Ben Drevlow Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Welcome to Connotation Press, Ben Drevlow! We’re thrilled to feature your work in this month’s issue.
“Enough SURGE and I can open a vein and bleed twenty thousand words in a day. Script out my whole life story except for a satisfactory end...”
This story is all about a writer writing in only the way he knows how. As a writer, I completely identified with this story! Though I don’t tear at my skin or drink SURGE!, I do have my own slightly off and unhealthy writing routines (writing late in the night, smoking, listening to DJ mixes from the 90’s) Then there are those writers who arise at 6:00 after a satisfactory night’s sleep to pen their masterpieces while sipping tea and generally living healthy and exercising. WTF?
What’s your writing SURGE!? What aids you in bashing out twenty thousand words in a day?
For the sake of my own mental health, I really wish I could say that this story was more fictional than it actually is, but for a long time Surge was my SURGE! (as well as Red Bull, Monster, Mountain Dew, and Mellow Yellow in a pinch). I did switch to Diet Coke for a long time but that (somewhat ironically) would make me sick to my stomach when I drank too many (whereas I can slam a scary number of full-flavored sodas in a day without getting gut-rot).
For the sake of my not dying or getting my legs amputated in the next five to ten years, I’ve tried to make writing more of a regular “morning-workout-with-water” kind of thing and less of a “SURGE!-fueled-week-long-bender” kind of thing.
I’m still working on cutting down on the soda, still working on not scratching the skin off my arms, but these days, my best fuel for pounding out 20K is a balanced cocktail of Klonapin, Adderall, and Lexapro.
This is also a story about a relationship with a writer. Arggghh! I love this bit in the story: “Sometimes we’ll both be drinking. Her sweet red wine. My glorious SURGE!. It’ll be the middle of the night and I’ll be typing, typing, typing only to have her stumble into my office naked, drunk, and punching herself in the face.”
Should writers procreate with other writers, or should they intermingle with different species (non-writers)?
Full-disclosure: I’ve been with my poet wife and love of my life for fifteen years now (married for five). We will not be procreating any time soon, but I do know a handful of writer couples who have recently procreated and even a few writer couples who have raised seemingly well-adapted children.
In deference to them, I will simply say that there are many, many writer-couples who should not procreate.
But then, as I say this, I immediately think of the beginning of the movie Idiocracy, where the “snobby” couple is like, Gee, I don’t know if this the right time to children, and Oh, I don’t know if we’re ready to bring children in to this world. And then the other million people on the other side of the tree of life are like DRINKDRINKDRINKFUCKFUCKFUCK… And ta da! Here are all our babies to take over the world.
Let me just say this: I personally should not be allowed to procreate with anyone. I should not be allowed to be a parent.
But then I also generally feel like I should not be allowed to ever give advice to anybody else about anything to do with being an adaptive, semi-successful adult/writer/human being.
So, to answer your question: No/Yes/Maybe
Continuing with the writing theme, this bit: “I want to tell her I’m done telling the whole story. There’s too much of it to begin with. It never fucking ends, the whole story. And I need to be done with something for once, I need for it all to be finally done.”
It. Never. Fucking. Ends. Yes!
How do you know when a story is done?
Ah, shit, now you’re just openly mocking me with this notion of me ever being done with a story. (Note: I originally made a herpes joke here in poor taste, but have since cut it, but stay tuned, it might make a reappearance by the time this gets published. I’m still thinking maybe if I just keep revising I might come up with something clever.)
Honestly, I’m still rewriting stories I published twelve years ago. My “reading” copy of everything I write is basically illegible from all the scribbling I’ve done before, during, and after the reading. I’m like, Maybe one day (like in a bizarro world in a parallel universe) somebody’ll ask me to do a collected works and I can fix all this and get it all right finally and won’t that be so satisfying.
If I don’t have a deadline… if my wife doesn’t read my stuff and tell me to stop, I will write, rewrite, edit, add-to, subtract-from, rip-it-all-up-and-start-over until I go into an anxiety-and-depression-induced coma on the couch for three days straight.
