Benjamin Cavell graduated cum laude from Harvard in English Literature in 1998, wrote for the Harvard Crimson, the daily university newspaper, and was captain of the school boxing team. He has recently published a collection of short stories, Rumble, Young Man, Rumble. Ben Cavell lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is, of course, at work on his first novel.
Of the nine stories in this collection, "Killing Time" and "The Ropes" have a connection to boxing, though it would not be accurate to call them boxing stories. "The Death of Cool'" tracks the downward spiral of paranoia engulfing an insurance adjuster. "Balls, Balls, Balls" is a feast of male hormone, and "The Art of the Possible" is a day in the life of a politician seen from the interior. To quote January Magazine, "Cavell, still in his 20s, may not be ready to step into the ring with Hemingway and Mailer, but he's a skilled and serious fiction writer with a very bright future."
Robert Birnbaum: Something caught my attention in your stories. What is your favorite color?
Ben Cavell: Green.
RB: You want to know why I ask that, don't you?
BC: I'd love to know.
RB: In the mentions you make of a woman's article of clothing, they are all colored gray.
BC: There is one other person who has noticed that.
RB: Marion Ettlinger [much-used literary portrait photographer, who also took BC's dust jacket photograph]? She read your book?
BC: She read enough of it to say, "Why are the women always wearing gray skirts?"
RB: So what did you tell her?
BC: I told her I have no idea. It certainly was not conscious.
RB: I came to your book based on your editor Robin Desser's recommendation. I asked her, and she said, "I don't know, why don't you ask him?" Which I am now doing. But it struck me that it's something an editor might suggest be changed, because it's repetitious.
BC: I hope it doesn't feel repetitious. I hope that it doesn't take anything away. I'm worried that you are going to have a theory that goes with the grayness of the writing or some terrible connection that you are about to make.
RB: I have no theories.
BC: Okay, good. Well, in that case…
RB: I'm asking because you never can tell what has significance. I started a conversation with a well-known writer and asked about her favorite color—joking around—and she had a serious and thoughtful answer. So once again, you can never tell.
BC: Now I feel like my book is not thought out enough.
BC: Because I haven't made some statement with the colors of the woman's skirt.
RB: Shall we start over?
BC: I want to write the book again.
RB: You have your whole life in front of you. The fullness of time will reveal the significance of this penchant of yours.
BC: In the next book, the women will wear all the colors of the rainbow.
RB: You probably have no control over this, but does it concern you when the dust jacket of your book mentions you in terms of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway?
BC: That did trouble me. I thought it left me open—not to start to use the boxing metaphors in the beginning of the conversation, since they always appear sooner or later—in a way that I didn't want to be. It's flattering; of course, I felt a little better after the Kirkus review said that. That has no connection to my publisher or anyone trying to promote me—that's their own reading of the book. The thing is, I know my writing is influenced by Hemingway. The reasons are obvious. He was the first really serious writer I discovered on my own and read not because he was assigned but because I really wanted to. I was a kid, eleven or twelve. Rhythm became extremely important to me, not using too many adjectives and never using adverbs. I came to that from him. I didn’t even know, for a while, that I had learned these lessons. But I had. Also, for a while, I was trapped by his style. I really couldn't get out of it. Everything I wrote had this tone. I didn't want that. I didn't feel that way. And yet when I thought about writing, I had learned to think only in his words. I had to stop reading Hemingway for a number of years just to clean that out. It was great, and I am a better writer because I came to him early and learned those lessons that are universal. Every writer can benefit in some way from reading Hemingway, even if they have a negative reaction to it. But I had to really stop because I was imprisoned by all these things about him. Many of which I don't find so positive. While I find his writing stirring, I find it limited in terms of the themes that appear in it and the subjects.
RB: And the emotional range?
BC: To some extent. Although I think there can be a lot of emotion. I find there to be a lot. There are a number of subjects that he wouldn't have been interested in talking about and he didn't. So we come to Mailer, who is the next person I discovered and was completely fascinated by. I don't think I write anything like Mailer. A reason I was so fascinated by him when I discovered him, I felt that having read The Naked and the Dead that the—although he'll say that it was John Dos Passos that was influencing him—I really thought that he was in some way trapped by Hemingway. At least, to some extent. And he found a way to really break out of it. I was happy to discover someone who I felt had a similar problem to mine and had found a way to escape from that and do some brilliant stuff that was totally his own. But I guess the people at the publisher know that I am a huge fan of Norman Mailer's.
