As winner of our first chapbook contest, judged by Matt Bell, Ben Hoffman got a behind-the-scenes look at the Origami Zoo: we took him to our hatchery where origami eggs were unfolding to reveal the origami animals within. Of course, they all start out looking like a flat sheet of paper, but Hoffman got to see as each one was folded into shape and welcomed into the world. While a baby paper sea turtle wiggled into the pinched corners of its newfound paper shell, Ben talked to us about self-help books, nuclear meltdowns and what to do with the bubblegum in your egg baby.
Ben Hoffman: A kudu, and here is what a kudu looks like. How fun is it to say kudu?
OZP: You were the winner of our very first chapbook contest. How’d that feel?
BH: Amazing. It’s great to win anything, of course. (It’s great to be published, period!) But when the judge is a writer you admire, and winning puts your work alongside the work of writers you admire, it’s even better.
OZP: The stories in Together, Apart are pretty wildly diverse in content and length. What is it that you think unites them? How did you decide to bring them together in chapbook form?
BH: I view the two longer, more traditional stories, which open and close the chapbook, as bookending the series of flash fictions in the middle. But the stories all share common strands, or themes, if you prefer—among them the wreckage of our desires and our struggle to find safe harbor, even as we have the feeling safe harbor is only temporary.
Some readers prefer perfectly cohesive collections, but I’m a fan of collections in which one story somehow bursts out of the web the other stories are building with each other. Even as that story is escaping, however, it still ought to be linked by a thread or two, right? In the chapbook, that story is “Next Time They Will Wow Them With The Shiny Stuff,” which is radically different in content and tone from the other stories, but still contains the strands mentioned above.
OZP: What else are you working on right now? Any exciting projects in the works?
BH: Yes, thanks for asking! I’m trying to wrap up—knock on wood one hundred times—a collection of stories, one of which is forthcoming this summer in The Missouri Review. And I’m about 75 pages into the first draft of a novel about which I won’t say too much, except that it begins during the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown—begins, basically, with “One For The Road,” one of the stories in the chapbook. I’m in the stage of writing just before despair sets in and I’ll have no idea where to go next, so things are going great right now!
OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything we should check out?
BH: So many things! I was a terrible reader in 2013, and I’m trying to make up for it this year. I’m currently bouncing around between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Need New Names, Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, and Eric Tran’s Affairs With Men In Suits. I recently devoured Pamela Erens’ The Virgins in two sittings. And based on past OZP crushes, I think you might really like Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born.
BH: Put your baby to bed before you read the stories, unless you want your baby to grow up really fast. Don’t leave your baby with teachers; you can’t trust them. Finally, you’ll need to decide: is the enclosed Bubblicious the beating pink heart of your egg baby, in which case it must stay forever wrapped in the egg? Or is it merely gum, which you should remove and chew immediately upon arrival, recalling the very taste of your own childhood? Really, it’s a choice each parent must make for him or herself.
OZP: If you were to write a self-help book a la Three and a Half Paths to Happiness, which appears in one of your stories, what would it be? What kind of self would it help readers become?
BH: Much like the mother in the story, I’m skeptical of self-help books, because they often paper over the world’s complexities, which writers ought to be interested in, and because there are rarely shortcuts. (And yet! The idea of a shortcut or of any one particular path to happiness is so incredibly alluring, isn’t it?) But if I were to write a self-help book, I’d strive to help readers become more empathetic. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to teach empathy to adults. I can only offer the basics: travel; get a dog; stay hydrated; remind yourself you don’t know very much and ought to learn more; spend as much time as possible outdoors on sunny afternoons.
Together, Apart by Ben Hoffman is available here.