Benjamin Drevlow Interview for Laurel Review Interview Series
Luke Rolfes: Benjamin Drevlow is out with his fourth book, a page-turning novel called THE BOOK OF RUSTY from Cowboy Jamboree Press. This novel is a wild, harrowing, and profane ride through the life and trauma of the book’s hero---a janitor slash aspiring writer named Rusty. Thanks so much for spending some time with us here at Laurel Review!
LR: I seem to remember you telling me this book had been a long time in the making. Can you talk to us a bit about the genesis of this project? And how did that idea grow into the full-length novel you’ve offered to readers?
Benjamin Drevlow: In my first semester of grad school, I ended up taking a novel-writing workshop. My first mistake. I’d never written anything over ten pages and the only novels I’d ever read were from before 1950.
Still, I had the idea for this novel—roughly. I wanted to write a farce about my life and my brother’s suicide. I thought that would prove how cool and badassed I was if I could make my own misery into a big hilarious joke.
Without knowing it, I was wanting to write a Confederacy of Dunces, Catch 22, The World According to Garp, et al. Of course, I hadn’t actually read those books and didn’t even know much about them, so it was more of an “in-theory” kind of thing.
For that class, I wrote four different first chapters that were all terrible and universally acknowledged as such. They were all based on the same story—my story—but I had no idea what I was doing or how to get it on the page.
I had just read On the Road and Catcher in the Rye and I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve—in not-so-great ways.
On one of the chapters I turned in, my professor wrote at the top: Do you want us to think your narrator is a moron?
Which hits a little harder when you’re basically trying to write a funnier version of yourself on the page: Do you want us to think you’re a moron?
I pretty much gave up on writing a novel after that first semester of grad school.
I decided I was going to write a memoir. I read Liar’s Club, A Boy’s Life, and Angela’s Ashes.
Then James Frey and a Million Little Pieces happened and I was like, Nope. I don’t want to deal with any of that dumpster fire (as if I was ever going to selected for Oprah’s Book Club, but such were the delusions of a 25-year-old Drevlow).
As a third choice, I spent the rest of grad school writing a bunch of stories that became a book called Bend with the Knees & Other Love Advice from My Father. It was a collection of connected short stories—by which I mean it was a collection of mostly nonfiction that had little elements of fiction in them so I could tell my parents—my mom—that it wasn’t really about our family. It was fiction!
My mom spent the next five years sending me emails in which she politely “corrected” my fictional memories and not so subtly asked me to stop writing sad stories about our family.
I pretty much gave up writing for about three years.
Anyway, at some point down the line I finally got around to reading Confederacy of Dunces. I read Catch 22. I read The World According to Garp.
I was like, I wanna do that. I think I could do that.
Then I tried and it turned out I couldn’t do that.
Finally two things happened:
1. I watched an episode of Family Guy where Peter writes romance novels and Betty White narrates them.
And bam! I was like, What if I write a novel from the point of view of a guy who is terrible at writing!
2. My mom had a heart attack. My whole life I had been expecting my father do die young. His father had died early. My father had had a ton of health problems. And of course, I had a terrible relationship with him so I was thinking Karma: the old man would be the first to go and teach me a lesson about holding grudges.
Part of my first book was all about trying to come to terms with my dad and see things from his point of view.
Of course, my father never read that book. Which is best for both of us. However, my mom routinely told me how the book had hurt his feelings and how he was embarrassed by it and thought it was a joke about him (which hopefully anybody who actually read it—at least ten of them—at least got that the joke was always on me).
Anyway, karma’s tricky. Mom. Heart attack. She lives. Now all of a sudden, I realized that karma knows how to come up with the surprise ending.
So I decided the only way forward was actually to rip the band-aid off and write a book trying to better understand my mother—my mother who was the one who made me become a writer in the first place and did nothing but encourage me to be a writer, literally signed me up for grad school, only to realize that I wasn’t going to write Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
(Don’t ever let your children grow up to become autobiographical writers, folks.)
