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Meet Chanelle Benz, whose debut book is 'The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead'

Meet Chanelle Benz, whose debut book is 'The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead'
Chanelle Benz, whose debut short story collection is "The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead," will be at the Festival of Books on Sunday. (Christine Jean Chambers / Ecco)

The stories in Chanelle Benz's "The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead" are as disturbing and violent as the title indicates. The debut book explores rage and inhumanity in a variety of settings, including the Old West, 19th century England and contemporary Philadelphia. The collection begins with the O. Henry Prize-winning story "West of the Known," about a young woman in 19th-century Texas rescued from abuse by her half brother, and ends with "That We May Be All One Sheepefolde," which follows an English monk in the 16th century forced to reckon with the loss of his beloved monastery.

Benz was educated at Boston University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in acting, and at Syracuse University, where she studied with George Saunders and earned an MFA in creative writing. She spoke with The Times via telephone from her home in Houston.

You were born in London and grew up on the American East Coast. Did those places have any influence on your fiction?

I think so. I lived in London until I was 7. I had a wonderful childhood. My mom was young, she was one of seven, and I got taken care of by my aunts and uncles and my great-aunt, who looked like an English headmistress. She taught me how to read, and we used to make books together. It was very English. So when I came to America, it was surreal to me. At first, we moved to New Jersey, and then my stepfather was stationed in Utah, in this tiny town called Sunset, which is outside of Ogden, and I just remember thinking, "This is Mars." There was all this red dirt. We came to this person's house, and there was a baby in a highchair eating a pound bag of M&M's and Hitchcock was on the TV. [Laughs.] It was striking, but I think I always had these escape fantasies of other worlds that I could enter.

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Is there a reason you decided to start the collection off with a Western story?

It just made sense to me at the time. It seemed like that was the most accessible story, even though people still ask me why there's no quotation marks. [Laughs.] I think it's a pretty easy read. Even though it was a Western, it felt like it was emblematic of my writing, so I just felt like it was a good way to start off the other adventures. And ever since sixth grade, I had an obsession with Billy the Kid. I saw "Young Guns II." I've never to this day seen "Young Guns." I just kind of fell for the idea of being part of a posse and trying to work myself into that history.

The collection feels cohesive, although the stories obviously vary widely in terms of genre and setting. What would you say are the underlying themes, if there are any, of this book?

One of the underlying themes that emerged midway through the collection was that of violence. Usually, the protagonist is coming up against a moment where they're invited to take on an act of violence, or to resist or to try and avoid it in some other way. Not all of [the stories] follow that to the letter, but they all have this moment. Sometimes people ask me, "Why violence?" and I don't know without therapizing myself. I guess I've been saying, "I don't know," but look at this current moment. It feels very resonant to me, very visible.

The English director Peter Brook was really important to me when I was an actor. I saw his "Hamlet" with Adrian Lester back in 2000. One of the things I remember [Brook] talking about in an interview is that to him, "Hamlet" is about this moral dilemma, which is, "I have to avenge my father's death out of respect for him, and because I love him, and that's my duty. But on the other hand, to avenge his death, I have to kill, which is the ultimate sin, which is the thing you can never undo." There is redemption, but there is no undoing. I was really thinking about that during the collection. Killing is something that can happen so quickly and now so indirectly, and yet it is this thing that ripples out, this unstoppable thing that can't be taken back.

Some of the scenes of violence in the book are very graphic. Was it emotionally difficult to write that?

I was trying to think about what is surprising, the things that surprise you. I remember seeing a street fight, and the quality of the blood of the person on the ground was shocking to me because it just wasn't anything like TV. I hadn't really seen that. But some scenes were more difficult. Even just imagining, in "The Mourners," the children's death — when I came back around to revise that, I had just had a baby, so I was going on no sleep. But also I had much more of a sense of what that would be like, and I felt superstitious about it. Revising that story was very painful.