I get lines of stories stuck in my head like the lyrics to Mambo #5.
I’ve been “done” with my nine-hundred-page opus for five years and I can’t stop “writing” it. It took me ten years before that just to “finish” it and let others read it. I’m every sad cliché of that writer asshole with that “big novel” he’s always working on but never finishing. I am your collective eye-rolling.
Last Christmas I started sending out my “completed” manuscript of short stories about the characters in “To SURGE! with Love,” and I’m still writing one more one more story for it six months later (I think I now have like six one more stories).
Listen, I’m going to end my answer to this question now, but rest assured for the next two days I will think of about eight thousand better variations to this answer…
Okay, just kidding.
My real answer: I know the story’s done when I’ve won the O. Henry prize for it as voted on by George Saunders, Paul Beatty, and Amy Hempel (like never in a million frickin years, that’s when).
You are the chief editor of the fabulous BULL Magazine. For those readers unfamiliar with this journal, could you tell us a little about BULL and how you got involved? Any story or feature you’d like to highlight that exemplifies the journal’s aesthetic?
BULL is an online and print journal of fiction and nonfiction dedicated to all the shit that’s messed up about masculinity. It is my hope to continue to build a community of writers—male, female, cis, transgender, straight, gay, bi, and every race and ethnicity under the sun—to explore the ugly and often contradictory truths about the way boys and men are conditioned to view themselves and the people around them. We’re not here to try to offer easy answers to all the terrible things men do to each other, themselves, and women. We’re here to help each other do better. We’re here trying to dig through all the wreckage of our current toxic culture in our greater search for humanity, community, and maybe the tiniest bit of redemption in the act of writing, sharing, confessing, and confronting our greatest fears, regrets, humiliations, and moments of weakness. We are fathers and sons, mothers and daughters; we are your best friends and ex-lovers; we are the abused and the abusers, the enablers and the enabled; we are all flawed and fucked up and often unlovable but still here trying get our shit together in order to earn back your love and forgiveness.
I’ve been a reader for BULL since 2013 or so and then took over things a couple years ago. My relationship with BULL, as with my own writing, has always been a bit selfish. Depression and suicide run in the men in my family. My oldest brother killed himself two days before he turned 18. Ten years later, I tried and failed to kill myself three different times in college. I never wanted to be a writer; I wanted to be a basketball player and then maybe a coach. I didn’t read when I was young, and only read for school when I had to as I got older. I only found writing and reading when I was at my lowest point of my life. I read Catcher in the Rye when I was twenty-two and identified far too much with Holden Caulfield for a twenty-two-year-old kid. I read The Things They Carried when I was twenty-three and, for a whiny privileged kid who’d never been to war, identified way too much with those soldiers. Pretty much my whole life growing up, I viewed writing and reading as signs of weakness, as symptoms of being less of a man. But when it came down to it reading and writing—not basketball or anything else “manly”—seemed like the only way to salvage something out of the complete waste of existence I’d come to view my life as. For the first time in my life I’d read other people who seemed as miserable and messed-up as I was and suddenly I didn’t feel as alone anymore. I thought maybe there might be somebody else out there, who might feel the same way about all stupid shit that I was doing to myself but telling no one.
For me BULL is the same thing, except trying to find other readers and writers like me looking for something to salvage from all the ugliness, failure, and self-hate.
Example A: one of the BULL pieces that’s hit me the hardest over the years was this recent essay by Ray Shea about the vicious cycle of fathers, sons, and abusing women. (Or then there’s this essay about the language of depression by Ryan W Bradley that kind of gets in your face and says about everything there is to say about depression in like two thousand words maybe).
Example B: This short story by Frank Reardon kills me every time. You know it’s not going to end well from the start (it doesn’t start well to begin with), but there’s something so desperate and agonizing about watching everything unfold the way you know it’s going to unfold.
Example C: And this story by Lindsay Hunter (from long before I started reading for BULL) is one where I think, Christ, that’s like everything, right there. Seriously, it just punches you in the gut and leaves you there wheezing. It’s so tragic and beautiful. It’s nearly redemptive in how dark it is about the things humans do to other humans while the rest of us look the other way.