Anyway, that’s basically it. A dumb bit from Family Guy, a heart attack from my mother, and like sixteen years and 13000 pages later…
LR: It’s hard to describe your unique writing style. Funny-sad, maybe. Pain covered in irreverence? One thing that strikes me when reading you work is your usage of “misdirection.” I’ll try to describe better what I mean. Rusty (along with the narrator of this book) is foul-mouthed and pulls no punches. He spends most of the novel covered in vomit, urine, and shit. Some of it is played off for laughs, but I think a lot of it intentionally directs the reader’s attention away from Rusty’s very clear and very real trauma. Can you talk about this technique of “misdirection”?
BD: I like to think that I’m captain obvious, but when I hit the iceberg and kill us all, there’s more under the surface (Ha! What a metaphor!).
Mostly writing’s just my coping mechanism. Like I said above, my whole goal for writing a book was to write about trauma and mental health in a “hilarious” way.
Most of the time I don’t really even consider myself a “writer.” I’m just a guy with a lot of problems and an obsession with sharing them in writing as self-flagellation.
As a kid, I didn’t read a whole lot. Most of my writing voice—at least early on—was based on comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And then later guys like Denis Leary and Lewis Black who could make anger humorous and poetic at the same time. Everything I wrote when I first started writing was a rant.
But as you say, it was also misdirection to make people think I wasn’t this completely pitiful kid who couldn’t keep his shit together. If I haven’t already made this clear, most of the stuff that happened in the Book of Rusty actually happened to me in some way or fashion.
As the baby of my family, I was very high strung and prone to crying tantrums. My brothers and my father were stoic. They farmed and fixed cars. They never cried.
As such, after my brother killed himself, I spent most of my childhood wanting nothing to do with pity but at the same time incapable of not being completely pitiful.
Not to mention that my family didn’t really laugh or tell jokes. Everything was serious all the time (largely because of my brother killing himself and then our house burning down, etc.), but still, not a lot of jokes to be had.
Meanwhile, I was the high-strung kid, the crybaby (in retrospect, a lot of anxiety and nowhere to put it), so within all that silence, my brain almost always went to the worst thing imaginable, almost always at my own expense.
Writing was the only place I could vent any of that.
Hence, most of my writing is basically all my own mental inadequacies on the page and a sadomasochistic desire for someone to read them. Kind of like a toddler proud of his poop art.
LR: Your books have always pushed boundaries. It seems that a lot of the writers I’ve talked to are deeply divided on the idea of whether creative writing should be cognizant of sensitivities/political correctness, or if art (by its very nature) is allowed to challenge everything about our current social/cultural/political moment. Do you have thoughts on that at all? Do you think about pushing the envelope when you write, or are you more likely to just see where the stories you want to tell take you?
BD: This is a thing I battle with a lot and there are a lot of days where I still wonder if I should stop trying to publish completely. Like, does the world really need another whiny, self-involved cis-hetero white guy telling his story.
And then throw into that trying to walk the line between examining toxic masculinity in a critical way versus writing about toxic masculinity in a way that makes light of it or worse—rewards it. But then there’s the whole dilemma of telling the most authentic story possible, and for a lot of guys who grew up like me, telling that story truthfully means masculinity gets really complicated and how much are you going to sanitize it in retrospect so as not to continue to enable it.
It’s all this stuff that gets played out with the magazine I run called BULL, which is all about examining toxic masculinity—but trying to do so in an authentic and nuanced way that is not preachy or pedantic, that doesn’t try to oversimplify the issues. Stuff that’s raw and doesn’t always say the “right thing.”
Listen I’ve been reading and writing about this stuff for twenty-five years and I still don’t have any great answers other than it’s got to be a case-by-case basis. And: I’m not the one who should be in charge of deciding what the line is for other people. All I can do is try the best I can to try the best I can to do things for the right reasons.
On the flipside, I also worry that discouraging people—men and women—from writing complicated stories about toxic masculinity can have very toxic results.
I’ll fully admit that a lot of what I publish and what I write comes down to selfish motives: I’m trying not to kill myself.
I know what years of repression and self-hate did to my brother. I know what it did to my father. I know what it did to me.
I know the statistics about men killing themselves and killing other men and killing other women.