RB: One expects such hyperbole on dust jackets. Not exactly a disinterested commentary on the author. I wonder if that copy is written in the editorial department or the marketing department.
BC: I also had that question because I always felt and still feel that Hemingway and Mailer are so out of fashion these days I wonder if it sells books to put them on the cover. I also know that it's because…
RB: Well, they are iconic even if unfashionable.
BC: Certainly, and I know that part of it isn't from a straight reading, a literary analysis of my writing. It's because I was a boxer and I went to Harvard. Here you have Harvard boxer, well Norman Mailer, okay. I understand that. We were talking about making yourself a brand name. I have no interest in that, but I understand that the people who are trying to sell my book are trying to do that. Everybody—I don't know if they have been prompted by the Knopf publicity department, but I think to some extent they have—everybody wants to know about me as a boxer, wants to make this the focus.
RB: That's understandable, this is your first book, and there are about three sentences on your book cover biography, you went to Harvard, worked at the Crimson and were a boxer. I could ask you about your father, who is pretty interesting guy. Anyway, we digress. Your mention of reading Hemingway early and feeling trapped by him — at what point did you know you wanted to be a writer?
BC: I always knew I wanted to be a writer.
RB: At the age of eleven?
BC: I can't date it.
RB: Why did you want to be a writer?
BC: You mentioned my father…
RB: That just means that you could have been an academic.
BC: I felt as though I couldn't be a philosopher. What would be my dream? My dream would be to be my father in some way. And that didn't appeal to me. Certainly, he influenced the way I thought about the world. I have always have had this feeling for writing that I am sure is due in part to his influence and his love for writing and writers.
RB: You grew up in a house with lots of books, filling up many bookshelves?
BC: You can't imagine.
RB: I think I can.
BC: It's wild. Unbelievable, almost nobody comes to the house without making a comment about the books. Every wall, floor to ceiling, bookshelves built into…unbelievable. But he also, part of what he is interested in, in his own writing was, as an academic and intellectual, is to keep it new and interesting. Also he concentrates on his prose style. He feels that is important.
RB: Another young writer pointed out to me that he was of a very different generation than Moody and Franzen, etc., and the earmarks were all about television and this disjunctive flow of information. That it came in smaller fragmented bits and pieces. Also, that art these days, especially music is about sampling.
BC: I haven't managed to avoid the pitfalls of being a member of this generation. My attention span is as short as any you can imagine. Is he talking about why they, those writers of the generation before us, might write a thousand-page novel?
RB: We weren't talking about them but about his generation and why he wrote the way he wrote.
BC: I think for me, movies have a lot to do with what you are talking about. If my writing is influenced by something that makes me want to end a scene sooner than another person would or really carry the momentum of the story through and not want to linger as much, it's movies that were definitely the influence. I don’t know how sampling in music influenced my writing. It would be nice to—if I were Norman Mailer I would try to make the connection between all these things. I think that it's movies, since they have been such a big part of my life. I love movies and have loved movies for so long. While I was thinking about being a writer I was always watching movies, all sorts of movies, as much as I was reading. And movies have influenced me in that way. But I am not sure why they wouldn't have influenced Franzen, Moody and others. Maybe they didn't grow up with HBO.
RB: One could argue that the quality of movies has changed. But I don't know how anyone could make an accurate assessment of how culture influences him or her as they are growing up. I think it takes some retrospection.
BC: I think so, too. Just as about movies having gotten crappy in the last twenty years. This may be an easy answer, but it may also be true— which is sometimes the feature of an easy answer— as movies have more money risked on them, they by necessity become safer and then are less daring and that is going to make them worse in some way. Very rarely do you see a major studio movie today that is as daring as some of them in the '70s.
