Bennett Sims was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received his MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope: All-Story.
His debut novel, A Questionable Shape (Two Dollar Radio), has been called “addictively engaging” by Benjamin Hale and was said to announce “a literary talent of genre-wrecking brilliance” by Wells Tower.
Bennett was my fiction teacher this past spring, and when I finished reading his novel, I invited him to stop by the Iowa Review office to talk books, movies, and undeath.
HECKMAN: To get all the uninspired preliminary questions out of the way, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about yourself as a writer, your history with writing, influences, etc.
SIMS: I started writing in elementary school. As a kid I was [laughs] heavily influenced by R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. So a lot of the writing I was doing then mainly involved compiling alphabetical lists of potential Goosebumps titles. Z for Zombies in Zimbabwe, for example.
Apart from that, I’ve been writing institutionally almost my entire life. In high school I attended summer workshops at this really great arts academy in New Orleans called NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts), and that’s where I started reading authors like Donald Barthelme and Borges and Cheever and Charles D’Ambrosio and David Foster Wallace. At that point I started thinking more seriously about reading and writing literary fiction.
I went to college out west at Pomona College, where I studied with David Foster Wallace and this poet and novelist named Aaron Kunin. I spent a couple years out of college writing on my own, then came to Iowa for grad school.
You’ve mentioned a couple influences. Barthelme, Wallace, Kunin. Any others that have had a particular impact on you?
A lot of the usual suspects. By which I mean, the authors people tend to identify as influences of mine are people I self-consciously consider influences. Nicholson Baker, Philip Roth, Thomas Bernhard, W.G Sebald. I usually have them in mind when I’m trying to craft sentences.
Proust looms behind the novel, too, in-as-much as it’s really concerned with memory and nostalgia, and how memory operates geographically. The book explores how certain memories can condense within certain places, and how consciousness can intersect with these geographical nodes of memory, such that people are compelled to return to important sites or be reminded of them.
Charles D’Ambrosio compares the book to those of Walker Percy. Was he ever a conscious influence of yours?
I did read The Moviegoer growing up, and I liked it a lot. It’s one of the crown jewels of Louisiana literature, alongside Confederacy of Dunces. But I haven’t read it recently, and it wasn’t something that was in my mind when I was drafting the novel. I was surprised and pleased by D’Ambrosio’s comparison, but the influence had to have been subconscious on my part.
What’s your favorite thing that you yourself have written?
Yes. To make you choose.
Well, I guess there are two axes of satisfaction here. First there are the projects that were the hardest to write and the hardest to get right, and that caused me the most agony and self-hatred and bloodshed, but that I still managed to finish and be proud of. My favorite in this category would either have to be the novel itself or this short story called “House-Sitting,” which I wrote while I was at the Workshop.
The other kind of writing I tend to be satisfied with are just the jokes I type when I’m making myself sit at the computer, whenever I can’t confront the agony of trying to finish something truly difficult. This is a purer, more pleasurable form of satisfaction.
Is that what you do to force yourself to write, make jokes?
Yeah. At some point I internalized this ethos of sitting at a desk and forcing myself to be at a laptop for a set number of hours in a workday. I’m suspicious of how productive this actually is, though, because I tend to just while away the hours writing a bunch of dumb jokes, then pat myself on the back for putting in a full day.
But when I make myself sit at the desk, the things I end up writing—just to amuse myself and keep from going crazy—are these little set-up/punch-line jokes. Probably the single line I’m proudest of would be: What did the doctor prescribe the mutant for constipation?
I don’t know. What did the doctor prescribe the mutant for constipation?
Milk of Magneto.
Your first novel, A Questionable Shape, came out earlier this year. It’s a zombie novel, so my first question about it is simply, Why zombies? Why not vampires or werewolves? What was it about the zombie mythos that drew you to write a whole novel about them?
I watched a lot of zombie movies in high school, and part of what I found so uncanny and interesting about zombies as monsters was what the narrator in the novel refers to as their “radical in-between-ness.” They’re between living and death. They’re between forgetting their former lives and remembering them. There was something haunting about the way in which a zombie would know enough about its former life to return to its house but not remember enough to keep from biting its wife and children.
