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Q&A with Writer & Painter Ben Shattuck

March 11, 2015


We are so thrilled to have writer and painter Ben Shattuck as our Selfie-Reflection Guest Judge. He's a graduate and former Teaching-Writing Fellow of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught fiction writing courses at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Iowa, and on Cuttyhunk Island. He has written for The Paris Review Daily, Salon.com, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Five Chapters, The Morning News, and the Millions, among other publications.  He exhibits paintings (benshattuck.com) and is currently working on his first novel. Ben is also a contra dancer, banjo player, and avid birdwatcher. 


Write the World: What are you currently writing?

Ben: I’m writing a novel set on Nantucket in 1796.  A mother and son live way out on Coskata - that spit of land on the northeast part of the island. I started the book when I found an early-1800s journal of a young man who sounded uncannily like me and my friends when we were in our early twenties: ambitious but uncertain about the future; wishing he were doing better or more. I knew then that I had a character. The novel is filled with lots of sand and wind, and uncovers an old island mystery that I found while digging in the archives at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library. I love researching on Nantucket, walking through the moors and dunes, trying to transport myself back to 1796.  

 

Write the World:You grew up on Massachusetts' South Shore. How has the seaside landscape influenced your work?

Ben: More than I can probably imagine! I grew up with a lighthouse light flashing on my bedroom wall, the constant sound of waves crashing on the beach, and the smell of salt filling the air. I spent most days after school tromping through the marsh, birdwatching on the beach, or picking wild grapes and beach plums in the moors. I’ve tried to set my characters elsewhere, but inevitably the sea creeps onto the page. As for painting, my home instilled in me the desire to paint representationally (figurative art is the term). I’ve never wanted to abstract anything. A passing cloud or a copse of wintry tupelo trees holds enough mystery for me.  

 

Write the World: Have you ever painted a self (or should we say selfie) portrait?

Ben: Ha! I have not painted a selfie. I’m actually just starting to paint a bunch of portraits now…and maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.  I don’t think self-portrait painters were narcissists as much as they were workaholics or just plain practical. It’s easier to set up a mirror than to hire a model. But the joy of painting, for me, is forgetting myself. You know that feeling when you’re running? Or reading a really good novel? You sort of disappear? That’s what painting is for me—which is why I’ve resisted a self-portrait.   

 

Write the World: You have some awesome hobbies. How did you start playing the banjo? Can you recommend any songs or bands that feature the banjo?

Ben: Every August when I was a boy, a neighboring family would host a ‘barn dance.’ I first heard the fiddle then, and ever since have been hooked on early American folk music - called “old-time” music. In college, I made friends with a banjo player, and she taught me the basics. Soon thereafter I shipped out to a marine research laboratory on the Isles of Shoals, Maine, to study birds. I had a whole summer to practice in isolation, surrounded by a colony of nesting sea gulls, which was good for me and anybody who might have been in earshot.  Banjo recommendations? Where to begin? In more poppy music, Mumford & Sons is doing fantastic stuff with the banjo - listen to “I Will Wait” and just try to not love the banjo. Old-time banjo? Listen to Gillian Welch and Richie Stearns.

 

Write the World: Where are some of you favorite places to birdwatch?

Ben: On the beach in the fall, when the shorebirds are migrating through, is always a favorite. I love the seabirds, too - the gannets and petrels - and might be the only person on whale watches who’s not watching the whales. But it’s fun to explore new places. For instance, I recently drove to Nebraska to watch the Sandhill Cranes migrating through on their way from Mexico to Siberia! The sky was filled with thousands of giant cranes! But you don’t have to travel far to see great birds: some of the best sightings have happened right at my bird feeder. 

 

Write the World: Do you have any favorite self-portrait paintings?

Ben: Rembrandt is the master of self portrait paintings - especially the 1661 one, when he is older, holding his brushes. How he renders so much feeling in such stillness is captivating. There are self-portraits hidden throughout many Old Masters’ paintings, too. Caravaggio often puts himself in his paintings. But Gustave Courbet’s “The Desperate Man” (wild-eyed and holding his hair back) was always my favorite.  

 

What advice do you have for young writers?

Ben: As Faulkner said, “Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! Then write.” That is the best advice I could give, exclamation point included. All you have to do is pay attention to what you’re reading, and all that craft stuff - how to characterize, how to build suspense, how to start and end a scene, how to shape dialogue - will come. I wanted to start writing after finishing Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Reading not only makes you a better writer, it also inspires you to tell your own story.  (Don’t forget to read short stories!  If you want to write fiction, you’ll probably start with stories. Figure out how others have done it.)  And after you read everything you can get your hands on, try writing exercises. Boundaries can produce extraordinarily imaginative work.  

 

Write the World: Who is your favorite writer? What do you love about them?

Ben: My favorite writer changes almost yearly. As I mentioned, when I was younger it was Annie Dillard. I loved the poetry in her prose, which was all I wanted from a book.  She made me see the natural world differently.  Then, when I was in college, short-story writers Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett became my favorites.  Their stories were like smooth river stones - crafted and researched with such grace. Now - gosh, am I going to say it? Okay: Herman Melville. Who isn’t amazed by “Moby Dick”? There’s a passage in there about a young man in the crow’s-nest becoming enchanted by the sea. Gulp. So beautiful.  

 

Write the World: Do your writing and your painting ever overlap/intersect?

Ben: I see a lot of overlap in the discipline of writing and painting. For instance, every sentence in a piece of fiction is like a brush stroke in a painting: it should be both precise and poetic. Nothing can be out of place, but it must also be expressive.  I think that tension - between expression and control - is what makes a good painting and a good book.  Spending time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop inevitably affected my painting: narrative now plays a huge role in my work.  Last year, with a few Iowan historians I found remnants of eastern Iowa’s Underground Railroad, and made a painting series based on that narrative.  Most recently, I completed a series of paintings featuring flowers from Iowa’s destroyed prairie: because of farming, less than one-tenth of one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains. I like to tell a story with paintings now. 

 

Write the World: What are you looking for in a strong "Selfie-Reflection" contest entry?

Ben: I want to hear what you think! Stand by your ideas, and use your own experiences to tell me what researchers are getting right (or wrong)! Be passionate! But above all, as in any good piece of fiction or nonfiction, be clear. Writing is nothing more than communicating your thoughts and observations. I’m also interested in how you write your piece. Is it a simple essay with standard format? Or is there something original in your delivery? Perhaps you weave a story into your argument.  Maybe you come up with a compelling framework. Clarity and originality, those should be your beacons. I can’t wait to read the entries! 

 

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