RB: I would say that every generation has its own Easy Rider. There is even a mythology created, El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez was made for $7000 on his credit cards. I don't believe it, but it makes for useful PR copy.
BC: I don't believe it either. I'm skeptical. The reason that people are hungry for these stories about movies that get made on tiny budgets and then are compelling and do well is because a lot of people want to break out of the tyranny of these enormous budgets and bloated movies that have to make sure that they appeal to a huge mass of people. I'm worried in some way for publishing because I don't think publishing is like that, and I don't think that publishing will ever get to that point, but bringing out a book is starting to be such an expensive endeavor I think to some extent you see that effect. Many, many of the books that are brought out don't take risks because they might turn people off, and they can't afford to.
RB: You are right to worry about publishing becoming like the movie business. There are still authors who are paid large sums that don't pay off. Look how they are spending millions of dollars on you sending around the world…
BC: I don't know about millions…
RB: [laughs] I'm not knocking John Grisham and Stephen King, but they are paid a lot of money, and I am told that they don't make it back for the company. The argument went that the best sellers made money for the publisher and therefore they could put out story collections by young unknowns. Ah, another digression. Speaking of story collections, the conventional wisdom is that they don't make money, and there is usually a two-book deal. Did you do that?
BC: I didn't sign for a two-book deal. I think that Knopf is anticipating that I will write a novel, and I am writing a novel. And they have a right of first refusal. The conventional wisdom is that story collections don't sell—although I don't claim to be some inside dopester.
RB: Why are there so many more of them?
BC: Everybody I talk to is impressed that I could sell a collection of stories since it’s supposed to be so hard to do. Linked short stories, maybe. But not the unlinked short stories, the classic…
RB: Well, I'm seeing more of them and I am reading more. Joshua Furst, ZZ Packer, Karl Iagnemma, Nell Freudenberger is going be a big thing in the fall…
BC: ZZ Packer and Freudenberger were both launched by The New Yorker, and if you are going to make a statement about a trend you have to ignore those two, The New Yorker has this unassailable place and can launch anything. Anyone launched by The New Yorker can always get a short story collection published, I would think. I think it's always been that way. When a TV show hits, there are a hundred new TV shows just like it. And the Interpreter of Maladies was huge a few years ago, and I wonder if that has anything to do with it.
RB: It was published as a paperback, which made it much less of a risk. Okay, you were a reader early in your life, not necessarily of the assigned canon. You went to Harvard thinking you were going to do what?
BC: Thinking I was going to be a writer.
RB: Did you take writing classes at Harvard?
BC: I ended up taking one writing class. I was going to be a writer. I thought that you couldn't teach writing in a writing class. And I thought, "What the hell am I doing in college. What am I doing at Harvard when I know what I want to do? I know all this isn't going to help me." And I couldn't answer that question. I answered with a question, "What else would I be doing? Given that I haven't been able to write what I've wanted to write."
RB: There is that antiquated idea that college develops the whole person. I have spoken to people who teaching writing who think that many of their students are lacking in general knowledge.
BC: I am actually very glad to have gone. I feel like it has made me a more interesting person. I am glad to know any number of the things that I have learned there. And probably indirectly it must help one's writing. But I don't think that I learned anything explicitly about how to write while I was at Harvard.
RB: You did write for the newspaper?
BC: I wrote reviews and essays. That's what I wanted to write. I don't have too many regrets about Harvard. I loved it and loved being there. One regret was that I didn't spend time at the Crimson. I kept it at arm's length. I was on the staff, but I didn't get as involved as I could have and as I should have. It's a very interesting place.
RB: Specifically the Crimson or any daily newspaper?
BC: Being at a good daily newspaper with people who were really ambitious. And really interested in making a career of working for a newspaper could have been more valuable than I made it. I'm not sure why. But who knows why they do anything when they are nineteen?
RB: Did you box prior to high school?
BC: I learned to box when I was a kid.
RB: Other kids were going to little league.
