Author, actor, artist, and film director Benjamin Busch opened himself up for Mittenlit.com answering some very personal questions about his life and work. Tonight, Benjamin kicks off a book tour for his memoir “Dust to Dust” that will take him to 50 states at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor Michigan. Tomorrow he will be in Okemos Michigan for a 7 p.m. event at Schulers Books in Meridian Mall.
I wrote about his book in a recent Mittenlit.com post and Benjaming wrote with deep feeling about the recent tragedy in Afghanistan on the Daily Beast. In addition an interview in the Detroit Free Press this past Sunday provides additional insight into the man, the artist, the father and the author.
Your publisher has compared your writing to Tim O’Brien’s National Book Award winning book “the Things They Carried”. Why did you decide to write a memoir rather than a fictionalized look at your life and time in the service which O’Brien did?
Everything in this book requires complete trust. It is my perspective, my confession, my personal story. The relationship that readers will have is without factual or emotional detachment from me. No one needs wonder what is construct and what is true. Nonfiction allows no creative problem solving with respect to what happened, only the ability to decide the language of it’s description and the order of its structure. I give myself no conveniences. Tim O’Brien wasn’t writing a memoir, but instead used the fierce truths of his experience to build fictional characters we believed because he wrote so well from what he knew.
Growing up in a literary family-literally-it seems to me you didn’t get into reading until you began writing home? Why do you think that was? Busch’s father was the famed author Frederick Busch.
I was too physically active to sit down and read. It was literally impossible for me to do. It still is. Writing home from Iraq became the way to communicate and language became the art. My hand was forced.
Do you think your artistic bent in visual arts has helped your writing skills-do you see scenes in your head as you write?
Great question. You’re onto me. I write visually, the settings in the book are all rendered spaces I want readers to inhabit with me. When someone is reading through a place in the pages, I hope they see colors, landscapes, trees, rooms. I hope their own lives and memories take over and that they are transported into their past and that the book of my life takes them instead into theirs. I am really looking forward to hearing where the book has awakened in readers.
How do you manage to piece together family, film, art and writing?
It’s a mess and I am always surprised that each aspect of my life doesn’t fall apart. I keep momentum high and somehow I don’t run into anything. My wife is an incredible anchor for our family and she is likely to blame for my small victories and our survival.
I don’t think I ever heard why you moved to Reed City?
My wife is a professor of history and a position at Ferris State University was open so we moved to north central Michigan right after my return from Iraq six years ago and here we are.
Did you keep a diary, journal? If not, how did you keep track of some of the personal moments you describe?
I kept meticulous records in Iraq simply because there were endless details that I needed to keep in order, but from those 1,800 pages of notes, I only used 7 or 8 pages in writing the book. The rest is memory and what I couldn’t remember with clarity, I didn’t write.
More than one-half of your adult life you have been a soldier. How has that experience shaped you and your writing?
The Marines responded to everything from training to combat with urgency. That environment of immediacy and absence of delay has certainly kept me driven. That mindset has allowed me to make entire films and, much to my surprise, write this book.
One thing I’ve noticed is you have approached the book tour promotion almost as a military campaign. Any comments? You prepare, prepare, prepare and then execute.
I know that books don’t sell themselves and that this one especially benefits from contact with readers so I am going forth to meet as many of them as I can. I will visit all 50 states, well over 100 towns and cities, in the next eight months. I have done this to a much less extent with my independent films and, although it will be a Spartan adventure, I have had worse. I have been involved in military campaigns, this will be one more suited for an ambassador than a warrior.
You write about your immortality and the randomness of death in the segments about your combat experiences. Did your father’s collapse and death on the street (in New York City at 64) have even more of an impact on you? You do two tours and your dad dies –did that seem fair to you or inevitable?
After my violent second combat tour, my father’s death seemed impossible. This book grapples with the disbelief in mortality and confrontation with death.
How is your memoir different from traditional memoirs? It’s not linear as one example? Why did you approach the memoir differently?
Conventional memoirs generally follows a particular course with rather few exceptions. I needed an entirely new design for memoir because I could not use the traditional narrative arc. This book has some yelling at the universe and really discusses our place in time and on earth. I had to break my life into pieces, construct a new way to present chronology, and tell the story in chapters built on elemental themes like stone, water, soil, wood, bone, and metal. By doing this I can pull readers close to each aspect of our environment. By concentrating our focus on one element at a time, the work layers like the world around us, ending in the last chapter where they all come together.
Is your art life focused on natural elements life your book?
Yes. I am fascinated by the elements. My new film, BRIGHT, discusses light, and this book touches most of the rest. I was a stone mason and worked lovingly with stone for years, I sculpted steel, I build with wood, I garden in soil, I spent my youth in a river. Every reader will know the world I am writing about because they live here too.
As an adult have you taken on building projects on a different scale from when you did as a youth? I hear you have a back hoe?
I wish I had a back hoe! I am on the only farm here that can’t even afford a tractor. If the book sells wildly, I’m buying one.
Did you hone your “acting” skills in Iraq? It seems a leader at some point has to put some acting into leading. Hey you are scared to death and you cant show it. Is that about right?
Everyone plays their role in the military.
If you have to pick would you rather be an artist, a director, actor or a writer?
I’ve picked them all, but I would love to disappear into a great character on a great show. I hope that I get that kind of opportunity after the next eight months of touring this book.
How have your fellow Marines reacted to your book?
Author and Marine Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) loved the book but he is, so far, the only Marine I know to have read it. Many of the Marines I have served with have emailed me that they have it on order so I am looking forward to their impression, especially on the sections where we have shared experience yet different perspectives.
You’ve probably been told your writing is poetic-where did that come from?
I write poetry. I think it has done much to discipline my prose by reminding me to choose words with great care and to use as few as possible.
PTSD? Did you act and write your way through that?
I don’t know. I keep my mind at work and I rarely rest. The tension and focus of those deployments ended suddenly and I may have sustained some of that tempo by keeping myself somewhat overwhelmed with various labors. We’ll see how it goes.
Did you ever read All All Quiet On the Western Front or The Things They Carried or any of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry?
I read “The Things They Carried” about twenty years ago. But, as you know, I read very little and have not read it since. My father knew Tim O’Brien well and they had discussed my entry into the Marines, but I have never had the pleasure of meeting him.
Any guess what our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will mean to us as a people?
It depends much on whether we, as a nation, are capable of truly internalizing the consequence of these wars, if Americans have an honest collective and emotional reaction to efforts that do not reach deep into their lives and take something from them. Events generally seem to have to affect our selfishness before they can affect our thinking. I am sorry to see little meaning when Iraq is mentioned here (in the U.S.).
Did your parents write you in Iraq?
My parents both wrote to me consistently and independently while I was in Iraq. I have all of those letters.
The jacket photo. Is that your’s? Does it have any symbolism or is just cool?
It is not mine (designed by Alison Forner) but the intention was that it would feature a contemporary artifact, uncovered, recovered, and symbolic of a common object that can bring destruction. The final chapter is “ASH” so…