Interview: Pinckney Benedict Author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories

Shelf Unbound: What was the genesis of the story “Miracle Boy”?

Pinckney Benedict: “Miracle Boy” came about primarily as an evocation of a couple of terrors from my childhood. The first was riding on the fender of the various Allis-Chalmers tractors on my family’s dairy farm. We owned three Allis-Chalmers tractors, in various horsepowers and configurations, but I used the Case Agri-King for the story because I love that name: Agri-King! It’s kind of how I think of my dad, who still runs—with my older brother—the farm in the Greenbrier Valley: He’s the Agri-King!

The fenders on those tractors were slick and not really made for riding on, and the fields over which we rode—my father always driving of course—were rutted and rough, and falling off always seemed to me to be a distinct possibility. Falling off meant more than just a pretty good drop onto hard ground, though. We were always pulling some kind of implement, mower or hay-rake or haybine or, as in “Miracle Boy,” silage chopper, and a fall meant going into or under the thing.

It seems like every farming family we knew had members who were missing fingers, limbs, eyes, from agricultural accidents, and I had a morbid terror of losing a limb (or limbs) in this way. Oddly, I never worried much about dying; it was the idea of being maimed that haunted me. The accident that takes the hand of the father of Geronimo and Eskimo Pie—a hydraulic fencepost driver, a hand left carelessly on top of the post—actually happened on a nearby place when I was a boy, to a guy ever afterward known down at the barbershop as Lefty. I knew with perfect assurance that something like it was going to happen to me (for the record, it never did), but that wasn’t the kind of thing that you could tell your dad when he instructed you to climb up onto the tractor’s fender because you were going somewhere, to mow or rake a field or to chop some corn. And the lure of being with my father while he worked (at the side of the Agri-King!) was so exciting that I wouldn’t have stopped riding the fender even if I’d thought it might have been permissible to do so.

And I vividly recall when I started reading in the papers—I was old enough to be driving the tractors myself then, no longer riding on the fender—about people whose amputated limbs were being surgically reattached, and seeing the name “Miracle Boy” affixed to one of the stories—I think he got his arms lopped off and managed to call the paramedics by using a pencil held in his teeth—and thinking to myself, Holy cats! That’s amazing. Stoicism in action. One day I’ll write about that.

The other terror (which was also a thrill) was climbing up into a treehouse made by my older brother and his friends when they were in their teens, when I was eight or nine. It rested in the crotch of a tree that was nothing but trunk, straight up, for perhaps 25 feet, before it divided and branched out. The ladder they had devised consisted of a line of 60-penny nails driven straight into the trunk of the tree. I’m not particularly physically brave—as my all-consuming horror at the idea of falling off the tractor perhaps illustrates—and climbing up that series of nails to gain entrance to their hideout (with its cache of tattered porn magazines, so worth the climb!), was as painful and as exhausting as anything I’ve ever done, except for perhaps the descent that followed. For the story, I combined that experience with many days of fence-building, pounding nail after nail into square locust posts (locust is as hard as iron! at least when you’re driving nails by hand), to imagine how Lizard managed to make his way up the utility pole.

Shelf: Which character came to you first?

Benedict: Miracle Boy was initially at the center of the story. I wrote the small scene that happens just before he falls off of the tractor early on and thought that most of the story would be like that, written from his point of view.

Miracle Boy himself is based (as much as he’s based on anyone specific) on a guy named Doug G________, who lived in my hometown in southern West Virginia. He was a couple of years older than I was, and had been horribly burned a few years before I ever met him. He looked melted, truly. I was fascinated with him, as were all of the kids whom I know. I wish I could say that my interest in him was kindly or generous, but I really just wanted to look at him up close, to see what burns like that actually looked like. I knew that it was rude to stare, and so mostly I saw Doug in brief glimpses, when I thought I could look without being detected. There were lots of rumors about how he had suffered such terrible injuries. The one that was repeated most often is that, while his family home was burning down, Doug (quite young, maybe six or seven at the time) had grabbed his infant sibling (brother, sister, they seemed interchangeable in the various tellings of the tale) and hustled the baby outside. The house was engulfed in flame, and Doug, shielding the baby with his own body, had been grievously burned. A hero!