BC: I went to little league too. My father had an old friend, they had known each other for years, and this guy, Kurt Fischer, he is a philosopher and Austrian. He was born in Vienna, and he was partly Jewish. One day these Gentile family friends picked him up from high school and took him to the train station. They had a bag packed. Your mother is going to meet you down the line. Hitler's coming. You can't go home. You have to leave now. So he and his mother went to Shanghai, which was a place where some number of Jews went. There was a boxing league set up there, and he became their middleweight champion. When I was a kid and his sons were grown and it was very important for him to teach me how to box. So he bought us —my father and me— a father-and-son boxing set. And he taught me how to box. And I use the story in the book. The day he began to teach me before he showed me anything. He showed me how to lace up my boxing gloves, and then he knelt on the floor in front of me and he told me to hit him. Like the father in the last story in the book. And he really did say, "Hit me, you won't kill me." He had this very thick Austrian accent. So it sounded great. I remember that day. I remember he was in my parents’ living room. And he wanted me to hit him.
RB: That was the first time you hit someone?
BC: I remember it well. And he was right, my fantasy then …a lot of people who have never boxed and who aren't six years old but twenty six—I've taught people how to box, and in short you tell them, "I can hit you and you can hit me and we are not going to kill each other." You can hit someone and it hurts a little bit and it's okay. Many people are surprised by this. Their fantasy is that if they hit someone or they were hit they would die. It doesn't work like that, and it's a very important thing to learn.
RB: In that last story you instruct the woman on how to fight you, with very detailed instructions about footwork. You competed but not in school because there was no program.
BC: There's Golden Gloves. You can go to a gym and get fights. It doesn't have to be sanctioned. People organize fights at gyms. Any experience makes you a better boxer.
RB: Does the Harvard Boxing program compete with other Ivy League schools?
BC: Actually, no one else in the Ivy League has a boxing program.
BC: The Harvard administration has been trying to get rid of it. For years.
RB: A scandal.
BC: The boxing coach, when I was there, had been there for thirty years or something. He's great. He's ninety-three now. I graduated five years ago when he was eighty-eight. He knew if he left without grooming a successor that they would just do away with the boxing program. A lot of places did away with their boxing programs, guys were getting hurt. And guys do get hurt in boxing, and I can understand how it doesn't make sense for a university.
RB: In the last story in the book, you have a character who seems to have come close to very serious injury, and it is not at all clear that it didn't really damage him. At an Ivy League school, who shows up for boxing? What's the culture like?
BC: It's a fantastic mix of people. It's guys who played football and rugby and for whatever reason stopped because of the commitment. If you play football at Harvard it's unbelievable. Some forty hours a week. A terrible strain on your time. And a number of the guys had martial arts in their backgrounds. One guy was the son of a Korean Tae Kwan Do champion. He was amazing. Lots of karate black belts and kick boxers. I'm not sure what brought people to it except if you had quit football and all you were doing for exercise was going to gym …in some ways it was an escape from Harvard. It felt as though no one else at Harvard was doing what you were doing. Only these twelve or fourteen people, only these guys were doing this thing.
RB: A secret society?
BC: A little bit.
RB: How much interest do you have in the sport of boxing? Do you follow pro boxing?
BC: I do follow it.
RB: Does it have a future?
BC: I don't know. If my interest is any indication, then no. My interest has really tailed off. I'm not sure why. It's not because I think the fights are on the level. There are people who think the fights are corrupt. You can't watch boxing if you really believe that. The punches in the fight don't have to be corrupt for the outcome to be corrupt. Arranging the rankings so that people fight your up and comer who have no chance of beating him. I tried to write a story, I did but I didn't like it enough to put it in the collection. And this even a different permutation of what I am talking about. There are certain people called 'opponents'. That's the slang name for what they are.
RB: Whipping boys.
BC: They are people who fighters fight in order to be 21-0 when they fight on HBO. So those twenty-one fights are against people who some of them are good, and you don't offer them money to lose a fight. But they know their role is not to win this fight. It's very interesting, and it makes it hard to watch boxing when you know that.
RB: So you boxed, you wrote, you went to school.
Here we are.
You've graduated Harvard. Now you have published a collection of nine stories. What does this book represent in terms of the sum total of your writing? All of it? A good chunk of it?