When I got to college, I started encountering zombies in mind-body philosophy, anthropology, critical theory, and psychoanalysis. In these areas, the “zombie” or the “living dead” or the “undead” often appear as limit figures of kinds of human consciousness. In mind-body philosophy, for instance, a zombie is a creature that is physically and behaviorally indistinguishable from a human but that has no interior phenomenal awareness. They’re “all dark inside.” And in psychoanalysis, the living dead are often invoked as figures of repetition compulsion or the return of the repressed or the uncanny.
Researching undeath in this way confirmed my suspicion that zombies had an interesting relationship to consciousness: that they occupied this interstitial position between what we think of as human consciousness and what we think of as post-human or non-human unconsciousness. I wanted to write a novel where characters could be as interested in these ideas as I was, so I put them in a world where zombies actually exist.
To circle back to the beginning of your question (‘Why not vampires or werewolves?’) it’s just that vampires are, for all intents and purposes, sentient. You can imagine having a conversation with a vampire. They don’t raise any interesting questions about consciousness, and neither really do werewolves. Werewolves raise more interesting questions about the dividing line between humanity and animality, or about animal consciousness.
The novel began life as your undergraduate thesis. How did you go about turning this thesis into the novel it became?
The thesis had a somewhat unorthodox structure for an undergraduate paper. It was divided into an anatomy lesson with each chapter devoted to a different bodily aspect of undead phenomenology. “Their Hands,” would be one chapter. “Their Blindness.” “Their Stillness.” The chapters were then divided into two sections: the first would comprise these semi-lyric, free-floating propositions about what we, the living, know about the undead. Like, “We know the undead are blind.” Then the next section would be a more essayistic attempt to prove these propositions, unpacking or explicating them. If I had just claimed the undead were blind, I would look at a movie like Tombs of the Blind Dead with screen-caps and a close-reading. Then I would look at quotes from David Chalmers about the phenomenological blindness of zombies, how they lack conscious awareness of the things around them.
I’d always approached the thesis as a hybrid genre, so when it came to novelizing it, it was really just a matter of adding a narrative. I created characters for whom all these ideas about zombies and undeath would be urgent and meaningful. As a result, a lot of the thesis ended up in the novel: those lyric propositions about undeath are now pet theories of the narrator, and those riffs on horror movies and mind-body philosophy are packed into footnotes.
Film and film theory seem to play a large role in the book, as well as in your short story “White Dialogues,” which also concerns undeath. Is there something “undead” or ghostly about film that draws you to it?
Yes. Theorists have long remarked on the uncanny and hauntological and spectral properties of the film image. In Camera Lucida, when Roland Barthes is trying to figure out what’s distinct about photographs as art objects, what he hits upon is the idea that there’s a kind of death inscribed in all of them. When Barthes is looking at a 19th-century photograph of a man about to be hanged, he is struck by this: on the one hand, the man is frozen in this present moment prior to being hanged; but on the other hand, he’s also already been hanged for over half-a-century by the time Barthes is looking at the photograph. The paradox Barthes arrives at is, “He is dead, and he is going to die.”
Andre Bazin had some similar ideas regarding film. He writes about how film is a mummifying technique, how films are just these mausoleums or pyramids preserving the images of dead people, and how one can never forget that fact when watching an old film.
Any zombie movies you’d recommend?
One of the properties of the novel is that it takes place in a world where zombie movies don’t exist. The characters can’t watch Night of the Living Dead to makes sense of what’s happening to them. So what they end up having to do is read undeath into movies we don’t normally think of as zombie movies, like Vertigo or Solaris.
If I were also allowed to describe any movie that troped on undeath as a “zombie movie,” I would say Vertigo might be my favorite. If you then stipulated that the movie had to have a reanimated corpse in it, I would say I Walked With a Zombie by Jacques Tourneur. But that movie doesn’t have corpses biting and cannibalizing
people. So if you further stipulated that it had to be this recognizably Romero-like gory horror film, then it would be a tie between Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and this really surreal Italian zombie film called The Beyond by Lucio Fulci.
That one was actually filmed in New Orleans, so it has a special appeal for me.