Eric Beeny (b. 1981) is the author of THE DYING BLOOM (Pangur Ban Party, 2009), SNOWING FIREFLIES (Folded Word Press, 2010), OF CREATURES (Gold Wake Press, 2010), PSEUDO-MASOCHISM (Medulla Publishing, 2011), MILK LIKE A MELTED GHOST (Thumbscrews Press, 2011), and some other things. He blogs at Dead End on Progressive Ave. (http://ericbeeny.blogspot.com).
Eric Beeny blurs the line between prose and poetry in this collection. His seemingly-simple tales of the way we cope with love and loss are woven into a rhythmic cloth. Rich in detail, even the Twitter-sized stories leave an afterimage.
Praise for Eric's work:
A quaint and mysterious little collection that balances the unreal and real. Eric Beeny writes with a child-like wonder, resulting in powerful surreal images, and a yearning for human connection. It’s a satisfying balancing act that I enjoyed immensely. I’m looking forward to the next thing Eric Beeny does. -- Shane Jones, Light Boxes
BG: Whether its making a snowangel in a mass of fireflies, growing an umbrella garden, or crumbs of words spilling out of people's mouths in the form of rainbows, your characters seem to be obsessed not only with the impossible, but with stretching the boundaries of imagination and thought and the natural world in order to control reality at a crucial moment in their lives, where the outcome depends on their ability to have faith in the impossible. Were you conscious of this almost superhero like quality in some of your characters as you were writing, or have I just taken too many literary criticism classes in grad school?
EB: Your description of disturbances in the natural world occurring at crucial moments in the characters’ lives is right on. People turn to faith and religion to ‘guide’ them through these crucial moments. As a ‘non-believer’, and from a sociological standpoint, I find this sudden shift toward [g]od—toward a belief system on a strictly PRN basis during crises—very interesting. Also, it’s fun juxtaposing the irrational, emotional realities which inform human perception of the external world with the illogical and often magical possibilities of surrealism to reorganize the physical laws of that external world. Hemingway (certainly a heavy realist) was big on metonymically substituting physical and emotional anatomies with landscapes and other external, concrete details. I employed that method a lot, I think.
I'm what Robert Browning would call a "superstitious atheist." I think a lot about how, for an atheist, I write a lot of magical shit. This is probably the result of OCD, a condition resulting in various superstitions. It causes me to ‘catastrophize’ and, in that ‘catastrophization’, all kinds of irrational and illogical things flash through my brain if only one aspect of a particular routine deviates even slightly. I think everyone has OCD to some extent, and this is a major reason why religion exists. Catastrophic thinking leads to believing things happen for a reason, despite how illogical the relationship between cause and effect seems (e.g., if I don’t start walking up the stairs with my left foot while blinking twice I’ll fail my geometry midterm), and the effect (or what appears to be an effect, e.g., a natural disaster) must be caused by something other than humans, something conscious, omniscient, atemporal, something that cares about/‘has a stake in’ humans events and gets upset when humans do ‘bad’ things. But who?—Oh, there must be ‘[g]ods’. Wait, no, we’ve amended that—there’s only one ‘[g]od’ who controls everything. We make up stories about how we feel. It’s difficult contemplating these feelings/thoughts alone but, at least with other people, people can suffer alone together. Hence, religion.
BG: Lots of unforgettable things happen to these characters, often times in their youth; getting beat down on the playground then fleeing to find comfort from a mother who isn't there or sneaking around Niagara Falls and encountering a couple having sex. Sometimes there is redemption or resolution for these characters and sometimes their isn't. How do you choose which ones to save and which ones to let suffer? And how much of Eric Beeny's actual childhood is in these stories?
