EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ben Marcus on ‘The Flame Alphabet’

Ben Marcus is the author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is a Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

Photo by Joyce Ravid

Charles Tan: Reading the novel, there’s this sense of an impending dystopia. Do you consider Sam’s world a dystopia, or something else?

Ben Marcus: The book explores what our lives would be like without language—who we become, what we feel, what we do.  But dystopia—literally, a “vision of a very bad place,”—seems too strong or final a word, and it might be that the narrator Sam is holding out hope that you can still have a family and show love without language.  There’s a battle for hope here, even if that battle is fought badly and lost.  Redemptive gestures tend to flame out in my hands.  But maybe anytime in fiction when you dial up the volume on calamity—such as language making us sick—there’s something inevitably dystopic about it.  To be honest, I’ve lost track of the difference between all the different kinds of bad dreams we can have.  Maybe the label for a vision of the future that is less than cheerful should just be ‘stone cold realism.’

CT: Religion plays an important role in the book. What made you decide to include it, especially the focus on Judaism?

BM: In the book, when it comes down to addressing the speech fever, science fails, and medicine fails.  It seems for a while that religious wisdom might come to bear on the problem.  Expertise is scarce, and to the villain in the book, Murphy, anything kept secret is a threat.  Rationality looks like a trap.  The tension between science and religion is powerful to me—intuition versus reason.  I was attracted to the early secrecy in Kabbalah, how that bestowed even more power and mystery on the sacred knowledge.  Divine wisdom was entrusted to one person, and he could whisper it to someone else, but this didn’t happen much.  With everything in our lives so public, along the sense that information is available if we know where to look, I found the idea of religious secrecy to be powerful, particularly if someone becomes desperate. I couldn’t imagine this book without a strong religious component, since I think people would be looking to religion if something like this ever happened.  Religion warns about the dangers of language.  Mystical experience is necessarily separate from language.  Language is mistrusted as a vehicle to render spirituality.  And mystical Judaism, in particular, has cautions against the seductions of understanding.  In Kaballah, if we find ourselves understanding God, we can be sure that we’re wrong.  I love the idea that understanding itself is a sign of a problem.  That strikes me as so difficult, so frightening.

CT: What made you want to write a book concerning language?

BM: I’m helpless in my fascination with language.  Helpless.  I can’t imagine my life without it, and this inability to imagine who or what I’d be without language began to serve as a taunt.  Not knowing, feeling scared of the idea—this drove me to it.

CT: What research did you have to do for The Flame Alphabet?

BM: I researched people who conducted medical experiments on themselves.  I did some drug trial research.  I read Jewish and Christian mysticism, along with some religious philosophy, particularly by Gershom Sholem.  And I had a big book about the history of writing which I thumbed through in awe.

CT: What was the most challenging part in writing this novel?

BM: The whole thing.  Starting, getting the voice and tone right, getting some momentum going, sustaining that momentum, introducing and developing the characters, establishing and then escalating the conflict, building emotional depth, building tension, releasing tension, resolving plot points without simplifying the story, and then boiling down all of this material into the narrowest funnel spout I could conceive so I could extract a last little bit of essence that could be mistaken for an ending.

CT: What’s the appeal of the novel format for you?

BM: Foolishly or not, I believe in language and its ability to create deep feeling in others.  It’s a superior tool and it’s power is kind of terrifying to me.  I think it is finally unique and irreplaceable as a medium, and the novel, in all of its disguises, is at bottom a sustained act of language.  So if you can set that trap, and put the right words in place that seduce a reader, then something incredible can happen.  Plus I can’t paint and I can’t sing and I can’t make sculpture and I can’t act.  So writing is the thing.

CT: I consider myself a science fiction fan, so I read The Flame Alphabet as science fiction. How would you describe your writing?

BM: I would like to call this book a novel and walk away, but I have been getting this question a lot, and it seems that the mystery of category comes up because it doesn’t fit too neatly into any one genre.  I have always had a fantastical element in my writing, which I link back to writers like Kafka and Borges.  At the same time I care a lot about sentences, sometimes more than the content they carry, sometimes to the point of detriment.  And I never read much science fiction, so my reticence in calling this book science fiction only reflects a black hole in my reading, which I hope to fill in soon, if someone will tell me what to read.  So when asked to describe this book, I call it a novel, because I’d like think that the novel can accommodate all of these urges.

CT: What are you reading now?

BM: I am reading When We Were Orphans, by Ishiguro, which I missed when it came out.  And The Map and the Territory, by Houellebecq.  I am also looking forward to a book by Amelia Grey called Threats.

CT: What projects are you currently working on?

BM: I am completing a collection of short stories—doing final edits on a few stories and maybe, who knows, writing a new story or two before turning in the final draft.  I should finish in the next few months and then I’d like to start a new novel.