You can hear Steve
in the backyard,
but you should’ve seen him
on the porch.
Bob Seger-loving, Dunkies-sipping, warding off the backslide.
His band is The Steamrollers. His wife is Saundra (for now). His daughter is Nancy, and her favorite word is shampoo or loops or whatever friggin suits her.
Through four seasons and a restless survey, Kelly’s Roast Beef and Salisbury Beach, Steve Industry leaks his heart into his harmonica solo.
Meet the tattoo artist’s two dots, the parole officer’s day-old onion smell, the fifth grade teacher weeping in traffic court.
Eat oods of noods in the cemetery and take Rt. 128 home, with all your sisters and aunts and cousins and sisters-in-law and lawn chair dads and Sbarro managers and best friends and old flames—because nobody is getting out any time soon.
Hilarious and tender, Ben Hersey’s debut novel disgorges a powerful new vision of contemporary working class New England.
Ben Hersey is a writer and performance artist who has performed a wide range of collaborative and solo work over the last fifteen years.
His solo work often melds crafted monologue and formal storytelling with live composition, vocal improvisation and chance operations. His experimental work draws from a wide variety of sources including contemporary poetry, noise, New England colonial history, genealogy and found texts.
Ben has been featured at a wide variety of literary, performing arts, and music festivals. Highlights include a collaboration with Jacob Otting in, A Little Ramble: Four Monologues by Robert Walser, at Flying Object in Hadley, MA.
He wrote and performed an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at the Juniper Literary Festival at UMass-Amherst. He has appeared in performance pieces by Madeline ffitch including an adaptation of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. He has collaborated on several works with performer Seth Lepore including War/Peace at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, MA.
The Autograph of Steve Industry is his first novel. Ben teaches writing and composition at Holyoke Community College and lives in Easthampton, MA with his wife and son.
Performance videos and published writing can be found at benjaminhersey.tumblr.com.
1) Hi Ben! When we were working on the cover for this book, the wonderful Justin Durand originally just drew a beautifully floppy picture of you. You and I both loved it and decided to use it for your author pic, but we also knew that you weren't Steve.
But Justin is right in many ways: Steve is a fire-throated shit-talker from the grand lineage of New England village-do-nothings, and he does share some of your geographic origins and way with words. Maybe he's not so big on hockey. But let's tumble off the Pike with the most obvious question: where does Steve end and where do you start?
Justin's vision of Steve as Ben also had to do with the fact that Steve Industry and the Steamrollers was born in a real band room with band mates making rock music. It was a concept band in which we behaved as a bar band playing at some shit bar in Revere or something. I would either think of some shred of theme, or George, the drummer, would feed me a topic. Then we'd count off and go. Aaron, the guitar player, is a virtuosic classic rock guitar player.
After a while we started playing live using the same process we used at home. We celebrated Dunkin Donuts. I drank multiple dark roasts on stage. I always dramatically introduced the band. The Steamrollers songs in the book were all at one time improvised live, recorded, and many of them went into circulation for live shows, of which we played maybe thirty over the course of ten or fifteen years. We'd sometimes go a year or more between shows.
The more information I generated about this person Steve Industry, the more I wanted to know about him, and so I started writing using those survey questions as a guide.
The biggest difference between Steve and I is that I got out of Eastern MA. I felt suffocated by a sensation that I wasn't going to be able to truly get to know what I was capable of artistically, unless I left. So I daringly moved 90 minutes west. I went to grad school in Colorado, thinking I was maybe I was done with New England, but the goal horns and Neil Diamond anthems called me back east. I never did return to my hometown though. I sometimes think of this as a sin of some kind, but I had to get out.
Steve is a crew of people I know, people I have loved and hated, old co-workers and costumers. He's people who have been popularized by the ever-growing pop culture representations of people from Boston. He's a Masshole. But I think of him as a Masshole-poet. He is a Masshole Surrealist. Maybe that's the true place where he and I overlap, but that's maybe it. I mean nowadays I live in the shadow of a mountain called Tom, I eat a lot of organic food, and I teach English composition and creative writing at Holyoke Community College. Steve and I mostly keep our distance. We live our own lives.
2) Because this is a novel about New England, there's pumpkin light. Specifically, a great passage about pumpkin light:
Just before my exit, I hit a stretch of Rt. 2 I’d never noticed before. It’s a strange area where two lanes become three and then become two again. And for a few moments you get a look out over a vast vista of land—in this case, dark flatness leading to curving hills. At that moment the sun had mostly departed. Have you ever seen that sunset sharp-ass pumpkin wave that the hills do? I’d never seen it. But a slow waving line, the slow waving line of the hills out beyond Worcester or wherever. Wow. Beyond Worcester? For real? No thanks. Deep pumpkin light and a sharp black slow waving line. I thought about maps I’d seen of New England. Where is the pumpkin line? Where is my aura’s boundary? I wondered as I took my exit to meet a girl who mistakenly believed she could talk me into piercing my belly button in her basement while we listened to In Utero.
You grew up in Eastern Mass and now you live way over in Western Mass, definitely west of the pumpkin wave, a place Steve would never go. Do you miss the shores of Eastern Mass? Do you feel like you owe it anything?
I sometimes think my whole artistic output is an attempt to honor the way I've been shaped by those shores.
Everything I make, writing and performance, seems to have some aspect to it that acts as a tribute to where I come from, or to people who have passed in and of my/life, my endless New England ancestors, sites where I have ritualistically gone with soul mates to eat deep fried local cuisine. Like Massachusetts, I often feel haunted by ancestral energies.