EB: Some moments are autobiographical. I did get beat up a lot as a kid. On the playground, in school, at home. I was one of only three or four white people in the schools I went to from pre-k to junior high, so I was a ‘good target’, or something. We lived in ‘the projects’ until I was eight or nine, then we moved to the Black Rock/Riverside area of Buffalo, which wasn’t much better in terms of violence/crime. Throughout my childhood, my dad wasn’t there much. He lived with us but spent all his time at work, so I didn’t really see him. When he was around, he was too tired and often aggressive. I spent most of my time with my mom and sister, or just alone in my room playing with a few Legos. The only story in Fireflies featuring a father figure is the last one, “Staycation.”
I don’t see being ‘saved’ as being the end of ‘suffering’. I don’t think any of these characters are ‘saved’ at all (especially given that word’s religious implications). There is no ‘redemption’. I don’t see things ever resolving for these characters. They simply exist, conscious of their environments without questioning the logic of their environments (at least in terms of the laws of physics). At the same time, they’re no more aware of the implications of the emotional realities which seem to affect (and are affected by) the ‘real world’ they are trying desperately to alter (control) or escape through fantasy. Still, I don’t think these characters consciously control their environments—at least not in any concrete sense—any more than those environments are merely a reflection of their complete lack of ‘control’.
BG: The relationships between the male and female characters all seem so tender, so fragile, there seems to be so much disconnect; the males want communication, the females make themselves emotionally unavailable, the males want touch and feeling, the females shy away. It seems that the males have no natural solutions for this, so they turn again to the supernatural world for answers. What is it about these characters that begs for a magical solution to their problems? Why can't they figure things out on their own without eating fiberglass cotton candy or turning each other into balloons? But really, what I wanna know playa, how's Eric doing with the ladies? Who's the woman that broke your heart? Feel free to throw some whiskey down and get Freudian if you need to. We love you.
EB: Well said. Yeah, I like the idea of reversing ‘traditional’ or ‘socially perceived/acceptable’ gender roles. The males retreating toward magic is the same as any ‘nerd’s’ retreat into fantasy or RPG’s. It’s the same, too, with the human ‘need’ to have faith in [g]od (and to find like-minded people to share things with). People endure tragedy by clinging to faith, finding inspiration in biblical accounts like Job or whatever, hoping some externally produced miracle of fortune will alleviate their suffering—suffering the [g]od they believe in has caused by creating them, suffering which, if the story of Job is any indication (and, of course, if there is a [g]od), [g]od actively engages in for [h]is own personal pleasure. If a ‘miracle’ can be defined as any deviation in the physics laws of the natural world, then the characters in Fireflies are just like real humans who look for meaning in their lives and find none—so they invent meaning through fantasy. This seems like an organic, unconscious process in which they find only the ‘miracles’ they want to find.
How am I doing with the ladies? I guess ‘not good’ would be one way of putting it. Whatever ‘good’ means. I’ve stopped looking for anything like a relationship, which is probably ‘good’ for whoever I would be looking for. I’ve got OCD, anxiety/depression, I’m a recovering alcoholic (so I’ll have to pass on the whiskey), unemployed, a shitty writer, etc. I’ve got lots of shit I’d rather not hang on someone else’s hat rack (sorry for hanging it here), and (as I’m of course not the only person ‘suffering’ in the world) I’d certainly rather not deal with someone else’s problems at this point in my life. I’ve been single for about 6 years. I’m very lonely sometimes.
The woman who broke my heart…that would be my baby’s momma. I think it would’ve been a lot easier to get over her if I didn’t have to see her all the time, because of our daughter. It’s hard. I still love her, but I don’t think it’s in ‘that way’ anymore. It’s weird how you never really ‘get over’ someone (if you’re the one who didn’t want things to end), you just come to accept not being able to be with them—to accept that they’ve moved on and are in another relationship, that your daughter’s spending time with some other guy. It’s total alpha-male territorial bullshit, but it’s still hard to face and understand. Most of all, at this point in my life, I just want someone to cuddle with.
BG: There are very subtle connections between adult and child activities in this story, finger painting, adventures involving globes and maps, camping, playing with magnets, bugs, rainbows, etc. Can you talk a little bit about this? How and why these activities exist in childhood and carry over into adulthood? How are they significant to the characters and their lives and relationships?
