Read SCR’s Interview with Ronald Moran Prizewinner in Fiction Banzelman Guret

October 19, 2023

Each year, SCR presents the Ronald Moran Prize in Fiction and Poetry for the best fiction and poetry of the year. Our fiction winner for this year was Banzelman Guret, with his story “A Plan’s A Plan,” from SCR 55.1.

One of our assistant editors, Miciah Pendarvis, sat down with Banzelman Guret to talk about all things writing. Read Guret’s winning story, “A Plan’s A Plan,” here.

Miciah Pendarvis: You’re totally off the grid. You don’t have any social media. [Your] Twitter is just the one tweet from New Orleans.

Banzelman Guret: Yes. It was like a placeholder. And I was like, I’ll do something with this eventually, and then…

MP: You have some funny stuff. I really liked the piece that you sent to South Carolina Review. I’m a little bit bossy at our meetings and I was like, “Guys, if we don’t put this piece in I’m leaving this meeting right now, like we’re putting it in no matter what.”

BG: Good. Thank you. Yeah, I feel like that’s how everything I’ve written has gotten accepted. It’s just like one person who kind of gets it.

MP: Well I guess I’m that person. So you like George Saunders. It’s all over your work. And so I wondered what was the first thing that you read by him? What stood out? What was the thing that really you took inspiration from?

BG: Good question. I went through all of his short stories, at least the first three collections. Like, by the time 10th of December came out, I had already, like, read his back catalog. I want to say maybe the first story where I was like, OK, yes, I get it. Maybe “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” That’s one that I kind of go back to here and there and is sort of a model for how subtext works in a story. How does it kind of keep popping up without being beaten over the head with it? That sort of thing.

MP: Who are some other authors that you go back to?

BG: I’ve probably read “Orientation” by Daniel Orozco fifty times. And it’s sort of one of those stories that you can’t really emulate just because… I don’t even know. It would just be like a one for one copy. But I look at that a lot for just like, all right, how does he just kind of let all these physical details and weird little character quirks reveal something bigger than the sum of its parts? I look at that one a lot. Adam Johnson is someone I’ve gone back to. Emporium. That’s his first collection. Orphan Master.

MP: The horrible child pornography story.

BG: Yeah.

MP: That one’s rough, but it’s so well, like, it’s kind of like what you’re talking about: internal and external and figuring out all those weird details that build up to a larger sum. I think that’s definitely in that story.

BG: Yeah. He… I mean, that’s like swinging for the fence.

MP: Oh, my gosh. And you’re on the edge of your seat when that cop comes in the end and the kids are there and oh, my gosh. And then the last scene is, like, disturbing and horrible. Horrible, amazing and heartbreaking.

BG: Yeah. It really makes you kind of question not the rule, but the—I guess—guideline. I don’t know what you call it. Yeah. How much do you really need to root for a character? How much do you really need to like a character?

MP: Yeah. What’s the most disturbing story you’ve read? Could be a movie you’ve seen.

BG: I don’t know. It’s a good question. Probably not anything TV. I keep TV pretty light.

MP: You’re not with the media?

BG: Well, no, I watch a ton of TV, but it’s all, like, really light stuff. So I don’t get nightmares. But maybe first thing that comes to mind is I just read Kate Folk’s collection [Out There] that came out within the past year, I think. But she’s got one called “Moist House” that was, like, just so, so weird that it was like, yeah, all of her stuff is super weird. But it was just so kind of creepy and disturbing.

MP: What do you think about that? How did that work? What was she doing craft-wise that made it work and made it not impossible to read?

