Excerpt from Crossing Borders in Order to Make Them Collapse, 2018.
I sat at the coffee shop, sipping on a dark roast, leg bouncing up and down on the stool, looking
over my notes and interview questions, reading over the passages I wanted to cover in 10:04. I
had never conducted an interview, much less of someone well known in the publishing circles
of New York City. Understandably, I was nervous.
It was the third hour of my time at this coffee shop, and after watching the coming and going of all types of bodies (both in the shop and the street outside of it), I stood up for a walk.
Fifteen minutes to go. I found myself in some park where no children played. No nannies were present either. There were only men, perhaps working class, perhaps on unemployed, on benches. Some smoked, others read the newspaper. They were all black or Latino. And I, too,
sat myself at a bench.
I fiddled with the voice recorder I had purchased for the interview. First the batteries, then
testing for appropriate speaking volume, testing for my familiarity with the settings. I wanted to at least have the appearance of having done this before, of knowing what I was doing. A useful piece of advice I had received from a friend who worked at the local student paper came to mind:
“Sometimes the interview can be as much about the interviewer as the person being interviewed.” I thought of Berkeley and my inability to call it home. Did Brooklyn feel more like home? Pigeons hung around my feet, pecking at the concrete in futility. The little jingle from the old Sildenafil citrate commercials I saw on television as a teenager—a jovial little whistle—came into my mind. It was suddenly disrupted by a vibration in my pocket. It was an email from Ben: “I’m here. At the bar. You?” Luckily, I was only a three-minute walk away.
Walter’s Restaurant in Fort Greene sits at the corner of DeKalb Ave and Cumberland Street.
There was something anachronistic about it, probably being caused by the surrounding boutiques and their storefront remodeling that hid the fact that the architecture was old. I admire Walter’s for its authenticity, but also its insistence on not conforming to a certain appearance for marketing purposes.
As I approached the door, a head emerged from out of the restaurant. Two eyes stared
at me behind thick-rimmed glasses.
“Are you Sergio?”
A hand extended itself from out behind the half-open door in anticipation of a handshake.
I knew who this was.
“I’m Ben. Nice to meet you.”
It was lunchtime and the restaurant didn’t offer seating in the booths near the back—only the
bars and tables—yet Ben asked if we could have a booth because we were about to conduct an
interview and the bar would have been too loud. The host was more than happy to oblige. I wondered if Ben was using some kind of celebrity (or the semblance of it) to break the rules.
As we sat across from one another, Ben said, “So, before you interview me, I want
to actually interview you.”
I gulped the heavy rock in my throat and shook my head in the affirmative. The sudden feeling of being unprepared came over me.
“Where are you from?”
I proceeded to tell my once-undocumented story. My parents had brought me into this
country when I was a toddler, under the guise of another child that had permission to come into
the United States. My parents’ need to constantly look for better paying work, required we
move around a lot, so I had always felt the inability of having a “hometown”—like Topeka,
Kansas, for example—quite strongly. I deconstructed the “home” aspect of the word. As an
immigrant, there had never, for me, been a place which I inhabited and felt comfortable
(happy?) enough to call home. Life had always been moving around in search of another
opportunity, in search of another community.
I told Ben about my time as an amateur art photographer in Orange County and how I had to work kitchen jobs to fund my art. I had made the shift from studying photography in community college to studying literature after the positive reception of a poetry and photography zine of my own creation. I knew I wanted to paint with words, to write with photographs, and to have words and image dance around on the same page.
The waiter came over to take our orders, though we hardly had taken a look at the menu. Ben ordered a chicken Caesar salad and I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu: a fried
tomato sandwich with French fries. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the banality of his
salad. I was accustomed to Ben ordering eccentric seafood dishes like baby squids and shrimp in
puntarelle. To my surprise, I had constructed a sense of Ben Lerner from Ben of 10:04. Fiction
and reality collapsed, but they also had not. The material reality of the situation was that I was in
a casual dining restaurant in Brooklyn, sitting with the author of the object of study for my
senior thesis, and he was a cool and not-at-all-self-important guy.
What was the author’s role in the novel, post-Barthes, where the insistence that the writing process is devoid of the personal intentions and biography of the author? This was a fascinating problem in a new rising genre of the novel, autofiction—a genre which Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are often categorized in—where the author was not an avatar, but a persona who may actually have a real-world referent. I was curious about how the rise of this genre came about. What were its political motivations? To challenge. To parody. To disrupt.