BC: A chunk of it. I have written some huge amount of things, but in terms of what I have finished, this represents much of it. But there are several things that I finished that I thought weren't finished enough to go in. I sold the collection when it was seven stories. Now it's nine, and I knew that I was going to write a couple more. I wrote one then and finished it and didn't put it in. This was very painful for me. I did all the work to finish it and it’s a good story, but I had never had to think about my stories as having to be cohesive. I wrote each story as itself and never thought about how they would have to go together. I felt after, I guess I admitted, that the story covered ground that had already been covered in the collection. It was really painful to cut it. Really.
RB: You have a bunch of stuff on your hard drive, and then you have stuff you have finished which sounds like there is stuff archived that you will go back and make publishable or at least readable.
BC: When I finish a story that is going to work it looks pretty finished. I really revise as I go along. Some guys just spout for a while and then have twenty-seven different drafts. But I don't. It takes me a long time to make any progress, but I really keep going back over sentences and paragraphs and massage them as I am going. When you get to the end of something you both have a better sense of how the whole should look and also I have heard a couple of people say this and I really think it's true, even though it's a short story. You are a better writer at the end. Anything that you write, that works, makes you a better writer, and therefore you are a better writer at the end of a twenty-page story than you were at the beginning. Maybe it's barely perceptible, but a matter of smaller degree. But it matters. Schumann or someone said, "If I don't practice one day, I know. If I don't practice two days, my friends know. If I don't practice three days everybody knows." Maybe someone who wasn't me wouldn't be able to see the difference just in a short story, but I can. It bothers me if the beginning is not up to the end. So in order to really finish a story I have to go back and make sure.
RB: So you dropped a story that you felt was repetitive?
BC: Richard Price said that the stories are sometimes manic. I think that's not a bad description. I think there is a balance between the manic stories and stories like "The Ropes."
RB: I only see one of them as something I would call 'manic', which was the first one ("Balls, Balls, Balls"). The others didn't seem to be feverish and hyperactive.
BC: "Evolution" may be to some extent.
RB: Is that the one about the guys who are going to kill the girl friend's father?
RB: That's haunted by an inherited insanity. Anyway I think of “manic” as describing tempo, not a mind set.
BC: I guess I am using it to mean both. Maybe that word isn't as good as I think it is. Somehow it was important to me because some of these stories are restrained—it's hard to say what the difference is. If we use "Balls, Balls, Balls" and “Evolution” as one kind of story and "The Ropes" as another, I wanted there to be a balance between those kinds of stories. And so the last story [that was not included] made the collection veer too much toward "Balls, Balls, Balls." I don't want to be that kind of writer.
RB: You're clear on how you think the reader is going to react to the stories. Your characterization of the stories may be different than what readers get out of them. Having said that, I understand you to be saying you labored over the stories, their sequence and their classification.
BC: Yeah, I meant for this collection to be read in sequence. I know people jump around in a short story collection, and I do it too. I want the stories to exist on their own…
RB: Perhaps you should have included a set of instructions.
BC: Maybe. My desire is for people to read them in sequence and for people to be affected by them in sequence so that you read "The Ropes" last, having read these stories that come before it and your reading of "Evolution" is informed by "The Ropes" when you remember it. You are not just thinking about it by itself.
RB: I like the stories a lot and really more and more as they became less rooted in what I knew about your past. “Killing Time” which is a double entendre about a boxer waiting for his bout. But I was won over by this parody of the political life. Has anybody bothered to do that in a while, this kind of mirror of what candidates think they have to do?
BC: Well, thank you.
RB: You're welcome.
BC: I have always been interested in politicians, always interested in their internal lives.
RB: That's generous. I think some people would argue politicians don't have internal lives.
BC: That's too easy. I read a piece by Mailer in The New York Review of Books trying to analyze what Bush and his people thought about what they were doing in Iraq—it was before we went in. And I was a little disappointed—read that as very disappointed—by the piece because I don't think he actually did what he claimed that he was going to do. It's important in understanding the people who I may completely disagree with. It's important to really try to think, "What do they think they are doing?" That's important in trying to refute them or to argue with them. You say, "George Bush wants Iraq's oil for his friends." You know what, that's not why he went in. That may play a role in his thinking about but he may think we have all these reasons and it pays for itself because of the oil. But it's just not true. It's too easy.