Without a doubt, my primary subject matter is New England. At the same time, I feel profoundly grateful for the hour or so distance between me and Eastern Mass. I needed to get a little ways out to see how much I love it and how much it sustains me.
3) Before I knew you as a writer, I knew you as a performer. You're an amazing improviser and assumer of different voices, many of whom maybe show up in this book. But it's not always about verbiage with your performances. Once, I saw you do this amazing skit where you basically said nothing but geared up to kiss a hot lightbulb. I always envy people in a Ben Hersey audience who are seeing you for the first time, and I think that might've been my favorite Ben Hersey audience I've ever been in. What's the relationship between performance and writing for you? How do the energies necessary for both compare and contrast?
The writer me and the performer me don't know each other well. It's something I struggle with, honestly. The performer-me is willing to do anything anywhere. When I perform I'm the most fearless version of myself. I'm willing to go to the edge of sense or reason, to let language collapse entirely if need be.
In my performance notes, I have a mantra. I write: "Take it to the gurgle limit." I find I do my most interesting performance work when I'm willing to prioritize sound over meaning, when fart noises ceaselessly interrupt and finally take over attempts at honest exploration of human sorrow, for instance. I work hard at it and care greatly about the journey and outcome of any given performance, but I'm not afraid to fail along the way or even in the end. That attitude seems to serve the work. I always follow Buster Keaton's advice: "Care enough not to care."
The writer me is so much more cautious, overly invested in a certain kind of perfection. I go back again and again to the same pieces. In performance, because I have only one chance to work an honest path between text and improvisation, the ramifications of my decisions in terms of audience (for instance) are in my face immediately and I can deal with them. I can feel the way the performance dis/aligns with my own performance history and/or life, as well as the way it may or may not have worked.
With writing, the lack of a live environment makes it easy to lollygag. Though I identify first as a writer, I've been far more prolific as a performer. In the last three years since I've become a father, I've had to accept less action as a performer and slow everything. Writer and performer hang out more. I've been writing a collection of performance scripts and a new series of monologues about my great-grandmother and 19th century medical anomalies. There's good lessons in it even as it makes me crazy that I can't do as much as I once did.
I find that I'm often trying to bring these two freaks—writer and performer—together. The book works toward that goal. Performer and writer could learn a considerable amount from one another. The writer needs to loosen the fuck up and the performer could benefit from experimenting with even more structure and formality.
4) Speaking of freaks, this book is full of them. You've got Mr. Dick Cheese with the Kevin Garnett jersey, the parole office who smells like day old onions, the visionary tattoo artist, Saundra's family, Steve's family, the weeping math teacher. Who's your favorite character besides Steve?
I love the role Nancy plays. Steve's emotional core glows fiercest when he's with his daughter. It's exciting to think about who she will become in ten or twenty years. She is a product of her environment, but she's a loose cannon. She's got Steve's language facility, but she's got upward mobility written all over her. She's going to be trouble.
5) Throughout the book, Steve's an interesting contradiction: easy to fall in love with for the way he talks, difficult to root for because of the things he does (or doesn't do). In fact, are we even supposed to root for him? What else is there besides rooting?
There's praying. There's superstition. I hope there's rooting going on and yet I can see how rooting against might be just as fun. The word Masshole, in my mind, is sometimes a useful synonym for Puritan. If you're a Masshole, you take a fundamentalist approach to what reality means. Your world view extends out to the edge of your area code and maybe your true saints wear sports equipment, that kind of thing. You don't fuck with basic shit in other words. "It is what it is," sayeth Coach Belichick.
And if you do fuck with it, you are perceived as seriously troubled, or at least deeply suspicious. I say all this with unwavering love in my heart by the way. There's a ferocious need to keep things correct in this world. Everything is where it's supposed to be. Steve is failing at his end of this bargain and as a result, his world is starting to fall apart.
Will he or won't he find a way back up on the duckboat, does he have the fortitude to just walk away from the championship parade that is life in the Commonwealth? Can one ride the duckboats and not be a fan? Can one ever get off the duckboats once you get on?
6) Without giving anything, what do you see happening to Steve after the novel is over?
Hard not to give things away in this answer. If he's not arrested, he's going to do a lot of crying and when he's let it all out, he'll sit down in a Bertucci's booth with Nancy and inhale some deep dish and figure out his next move.
I see him as a person on the cusp of a certain kind of literacy. He has access to an enormous word horde, but word hordes are not prized in his world. His facility with language, instead of helping him construct something magnificent and self-made, is wreaking havoc on his identity. He has a kind of outcast status even as he plays (or pretends to) all the games the local grown ups are expected to play.
He's learning how to read (and live and breathe) between the lines of what is and what ain't and, hopefully, as this more or less terrifying socio-spirit journey that is this particular year in his life winds down, he'll get there.
The Autograph of Steve Industry by Ben Hersey
302 pages | 5.25” x 7.5”
Magic Helicopter Press
Publication Date: December 2016
Cover: Justin Brown Durand
“The Autograph of Steve Industry is a mind-trip between Dickens and Kid Rock. Lively, relentless, and wholly unique, Ben Hersey gives every feeling a stage. It’s like Pandora’s box, if Pandora was a hoarder.” — Rachel B. Glaser
“What hits hard and fast here is the heat of the thing: Hersey writes with burning brain. The Autograph of Steve Industry is set now, and tells a tale of these tricky times, but there are big, older urgencies at work. The whole is ‘like a hint of hot sauce, whisperin…’” — Laird Hunt
For publicity information:
Mike Young, Publisher
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