Q+A with Bennett Sims about Other Minds and Other Stories
Bennett Sims' writing has won the Rome Prize for Literature and the Bard Fiction Prize. For Bookforum, Tony Tulathimutte called Sims “possibly the smartest and most inventive writer of his... generation,” while for LitHub Carmen Maria Machado says Sims is “kind of like if Alfred Hitchcock and Brian Evenson raised a baby with David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker.” Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Hannah Pittard compared Sims to Poe and praised his “pyrotechnics of language.”
We published Bennett's debut novel, A Questionable Shape, in 2013. The book is one of my favorite to hand-sell, in that it's a meditation on father-son relationships under the guise of a zombie novel, but with barely any actual zombies in it. His story collection, White Dialogues, which we published in 2017, is like a Hitchcock film narrated by Ira Glass, with ratcheting tension and dread.
In November 2023, we're incredibly thrilled and honored to be publishing Bennett's brilliant, anxious, and hilarious new story collection, Other Minds and Other Stories. A man lends his phone to a stranger in the mall, setting off an uncanny series of Unknown calls that come to haunt his relationship with jealousy and dread. A well-meaning locavore tries to butcher his backyard chickens humanely, only to find himself absorbed into the absurd violence of the pecking order. A student applying for a philosophy fellowship struggles to project himself into the thoughts of his hypothetical judges, becoming increasingly possessed and overpowered by the problem of other minds. And in “The Postcard,” a private detective is hired to investigate a posthumous message that a widower has seemingly received from his dead wife, leading him into a foggy landscape of lost memories, shifting identities, and strange doublings.
The long and short of it is, I could never have predicted that I’d laugh so hard at a story about a man euthanizing his backyard chicken flock. I never imagined I’d be so unnerved at a story about something as mundane as picking up a new cellphone from a mall outlet store. I would insist that there is no realistic way that you could boil down the transcendent sway of literature to a story that lasts a single page. But Bennett did that, in stories in this new collection, cause he’s a magician.
Following is an interview with Bennett about Other Minds and Other Stories.
Q: Your writing seeks to explore the labyrinthine processes of human thought and the anxiety that might go along with that. Writers are supposed to occupy their characters’ minds, but you go much farther to dig through the minutiae of the process. What fascinates you as a writer about exploring other minds?
Bennett Sims: There’s a line that appears in a couple of the stories, and serves as a refrain throughout the collection: ‘All his life, if someone had asked him why he read, the reader would have answered that he was curious about other minds.’ This is, unironically, why I read. Literature preserves the conscious experience of other minds in language. Reading the work is the only way I’ll know, however approximately, what it was like for them: the different, the distant, the dead.
The characters in this collection are all also, in their own ways, curious about other minds. But as you point out, it’s an anxious curiosity. Their attempts to fathom what other people might be thinking—to model ‘what it is like’ for them—often frighten them. A jealous lover becomes suspicious of his partner: who is she texting each night? A man forced to behead a chicken can’t help projecting himself inside the dying chicken’s mind. In the title story, someone reading an ebook is baffled by the lines that other readers have highlighted, and becomes gripped by the epistemological vertigo intrinsic to all aesthetic judgment: why did they highlight those lines? What was going on inside their heads as they read?
Part of what fascinates me about exploring other minds, then, are the ways that they explore other minds. How does one character struggle to understand another, or construct another’s subjectivity? This exercise in empathy isn’t always benign, after all. Stylistically, I enjoy pursuing characters’ curiosity about each other until the sentences begin to spiral out into darker directions: paranoia, obsession, dread.
I borrowed the title ‘Other Minds’ from works of philosophy and ethology that are engaged with the Nagelian question of nonhuman consciousness: what is it like to be a bat, or an octopus, or even, say, an object (a rock, an electron, etc.)? The characters in this collection frequently attempt to project themselves into nonhuman subjectivities as well: chickens, wind, snow, ghosts. This is also true of my other books, where characters come to be curious about chipmunks, zombies, mites, ice cubes. The pleasure of the writing remains the same, for me. I enjoy tracking the movements of their minds as they send out their little empathy tendrils, deep into the territory of some other what-it-is-likeness.
Q: You’ve always demonstrated a playfulness in your work, whether it be through using the condition of zombiehood to explore father-son relationships, or videogames to discuss sight, or competitiveness in academia while dissecting Hitchcock films. Other Minds and Other Stories feels even more playful to me, and to possess even more humor than your previous work. One of my favorite stories is “Pecking Order”: it’s about an ambitious locavore couple who are facing a move and forced to euthanize their chicken flock. It is absolutely, mind-blowingly hilarious. Another incredibly funny story is “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel” - the title may suggest a rather dry subject matter, but it’s a comic portrait of an academic facing down crippling anxiety and writer’s block. Do you take the same approach to writing humor as you do with all your writing?
