Chanelle Benz on how her first novel ‘The Gone Dead’ expands on themes from her debut collection

Chanelle Benz‘s debut story collection, 2017’s The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, was one of the best collections published that year. The 10 stories in it range in location and time, but always feature a strong voice. The diverse perspectives ranging from non-traditional Westerns to baroque style chorus narratives proved the author knew how to tell a gripping story.

With The Gone Dead, her debut novel, she proves she can keep readers gripped over an extended page count. The Mississippi-set thriller expands on themes found in those stories from two years ago. Injustice. Violence. Abandonment.

The novel follows Billie James, who returns to the Mississippi Delta three decades after her father’s mysterious death. She doesn’t know why or how it happened, but now she is ready to confront her past.

I wanted to find out about how Benz shifted gears from a debut collection that was heralded as a Best Book of 2017 by The San Francisco Chronicle and one of Electric Literature’s 15 Best Short Story Collections of 2017 to a thrilling, gritty novel less than three years later.

Author photo by Andrew Hamilton

We chatted about your debut story collection back in January 2017, which seems like a lifetime ago. First off, how has life changed for you – either personally or professionally – in the two and a half years since?

Well, I’ve moved to Memphis where I teach fiction at Rhodes College. I love it here—there’s no traffic, it’s a majority-black city, and there are lots of parks for my kid. It also has a rich history which I’m just beginning to dig into.

In that conversation, I discovered you had the title of that collection, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead, settled in 2013 and that the first story for the collection was written in 2010. What was it like navigating the world after this collection you spent almost a decade working on was in the public eye? 

Part of me was celebratory of course—finally, I have a book in the world! And a number of those stories had been in a variety of literary magazines so they had gone through those editors and then my editor at Ecco, and as a result felt very polished. So on one hand, I felt proud and that I could stand by my work no matter what did or did not happen, but since it was my first book I also had some anxiety around feeling exposed.

Was it difficult moving on from the publicity mode of that collection? How quickly did The Gone Dead appear in your mind?

Not really, because I had already started working sporadically on The Gone Dead and was on a deadline.

I imagine your writing has evolved from that first story you wrote to this novel. How have you seen your writing change or stay the same? 

It’s important for me to find the right form to tell a particular story; not just the right pov but the right structure that constitutes not only how the narrative moves but also gives me a container to push against. It took me a long time to figure out that this form needed to be multiple close third voices and to trust the stripped down quality of the main protagonist Billie’s voice. The stories in the collection tend to have highly stylized voices, but no matter what I tried with Billie, only a more transparent voice worked with who she is and what she wants. Of course, I still wanted her voice to be language-driven, to have a musicality, but when the novel begins there is an uncharted part of her that has shaped her world, which she can’t yet see. Basically, some of the writing in the novel is closer to what we call “lyrical realism” and almost all of it in 3rd person, and it took me time to get fluent with these modes and trust that it was the best possible form for this book and not boring.   

The Gone Dead is your debut novel. But it’s slightly different because it’s your second book published by Ecco. Was there pressure this time around due to deadlines, editor expectations, or anything of the sort?

Welp, now I get to say that this is not my first rodeo. I don’t have much anxiety about the work itself or how I might be perceived as an author. The process itself has been much different because while the collection was far along in terms of revision, the novel was only a third done, and so my editor and I were working in a more intimate way. It was difficult to meet deadlines while teaching fulltime and with a small child who is the tyrant of my life, but shockingly my editor and agent trusted me to excavate this novel out of the lumpy partial draft I first presented.

What will readers of your collection find familiar in The Gone Dead?

Oh, my pet themes of injustice, violence, and abandonment, but also my fascination with counternarratives and the stories that have been forgotten, silenced, or omitted, and hopefully some humor too.

Writers often tell me how hard the press cycle is for a book. Your day is interrupted by phone calls and emails asking you to talk about a book you’ve finished, but it doesn’t give you much time to write. If there is a book tour, that’s time away from family and a normal routine. How did you cope and navigate that time in 2017, and how has it helped you this time around?

For the story collection, I did almost all the interviews sweating in my car during my lunch break, and I took my little family with me on book tour. Slightly less glamorous maybe, but a cute baby can buy you a lot of goodwill. 

I did find the press cycle somewhat stressful then because it is a different mode and it can be hard to intelligibly pontificate about your own work when the process is rightfully, partially mysterious. But it was a story collection and to be frank I don’t think I was in terribly high demand. I was also experiencing motherhood for the first time and came to feel like Toni Morrison that though it was hard, it was also “liberating” because as she says “…all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person about what was valuable just fell away.” Or maybe I just didn’t have the space in my brain to remember to worry.

So far, there is more press for the novel for which I’m very grateful. I also happen to be on leave from teaching right now and massively pregnant because I like to time the birth of all my babies (book and human) as close as possible. And I’ve started writing short stories again which feels glorious—like drinking clean cold water after a hike through the desert. To my mind, finding a way to work on something large or small while handling the outer, public duties is a good way to remember who you are and keep you rooted.

Looking forward, you’ve had your debut story collection and your debut novel. Unless you decide to venture into non-fiction or poetry and have another debut, you’re officially a seasoned writer. What can we expect from you next in your literary career?

I don’t know! I haven’t hooked in to what that third book is yet. Something different, likely something dark that demands to be explored.

Follow Chanelle Benz on Twitter or visit her website.

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