would thank me when they finished reading it. (Of course, it would take them years.) Peake is the Proust of fantasy fiction (though fantasy is such a thin word for the complexity and richness of his vision, like saying Tolkien wrote “sword and sorcery” or Lovecraft wrote “horror”), and the world he creates in the Gormenghast books is umatched for its wealth of invention and detail.Impossible adequately to describe it; it’s a tour de force. For folks who don’t know Peake, they can find out about him here:

This is one of those cases where ebooks are wonderful: it wouldn’t matter to a Kindle how long the book is. It wouldn’t be an ounce heavier, no matter how many sizable trilogies you put on it. I don’t know why Peake’s work isn’t available yet in a digital format. I suppose it’s just a matter of time, as with all things.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Pinckney!


An often heart-stopping literary performance. - The New York Times

Benedict's first collection of stories since his auspicious if uneven debut (Town Smokes, 1987) is a far more accomplished work, establishing him among the best young southern writers — full of passion and mature enough to keep it under control. Benedict searches out the moral dimension in the hardscrabble lives of rednecks and country people, and transcends the folksy bromides they espouse. He discerns the confusion and ambiguities in their seemingly uncomplicated lives. -Kirkus Reviews

Buy Miracle Boy over here

More information on Pinckney can be found over here

And his wife's website is over here:

This is the last interview for Salt Publishing month, and I hope that you've all enjoyed it, and have fallen a little bit in love with Salt! I, for one, have really loved doing these interviews, so many thanks to Chris, Jen and Sarah-Jayne for letting me get my mitts on their authors! And a big thank you to Vanessa, Anna, Wena and Pinckney, too. Please do buy just one book from Salt, as part of their Just One Book campaign. You won't be disappointed; their books are wonderful.


*I interviewed Pinckney before Wena


  1. Fantastic interview. And delighted to see Mervyn Peake mentioned~! I adored the trilogy years ago, and revisited recently - it certainly stands the test of time.

  2. Oh - adding more to the unsteady book stack I sit on to see the Internet. Thankyou.

  3. I think I might love this even more on the second read.....x