Saturday Oct 20

BHJames B.H. James' novel Parnucklian for Chocolate was a finalist for the 2014 PEN Center USA Literary Award. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska MFA in Writing program, and lives in Northern California with his wife and son and two cats. His website can be found here.

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B.H. James Interview with Kathleen Dennehy


What inspired this play?  I'm hoping it's not autobiographical but I also feel that every adult who can read will relate to the sitations any one of these characters find themselves in.


No, the play isn’t autobiographical. It started as an exercise from Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook in which one character wants a book and the other does not want him or her to have it. From there it grew into an exploration of how difficult it can be to be deeply in love with someone who you know has been deeply in love before to someone else. And then from there how impossibly difficult it would be to learn that that someone else still had a place in your partner’s life.


Was it as complex as it seemed to imagine every possible angle of how each character might feel?  Do you usually write plays about relationships or was this a creative diversion for you?

This is a sort of What If? The play is not autobiographical, but I am married, and I had been in love before I met my wife. So, as Aiden’s counterpart, so to speak, it begins with imagining what if I carried on a relationship, platonic or not, with my ex and kept it from my wife. How would it feel to be about to be caught? How would it feel once caught? And from there it’s a short jump to the betrayal she would feel, and so on and so forth.

This is my first play, but yes, my work is usually about relationships. My first novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate, certainly dealt with familial relationships and all their nuances and strangeness. Currently, I’m working on a short story with very similar themes to “Before We Were What We Are Now.”


Replacing the relationship dynamics with the concept of power dynamics could also work brilliantly. Were you thinking allegorically or am I way off?

I don’t really see Aiden and Bea as being involved in a power struggle. More as if each is trying desperately to find a way to swallow what is now the truth of their relationship, and possibly move forward. Not to overpower the other.


Have you ever had this play read by actors or performed? Very curious if the twists and turns felt as intimate and honest as they did when reading the play.  (I'm always surprised by how a script can change once it's read aloud)

The play has never been performed, but I am also curious as to what would happen.


Do you have recurring ethical dilemmas you like to explore in your work- as in what is faithfulness versus what is commitment? 

I think the common ground between this play and my novel is an interest in the absolute inability of certain people to avoid deception. For deception to be so natural that one even stops being aware that the lie is not the truth.


Do you see this play as a comedy or a drama? Or a tragedy? Or all three?

I hope parts of it are funny, but I don’t think I’m funny enough to write a comedy. And I don’t quite think it’s a tragedy. I think there’s some hope for them at the end.


The character of Aiden at first seems like a victim of a mistrustful fiancee. Yet, by the end of the play, he felt (to me) like the villain of the piece- using others to get him in or out of where he wants to be- and the kind of man who loves a person only once he's introduced doubt and chaos into their lives.  Am I reacting from my past relationships? What is your main motivation in writing a character like Aiden?

I never really thought of Aiden as a villain, but I certainly think of him as the most despicable. As far as motivation, it goes back to the idea of a What If? Say I were to do this awful thing. Then what?


Do you intend for Bea to initially be perceived as an overbearing woman who attacks her fiance, then by the end of the play, is it your design that her action makes us admire her? Or is this me (again) reacting based on past relationships?

I didn’t intend for Bea to be overbearing or aggressive in Act I. She’s dealing with a shock to the system, and her actions that follow are her finding a way to swallow it. To live with it. And in Act II, not everything she does in that pursuit is all that commendable.


Please tell me about what else you write- thematically as well as formatically.

Mostly I write fiction. Besides my novel, I’ve had several stories published here and there. I have a story currently up at The Subtopian titled, “The Anti-Story.” It’s what, I guess, one would call experimental. It’s a bit Meta. I also have two flash fiction pieces forthcoming, one in Los Angeles Review and one in Cease, Cows. I’ve also had two Creative Nonfiction pieces previously published in Connotation [Press].


What brought you to writing?

I wrote, or wanted to write, when I was really young. Mostly space adventures or westerns. Then comic books. But what brought me, pretty much single-handedly, to writing serious literary fiction was Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.


Who are writers that inspire you?

In no particular order: George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, David Mamet, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Sam Shepard, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway.



Follow up questions!

I’m fascinated that you wrote a play based on a writing exercise!  I’m just used to playwrights having to work something out of their system or attacking a societal ill or to tell a story that will kill them if they don’t tell it.  In starting this play as a writing exercise, did it at any point depart from that and take on a ‘life of it’s own’?

Yes.  It took on a life of its own almost immediately, and for most of the time I was writing this play, I was not thinking of it as an exercise.  The exercise got things going, but it was the characters that kept it going.


Tell me about your education as a writer. Since you always wanted to be a writer, did you just make it all about that, even in high school? I know you have an MFA and can't even begin to imagine the chops that must take.  Was it as scary as it sounds? (I know I sound silly, but humor me.)

I didn't really begin to pursue writing until college. My major was Social Sciences, and I took an undergrad fiction class as an elective.  The instructor assigned Jesus Son' and Lorrie Moore's Self-Help, both of which really opened my eyes to the possibilities of literary fiction.

The MFA wasn't scary, but it was certainly demanding, and it forced me to get my butt in the seat and write, which had been the biggest impediment to my writing--I just didn't write enough.  I finished a novel over the course of the program, and that was a great feeling.  It gave me the confidence to complete a project, such as this play.

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