What creative projects are you working on at the moment? Anything new in the pipeline?
Mostly I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life (I’m not sure I’m going to live much past 50 based on the way I’ve treated my body thus far) and with this in mind, if writing is a truly healthy or unhealthy outlet for all the things I let fester inside me. I’m trying to get somebody to feel sorry enough for me to publish a collection of connected stories (including “To SURGE! with Love”) in which I imagine just how bad things would have to get for my wife to finally get tired of my shit and leave me. At the same time, I’m trying to figure out what the hell to do with a nine-hundred-page “life story” in which I imagine myself writing a memoir about all my family’s dirty little secrets and then my mother dying of a heart attack as a result of reading it (she actually had a heart attack and almost died three months after I’d finished the first draft of it. She never actually read it, but still, that’s some ugly juju). Don’t get me wrong. Writing has in so many ways saved my life over the years, but I’m not sure me publishing said stories turns out so hot for the people I care about. What’s that Milosz quote? When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. If I was a real writer with a conscience, I’d write children’s books about zombies, vampires, and over-sexed flying dragons who’ve come to rescue us from cyberbullies.
Thankfully I’m no writer. I just need therapy. I’m that weirdo at the CVS who won’t stop telling you about the sexual side effects of his medications. What I’m saying is I’ve got no inside voice, or rather, that my inside voice often goes out to play with mixed results.
Who knows, maybe I’ll get a job welcoming people to Walmart. Maybe I’ll check myself into a mental institution. The world is my oyster. Stay tuned. I may be sending you all invites to GoFundMe someday soon for an all-expenses-paid vacation to a sanitarium near you.
Please write an unconventional advertisement/ radio jingle/ tagline for SURGE!:
SURGE!... It’ll make your teeth itch.
Thank you so much again, Ben Drevlow!
To Surge! With Love
She says she’s tired of having to replace bloody pillow cases. Scrubbing the arms of the couch, the love seat, the Lazy Boy. Certain treasured white linen curtains.
Dermatillomania. It’s fun to say.
That’s what she tells me I am. A compulsive skin picker. She looked it up. There are websites and pamphlets and support groups I can go to, she says.
Have you looked in the mirror lately? she asks me.
It’s not like I’m trying to cultivate this look. My forearms for example. They’re dotted, dimpled, zig-zagged, and splotched. Like little Jackson Pollocks. My back of my hands too. How I pick and pick and pick and will never let anything heal.
What are you going to look like in thirty years?
What are you going to tell the kids when they ask why Daddy’s arms look like pizza with the cheese scraped off?
Obviously, she knows just how to cut to the core of me. Thirty years from now. The kids we don’t have, the kids we’ll never have.
Sometimes I even laugh out loud at the preposterousness of this all.
Ha! I’ll tell her sometimes. That’s a good one.
For obvious reasons, she never seems to share my humor.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not sometimes in awe of the beautiful desecrations I can inflict upon myself.
But then there’s the constant infections and swelling. I don’t even like the taste of blood, though I don’t dislike it either. Or rather it doesn’t much taste like anything other than sweat, which isn’t far removed from the health content of urine, I’m told. A little bit salty, a little bit sour.
She says Neosporin works just the same as, is actually better than, Peroxide, but there is no fizz with Neosporin, no sting. No burning to tell if it’s working. No retribution for infecting myself.
I do, however, enjoy the morning after you put on the Neosporin, when you take off the Band-Aid and find your scab bloodless and white, pruny as if I’d just gotten out of the shower.
The edges will flake right off most times, no blood or anything. It’s almost as if your finger has died and rotted off without all the pain in between.
Obviously I had a pretty serious problem back then. Not meth, not even alcohol. Just regular old soda pop. SURGE! to be exact. Dr. Pepper when I was a kid, some Mountain Dew in there too, but it ’d been SURGE! for probably since back in high school when Coke first started making it.