BS: Thanks for the kind words. I’m gratified you found these funny. They’re very different from each other, but maybe the comedy in them works the same. Both are staging a kind of collision between a character’s self-image—the story they tell about themselves—and some new situation that puts pressure on it. If the character can’t abandon their old stories, or adjust their behavior, they just keep bumping up against the walls of themselves, and we cringe or laugh at their trapped-ness. In ‘Pecking Order,’ the protagonist strives to be a good person (progressive, environmentally responsible, nonviolent, etc.), and he tries to maintain that self-image even while beheading a chicken in his backyard. But the chicken, reasonably, doesn’t want to die: as it fights back, its refusal to let him give it a ‘good’ death is what enrages him. The angrier he gets, the more violent, resentful, and sadistic he becomes, until he has difficulty thinking of himself as good at all. There’s a lot of slapstick violence in the story (malfunctioning hedge clippers, bitten fingers, etc.), but the comedy is also a slapstick of self-image. It’s funny to watch his idea of himself fall down. The chicken’s like the banana peel his self-image keeps slipping on.
Likewise for ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’: the protagonist is a philosophy student who feels rigorously defended by self-hatred. He tries to anticipate everything that other people might hate about him—and to hate himself for it first—in order to preempt their hatred. So if he’s never read Spinoza, he imagines a hypothetical Spinoza scholar holding him in contempt for his ignorance, and that’s enough to make him make himself read Spinoza. When the story begins, it’s his last night to apply for an important fellowship, and he becomes convinced that his judge will be a Hegel scholar. He’s never read Hegel, and now there isn’t any time, and so he enters a doom spiral. Again, the comedy comes from the collision between his self-image and this situation. Does he cling to his old story about himself, and stay up all night hate-reading Hegel? Or does he adapt to the circumstances, and apply to the fellowship without, for once, self-hatred’s ‘help’? Writing it out like that, I guess it doesn’t sound all that funny, but I’ll let readers take your word for it that it is. I think I do approach comic stories like these in essentially the same way as I would a horror story, or a story of lyric description. Once I know what a character’s voice sounds like, I like to follow them into narratively charged situations, to see what happens to their sentences or their sense of self under pressure.
Q: Having now published a novel and two story collections, what excites you about the short story form?
BS: It probably is that exploration of a self under pressure. With that said, drafting is usually a form-finding process for me. It isn’t always clear to me whether something is a short story or a novel, until I finish it. Typically all I begin with is a voice, a character’s sentence style or rhythms of thought. I can find myself writing riffs and vignettes from their point of view, for dozens or sometimes hundreds of pages, without knowing what narrative container is going to take shape around them.
To take ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’ as an example: this is a project I first started a decade ago. I was trying to write about the motivational properties of self-hatred. You hate yourself for not having read a certain book, and sometimes this hatred makes you read it. Writing about the weirdness of this, I arrived at the sentence: ‘that was the philosophy that had fueled his reading: not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of hatred.’ I liked the character who would think this sentence. I knew that I wanted to construct a narrative that could contain his voice. But would it be a novel? A story? Who was this character anyway? What was happening in his life to make him think this thought, and what did the act of thinking it make him do or change? What book did he want to read, and why? For a long time I didn’t know. I would put the project aside and write other stories. A year would pass, and I would open the Word document, reread the sentence, and write new riffs and vignettes from within that voice.
Eventually I did find a narrative container for it, in this story. The character is a grad student, and he hates himself for having never read Hegel. The story takes the form of a Bernhardian block-paragraph, and it transpires over a single anxious night in a library. But there’s a sense in which these narrative details are all secondary to the original sentence. The story is just the container I was able to find for it, the vat I finally fashioned for this brain to think that sentence in.
If anything excites me about short stories, I suppose that’s it: that in their formal and stylistic variety, they can contain a wide variety of voices and modes of thought. This collection features many different kinds of characters (jealous lovers, writers, private detectives) in many different situations (investigating mysteries, killing chickens, hate-reading Hegel) in many different narrative forms (numbered fragments, ekphrastic analysis, block paragraphs). The structural compression of the short story allows you to dwell inside these minds during their most meaningful moments, in states of pressurized emotion or attention or intensity, when they’re thinking their most interesting and consequential sentences.
Q: Several of the stories take place in Rome, where you lived for a period after having received the Rome Prize for Literature. How did that experience shape your work?