“Tell me more about your project,” Ben continued, “what got you into it?”
“Well, for a long time, I’ve had this fascination with writing and the process surrounding
it. I’ve always written creative pieces in the background of my academics and I consider myself
very much an artist—if this is not at all pompous to say.”
Ben shook his head in the negative as hands came to refill our water glasses.
“Metafiction,” I went on, “draws me in because it brings the making of the art to the forefront. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. It throws the impossible asymptotic attempt of realism out the window, in favor of allowing the reader access to the behind-the-scenes stuff that one would not normally read otherwise when they pick up a, say, Dickens novel. I read 10:04 as a metafiction.”
Ben’s eyebrows raised up, so I panicked that I must have said something wrong.
“Wait, Ben, did I say the title correctly? Ten-o-four? Or, is it ten-four?”
He shrugged and said, “Sure.”
The waiter arrived with our food, stringy French fries nearly spilling off of my plate. An entire chicken breast with nearly-perfect grill marks laid on top of Ben’s salad, cut into eight different pieces. Have you ever wondered how other people eat? Usually, most of us don’t pay any mind to this, outside of certain people that studiously stare at the jaw to see how it moves in often barbaric ways. Given the celebrity I felt surrounded Ben, I couldn’t help the curiosity looming over how he ate. Would he chew with his mouth open? Talk with his mouth full of food? Make strange whimpering noises of delight after swallowing? I seemed to be having a desire to break down the writer before me into habits and quirks. What was this fetish that I felt?
“Do you write poetry or fiction?” Ben asked.
“Both, actually. In fact, that’s what fascinated me about your two novels, that switch from
poetry to fiction. To me, that felt like something refreshing for the novel right now. Aren’t most
literary novels published right now from people with MFAs? How does the novel, as a genre, not
then congeal towards a variation on the same thing someone else is already doing?”
Ben raised his eyebrows again and I panicked again.
“I mean, not that there is anything wrong with having an MFA. I want an MFA, as well. It’s just an observation. For someone that wants to publish one day, it seems like the move to make is to head to an MFA program. I’m just wondering if having a sphere populated—I hesitate to say saturated, though I want to—with people who learned craft programmatically, won’t everyone eventually just sound the same?”
“Well, yeah, I don’t think that’s wrong. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction
right now because I find a lot of it incredibly boring, as if I am reading a sitcom.”
We both chuckled. Behind Ben’s head, I could see a small child jumping up and down on her booster seat as her mother tried to spoon feed her what appeared to be chicken noodle soup.
“I partly blame the Y.A. novel for that and the overwhelming melodrama that surrounds it,” I said.
A pattern was established as Ben raised his eyebrows once more and I reacted with panic. Was my comment too flippant?
“What would you get your creative writing MFA in? Poetry or fiction?”
“I find that question incredibly difficult to answer. On the one hand, I really love telling stories? But on the other, I’ve written more poems than anything else. Why can’t I do both? Why do I have to only focus on one thing? Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein didn’t focus on one genre of writing and I admire their work a lot. I just don’t see why we need to distinguish poet, essayist, and novelist from one another. Aren’t they all writers?”
“I think it has to do with focus more than anything. A lot of the people that you will be mentored under will only have written in one of those categories. But I don’t think you’re wrong in wanting to write a little bit of everything either.”
“Thank you. I guess if I had a gun-to-my-head scenario, I would pick fiction.”
“Because I already feel like a poet, despite never having a collection of poems, or even a single poem published. Poetry comes naturally to me, as strange as that may sound.”
I tried not to stare at Ben’s mouth as he chewed. Scraping the last bit of ketchup from my plate with a few fries, I continued speaking, so as to shift the focus away from myself.
“This all reminds me of one of the early interviews of the Paris Review. The Faulkner one, specifically. Have you ever read it?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps not.”
“Well, the main thing to that is that Faulkner makes this claim that always stuck with me, which is that every novelist and short story writer wants to be a poet. He said that those who get into writing fiction are actually failed poets. I’m paraphrasing, of course.”
“That’s interesting. I’ll have to read that interview.”
“Speaking of interviews, maybe we could switch to yours?”
Crossing Borders in Order to Make Them Collapse is a short travel narrative that was used as an introduction to my honors thesis. The trip documented was a cross-country train ride to New York City to interview author Ben Lerner and the events that led up to such an opportunity.