I make no bones about it: I think that most of masculinity is toxic, or at least it has been for me. But at the same time, if you look at the statistics of suicide and substance abuse, it’s also clear that we have a huge problem with masculinity being externalized and internalized.
On the days where I feel like maybe there’s still a reason for people like me to share our story, it’s because I know that writing literally saved my life. My first book literally started out as a long-winded, rambling suicide note.
That sounds melodramatic and it is melodramatic, but it’s also melodramatically true.
If I hadn’t come across writers like Tim O’Brien and Thom Jones in grad school, I have a pretty good idea what would’ve happened. I have three pretty pathetic failed-suicide experiences to base it on. O’Brien and Jones showed me that you could write about all these toxic things in a way that doesn’t glorify them but also doesn’t try to preach about them either. It felt like I was in an AA meeting or something and listening to these characters talk to me and feeling like I’ve finally found my place, and that maybe writing about these things, somebody else might find their place as well.
And then of course, I found writers like Mary Karr and Dorothy Allison and suddenly I realized that it wasn’t just writing about men for men’s sake; it was the fact that we’re all hurting from these things. And of course, men are much much more responsible for the problems with toxic masculinity, but in an ideal world maybe we can all come to the TM group and share our stories and maybe men will feel less need to repress everything and end up projecting their self-hate onto women and at the same time, maybe women and others will hear these stories and understand that men are often doing it to each other and themselves and see that the only way forward is together.
Honestly, I could go on rambling and rambling here how so much of politics and the big issues these days stems back to these things with masculinity and violence and identity, but for me I’m always much more interested in the personal than the political—at least in terms of writing.
I want to read complicated narratives about humans struggling with humans; I don’t think a bunch of people preaching about politics is all that beneficial.
Also, I’m mostly an idiot, so nobody should ever listen to my opinions on who the world should work.
LR: Some of The Book of Rusty is tough to read. Rusty is a character plagued by suicidal thoughts, and the idea of ending one’s life and self-harm is explored in a very raw and graphic way. How does a writer balance presenting the authenticity of a grim moment against the tendency of the reader to look away from said grim moment? Maybe a simpler way to say it: How to make it real without making it too real?
BD: I really wish I knew the answer to that. I’d probably be a much better writer if I knew when to draw that line.
For me, I guess part of my problem is that I often think of a lot of these dark grotesque things as so grim they are funny. Like, at one point early on Rusty’s mother writes him a letter for his birthday all about his brother’s horse that just died, his other brother’s dog that just died, and her own cat that had died a few weeks earlier.
That’s a real letter. And as soon as I got it I showed my wife and all we could do was laugh. That’s my mother, bless her heart.
These are my people. Midwesterners. Minnesotans. Wisconsinites. Scandinavians. Germans. We are masochists and we’re not necessarily known for our sense of humor.
My humor is pretty pitch black. And most of that is basically, well, if I don’t laugh at this, I’m going to kill myself. (I’m not built for healthy emotional coping).
In Rusty, I basically just said, well, I’m gonna go for broke. Partially, because it was all based on real stuff and partially because I was like this is all so absurd. This is Sisyphus. This is the Book of Job, which maybe I’m the only one, but the Book of Job is pretty funny to me.
It’s funny that anybody would use the Book of Job to rationalize the idea that people who kill themselves are going to hell.
I’m like, if you read the Book of Job, and your takeaway was that Job was a wuss and wanted to take the easy way out, I’m not sure you read the same version I did.
If you were to make a movie about two gods—a “good god” and a “bad god”—making a bet over how much they can torture a guy before he loses his faith…—it’s like Trading Places meets The Passion of Christ.
The people who I know who have been through the worst things—way worse things than I have been—tend to be happier and more joyful than I will ever be.
I think it’s the rest of us who get over worried about making inappropriate jokes.
Obviously, I’m not out here making jokes at the expense of other people’s tragedies (at least not intentionally). I would like to think that people can see that the butt of all the jokes in Rusty are Rusty—which is actually me. Even the parts about other people, I’d like to think, people can see that this is all projection on Rusty’s part, that these people are all much more functional and well-adjusted than he is.
That said, it’s probably too much of a crutch for me—trying to show the absurdity and humor in the darkest of things.
I read the book Stoner by John Williams last year and that was the most depressing book I think I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful book by a great great writer, but without almost any humor, it was a quite a slog for me to get through.
And if I’m the one saying this is too depressing, that’s saying something.
But then again, if Stoner had been a comedy, I probably would’ve loved it.
LR: This book jumps at a breakneck pace through time. It is told sort of in sequence and sort of out of sequence. Kind of back and forth. Can you talk about that craft choice and how you landed on it for this narrative?
BD: I remember when I first sat down to try to read the Sound and the Fury a while ago. And it just blew my mind and I loved the idea of it so much, but also, I just couldn’t follow it at all. Then I read that Faulkner didn’t want to have any textual formatting at all to delineate the point of view and time jumps.
And of course, I was in my twenties, and that sounded really cool to me.
And it made sense to me too.
I’m ADHD, PTSD, and have a lot of anxiety, so my mind is essentially working on warp speed time travel at all times as if I’m doing word association.
I’m having conversations with my mother, my brother, my dad, my t-ball coach, my first girlfriend, etc. etc. but most of all my younger versions of myself at all times from any random trigger at all.
My brain is like David Foster Wallace if you took all the footnotes and just put them in the paragraphs without any notes.
So my first draft of my novel—all 13000 pages of it—didn’t have any section titles and very few section breaks.
At one point, I covered every wall in my office with pages from my manuscript written in 8 point font. I would just sit there on a chair and put notes where different threads started and ended and where the time periods jumped etc.
I’m not entirely sure when I got this idea, but back in the day, one of the first stories I wrote was about Shane Black from Lethal Weapon trying to write a rom-com about falling in love with Angelina Jolie while he was in the mental institution after the bigwigs refused to let him kill off Mel Gibson in the second Lethal Weapon.
I wrote the whole thing in the form of a screen play (in the form of a bad screen play by someone who didn’t actually write screenplays).
But one of the things I always took away from that was thinking about stories as movies with scenes and even with text to tell you when things jump in time.
And literally, the setting established at the beginning of every scene in the screen play.
So as I kept having to write down little titles/summaries for each thread on my wallpapered wall, I eventually started using them in the actual story (originally just for me) and eventually I ended up kind of thinking about it again as a writer who isn’t a good writer trying to write this as a screen play, and there it went.
So to summarize: ADHD, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety, + Sound & the Fury + Shane Black – Mel Gibson = The Book of Rusty.
LR: Let’s take a look at some of these characters. Perhaps the most interesting to me is Sheila---basketball prodigy and first object of Rusty’s sexual desire. For much of the book, Sheila makes Rusty’s life miserable, even if she doesn’t mean to and apologizes. When she shares intimacies with him, it is presented through a lens of pain. She is also the one who rescues Rusty from the bridge on the night of his thirty-third birthday where he tries, unsuccessfully, to fling himself off. How would you describe their complicated relationship? Why do you think these characters are so inextricably drawn to each other?
BD: How to describe their relationship? Fucked up.
Why are they inextricably drawn to each other? I’m still not entirely sure. Mostly, I think it’s because people make a lot of bad decisions based on their family trauma played out into adulthood.
I actually struggle with this a lot in my writing. Why would anybody like me—I mean my “protagonists.” Why would Sheila have anything to do with a loser like Rusty? I’m sure a fair number of readers—especially female readers—probably asked the same thing. I think the best I came up with was 1/3 guilt and pity, 1/3 nostalgia for what teenaged Rusty meant to her, and 1/3 punching bag.
For Rusty, I knew from the outset that it was his daddy issues pitted up against his mommy issues. He wanted somebody who was much stronger, much more competent than he was—someone who was not going to toss around the “love and adoration” so easily like his mother did. On the other, hand, as much as he complains about the guilt his mother gave him, Rusty also completely wants somebody to take care of him and love the version of him that pretty much only his mother saw.
And so the rest of it is basically the pendulum swinging from side to side for both of them—mostly in opposite directions.