BS: Rome is a beautiful city, and the American Academy was an incredible residency. It’s interdisciplinary, so there were painters there, and historians and archaeologists, architects and landscape architects, photographers, puppeteers, filmmakers, art conservators, composers, classicists. You’re having lunch and dinner with these brilliant people every day, going to their lectures, going on field trips together. I wanted to be as much of a sponge as I could that year, to soak up my cohort’s curiosities. The experience shaped my work in pretty basic ways: stories are set in Rome and at the Academy, and I wrote them while I was there. A couple were written as collaborations with the photographer Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong, a fellow fellow who became a friend: he invited the other fellows to write brief texts to accompany the photographs he was taking around town.
But my time at the Academy probably also shaped my interest in this question of ‘other minds’ more generally. It was fascinating to look at Imperial coins or vaulted ceilings or Etruscan jugs with people who had devoted their lives to them: to see that object through their eyes, and get that contact high off their consciousness. I try to dramatize that experience in the collection, where a lot of the stories just involve characters experiencing artworks alongside one another. They’ll watch a movie, or read a book, or look at an Etruscan jug, and wonder how the people around them are reacting to it: ‘What is it like for them to experience this artwork?’ Or: ‘How can I share my own experience? How can I convincingly convey what’s going on inside my mind, and get them to see what I see?’
I suspect that my time at the Academy sensitized me to these questions. This is why the Rome stories in the collection ended up being so ekphrastic, revolving around sarcophagi, statues, mosaics, pottery, landscape installations. They turn on the question of what it means to encounter ancient art—or any art—as this ancient encounter with otherness.
Q: One of the things that struck me, especially with the last story which is very short and massively impactful, is a consideration of “the classical project of literature,” especially juxtaposed with the deterioration of the artwork in Roman museums and portrayed in the book. Film also plays a role in much of your work. This is a loaded question, but how do you see literature fitting in within the broader cultural landscape, especially in the United States?
BS: The final story is one of the ones that I wrote for Nicolás. He took a photo in the House of Literature in Rome, of this cool Medusa mosaic in the hallway. The presence of a gorgoneion in a library interested me. What was the significance of this librarian who turns her readers to stone? Why, as the story’s narrator wonders, would you hire a gorgon to guard the archive?
I found myself thinking of an essay by the poet Aaron Kunin, ‘Shakespeare’s Preservation Fantasy.’ Kunin is interested in the immortality project of poetry, the desire to defeat death by preserving a mind in language. In this tradition, language is figured as an ultra-lithic material: sentences, unlike stone, don’t erode, so the poem gets pitted against the pyramid or the statue as a more durable monument. Kunin tracks this project from Horace (the poem as pyramid for the poet) through Shakespeare (the poem as pyramid for the poet’s beloved) to Milton (the poem as pyramid for the poet’s readers, who are statuefied in admiration of him: ‘Thou in our wonder and astonishment/Hast built thyself a livelong Monument…Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving/Dost make us Marble with too much conceiving’). I was also influenced by Michael Clune’s thinking about this tradition, in Writing Against Time.
So in the story, when the narrator refers to ‘the classical project of literature,’ that is what they mean. The narrator is considering how literature might fashion a ‘superior statue’ of a person, preserving a sculpture of their mind. This is how the narrator comes to understand Medusa’s function in the library: like a poem, she turns people to stone. And the story is itself a kind of sculpture of the narrator’s mind, during this one moment in time. It’s a statue of ekphrastic capture, recording all the thoughts the narrator is thinking while encountering this mosaic (or Nicolás’s photograph of it). In that sense, Medusa has turned the narrator to stone after all, whatever stone the story is.
I wonder whether this touches on your concern about literature’s broader role in the culture. I’m persuaded by the claims that get made for literature’s uniqueness as a medium of interiority, its ability to represent or reproduce consciousness. There’s an intimacy to the inness of a novel or poem that I don’t get access to in even other narrative art. While I enjoy films or videogames or whatever as much as the next person, I don’t feel that literature is threatened or obsolesced by them, because books seem unsurpassed as statues of thought. If I want to know ‘what it is like’ for Clarice Lispector, I’d still rather read The Passion According to G.H. than play a first-person roach-eating simulator (though I would love for someone to make a game of that novel). I assume anyone reading this interview feels the same way. I try not to be naïve about the material conditions of literature and its production (the publishing industry, the academy, etc.). But I remain optimistic about literature as an enterprise: as long as people are thinking interesting thoughts, and are curious about each other’s thoughts, it seems like writers will keep writing them down and readers will keep reading them. Even in the United States.