RB: Look, the reason that we have such glib off-handed interpretations is that political discourse is influenced by these right-wing ranters and carny barkers who I would not say are the same as conservatives. It would be an insult to any thinker to affiliate them with Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage. So people assume that they are dismissable as loud mouths. The Wolfowitzs and Robert Kagans and Rices are not stupid people, and so simplistic arguments just don't wash and are the other side of the Fox flying monkey rhetoric.
BC: It wounds me more when it comes from the Left. Just as things that members of your family do and embarrass you in ways that if someone else did it, who cares. When it comes from the Left and it's know-nothing rhetoric they are spouting, I feel like the Left has to be better than that. It's just as foolish to make these easy claims about Bush and his people as it to say the things that Bill O’Reilly says. It's very disappointing.
RB: I do think that nine stories are surprisingly diverse given the Mailer-Hemingway buildup. That languid piece, the last story, "The Ropes," about a boxer who has almost been killed in a match who visits his ex-boxer father on Martha's Vineyard and takes up with this spoiled rich girl. That moved in places I didn't expect. "Evolution " was funny in a cartoonish way.
BC: I wanted it to be on the edge of cartoon. You'll have to say whether it slipped into complete cartoonishness, but that line between where something is still grounded in a certain kind of reality and yet people are doing things and saying things that you think they would never do or say, I like that. I like things that have that tension in them between the real and the cartoonish. But if it really becomes a cartoon, then I have failed in what I was trying to do.
RB: Then there the two set pieces, the dinner scene in restaurant with young man, his girl, and his father and father's friend was compelling. And "Killing Time" was a meditation and double meaning title of a boxer getting ready for a fight. No real action in either story. The boxer is just waiting…
BC: I am not sure whether I knew when I began to write that there wasn't going to be a fight. Although somewhere I knew. What's interesting to me is what leads up to the fight. If you see this hour of these two guys in the ring together, you don't get enough of a sense of what's going on. That's all you see, right? But you haven't seen the preparation, and most stories about boxing—it's not surprising—focus on the fight itself.
RB: I don't know that I have read anything other than Leonard Gardner's Fat City. As long as I am thinking about it do you have a favorite boxing movie?
BC: I love Raging Bull. I really like The Harder They Fall. It's a little bit campy, but Rod Steiger plays this completely amoral boxing promoter and Humphrey Bogart is his press man and they have blown up this boxer Toro, the Butcher of the Pampas, something like that. Bogart creates these exaggerated stories and Toro's trainer is played by Jersey Joe Walcott. Bogart tries to tell him [Toro] he was not who they said he was. Toro won't believe it. And Bogart sends everybody out of the hotel room and calls Walcott in and he says, "Show him." And it's great, Walcott says, "I don't want to." And Bogart says "Do you like him?" and Walcott says, “Yeah, I like him.” Bogart says, "Show him, he thinks he can win. " So Walcott hits him and knocks him down.
RB: Okay, you have your first book published, how do you feel about where you are now?
BC: It's funny. For one thing—this is probably a terrible thing to say when you have had a book published and you no longer have to struggle to get it published—there are a number of pressures on your work that weren't there before. Now you have to contend with the world's response to your work in a way that you didn't before. It was protected before.
RB: Well, you were anonymous before.
BC: I was anonymous and hated it.
BC: But also I was allowed by it to do certain things that are harder now. What I have to do is continue to write as though the only opinion that matters is mine because finally that is really the only opinion that I can completely trust. I wanted to have a career as a writer and I am embarked on it now. How can I not feel good about that now? And I do. My desire is for the novel to be better than this book, and I don't know whether it will be. I want every book to be better than the last one. I am into the novel now. I can see the end. That's great. I suppose one fear that I had after I sold this book was that I was going to have a lot of trouble writing the next book. It really makes it harder to write—to be involved in this process of thinking and worrying about your book coming out. But I really have moved through the novel. I work more slowly than I used to. Which bothers me.
RB: You have a book out, and you are working on the next book, you're a writer now.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing