A conversation with visiting writer and creative writing professor Amy Benson

The Visiting Writers Series, which brings up-and-coming and reputable authors to the College, is getting ready for another event, but this time with Amy Benson, an adjuct professor of the College’s creative writing department. She comes to the College fresh after publishing her first novel only months ago, a memoir entitled “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy.”

Benson took some time to answer the following questions before her upcoming reading at the Don Evans Black Box Theater in Kendall Hall on Oct. 28 at 8 p.m.

JG: Where are you from and how has the environment you grew up in influenced your writing?

AB: I’m from Detroit. Both of my parents worked full-time and I was a latchkey kid. So, I spent a good deal of time alone, reading and in my own head, which is essential to a writer. I think you have to be a fairly interior person to be a writer (or an artist, scholar, etc). You have to be able to get quiet and access the stranger parts of your brain. But just as important to my material as a writer was the enormous time I spent as a child in wild natural places, either on camping trips across the country or during summers spent in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I got a healthy sense of smallness and wonder from seemingly endless forests, lakes and mountain ranges.

JG: What got you started on writing?

AB: I really can’t explain it. I was a biology major, philosophy minor in college and in my junior year I started writing poetry. I had always written little snippets of things, but had never thought of it as “writing.” But I found myself interested in the speculative side of every class I took. When my plant physiology teacher told us that we had to “learn how to think like trees,” instead of wanting to learn the biology of the nitrogen cycle, I wanted to write a poem from the perspective of a tree. So, I decided I was headed for the poverty and ruin of the arts rather than the exacting riches of the sciences.

JG: How did you come to teach at the College?

AB: I’m filling in for Cathy Day as she is touring in support of her book (“The Circus in Winter”) this semester. I’m teaching two

206 classes and am really enjoying the students so far.

JG: What is “The Sparkling Eyed Boy” about?

AB: “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy” is based on my summers spent in the isolated Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which was in some ways the polar opposite of my home in Detroit. To me, it’s a memoir of place, class and the ethical dilemmas inherent to growing up. Those born in the UP often don’t leave for a job or an education – and if they do, they are sometimes not easily able to with one local boy, a boy who stayed, and the many meanings he and that place still hold for me. Over the years, I have become increasingly divided from him (and thus, from that beautiful, rural place) mostly through education and a sense of mobility. For me, the book tries to pinpoint a common struggle: for a solid identity in our increasingly mobile and fragmented lives. It uses autobiography and some fiction to help clarify the unnameable sense of loss and possibility I felt as I got older and lost contact with the world of the UP.

JG: Who inspires you?

AB: In terms of writers? Anyone who reaches for big, big things. I’ll just name a few contemporary writers: Louise Gluck, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Li-Young Lee, Anne Carson, Joan Didion, George Saunders. The College’s own Catie Rosemurgy has always been a big inspiration to me. And then those people who, in good humor, do decent things with their time without guile and without expectation for reward. They inspire me.

JG: Why do you think book readings are necessary, for both the audience and the author?

AB: Well, I’m not sure they’re necessary but they can do some good. It’s conditioning for our brain wiring to hear out loud a collection of beautifully crafted sentences. And it allows us to do so with a group of other people. Reading is such a solitary experience; a reading then lets us experience something together at the same moment and allows us to talk about it afterward. I know I’ve understood poems that have puzzled me for years when I heard them read aloud by the poet. They get the tone and the rhythm just right and all the pieces fall into place. It’s good for the writer, too, I suppose. Nothing will help you edit a piece faster than reading it in front of a group and hearing it clunk.

JG: In your novel, you include a chapter on the ethics of nonfiction, explaining that a writer will always use an event or conversation as a potential written piece. How do you think people should respond to knowing that nothing is private when it comes to being friends with a writer?

AB: Run, run, run. Really. I’m not kidding. Or pick writer-friends who have a moral compass you can live with.