I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but because I write a lot of protagonists that are some version of me, I’m always wanting the rest of the characters to step on my protagonist’s biggest weaknesses and bring out my protagonist’s worst instincts.
Like I said, Sheila’s basically a combination of Rusty’s dad and mom in both the best and worst possible ways.
I guess my only defense is that I’ve dated women before and I am currently married. So there’s at least some anecdotal evidence that some women might be fucked up enough to go for a loser like me.
LR: One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when Rusty and Sheila collide on the basketball court. He finds himself, head-deep, inside of her basketball shirt, face pressed against her breasts (not unlike a nursing baby). He emerges from her t-shirt, almost like giving birth. Tell us, if you would, a little bit about this scene and, more broadly, your usage of metaphor in this book.
BD: Ooh, I love you for asking this dirty kinky question.
I’m not entirely sure how I came up with this scenario other than I once accidentally get tangled up with a guy playing basketball and my head going up his shirt—true story.
And I can remember being more than a little disturbed by the closeness of it—feeling his breathing, feeling his sweaty chest hair against my face.
Of course as a young man, a young athlete, the immediate reaction is how gross it is and how “gay” it made me feel.
But underneath that, it was something I couldn’t quite get out of the back of my mind and all the questions it brought with it.
It’s probably not hard to tell, but I tend to take things that make me uncomfortable and rewrite it as a kind of kink.
In this case, I decided to go with big Sheila because she in many ways is “more masculine” than Rusty is—even in seventh grade. And Rusty, in high school, is both attracted to that but also kind of worried about what that attraction says about his fragile masculinity/sexuality.
She humiliates Rusty so much on the basketball court (“losing to a girl”) that he gets overzealous and tries to embarrass her back and of course, in true Rusty fashion, fucks that all up and ends up accidentally running her over and getting his head stuck in her shirt.
Which then leads Sheila’s dad and cousins beat the shit out of him, while she defends him.
And from there on, Rusty is in love with her.
And then and then, of course there are a lot of implications later with violence and power and loving what we think we don’t want and wanting what we don’t actually love.
LR: Another woman in Rusty’s life is his writing teacher---Ms. Petoski. This teacher pushes and prods Rusty to write about his trauma. It is almost as if she feeds off her students’ honesty and soul-baring. She takes him somewhat seriously, but also makes sure that he empties her trash every single night because she cannot handle the smell. Rusty, on the other hand, cannot stop sexualizing Ms. Petoski. He seems to conflate the ideas of sex and success. Do you see Petoski as helpful for Rusty at all, or does she, like so many others, cause him harm?
BD: Mostly, I think in the case of Ms. Petoski Rusty gets what he deserves. He looks at her to both validate him as a man and sexual being but also as a writer—which to Rusty has transposed. He’s lonely, he’s horny, and he doesn’t have anything to offer women other than this tortured artist thing he puts out there.
Petoski’s kind of the opposite of Rusty’s mother who mostly wants Rusty to become a writer to cope with his problems and turn lemons into lemonade, etc. whereas Petoski kind of just plays with him to feel like she’s taking this diamond in the rough and making him into a memoirist. (In other ways, both Rusty’s mother and Petoski view Rusty’s writing as validating their own egos).
Most of all, though, Petoski’s basically a representation of how fucked up Rusty’s ideas are about what he wants her validation for. He wants somebody to need him—as a man and as a writer—and he’s willing to be humiliated even for the smallest taste of it.
That said, Petoski’s showing interest in him makes him finally sit down and write his memoirs, which would seemingly make his mother happy (even though he doesn’t really do it for her, at least not consciously).
So maybe that’s good.
It’s also probably good that she doesn’t embrace him the way he wants, so he doesn’t get reinforced for his fucked-up motivations.
And then of course, his comeuppance doesn’t end with Petoski.
LR: The men in Rusty’s life are almost universally terrible. He is a product of abuse/trauma. But he is also a product of toxic masculinity. Do you see The Book of Rusty as more of a story about trauma/abuse or toxic masculinity? Is it equally both?
BD: For me, trauma and toxic masculinity are inextricably linked. The old adage: hurt people hurt people.