Some people they used to really get into Jolt Cola. Then later it ’d been Red Bull or maybe Monster. But me I need something with a more of a bite to it. A little bitterness, something a bit more acidic to get all that bile deep down in my chest, something to dance to, something to jumps tart a little powwow inside my diaphragm, get things to creep up into the back of my throat where they belong.
I tried switching to Diet Red Bull, Diet Monster, diet everything else. It ’s not like I stopped picking. It ’s not like I got any skinnier or sexier. Did my SURGE! cravings ever diminish in the slightest?
It ’s n ot like they were ever coming out with Diet SURGE! It would defeat the whole point.
What is the point?
Well, enough SURGE! coursing through my blood and I can pretty much scratch all the skin off my arm and light my blood on fire.
Enough SURGE and I can open a vein and bleed twenty thousand words in a day. Script out my whole life story except for a satisfactory end.
I convince myself I’ve really accomplished something. Feel the artistic genius coursing through my veins all the way down to the bloody keys and onto the screen.
Or, sure, it can turn against me.
I will head-butt the keyboard until I’ve filled up pages full of gibberish. Put my head on the desk and dig into my temples until I can feel the blood trickle out.
I will delete whole manuscripts. Print them out, carry them out to the fire pit in the back yard. Thumb through them one page at a time. Watch each corner go up as I flick the trigger of the grill lighter. Feel the weight lifting from my fingers as I flip each flaming page into the pit.
You’d be surprised at how little lighter fluid it takes to make an entire life story go up in with flames.
Sometimes I’ll stay up late writing and mainlining SURGE! til I can’t barely control basic bodily functions. I’m leaking piss and farts is what I’m saying. I’m gagging on acid and running to the can to expel everything citrus that’s gurgling up inside me.
Sometimes I’ll work myself up into a real nasty crying jag. Tear into the bedroom, throw off her covers, and start screaming: Is this what you want?
Slam the door on my head about five times hard as I can, start slamming my forehead between the doorjamb.
Is this what it takes to get you to pay attention to me? Is this the only fucking language you understand?
There are times when my little tantrums will get us both all hot and bothered. Have her hopping up on my lap at the foot of the bed. The two of us making shrill, sweaty sex bumping up against every wall in our bedroom.
Sadly, those times have grown few and far between of late.
Sometimes we’ll both be drinking. Her sweet red wine. My glorious SURGE!. It’ll be the middle of the night and I’ll be typing, typing, typing only to have her stumble into my office naked, drunk, and punching herself in the face.
You wanna kill yourself now? she’ll be yelling. How about now? This make you wanna kill yourself?
Christ, I’ll say. How much have you been drinking?
Wanna kill yourself now, motherfucker? she’ll ask. How about now? This what you want?
Baby, I’ll say. I’ll get up and put my hand on her shoulder. Hey. It’s okay. I’ll grab her by the fists. You’re just drunk, I’ll say. It’s late.
I just... I just... I just love you so much, you know? I just... I just... I think about it all the time. What I’d do.
I just... I just... I can’t do it anymore.
Stop hitting yourself, I’ll tell her. I’m not going anywhere, okay. Just, please, stop hitting yourself, okay?
If I have to I’ll quit writing and take her to bed with me. Have jittery, spastic sex with her til she stops crying and passes out, her skin reeking of cigarettes and red wine. Snoring loud and snotty right there next to me.
One night while I’m down taking a bath in Peroxide to cleanse my many open wounds, she sneaks up into my office and reads all the dirty details.
I’m wrapped up in a towel and cracking open a fresh one when I catch her at my desk. She turns and laughs at first, but then the laugh turns into a sigh.
Don’t you think it’s beautiful? I say, holding my towel in one hand, my SURGE! in the other. Don’t you think it’s all the truth, the ugly truth? Nothing held back?
Is this what you really think?
No, I say. It’s just trying to capture how ugly things can sometimes get. It’s just trying to tell the whole story, you know? The way nobody else would.
Yeah, but you’re not telling the whole story. You’re only telling the shitty side of everything in the shittiest way possible.