BG: Yeah, because she grabbed you with the kind of relatable narrator who you’re like, all right. He’s kind of down on his luck. He needs this opportunity to stay at this house that has just got, like, weird. We don’t know quite what’s going on here, but it’s too good of a deal to pass up. And we’re kind of on his side, like, oh, he’s doing what I would do or what I could imagine myself doing. And then she spends a few pages ensuring that I’m on his side, I find it relatable. And all of a sudden, when he starts making these decisions that are kind of unfathomable to me, it’s like, oh, it’s too late. I already got you. So I’m kind of on a long-term ride at that point. If she hadn’t kind of made him relatable to start, I don’t know that I would have maybe been as invested. So, yeah, it was like a masterful execution when it comes to engaging and then subverting what it means to be relatable.

MP: Yeah. No, thank you. That’s a really great response. So I want to talk about a story that you have. I think it’s in the Chicago Quarterly Review. “Life Extend.”

BG: That was in New Delta.

MP: New Delta. Thank you. Sorry. So that story is really great. It’s weird. It’s really weird. And I don’t think, I mean, I can kind of see… obviously you’re [like] George Saunders. You like him, and that’s driving a little bit of the craft in your writing. But I was noticing how similar the relationship, like the marital relationship, in that story was to “A Plan’s a Plan” [SCR Moran Prize Winner in Fiction]. Annie and Sarah kind of have similar quirks, and they’re doing different things. Obviously, the two stories deal with way different material . . . when you’re writing about a relationship, how much do you take from your life and how do you manage the balance between fiction and your real life that you’re drawing from?

BG: Yeah, no, I get that for sure. It’s tricky because I feel like the way those characters both started in the first draft, unrecognizably different and yeah, by the end, I guess they do kind of become a little bit more similar. I don’t know. I think despite my best efforts, maybe my real-life kind of bleeds in, the people I know: the people, former relationships, all kinds of stuff. But I don’t know that it was like a conscious choice where I sit down and go, like, all right, this ex-girlfriend is going to be in this next story, or anything like that. Yeah, that was a tricky one because it was like, you know, having to make somebody really likeable, but also kind of annoying enough that you might want to murder them.

MP: How do you make them unlikeable? Because it was convincing. I understood why they wanted to murder each other.

BG: Sure. Thanks. Yeah. Not peeling off the hummus lid properly. Will do it any day.

MP: At one point, it becomes almost like foreplay for them. I liked that turn. It was unexpected. But how did you arrive there and how far did that come from the original draft? What is in the final draft that you maybe took out from… sorry, that’s backwards. What was in the first draft that you took out that’s in the final draft? And what’s in the final draft that wasn’t in the first draft?

BG: I’m not quite sure. I looked at early and then later drafts for the story that’s going to be in South Carolina Review, but I hadn’t really thought to look back. I pretty rarely will look back. It’s kind of like once something’s gone, once something’s cut, it’s like the hardest decision whether to cut it or not, but then once it’s gone, it never existed. Ever. Yes, it’s just gone forever. I don’t remember there being, like, these huge, drastic changes. That one actually was one of the quicker stories. I mean, it’s really short. It’s like a thousand words, but I don’t think that one was, like, 25 drafts or anything ridiculous. It was just kind of a quick [thing]. It was more of just like, all right, let me make sure that what’s in my head is on the page rather than consciously changing characters or the plot or anything like that. Maybe what I added, if I remember correctly, was that I needed them to be more annoying to each other because it was just kind of a tired but otherwise successful relationship.

I had to make not necessarily their habits more terrible, but more like their habits were perceived by each of them as more terrible. For me, the hummus container not being opened properly is a mild inconvenience test, but for this guy, it had to be, like, maddening to a murderous degree.

MP: So you’re really interested in constructing these fake companies and corporations and technologies, like SureYouMatter, and the Catch-All-Nooks. And then that life extend thing.