He seemed a nice enough guy, though I never got to know him well. Quiet and aware that his appearance was gruesome and unnerving, but he never seemed to want to hide himself. I always (in that smug way that one feels such emotions) pitied him until one time, when I came home from college, I saw him briefly (he was easily recognizable, as you can imagine—an adult-size version of his candle-wax boyhood self) and he was driving a beautiful white ’69 Chevy Z28, rocking that classic 302 V8 mill with twin Holley carbs (290 horsepower from the factory, my ass! more like 400). At that moment, I understood that—whatever his misfortunes had been—he owned a much more badass car than I ever would, and I had no cause to pity him any longer. (At the time I was driving an old Ford Mach 1, which is not nothing, but it’s not a ’69 Z28, and I’m a GM guy at heart anyway.) He probably, and rightly, pitied me.

Shelf: You grew up on your family’s dairy farm. This story of small town farm boys in some ways feels nostalgic but is actually brutal, un-idealized reality. Is this harsh nostalgia your personal perspective or one you took on as narrator?

Benedict: I like the phrase “harsh nostalgia” to describe the primary mode of my storytelling and believe that I’ll begin using it as though I had come up with it myself. It describes exactly how I feel about my boyhood: I miss many parts of it—the freedoms, the excitement of innocence (or naïveté), the delight in the everyday. And in a strange way I also miss the near-constant terrors: awful nightmares, and waking nightmares that were just as bad (my imagination has always been dramatic), and fistfights, the awful practical jokes played on me by my older siblings and their friends, the utter inability to communicate my thoughts and feelings, and the sense I had of terrifying, paralyzing helplessness.

Life is considerably easier now, but it is also, I have to admit, a great deal less vivid. My stories are one of the ways that I have of returning to that earlier time, which I miss but which I would not live through again for any amount of money.

Shelf: Miracle Boy says, “It’s miracles around us every day.” Do you see miracles in this story?

Benedict: I think it’s a miracle that it was initially published in a commercial magazine! (It appeared in Esquire.) I think it’s kind of a miracle that Lizard doesn’t die, either by electrocution or by falling to his death, just as I think it’s kind of a miracle that I didn’t die during any of the million misadventures—with firearms, with liquor, with drugs, with tractors and animals and cars that were far too fast—of my own growing up. And I think it’s a miracle that, at the end, Lizard realizes that someone besides him has real existence. That’s the hardest and rarest thing: to understand that other people are real, that they are not just figments of the imagination, not just shadows or ghosts, and that they must be accorded the dignity (however much that might be) that’s accorded to actual living beings. It’s hard for me, anyway, and so it seems miraculous when it happens either in me or in someone I observe or even, as in the case of “Miracle Boy,” in someone I’ve created.

I also take pretty seriously the idea that things like limb reattachment surgery are miraculous, but that we have become so dulled to their miraculous nature we hardly even notice anymore. Why are there no more miracles, we ask, when we’re surrounded by them all the time. Same goes for space flight, iPads, and Android phones. I’m still waiting on flying cars and X-ray glasses, but I imagine when they do finally come along, I’ll use them for a while, be amazed, and then say, “Ho hum, why are there no miracles in my life?”

Shelf: Which character do you have the most sympathy for?

Benedict: Lizard. If there’s anyone in the story who is my stand-in, it’s Lizard. At least, Lizard is the one I’d like to be. He’s a representation of what I might have been like if during my boyhood I’d been capable of learning moral lessons from the things that happened around me (though I paid relatively little attention to anything that happened around me, because my head was always stuck in a book of some sort, or a comic book; it took a lot of pain to get my attention.)

I’m probably actually more like Eskimo Pie, who I always pictured as being called that because he loves Eskimo Pies, which I also do. He’s a fellow of some girth, as am I, which is why he’s the one who sits on Miracle Boy. Lots of contemporary problems could be solved, I think, just by having large people sit on smaller people. It’s not as openly aggressive as punching, and it’s actually more effective. A buddy of mine who works in a jail—also a fellow of girth—has told me some great stories about sitting on prisoners who were getting out of control. Works like a charm. So I like Eskimo Pie a lot.

Geronimo I don’t have much of a read on. I do know that he went on to join the Navy, because he shows up as the backseater in the F14 Phantom that crashes in the story “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.”

Shelf: I read the story and then went back to it after a few days and was stunned to see how short it actually was—just over 11 pages. You tell an incredibly full, vivid, memorable story in such a scarce space -did you write it longer in your head or on paper and then pare it down?

