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November 12, 2008

Book Notes - Ben Greenman ("Correspondences")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Ben Greenman's latest collection of short fiction, Correspondences, is compelling, innovative, and quite possibly the most beautifully produced book I have seen all year. The six stories in three volumes (with a seventh on the casing that invites reader participation) examine our closest relationships through letter-writing. The seventh story, "What He's Poised to Do," has been written with intentional gaps in the story. Called "The Postcard Project," writers are invited to contribute postcards that fill the holes in the narrative in this wonderfully collaborative literary experiment.

In his own words, here is Ben Greenman's Book Notes essay for his collection of short fiction, Correspondences:

Music is at the heart of this collection, but in an unpredictable way. I think it probably had its genesis when I was listening to Sam Cooke’s “(Ain’t That) Good News.” You know it, right? It starts with a kind of down-home banjo-ish part and then Cooke enters. His entrances are always, to me, spectacular. His character in this song is a man who is waiting for a girlfriend to return. She’s been away, and while she’s been away she’s been thinking about the relationship, possibly reconsidering it. Now she’s come to a decision, and she says so in a letter:

I got a letter just the other day
Telling me that she was on her way
And she wants me to meet her at the station

This seems like a straightforward bit of business, but I think it’s a) not business and b) not straightforward. Think about how time operates in these lines. All three tenses are in there, and in exhilarating interplay. He got the letter in the slight past, which means that she wrote it in the slightly-more past. She wants him to meet her, which is future. All of this processing and sorting is dominating the present. Listening to the song, thinking about it, feeling his joy, it occurred to me that letters have a strange positive effect on human identity. Let’s say she wrote the letter on a Tuesday. When it reaches the Cooke character (“just the other day”), he has to believe that she still means what she says, that her emotions are still valid. More to the point, she has to believe those things about herself. While I was listening to the song, I was surfing around the Internet, and it suddenly seemed like a foreign country. Online, you don’t have to declare yourself and then sit in the presence of your declaration for a number of days. You can change your status—via email updates or by actually changing it on, say, Facebook—hourly if you want. This seems like it would allow a higher degree of precision, but that gain comes at the expense of so many other things: being believed, believing in others, believing yourself. Sam Cooke makes this point explicitly a few lines later:

In the letter she told me she still loves me

He sings it like he believes every word, or can’t afford not to.

Is that the heart of the collection or is it maybe the brain? I don’t know. But I knew that I wanted to write a number of stories about letters, about letter-writing, and particularly about the way that men and women correspond with (but not always to) each other.

I started. It took some time, drafting, redrafting, working, reworking. While I worked, I listened to songs about letters. There are plenty: Julie London’s “Love Letters” (a sensual song about the sensual aspects of letters), Carlene Carter’s “Little Love Letter No. 1” (a short spiky song about the short attention span of modern technology—at the time, answering machines and faxes). There’s Hank Snow’s “The Last Letter,” which is bitterly sad, which made me happy. The song that ended up being the most important to me was The Nazz’s “Letters Don’t Count.” The Nazz, of course, were the Philly rock/pop/psychedelic band that first brought Todd Rundgren to fame. The song is kind of awful in some ways—the melody is nice but the harmonies fall apart, like someone made them on tracing paper and then shifted the top sheet too far to one side—but the lyrics are interesting, because they argue against the romantic value of letters:

All of the words won't change your mind
'Cause they're lost when you put the letter back in the drawer
If I stood before you now, you couldn't put me away anymore
Letters don’t count

I’ve written about this song at the Moistworks blog, so I won’t say much more about it, except for this: If letters don’t count, why do lyrics?

The book that grew out of this process, out of these problems, Correspondences, isn’t just a book. It’s a box more than a book, a complex fold-out structure that houses three small accordion books. The whole thing is handcrafted and letterpressed and was created with incredible patience and attention to detail by Aaron Petrovich and Alex Rose, of Hotel St. George Press. It would be an understatement to say that they did a good job.

When it was clear to us that we were making a beautiful thing, an object, we set about to create a countermovement within the work. It was so exclusive that we wanted to invent a part that would be inclusive. That’s how we came up with the idea for the Postcard Project. In the collection, there are six stories. I wrote a seventh that is printed on the actual casing of the book/box. That seventh story is about a man who reconsiders his marriage. His reconsideration takes place at a hotel, mostly. He writes postcards to his wie and son, as well as to a young woman he meets at the hotel. In the story, I left those postcards unwritten. Readers of the book are invited to complete the story by submitting postcards. The story is also reprinted online at the publisher’s website.

While I was working on that story, I had the iPod on shuffle, and it turned up “Writing a Postcard,” by Shoes, which seemed like a happy coincidence. I wanted the song to serve as a kind of anthem, but after the beginning, which I like because it reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Mary Anne,” it kind of fuzzes out for me. The vocals recede and I can’t really get hold of the lyrics. It’s like a postcard that arrives with the ink smudged. I give it credit for what it could have been.

Luckily, there are lots of songs about postcards. Maybe it’s because postcards, like pop songs, are brief and direct and informal and can seem like part of an ongoing conversation. There’s “Postcard,” by the Who, from Odds and Sods. There’s “Postcard from Waterloo,” by Tom Verlaine, and “Postcard from Tiny Islands,” by the Walkmen. Tom Waits has written about postcards twice, both times with parentheses: “Postcards (From Easy Street)” and “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards).” The postcard song that broke from the pack was “Postcard to Sparrow,” by the legendary calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow. It’s deceptively simple—at Christmastime, Sparrow receives a postcard with holiday wishes from his lover in Trinidad—but it’s also goes right back to Sam Cooke, in that it imagines the message from the point of view of the receipient. That’s relatively rare—singers usually imagine themselves sending, not receiving. In Elvis’s “Return to Sender” he’s the sender. The Mighty Sparrow gets a postcard from his lover and comes apart in a hurry:

I stood almost hypnotized
With tears running from my eyes
But still I could see
This was a greeting she sent to me

It’s such a simple gesture, but the result is so complicated—such a controlled gesture, but the result is so hard to control. The Mighty Sparrow does his best to keep his chin up, but he can’t, and in the end he returns himself to the sender.

I tried my utmost
To be as strong as a lamppost
But love is a crazy thing
It is no use pretending
I love her so bad
Tomorrow I’m going back to Trinidad

Ben Greenman and Correspondences links:

the author's website
the author's collaborative music blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book

An Ancient Gesture review

BookFox profile of the book
Flavorwire piece by the author
KQED The Writer's Block interview with the author
Largehearted By Book Notes music playlist for the author's short fiction collection, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both
The Villager interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)