BG: Yeah, I think it might just be kind of a way to procrastinate. I could work hard on developing this character and finding these details, or I could spend 45 minutes trying to come up with the silliest name for a pharmacy or something. It’s like, oh, that’s easier, so maybe I’ll do that. So it kind of just becomes this way to write. I still feel productive, but it’s actually just kind of delaying the harder work that I have to do, but then I get so excited by my own little silly jokes that I’m like, OK, this is now the setting for the whole thing. And like with the story that’s going to come out with you guys— I did look at some old drafts and it was an accounting firm or something. It was a very vanilla kind of nothing company, just a placeholder. And just because I spent all this time thinking like the silliest things, now that’s kind of populating the story. And then once that’s kind of established, I guess I’ll do the harder work and develop some sort of character.

MP: Not be a neglectful father kind of thing, right? There’s an interest in mother and fatherhood with your characters. You have some experience working in corporate environments, right?

BG: Yes, absolutely.

MP: Can you tell me a little bit about that? Tell me about some experiences that you had working in corporate environments that made you… that you think about when you start to write these things and that you want to riff on and make satire out of. What are some specific experiences?

BG: Sure, yeah, I worked at a company. I mean, the main thing that I take away from it was like the power structures, the power dynamics. You start on day one and you’re like, all right, that’s just some guy, that’s just some lady. And then someone pulls you aside and goes, oh no, that’s this person. And they used to have this job and you can’t possibly say this in front of them. And all the weird gossipy stuff and it’s like, I’m spending two hours of my day on an Excel spreadsheet or replying to emails, delaying, whatever, and then the rest of my day is just… just kind of avoiding the nonsense and the weirdness of corporate culture in general. The one thing I definitely wanted to bring into this story was the separation of personal life and work life, and how so much of the time it bleeds over and this is a guy who just truly does not want that. He does not want to grab drinks on Friday after work. He wants to go home. It’s just separate and lovely and both these parts are wonderful, but I think that’s definitely something I took from my experience kind of working for bigger companies where it’s just, like, yeah, let’s all grab apps after work on Friday, which is fine, but then you’re like splitting the bill with someone who’s probably going to fire me soon, but we’re buddies now, I guess. Just felt really artificial, so I kind of wanted somebody who really wanted to just… this is one part of me, but it’s not equal or related to this other part of me.

MP: And so, the [work] ladies that are the inspiration for that.. like I’m trying to think—there’s a part in the story when they Facetime the Annie figure in the story. So that’s talking about the separation of work and life, whatever— is that something that was inspired by your actual life? Did you actually have somebody FaceTime you during non-working hours?

BG: No, I think the worst I had was when somebody was, like—because I wasn’t a robot or anything, I still would tell stories about my wife or whatever. But I remember one time somebody was just, like, when they learned her name, they must have Googled her or something. And, Is this your wife’s Instagram? And yes, but this feels real weird, though, and I hate every minute of it. So nothing where they contacted people from my personal life in an invasive way, where these people are trying to intervene. It was more of just, like, bizarre that you’re showing me pictures of my honeymoon and that sort of thing.

MP: It’s weird. Yeah, it is. And I think that the best, you know, I feel like to describe your kind of fiction, it’s mildly dystopian, like realism, but, like, a little bit of satire binding it all together.

BG: That’s exactly what I’m going for. Yeah.

MP: I wanted to talk about the part in “A Plan’s A Plan” when Bob Joe shoots himself on the children’s network. And you have that scene of the main character, Charlie, talking to the kid in the Catch All nooks. And everything is just going awry. And I really wanted to compliment you because I felt like the way that you conveyed this kid was really accurate, too. It felt like a real child. And it’s a great scene. I really liked it. Who was the inspiration for Bob Joe? Who were you thinking of when you were writing that? What celebrity or singer were you thinking of?

BG: I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a real person. I was thinking more like a Freddie Spaghetti from Parks and Rec. It’s like, he’s not a clown necessarily, but he’s definitely like a caricature of a person who is very just like a child’s entertainer who’s, like, all but banned from frowning, let alone hurting himself on air.

MP: That’s funny. That’s good. So you left the corporate world, and now you teach comp classes online. How did you leave the corporate world? What was the transition like, and was it driven by writing? Like, did you leave to write?

BG: No, I definitely got some writing done at the office. It was like a weird—if you’re just working quietly and close your door, or like face the computer the wrong way. People were very private. And I was like, this is working out beautifully for me. I wasn’t typing out weird emails to my boss or trying to go over people’s heads or anything like that. It was more like, I’m just going to read, you know, Underworld by Don Delillo this week or whatever. But yeah, I didn’t quit to focus on writing or anything like that. I couldn’t have. Just financially, I think it was more of they were kind of shaking up the department, and I might make the next round of it if they’re going to fire people. I think I’m probably, you know, a pretty tame presence there, kind of by choice. But then they got rid of this person. I really liked him. They got rid of that person. This person’s leaving because he can read the signs that he’s going to be next. And it was, like, I don’t know if I want to be the person who’s been here the longest, because it was supposed to be temporary to begin with. It was more just, I didn’t love the culture of it, as you can probably tell.

MP: After you left, did you go back to school, or how did you fall into this teaching job?

BG: I did it concurrently for a little while because I kind of have some experience doing this, but instead of teaching one or two [classes], I was like, all right, give me six of them. And it was just about what I was making, but less dependable. But yeah, you can’t argue with no real pressure. I felt like, I don’t have to play games. I can just kind of tell students who are often insecure about their writing how great they’re doing. It’s like, that’s pretty nice to be able to deliver good news all the time.

MP: Yeah. Wow, that’s such a refreshing answer. Thank you. So, speaking of telling students how great their writing is in college, is that when you started writing, or was it earlier? And who was the first person to be, like, you actually have a gift. Like, keep doing that, keep reading, keep writing.

BG: Yeah, it was definitely after college. In college, I think it was one of those things where I probably was like a lot of people, where I’m like, oh, someday when inspiration strikes, that’s when I’ll get my genius down on paper. When really it’s a very conscious choice whether you decide to write or not. It’s not just walking along and all of a sudden a novel jumps out of your hands. I took a couple of classes with Gotham Writers Workshop and just kind of found certain people that seemed to get what I’m doing and gave me enough help, but also enough positive feedback to make me want to kind of keep going. So, yeah, it was definitely later. It wasn’t like I was one of those 8th grade students who has three novels under their bed or anything.

MP: So, who were they? Who were these mentors, and do you still keep in touch with them?

BG: Yeah. So, I worked a lot with Seth Fried. He’s awesome. On top of just being a fan of his, it was kind of incredible to have him give me suggestions, give me positive reactions, tell me where something was funny to him. A comment on a draft as simple as, “Ha ha” was awesome. I’ve taken a few classes with him, and he’s been incredibly generous in terms of saying things like “hey, when you revise this one, send it my way. I’d love to take a look,” and who am I to turn down a super generous offer? So, yeah, we don’t get brunch every Sunday or anything, but we’ll trade emails here and there.

MP: Yeah. And so I’m trying to think of how I want to phrase this question. What was probably, like, the hardest response you’ve ever gotten to anything? Like, what was something that sort of stopped you in your tracks, some feedback that was harder to digest that you can remember?

BG: I remember someone I had, like, kind of going back a few years, but I had a printed copy. But somebody kind of dismissively did this almost, like, tossing my story in front of them, and they just said, this pissed me off. And I was like, all right, I get that. I don’t know. He didn’t really elaborate too much. I think I tried some weird stuff in that one. It just wasn’t for him. But I just remember walking away, like, that’s a strong reaction– like, all right, just put it down. Read something else. Go on with your day. I don’t know.

MP: What was a big hurdle that you were able to jump over in your writing? What was an epiphany moment that you had that made you write better stuff?

BG: Yeah, I think the first one was maybe where I thought, OK, when I send this one out, I think I’ll get a good reaction. I don’t know if that’s, like, a writing epiphany. More of just being proud of what I came up with. I stopped thinking about, I don’t know—the writing of it. I thought, I’m really proud of this, and there’s got to be people who like it. I don’t think I’m so singular in my taste that I think it’s great and just everyone is universally disgusted by it. But in terms of writing it, the epiphanies I realized, I don’t know if it’s an epiphany necessarily more or just, oh, this worked for that one, and I think it would be foolish to not give it another shot. I tried to overwrite it to such an absurd degree that I have no choice but to come up with weird details that end up becoming telling and these things that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of if I was just trying to write a really efficient draft right out of the gate because that’s what I’m trying to end up with. So that story was 4500 words or something like that. I think I was at 12 to 14 thousand for one of the drafts, and I was like, OK, what’s worth hanging on to? I kind of found myself not just saying, this is important subtext, we can’t get rid of that, or this is very revealing about the character, hang on to that, but also just these weird things about the world at large or the dynamics in the office or the relationships with the parents or anything like that. So I don’t know if that’s necessarily what you’re looking for. I don’t have, like, a concrete, oh, this one day I kind of made this one connection. It was more of like, this worked well because I was kind of… I don’t know, I was just really fired up and I don’t know if I had a lot more energy in me or something, but I kept going overboard with it. And, yeah, it worked out well. But sometimes I overwrite something and, I’m just kind of wasting time here. I’m just describing the interior of this convenience store for my own amusement. This is never going to make it into the story.

MP: You work well from cutting down. That’s how you go about revising and, like, it’s easier to work with an unwieldy big thing and cut it down, then add.

BG: That’s also just something I tell anybody who’s writing. I don’t care if it’s an analytical essay or a poem or, you know, although I don’t really write poems, or a short story that you’re hopefully someday going to be really proud of. It’s really hard to expand. It’s really easy to cut, unless it’s, like, a really stupid joke. Then it’s impossible, I’ll never cut that. I will change the motivation of a character just to save a dumb joke. I have no problem with it. No.

MP: So once you get that idea out there, it’s kind of hard to let go. And that honestly, I mean, it’s easier to cut, but I think that sometimes as writers, we kind of get precious about things.

BG: Yes. I have a file that’s just a million pages long of, like, fun bits.

MP: Pull it up and read something from that?

BG: No. God, no. But it’s all either things that I thought were… it’s a lot of jokes that just couldn’t work. But I can’t just cut it and let it dissolve into the ether. I have to save it because 40 years from now, I’m going to remember that it works perfectly in this other thing.

MP: Can you read just one joke that might be, like, the least embarrassing of them all from the file?

BG: All right, let me see if I can grab it. All right. I hate how much I love some of these things. One of them was just a quick note about how I had a story that kind of ended up becoming something radically different. But in the process, an early draft had a scene at, I pictured it at a  T-J. Maxx, but I thought it’d be funny to have an illegal food court in the back. People are shopping for discount clothes and also buying tacos and just, like, weird street food. It’s less a joke and more of just a stupid image that I thought, yeah, if I cut this, I’ll deprive the world of this genius. So, I can’t possibly… I can cut it from this story, but I better save it for posterity.

MP: I think that it’s important for writers to keep on file all those things because they do come into use later. And I think that it’s a good jumping off point too. This is my last question, but I think it’s important. You people watch. Writers people watch. We’re nosy little creatures and we look at other people and we pick them apart and we try and figure out the dynamics. What’s something that you’ve recently seen a stranger do or strangers interacting that has kind of gotten you thinking? What did it look like? When was it? Where was it?

BG: First thing that comes to mind is people in non-workout clothes just sprinting, to see, like, a guy in jeans and a button down just hauling it down the road. Because, you know, this is not something I should probably laugh at, it’s probably an emergency. Maybe his wife’s going into labor or his car broke down or who knows what. It’s just that image of a very well-dressed person just huffing it down. I love it. My friends know.