EB: I think adults are just big children. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘maturity’. We only manifest our childish behaviors differently as adults. Rather than think for ourselves, we still adhere to what other perceived authority figures tell us is right and wrong (i.e., politicians and pundits, religious leaders, mainstream news outlets, etc.), who serve (for their own benefit) as our surrogate parents. Rather than play blocks or freeze tag with friends, we jump off cliffs or out of airplanes for fun. Rather than throw tantrums because we can’t have a Reese’s peanut butter cup, we start wars and kill thousands of people we don’t know over oil and other made-up ‘strategic’ bullshit. We don’t grow up. We just get bigger.
Adults like to think of themselves as ‘mature’, but still behave like idiots. Innocence in the childhood activities of Fireflies is an effort to counteract the adult methods of occupying time listed above. I think as children we’re much smarter, more intuitive, much more capable of being in awe of something, to be completely aware but not fully understand. So much is lost in the course of getting bigger, so much lost in learning things. I wanted to give these characters back their innocence (after so much has been taken from them). I’m working on a novel now called Children, a subplot of which features adults holding children hostage hoping to find the secret to their small size and ability to have fun, and the children, tortured by the adults for this secret, figure out the only way to escape is to get bigger and become adults themselves. So again, no redemption in their being co-opted, in their growing chronologically closer to death just to simply survive.
BG: I really love the last story of the collection, Staycation, where a family camps in their own backyard. I kept thinking about their backstory and what their lives were like before the trip and how they had changed afterwards. For me, the magic was in the hidden story, the transformation of the characters after being together for so long and how quality time like that can bind a family together. In a way, that's what these characters were looking for all along; cohesive, meaningful connections with other warm blooded people who love them unconditionally. In that sense, does this story serve as the ultimate redemption for all the characters, or am I doing the MFA literary criticism thing again and I'm off in a different realm.
EB: Thanks for pointing that out! No, definitely not off in another realm. I chose this as the final story in the collection for a few reasons: It’s the longest of all the stories, it’s the only story in which the characters have names, and it seemed in many ways the ultimate expression/conclusion of the preceding stories—of what they were trying to ‘accomplish’. In the earlier stories, the characters who feel they are experiencing ‘love’ are ultimately alone and do not (yet) understand ‘love’ (“Goosebump Braille,” “Helium Prophylactic” and “Just a Normal Greeting”). They approach it as if they’ve never felt it before and, by feeling it (“Snowing Fireflies” and “The Umbrella Garden”)—or surviving its absence (“Invisible Fog” and “Lovers”)—, they’re learning about themselves (if ‘love’ can be considered anything other than mere chemical and hormonal reaction to a particular stimuli, which I don’t think it can).
In other stories, there is only one character, literally alone but experiencing no emotion (“Shovel” and “At the Science Museum”), and still in others the one character is alone experiencing emotion with no access to help (“Clouds” and “The Lost Boy Scout”). So “Staycation” seems like a potential flash forward for any one of these characters in which they feel they’ve ‘matured’ (intentionally contradicting my theory on ‘growing up’), that they’ve learned who they are and have developed an identity (hence, the protagonist finally has a name, a wife he feels he knows, and children they both have given names to—and the story itself adopts a more traditional narrative).
This is also maybe the most ‘realistic’ of the stories. The protagonist loses his job, wants to buy a pet bird to replace his kids’ bird that died, which they buried in the backyard. They’d already had the staycation planned, but it now becomes a symbol of his desire to leave everything behind, and his final statement (“Feels like we’re not even here.”) is his way of distancing himself from his life, from the family he’s helped create and the dwindling options it’s ultimately left him with (especially now with no job). Because of this there’s definitely an intense loneliness and guilt to him.
