The novel traces the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Kim Kardashian book signing, blending absurd structures with emotional authenticity
If you keep up with the New York poetry world, chances are you’re familiar with Ben Fama—likely on a personal level. He’s one of the scene’s most dedicated evangelists, devoting himself nobly and wholeheartedly to the proliferation of the written word. In addition to authoring two poetry collections—Fantasy and Deathwish, the latter of which spawned those “Prayer Is Whatever You Say On Your Knees” posters and sweatshirts you’ve probably seen on your Instagram feed—Fama runs WONDER, a small press that frequently hosts literary readings Downtown and in Brooklyn. He’s also the founder of Cool Memories, a workshop series offering community and critique to writers around the globe.
Fama’s poetry often presents scenarios in which characters must balance the desires of the id and superego as they witness—or bring about—the mingling of sex and violence, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. (Typically, this happens against the backdrop of an internet that boasts the potential to both seduce and destroy.) Now, for the first time, he’s exploring these themes in novel form.
If I Close My Eyes—the debut release from SARKA Publishing, spearheaded by Francesca Kritikos—is a mass shooting novel for the age of social media. The book follows the escapades of Jesse, a 19-year-old aspiring screenwriter, and Mars, a 30-year-old struggling actress, as they bond in the wake of a shooting spree at a Kim Kardashian book signing. As they traipse around Los Angeles, slowly falling in love (or lust), they contend with their newfound trauma, as well as their roles as public victims. Jesse was a lost soul before the shooting—struggling with drug addiction and then sobriety, straining to develop his voice as a writer, navigating the loss of his mother and his estrangement with his father, and trying to prove his maturity to his Uncle Lee. The incident brings about a summer of reckoning that sees him take his first steps into adulthood.
Fama is a master at staging high-stakes situations that blend absurd structures with emotional authenticity: Jesse is visited in the hospital by Keeping Up With the Kardashians; he designs a haunted house that includes a simulated massacre in a mall food court. Given the current sociopolitical landscape, these scenes feel realistic, rather than flatly parodic.
I met Fama—where else?—on Twitter in 2020; it was through our friendship and Cool Memories’s extended universe that I was introduced to New York and LA’s literary scenes. Here, we discuss, among other topics, Fama’s personal connection to the Virginia Tech shooting, the media’s obsession with seeing celebrities at their worst, Spring Breakers, Simone Veil, and the potency of pool imagery.
Brittany Menjivar: When I first opened the PDF that Francesca sent me, a curious mishap occurred: Due to a computer error, all italics were rendered as inscrutable symbols. I initially thought this was intentional. I saw it as commentary on how references to pop culture become interchangeable as we’re oversaturated with them—or, alternatively, how they form their own language. Do either of these themes resonate with you? How did you go about choosing the pop culture references you included in the book?
Ben Fama: That’s really fascinating—the idea that the pop culture stuff would be censored or redacted, kind of like a fill-in-the-blank. In one sense, when the characters hear a song, it kind of doesn’t matter what’s playing. But in another sense, it points toward what they’re paying attention to in the world. The songs that speak to them speak to who they are. Like, when Jesse is listening to the Ellie Goulding song [‘Love Me Like You Do’], he has this fantasy or delusion that he’s about to fall in love, so that really clicks with him. Curating those choices in order to weave in extra data about the characters was really important to me.
“The media talks about shooters so much. I guess if they have a story, they juice it for all they can, which is very cynical. I wasn’t interested in doing that.”
Brittany: There’s been a lot of dialogue about focusing on shooters versus focusing on victims in narratives about mass shootings. We learn very little about the perpetrator here; the spotlight remains on Jesse and Mars. What made you choose to tell the story from their perspective?
Ben: The whole mass shooting thing has become routine to the point that it’s very macabre. I was born in the Columbine era; also, I was going to Virginia Tech when that shooting happened, which seemed much different.
Brittany: Wait—you were at Virginia Tech when it happened?
Ben: Yeah.That was one of the reasons I wanted to use that type of event to launch the plot—to get it out of me. The media talks about shooters so much. I guess if they have a story, they juice it for all they can, which is very cynical. I wasn’t interested in doing that. The shooter in If I Close My Eyes is not that interesting of a person. He’s just a fanatic who is sort of deranged. That has happened; celebrities deal with that kind of thing. I just created a believable scenario that does happen with men’s rights activists who have issues with women—they try to enact their will onto the world.