I want to tell her I’m done telling the whole story. There’s too much of it to begin with. It never fucking ends, the whole story. And I need to be done with something for once, I need for it all to be finally done.
I don’t say any of this out loud. I stand there and take a slug of SURGE! to settle my nerves.
So this’ll make you happy then? To open a vein and air all our dirty laundry?
That’s not how I’d put it, I say and take another sip.
And how would you put it?
I’d call it a true love story. A rarity in this sentimental world.
Where’s the goddamn love? Her voice cracking despite her best efforts not to let me break her.
Did you even read the end? I say.
She collapses over the top of my desk. My life story pinned beneath the rising and falling of her chest. After some time, she looks up slowly, shakes her head, and whispers that she’s done with this, all of this.
For a moment I misunderstand her.
I ask her, Really? What’d you think? and take a big long drink to hide my giddiness. I down nearly two-thirds of the can while I wait for her to tell me if it made sense, if she could see it all coming. If the resolution seemed fitting.
She doesn’t say. She brushes off the empty cans scattered across the desk top and puts her head down again. She breathes a long unsteady breath, lets out a quiet laugh, and starts banging her head atop my story
It’s not your fault, she says another night. You just have problems, she says.
I’ve awakened her with my spastic typing. I’m surging with so much sugar, caffeine, and revisions revisions revisions! My blood’s splattered all over the keys from where I’ve chewed off the skin from the tips of my fingers. The words are literally flowing out of me.
For once, she doesn’t yell or scold me. She smiles a forced smile and takes my throbbing fingers into her hands, leads me to bed.
I feel like we’ve gotten into a bit of a vicious cycle, she says. We’re sitting at the foot of the bed. She’s wiping my fingers off on the front of her night shirt and massaging the backs of my twitching knuckles.
It’s not like I’ve stopped loving you, she says.
I just... I just... I need something to new, she says. Something to change the pattern, she says.
My fingers have bled jagged splotches of red down the front of her shirt and onto sweatpants.
I can’t look her in the eyes. I can’t take them off our hands. I nod without looking up. I say sure. A fresh start, I say. Change things up.
Whatever you want, I tell her as I bury my throbbing fingers further into the softness of her belly.
Really? she says.
Really, I say. Just a couple months. Half a year tops. Then I can start sending out to agents, I say. Soon as I get a contract, I’ll get down on one knee right and kiss your feet.
She doesn’t smile or nod back. She doesn’t say it’s about time or you’ve got a deal, baby.
No, she tells me, you’re not getting it. I need to be clearer.
I’m pregnant, she says.
That’s what she’s been trying to tell me this whole time.
You’re pregnant? I say. And I stop there. I don’t ask anything about her drinking and what that means for having the baby or not having the baby.
I have to admit, there’s a real moment of relief when she says it. As wired as I am on SURGE!, I don’t freak out. I don’t spazz. For the first time in my life I don’t say the wrong thing.
In fact I hug her right there and then. Baby, I tell her as I hold her in my splotchy scratched up arms, both our blood-stained shirts.
We’re gonna have a baby? I ask.
We’re gonna have a baby, she tells me.
A fresh start, I tell her.
A new chapter, she says.
We’re trading kisses now the way we did when we first got together. We’re facing each other as we lie inches away from each other in bed. We’re giggling and smelling our own sour breath, making promises to change, to stop drinking, stop hurting each other and ourselves.
A baby, I say and shake my head.
Your baby, she says and shakes her head.
Well that’s it, then, I say. I’m done with all this. I’m holding up my bloody fingers and wiggling them in front of her eyes. I’m done with all it, I say and make a drinking motion.
We’ll quit everything together, she says and leans in to kiss my forehead.
Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I say when she’s done.
I start to say it again, but then don’t. I wait for her to nod and say it again back to me. I want her to reassure me about the stinging we’ll feel initially but then how quickly that’ll turn to its own kind of pleasure. I want her to tell me what I’ve ever done in my life to make her believe anything I’m telling her.