Despite his fear and not knowing what to do, he wants to maintain the life he’s created, just under different circumstances. He not only lies to himself to get through it. When his daughter asks where their dead pet is, he feels he’s lying to her by saying “up there in birdie heaven.” As a father, I’m very interested in the ways parents lie to their children to get them to ‘behave’ (religion and the concept of [g]od, to me, being the biggest lie). (Religious and political leaders use the concept of [g]od, as well, to motivate citizens to ‘behave’.)
BG: And a final question. For anyone reading this, there is a context for this question that has nothing to do with the story collection. Having met Eric "Beeny Bone" I know he shares my love for rap music, especially 90's rap (it's greatest decade). What are the top 10 rappers of all time and the top 10 albums. You can lump groups together as one, except for NWA, that's sorta cheating.
EB: Nice! Yeah, NWA is, of course, the shit, especially the way they opened things up politically. I can’t understand why people claim hip-hop is not an art form. Even the most violent rap music is no different than the medieval warrior culture poetry we all studied in high school. Beowulf, the King Arthur legends, etc. These poems/stories are immensely analogous to the violent qualities conservatives denigrate in rap music: plundering, pillaging, misogyny, boasting, exaggeration of one’s powers, etc. These two seemingly disparate cultures (Anglo-Saxon warrior culture poetry and ‘urban’ America) tackle the same themes. The violence depicted by Anglo-Saxons is, of course, perfectly acceptable (even canonized), but once it comes from African-Americans it becomes a force which threatens to ‘corrupt’ the white youth of America.
The real violence is the fact that white corporate America exploits and perpetuates an accepted view of African-American culture—one which whites have socially, economically and politically forced African-Americans into—to make money off their suffering. Mainstream record companies want ignorant-ass rappers getting constant airplay because it allows white youth to experience what they perceive as ‘black culture’ vicariously while keeping them afraid of what they’re trying so hard to emulate—so their fascination ultimately morphs into racism.
I feel very strongly about these ideas because I grew up in ‘the projects’, where I was the minority. As I mentioned, I was one of only three or four other white people in my schools from pre-k to junior high. I grew up in poverty. I’ve seen what America does to people. Rap music (just one expression of the Hip-Hop culture) is a direct reflection of this experience and, through its similarities with Anglo-Saxon warrior culture poetry, it’s obvious how the ideology of self-loathing permeates throughout the African-American community, just as it did during British imperial/colonial reign over most of the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The overtly racist ideology which the British empire forcefully promoted still exists today.
So, the idea of ‘black-on-black violence’ is incredibly appealing to white corporate America trying to sell that image back to blacks hoping to perpetuate its effects—to, in effect (“in effect”—remember that?), keep blacks in their place socially and politically while teaching them the only way out of the poverty they’ve endured for generations is to kill each other with drugs and guns, or to rap about drugs and guns to get those who don’t make it out rapping about drugs and guns to keep killing each other with drugs and guns—, and also selling this image to white youth who wish they had problems big enough to solve through the very violence they cathartically admire in rap music.
Anyway, I agree, Floatthe 90’s was definitely the greatest era in hip-hop because these ideas were being expressed by emerging socially conscious groups like Public Enemy, KRS-One/BDP, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, etc. My 10 favorite rappers of all time…I don’t even know. Based on flow, lyrical content, beats. I think my list would look something like this, in no particular order:
MF Doom, Del the Funky Homosapien, Aesop Rock, Holocaust (AKA Warcloud, AKA Frank the Robot Tank), The GZA, Mos Def, Rakim, Styles P, Jadakiss, Eminem. But I'm leaving out so many. Top 10 albums would maybe go something like: MF Doom’s MM..Food?, MF Doom and Madlib’s Madvillainy, Del the Funky Homosapien’s Deltron 3030, Aesop Rock’s Float, Aesop Rock’s Labor Days, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Talib Kweli’s Train of Thought, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Killah Priest’s Heavy Mental and MHz’s Tablescraps. But there’s also Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader and De La Soul’s Stakes is High and so much else. I can’t pick and feel good about what I’ve picked. It will always feel like there’s so much I left out.