Benedict: What a nice compliment! Thank you. My stories tend be quite long: the longest in the Miracle Boy collection is something like 14,000 words. So I’m very happy when I manage to do something in a compact space, as with “Miracle Boy.” I always tell myself when I begin writing a new story that this time I’ll write a story that’s perfect and gem-like and only 3,000 words long, so that magazines will be able easily to find space for it. And generally I end up with something long and gangling, something in the 7,000- to 9,000-word range, with tangents and digressions and minor characters who go off and do oddball things. And I like the freedom I have in those sprawling stories—but my ideal, when I sit down to write, is something more along the lines of “Miracle Boy.” I happily fail at my ideals, though.

Shelf: Your first book of short stories, Town Smokes, was published in 1987. How have your writing and your writing style evolved since then?

Benedict: It feels to me as though I’m taking more chances in my writing now: The stories are stranger and look much more like the world that I see in my head, that I have always seen in my head. I’m much less worried about a kind of theoretical literary perfection now (this was my idea, when I started out writing stories, to create some sort of small perfection, and I could drive myself mad pursuing that ever-receding goal) and much more interested in telling a story—getting a real narrative on the page—that will catch people up, that catches me up as much as anybody else, and that tells some morsel of truth about the world.

Chiefly, I think, I’m enjoying the act of writing far more than I have in my past books. It feels like play to me, and I feel free to be mischievous, to make in-jokes and personal references that only a very small number of my readers (perhaps none of them) will ever get, to make plot and character moves that I know will baffle and frustrate folks (also intrigue, I hope), simply because that’s the thing I see in my head. My stories are shaped much more like me these days.

Shelf: As a reader, what do you value most in writing?

Benedict: Powerful narrative. I see a lot of very “fine” writing—by which I mean writing in which the sentences are mellifluous, the paragraphs graceful, the diction intelligent and challenging—in which nothing much happens at all. I’ve taught for years in various MFA programs, and I believe that, while it’s pretty easy to teach talented folks to write fluid, stylish prose, prose that looks like it belongs in a book, it’s pretty damned hard to teach them that the prose needs to tell a story. Stuff needs to happen; occurrences of vital import (at least to the characters) need to take place. MFA programs seem to me to have made the lovely sentence a commonplace virtue; now what separates real writers from wannabes is the narrative impulse.

It’s a kind of charisma that’s hard to define, the storytelling gene (you either have it or you don’t, I think), that informs my favorite writing.

Shelf: What’s a typical day of writing like for you?

Benedict: I don’t have a typical day, though I wish I did. I always read with envy and admiration about the habits of other writers, how intrepid they are, how they rise before dawn or write into the middle of the night, how they cannot rest until they’ve achieved a certain word count or created a certain amount of splendor that day. (I suspect that many of these accounts of folks’ working habits, though not all by any means, are wishful thinking from excellent fictioneers.) My wife is also a writer, and she’s much better about actually putting in the hours required to create a meaningful body of work. She’s one of those people who, when she talks about the discipline required to be a writer, I believe her.

Like most of us, I’m a family sort, and my family is a lot of fun. I have a teaching job, and I find it pretty tough to write a whole lot during the semester. I like my sleep, and I like to read, and I like to watch movies and TV: I like all of these at least as much as I like to write, and probably more, since writing is work (even if it’s a very enjoyable sort of work) and these other things are leisure. And so I give them as much time as possible in my schedule. I’m ambitious for the quality of my work (but not manically so—I should be more exacting of myself) but not particularly ambitious for its quantity. Certainly the world does not seem in a rush for me to produce piles of the stuff!

So my writing day contains exactly as much writing as I can fit in around the edges of the rest of my life. Mostly I spend time planning in my head what I will write next: stealing ideas from what I read, noting the quirks of the people around me and imagining how a character might enact them, making up grandiose plots that I know I will never actually enact on paper. Some stories are so much fun to make up and to revisit again and again that I never even bother to write them down. Those are actually my favorites, and so private and idiosyncratic and arcane that I keep them wholly to myself.

Shelf: What have you read lately that you would recommend?

Benedict: Oh gosh! So much great work by young writers: my grad students surprise me all the time with work that should be published and oohed and aahed over, which should make them famous and celebrated, though that likely will not happen. I tell them that their sole job in my classes is to freak me out, and many of them take up the challenge with some success.

Published work: In the Devil’s Territory by my friend Kyle Minor [Dzanc Books,]. Give + Take by Stona Fitch [Thomas Dunne Books,]. I’m greatly enjoying The
by my old Iowa schoolmate Justin Cronin [Ballantine Books,]. All highly narrative stuff, all beautifully written, all with that indefinable shamanistic quality.

And I keep returning to old favorites, in part because they’re free to download to my Kindle: H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I would happily kill or die to be able to tell stories at the level of either of those geniuses. 

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