I don’t want to get overly melodramatic about this or make it seem like we should feel sorry for the terrible things men do, but so much of the way I “learned to be a man” was essentially through mental and physical abuse.
If you don’t learn to take the mental and physical abuse you are [insert fucked-up emasculating word here].
And it’s every other older man’s duty to inflict enough emotional and physical abuse to make you into that man.
And all those older men learned this from their elders and those elders from their elders and on and on.
And I am not innocent in this either. I played football and basketball and I was as guilty of trying to “toughen up” guys as others.
It’s interesting today because this shit still happens all the time but at the same time if somebody at work were to do almost any of the things that we did to each other as kids, it would be sexual assault or at least sexual harassment.
You can see this a bit as more and more college football players are coming out and talking about the abuse they experience that other young men have just accepted for years.
Again, not to feel sorry for men, but it’s a messed up thing when your whole mindset becomes: any abuse I take is going to make me more of a man and any abuse I dish out is going to make my friends and teammates more of a man and anybody who can’t deal with this, can’t suck it up and put their big boy pants on is a failure as a man and should be humiliated as such.
If there’s anything that prevented me of being more abusive to others than I was, it was simply that I knew inside that I was a failure as a man and always would be.
I was a failure because I couldn’t deal with the things my brother was doing to me. I was a failure because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I was a failure because I couldn’t get over it and just dismiss it as boys being boys.
That and of course, my brother killing himself. I often think about who I would’ve become if the person who exuded manliness to me—toughest, most stoic, least willing to put up with my crybabyness—hadn’t killed himself.
First, as a twelve-year-old, I didn’t know that you could just kill yourself (and thereby “cheat the system”).
Second, I didn’t know why somebody as tough and manly as my brother would ever want to kill himself.
My brother killing himself was kind of a paradox for me in the way I viewed masculinity—on one hand it was the stoic way out, to go out on your own terms and take the power position; on the other hand, it was also a clear act of “weakness.” Oh, you couldn’t just suck it up and be a man about things?
I know all this is about me, but that’s what I struggled with for most of my life—killing yourself is both “cowardly” and “manly” at the same time (or that’s what I thought).
Accordingly, for me, as I got older, it became clearer and clearer that “trying to suck it up and be a man” was going to lead to my killing myself.
I’m forty-five now and I’ve been reading and writing about masculinity for twenty-five years and I still struggle with these things.
In short, for me at least, the story of Rusty is that toxic masculinity and trauma are inextricably linked.
LR: The Book of Rusty is certainly a wild and gritty ride that readers won’t soon forget. Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about it! What’s next for you and your writing?
BD: Thanks so much. I’m honored that you’d take the time to talk about this all so incisively with me.
I’m kind of all over the place right now.
I finished Rusty the summer after covid hit.
Then I immediately took what I thought was going to be an straightforward short story and accidentally turned it into a novel, which I wrote in like two months (after taking 18 years with Rusty).
I like to say it’s the Love Boat meets Dateline as directed as the Coen Brothers. I’m not sure how much that appeals to others, so I’ve been tweaking it and sending it out and tweaking it and sending it out.
Since then I decided to do something as different as I could, so I ended up messing around and writing a shitload of weirdass poem’y things, which I’m trying to put together as a book called Today I’m a Goodass Pome
(Don’t all you editors at small presses come knocking down my door at the same time, now).
And somewhere along the line I accidentally ended up writing a series of failed poems that became connected short stories called Honky.
I don’t know if any of these will ever see the light of day, but that’s where I am now.
Oh and somewhere down the line I’ve got a draft of the sequel to Rusty that I have to reconfigure.
Thanks again for taking this time.
Bio: Ben Drevlow is the author of Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father, which won the 2006 Many Voices Project from New Rivers Press, and the author of Ina-Baby: A Love Story in Reverse, which was released by Cowboy Jamboree Books in 2019. His latest story collection is A Good Ram Is Hard to Find, released in 2021 by Cowboy Jamboree Books. His novel The Book of Rusty was released in October 2022, also by CJB. He is currently at work on a collection of story-poems, work from which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He serves as the Managing Editor of BULL Magazine (@MISTERBULLBULL) and is a senior lecturer at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.