But it's in the Western [stories] too. A lot of those men, the outlaws, the Jesse James types, they were the sons of Confederate soldiers, but they didn't have a fight. They didn't have a real cause. When they come up to the frontier, it's these young men who are really drunk with guns, and there's not much else. So there's bound to be this kind of reckless, almost accidental bloodshed. And that's kind of what I was thinking about with Jackson [in "West of the Known"].

You're of British and Antiguan descent, and those are obviously two places with really rich literary traditions. Were you influenced at all by any particular works or authors from the U.K. or Antigua and Barbuda?

Growing up, I read a lot of English literature, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl. I learned how to read at a young age because I was an only child, so there wasn't much else to do. I was obsessed with this series called "The Famous Five" [by Enid Blyton]. But I continue to keep reading a lot of English writers. I love David Mitchell and "The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald. When I was in theater school, I really loved Jeanette Winterson. We did an adaptation of her book "Gut Symmetries," which was a seminal artistic experience for me.

It wasn't until grad school that I took a course called Cultural Formations in the West Indies. It was about post-colonial theory, but it was also looking at older texts from the 17th and 18th centuries and kind of looking at how this idea of race has formed, looking at how time moves differently in the Caribbean, and how it's kind of a gyre of cultures. I hadn't been that familiar with Antigua because I grew up with my mother, who's English and Irish. That's where "Adela" came from, reading a lot of the texts — some of the scholarship is great, and some of it is ridiculous. [The footnotes in the story are] kind of making fun of some of the overly sexualized texts there. But there is a book I do mention that's real by Roxann Wheeler ["The Complexion of Race"], where she makes the argument that until the 18th century, the concept of race wasn't really fixed. People would think that if an Englishman spent 10 years in Africa, he would turn brown, and if he came back, he would turn white again. People just didn't know what to think. They had all kinds of ideas about what caused people to be different colors. It's fascinating, and not something we really think about now, or know about now.

You're trained as an actor, of course. Do you still act at all?

I do not. I really love acting; I can't say that I'll never, ever do it again, but I'm definitely a better writer. When I was acting, I always got yelled at for having a third eye, kind of watching myself, which is a good attribute for a writer, not so good for an actor. You really have to let go and be an emotional athlete. I always had trouble tricking myself into doing that. But I have directed one [play] since, and that was great, because I felt like, "OK, I still remember all the things I was taught in conservatory, and it still feels good and relevant," and also it was just nice to do something collaborative.

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Did your experience acting give you a sense of how to write dialogue?

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I think it definitely did. When you're performing dialogue all the time, you're always thinking about things like status. Moments of communion are about equal status, but most of the time, somebody's on the bottom, somebody's on the top, and they're kind of wrestling and flipping back and forth. I don't think so much of that overtly, but I think it's probably something I think about subconsciously, and also the idea that each dialogue should have an arc to it, just like any other movement in the story. So I think I am aware that by the time I get to the end of a piece of dialogue, we should be somewhere completely different than we just ended.

Do acting and writing use the same creative muscles for you? Does it come from the same part of your brain?

I think there's overlap. Acting is such a naked, immediate thing. It's ephemeral, so once you've done it, it's over, and each time it's different. It's definitely a different physical process, and it's very much to me like a muscle. I had to work really hard to be decent. [Laughs] Whereas [with] writing, I also had to work very hard, but it felt more natural. To me, writing is like breathing. It's necessary and I must do it, whereas acting is sort of like a first love, something I chose to pursue. Ben Kingsley said something about this, like, "You're just taking a splinter of yourself, and even if it's down at the bottom of your foot, you're just enlarging it." Everything is within us. There are definitely some [characters] I obviously gravitate toward and others that I definitely think, "It's all within me. I just have to find that part of myself, or imagine myself into those circumstances," and that, I think, is the same as acting.

Is there anything you're working on now that you can talk about?

I'm working on a novel right now called "The Gone Dead." It's set in Mississippi, and it's about a woman who returns to a small Delta town where her father died, and she starts to uncover different things about the circumstances of his death. So I've been doing a lot of research on Mississippi and the Delta and the civil rights era, and what came before, and what came after. It just happens to feel quite resonant right now.

Schaub, a writer in Texas, is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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