I also really wanted to write about falling in love during the summer, and what that might be like for somebody who’s in over his head. Jesse has to grow up fast after the shooting. He’s trying to figure out what’s up with his family, trying to figure out his grief, trying to figure out his relationship to substances. He’s definitely never been involved with somebody as old, and from a different milieu, as Mars, and he definitely would never be involved with her if it wasn’t for this event. The shared public trauma serves the function of bringing them together. I think their relationship is a lot more meaningful to him than to her. One of the reasons I wanted to do third-person point of view is that you can be a little more ironic: We see Jesse trying really hard when he doesn’t realize that he’s being embarrassing, and we see Mars not really taking him seriously as a partner. She’s just passing time for a lot of the book; she’s kind of in her own jam. I wouldn’t say she’s using him, but she’s not taking him seriously.
Brittany: If I might ask, what was it like being at Virginia Tech during such a tragic event? Were you actually on the premises at the time?
Ben: I wasn’t in the classrooms or anything. Cops were driving around using their megaphones, because that was the easiest way to get the word out. Text alert systems were not in place. There were emails, but they didn’t make any sense—like, ‘Stay away from your window,’ ‘Go inside a room and lock the doors.’ That was all they would say. You could tell the university had no idea how to inspect it. That shooter sent a media kit to NBC and some news stations, so the next day you could read so much about him.
I left Virginia and tried to figure out my next move. That’s when I went to New York. Then mass shootings started happening all the time. The campus shooting is such a thing now. One just happened at Chapel Hill.
Brittany: You mentioned that you’ve been wanting to write about a shooting for a while. Are there iterations of this story that existed before this one?
Ben: I haven’t really written about them before. I’m not a ‘survivor,’ per se—I’ve never been shot—so it seemed to me like that space would be better served by other people. But I felt that if I was gonna write a novel, I could work it into that.
Brittany: On that note, there’s been a good amount of dialogue about who gets to delve into certain controversial themes, and where the line between exploration and exploitation, or even glorification, is drawn. What are your thoughts on that?
“The idea that there are forces in your life that you can’t understand, I’d say, could apply to both paranoia and faith.”
Ben: I try to remain sensitive. We, as writers, have whole lives’ worth of friends’ and family’s stories that we can draw from, and [we have to ask ourselves], Where are we honoring them? Where are we taking advantage of them? That’s the occupational hazard of being a writer—we get these really incredible things that we can share, that we think people would like to hear, but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. As far as being exploitative, it was tricky writing a woman character. I wanted to do justice to her, and make her fully fleshed-out. When it comes to any touchy subject matter, I try to be aware of the general sensitivities around it. I didn’t cut anything out of the book, but I did make sure that everything really served it.
Brittany: Obviously, you drew some general inspiration from the Virginia Tech shooting, but I’m curious about whether you looked toward any real-life examples while assessing the relationship between celebrity and trauma.
Ben: I didn’t have any particular case studies, but the media fascination with ‘the messy celeb’ is a tale as old as time. Britney [Spears] is the first person who comes to mind, shaving her head and smashing umbrellas against the car. The media loves to blast our lowest moments. That’s exploitation. But exploitation has a double meaning. Like, an exploitation film is exploiting the content the way the media exploits Britney. They get us, the viewers, to click on that stuff, because they know we already have an interest in that kind of content—Paz de la Huerta tripping, or Cara Delevingne fucked up outside an airplane. I’m guilty; I’ve taken the bait. It’s literally clickbait. Lindsay Lohan passed out in a car in a gray hoodie—that’s one of my favorite images of all time. I’m definitely implicit in that culture.
Celebrities get treated like shit. They’re like the dogs of the culture—people feel like they can say whatever they want about them. There aren’t many celebrities who are alluded to in the book, but you come to understand that whatever you see is never really what’s going on, and everyone has a sensitive inner life. If you want to do the right thing, you let them live and be kind to them.
Brittany: The photos we see of stars at their worst—having mental breakdowns, looking kind of shabby—almost take on an uncanny quality. We’re trained to see these people not as people, but as celebrities—but of course, celebrity is a role they take on, not their identity.
Ben: There’s a Black Mirror episode about this. Have you seen ‘Joan Is Awful’? Basically, everything that happens in your day, your phone immediately turns it into a TV show with AI characters, and you can watch it. It’s beta tested with this character Joan, and by the end of the show, every single character has a show about them, and it’s called ‘Blank is Awful.’ They explain that they don’t do ‘Blank is Happy,’ because no one wants to see happy—they only want to see the worst parts of someone. My novel is not that dystopian, but cynicism is the driving force in a lot of ways. Mars is very cynical. Keeping Up With the Kardashians visiting Jesse in the hospital [is cynical]. The way that reality TV has to shape situations [is cynical].
Brittany: I love the way that celebrities like Kanye West and Marilyn Manson appear throughout the novel. It lends an air of surrealism. I was reminded of the cameos Gregg Araki worked into The Doom Generation. He’s said that he did this not in an attempt to be trendy, but because he wanted to craft a fantastical, dreamlike atmosphere. How did you decide how much of the ‘real world’ to retain, and how much to discard in favor of alternate realities?
Ben: Well, it all starts from the baseline of the alternate reality, the fictional world. I’ve always been fascinated by art that has real people in it, like Warhol with Marilyn Monroe. And then there’s Spring Breakers, which has Disney actors. The story was fine, but casting Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens added a whole other conceptual element.
Brittany: Something that stood out to me was that neither Jesse nor Mars appeared at the fateful book signing because of a personal allegiance to Kim—they both ended up there because of family members. Were you attempting to make a point about how all of us ultimately get reeled into meaningless celebrity drama, even if we have no personal stake in it?
Ben: You answered your own question. [Laughs] That’s an astute observation. They’re both there not because they necessarily want to be, but as favors to other people. And they’re trying to do the right thing, in a way, even if they don’t always live up to their ambitions in that regard. I think that gives us cause to hope for the best for them, which is important for readers.
Brittany: I detected a subtle theological undercurrent running throughout the book. Jesse ruminates on grace; he also reflects on the concept of ‘what’s not ours to know’ while thinking about a conspiracy theory, which calls to mind the Catholic notion of mystery. You’ve spoken about your relationship to the writings of Simone Veil; you’ve even taught a course on her work. Did her philosophy inform this text?
“No matter how much science progresses, no matter how far we progress in the Age of Reason, people are always gonna have to wake up and deal with how they get the things they want.”
Ben: To be totally honest with you—no, not really. Though I’d say the idea of gravity—which is to say, bad things happen to people because there are other people who can do the bad things, informs the world that they’re in. Gravity can also be incredibly meaningful in Simone’s scheme: There is suffering that brings us closer to God. Neither of the characters are necessarily trying to be closer to peace, or reconcile their pains with reality as it is. Jesse definitely cannot accept reality as it is; he’s always trying to outrun it. When he says ‘grace,’ he’s probably thinking about achieving harmony with what’s happening inside of him. And as for mystery—for sure. The idea that there are forces in your life that you can’t understand, I’d say, could apply to both paranoia and faith.
Brittany: You wrote If I Close My Eyes in the late-2010s. During this time, you also composed multiple volumes of poetry. How do your approaches to these types of writing differ in terms of mentality, practices, and rituals?
Ben: For me, writing poetry is ten times more fun than writing fiction. People love all these metaphors for it, like, ‘Writing a book is like an airplane ride—the takeoff and landing are really thrilling, and the rest is flying over the desert.’ I remember hearing that and thinking, That sounds so dreadful. What would it take for me to have fun every time I work on this book? I didn’t totally succeed, but I definitely wrote the kind of book that I thought would give me some pleasure.
As for poetry, I try to keep that pleasurable, as well. I feel like I can be more delinquent while writing poetry. Writing novels is just so much time in the chair. A lot of editing. Other people get involved way more. You are representing other people’s lives in fiction, and they read it and they’re like, ‘No way this could happen,’ or ‘I think she would probably do this.’ You’re worldbuilding. Poetry is like vibe-building.
Brittany: That makes sense. I’ve always seen poetry as more immediately rewarding. If we’re going with the plane metaphor, then poetry would be more like a fun little helicopter ride.
Ben: For sure. Interestingly, I’ve written about pools in both fiction and poetry. In If I Close My Eyes, the pool is like a space of meditation for Jesse. Not to say the pool is God, but it does offer a place for him to reflect on transcendent things. I’ve used that image in poetry also, because I just find surfaces so fascinating.
Brittany: Are there any other images you find recurring in both your fiction and your poetry?
Ben: Substances that will cause a temporary change in a person—to their mood, or their beliefs, or how they feel. Like drugs or alcohol, or other people. I’m really interested in how people approach those things. No matter how much science progresses, no matter how far we progress in the Age of Reason, people are always gonna have to wake up and deal with how they get the things they want.
Brittany: I read your 2019 interview with the Believer, in which you said, ‘I’m wondering, do I even want to publish a novel and why that would be. Right now I could take it or leave it.’ What was the final push for you?
Ben: I wanted to be able to share [this book] with people, even if it was just my peers who are also writing. I met up with SARKA and the editor read it and liked it. We both liked the same things about it—that was really important for me.
There’s a lot of formal invention in my book, from the points of view of different media outlets. Writing Marilyn Manson’s voice, writing Kanye’s voice—I’m really obsessed with language and cadence, so those were fun challenges for me. That’s all research I had to do, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. I had created this little world and I wanted to share it with people. I knew what I liked about my book, and SARKA didn’t want to change it too much. We worked it out, and I couldn’t be happier.